By Jack Holloway
The 1960s was a decade brimming with hopes of revolution, an electric time for a zealous counterculture. The Vietnam War loomed in the background, a fraught international situation which fueled the counterculture’s pursuit of radical societal transformation. But 1969 would prove to be a decisive year, as the tide was turned by a wholly other spirit. Richard Nixon took office in January, the Manson murders took place in August, and in December a man was shot and killed at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in northern California.
Equipped with images of Manson’s long-haired “hippie” cult of killers, Nixon’s administration and their so-called silent majority was determined to crush all opponents of status quo tranquility. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in ’63, President John F. Kennedy in ’64, Malcolm X in ’65, Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in ’68, and in December of ’69 the Black Panther Fred Hampton was assassinated by the FBI.
Americans could turn on their television sets to see cops beating up protesters in 1968. A year later, self-proclaimed revolutionaries rioted for four days in Chicago in the “Days of Rage.” Also in ’69, Nixon authorized Operation Menu, a relentless carpet bombing of Cambodia, which brought immeasurable death and destruction to Southeast Asia. It was not only cultural upheaval that defined the 1960s, but also violent backlash.
On the one hand, groups of people all over the world saw themselves on the cusp of a beloved community which, in times prior, was thought impossible. On the other hand, it became clear that the more inspiring that vision of community became, the more in danger it became. Fight hard enough for social change and you will be crushed.
It is little surprise that this is the precise point where a new musical genre emerges which surveys a freshly understood aspect of existence: doom. Black Sabbath played their first show on August 1969, the same month as the Manson murders. The following year, three months after Fred Hampton’s assassination, Black Sabbath released their self-titled album. Its opening track, “Black Sabbath,” Rob Halford of Judas Priest called “the most evil song that’s ever been written.”
There had been songs about the devil, there had been songs about evil and hell and darkness, but there had never been music this sharply ominous. The sole purpose of this music was to give expression to horror. It was a new genre, which would eventually be aptly titled “doom metal.” This new music enveloped listeners with heaviness and dread. At the opening of their flagship song, lonely bell chimes issue from the sound of thunder, and a whole reality is invoked. Here, evil is not some momentary lapse in a generally good state of affairs. These bells announce a tyranny of evil. Here is a song that could give you nightmares.
The world had seen countless horrors, and instead of using music to create joy and hope in the midst of suffering and despair, to shine a light where there was darkness, Black Sabbath gave expression to that very darkness.
When listeners heard Sabbath’s title track for the first time, they were given what they feared: an image of a world without hope, where the devil reigns and God is no more than a desperate wish. Sabbath deployed the medieval imagery of hell, but did not relegate hell to some lower realm reserved for history’s worst actors. No, the bells in “Black Sabbath” announce that we are in hell. We are its desperate inhabitants pitifully crying out to God to rescue us from our fiery prison. There is nowhere to run to. There is nothing left to do but cry, “Oh no, no, please God help me!” This tortured cry was given uncanny expression by lead singer Ozzy Osbourne’s strange, devastating vocals. There is nothing pleasant or nice about his voice, but it is, for this reason, essential to the music.
The 1970s would be a different kind of decade, defined for many by a jaded, gritty outlook. The villains in horror films stopped being supernatural beings or alien monsters. Tobe Hooper, director of the 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is still today considered by many the most horrifying movie of all time, said of the film: “Man was the real monster here.”
Black Sabbath were among the original foragers of this burgeoning pessimism. Their music does not provide escape from a woeful world, but rather takes us deeper into the reality of evil, a special classroom home to its own lessons which no other can teach.
A cultural upheaval similar to that of the 1960s is occurring today. The Black Lives Matter movement captivated the world much in the same way that the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement did in the ’60s. But something that sets this movement apart is its profoundly negative character—that is to say, the social uprising we are seeing today is almost a cynical one. In practice, it is hopeful, but—and I am speaking here from my own experience, having been a part of this movement for seven years—it harbors a biting cynicism regarding the status quo and whether it can be changed for the better.
Black Sabbath fans like myself have found anti-fascist inspiration in Black Sabbath’s music, and in turn influenced the band to update its own anti-fascist stance. This interaction is shaping the future of metal, which for decades has been in need of an exorcism of the forces of racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
Sabbath’s music has also become more prescient in light of the climate crisis we face today. My generation was born just in time to witness the disintegration of the earth’s environment. Images of hellfire and damnation carry a whole new resonance now that we have seen, for example, whole areas of California engulfed in flames so that the sky turned red. Nothing I was taught in school, in church, at home, or on television prepared me for that vision. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. The Gulf Stream is nearing collapse. The climate I knew as a kid is being drastically altered. The distinctions between the seasons of spring, summer, fall, winter, which have been attested to throughout human history, are becoming meaningless as the climate is becoming more extreme. The world I will inhabit when my hair is gray will hardly resemble the world as it was when I was born.
All the while, the ultra-rich, corporate heads, and governmental officials all over the world are not taking the crisis as seriously as they absolutely should given the gravity of the situation. And we are nearing a point of no return.
My generation has been forced to face the fact that, because of human indifference, overreach, and recklessness, the earth as we have known it is doomed. We have had to confront and reconcile ourselves with a planet that is growing increasingly volatile and disastrous. In this context, Black Sabbath’s criticism of “sorcerers of madness” who bring death and destruction to the earth, as well as their sense of dread concerning the fate of the world, make their music strikingly resonant. The band itself came out of an area of the United Kingdom that was shaped in large part by the industrial revolution, which laid the groundwork for the aggressive pollution of the earth we see today.
Now is the perfect time to revisit Black Sabbath, a band forged in the revolutionary counterculture of the 1960s, and on the vanguard of a grittier liberationist outlook in the early 1970s. We encounter in Geezer Butler’s lyrics an unflinching pessimism, and yet also serious theological imagination. Black Sabbath might seem to surrender hope at the gates of hell, but they nonetheless laugh victoriously with a knowing, transcendent imagination.
Hidden in their satanic imagery, their cynical contempt, and their ominous proclamations, Black Sabbath maintains a theology of divine judgment and promise. This theology is resistant to indifference and the temptations of escapism. Black Sabbath’s theology is both worldly and otherworldly, hellish and heavenly. Theirs is a negative hope, a critical idealism, which points to the brokenness of the status quo, and beyond to the heights of justice and love.
Jack Holloway is the author of Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath. He is also a music producer and film director based in Brooklyn, New York. He earned an M.Div. in theology and critical theory at Union Theological Seminary (‘18). He is the lead vocalist and guitarist of The Heavens. Follow him (and his book) on Instagram @jack.amos.holloway and @doomtheology.