As a long time fan of Black Sabbath1, I’ll have to look for this book.
“Louder than Hell,” the massive (and massively entertaining) new oral history of heavy metal by Jon Wiedenhorn and Katherine Turman, reminds us where the musical portion of this cultural embrace of the demonic began: in the bombed-out ruins of the British Midlands. The founders of Black Sabbath, half of the musicians in Led Zeppelin, and the key members of Judas Priest were all raised in Birmingham and its suburbs, surrounded by the wreckage of Germany’s attacks on Britain’s manufacturing centers. It’s a bleak heritage, but the city should consider building a tourism trade around it, as Liverpool has with the Beatles. “BIRMINGHAM: CRADLE OF HEAVY METAL: COME SLEEP IN THE JAIL WHERE OZZY OSBOURNE DID TIME.”
As the Sabbath front man tells Wiedenhorn and Turman, the Summer of Love never reached England’s second city:
When I was a kid, I was hungry. I had my ass hanging out of my pants I hated the fucking world. When I heard the silly fucking words, “If you go to San Francisco, be sure to put a flower in your hair” I wanted to fucking strangle John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas]. I was sitting in the industrial town of Birmingham, England. My father was dying of asbestos from industrial pollution and I was an angry young punk.
It wasn’t just a mood. The industrial surroundings directly influenced the development of the heavy metal sound. Sabbath’s lead guitarist, Tony Iommi, who’d gone to school with Osbourne, lost the tips of two of his fingers in a workplace accident in (ironically enough) a metal-fabricating plant.
“I had to come up with a different way of playing because I couldn’t play the conventional way anymore,” Iommi says in “Louder than Hell.” He created his own fingertip prostheses from melted liquid-soap bottles, tuned down the strings of his guitar and combined them with banjo strings, which bent more easily. Not long after the accident, Iommi came up with a composition that tapped into a dread that was centuries old.
Discussing the opening song on Sabbath’s self-titled début, Wiedenhorn and Turman explain:
The three-chord riff in “Black Sabbath” has been credited as the first use of the tritone, or diabolus in musica, in heavy metal. In the Renaissance era, the tritone was feared by the Church because of its ominous sound. Later on, various classical composers—including Richard Wagner and Gustav Holst—would incorporate the tritone into their compositions.
(click here to continue reading Black Sabbath and ‘Louder Than Hell’ : The New Yorker.)
Black Sabbath’s new album, 13, is not bad. It isn’t as great as their classics, but it doesn’t suck either. As a lot of folks have noticed, the long-time Sabbath drummer, Bill Ward, sat out this album and tour, and his jazzy, swinging rhythms are sorely missed. Any drummer who modeled his sound after Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich is all right by me. Ozzy’s voice is even worse than you’d think, but the album is decent.Footnotes:
- And no longer in the closet about it because who gives a shit what someone listens to after a certain point [↩]