For a lot of people out there, the name of Black Sabbath means Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward. This was the Black Sabbath that first arose from the drudgery of daily life in mid-XXth century Birmingham with all-time favorites such as "War Pigs", "Paranoid", "Children of the Grave", and others; the Black Sabbath that single-handedly created a blueprint for heavy metal in as little as nine years, before ultimately authoring its own demise through rampant drug abuse and growing internal strife. Likewise, that Sabbath's glory run is largely taken to have ended with the 1975 LP "Sabotage", as its sixth and seventh studio albums - 1976's "Technical Ecstasy" and 1978's "Never Say Die!", respectively-remain a painful topic for most of the band's fans.
Unlike "Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die!", Black Sabbath's sixth studio LP "Sabotage" was hailed as one of the finest albums that the band ever recorded, and is even considered to match the genius of Sabbath's history-making 1970 sophomore "Paranoid". In addition to being early Sabbath's most ambitious album, recorded when Mr. Iommi & Co. were arguably at the top of their game, its sheer sonic diversity has made "Sabotage" famous as a pioneering effort in progressive metal, while Tony Iommi's pummelling riffing on "Symptom of the Universe" is thought to have provided an important cornerstone for thrash metal of the future.
However, the importance of "Sabotage" doesn't end there. The dire circumstances under which "Sabotage" was created came as the culmination of events that played a role in Sabbath's previous rise to international fame, while their far-reaching consequences ultimately contributed to the lineup's downfall. As such, "Sabotage" was probably the most important crossroads of Black Sabbath's career as the band was being pressured from all sides -but instead of breaking, Black Sabbath triumphed.
To fully understand the story of "Sabotage", we need to go back to Black Sabbath's early days. Managed by a fellow Brummie Jim Simpson, Black Sabbath released its self-titled debut in 1970, which earned the band a fairly sized, and equally eager following despite being blasted by critics. "Black Sabbath" debuted at #8 on the UK Albums Charts and at #23 on the Billboard 200, and it was clear that the Birmingham four were destined for greater things in life.
By the summer of 1970, the band had felt that Simpson's experience derived from local Birmingham clubs wasn't enough to manage a reputable band that Sabbath was increasingly becoming, which is when Patrick Meehan Jr. and his company Worldwide Artists entered the picture. Meehan had gotten in touch with Sabbath through an associate of Don Arden (the second of Black Sabbath's two notorious managers and Ozzy's future father-in-law), and Iommi & Co. were instantly swayed by his smooth talk and business-savviness. As a result, Simpson got the can mere weeks before the release of "Paranoid", and Black Sabbath were happily signed with Meehan's Worldwide Artists.
With Meehan at the helm, high-profile gigs came aplenty. Black Sabbath went on to release just as many albums over the next three years, with "Master of Reality", "Vol.4", and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" exponentially continuing the mean streak established by "Black Sabbath" and "Paranoid". All three albums managed to chart impressively high both in the US and the UK, while Black Sabbath's uniquely dangerous-sounding take on rock 'n' roll saw them rise to the forefront of the genre in no time.
Of course, getting to experience the rock star's life and all its trappings in full also meant a nigh-inexhaustible supply of drugs, which neither band member shied away from liberally indulging in. By early 1974, Black Sabbath's drug abuse was starting to get out of hand, which, coupled with grueling touring and recording schedules, had pushed the band well past the point of exhaustion. Still, the band never buckled, and it was at that time that Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward played one of the most famous gigs of their career-1974's California Jam.
In addition to being one of the biggest live-performance highlights of Black Sabbath's career, the aftermath of California Jam was also when the band's costly fallout with Meehan began to unravel. Although there were plenty of times previously when Black Sabbath could have grasped the extent of Meehan's shark-like business practices (for example, the manager insisted on being credited as co-producer for both "Vol.4" and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" even though he'd barely spend any time in the studio, as Tony Iommi recalls in his autobiography), the way that the California Jam paycheck was divided made Black Sabbath undoubtedly feel they were being taken advantage of - out of $250, 000 received for the gig (almost one and a half million in today's money), Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne only received about $1000 each, while all the rest went to Meehan's company. Furthermore, the band had found out that they owned barely any of the fruit of their past few years' labors, as all the real estate, the cars, and even the music was largely listed as the property of Worldwide Artists. Upon realizing the bleakness of their financial position, the band decided to cut any ties they had with Meehan.
The manager in turn launched a lawsuit that turned into a years-long legal battle of attrition. Iommi & Co. would go to court or have meetings with their legal representatives almost daily, and when the band decided to go back to Morgan Studios in Willesden, London in early '75 to start working on a new album, Meehan's lawyers would drop by to the studio unannounced even as Sabbath was writing music. Also, given their experiences with Meehan, the band had decided to fly managerless, and the role would be fulfilled by a rotating cast of friends and associates for the time being.
