There is much confusion when it comes to the differences between heavy metal and hard rock. By the 1990’s, the two terms were often used interchangeably. We will make some distinctions, however, there is more in common than different between the two. The blues influence of Cream, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin helped to define the early hard rock genre, predating heavy metal soon to come. By the early 1970’s, heavy metal was evolving in Britain and America. For some bands, the stylistic line between hard rock and heavy metal blurred and for some it became more defined.
Generally speaking, heavy metal tended to draw on more neo-classical influences than blues-influenced hard rock. Metal guitar solos evolved with advanced techniques combining hammering, slurring, and virtuoso “shredding.” Metal guitar sounds were generally heavier (often tuned very low) and more distorted than in hard rock. Metal lyrics tended to be about darker themes, sometimes about the occult (mainly a fear of the devil, not so much about devil worship-which worried parents), folklore, or just being a “baddas*.” Heavy metal was generally faster, louder, and used more double bass drums, plus more screaming. Also, metal bands tended to avoid keyboards. Heavy metal morphed into many subgenres such as thrash metal, doom metal, black metal, metalcore, and many many more.
Again in general terms, hard rock drew from the above-mentioned blues and sometimes folk and even country influences. Hard rock lyrics tended to be about your standard sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Partly because the lyrics were about human relationships, female singers sometimes fronted hard rock bands. Both hard rock and heavy metal made use of the power chord, where a strong root and fifth was played with heavy distortion and sustain to add depth and power to the sound. The riff, a short repeated musical idea stated in the bass or guitar, was used as the structural foundation for some hard rock tunes and quite extensively in heavy metal. Early examples of compositional riffs included; Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker.”
“If heavy metal bands ruled the world, we’d be a lot better off.”
– Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden
Early Heavy Metal
Heavy Metal became a new style that developed gradually in the mid-1960’s to early 1970’s in England and to a lesser extent in the late 1960’s in America. It was formed from a need to rebel and turn heads, with a level of intensity not experienced in pop and other rock styles. Many feel that the first sounds of heavy metal were present in 1964 in The Kinks single “You Really Got Me” (see chapter three). Guitarist Dave Davies utilized repetitive, nasty power chord guitar riffs combined with a crude distortion that shocked listeners and musicians alike. With the advancement of better and louder amplifiers and new ways to achieve effects, like distortion, artists like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, and Black Sabbath introduced just how heavy music could sound.
Black Sabbath (1969-2017) formed in Birmingham, England when vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi joined forces with drummer Bill Ward and guitarist turned bassist Geezer Butler. Bill Ward had quit his band, The Rest, and answered an ad placed by Iommi, who was looking for a new band (Iommi and Geezer had left their band Rare Breed). Together, Ward and Iommi, saw another ad that was placed by Ozzy and invited him to come over to jam. Ozzy and Geezer knew each other and had previously played together. The four musicians then became The Polka Tulk Blues Band. They added a sax player and a slide guitar player but broke up after only one week. They re-formed again as a four-piece band called Earth. Iommi then briefly joined Jethro Tull in 1968 when leader Ian Anderson loved his heavy guitar approach. However, Iommi missed playing with Ozzy, Ward, and Geezer and quickly reunited with them. Iommi did learn how to be a professional musician from his brief Jethro Tull stay and remembered, “They (Jethro Tull) used to go in at nine o’clock in the morning and work all day until five like a regular nine-to-five job. And we realized that’s the way you gotta do it. You can’t just go to some pub and rehearse for an hour and then get drunk. You gotta really put your mind to it and take it seriously. That’s what gave us the kick up the a** that we needed.” #1
Earth was playing around Europe and England and on one occasion they played to an audience that expected to hear a pop band named Earth. The audience was stunned to hear the wrong Earth playing very loud and aggressive music. Conveniently, a movie titled Black Sabbath (starring horror film actor Boris Karloff) was playing across the street from Earth’s gig. The band knew they needed a new name and they had it, Black Sabbath. Ozzy commented on the new name and direction of Black Sabbath saying, “With a name like Black Sabbath, what do you expect? And the album cover wasn’t exactly about a bunch of flowers…we decided to write scary music because we really didn’t think life was all roses. So we decided to write horror music. Then we started to read books about the occult and we realized that it wasn’t just a thing that movies were made from. It was real. There was a thing called the occult.” #2 The band members never really embraced the occult but some of their fanatical fans did. Sabbath received many occult themed letters and was asked to play at black masses and other occult-driven ceremonies.
