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Not Fade Away: Revisiting ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ & the Riff that Saved Black Sabbath

"When Tony came up with the riff to 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,' it was almost like seeing your first child being born," Geezer Butler recalls.
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Black Sabbath at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Black Sabbath at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Scott Gries/Getty Images)

By Brian Ives 

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at  Black Sabbath‘s fifth album, 1973’s ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ which turns 40 this week.

From  1970 through 1972, Black Sabbath pretty much wrote the book on heavy metal with their first four albums. By 1973, they were certifiable rock stars, with all the cash and drugs that title entailed in the early ’70s. In just a few years, frontman Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist/leader Tony Iommi, bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward went from having not a cent to having more money than they’d ever known, and learning — as many rock stars before and since have — that cocaine’s a hell of a drug.

When I interviewed all four original Sabbath members about this album for an essay in The Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath (1970-1978), drugs came up often in discussing Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Ozzy told me, “Cocaine was a big thing — the evil f***ing cocaine. We were a rock and roll band meddling with drugs, and we ended up being in a drug band meddling with rock and roll. It took over.”

Geezer Butler, who answered all of my questions via a seven-page fax, noted that their drug usage changed dramatically around this time: “We were using drugs as a necessity rather than for fun, and the cracks were beginning to show.”

Related: Radio.com Inside Out: Birmingham, The Birthplace of Metal

To make things worse, Tony Iommi was experiencing writer’s block.  The band returned to L.A., where they’d had a blast recording 1972’s Vol. 4. But while that album yielded metal anthems like “Supernaut,” “Under The Sun” and “Tomorrow’s Dream,” this time around the City of Angels offered no inspiration. “We had a huge mansion in Bel-Air whee we all lived while writing and recording Vol. 4, and it was the most fun we ever had,” Butler told me. “It was the ultimate extreme of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but with lots of laughter thrown in. When we went back, the atmosphere just wasn’t there any more.”

So the band packed up and returned to England, where Iommi rented Clearwell Castle in Wales to restart their attempt at recording album number five. They rehearsed in the dungeons “to get a vibe going.” “That place was haunted, no question about it,” Ward said. Iommi tells his own tale about experiencing an apparition, and Butler says that a presence in his room appeared after he’d locked the doors and windows. (Ozzy’s response: “That’s bulls***!”)

Paranormal activity aside, the band found the vibe they were searching for, and it scared off the writer’s block so fiercely that Iommi was able to come up with what may well be his greatest riff. “When Tony came up with the riff to ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ it was almost like seeing your first child being born,” Butler recalls. “It was the end of our musical drought. It meant the band had a present — and a future — again.”

With Iommi on a musical roll, Butler was free to start on the lyrics, which came quickly based on their first few years in the biz. “The lyrics to ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ were about the Sabbath experience: the ups and downs, the good times and bad times, the rip-offs, the business side of it all,” Butler said. “[The line] ‘bog blast all of you’ was directed at the critics, the record business in general, the lawyers, accountants, management, and everyone who was trying to cash in on us. It was a backs-to-the-wall rant at everyone.”

Butler, an extremely underrated lyricist, covered a lot of ground on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, some of it more philosophical than autobiographical. Sabbath were often cast as “Satan worshippers” at the time, but anyone who believed that stereotype hadn’t listened to the lyrics on “A National Acrobat”: “Just remember love is live/And hate is living death/Treat your life for what it’s worth and live for every breath.” This was almost hippie stuff! “Satan was hardly ever conjured up in our lyrics, and when he was it was not in the religious sense, but in the sense that Satan was alive and well in the people who govern us, manipulating us and killing us in their wars,” Butler said.”

The band dove into more R-rated territory on “Sabbra Cadabra,” a song Metallica would cover years later. The lyrics to that song were originally written by Ozzy Osbourne. Butler remembers, “His original lyrics were based on a sex tape we’d been listening to; in the studio where we were recording, they’d been recording English voiceovers on a German porno. Unfortunately, I changed them into a more ‘acceptable’ version.”

Sabbath bloody sabbath cover

When I interviewed the band for the box set in 2002, Ozzy’s career in metal was being eclipsed by his career as a reality TV star via The Osbournes, which generally portrayed him as an incoherent dad. And even during my interview with him, he seemed exasperated by some of my questions: “Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago?” So, I was a bit stunned by his account of getting the lyrics to “Spiral Architect.”

“I said [to Butler], ‘We need the lyrics to this song, do you have them?’ He says, ‘Give me an hour.’ So I called him in an hour and he said, ‘Sorcerers of madness, selling me their time/Child of God, sitting in the sun, giving peace of mind/Fictional seduction on a black snow day, sadness kills the superman, even fathers cry.’ I said, ‘Are you reading these out of a f***ing book?’ I was mind-boggled!” As was I, hearing this guy, who was portrayed on TV as someone who couldn’t remember what he did yesterday, spitting out lyrics from three decades ago that he probably hadn’t sung in ages. It’s funny, the things that stick with you.

“Looking For Today” isn’t one of their more well-known songs, but it resonates, four decades later. It’s a scathing rumination on the here-today-gone-later-today nature of the music business: “Sunday’s star is Monday’s scar/Out of date before you’re even seen/At the top so quick to flop/You’re so new but rotting in decay.” This was about three decades before Twitter and Tumblr accelerated  careers of up-and-coming bands to roughly the length of a pop single. It’s fitting that, as this is being written, I’m deciding how to vote on my GRAMMY ballot, where Sabbath has three nominations for their “reunion” album, 13. I’m leaning towards “God Is Dead?” for at least Best Metal Performance. And that’s no knock against younger acts like Killswitch Engage and Volbeat, who are two other deserving nominees in the category (and who, like every other  band ever nominated in the category, owe their careers to Sabbath). It’s pretty amazing that a band made up of sixty-somethings made such a killer metal album in 2013, but they did. But without the “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” riff, cooked up by Iommi 40 years earlier, they may have never made it to this point.

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