Ginger Nuts of Horror
That wasn’t quite what I got. Keyboards? Synthesisers? What the fuck? The record remained untouched amongst my collection for a few years, until I revisited it later, with more mature ears.
I have to admit that when I first heard Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, I didn’t like it.
It was the eighties. I was into hardcore punk, and I liked my music fast, loud and angry. I was also the guitarist in a ragged little punk band. Because I played guitar—however badly—I was drawn to heavy guitar music, and the people who made it. My peer group were all metal fans (we called them heavy rockers back then, kids), so I was drip fed a steady diet of rock—Sabbath, Zeppelin, Motörhead, Maiden, Saxon—but I didn’t own any of it...
The late eighties was a strange time for punk rock. Many punk bands had become passive, watered down versions of themselves in an effort to court commercial record contracts. Discharge had degenerated into their weirdly ineffectual metal incarnation. The Damned were goth-ing it up with the horrible Phantasmagoria album, and had been on a downward slide for a while. Anti-Nowhere League and UK Subs had taken to wearing frilly white shirts and silk scarves to appear on ‘yoof’ TV shows. All of this forced punk powerjunkies like me to look further afield for their fix. Bands like Metallica and Slayer had taken cues from hardcore punk, and the thrash metal scene was just beginning, so there was fertile ground there.
As well as investigating the present, I’d begun to look to the past. To those bands that had innovated the art of sculpted noise. I’d always been drawn to Sabbath. Those early albums had a dark and powerful feel to them, and Tony Iommi’s squealing mutant blues solos held an instant attraction for a connoisseur of anti-social guitar work. Hearing those early albums, I always thought that if you played them at a faster rpm, what you’d have is punk.
Time Machine Records was my regular haunt for sounds in Wolverhampton, where I grew up. A canted old shop front with a spray-painted spaceship adorning the sign outside. The inside was a gloomy cave—a dark alcove that smelled faintly of sweat, dry rot and plastic. I already owned most of the new punk vinyl they had upstairs, so I’d descend to the second-hand section in the basement. If there wasn’t anything current to light my fire, I’d trawl the archives.
There I was, thumbing through frayed record covers, nose filled with the basement odour of mildew and damp cardboard, when I came across Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. And man, what a record cover. In my opinion, one of the greatest covers ever. Sabbath’s earlier album art is a little underwhelming, but this is a corker. It’s satanic and threatening—a man writhing on a bed surrounded by leering demons. Whilst on the reverse, the antithesis of this scene—a serene deathbed supervised by angelic attendants. The artist, Drew Struzan, would go on to produce iconic posters for movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Star Wars and Harry Potter.
I had this immature idea that it wasn’t cool to own rock albums. Now it was about time I grew up and acknowledged that there was no such thing as genre—there was simply music you enjoyed, or you didn’t. The cover of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath convinced me that it would be the first non-punk album in my collection.
When I took it home and played it, I was expecting bluesy, tough rock. That wasn’t quite what I got. Keyboards? Synthesisers? What the fuck? The record remained untouched amongst my collection for a few years, until I revisited it later, with more mature ears.
Sabbath were experimenting with orchestration and mixing techniques, maybe in a bid to prove that they were more than just a one-trick metal band. Although I feel this change of direction was something of a misstep, the result, taken as whole, is an interesting development in terms of song-writing and structure. The album marked a waypoint in Sabbath’s career, and went a long way to creating their metal immortality. It also contains a couple of Sabbath’s best tracks.
Its dark nature was probably influenced by the rehearsal space--Clearwell Castle in the Forest of Dean, England. The castle was rumoured to be haunted, and between unexplained sightings, and practical jokes played on each other, the band eventually became so spooked that they refused to sleep on site.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the title track, begins the album in style with what’s known as The Riff That Saved Black Sabbath. When they came to write for this album, they were out of ideas. Drink and drugs didn’t help, and they were close to calling it a day. A few ghostly encounters at Clearwell Castle later, Iommi came up with the riff, and they all knew they were back on track. It’s a superb opener, and augurs well for what’s to come.
There’s another lovely bit of riffing when the next track, A National Acrobat, cranks up. A measured, steady, and satisfying tune. Nice to hear some wah wah creep in there too. The interesting lyrics on first listen appear almost Lovecraftian, but it’s actually about the conception of a life within the womb. Yes, Tony Iommi wrote a song about sentient spunk. I’m not keen on the little ditty in the interlude, but there’s a nice chance for Iommi to cut loose in the solo that follows.
So we’ve had the chance to appreciate Iommi’s great lead work. With Fluff, the next track, he displays his mellow, classical side. Tony is a musician of talent and finesse, and if you enjoy twiddly acoustic guitars you’ll get a lot of mileage from this. Me? I press ‘skip’.
Re-listening to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, I’d forgotten just how many memorable riffs it contains. Sabbra Cadabra comes in strong, although I do have to say that at this point in the album, I noticed how much thinner Ozzy’s voice sounds. Still, he pulls it off. For me, the synth parts let the track down, but it’s still strong.
Hands up who remembers vinyl? What would be the second side of the LP begins impressively. I remember flipping the record, listening to that scratchy lead-in noise… and then Killing Yourself to Live fires up in all its glory. I still recall the frisson I felt the first time I heard it. A Sabbath classic with bleak, cynical lyrics, and still one of my favourite tracks by the band.
Apparently, at some point Ozzy found a Moog synthesiser and tried to play it—the result is the quite annoying Who Are You. The track itself is okay, and I’d find it listenable with Iommi’s guitar front and centre. But as it is… Ozzy, a word mate—stick to singing.
Looking for Today is a strangely swinging little number, sullied by orchestral sections, but as with the other tracks, the song-writing is strong, lyrics dense with meaning.
Spiral Architect wraps things up, and the twee guitar intro doesn’t bode well for me. Thankfully, heavier Who-like chords follow, and then, just when you’re beginning to despair, Ozzy’s vocal saves the day. Even the orchestration can’t spoil an interesting track. On this one more than any other, I can hear the band’s influences creeping in. It’s very sixties in nature—shades of Leslie West’s Mountain, maybe. This is not a Bad Thing.
Over the years I’ve come to realise that I gave my first Black Sabbath album short shrift— and any criticisms levelled here are due to my own prejudices rather than any shortcomings in the album. A rock fan with broader musical horizons may even consider this their favourite Sabbath record. It’s a satisfying listen, an important waypoint on the road to Sabbath’s destination as one of rock’s most important bands, and well worth anyone’s time.