I still clearly remember being on the bus coming home from school and the shuffling herd of skinny, lank haired, great coat wearing freaks on the bus clutching their Hawkwind and Black Sabbath Black Sabbath albums.
Their green army bags had the names of many underground rock demons biro-ed all over them but pride of place would go to Black Sabbath. They would clutch their Sabbath albums in their skinny arms and the strange sleeves would mesmerise me. There was one, in particular, with some weird swordsman charging out of the forest in a photo that looked as spectral as badly taken. Was it deliberate this snapshot quality and what the fuck was going on in that sleeve?
A couple years later I would listen to those albums and love their darkness and brutality. Black Sabbath were clearly on their own very weird trip but were somehow also massive with a very unlikely Top Of The Pops life.
There has been lot of reformations recently. The Stone Roses comeback has been massive and gives the band a chance to complete the unfinished business of their initial falling apart, the scale of the Roses comeback has been trumped, though, on a worldwide scale by the news that Black Sabbath are to return with a world tour and new album.
The return of Black Sabbath was the worst kept secret of the music world and was fianlly announced last week with the band in fine fettle at their press conference in LA and looking suitably dark in their black wardrobe.
Reformations are met with cynicism, with accusations of ‘doing it for the money’ coming from well paid dayjob trolls on the internet but it’s difficult to see how much more money Black Sabbath actually need. In this case there is definitely a feeling that the band are doing this because they may actually like the idea of playing together, tapping into that indefinable chemistry that all great bands have.
Black Sabbath are one of the most important bands that the UK has ever produced. They are up there with the Beatles and it’s pretty thrilling to get the opportunity to see them play again. Few people have gone into the heart of darkness like the band who formed as Earth in 1968 in Birmingham before changing their name to Black Sabbath a year later.
As they morphed from their initial blues rock style they went deeper and darker, down tuning their guitars and pretty well inventing a whole new style of music which has become known as heavy metal utilising the author William Burroughs term as well as the clank and grind of their industrial home town.
Sabbath were exploring the occult and the dark side in their lyrics and their music which also touched on anti war themes creating the template for thousands of bands since then. Their dark freak blues sounded like no other but somehow they are one of those bands that is not acknowledged enough.
From their era the Velvet Underground will be permanently cited as being the key band and yes, they do have a big influence, but it’s minimal compared to Sabbath. It seems strange that a really well connected band from New York can get all the credit and a bunch of working class guys from Birmingham get dismissed or ignored. Sabbath were deeply misunderstood- they were looked on as being too rudimentary and taking music backwards but in their simplicity there is a brilliant inventiveness and a whole new complexity. Tony Iommi is a stunning guitar player. His riffs are so inventive and brutally effective. Just because generation after generation of guitar players thought that lots of notes equalled some kind of skill doesn’t negate from Iommi’s genius. There is not a note wasted here. His guitar playing is inventive and quite brilliant and creates that sonorous atmosphere that defines the band and matches Ozzy Osbourne’s yelping vocal.
Ozzy may have became adrift in celeb land in recent years but back in the ranks of Black Sabbath he once again becomes someone you have to take very seriously. A brilliant vocalist he somehow captures the melancholia and darkness that is at the heart of Black Sabbath and his iconic presence is key to the whole operation along with one of rock’s great rhythm sections whose time changes match any post rock hipsters.
Sabbath have a long and winding history with many line ups- with up to 22 different members but those initial four albums are still some of the greatest in rock n roll history. They did the rarest of things in music- they came up with their own style, their own sound and one that was utilised over and over again by the most unlikely of bands from Joy Division whose soundscapes are massively indebted to Sabbath to the Ramones who made a career out of Sabbath anthem ‘Paranoid’, Black Flag would have turned into Sabbath if they had hung in there long enough…there are so many other cases that we could be here for ever noting them.
Equal to the Beatles Black Sabbath redefined rock music and their reunion is very exciting and the news of a new album fascinating because here is band that can seriously do something very creative with their music and capture a strange and dank atmosphere like no one else can even come close to still.
The news of the band’s reformation made me think of those cold, damp bus journeys home and that clutch of heads. I wonder where they are at now? Do they still listen to music? Do they still wear their greatcoats. They seemed impossibly cool from the perspective of an 11 year old but have probably slipped into normal life, the albums they once clutched, though, still sound as powerful as ever, timeless in their genius.