The small town of Aston, Birmingham was not a very nice place in the England of 1968. It was a place riddled with poverty, the landscape dotted with all sorts of factories.
Most of these factories were large plants, dedicated to feeding the sheet metal industry. Every morning, the factory workers would pour into the front gates of Birmingham’s plants, rushing to work in order to earn their survival. In response, the plants would groan and shriek late into the night, producing the sheet metal that Birmingham was made of, in as much a figurative as literal sense.
Life as a 1960s factory worker was not a forgiving life. It was difficult financially and physically and, above all, it was dangerous. Despite this, factory life was all the inhabitants of Aston knew or could depend upon. It was something they understood and something they had grown to need. The workers in the factory had learned over time to accept a certain relationship with the sheet metal industry: No questions asked, no answers given. There was only work and pay.
It was this very town that gave rise to something that none of the workers- or anyone else in the world for that matter- could understand so easily. On Friday the 13th of 1970, there appeared a dark figure, enrobed threateningly in a black cloak. The figure stood outside of a worn-down house somewhere in Birmingham and challenged the world to a mental tug of war. The figure was a guardian angel. It watched wistfully over the contents of the flat, cardboard envelope on which it was adorned, and offered both a welcoming and warning. The small, vinyl disc it held inside did not spin on a turntable, but rather, it seemed, stayed firmly in place while the world rotated around it. It was not just vinyl. It was a black hole, and it turned calmly on electric pedestals the planet over.
Not even the questionable looking deviant on the front of the album could have predicted the effect its music would have on the world. It seemed that the album was not made of vinyl, but of the sheet metal that inspired it. The sheet metal had not only given birth to this new phenomenon, but had also claimed the fingertips of one of its creators, as if for a debt reclaimed. The opening track, bearing the same name as the album and band, was enough to raise hell all on its own. Was it blasphemy? Was it horror? It was the terrifying wail of an atmospheric, tri-tonal, societal bomb. It was the soundtrack to a nightmare. It was Black Sabbath. But to some, it was the sound of Satan’s own face breaking into a cracked and splitting grin. It was nothing like anything that had been done before and it was a work of art understood only by few. In fact, Black Sabbath, combined with several other pioneering forces, was enough to give rise to an entirely new genre of music: heavy metal.
Due to the aggressive sound of the genre’s music and the dark imagery that more often than not accompanied it, society was soon divided into those who immediately took to the new subculture, and those who chose to be offended by something they did not understand. In other words, a number of people were attracted to the album immediately and loved it, while others, who were scared off by the band’s dark image, did not allow themselves to listen and see what the band was really trying to convey.
It later became a classic example of a mistake society often makes: fearing what is not understood. Many people are very quick to condemn when faced with anything controversial. And when a crisis arises that can be linked in any way to the controversy, they take their condemnation as solid fact, as weak as the link may be. “No wonder those kids from Columbine shot up the school! They listened to Marilyn Manson!” is a line that perfectly illustrates this concept. It was a line tossed around like candy on Halloween in the times surrounding the aforementioned massacre- and much like Halloween candy, the media ate it up. In fact, Manson has been blamed for 36 shootings in his career, though there has been no proof linking him to any of said shootings. This says a lot about man’s willingness to pass judgement based on the opinions of others instead of actually creating unique, individual opinions.
This album tells us many more interesting things about the world around it. It became obvious that there were many members of society who needed something a little different than most, and who were attracted to not only the alternative messages brought forth by the album, but also to the more aggressive and mysterious ambiance coming with it. The music allowed the youth of the factory town an emotional release from their often unpleasant upbringings, and gave them something of their own to hold on to. Public reaction to the album was one of violent extremes, with the critics of the time being highly opposed to it, while a number of people vehemently loved it to the point where an entire subculture rose up around Black Sabbath and the bands they had inspired.
In 1970, Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs wrote that “Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap …” Many critics were to follow his lead, and took delight in bashing the controversial work of both art and madness. When a nearby church burned down for completely unrelated reasons, it was blamed on the band. Though the album itself contains no anti-religious messages, Satanic or otherwise, listening to it came to be viewed as an act of blasphemy.
On the other hand, however, the album fell into widespread praise from groups of people who arose all over the world, because everybody needs something a little different to get through the day. Those people looked to the dark, macabre figure on the album’s cover and welcomed it with open arms. Black Sabbath became the godfathers of metal, firmly placing the album at the root of heavy metal’s family tree.
If the cloaked creature on the front of the album could speak, it would be able to tell us many things about society. We would hear tales of judgement and of prejudice, misplaced opinions and unfounded accusations of Satanism and blasphemy. However, we would also hear about the hope, motivation and blind acceptance that rode upon Black Sabbath’s coattails.
This album may tell us that humans in our society are judgemental beings, but it also tells us that no two people draw their motivation from the same place. In much the same way as the blues rose from slavery, heavy metal and its culture was born of the drudgery of lower class factory life, and society responded accordingly- remaining a vivid illustration of the human condition.