Behind the Meaning and History of the Band Name: Black Sabbath

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne. Tony Iommi. Bill Ward. Geezer Butler.

These names are historic. And they are heavy. Just like the music the aforementioned entities create. But what’s in a name? By any other, the band would sound as powerful, right? Right?!

Maybe. Maybe not, in this case. Let’s dive into the history and meaning of the band’s moniker, beginning with the group’s origins in the United Kingdom.

Origins

The English rock band was formed in 1968. Ever since they have helped to define heavy metal music with albums like their self-titled 1970 offering and Paranoid in the same year, along with the 1971 album, Master of Reality.

The band released its first single, “Evil Woman,” in January of 1970, and in February, they released the self-titled Black Sabbath LP. That record didn’t earn praise from critics, but it sold like hotcakes and led to Paranoid the same year. In 1973, the group released the popular, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and soon it was critics and fans who loved them.

In 1979, though, the band reached a nadir, firing Osbourne due to his excessive substance abuse. The band endured many personnel changes in the ’80s and ’90s and Osbourne released a series of solo albums. Osbourne rejoined the band for stints in 1985, 1992, and 1997-2006 before rejoining again in 2011 for good, until the collective halted in 2017. To date, the band has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide.

The Band’s Name

Previous to taking the bone-chilling moniker Black Sabbath, the collection of musicians had much weirder and tamer names, including the Polka Tulk Blues Band and Earth. But the group eventually settled on the name Black Sabbath in 1969 and wear it proudly for the next five-plus decades (and counting).

In the ’60s, things were a bit tumultuous. In 1968, the band known then as Mythology broke up, and Iommi, a guitarist, and Ward, a drummer, looked to create a heavy blues rock band in Birmingham. They brought in bassist Butler and singer Osbourne, both of whom had played together in a gourd called Rare Breed. They were found by Iommi and Ward after Osbourne played an ad in a local music shop that read, “OZZY ZIG Needs Gig—has own PA.”

That group was called Polka Tulk Blues Band, named after either a brand of talcum powder or an Indian/Pakistani clothing shop. The exact origin remains unclear. The group also included slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips, who was a childhood friend of Osbourne’s, and saxophonist Alan “Aker” Clarke. But it soon became only a four-piece when Iommi believed the two lacked focus.

But instead of breaking up formally, the final four formed a new band, Earth, recording demos, including the tune, “Song for Jim,” a reference to local band manager Jim Simpson, who also had opened a new club called Henry’s Blueshouse in Birmingham. Simpson offered Earth a gig, which led to the show with a good response. Simpson began to manage Earth.

In 1968, however, Iommi abruptly left Earth to join Jethro Tull. That connection only lasted a brief time and the guitar player came back to Earth, so to speak, and rejoined his rocker friends. “It just wasn’t right, so I left,” Iommi said of the reunion. “At first I thought Tull was great, but I didn’t much go for having a leader in the band, which was Ian Anderson’s way. When I came back from Tull, I came back with a new attitude altogether. They taught me that to get on, you got to work for it.”

In 1969, the group, though, realized they were being mistaken for another English group named Earth, a pop band. So, they decided to change their name yet again. Coincidentally, a movie house across the street from the band’s rehearsal space was showing the 1963 horror film, Black Sabbath, which starred Boris Karloff. Butler noted it was “strange that people spend so much money to see scary movies.”

With that, Butler and Osbourne wrote a song titled, “Black Sabbath,” inspired by the horror genre. The song made use of the tritone known as “the Devil’s Interval,” and sounded ominous and dark.

Boom. The rest is heavy metal history.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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