A Blues Salute To Black Sabbath - by J. Blake

Posted on 7/20/2010 by J. Blake

(New York, NY)

“Black Sabbath’s major contribution has been to successfully capture the gist of specifically seventies culture through their music. They relate to this impersonal, mechanical decade much as Delta bluesman and their Chicago spin-offs related to their eras; by synthesizing collective feelings and giving their contemporaries hope by revealing the disaffection that unites all of them. In that remote but real sense, Black Sabbath might well be considered true seventies bluesmen.” –Gordon Fletcher, “The Sabbath Search For Peace,” Rolling Stone Magazine, 14 February 1974, p55.

The above quote is something that I read a long time ago and it has always stuck with me. It expresses a notion that ultimately questions the definition of blues; something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Obviously very few, if any, would accept the idea that Black Sabbath was a blues band for their time, but let’s, just for moment, think outside the box and consider the notion.

Putting aside the fact that Black Sabbath started their careers as a pretty straight forward British blues band, their greatest accomplishment was that they became the first true heavy metal band and in actuality heavy metal (in general) and the blues are very similar. They may not be working entirely off of the same musical conventions, but thematically they share much more than most people realize.

An excerpt from Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil Blues:

Early this morning, you knocked upon my door.
Early this morning, ooh you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil, were walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, were walkin’ side by side.

An excerpt from Black Sabbath’s title track:

What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me.
Turn around quick and start to run,
Find out I’m the chosen one.
Oh No!
Big Black shape with eyes of fire,
Telling people their desire.
Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling.
Watches those flames get higher and higher.

Though Satan and the occult are usually considered to be things strictly associated with heavy metal, the Devil has actually played a character in recorded music since the blues began making its way on to acetate. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Sam Collins, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson and many others, all recorded songs that involved Satan. Some scholars even believe the name “blues” is actually derived from term “blue devils”, meaning melancholy and sadness (Wiki).

The Devil as a character, or used as imagery, is an element of blues music that seemed to die out after World War II, as the genre became electrified and made its way to more metropolitan areas. Though the Devil would rear his head sporadically throughout subsequent decades, in songs like The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil; it wasn’t until Black Sabbath and the creation of heavy metal that the character would be given the full spotlight once again.

To explore the relationship between heavy metal and the blues further, let’s ask ourselves “what exactly is blues music?” It is/was music created by the lower-class in an effort to express their plight. They took a look around them and wrote about what they saw. They wrote about their lifestyles, about their relationships and about their fears. Yes the blues can sometimes be fun, upbeat and even comical, but it is normally characterized as being brooding and sad. In essence, blues artists have always written about what they know; they have always written from the heart and most importantly, they have always attempted to express the “not-so-pretty” truth that many artists seem to be avoiding.

Heavy metal (and specifically Black Sabbath) has always shared these same ideals and has always set out to accomplish the same goals. The members of Black Sabbath were working-class kids from a steel town in England. Their guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of two of his fingers (on his fret hand) in a factory machine accident and even after the band began to gain popularity on the club circuit, their front-man Ozzy Osbourne couldn’t afford to own a pair of shoes. These were guys that had ‘the blues’!

It was 1969/70 and as many music artists were experiencing the summer of love in America and bands like The Beatles were preaching love and peace, the members of Black Sabbath looked around at their poor dreary surroundings; they read about the horrors of the Vietnam War and said “why isn’t anybody writing about this?” So they set out to write about the darker side of life. As some artists wrote about God and the euphoria of mind-altering drugs, Sabbath wrote morality tales about the Devil and the dangers of losing yourself to ‘the needle’. They wrote about the horrors of war and the fear of atomic destruction. Like the bluesman that came before them, Black Sabbath wrote about what they knew and expressed the (just plain) ugly truth that surrounded them. They observed a menacing and harsh reality and they needed a sound that would do it justice; and unfortunately a 12-bar shuffle wasn’t going to cut it…and thus, heavy metal was born.

Whether it is the fact that (like blues) Black Sabbath’s music stereotypically doesn’t contain traditional chorus/bridge song structures, or that guitarist Tony Iommi’s lead-work is all derived from pretty standard blues and jazz scales, or that rhythmically songs like Wicked World and Fairies Wear Boots are actually utilizing elements of swing, or even that the lyrics of N.I.B. weave a very blues-like tale about unrequited love (albeit from the Devil’s perspective), the similarities between the music of Black Sabbath and the blues are almost endless. We could certainly go through each album/song and continue to make the case that Black Sabbath is a blues band, but really what would be the point?

At the end of the day, like beauty, the blues is in the eye of the beholder. What I do ask is, with Black Sabbath’s first two albums (BLACK SABBATH and PARANOID) celebrating their 40th anniversaries this year, let’s put aside our music prejudices and give a big blues salute to four guys from Birmingham England, that not only invented a (still thriving) style of music and helped shape guitar-driven rock forever, but most importantly told the truth as they saw it…no matter how ugly it may have seemed.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: Meantooth Grin

Thanks and keep reading American Blues News and also check out Media Wah Wah for more of this writer's opinions about Movie, Music and TV.

NYC blues fans, make sure you check out Jack Bruce & Joey Molland live at B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill on August 10th and John Mayall on the 13th!!!

Copyright © 2010 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved

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