BLACK SABBATH (1969–2006). Ozzy Osbourne (vocals, replaced by Ronnie James Dio and too many to count, see below) Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass, replaced by many, now Geezer Butler), Bill Ward (drums, replaced by Vinnie Appice and many others).
To many fans, Black Sabbath invented metal. It is as simple as that. The only other major contender is Led Zeppelin (or earlier proto-metal bands such as Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly, if we are to count bands from the pre-metal era), but most metal fans will argue in the direction of Sabbath, if only for the signature metal sound pioneered by Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.
The band originally formed as Earth in 1968, a more blues-based band featuring guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and heliumsounding vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne. The band toured for a while as Earth mostly doing covers of popular contemporary bands and blues songs, until Iommi briefly decamped for Jethro Tull, which was only to last a few months before he retuned to the band. They then changed their name to the far more aggressive-sounding Black Sabbath.
Sabbath from the start was a groundbreaking band. Due to an industrial accident in which he lost the tips of his fretting fingers, guitarist Tony Iommi improvised and added downtuned guitars, giving the band a creepy feeling sonically from the start. As metal expert John Lisa notes, downtuning involved “taking the strings and literally lowering the tuning so the E string sounds more like a D string, lower with more bottom and doomier sounding” (Lisa, 2008). This made the strings less tense and thus easier for Iommi to play, and also resulted in a unique sound that numerous bands were to copy for the next four decades. (Although some metal scholars have suggested that Blue Cheer was the first band to downtune, this has been disputed by others.)
Bassist and early lyricist Butler also brought a sense of the macabre and a vision of the occult to the band. Their groundbreaking first album, Black Sabbath, was released in 1970, and was unlike almost anything else out on a major label at that time. Songs such as “The Wizard” (one of the few metal songs with a harmonica as a key instrument), “NIB,” and the classic title song. This first record led to a string of five records in a row that all redefined the boundaries of metal, from slow to fast, but always downtuned, even on sped-up songs such as “Paranoid” or maniacal shriekers such as “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath.” Sabbath is also responsible for the creation of the heavy metal “power ballad” on the song “Changes” from Volume 4.
However, after the first five or six records, a series of lackluster albums (by early Sabbath standards) emerged, and with Ozzy’s drinking getting out of control, it was decided by Iommi in 1979 that Sabbath needed fresh blood if they were going to continue.
After Ozzy left the band in 1979, Sabbath stabilized with the introduction of lead singer Ronnie James Dio for the reinvigorated albums Heaven and Hell, Live Evil, and The Mob Rules (Dio would later return after a decade to record a fourth album with the band, Dehumanizer). Drummer Ward had eventually found himself beset with drug and alcohol problems and was uneasy with the new singer, so he departed the band after the Heaven and Hell record, to be replaced by Vinnie Appice (the brother of Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge) on drums.
The relative stability was not to last and eventually tensions grew between Dio and Iommi, leading eventually to a revolving door of singers who included at last count: Ozzy Osbourne, David Walker (never recorded), Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillian, David Donato, Glenn Hughes, Ray Gillen, Tony Martin, Dio again, Martin again, Ozzy again, and now Ozzy and Dio in two different versions of Sabbath. There have also been numerous other bassists, drummers, and occasional keyboard players who have come and gone from Sabbath over the years, but the two most consistent lineups are with Osbourne singing and Ward on drums, or with Dio singing and Vinnie Appice on drums.
To this day, fans are split with many fans preferring Ozzy as Black Sabbath lead singer, even with the limitations of his voice at his age, while many other partisans of the Dio years follow the alternate version of Sabbath known as Heaven and Hell. Either way, Black Sabbath counts as the band that definitively established the distinct metal sound and, along with Led Zeppelin, are the key templates that almost every metal band has followed since their inception.
Discography: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros., 1970); Paranoid (Warner Bros., 1971); Master of Reality (Warner Bros., 1971); Black Sabbath Vol. 4 (Warner Bros., 1972); Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros., 1973); Sabotage (Warner Bros., 1975); Technical Ecstasy (Warner Bros., 1976); Never Say Die (Warner Bros., 1978); Heaven and Hell (Warner Bros., 1980); Live at Last (Nems, 1980); The Mob Rules (Warner Bros., 1981); Live Evil (Vertigo, 1983); Born Again (Warner Bros., 1983); Seventh Star (Warner Bros., 1986); The Eternal Idol (Warner Bros., 1987); Headless Cross (IRS, 1989); TYR (IRS, 1990); Dehumanizer (IRS, 1992); Cross Purposes (IRS, 1994); Forbidden (EMI, 1995); Greatest Hits (ESM, 1996); Past Lives (Sanctuary, 2002); The Dio Years (Warner Bros., 2007).