Saturday, February 13, 2010

Black Sabbath - "Black Sabbath"

40 years ago today - Friday, February 13, 1970 - Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut album.

Originally known as Earth, the band changed their name to Black Sabbath in August 1969, due to the fact that there was another English band by that name. The new band name was taken from a 1963 horror film of the same name starring Boris Karloff – which was playing at a theatre across the street from the band’s rehearsal space.

(sidebar) Trivia time: According to directors Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, Black Sabbath (the film) was the inspiration for Pulp Fiction.

Legend has it that the album was recorded in one day: the band simply went in the studio and played their live set and that was it. A second day was used for mixing, and it was done.

Like most (all?) of the early Sabbath material, the music was distortion-soaked blues formed out of jams and played at ear-splitting volume. Sabbath played the blues club circuit, filling their sets with extended jams because they didn’t know that many songs.

“We used to get these gigs in Germany where we'd have to play eight or nine 45 minute spots every day,” said bassist Geezer Butler in a 1996 interview, who wrote almost all of the lyrics, “And we only knew about ten songs, so we had to make them into 40 minute songs, which is where all the jamming came from, and where the first two albums came from, because we wrote them while we were jamming. To me, Sabbath was always just a really heavy blues band. That’s all we were - just an out-and-out 12-bar blues band. That's what we started as. We just took those blues roots and made them heavier, because we were into Hendrix and Cream, who were like the heaviest bands around at that time. We just wanted to be heavier than everybody else!”

Heavier, scarier, and…more evil? Myths and legends abound about Black Sabbath, the song, including a really interesting one rooted in musical theory. I probably won’t be able to do this justice, since I lack formal music training myself, but here goes: the first three notes (and repeated throughout) in the title track are based on a tritone, also known as “The Devil’s Interval.” A tritone apparently spans three whole tones, and the effect is something very dark and sinister sounding...especially when it's played as slow as on this track. Referring to a tritone, the term diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") goes back to the 18th century, and legend has it that it was something that was purposely avoided by musicians in that era.

The other legend about the song Black Sabbath is that it was inspired by an experience that Geezer Butler had and related to Ozzy Osbourne. In the days when they were known as Earth, Butler painted his apartment matte black and placed several inverted crucifixes on the walls. Ozzy gave Butler a book about witchcraft, which he read and placed on a shelf before going asleep. When Geezer awoke, he claimed he saw a large black figure standing at the end of his bed; the figure disappeared and he went to get the book, only to find that it was gone…he then told Ozzy, who wrote the lyrics to the song:

What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me.
Turn around quick, and start to run.
Find out I'm the chosen one.
Oh nooo!

UPDATE: UK's The Times newspaper has published a new interview today with Ozzy and drummer Bill Ward on the 40th Anniversary of the album - read it here

Black Sabbath - Reunion (Live) - Black Sabbath Black Sabbath - Reunion (Live) - Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (live in Paris 1970)