Sabbath guitar player Tony Iommi almost single handedly created the genre when he was forced to start “down-tuning” his guitar after an industrial accident chopped off the tips of the fingers on his left hand. That horrible accident changed the sound of Iommi’s guitar, making it deeper, darker, and kind of menacing. (For those of you who don’t play guitar, I should probably elaborate a little bit. Iommi uses his left hand on the frets of his guitar. It’s that hand that he uses to press down the strings. Down-tuning makes the strings lighter, and therefore easier to press down. The reduced tension on the strings produces a lower sound.) The change in Iommi's guitar tuning was the first part of the equation that would create heavy metal, the second part was the band’s aura, an aura created almost entirely out of the public’s perception that Black Sabbath was a Satanic rock band.
There are a lot of people out there who think that Sabbath was the first in a long line of bands influenced by Lucifer. The truth of it is that Sabbath came to Satan’s table kind of late, and they only came to it grudgingly. There had been a couple of major label bands before Sabbath that very publicly embraced the Devil. The first was the American Midwestern band “Coven.” Their first album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, sounded like middle of the road 1969-hippy music, but the band looked like agents of the dark one on the cover, clad entirely in black standing next to a skull. The album even featured a recording of a “Satanic Black Mass” on side two. Despite being released by a mainstream record label, the album was quickly forgotten, though the band did initially attract a lot of media attention.
Weirdly, Coven would have hit with a cover of the song "One Tin Soldier" from the movie "Billy Jack," in 1971. By this time the band's earlier Satanic associations were being downplayed.
While Black Sabbath would cultivate a rather sinister image, much of that was unwarranted. Certainly the name “Black Sabbath” is not a beacon of light, but it certainly wasn’t meant to be an ode to the black mass. Black Sabbath was a compromise name, as the band was originally named (the very hippy sounding) Earth. The only problem was that there was another band in England already named Earth, so they ended up having to change the name.
While the first Black Sabbath album (imaginatively named Black Sabbath) doesn’t endorse Satan, record label Warner Brothers tried to make it seem as if the band did. An early record release party held in Los Angeles (minus the band in attendance) featured an appearance by Satanist Anton LaVey, which dogged the band for years. The British release of the album (courtesy of Vertigo Records) featured an upside down cross on the inside record sleeve. Such flourishes, made without the band’s consent or permission, did more to perpetuate the idea that the band was “Satanic” than anything on the album musically.
The album was certainly influenced by the occult, and Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi have admitted to being interested in such things during the band’s early days. Iommi has said that there was “a lot of interest, not practice, but interest.” Most of the interest was confided to Butler who according to Iommi “would do stuff like that, have all his candles burning. Black Walls. He would live the part. We used to go around the black magic shops as well.” Such things certainly weren’t typical in England circa 1969, but they weren’t completely out of place.
Humorously enough it was Ozzy Osbourne (lead singer) who would get saddled with the most amount of Satanic garbage over the years. The singer was never into the occult like Butler, and has been quoted as saying “the only time I’ve ever been into black magic has been while eating a box of chocolates.” Certainly the “Prince of Darkness” shtick has served Osbourne well over the years, but the occult was never his forte.
Ozzy’s greatest contribution to the band on that first album, aside from his vocals, might have been the lyrics he crafted to the song Black Sabbath, one of only three times Osbourne actually wrote lyrics while in Sabbath. Though the tune is certainly creepy, and rather chilling, it was an ode against dabbling in the occult, not an endorsement. Ozzy’s lyrics, with lines like “please God help me” came about due to an episode Butler had with a sinister presence.
While Geezer might have been looking to get out in 1969, the first album does contain a tune written from the Devil’s point of view. According to Butler (primary lyricist for the band) N.I.B. was originally written to be a humorous song about Satan falling in love with a mortal woman, but somewhere along the line the humor got lost somewhere. That’s not to say the song is an evil one, it’s a rocking one, but lines like “I will give you those things you thought unreal. The sun, the moon, the stars all bear my seal” certainly conjure up dark vistas. Osbourne’s cry of “My name is Lucifer please take my hand” probably helped to inspire a cadre of young Satanists who didn’t take his warning in Black Sabbath seriously. N.I.B., named after drummer Bill Ward’s face looking like a pen nib, was about as dark as Sabbath ever got, and as far as darkness goes, it was pretty lukewarm. When Ronnie James Dio joined the band in 1979, he would sometimes refer to the track as Nativity in Black, an awesome name, but not what Butler originally had in my mind for the song.
Like most bands who write about the occult early in their career, Sabbath moved away from that initial inspiration (or in Ozzy’s case, fear) and found other things to write about. Science fiction and fantasy were certainly inspiration, drugs another. Even sinister sounding songs like Children of the Grave ended up being about love. While the occult would long be associated with the band, the first incarnation of Sabbath moved quickly away from it, and by 1971 had penned a tune on Master of Reality that would have been at home on most Christian rock records.
While the first lineup of Black Sabbath would go on to release five more albums after Master of Reality (a few of them classics), none would ever be as popular as the first three records. The occult overtones died out as well, even if the media still liked to portray the band in that light. After the dissolution of the original band, Iommi would find the occult again, but only in order to sell more records as he tried to steer the band in the direction many in the public expected it to go. Some of the post-Ozzy Sabbath albums are classics too, especially the stuff with Ronnie James Dio, but the chills created by songs like Black Sabbath became a thing of the past.
While the guys in Black Sabbath were never occultists, nor did they worship the Devil, they did help to create the perception that good heavy metal bands did do those things. In doing so, they defined metal as a genre against authority, which it remains nearly forty years later.