It’s heavy-metal ground zero: Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut. The beginning of it all. Dark, crushing, sinister and timeless, it’s 40 minutes of groundbreaking perfection, as revelatory today as it was when it was released in the grim winter of 1970 — from Ozzy’s otherworldly yowl and Tony Iommi’s immortal riffs to Geezer Butler’s rumbling bass lines and occult-tinged lyrics, and Bill Ward’s thundering drums. Just as the album still offers up secrets and surprises on repeat listens, so the history around it is still being uncovered.
1. Black Sabbath were originally called the Polka Tulk Blues Band after the brand of talcum powder Ozzy Osbourne’s mom preferred.
2. The Polka Tulk Blues Band was a six-piece featuring a bottleneck-slide-guitar player and a saxophone player.
3. Drummer Bill Ward eventually came up a new name for the band: Earth.
4. The four-piece Earth mostly played covers, but their first original song was “Wicked World,” which would serve as the B-side to Black Sabbath’s debut single “Evil Woman” and appear on the U.S. edition of the band’s eponymous album.
5. Earth’s second original song was “Black Sabbath.”
6. “Black Sabbath” was written in “a couple of hours,” according to Butler. “Tony played the riff and we all just joined in,” he told Rolling Stone. “Ozzy spontaneously sang the lyrics. Then Tony topped it all by coming up with the menacing riff at the end. We knew it totally represented each one of us.”
7. The song is based almost entirely on the tritone interval — a.k.a. diabolus in musica or “devil in music” due to its evil, dissonant sound.
8. The riff was inspired by a movement in Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets titled “Mars, the Bringer of War”, which Iommi reimagined.
9. The song and Iommi’s playing style in general was also shaped by an accident at a sheet-metal factory accident that severed off the tips of his middle fingers on his fretting hand when the guitarist was 17. Iommi fashioned prosthetic fingertips using plastic from a dish detergent bottle and detuned his strings to make them easier to play.
10. The band recognized that they were on to something special as soon as they wrote “Black Sabbath.” “We knew instantly that ‘Black Sabbath’ was very different to what was around at the time,” Iommi said to Rolling Stone.
11. The song’s “figure in black” was inspired by an actual shadowy figure that bassist Geezer Butler claims to have seen after waking up from a nightmare, an experience he relayed to Ozzy. “It was a horrible presence that frightened the life out of me!” Butler recalled in the liner notes of Sabbath’s 1998 live album Reunion.
12. Butler was obsessed with the occult at the time and lived in an apartment he had painted black and decorated with inverted crosses.
13. He was also a big fan of horror movies — as was Iommi — and he came up with the title “Black Sabbath,” inspired by Mario Bava’s 1963 Boris Karloff anthology.
14. When the band’s manager insisted in 1969 that they change their name — because Earth was too generic — Butler suggested that they adopt the song’s title as their own. “The song ‘Black Sabbath’ perfectly summed up the band both musically and personally at that time,” he explained to Rolling Stone. The audience freaked out the first time the band played the song live. “All the girls ran out of the venue screaming,” Ozzy wrote in his autobiography, I Am Ozzy. “‘Isn’t the whole point of being in a band to get a shag, not make the chicks run away?’ I complained to the others, afterwards.”
16. After the creative success of “Black Sabbath,” the band went on a songwriting tear, ripping out songs including “N.I.B.,” the title of which does not stand for “Nativity in Black,” as popularly believed. According to Ozzy, it was a reference to drummer Bill Ward’s goatee, which resembled the nib of a pen, hence his nickname “Nibby.”
17. Butler’s bass solo at the beginning of “N.I.B.” is titled “Bassically” on some U.S. releases.
18. “Sleeping Village” was originally titled “Devil’s Island.”
19. “Behind the Wall of Sleep” was inspired by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name.
20. Butler reportedly fell asleep while reading Lovecraft’s story and “dreamed all the lyrics and the main riff to the song.”
21. “The Wizard” was inspired by Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings.
22. “The Wizard” is also rumored to be about the band’s drug dealer at the time.
