Generally called the last great album Black Sabbath busy with their powerhouse lineup – Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is still considered a classic and influential release. Still, there was a time in the summer of 1973 when it looked like the follow-up to Vol. 4 may need to be scrapped.
“I was just stuck and couldn’t think of anything to write,” Iommi told me in 2009. “I don’t know if it was pressure or what. We left Los Angeles, went back to England, and we thought, ‘ Well that was it. We’re all done. It’s over.”
To Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which was published Dec. 1, 1973, Black Sabbath had hoped to recreate the atmosphere they had created for Vol. 4, an album fueled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Despite being taller than the sun when they wrote that record, they were also extremely prolific and vibrating with creativity. So they returned to the place they rented in Bel Air, hoping that lightning would strike twice.
“It was the same house, the same everything, but it just didn’t work,” Iommi said. “It was the first time in my life I’d ever had writer’s block, and basically everyone used to wait until I came up with a riff and then we’d work from there. But nothing came of it.”
Discouraged, Black Sabbath left Los Angeles, flew back to England and took a few weeks off. When they reconnected, they decided to give the album another shot, so they rented Clearwell Castle in The Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England and set up their equipment in the dungeon. The change of atmosphere inspired Iommi.
Black Sabbath, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”
“As soon as we were in there, I came up with the title track, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,'” he said. “The riff just came up and I was like, ‘That’s it, here we go again.’ That was the start of the album and we just went from there.”
As much as the castle gave Sabbat life, it also terrified them. There were reports that the place was haunted, and during their stay, Iommi and Osbourne saw a figure in a black cloak walk down a corridor and disappear. It was not an isolated incident. While such experiences were terrifying, the doom environment complimented the mol-key riffs of songs like “A National Acrobat” and “Killing Yourself to Live.”
Black Sabbath, “Sabbara Cadabra”
Although a lot of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath brooding, the band also experimented with styles outside of doom metal. “Sabbra Cadabra” is rooted in the heavy blues from bands such as Cream and Led Zeppelin and “Looking for Today”, which features melodic arpeggios and an acoustic interlude enhanced by a flute passage, is more traditional hard rock.
Black Sabbath recorded Sabbath Bloody Sabbath at Morgan Studios in Willesden, North London, and while there with producer Tom Allom, they stretched their musical boundaries even further than they had when they were in the castle dungeon. Iommi came up with “Fluff,” a plaintive acoustic classical instrumental that wove delicate guitars, spare piano and strings together. The piece was named after BBC radio personality Alan “Fluff” Freeman, one of the few DJs to play Black Sabbath on air.
And Black Sabbath hired an orchestra for the proggy, sweeping “Spiral Architect,” but their studio space was too small to fit all the players, so they moved to Pye Studios, where Osbourne spent the day humming the parts he wanted, the violinists and the cellists to play.
Additionally, Osbourne purchased a Moog synthesizer for use on “Who Are You?” Despite having no experience with the instrument, he fiddled with the settings to create an otherworldly array of notes and sounds that matched the song’s ominous mood. Iommi also recorded various parts for the album on sitar and bagpipes, but he didn’t like any of the parts he played, so he scrapped them.
Led Zeppelin visited Black Sabbath in the studio while they were recording, and drummer John Bonham volunteered to play on “Sabbath Cadabra”, but Sabbath felt his distinctive style would disrupt the album’s flow. However, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, played as a session musician on the song.
In his memoirs, I’m OzzyOsbourne wrote that after all its fits and starts Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was a creative triumph for Black Sabbath. [“[It was] our last really good album, I think. And with the music, we had managed to find just the right balance between our old heaviness and our new, ‘experimental’ side.”
While Sabbath Bloody Sabbath went Gold in the US on March 20, 1974, it only went Platinum in Oct. 13, 1986. A remastered version of the album was released in 2012, but it contained no additional material.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legendsco-author of Louder Than Hell: Metal’s Definitive Oral Historyas well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthraxand Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, The Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.