Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Black Sabbath


Released 1970 on Vertigo/Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, February 2002ce
Released on Friday the thirteenth in earliest 1970, “Black Sabbath” is a musical panic; a statement of unforgivable musical corrosiveness and unyielding power surging from beginning to end as the combined-to-blurriness leitmotifs of late dusk, night and early dawn are so heavy at all times they practically blot out the sun. Rodger Bain’s production captures every member of Sabbath’s alarmingly confident musical reflexes with both depth and clarity and displays them as the well-toned, ultra-honed yet raw quartet with unlimited power to last into the next world and beyond that they were.

The opening track is the super-eponymous downer-dirge, “Black Sabbath.” Beginning with the sound of driving rain, wind, thunder and distantly tolling church bells. What parts the gloom FX curtain is a guitar sound that had NEVER been committed to an album before. Each chord is such a massive roar from and/or out of the void that it can't be measured by decibels but in years. And when Ozzy’s earliest vocals enter, they evoke baleful misery over the dramatically quiet intervals damp with the echo-ness of the studio. Geezer’s bass throb is all over the map though amazingly precise in its free, bare-fingered roaming of the nighttime landscape and Bill Ward expertly and ominously plays half-forgotten, unfinished rolls and accents in the reverberated background. The track will break its pace from funereal into a fleeing stampede right before Ozzy’s sung verse “People running cuz they’re scared” as the ending guitar solo co-joins with (I think) Geezer’s super-compressed wah-wah bass plus insistent cymbal bashing which builds to a short “Bolero” coup de grace until the song is slammed shut with all the finality of the gates in ‘Get Smart.’

“The Wizard” is an oddball cousin to The Groundhogs playing “Cat’s Squirrel” on Jethro Tull’s “This Was” album (Which never happened but I had intuitively sensed/hoped for it years prior to finally viewing Tull in the Rolling Stones’ “Rock And Roll Circus” with Iommi on lead guitar. I so wished they had blasted out “Cat’s Squirrel” instead of “A Song For Jeffrey” but that’s about as much crying over spilt milk as wishing Mick Abrahams had risen to the occasion and taken his unknowingly proto-Sabbath lead Gibson SG explorations he had begun with “Cat’s Squirrel” and developed them further within Blodwyn Pig.) But for all the blaring, ossified/Ozzified harmonica, “The Wizard” is a barely intentional blues as Iommi’s terse’n’tense phrasing and solid down strokes of just-reined in, distorted Barre chords brickbat any illusions of fake reverential blooz into the nearest corner. And when young Ozzy opens his gaping trap to sing, this comes out:

“Misty mornin’,
Clouds in the sky.
Without warning,
A wizard walks by.”

These lines were totally lacking in drama until Ozzy first drooled them out of his gaping maw and turned them into a sinking quicksand/waking nightmare plea for help meets a vocally ticking off of a ‘Dumb Things I Gotta Do This Millennium’ list. Indeed, he barks them out hoarsely over Iommi’s dum-dum repeated, blaring chord distortions. But for all their stupidity, they are relentlessly brayed out with an intensity that makes them seem deadly warnings drawn in the sky in blood red script. Meanwhile, the rest of the group is furiously squalling and Bill Ward thrashes out at top speed but mega-confident enough to cheekily sneak in a single cowbell ‘ping.’ He’s already working overtime just keeping the beat, pounding his cymbals into senselessness and letting loose with a generous supply of original fills and tom-tom rolls AND STILL FINDS BOTH THE TIME AND NERVE TO ADD ONE LITTLE BITTY COWBELL ‘ping’ and it’s the only time it’s used on the whole album. Whoa. “Wasp” is the joyously pounding introduction to “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” as towering Barre chords sweep in to make the very air of the studio shake and shudder with each and every riff. Then the plunge into “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” where all cuts off except for Ward’s brilliantly simple bass drum, hi-hat and snare pattern. Then enter Ozzy. His vocals are either fed through a backward tape delay, phlange or ultra-compressed double-tracking device, which would be weird enough. But singing about “deadly petals/with strange power” in some Wizard of Oz motif is positively bizarre coming from Ozzy's mouth. The track concludes with shedding everything except Ward’s drum pattern which falls cross-faded into “Bassically,” Geezer’s solo bass spot which then turns up at top volume to fall headlong into the industrial strength razing that is “N.I.B.” where their roiling yet all-controlled fury continually re-unleashes itself as Ozzy’s vocals become so plaintive, compassionate yet strong at the same time with so much obvious soul, it’s a killer.

Side two opens with a faithful cover version of Crow Music’s “Evil Woman (Don’t You Play Your Games With Me)” except it’s mercifully minus the colour-by-numbers horn section that wrecked the original. Replaced by “Wicked World” on its American counterpart, the most memorable line intoned by Ozzy has gotta be “Your body moves just like the crack of a whip” over the patented Iommi roar that cannot contain either the vocals or Geezer’s ever-verging on AWOL snaky bass lines. Although “Wicked World” isn’t on the British Vertigo release, it’s such a large part of the experience of Sabbath’s first album it would be mean and plain incomplete without a mention. Opening with exactly the same high-hat pattern as The Bonzo Dog Band’s “The Intro And The Outro” what follows is another all out SG assault with Geezer’s swaggering, eels in the scrotum bass lines as Bill Ward’s ever-tightening drumming draws a gangplank for Ozzy to caterwaul poetically upon.

The rest of the side just bleeds into a single run-on sentence although in reality it’s just two songs: “Sleeping Village” and “Warning.” A gentle introductory acoustic and lazily plucked jew’s harp heralds the dawn that is “Sleeping Village.” Ozzy’s voice is about as baritone as it would ever be, and his slow enunciations are about as crudely though soulfully rendered as the runes for ‘HELP’ scratched on the edge of a precipice with bare, bloodied hands. But even here where all is apparent calm, Ozzy’s vocals still ring with the urgent, pleading tones of help and/or outright desperation which come to a head on “Warning” (Covered off a rare Anysley Dunbar Retaliation non-album 45.) This sees the miserable-ness of Ozzy’s vocals at their apex as he rails and bangs his heavy heart against the shifting sands of unrequited love, which are echoed in the serpentine-ness of this track. The preponderance of Iommi’s slash and burn guitar runs extend the track into a variety of styles: from a lightly-strummed “Spanish Caravan” type solo to nearly blowing out both studio glass and amps with an unaccompanied solo that rages, falls away into an extended nasally finger vibrato which he would re-employ as the extended coda to “Children of the Grave” -- only to reappear with the full ensemble. The precise and unforgiving execution of this song (and the entire album, for that matter) is both astonishing and brutal.

Sabbath made the complex simple and the simple complex. And just as the very name ‘Black Sabbath’ would consistently raises eyebrows on the highbrows as frequently as it would take the lowbrows on the high road to greater empowerment via their massive psychic purgings. Tony Iommi’s power surge/dirge guitar, the mystique-ridden bass throbbing of Geezer Butler, the pristine bashing of Bill Ward and Ozzy’s vocal insanity via his many glimpses of simple truths completely break down the senses of the listener long and hard enough to release within them a sense of otherness beyond their lives.


Notes:
Mystique-enhancing mood setters that Sabbath were, they would list either on the sleeves or upon the very labels of the records themselves surreptitious subtitles for certain passages. For instance, “Wasp” isn’t a separate song, per se, but the instrumental intro of “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” Sabbath’s first four albums are littered with them.