With their self-titled 1970 debut, Black Sabbath were in the company of legendary rockers such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix; however, their music was not only heavier but also darker and more sinister. It was something more than hard rock, and in so many ways it led to the birth of what we now recognize as heavy metal.
Those riffs and the dread in Ozzy Osbourne’s voice are still enough to make anyone shiver.
The history of Black Sabbath is quite well-documented, but there are still some facts only superfans would know.
It was recorded in just 12 hours.
If you knew you were making a classic, you would probably want to spend as much time on it as possible to make sure it sounds exactly the way you want it. That wasn’t the case for Sabbath, though, as the band knocked out the entire album recording session in just 12 hours with producer Rodger Bain at Regent Sound Studio. The band played live in the studio with the tapes rolling, which captured the cold, inimitable feel of the burgeoning sounds of heavy metal.
The reasoning behind rushing to track the album in this tight of a window was twofold. The band only had two days booked in the studio and one of them was reserved for mixing, which took place without their presence. The members of Sabbath left for Switzerland after recording.
‘Lord of the Rings’ partly inspired ‘The Wizard.’
The works of J.R.R. Tolkien have influenced countless metal artists, from band names to lyrical themes. Led Zeppelin had already used these works of epic fantasy with great effect (“Misty Mountain Hop'' and “The Battle of Evermore” to name a couple) and, while Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” doesn’t co-opt any specifics from these books, the imagery of these helped inspire what is perhaps the most famous metal song to prominently feature a harmonica. When Geezer Butler wrote the basis of what would become “The Wizard,” he was originally envisioningLord of the Rings wizard Gandalf as the main character.
The woman on the album cover remained a mystery for 50 years.
Over half a century later, there’s still something dark and mysterious about the woman standing on the front cover of the record. The freezing cold cover shoot at the Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire, England, began with a 4AM wake up. Photographer Keith Macmillan and model Louisa Livingstone, whose identity remained a mystery until 2020, worked together on various poses and settings, first attempting to use dry ice to enhance the scene before settling for a more effective smoke machine.
Livingstone was nude under the cloak and more risqué images were also captured, but these were discarded as the sexuality did not appropriately fit the mood that was needed to visually represent Sabbath’s debut record, Macmillan told Rolling Stone in 2020.
But for five decades, many questions persisted about this infamous cover photo. Who was that woman? And where was she now? That all came to light in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi almost didn’t play his now iconic Gibson SG guitar.
It’s impossible to even think of Tony Iommi these days without his classic Gibson SG guitar. As Iommi tells it in Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, there was a high probability of using a classic white Fender Stratocaster on Sabbath’s debut before he traded it for the SG when the pickup stopped working. If it weren’t for that one little detail though, we may not have gotten the master of metal wielding one of the genre’s now most iconic guitars.
There is no down-tuning.
The horrific factory accident that resulted in the loss of the middle and ring fingertips on Iommi’s fretting hand later gave way to Black Sabbath using lower tunings as it eased the tension on the guitarist’s makeshift thimble-capped extremities.
On their first two albums, however, Sabbath played in E standard tuning before going all the way down to C# the following year when recording their third album, Master of Reality. The riffs didn’t suffer one bit though and they still sound menacing and heavy to this day.
The band’s regimented work ethic was inspired by Jethro Tull.
After exiting the folk-prog group and returning to Earth (one of the names the band operated under before changing it to Black Sabbath) Iommi took a few cues from Tull leader Ian Anderson. Sticking to a rigid rehearsal regimen was one of the valuable lessons Iommi learned, and he applied it to his own group, oftentimes having to pick up the other members for a 9AM rehearsal.
Once he saw how to run a successful band, it helped Black Sabbath grow on a professional level before they had even released their first album.
Critics hated it.
If you’re blazing the trail for a genre, there are always going to be those few people who just don’t get it.
After the release of Black Sabbath, the group was slagged by music journalists with notorious Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs stating that the record was “filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master’s tiredest Cream days,” and said it was “like Cream, but worse.”
Considering Sabbath are routinely cited as an influence by seemingly any and every metal band, Iommi has done more than enough to prove he wasn’t just Clapton Lite.
N.I.B. does not stand for ‘Nativity in Black.’
From the dark lyrics to Osbourne singing from the perspective of the Devil, it’s no wonder why parents would have gotten concerned with a song called “Nativity in Black.”
The only problem is…that’s not what the song stands for. Butler eventually punctuated the song title to make it look like an acronym, but the original version without the periods was a joke name the bassist applied to drummer Bill Ward’s beard at the time as it resembled the portion of a pen called a nib. And to think, if Bill had just decided to shave it all off, we wouldn’t have gotten one of the most ominous sounding titles in metal history.
"Warning" helped inspire the next album’s big hit, "War Pigs."
Sabbath never dabbled too much in cover songs when it came around to recording albums, but it was an integral part of their live sets in their early days when they’d have to perform multiple times a night. On the debut, though, the Brits cut two cover songs for their European pressing, one of them being the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation favorite “Warning.”
When they used to play the song live, Iommi would play around with the feel of the song and eventually stumbled upon the two chord stab that became the classic opening sound of “War Pigs” on the next album Paranoid.
The first European + U.S. track listings are very different.
Black Sabbath was released Feb. 13, 1970, but it wasn’t until June 1 of that year that the record was available in the United States. Along with the staggered release dates came radically different track listings in a number of ways.
“Evil Woman” a cover of the band Crow, only appeared on the European version of the album and was released as a single in advance of the record. The B-side of that single, an original titled “Wicked World,” however, was not available on the initial pressing but was tacked on for the stateside release while “Evil Woman” was dropped in its place.
In his autobiography, Iommi has mentioned that including the cover of “Evil Woman” was just a way for their manager to get something to radio with some commercial potential for Sabbath.
The U.S. release also combined some of the album’s more meandering tracks under one credited track, such as “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B.” and “A Bit of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning.”
16 Bands + Musicians Who Are Considered Pioneers of Heavy Metal