Black Sabbath addendum — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10a

I realised that last time I forgot to say one of the important things about Black Sabbath. It’s this: that they achieved their greatness not despite, but because of, their limitations.  Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t really sing. Tony Iommi, evaluated technically, was very limited compared with Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore. Geezer Butler wasn’t really a bassist at all, but a guitarist — he had no real idea of what a bassline is supposed to sound like. Put all that together and what you get is … somehow magical.

A big part of this is down to the industrial accident that took the tips of the middle and ring fingers of Tony Iommi’s right hand. Since he plays guitar left-handed, that was his fretting hand. The accident left him with cumbersome technique, unable to fret full chords, forcing him to use root-and-fifth-only power chords. To make fretting easier, Iommi tuned his guitar down, changing its tone. Both factors contributed to the distinctively doomy Sabbath sound.

Similarly, Butler’s lack of experience as a bassist was converted from a bug to a feature. Not knowing how to create a bassline that complemented the guitar riff, he simply mirrored it — sacrificing musical richness, but compensating by a gain in power.

Then we come to Ozzy. All you can really say about him is that he is such a terrible, whiny singer that his voice is utterly distinctive. You can’t even begin to confuse classic-era Black Sabbath with any other band. (Amazingly, Ozzy would go on to front another superb metal band with a very different sound … but that’s a story for another day.)

I find all this fascinating. It reminds me of nothing more than my very early adventures in computer-game graphics. Working on a VIC-20, I was constrained to designing user-defined characters in an 8×8 matrix. This kind of thing:


There’s something paradoxically liberating about working within such tight strictures. The limited set of choices clarifies the creative process, and facilitates creating something that has clarity. Then it becomes a matter of combining the simple components you’ve created into a greater whole — whether that’s a matter of different kinds of 8×8 user-defined characters moving around a screen, or putting guitar, bass and drums together with vocals.

So for me, the lesson of Black Sabbath is that old favourite, Less Is More.

13 responses to “Black Sabbath addendum — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10a

  1. Pingback: Black Sabbath, Paranoid (August 1970) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Daniel Do Binau

    I usually don’t read your music-related posts, but I have always had a soft spot for Sabbath’s first album and your analysis is very interesting. It’s very true that many of the songs are somewhat naivistic in composition, and that this simplicity is exactly what makes them memorable. You hear each song once and they stick in your mind permanently – an effect that cannot be achieved with a more complex musical structure.
    “Iron Man” is the best example – the step from “Hey, this riff is really catchy!” to “Track done!” is infinitesimally small. And once you listen to the song, the riff will stay with you for the rest of your days.
    My favorite song of that album is “War pigs”, which in fairness does have some more subtleties but also relies heavily on a short musical sequence that catches the ear, being exploited for maximum value.

  3. You missed out Bill Ward, a drummer with a great sense of creativity and musicality, but limited ability to actually keep time. For the most part it’s Iommi who keeps time, which leaves Ward free to play around the beat and gives the rhythm section a unique texture.

  4. Not only agreed, but I think the track ‘Black Sabbath’ I linked to is a good example. The drums move more than the guitar and bass.

    Of course, Ward likes to say that Sabbath don’t play in time. I think I know what he means…

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Daniel.

    Iain, thanks for chipping in with thoughts on Bill Ward, who I did rather overlook in this piece. It’s good to have a perspective on his contribution (and limitations).

    Gavin, I too miss “sides”. They’re very apparent on albums like Rainbow’s Rising, and even more on Dark Side of the Moon which is almost a two-act play. I like it that some artists have decided that their CDs are darned well going to have two sides even if, as a tedious physical detail, they happen to be implemented as the first and second halves of a single physical side. (An example will follow in the Desert Island Albums series when I finally get back to it.)

    As for the band that I’ve most been looking forward to writing about … you wouldn’t want me to give it away now, would you? :-)

  6. When playing Real Time Strategy games, the levels I like the most are those in the beginning when you don’t have access to all the stuff, because the game is still teaching you step by step, and the levels farther down when they take stuff from you and constrain you in order to put you into a more challenging position. I like those because it forces you to be more creative, to try lots of different things, often in innovative ways. When I’m given access to all buildings and troops, there are just so many possibilities that it becomes a barrier to trying out stuff. Out of all the combinations you can try, probabilistically only a very few will be good, so it becomes daunting to get creative, when the most probable outcome will be that you fail. You just stick to the few ways you know that work.

  7. Another thing about Sabbath is that they can play with a great deal of swing, something that seems to have been pretty much lost from heavy metal since. If you want an illustration, listen to “Sabbra Cadabra”, then Metallica’s cover version of the same song. The original swings and swaggers along, while Metallica’s version, despite having all the right notes in the right order, is leaden, leaden stuff.

  8. Sabbath = Awesome
    Metallica = Pants

  9. That is an uncharacteristically terse critical assessment, Gavin :-)

    I think there’s definitely something going on here, though. Metallica have covered quite a few songs that I like by other bands (including Blue Öyster Cult’s Astronomy), and in every case the result has been a technically perfect rendition that leaves me cold. My take is that they (and a lot of other more modern metal bands) have mastered every technique, but not quite understood what it was that made the older bands great. They’re all head and no heart.

  10. You probably shouldn’t associate a band’s music with their views too much, but I can’t think about Metallica without rehearing that Chumbawamba song…

  11. Yes! We love that song! In our family, anything that no-one wants to own up to is blamed on “Lars”, in tribute.

  12. One other band I ought to mention here, although they have virtually nothing to do with heavy metal, is U2. Try if you can to ignore their reputation for posturing, and listen with fresh ears to their first three albums, which really sound nothing like anything that came before. (Unfortunately they sound very much like plenty of what came after as the world rushed to copy the U2 sound.)

    What happened is pretty simple: when they wrote and recorded their first album, they couldn’t play their instruments. In particular, The Edge had no idea of how to play the guitar, and didn’t really know any chords. Instead he invented an essentially new way of playing that was tailored to what he could do: lots of chiming open strings, simple two-note harmonies, and a heavy dependence on echo effects and right-hand damping. As with Sabbath, the result is music that any competent musician can reproduce, but which no competent musician would ever have thought of. Again: from restriction comes creativity.

  13. Pingback: Desert island albums #3: Blue Öyster Cult — Fire of Unknown Origin (1981) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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