In 1943, four lads out searching for birds’ nests in Hagley Woods stumbled on a grisly find.
The skull of a woman, flesh still clinging to the bones, was stuffed inside an ancient elm tree. When police were called and made a search of the area, they found her hand buried in a radius of the elm’s canopy. It didn’t take long for speculation about witches and sabbats to circulate. Folks said that in black magic rituals, a hand cut from the body in this manner is known as the ‘hand of glory’, used for protection from malignant forces by a coven. 18 months later, chilling graffiti began appearing around the Midlands, screaming from the bricks accusingly: ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?’ Two years later, on the eve of St. Valentine’s, another murder occurred. This time the victim was male, pierced through the neck with a pitchfork, a cross carved on his chest. The Black Country witches had struck again.
On the Sunday before Walpurgis 1970, the Devil rode out and onto the airwaves, his sonic broomstick captured and burned onto 12” vinyl for future generations of metal heads to realise the locus. The Peel Sessions and the gonzo, primordial pounding that night captured on wax, blew transistor speakers across the UK. This was the sound of the brown acid as it fractalised your brain.
Ceremonially, the Session’s open runes are cast with the murder-of-crows distortion of Iommi’s tritone dirge. Their satanic majesties sledgehammer the sound of abattoirs, factories and steel mills corrupting the atmosphere. These unholy rhythms transmute in Butler’s skull-crunching bass and Ward’s Neanderthal invocations on drums. With lyrics as terrifyingly naïve as the Wych Elm graffiti that appeared all over Birmingham, Ozzy vocalises, a mandrake shriek of a boy face to face with Lucifer himself. A funereal march from the abyss.
Make way the behemoth of sinister noise. Welcome, Black Sabbath! Conjured not by Wheatley’s bored aristocrats in St Johns Wood, but by working-class lads off the estate, these boys, with nothing to lose, ain’t playing. Their tuneless tunes shape the hopelessness of the gloomy smoke-filled pubs of the industrial North, with coal-black hearts that beat between the lines. Transvecting their nihilistic hand of dark arts, they don’t care if it’s your soul He’s crying out for; His price is cheap, just ‘give up the life before you met’ and yours is the moon, sun and stars instead. This invitation to Malkin Tower seems so attractive.
From Sgt Pepper’s cover to the concert at Altamont, rock ‘n’ roll had been waiting for this sound. Black Sabbath pulverised the competition and created nightshade soundscapes that reflected the times. Sabbath’s fairies wear boots and they ain’t afraid to use ‘em. Hail, Black Sabbath!
[This vignette is part of our 500 words on Black Sabbath series]
Credit: Illustration by Derren Toussaint. 2018.