It all began with Black Sabbath in 1970. Prior to the release of the Birmingham band’s self-titled, debut album, the concept of ‘heavy’ music had been disparate and nebulous, to say the least. The likes of Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Cream had certainly taken the notion of guitar-led music into a new era, but this was still tied to what had gone before – blues, psychedelia, soul…However, Sabbath were something fresh and vital.
They had an industrial darkness and gloomy edge that made them very much a working class band. The antithesis of everything music had meant in the hippy world. Their eponymous anthem became the blueprint for all we know as heavy metal. In fact, within this song is all that we know and love about the genre. If you want to appreciate metal, then start with this song – all that’s happened since is interpretation and development.
Throughout the 1970s, Sabbath remained pariahs as far as the mainstream pop community was concerned. They sold millions of records, and even had hit singles. But they were always treated with disdain by the outlying musical hierarchy. Yet the more they were ignored by the ‘taste masters’, the greater was the dedication and devotion of their fan base. It was here that the tribal attitude and lifestyle commitments of metal fans began.
Of course, Sabbath were inspiring many to follow in their footsteps. Of most significance as far as we are concerned were Judas Priest (like Sabbath, from Birmingham) and Motorhead (born out of mainman Lemmy’s desire to make the dirtiest and nastiest music around). But there were many others taking the Sabbath concept into fresh ground. By the time punk hit in 1976, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and UFO had all become cult heroes. In America, Montrose set the pace for a new sound as well. And with the arrival of the aforementioned punk movement, the scene was set for a massive leap forward.
Interestingly, by 1978, Sabbath themselves were seen as a spent force. The hot young bloods of Van Halen from Los Angeles came over to the UK to support the Sabs on their tenth anniversary tour, and consistently exposed the headliners’ flaws. Sabbath looked old and flabby up against these lithe LA lions. However, what Sabbath had given to the metal world was an enormous legacy of indelible riffs and imposing anthems. If their time was finally over, then their reputation was intact.
But, as people started to prepare the obituaries for Sabbath, they emerged in a new form and as strong as ever. With Ronnie James Dio – the one-time Rainbow man – on vocals, the band marched into the 1980s, ready to match the youthful guns who were seemingly springing up across the UK. Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon, Praying Mantis, Angel Witch, Tygers Of Pan Tang – these were the new breed, manacled together under the umbrella of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
To many, this would prove to be the most exciting and exacting era metal has ever enjoyed. Not only was Britain alive with the manifold sounds and styles of metal – ranging from melodic, and pomp, rock right through to the most aggressive and brutal bands ever heard – but the gospel was spreading throughout the globe. There were talents not only emerging in North America, but throughout Europe and even Japan. Now, metal was becoming a worldwide phenomenon, something we take for granted these days.
As this was happening, not only were Sabbath a rejuvenated force, but former frontman Ozzy Osbourne had got his act together. Emerging from the debacle of Sabbath at the end of the 1970s, Ozzy established his own legend and, if anything, became bigger than the mother ship, as it were.
One other massively important event at this time was the beginning of the Monsters Of Rock Festival, an annual event at Castle Donington in the Midlands. It began as a one-off open air event in 1980, but quickly became so popular that demand suggested it had to be held every year. It was a focal point for the metal community throughout the decade.
There’s an argument to be put forward that 1980 was, perhaps, the most pivotal year in the history of metal, with a list of classic albums and gigs running throughout the 12 month period. It set the tone for much that was to happen later.
NWOBHM – as it was known – also gave rise to the birth of Kerrang! Magazine, the first professional publication to be dedicated to the music. Proof once again that metal now had real commercial bite.
By 1983, the influence of Black Sabbath and their acolytes – Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Venom – had began to take root in a fresh form of the genre. Thrash, or speed, metal came directly from British inspiration. And it took over the world. Bands such as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth introduced a new way of playing that engulfed a young generation who wanted their own heroes.
Yet these new masters of metal were always prepared to pay homage to their own teachers – which is why the likes of Sabbath enjoyed something of a renaissance as the 1980s unfolded. Moreover, Sabbath’s importance was seen in the advent of doom metal, a slow almost ponderously balletic approach, which brought to the fore Saint Vitus, Pentagram, Trouble and Candlemass.
The decade ended with the desire for a renewal of heavy metal. Thrash had really run out of ideas. So, how could a genre now entering its third decade keep on surpassing itself? Enter grunge, as the sounds of Seattle brought everything back to basics, with an approach that was tied into Sabbath, even though the then current incarnation of the venerable band were in the doldrums to some extent. Constant changes of vocalist had undermined the contemporary band. Yet their past was now seen as more essential than ever.
Also at this point, black metal became a force with which to reckon. The darkness and satanic imagery that Sabbath had first mooted took on a sinister turn with the emergence of the Norwegian black metal movement, one that was prepared to take physical action to back up extreme beliefs expressed in their music. Churches were burnt, there were murders and suicides, as metal suddenly faced a crisis. Of course, there had been other challenges in the past. Both Judas Priest and Ozzy had been sued – thankfully, unsuccessfully – by those who claimed their music incited suicidal acts from fans. But this was open hostility – some of those in the black metal community were waging war on religion and social values. It has still not been fully resolved.
Musically, and in calmer waters, the 1990s was marked by a belief that anything was possible in metal. While Anthrax had worked with Public Enemy, and Run DMC had teamed up with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith (both for one-off singles), it was 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack album that gave us the concept of rap metal as something that had serious potential, as metal bands collaborating with rappers, on what was to be a pioneering release.
Inspired by Judgment Night, names like Deftones and Korn started to develop a style that would be known as nu metal – with latter-day artists like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Papa Roach giving this massive commercial credibility. And Slipknot became the darlings of the underground, not only proving that they had a severity of music and lyricism, but had learnt from Kiss the importance of image. Once again, metal had proven its ability to renew itself, and bring young fans into the fold.
There was also a boost for thrash-related music, as Pantera and Machine Head began to have heavy inroads.
And in 1997, the original Black Sabbath line-up reformed, to huge acclaim. With the legendary Ozzy back on board, they were bigger than ever, appealing not only to diehards from the 1970s, but to young fans, for whom Sabbath had only been a myth until now.
And so we roll into the 21st Century, when metal has become a melting pot of styles. These days, everything exists, happily co-habiting space and time. The genre has almost come full circle, again reaching a point where we await the next developments with great anticipation. Today, the established giants are as peerless as ever, gaining new momentum from successive generations giving them fresh impetus. And whatever form of metal you’re into – thrash, death, black, stoner, doom, progressive – there are young bands who are prepared to take things further, while paying homage to the masters.
And it all comes back to Black Sabbath. They began the whole thing in 1970. Here we are, four decades on, and they are still the dominant force on the scene. Metal has millions of fans and thousands of bands. But, while there are many who have become primary influences, only one can claim to have an impact across every facet of the music. Black Sabbath are still the embodiment of metal, still the ultimate expression of the genre. Without them there would never have been such a style of rock. Without them, the history of popular music would have been so different in the past 40 years.
Lionised, idolised and worshipped, it always comes back to Sabbath. Want to know the future for metal? Look at what Ozzy, Iommi, Butler and Ward did in the1970s – the answer’s in there somewhere.
There Is None More Black..Than Sabbath.