Black Sabbath are heralded as perhaps the ultimate innovators of heavy metal music and are forever connected to the genre — whether they like it or not. Despite their connection and coronation as heavy metal heroes, the term greatly irritates the kings of the genre, and Sabbath never wanted to be put in that box.
John Lennon once famously labelled The Beatles’ ‘Ticket To Ride’ as “the first heavy metal record”, which didn’t sit right with metalheads. The true kings of heavy metal, in their eyes, is Black Sabbath. They fiercely put the genre on the map, their music led to countless imitators who tried to copy their style, but all this time, Sabbath were just making the music they wanted to rather than trying to be a so-called ‘heavy metal band’.
Sabbath were pioneers in every sense of the word. The Brummies were unlike anything that came before them, and they rapidly became heroes for a generation of kids who were in awe of their anarchic sound. What made Sabbath so sumptuous was that the band was never merely the Ozzy Osbourne show; all four group members brought their individual ingredients to the party, creating unmatched headbanging anthems.
Due to the sheer originality of the group, people were scrambling around to put a name on it. Eventually, everybody settled on heavy metal, but Black Sabbath were never consulted about it. However, soon enough, they realised it wasn’t going anywhere and had no choice but to run with it.
“We called it heavy rock,” Tony Iommi recalled to the BBC in 2018. “The term heavy metal came about from a journalist when I came back from America (in the ’70s). He said ‘you’re playing heavy metal’ and I said ‘no, it’s heavy rock — what’s that?'”
“At first, we didn’t like being called heavy metal,” Geezer Butler admitted in the same interview. “But everyone likes to put you into certain pigeon holes, so we sort of got used to it. And then instead of it being derogatory, it became a whole lifestyle.”
“We wanted to create a vibe like you get off horror films – try and create a tension within the music,” Iommi added. “We thought it would be really good to get this sort of vibe, this fear and excitement. It was a struggle. There was nothing like what we were doing. We’d taken on something because we believed in it, and loved what we were doing.”
Like any other band, Black Sabbath just drew together their vast array of influences to create this dystopian sound that was like nothing that came before them. It was a natural blending of ideas that led to them stumbling upon a treasure mine, and the authenticity was evident for everybody to see.
“To other people it may have felt like a new genre of music,” Butler explained to What’s On Birmingham. “But to us it just felt like an extension of the bands that we liked, like Hendrix, Cream and Robert Johnson. We just made songs for ourselves. We didn’t think ‘this is rock’ or ‘this is metal’ or anything like that; it was just music to us.”
When you’re the first to do anything, you’ll always be labelled with a term by people who have nothing to do with the scene. It happened with Britpop, New Wave, and this pigeon-holing is still going on today with K-pop bands. Black Sabbath wasn’t just another heavy metal group though, they were heavy metal, and without them, the genre would never even exist, let alone flourish.