For all the rich comic material Black Sabbath have provided over the years (a lot of which was gleefully recycled for 'This Is Spinal Tap') it is an irreducible fact that they will always stand out as one of the most important rock bands in rock history. They may have had a shadow of the intelligence of most great rock bands, and had their half-decade of artistic superiority blighted by years of laughable underachievement, but they remain one of the very few artists who can reasonably lay claim to have started an entire branch of rock music - that which is commonly known as heavy metal (to give it its latin name, erm, 'heavius metalus'). If influence is assessed by the quantity of bands inspired, rather than quality, then their influence has spread far further than many superior artists and is arguably greater (by weight of numbers) to, say, the Stooges or Velvet Underground. See that pale-faced stroppy young urchin in a black t-shirt by the bus station? Blame it all on Black Sabbath...
Of course, I have to be careful about the degree to which we laud Sabbath's influence as heavy metal has proved to be a notoriously flimsy genre. It has certainly produced one more great band in the form of Metallica but, like punk, it is one that places much more emphasis on style than it does music. Indeed, the fact that Black Sabbath spent the majority of their career wallowing in moronic dirges only reinforces their status as heavy metal's pioneers given that the entire ethos of the genre centres around how heavy the music is, not its actual quality. Of course, for this reason heavy metal often divides the fans from the critics and, in this case, I usually side with the latter. Heavy metal is simply not a genre I enjoy much. Sabbath are just a little bit TOO stupid for me to listen to their music at anything other than a conscious distance. Mind you, it is for this reason that I fail to get irritated by Ozzy Osbourne's current antics. He was never a man with a great deal of artistic integrity and now he is just an idiot that makes noise on the TV, backed by his obnoxious family members, rather than an idiot making noise on the stereo, backed by his obnoxious bandmates.
Many people will, of course, interject at some point to tell me that Sabbath were never the first heavy metal band and, instead, it was (usually) Cream or Led Zeppelin. I would be a fool to deny both had a strong input into the sound of heavy metal but listening to them now they very definitely sound like hard rock. Zeppelin had undeniably heavy riffs but Tony Iommi was the first to take it to the next level by down-tuning his guitar (apparently to compensate for his disabled hand). Furthermore, the limited technical ability of the band (Iommi apart) meant they had to play it slow and steady and from this pace the trademark metallic grind was formed. Plus, they had all those really silly lyrics about loving Satan and drinking young virgins' blood and the like. Cream and Led Zeppelin had silly lyrics, of course, but rainbows with beards has not really become a staple of heavy metal. Finally, just compare the album covers. Look at the cover to Disraeli Gears and Led Zeppelin and then look at the cover to Sabbath's debut. Now THAT is a heavy metal album cover.
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