As a self-professed "mother-hen" of the outfit, Bill Ward too tried his hand at managing the band at one point. Ward's lack of adequate skill set for the role made his experience all the more stressful, while the tension caused by having to deal with finances and other business aspects only exacerbated his already serious drinking problems. It was this sense of having to extend themselves on too many fronts to handle that eventually gave the album its iconic name. In Martin Popoff's book "Doom Let Loose", Geezer Butler recalled:
"That was probably the hardest record, the bleakest, because we were in the studio and we were having lawyers come in. We were leaving the management at the time and he was suing us, we were suing him. He was trying to stop us from recording and freezing all our money. It was really bad times to go through.
"We used to turn up at the studio to go and write a song, and there would be like three lawyers waiting for us to put subpoenas on us, stuff like that. It took us about ten months to do the album because of all the interruptions we were having. But yes, the hardest would have been Sabotage but maybe also Never Say Die, and the most fun were the first three albums and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath."
Tony Iommi added:
"I think we changed, purely because of the system, the people surrounding us, the things we were involved with. We started going through things we knew nothing about, the legal sides of things, all these hassles with management, stuff we really didn't want to be involved with. But we were involved in it. And I think that really put a blunt end to what we were doing.
"Because suddenly here we are, musicians, or supposedly musicians, and then we needed to become businesspeople, which we weren't. And try to work out, bloody 'ell, what do we do now? Here we are having lawyer's meetings, and turning up in court and all this sort of stuff, swearing affidavits, getting sued left, right and center. It was a part of our lives we had never seen before, and I think it really interfered with our music."
Like with "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", the band recorded "Sabotage" in the same studio, once again with the help of sound engineer Mike Butcher. But unlike the previous album, the idea was to make a no-frills hard rock record, and the frustration caused by legal battles and having to manage themselves only fed into that desire to vent their anger through straight-forward music. And while the album ended up infinitely more complex than Iommi & Co. originally planned, the aforementioned frustration did result in "Sabotage" acquiring a particularly nasty edge.
The band's situation also showed through the album's lyrical content, and tracks "Megalomania" and "The Writ" in particular bear too many similarities to all the things that went down with Meehan to be sheer coincidence. The latter song was directly inspired by Meehan's lawyers delivering writs to Black Sabbath in the studio, which in turn made Ozzy Osbourne pen some of the best lyrics from his first run with the band. In his autobiography "I Am Ozzy", he described pouring out all his resentment towards Meehan in the song's lyrics feeling "a bit like seeing the shrink." Of "The Writ", Geezer told Popoff:
"That was written about our management at the time and how we were just all fed up with everything, recording with a room full of lawyers. Ozzy came up with those lyrics and I thought they were really good. But it was just this whole situation with everybody suing everybody else. We just wanted out of it."
Still, the iconic heaviness of tracks like "Hole in the Sky" and "Symptom of the Universe" as well as the scalding lyrics of "Megalomania" and "The Writ" didn't mean that there was no room left for experimentation. "Sabotage" also featured the ephemerally progressive "Supertzar" recorded with the help of The English Chamber Choir, while "Am I Going Insane (Radio)" ended up being one of the very rare pop interludes in Sabbath's otherwise decidedly heavy opus.
Furthermore, as much as the tension surrounding the creation of "Sabotage" made Black Sabbath record some of its most memorable material to date, it also brought forth the band's playful side. Butcher screaming "Attack!" at the beginning of "Hole in the Sky" and the two "spoof" songs "Don't Start (Too Late)" and "Blow on the Jug" all made it to the final cut, adding to the album's already heaping charisma. Unlike these two tracks, however, the iconic derpy album cover of "Sabotage" wasn't planned. Although the initial idea was to capture the band in a much more menacing ambiance, the photoshoot went through with members of Sabbath wearing what they had on themselves at the time, which included Ozzy Osbourne's flamboyant kimono, and Bill Ward sporting his wife's red tights.
When "Sabotage" was finally released on July 28, 1975, the album's bold, experimental nature had won over most critics and avid Black Sabbath fans, and it debuted at #7 on UK album charts, and #28 on Billboard 200. However, "Sabotage" never became the financial savior that Black Sabbath had hoped for, as its sales numbers lagged significantly behind any of Sabbath's previous records.
Still, the decision to hire Don Arden as manager (partly) took away one of the band's two main problems, while the lawsuit with Meehan would eventually be settled out of court, with Black Sabbath putting the full stop to the saga with acceptable losses. Nevertheless, even though "Sabotage" itself became the embodiment of Black Sabbath's triumph over one of the most difficult periods of their career, the band's downfall would not be prevented - but that is a story for another time.
If you're interested in an even more elaborate exploration of the story behind "Sabotage", you should definitely check out The Tapes Archive's amazing documentary on the subject that this article references in addition to the sources mentioned throughout the text here.