Necessary Evil: The Dark Greatness of Black Sabbath
Tonight, on Halloween, hordes of us will do what humans have done for eons and herald the coming of the dark, cold months with a celebration. Though it’s been untold generations since our fall festivals were softened into a vestigial superstition, Halloween’s roots lie deeper than playing make believe. They grow from our inborn compulsion to gain some measure of understanding, of control, about the things we spend the rest of the year trying to deny. Life is tenuous. Pain is constant. The world is frightening. These are ineluctable truths. And so is this: Black Sabbath matters.
Black Sabbath was the first rock band to get over on trying to scare the shit out of you. Others (Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer) were making sinister, heavy music before singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward got together in Birmingham, England in 1969. None of those other bands were as committed or singular in their bleak vision. From the start, Sabbath emitted no light. That was for others to do. The band’s self-titled first album was released in 1970. In sickly and unnatural colors its cover shows a witch-like figure in front of a desolate country house. The eponymous first song opens to whispering rain, a tolling bell, and a slow, creeping guitar riff. Then Ozzy enters. He sings as if he has no soul to lose. He could be the dead-eyed henchman in some Vincent Price movie. He could not wail virtuoso-style like Robert Plant or Ronnie James Dio. Instead, Ozzy sounded plainly human. Or as if he remembered what it was to be one.