Ozzy Osbourne was born in Birmingham, England, on the 3rd of December, 1948 – and the world would never be the same again. He dropped out of school at 15 and by 17 had formed a rock band with guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, and bassist Geezer Butler, who wrote most of the band’s lyrics. The band rehearsed across from a cinema that showed horror movies; noticing that so many people were paying to be scared, they decided to play ominous, ghoulish music – even referencing satanism and the occult. The group named themselves Black Sabbath, after a horror movie of the same name.
Black Sabbath (1970)
In early 1970, the band released their first record, the eponymous Black Sabbath album. The opening song, the self-titled Black Sabbath, was inspired by a dream that Butler had of a dark figure standing at the foot of his bed. The song opens with a bell tolling, thunder crackling and heavy rainfall before the music begins, setting the tone for what is to come. In stark contrast to the popular music of the late 1960s, dominated by flower power and hippie culture, Black Sabbath’s sinister sound and menacing lyrics pushed the band in a new, dark direction – the musical equivalent of a horror movie.
The album is packed with classics, such as N.I.B., The Wizard, and Warning. Continuing the theme of the occult, N.I.B. is performed in the first person from the point of view of the Devil, who falls in love with a human woman. The Wizard, influenced by the wizard Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, is about a wizard who uses his magic for good. Warning is a heavy metal reimagining of Aynsley Dunbar’s 1967 sleeper hit.
The band were reviled by critics and shunned by radio stations, but constant touring turned them into stars. Ozzy’s distinct vocals and the band’s foreboding image quickly cultivated a loyal following in Britain and the United States. The album remained on the US Billboard 200 for over a year and sold one million copies.
Black Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, was released just six short months after their debut record. The album is packed with genre defining songs, including the opener, War Pigs, the title track, Paranoid, and perhaps the band’s most well-known song, Iron Man. The album went to Number One in the UK charts and sold over four million copies in the US with practically zero radio play.
War Pigs is the quintessential anti-war song. With air-raid sirens behind Iommi’s heavy guitar riffs, Ozzy bellows out Butler’s timeless lyrics.
“Generals gathered in their masses, Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction, Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields, the bodies burning, As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind, Poisoning their brainwashed minds”
“Politicians hide themselves away. They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor”
“Making war just for fun, Treating people just like pawns in chess”
Paranoid was written as a mere afterthought as the band were short on songs for the album. War Pigs was the original album name, but the record company persuaded the band to use “Paranoid” instead as it was less offensive. Iron Man was a rebuttal to what Ozzy and the band saw as an overly-positive, unrealistic outlook on the world that did not reflect their lived experience. The song is the story of a man who time travels into the future and sees the apocalypse.
Other notable songs on the album include Planet Caravan – an uncharacteristically quiet song about floating through space with one’s lover; and Fairies Wear Boots, which Ozzy has said he wrote about LSD.
Master of Reality
Again, with just a six-month turn-around between albums, Sabbath released Master of Reality. The band have openly admitted that the financial success of Paranoid opened the door to extensive drug use, including cocaine, Quaaludes and more. The album features fan-favourites such as Sweet Leaf – a love song to cannabis; Children of the Grave – another anti-war song; Solitude – a softer song, in the same vein as Planet Caravan; and the hard-hitting Into the Void.
But more hits were still to come, including Changes, Snowblind, Supernaut, and A National Acrobat. Changes is a hauntingly sombre song of lost love. The song is very stripped back and unlike anything the band ever recorded, with Ozzy’s heartbreaking vocals set over Iommi on piano and Butler on mellotron. Ozzy recorded a version of the song with his daughter, Kelly, thirty years later. Where the previous album’s Sweet Leaf was a love song to Cannabis, Snowblind is a cautionary tale of cocaine addiction. Supernaut is a hard-hitting, high-tempo song about freedom, while A National Acrobat takes the band’s heavy metal style in a more psychedelic direction.
Along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath are widely considered the innovators of heavy metal music. The track listing on the band’s first three albums reads like a greatest hits for the entire genre. Songs such as War Pigs and Iron Man became classics, synonymous with all things heavy metal. With Paranoid ringing out around the auditorium, Metallica inducted Black Sabbath into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Ozzy used his acceptance speech to berate the committee for making the band endure no less than eight nominations before their eventual induction.
Solo Career (1980 – 1995)
Ozzy left the band for a short period in 1978 before being coaxed back. Less than a year later, however, the other members decided they’d had enough of Ozzy’s drug and alcohol abuse, and fired him. In 1980, he released his first solo album, Blizzard of Ozz, which, thanks to the hit single Crazy Train, became a multi-platinum success. A year later, Ozzy released his follow-up album, Diary of a Madman, which sold more than five million copies; Flying High Again the big hit.
Despite the success Ozzy experienced throughout the rest of the 1980s, this decade of his career is defined by two outrageous and controversial incidents. In 1981, to celebrate signing his first solo career record deal, Ozzy had planned to release doves into the air during a meeting with CBS Records executives. But, due to being heavily intoxicated at the time, he grabbed a live dove and bit its head off. A year later, a career-defining moment came while on the tour in Iowa, USA. An audience member threw something on stage, which Ozzy thought was a rubber toy, so he proceeded to bite the head off – it was, in fact, a live bat.
In the early 1990s, Ozzy began a working relationship with good friend Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead. Lemmy wrote several songs for Ozzy and the two collaborated on several mutual songs including Hellraiser, I Ain’t No Nice Guy, and Ozzy’s biggest solo hit, I Don’t Wanna Change The World.
In 1996, Ozzy and wife Sharon began Ozzfest, an annual summer music festival featuring heavy metal acts such as Metallica, Marilyn Manson, and Slash. In 1997, Ozzy rejoined Black Sabbath to headline Ozzfest. The band released new albums over the following twenty years, while Ozzy continued to create solo hits such as I Don’t Wanna Stop and his 2020 duet with Elton John, Ordinary Man.