As Black Sabbath nears The End, few would argue their status as the most important Heavy Metal band of all time. The passage of time and several generations has seen the Sabbath Mythos grow in depth and stature, and the band (or brand), regardless of its current configuration, is being honored in the mainstream press with overwhelmingly positive reviews for both their ‘comeback’ album ’13’, and the band’s live performances on their current ‘The End’ tour. The Sabs are enjoying a well-deserved critical pass, as fans heap love, respect and appreciation on their heroes, and rock critics everywhere take their seats on the bandwagon. It’s as if the mainstream press are hosting Black Sabbath’s retirement party.
But Black Sabbath’s relationship with the music press was not always so accommodating. In fact, if we move from ‘The End’ back to the beginning, we find that the mainstream music press absolutely despised Black Sabbath, from Day One. Seriously; it was brutal.
Keith Altham wrote in the New Musical Express, 14 April 1973:
When it comes to obvious targets for critical assassinations, then Black Sabbath are sitting ducks – very loud, very basic, very brash… What is it that most critics seem to find so objectionable about Black Sabbath music or, more positively, what is that they miss which is enjoyed by their thousands of fans?
To fully understand the extend of the disdain directed at this band in their earliest days, we need a little context. What was American popular culture like when Black Sabbath arrived on the scene?
America, at the close of the 1960s: The flower-power era is over. The era of Peace and Love has ended, and will soon give way to the cynicism and disillusion of the early 70s. The cultural backlash against the Hippie idealism and the ‘free society’ social experiments of the previous decade includes a preoccupation with the occult, which pervades all areas of popular culture; occult-themed horror movies, the zodiac and the beginnings of New Age mysticism, witchcraft, and a flirtation with Anton LeVay’s Church of Satanism. The counterculture has fallen to the dark side.
Black Sabbath, with their dark lyrical imagery, menacing music, and apparent embrace of black magic, were the perfect band for the time, although this synergy wielded a double-edged sword: the band capitalized on the dark zeitgeist of the day, while the rock press blamed Black Sabbath for killing the hippie dream.
There is an element of truth to this theory, however. As Ozzy says in the book ‘Louder Than Hell’ by Wiederhorn & Turman:
When I was a kid, I was hungry. I had my ass hanging out of my pants. I hated the fucking world. When I heard the silly fucking words, “If you go to San Francisco, be sure to put a flower in your hair” I wanted to fucking strangle John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas]. I was sitting in the industrial town of Birmingham, England. My father was dying of asbestos from industrial pollution and I was an angry young punk.
The churning, grinding, smoke-belching steel mills of Birmingham were a long way from Haight/Ashbury. Sabbath and their music delivered a bleak, desperate message: The swingin’ Sixties are Dead; or, to quote Blue Oyster Cult, This Ain’t the Summer of Love. For the rock critics and journalists who lived and loved the music and culture of the 60’s, Black Sabbath just pissed in their Cheerios.
Context: Heavy Metal in general, which was only recently becoming recognized as a distinct genre, was constantly dismissed by the ‘straight’ rock press as ‘puerile’, ‘primitive’, or worse. Creem Magazine described it in its early stages as ‘music for young men without a war of their own.’ When Sabbath emerged, they were one of a very few bands tagged with the HM label, a label which the music press quickly turned into a derogatory term. Black Sabbath quickly became the whipping boy for an entire genre; a genre uniformly looked down upon by the mainstream media of the day. The ‘straight’ press often to referred to the average Heavy Metal fan of the day in caricature, as in this piece from Sounds in 1973:
A Sabbath fan is a youth who sees his future as just a long dark alley with a row of hoods lined up in the shadows on either side, waiting with knives. The only escape is to go to one of the band’s concerts, get wasted mindless and let a black, menacing wave crash over you for the evening.
More Context: The high of choice at the dawn of the 1970s is actually a low. The use of psychedelics is on the wane; Downers are now the ‘in’ thing. Depressants like ‘reds’, Valium and Quaaludes, are where it’s at. I was amazed at the number of times Tuinal was mentioned in the many contemporary articles and reviews on Sabbath that I read to prep for this piece. Mike Saunders wrote in The Rag in 1971:
Black Sabbath are ten times cruder… (They) sing lyrics about Satan and death and evil, and attract the most strung out 16 year-old-reds-users audience of any group around.