“We (Black Sabbath) went to Switzerland and Germany for six weeks, and we were literally playing for eight hours a day…it was good because we got really tight musically. We sort of knew what each other was going to play before we even played it.” – Geezer Butler
The early Sabbath sound was strong, mysterious, and even frightening. Iommi played blues-based solos mixed with simple power chords. Ozzy, hardly an accomplished singer, nevertheless had a unique vocal quality that could sound like a siren going off. The band played a wide range of tempos (with Iommi’s doom-laden guitar tone) in hypnotically repetitious riffs. Black Sabbath had found a new sound for rock music.
The Sabbath guitar sound came about partially from an industrial accident that Tony Iommi had incurred years earlier. The tips of a few fingers of his fretting hand were cut off. Iommi was forced to play with makeshift prosthetic fingertips that he would make for himself before each Sabbath gig. This altered Iommi’s guitar approach since he could not play the interval of fourths but would now play fifths due to the accident. The band was amazed at Iommi’s unique guitar playing and musicianship. Ozzy recalled “I’ve always maintained one thing about Mr. Iommi. You will never find another soul who comes up with better hard rock riffs than him. When we’d be together I’d always be, like, there is no way he can top that riff. Then he’d beat it every time.” #3 In 1970, Black Sabbath released their debut album Black Sabbath, an aggressive offering with lyrics about darkness, death, and the devil. All of the band members were survivors of their hometown war-ravaged Birmingham, England and a sense of doom and gloom became a factor in their music. Black Sabbath was initially hated by the critics while simultaneously loved by their fans. Their album Black Sabbath soared into the top ten on the British charts reaching number eight. It went to number twenty-three on the American charts and stayed there for over a year.
1970’s Paranoid went to number one on the British charts. The title track, “Paranoid,” reached number four on the same charts and was their only top twenty hit. The album peaked at number twelve in America selling four million copies, but initially received minimal radio airplay. It contained the songs “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” and “Paranoid.”
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
“Iron Man” was originally named “Iron Bloke” by Ozzy Osbourne after he heard a massive guitar riff that Toni Iommi had composed. It has become one of rock’s most recognized heavy metal riffs. Inspired by the riff, Ozzy imagined a big iron bloke walking around. Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics about a man who traveled in time to the future and saw the apocalypse. When attempting to return to the present time, he turned into a steel Iron Man and was rendered mute, making him incapable of verbally warning others of the impending destruction. He was ignored and mocked and became angry. Iron Man then sought revenge on humanity by causing massive destruction.
In the extended version of the tune (not cut down for radio play), Black Sabbath would go into an adventurous double time improvisational section. Ozzy was very skilled at verbally adapting Geezer’s lyrics to fit Iommi’s basic riff. Ward and Butler utilized the space around the riff to play fills and create motion. Iommi used a second riff, a unison idea, to launch the instrumental section. Iommi created more great riffs in the improvisational section to support his own guitar solos. Kanye West sampled “Iron Man” and used it in his song “Hell of a Life” for his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. VH1 ranked “Iron Man” as the number one heavy metal song of all time.
The Groundbreaking Album Paranoid by Black Sabbath
Often cited as one of the most influential heavy metal albums of all time, Paranoid defined the sound and feel of heavy metal, perhaps more than any other album in rock history. Bands such as Metallica, Slipknot, and Nirvana (to name just a few) have often mentioned Ward and Geezer’s massive grooves, Iommi’s “take no prisoners” riffs, and Ozzy’s haunting and agonizing delivery when defining the heavy metal genre.
Most of the songs on Paranoid developed from improvisational onstage jams. By the time the debut album Black Sabbath came out, most of the Paranoid material had been composed. Side one opened with “War Pigs,” then “Paranoid,” “Planet Caravan,” and “Iron Man.” “War Pigs” was originally titled “Walpurgis,” which was a reference to black magic weddings. Geezer explained the death and destruction lyrics for “Walpurgis” when he said “Sort of like the Satanic Christmas. I was writing Generals gathered in the masses because that’s what Satan is. War was the big Satan, not somebody who lives in the clouds. I was making an analogy, and Warner Brothers didn’t like the title because it was too Satanic, so we turned it into War Pigs, which is a better title anyway.” #4
“Paranoid” reached number four on the British singles chart and was the first single that the band released after their debut album. Sabbath initially wrote the song as a filler because they didn’t have enough material for the Paranoid album. The tune “Paranoid” was released as the break out track. “Paranoid” was recorded in two or three days after Iommi came up with the basic riff and Geezer quickly wrote the lyrics that Ozzy read during the recording session. “Planet Caravan” was a mellow stoner-jam song about floating through the universe with one’s lover. Iommi played flute and Tom Allom guested on piano. Ozzy achieved a vibrato effect by singing through a Leslie speaker.
