Riff University: Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath

All aboaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaardahahaha! Welcome to Riff University, where each week, Dr* Oliver Butler, with his PhD in Riffology** will walk you through some of the biggest, baddest and boldest riffs of all time, right from the genesis of rock and roll, to some of our future classics. By the end of this intensive course, you will be able to recognise a classic riff from the first note, make pub conversations awkwardly unbearable, and alienate Tinder matches from the word go.
*Abbreviation of “Dad Rock”
**Not a real PhD

By Dr Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler)

Up this week: Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath from the album Black Sabbath

Much (read: little) is argued about the genesis of metal, the name “heavy metal” can be traced back to Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf, whilst the actual source of heavy metal itself is up for debate. Some argue that Summertime Blues by Blue Cheer is the original heavy metal song, but seeing as it’s a cover of an Eddie Cochran song, can it truly be classed as an original song, or just a heavier rendition? Another argument is that Helter Skelter by The Beatles is, or is at least the blueprint for heavy metal. Same goes for Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly, but again, that’s a toss that could be argued forever, this choice is a bit more of a clean cut.

Due to the indelible mark they left on the music scene from their formation in 1968 to when they took their final bows in February 2017, the song that launched a thousand heavy metal armadas is Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath from er, the album Black Sabbath.

Back in 1969, a band called Earth, formerly known as the Polka Tulk Blues Band had just welcomed their guitarist back to the band, after previously leaving to join Jethro Tull, then subsequently leaving, and picked up where they left off, playing shows across the land. However, they realised they were being mistaken for another English band called Earth, and decided to change their name. Across the road from their rehearsal studio, the new Boris Karloff film was showing; a horror by the name of Black Sabbath. Taken by this name, Earth rebranded as Black Sabbath, and as they say, the rest is history.

In fact, they liked this name so much, they named their new song Black Sabbath, and for the avoidance of doubt, their debut album too.

Arguably, the very birth of heavy metal is an accident, thanks to an accident with heavy metal. Working to get by in post-war Aston, Tony Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory, cruelly losing the tips of his middle and ring fingers in an accident on his last day of work before going on tour with his then band, Mythology.

Sat with his fingertips in a bag and told by doctors he would never be able to play again, Iommi tried to find a way to carry on, before considering giving up entirely, with learning to play right handed something that didn’t really come into play. That was until his factory foreman introduced him to famous jazz guitarist Django Reindhart, who only played with two fingers after burning his fretting hand after a terrible fire. Inspired by Reindhart’s playing, Iommi made the best of a bad situation; making two thimbles out of Fairy Liquid caps to protect his fingers, and using banjo strings to get a lighter gauge string, something that wasn’t readily available at the time.

Later on, Iommi would tune his guitar to a lower pitch to make playing easier, and through a series of unfortunate events, the low, doom mongering sound of Black Sabbath was born, which would help to lay the blueprint of heavy metal. Who could predict that an accident in the workplace would lead to the birth of heavy metal? Of course, this was in the days before claiming compensation, so becoming one of the world’s biggest rock stars would have to make do…

The intro to the song really sets the scene, close your eyes and you can picture a blackened sky as the rain pours and a bell tolls in the distance. Thunder cracks across the sky, then the slow, doom mongering riff cracks even harder across the sky. The main riff is what’s known as a tritone, or “Diabolus in Musica” (the devil in music). So, to use a musical interval that’s synonymous with Satan himself is very on brand for Sabbath.

The lyrics, as you may or may not have guessed by now, are to do with the occult. Bassist Geezer Butler was inspired by an experience whilst the band were still called Earth, and the Brummie bassman was dabbling in the occult. According to band legend, Ozzy handed Geezer a black occult book, written in Latin and covered in pictures of the devil, as was Butler’s apartment at the time. After reading the book, he placed it on his shelf and went to sleep, later waking up to see a large black figure standing at the end of his bed. The figure vanished and when Butler went to find the book, the book was gone. Upon telling this to his bandmate, Ozzy went forth and wrote:

“What is this, that stands before me? / Figure in black, which points at me / Turn ’round quick, and start to run/ Find out I’m the chosen one / Oh no!”

Considering that these lyrics were written off the back of a bleary eyed Geezer waking up to a black figure at the end of his bed, they really do evoke the image of Satan, standing before you, big black shape, with eyes of fire. It’s an immersive experience with the doom-laden tritone as Satan rises from the ground.

Whilst the tritone riff is the meat of this song, the ending is truly the stuff of magic. The tritone winds down and bursts into a faster riff, something that was prefixed with a “Let’s go fucking crazy!” by Ozzy as they performed it for the last time, it gives you no option to go crazy as the palm muted, fast picked riff is a world apart from the main riff.

The riff grows and grows as Ozzy warns of impending doom with the lyrics “Is it the end my friend? / Satan’s coming ’round the bend / People running ’cause they’re scared / The people better go and beware / No, no, please no!” before bursting into what would become a trademark Iommi solo.

This track was truly the first time everyone got to see Tony Iommi strut his stuff as a riff weaver, and his magic touch when writing a solo. The slightly phased overdubbed guitar is a base layer for the solo. It feels almost majestic as it howls into the night, with the stabbed notes at the end perfectly closing out the song. Popular from the word go, this song has been played nearly 1,000 times at Sabbath shows, lasting from their humble beginnings, through the wild years, into the cold and back out the other side for their final run of shows.

Little did they, or anybody else know, that some fifty years later that when they took a bow in Birmingham’s Genting Arena, coming full circle around the world, that song would be the genesis of heavy metal, and have them widely celebrated as the forefathers of metal. All that coming from an industrial accident and a chance meeting with a dark figure in the night.

Imagine how shit things would be if that hadn’t happened.

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Oliver Butler

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