Black Sabbath isn’t just the first heavy metal band, they’re also the group that brought Satanism and the occult into the world of mainstream music. But did Black Sabbath worship the Devil, or were they just flirting with Satanism? The best Black Sabbath albums are arguably the records where Black Sabbath's ties to Satan are on full display, but did they ever really get into the occult? Were all those upside-down crosses and songs about Satan just for record sales? Black Sabbath and Satan definitely had a mutually beneficial relationship, but it's tricky to determine whether or not everyone was just doing it for the money.
Regardless of whether or not the guys in Black Sabbath are actually dyed-in-the-wool Satanists, their songs still rock decades after they were recorded. Black Sabbath was one of the first groups to use controversy to sell albums. As for whether or not they delved into Satanism, it's best to hear the facts from the band itself.
Guitarist Tony Iommi discussed how much he and the band's bassist, Geezer Butler, were into the occult with Guitar Player magazine. While it may have been a passing interest when they were young, it turned into a full-fledged lifestyle:
"We were very interested in the satanic side of stuff - certainly Geezer and myself. We were interested in the occult just out of curiosity... We wondered what would happen if we did certain things, just like we wondered about life after death. We got into all sorts of stuff. Maybe it was the drugs in those days - I don’t know! And we’re still using that imagery with Heaven & Hell."
Getting into Satanism presents you with some real risks - like bumping into the Devil himself. Black Sabbath's bassist, Geezer Butler, claims that, in 1968, he had a nighttime run-in with Satan in his black-painted apartment and it inspired him to change his occult-dabbling tune:
"I woke up suddenly, and there was this... black shape standing at the foot of my bed. And it absolutely frightened the bloody life out of me. This shape, for some reason I thought it was the Devil himself! It was almost as if this thing was saying to me, 'It’s time to either pledge allegiance or piss off!' And from that moment on, I just went off the whole thing."
Apparently, Black Sabbath's occult leanings were so well-known that promoters began to offer them extra airfare in order for the group to bring their own human sacrifices. Ozzy told NME in 1970:
"It’s got so bad that recently a German promoter who had booked us sent along return airfares for the group - and if need be a one-way ticket if we decided on using a sacrificial victim [onstage]. The press has blown everything out of proportion. With our name Black Sabbath, people therefore assumed that [black magic] was our scene. For some unknown reason, people seem to expect something out of the ordinary when we appear. We don’t need to have naked birds leaping all over the stage or try to conjure up the devil."
Black Sabbath frequently used three-note progressions that incorporated a flattened fifth note of the major scale, like G, octave G, or C-sharp. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne remembers guitarist Tony Iommi coming to practice with a riff and an all-new idea for the group:
"He came to rehearsal one day and said, 'Isn’t it funny how people pay money to watch horror films; why don’t we start playing scary music?' And then he came up with that 'Black Sabbath' riff, which was the scariest riff I’ve ever heard in my life."
The band's signature flattened fifth note had actually been known to the music world for centuries; composers in medieval Europe called it "Diabolus in Musica," or "the Devil in Music." The term referred to the dissonance it created in music.