Black Sabbath’s 13 — their nineteenth album, but who’s counting? — came out this week. It’s their first studio record in 35 years to feature both singer Ozzy Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler. (Its first single, “God Is Dead?,” appears below.) Sabbath are arguably the first full-on heavy metal band, but they didn’t appear from a void. They came up through a music scene, and a very particular one: all four members of the original lineup grew up in Aston, an area within the English city of Birmingham, and the city’s music was an important part of their lives as they were starting to make music of their own.
When the Beatles became the biggest thing in British music — which they were, pretty firmly, by mid-1963 — they pulled the rest of the Liverpool scene up with them as “Merseybeat.” And once pop fans in the U.K. had gotten used to that, other regional scenes tried to do the same. Birmingham had “Brum Beat” — although there wasn’t quite a signature sound for the city’s pop, in part because it didn’t have a single band as huge as the Beatles. Still, the first Birmingham band to score a national rock ’n’ roll hit had a Beatles connection, of sorts. The Applejacks’ “Tell Me When,” below, went to #7 on the U.K. charts; Paul McCartney, impressed by it, offered them a still-unreleased Lennon–McCartney song, “Like Dreamers Do,” which became the next Applejacks single.
Birmingham bands, in those days, tended to play a lot of covers. A local skiffle band called the Bobcats that formed in the late ’50s (including piano player Christine Perfect, later much better known as Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie) had so many Chuck Berry songs in their repertoire that they changed their name to the Rockin’ Berries. They started making records in 1963, and the following spring, they had their biggest ever hit with the Gerry Goffin/Carole King song “He’s in Town,” which had earlier been recorded by the American group the Tokens. (And the name of the Rockin’ Berries can’t help but have inspired the band the fifteen-year-old future Black Sabbath guitarist joined in 1963: the Rockin’ Chevrolets.)
As in both London and Liverpool, American blues and R&B acts provided lots of songs for Birmingham bands. The Spencer Davis Group was a local favorite live act — they’d previously been called the Rhythm and Blues Quartette — and guitarist Davis had spent a while in a blues duo with Christine Perfect. A year and a half or so before the Spencer Davis Group had an international hit with “Keep on Running” in 1965, they recorded their debut single, a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples.” Davis, in fact, had previously been in a blues duo with Christine Perfect.
The first Birmingham group to break through internationally, though, was the Moody Blues, whose second single was another American R&B cover: their November, 1964 version of Bessie Banks’ “Go Now,” which was far more successful than Banks’ had been, even in the States.
When the rest of English pop went psychedelic, the Brumbeat world went right along with them. The Move were a supergroup with members of a bunch of very popular Birmingham acts — Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, the Mayfair Set and the Vikings — who’d never had much success outside their home town. (They supposedly asked drummer John Bonham to join them, unsuccessfully.) One of their first national hits was a rip-roaring psych-rocker called “I Can Hear the Grass Grow,” in April 1967.
The Nightriders, now without Mike Sheridan as their frontman, pulled in 19-year-old singer-guitarist Jeff Lynne (later most famous for leading Electric Light Orchestra) from an ad in the Birmingham Evening Mail, and renamed themselves the Idle Race. In October, 1967, they released their own psychedelic freakout, “Impostors of Life’s Magazine,” below. The Move and the Idle Race were the twin engines of the Brum Beat scene for the next few years; when Lynne left the Idle Race to join the Move in 1970, he was replaced by local singer Dave Walker. (And when Ozzy Osbourne first left Black Sabbath in 1977, Walker briefly replaced him there, too. )
By late 1968, when Earth — who would change their name to Black Sabbath within a year — were touring around the country, the Birmingham sound was getting slower and heavier. Band of Joy, from nearby West Bromwich, were a thumping blues band that featured both John Bonham and singer Robert Plant, who would later go on to Led Zeppelin; in 1968, they recorded a demo of the blues oldie “I Got to Find My Baby.”
The Birmingham group Velvett Fogg built on that slow blues style too, with a bit more psychedelia thrown in. Tony Iommi briefly played in an early lineup before his cousin Paul Eastment replaced him. Their single, self-titled album appeared at the begining of 1969; it opened with “Yellow Cave Woman,” below.
And all of those Birmingham sounds couldn’t help but find their way into the young Black Sabbath’s own music. It’s not too far a leap from Lynne’s guitar sound in the Idle Race, or Plant and Bonham’s attack in Band of Joy, or the dreamy sludge of Velvett Fogg, to what Sabbath were doing in 1970 — like “Paranoid,” below.