Horror Is Metal: Birmingham, Black Sabbath, and the Birth of Metal - Tor Nightfire

Horror Is Metal: Birmingham, Black Sabbath, and the Birth of Metal

Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)

Horror can be a lot of different things to different people. It’s the words you read quicker and quicker, breath coming in gasps. It’s the movie you watch from between your fingers in a dark theater. It’s the controller you hurl as a jump scare catches you unaware as zombie dogs jump through a window and kill your character dead. And sometimes it’s the glorious growl of guitars in drop tunings and a singer who sounds like Cookie Monster with a head cold. 

Horror doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It reaches out with bloody, ichor-dripping tentacles to touch whatever it can get its fangs around. It loves to try new things, bring new genres into its web, and no form is spared. Music is no exception. There’s always been someone who used music through the lens of horror, whether it was some medieval monks deciding a diminished fifth was “the Devil’s interval,” Camille Saint-Saëns deciding Death needed its own symphony, or whatever the hell Mussorgsky was thinking when he composed what would one day become the scariest dang thing in Fantasia. Modern music kept up the partnership, lending violins to make Psycho the pinnacle of psychological terror and turning the humble tuba into the theme song for the scariest great white shark in history. 

It’s funny that music and horror don’t get mentioned together more. They rise and fall together, are decried as evil, disgraceful, and corrupt by all the usual suspects (like various religious figures and PTAs), and they’ve both made lasting impacts on each other. Genres like punk and metal stole from horror gleefully, excited to use its trappings to really give the middle finger to everything nice and mainstream. That’s where I come in.

Hi there, my name is Meghan Ball and I’ve spent most of my life entrenched in all things dark and spooky. It is my great pleasure to become your vinyl-spinning Elvira and ask you to join me as we dive deep into the two loves of my life: horror and music. Over the next few months I will dig into the relationship between horror and music, examining bands, genres, album covers, lyrics, and music videos that showcase the inventive ways music and horror influence each other. Get ready for everything from Satan, burning churches, Dario Argento, weird punks from New Jersey, and Rocky Horror, to even that most evil of all things on this earth… yes, friends, I’m talking about pop music

What are my qualifications, you ask? I’ve been a music-obsessed little weirdo ever since my Mom bought me my first Beatles cassette tape in the 80s. I spent my teenage years getting grounded for sneaking out to go to basement punk shows, and I’ve been a card-carrying goth for decades. (Yeah, that’s right, it wasn’t a phase after all.) I’ve been listening to metal, punk, goth, and everything in between for so long that I don’t remember existing without them. I own way too many guitars for someone who plays them so poorly and, when it isn’t a pandemic, you can usually find me clinging to the barrier and shouting at a concert. Pair that with a childhood spent reading horror novels and watching horror movies with my dad, and I never stood a chance at being normal. Nothing delights me more than talking about music and I’m excited beyond words to share all the esoteric weird shit I know with all of you. Each column also will feature a curated playlist too so we can rock out together.

Are you ready? I said, ARE YOU READY? You, back in the nosebleeds, louder! Join me for our first foray into the world of horror and music where we begin at the most logical place, England. In a time where folk horror was rampaging through bookstores and cinemas, a band emerged with an album so unsettling and evil that it gave birth to a whole new genre.

It’s a beautiful winter’s day in 1970 and you are a horrible Ozzy Osbourne, ready to unleash hell.

Imagine, if you will: you’re walking into a record store in Birmingham, England on a crisp February day. It’s Friday the 13th and you’re looking for something new to listen to. The top song in the entire country that week is a saccharine pop song by a group of pastel-clad, bowl cut boys named Edison Lighthouse and you are tired of it, tired of music so sweet it’s enough to make you sick. Browsing the new release rack, you come across something that sends a shiver down your spine. It’s a record with a photo of a forbidding woman standing there with an air of malevolence. Behind her is a psychedelic tint of clashing colors, making the photo seem dreamlike and strange. Tucked in the top corner is the name Black Sabbath in ornate font. You are bewitched and bring the album home with you.

You set the vinyl down on your record player, drop the needle into the groove, and hit play. Sound envelopes you. A desolate church bell chimes against thunder and rain. Then, like a strike of lightning, the most sinister guitar tone you’ve ever heard in your life hits and sets you aflame. Music has never sounded like this before. It’s mournful, evil, disharmonious. The stark voice that begins to sing is hair raising. It’s sharp, slightly out of tune, shouting words about witchcraft and Satan. You are transfixed. Today is heavy metal’s birthday and Black Sabbath is here to ring in its new dominion. 

