From the Archive: Original Members of Black Sabbath Look Back on 30-Plus Years of Demonic Riffing in 2001
Formed from the remnants of two local bands, the Rare Breed (which featured Osbourne on vocals and Butler on rhythm guitar) and Mythology (which included Iommi and Ward), Black Sabbath began life in 1968 as the oddly named, six-member Polka Tulk Blues Band before slimming down to a quartet called Earth. No demos or live tapes of Earth exist, and generations of Sabbath fans have speculated at length on the band's sound. To hear. Butler tell it, Earth and Sabbath were two entirely different animals.
"We were just a straight blues band then," he insists. "That's the only way the clubs would have us. We'd basically play some blues and some heavier stuff, like Cream. And eventually the heavier stuff took over!"
Originally a Beatles fan who'd studiously copied John Lennon's rhythm licks, Butler switched over to bass when power trios like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience arrived on the British music scene. "Cream became me favorite band," he says. "I loved the way Jack Bruce played his bass. His playing was so strong, he totally did away with the need for a rhythm guitar. He took the bass in a totally different direction, and I thought, Yeah, that's what I want to do!"
Butler's move to bass freed the band of its need for tightly structured arrangements, allowing them more room to play off each other. For Ward, especially, this came as a welcome development. "I found very early on that I lacked the ability to be able to play as a timekeeper," he laughs. "I have a really tough time even thinking in those terms. When I hear Tony play a piece of music, for example, I answer back. I actually do accompany him, but in way that complements what he does. l'd just be bored playing a straight rhythm."
Profoundly influenced by such disparate artists as Jimi Hendrix, Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Hank Marvin of British instrumental combo the Shadows, Tony lommi was an inveterate tinkerer who, by his own admission, once rendered a mid-Sixties Fender Strat completely worthless by burying its sunburst finish under white spray paint. Iommi's mania for invention would eventually serve him well, however.
After accidentally chopping off the ends of his right middle and index fingers during his day job at a sheet metal factory at the age of 18, the left-handed Iommi molded some replacement fingertips from a melted plastic bottle of dish soap, then affixed the prosthetics with leather strips for added grip. Unable to feel with his two middle digits, Iommi began stringing his guitar with extra-light strings, tuning them down a half-step for easier bending.
Relying heavily on his index and pinkie fingers, he developed a flair for playing fifths-which, combined with a cranked amplifier and his Heath Robertson Rangemaster (an early distortion pedal), created the template for the menacing Sabbath sound.
According to Osbourne, Iommi was also the one who suggested that the band take its music in a darker direction. "He came to rehearsal one day and said, 'Isn't it funny how people pay money to watch horror films -- why don't we start playing scary music?' And then he came up with that 'Black Sabbath' riff, which was the scariest riff I've ever heard in my life!"
"Well, I just wanted to create something that was startling, something that would really take you aback," Iommi explains. "Something where you'd go, 'Wow, what's this?' and get tingles up your spine. And I liked the idea of, you know, coming up with something a bit more powerful than, say, [the Mamas & the Papas song] 'Monday Monday.' Which I liked," he says, with a laugh, "but I wanted to do something different."
"Black Sabbath," Earth's first musical excursion into the nether realms, took its name from a Boris Karloff movie, though its lyrics were inspired by a terrifying incident much closer to home. Having borrowed a 16th century tome of black magic from Osbourne one afternoon, Butler awoke that night to find a black shape staring balefully at him from the foot of his bed. After a few frightening moments, the figure slowly vanished into thin air. Figuring that the specter must be somehow connected to Osbourne's book, Butler ran to the shelf where he'd left it -- only to find that it, too, had disappeared.
"I was seeing all kinds of things at the time, and not through drugs," Butler reveals. "Ever since I was a kid, I'd have premonitions, and weird things would appear to me. One summer, me sister and I were staying at me grandmother's house in Dublin. We were in the house on our own, with my aunt in the other room, and we heard somebody coming down the stairs. We thought it was me mum and dad coming back, but when we ran out to look, we saw this apparition slowly coming down the stairs. We were both like, 'Aaaaah!!!' When we described it to our auntie, she said it was an old woman who used to live there, who had recently died.
"I'd had several experiences like -- that, but the one with the book was really intense, and I told Ozzy about it. It stuck in his mind, and when we started playing 'Black Sabbath,' he just came out with those lyrics. We were all into that doomy thing. It had to come out, and it eventually did in the song -- and then there was only one possible name for the band, really!"
John Michael "Ozzy" Osbourne grew up poor and easily distracted. A natural cut-up, he fared dismally in school, and his attempts to make it as a street thug were even more pathetic. After doing a prison stretch for a botched breaking-and-entering, Ozzy was convinced by his love for the Beatles to try singing for a living. Iommi, who had gone to school with Ozzy (and had beaten him up on several prior occasions), was initially leery about being in a band with him, but the singer's enthusiasm -- and the fact that he came complete with his own P.A. system-eventually won the guitarist over.