23. The song was original titled “Sign of the Sorcerer.”
24. Black Sabbath, the album, was recorded in one day over just 12 hours.
25. The album was recorded live with almost no second takes and no overdubs.
26. “Warning” was much longer when Sabbath performed the song live in concert. “When we did ‘Warning,’ I think that was like 30 minutes long onstage,” Ward reported to Rolling Stone. “But back in the day we used to do, like, three-hour sets, so it fit.”
27. Ozzy wanted to redo his vocals for “Warning,” but according to Butler, “there wasn’t enough time.”
28. Iommi began recording the album with a white Fender Stratocaster, his go-to instrument at the time, but a malfunctioning pickup forced him to finish recording with his backup guitar, a Gibson SG, which would become his signature ax.
29. The band reluctantly agreed to record the cover of Crow’s “Evil Woman” at the suggestion of their manager and music publishing company, who thought it could be a hit for them.
30. The album’s producer was very inexperienced, “a young, unproven talent named Rodger Bain,” as Rolling Stone described him. But according to Ward, he “was the right guy for us. This was a band that’s coming off the road, off gigs. So we were pretty riotous. And he was able to take that energy and make it sound right.”
31. The album’s engineer, Tom Allom, was also inexperienced at his job, but would go on to produce major works by Judas Priest and Def Leppard.
32. Bain and Allom added the rain, thunder and bells to the beginning of the song “Black Sabbath” during the mixing of the album and without the band’s prior knowledge.
33. Bain played the jaw harp on “Sleeping Village.”
34. Right after recording the album, the band members hit a local London drinking hole. “We were in the pub in time for last orders,” Ozzy remembered in I Am Ozzy.
35. The day after recording the album, the band played a show in Switzerland for £20.
36. The album cover was shot at Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire, a structure dating back to the 15th century.
37. The woman on the cover is model Louisa Livingstone, who was cast in part because she was only five feet tall and would make everything else look bigger.
38. Livingstone was naked under the cloak during the shoot because, according to photographer Keith Macmillan (credited in the liner notes as Marcus Keef), “we were doing things that were slightly more risqué, but we decided none of that worked.”
39. Livingstone now records electronic music under the name Indreba.
40. Macmillan’s assistant, Roger Brown — not any of the band members — wrote the poem that appears inside the inverted cross in the album’s inner gatefold sleeve.
41. The album was released in February 1970 in the U.K. and Europe, on the fitting date of Friday 13th.
42. It reached No. 8 on the U.K. Albums Chart.
43. Released in the U.S. in June 1970, with “Wicked World” in place of “Evil Woman,” it reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200.
44. Despite its commercial success, the album was universally trashed by critics.
45. Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs described Sabbath as “just like Cream! But worse,” and the album as “a shuck — despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés.”
46. The Village Voice mocked the album as “bullshit necromancy.”
47. Disc & Music Echo derided the album as little more than a marketing ploy: “Black Magic Music for the Sick Masses.”
48. Ozzy thought the bad reviews just made Sabbath cooler. “Being trashed by Rolling Stone was kind of cool, because they were the Establishment,” he noted in I Am Ozzy. “Those music magazines were all staffed by college kids who thought they were clever — which, to be fair, they probably were. Meanwhile, we’d been kicked out of school at 15 and had worked in factories and slaughtered animals for a living, but then we’d made something of ourselves, even though the whole system was against us.”
49. Sabbath’s massive influence first dawned on Ozzy in 1986 during his solo tour with Metallica, who were playing in support. “Every time I went past their dressing room on that tour, I clearly remember they were playing old Black Sabbath stuff,” he recalled to Rolling Stone. “It was genuinely one of the very first times that I realized people actually liked Black Sabbath.”
50. The band did not originally appreciate being called “heavy metal” but have come to embrace the term. “I think it was we were about two years in, and we were starting to be called ‘heavy metal,'” Ward told Rolling Stone. “And I remember us all denying that furiously. Because it was a new word. I’ve only started to adopt that term for us in the last 10 years or so — so when I was 60, I started to accept the idea that that’s part of metal.”