Listening to Black Sabbath’s first (and often overlooked) self-titled album with modern ears is kind of hilarious. I listen to harder stuff while brushing my teeth. Back in the 1970s, though, it was explosive. Up until that point music hadn’t been really evil. Pop music was decried by those in power because it was immoral and made the youths think about sex (think back to Elvis being censored for his scandalous swiveling hips or the Rolling Stones being banned for their relatively filthy lyrics). But no band had plugged into EVIL like Black Sabbath did, and they changed the course of music history. Even the album cover looks evil. This was the invention of heavy metal, the most Satanic musical genre, and 1970s England was wholly unprepared. 

Black Sabbath took their name from a horror movie playing across the street from their practice space in Birmingham. It was an Italian film from 1963, starring Boris Karloff, and it was terrible. Watching people line up to watch a horror movie gave bassist Geezer Butler pause, and inspiration struck. If people liked being scared watching horror movies, maybe they’d also enjoy being scared listening to music? That very afternoon Butler and Ozzy Osbourne sat down and wrote the first track, also called “Black Sabbath,” purely driven by the desire to capture the feeling of a horror movie in a song. The rest, as they say, is history.

Black Sabbath’s bleak sound, and the birth of heavy metal itself, can be laid down at the feet of guitarist Tony Iommi. He was days away from quitting his job in an industrial sheet metal factory to devote his time to the band when he suffered a catastrophic accident at work. The tips of the two middle fingers of his fretting hand were severed in a machine. Undaunted, Iommi crafted himself two new fingertips from a detergent bottle and loosened the strings on his Gibson SG to make it easier to play with less tension needed. This new tuning created a darker, deeper, more dirty guitar tone that has become the hallmark of metal. 

The album’s lyrics are full of references to Lucifer, paganism, the occult, night terrors (which Butler suffered from), H.P. Lovecraft, and author Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley is an especially important inspiration. He was the leading authority on Satanism, ghosts, and the occult at the time and wrote horror and adventure novels featuring those themes heavily. Wheatley is rather lost to time now, though he was incredibly popular in the 40s and 50s (he is thought to be the one who inspired Fleming to write James Bond), and the band couldn’t get enough of his novels, borrowing heavily from the tropes Wheatley loved so well when writing the songs that would one day become Black Sabbath. The song “N.I.B” is about Lucifer falling in love with a mortal woman, while “Behind The Wall of Sleep” is a reference to a short story by Lovecraft called “Beyond The Wall of Sleep.” Also, while not horror, the song “The Wizard” is about Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, because it was the 60s in England and of COURSE it is. 

Musically, the album has a psychedelic blues vibe (there’s even harmonica in one song!) which is made nightmarish and strange when juxtaposed with the lyrics, making it feel even more wrong somehow. It’s heavily influenced by earlier harder psychedelic acts like Cream (“N.I.B” sounds almost exactly like Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”, for example) and The Doors. Ozzy Osbourne’s iconic voice was actually kind of a last minute substitute for the band. He had been in a band with Geezer Butler which had dissolved some months before. As a last ditch effort, he put an ad in the local paper stating that he was a vocalist and, even more enticingly, he had his own PA system. No one thought he was entirely blessed in the vocal department, and he was a little dim and a little stoned but, by god, he was earnest–and he had his own PA! It’s hard to imagine Sabbath without Ozzy, but it very nearly happened. 

To say people freaked out when the album was released would be an understatement. The album was immediately panned by almost every music publication, and church and government officials were quick to panic over both lyrical content and unorthodox sound. The American release party was attended by Anton Levy, the head of the Church of Satan, which branded the band stateside as being Satan’s newest trick to lead young people astray. Despite this outcry (or maybe because of it), the album raced up the charts and was one of the top ten albums of the year, leading the band to hustle back into the studio in June, just four months later, to produce their follow-up album, the iconic Paranoid (which contains many of their most well known songs, including “War Pigs” and “Iron Man”). 

If not for the afternoon matinee of a shitty, weird horror movie called Black Sabbath and horror novels about Satan and ghosts by Wheatley, the band may have never truly happened. It’s hard to say if metal itself as a genre would have even happened without them. Judas Priest also formed in Birmingham right on their heels, but didn’t get an album out until 1971. You could argue that Led Zeppelin might have started the metal genre when they formed in 1968, even though they lacked the sinister lyrics and their guitar tone was too bright (they nailed the drumming though–goddamn, John Bonham is a beast). Shock rock sprung up in the early 70s with Alice Cooper and KISS but those acts were all following a framework that Black Sabbath had carved out for them, whether they knew it or not. Black Sabbath created a singular, once-in-a-lifetime sound that summoned an entire new genre of music from the very depths of Hell. 

Join me next month when we leave heavy metal, for a quick moment, to go across the Pond and talk about some dipshits from Lodi, New Jersey. 

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