Side two opened with “Electric Funeral”, then “Hand of Doom,” “Rat Salad” (a showcase for a Ward drum solo), and “Fairies Wear Boots.” Black Sabbath became studio savvy by utilizing the recording technique of reverse multi-tracking and re-forwarding the tape. They also mastered the album with stereo delay.
The band wanted the album to be called War Pigs, but the title was banned because of the word pigs. The record company pressured them to title the album Paranoid. Black Sabbath was very unhappy with the imposed album title. Ozzy said “What the f*** does a bloke dressed as a pig with a sword in his hand got to do with being paranoid, I don’t know, but they decided to change the album title without changing the artwork.” #5
The Paranoid album sparked a number of controversies. After an American nurse committed suicide, some blamed Black Sabbath when Paranoid was found playing on the turntable in her room. Also, people who represented the moral majority cited Black Sabbath for promoting devil worship. The band responded that many of their lyrics contained anti-war, anti-drug, and science fiction content. Many of Paranoid’s songs have been covered by prominent metal bands such as Slayer, Megadeth, Pantera, and Faith No More.
Black Sabbath, now firmly established as the metal band, released Master of Reality in 1971, Vol. 4 in 1972, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in 1973. These albums all achieved great success in America and Europe. However, Sabbath was plagued with drug/alcohol and management issues. 1975’s Sabotage, 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, and 1978’s Never Say Die! were solid recordings, but would mark the end of an era for Black Sabbath. Ozzy’s personal issues, erratic behavior, and increasing musical differences with Tommy Iommi would spell the end for Osbourne. Ozzy was fired from Black Sabbath in 1979 (he would soon begin his solo career). Also, Geezer Butler quit the band (but quickly returned). Former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio joined for the 1980 release Heaven and Hell and Sabbath was back in business. However, more instability resulted when Bill Ward quit, also due to personal issues. He was replaced by drummer Vinnie Appice, who played on 1981’s Mob Rules.
Even more turmoil ensued when Dio and Appice left to form a band and Iommi and Butler recruited former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan. Ward then returned and a reborn Black Sabbath released the appropriately titled Born Again in 1983. Drummer Bev Bevan was brought in to replace Ward, who again was plagued with personal issues. After a tour to support Born Again, Sabbath went on a hiatus. They returned in 1986 with Seventh Star, a record that was first conceived as a Tony Iommi solo record and then reworked for Black Sabbath. A number of lineup changes occurred for a string of albums beginning with 1987’s The Eternal Idol, 1989’s Headless Cross, 1990’s TYR, 1992’s Dehumanizer, 1994’s Cross Purposes, and 1995’s Forbidden.
In the summer of 1997, Iommi, Geezer, and Ozzy reunited to co-headline the Ozzfest Festival tour along with Ozzy’s solo band (Ozzfest is an annual festival tour of American venues and sometimes Europe, featuring heavy metal and hard rock bands-founded by Ozzie Osbourne and his wife Sharon). Filling in for Bill Ward was Ozzie’s drummer Mike Bordin. Later that year, Ward appeared with the original Black Sabbath for live shows that were recorded and released as the 1998 double live album Reunion. The original band started recording a new album in 2001 but decided to stop. Remarked Iommi, “We didn’t go any further, and it’s a shame because the songs were really good.” #6
In 2007 Iommi and Butler reunited with Ronnie Jams Dio and Vinny Appice to record Live From Radio City Music Hall and later in 2009, Bible Black. However, Ronnie James Dio became very ill and died in 2010. In 2011, the original Black Sabbath attempted to reunite to do a full album and tour, but Iommi was diagnosed with cancer. Additionally, Ward could not come to terms with a business contract with the band. In 2013, Sabbath released their nineteenth and final album, 13, with drummer Brad Wilk (of Rage against the Machine). It was produced by Rick Rubin. On February 4th, 2016, Black Sabbath, with a healthy Toni Iommi, played what they called their final concert in Birmingham, England (their birthplace). On March 7th, 2017, Black Sabbath announced they had disbanded. Black Sabbath was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.