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Forging a genre

Black Sabbath didn't set out to create heavy metal, but its early jamming sessions produced an innovative sound.

Published September 2, 2004

[Getty Images 2001]
Geezer Butler, left, and Ozzy Osbourne have been playing together since their teen years in Birmingham, England.

Jazz and blues, surprisingly enough, served as musical grist for the early Black Sabbath, as Ozzy Osbourne recently told Rolling Stone. The group, at one point, included a saxophonist and a bottleneck-slide guitarist.

So how did the quartet of working class teenagers from Birmingham, England, make the transition from tunes influenced by Cream, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Jethro Tull to the dark, bone-crunching likes of Iron Man and Paranoid?

In a word: jamming.

It was a matter of survival, Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler said recently from a tour stop in Pittsburgh. The reunited original band, with Butler, Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward, is again headlining Ozzfest after successful appearances at the daylong festival in 1999 and 2001.

"We used to play in these awful little places," Butler said by telephone. "We'd do six or seven 45-minute spots. We went on at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and we'd finish at 10 o'clock at night.

"We'd start off with a 12-bar blues, and to extend the set, we'd jam for hours and hours," he said. "It's a natural evolvement, I suppose, from the jamming. Eventually, they (jams) turned into songs like Black Sabbath and Wicked World.

"Like most musicians, we didn't categorize it," he added. "We just did what we wrote."

The sound - slow-moving, hard-hitting guitar riffs in minor keys, topped with Osbourne's wailing on often spooky lyrics - came to be known as heavy metal, and the band was eventually revered as the architect of a rock genre. Metallica and Anthrax were the first of many heavy rock outfits to cite Sabbath as a major influence.

"We were just four local guys who went to school with each other who just formed a band," said Osbourne, a household name thanks to his mumbling, starmaking turn in MTV's The Osbournes. "We didn't set out to influence the world."

The term "heavy metal," long despised by Iommi, initially was used in the context of a music columnist's attack on Sabbath.

"It was derogatory," Butler said. "The first time I ever saw it was in an article saying that Sabbath sounded more like heavy metal than rock, sounded like an industrial factory, and there's nothing musical about it."

Critical drubbing didn't have much effect on Sabbath: The band's debut album, recorded in 12 hours on a pair of four-track machines (band members were initially paid about $400), is one of several discs now considered must-haves for metal fans.

The group's first eight discs, including 1971's Paranoid and Master of Reality and 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, are collected in the recently released Black Box, a deluxe box set.

The set, which covers the period through Osbourne's departure from the band in 1978, doesn't include any bonus tracks because, well, the band released everything it recorded in those days, Butler said.

Sabbath classics, of course, serve as the core of the band's road shows in 2004. For the moment, no new recordings are in the works. Three years ago, Butler and his band mates briefly got together for new studio sessions. The score: six new songs, only about half of which were deemed up to snuff.

"It wasn't really coming out that quickly," Butler said. "We did about two or three things that are up to standards. We'll see what happens in the future. It would have to be really good. I'm not going to put out an inferior album and blow the whole legacy of the band."

PREVIEW: Ozzfest 2004, gates open at 9 a.m. today, sept. 2 Ford Amphitheatre, Interstate 4 at U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $49.75-$75.75. (813) 740-2446 or (813) 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100. Featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Slayer, Dimmu Borgir, Black Label Society, Superjoint Ritual and many more.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 11:40:01]

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