Intentional or not, for some, Sabbath’s music was the aural equivalent of a handful of barbiturates, and the journos of the time applied adjectives like ‘plodding’ and ‘droning’ to describe the Sabbath sound ad nauseam. Bill Ward acknowledged the connection and defended the band against the ‘downer rock’ tag in Rolling Stone in ’71:
Most people live on a permanent down, but just aren’t aware of it. We’re trying to express it for people.
Strong elements of psychedelia are present in Sabbath’s early sound, and the down-tuned, dirge-like qualities of much of their music lent itself to the ‘downer’ stereotype thrown around by Sabbath’s critics at the time. ‘Heads’ were an instant and obvious audience for Sabbath’s music, and this made the band an easy target.
Forty years ago, the young Sabs were not viewed by the press backward through the lens of four or five decades of rock and metal history, as they are today; rather they were a new band with a new sound, and could only be critically assessed against the bands of the day, particularly their ‘heavy’ contemporaries: Cream, Purple, Zeppelin, and Hendrix. When Sabbath first visited the U.S., they toured as an ill-fitting opening act for Cactus, Mountain, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Jehtro Tull, ELP, and Grand Funk Railroad, and later, headlining over Yes, Nazareth, Three Dog Night, Humble Pie, and Wild Turkey. Black Sabbath spawned a thousand imitators along the arc of their career, but in those early years, they were an anomaly; a band apart.
Sabbath’s first single, ‘Evil Woman’, failed to chart in any territory. While it reached #4 in the UK, the ‘Paranoid’ single peaked at a dismal #61 here in the States. ‘Iron Man’, released as a single in the U.S. only, actually charted higher, peaking at a still-lowly #51. In fact, Black Sabbath’s next 5 singles would all fail to chart anywhere. Each of the band’s first 5 albums, however, went Top Ten in the UK, and Top 40 in the U.S. Suffice to say Black Sabbath was not a ‘singles’ band, and did not need the support of mainstream rock radio to sell records. The fact that Sabbath was able to achieve such success while working outside of the established ‘system’ further confounded the Sabbath-haters, who were utterly incapable of grasping just what it was about this band that made then so successful.
There were some in the media who made note of the vehement bashing of Black Sabbath by the mainstream press. Here’s an excerpt from a piece called ‘Black Sabbath: Nobody But The Public Digs Sabbath’ by Keith Altham, from Record Mirror, 30 January 1971:
There would seem to be a lot of unnecessary resentment over Black Sabbath’s success in this business. And even outside it by those bastions of public musical taste who regard any kind of youthful success on an inflationary scale as some kind of obscene hype.
The word ‘resentment’ in Altham’s piece was well-chosen. By 1972, Black Sabbath were one of the biggest bands in the world. 1971’s ‘Master of Reality’ had shipped as a Gold record on advance orders alone. It reached #8 in the U.S. (#5 UK), and it’s success pulled both ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’ back into the Hot 100. There was no ‘hit single’ associated with ‘MoR; both singles pulled from the album, ‘After Forever’ and ‘Children of the Grave’, failed to chart anywhere. ‘Vol 4’ went Gold in three weeks, and became their fourth consecutive platinum album. Radio did not support them, as most Rock stations in the U.S. at the time ran with a Top Forty-based format, and the ‘Paranoid’ single only reached #61. So how did Sabbath achieve this level of success, without the support of radio or the press? Critics just couldn’t figure it out, didn’t understand the Black Sabbath phenomenon, and so they resented the hell out of them for their success.
Touring the States repeatedly (eight times in 16 months) was part of it, but perhaps an even bigger factor was word-of-mouth. Sabbath was regarded as a ‘people’s band’, meaning ‘regular people’ dug them but the critics just didn’t get it (Grand Funk Railroad was perhaps the first band to be assigned this title; more on them in Part II). This ‘outsider’ status was pivotal to Black Sabbath’s early success… and every time a critic published a piece about how terrible Black Sabbath was, their legions of fans just loved and supported them even more. Black Sabbath did not just succeed despite the constant critical drubbing; in part, they thrived because of it.
Perhaps a 17-year old David Harris of London’s Putney district said it best, when he responded to Keith Altham’s question about the consistent trashing of Black Sabbath in the music press in that 1973 NME article:
I read some of the musical papers and I’ve always thought they’ve had a rotten deal from the critics, because they are not playing for the benefit of reporters – they’re playing to us.
(In Part 2, we’ll look at contemporary reviews of Sabbath’s first handful of records, 1970 – 1975. And I’ll explain that Grand Funk thing.)