Black Sabbath is without a doubt one of the most iconic and legendary rock bands in the history of music. They gave way to the heavy metal movement. They were the first. Without Sabbath, there’s no Metallica, no Alice in Chains, no Iron Maiden, no Guns ‘N’ Roses, no Anthrax, no Slipknot. Basically, without Black Sabbath, there’s no metal genre.
Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward were sick of their mundane working class lives in Birmingham, England. They channeled their anger into music and created a genre. But they didn’t just stop there. Sabbath have continued to innovate the very genre they created throughout all the decades since.
Even now, they still have it, so it’s really sad to see them go. We have their last tour and the resulting concert film, The End of the End, and then that’s it. But they’re leaving behind one heck of a legacy. So, here are the 15 greatest songs Black Sabbath have graced the musical zeitgeist with.
15. “Hand of Doom”
“Hand of Doom,” one of the lesser known tracks from Sabbath’s second studio album Paranoid, is a favorite of the band’s to perform at live concerts. It follows in the longstanding tradition of Sabbath songs that deal with incredibly deep, harrowing, and tragic subjects contrasted with a heavy, banging beat.
It’s what they invented the heavy metal genre to do, and very few acts to follow in their footsteps have quite nailed it the way they did over the years. Sabbath are the only band that ever quite got the essence of heavy metal, because they were the founding fathers.
“Hand of Doom” was written when the band noticed a bunch of American troops heading to England after the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The vets turned to drugs to forget the horrors they saw only to find those horrors catching up to them as substance abuse eroded their insides.
Black Sabbath doing a piano ballad? No way. Unheard of. But no, they did one in the emotionally charged and low-key “Changes.” And they wedged it right in the middle of their first cocaine-fueled album, Vol. 4, amid the flurry of heavy songs that track listing has to offer.
The song is a fish out of water, and that’s kind of what the song is about, at least in its downbeat and sad tone. If you’re ever feeling down or lonely and you want to feel less alone, like someone gets how you’re feeling and is there for you, stick on “Changes,” because Ozzy is there for you.
Beneath the facade of a dark, Grim Reaper-esque rock god, Ozzy is a tragic figure, at least in the way he portrays himself in this song. So, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Contrary to popular belief, the title of this song does not actually stand for “Nativity in Black.” Instead, it’s taken from the nickname for drummer Bill Ward, whose beard the band liked to humorously compare to the nib of a pen. But the song itself is about far loftier and more existential topics than what household item Bill Ward’s beard resembles.
Ozzy takes on the role of the Devil to tell us that it’s really easy to fall into the trap of temptation and make the world a terrible place thanks to personal demons. It has a slow intro, but once it gets started, it doesn’t let up.
It’s from the band’s self-titled debut album, which was very heavy on using religious concepts to convey frustrations and philosophies. It’s very profound, but it’s not preachy. If you want, you can ignore all that meaning and just bang your head. Sabbath give you both options.
When Black Sabbath were recording their first three albums, they were drinking heavily and that influenced the songs they were creating. But by the time they were working on their fourth, the aptly titled Vol. 4, they’d moved onto cocaine. This can be seen in their transition into more experimental music and lyrics that reflect more troubled lives.
“Snowblind” is the most overt reference to cocaine on the album. The song flits between hard and heavy tones to a more emotional and deep “My eyes are blind, but I can see” kind of philosophies and back again. It’s all over the place but no matter what’s happening, it’s a wild ride, just like a cocaine high.
The band felt so strongly about this song that they wanted to name the album after it, but according to Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography, the record company objected to it due to its clear reference to cocaine, which was a big issue back then. The band didn’t argue and the title was officially changed to Vol. 4, but Ozzy and his bandmates still refer to this album as Snowblind.
11. “God is Dead?”
Following “End of the Beginning” would not be an easy task. When Black Sabbath came back with their reunion album 13, fans went crazy. They had a brand new album from the classic Sabbath lineup. So, they went out, bought it, and listened. “End of the Beginning” starts the album strong.
It’s Sabbath in today’s world of terrorism and nuclear arms and impending doom. It’s even more aggressive and even more rock ‘n’ roll than before. In the ‘60s, they started a new counterculture movement that went against the preexisting hippie counterculture movement.
When Sabbath birthed the heavy metal genre,they were angry. And then the second track comes on, “God is Dead?” and they make you think. It’s not just blind apocalyptic rage at the world. They’re posing a serious philosophical question.
The problems in the world like the nuclear crisis or the onslaught of hurricanes and volcanoes could be justified by religion as Satan’s wrath or God’s fury translated as a Biblical plague. But Sabbath are saying that maybe God is dead and the world is left in chaos. But they’re not asking, “Is God Dead?”
They’re making the statement, “God is Dead” followed by a question mark. The song is from the point of view of a man haunted by voices in his head, blood on his conscience, and rivers of evil. He asks, “is God alive or is God dead?” and warns, “there is no tomorrow.” It’s deeper and more philosophical than it’s given credit for.
10. “Sweet Leaf”
Black Sabbath are probably the last band you’d expect to do a song about weed, but you’d better believe it: they love you, sweet leaf. The lyrics read like a love ballad about a troubled romance, the only difference being that the romance is with marijuana.
Apparently it’s not Ozzy Osborne coughing at the start, but rather Tony Iommi, but the rest is Oz. It’s the perfect way to lead into a song about how awesome weed is. You start coughing, your lungs expand, the weed gets into the little cracks deep in your system, and off you go.
The guitar kicks in and the trippy sounds that echo throughout Master of Reality that the band were experimenting with at the time — while still maintaining their signature metal sound, of course — perfectly encapsulate the mind-bending effects of the sweet leaf.
9. “Iron Man”
There are some fans who don’t particularly like “Iron Man.” The riff plays like a beginner’s guitar lesson and it’s slower than a lot of Sabbath’s heavier songs. But it earns a place on this list thanks to the deeper meaning of its lyrics.
For a song of just over five minutes, it manages to pack in a story worthy of a two-hour movie or an episode of that new show Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. It’s the tale of a man who travels into the future and witnesses the apocalypse by our own undoing, so he heads back to the present to warn everyone.
But the time travel reversing process turns him into, literally, an iron man. Like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, everyone turns their backs on him and makes fun of him, so he decides, “you know what, fuck it.” Instead of saving them, he expedites the apocalypse and brings it on himself.
If you just listen to the lyrics and not the simplistic guitar work, it’s actually very tragic and profound.
8. “The Wizard”
This song from the band’s debut album is one of the few times that Ozzy Osbourne showed off his skills on the harmonica. When Steven Tyler plays the harmonica, the fans tolerate it while they wait for him to continue singing.
But when Ozzy does it, you wonder why he doesn’t use that skill more often, because he’s incredible at it and somehow finds a way to make it work with the pioneering heavy metal style of the band. The lyrics of “The Wizard” are also great.
It tells the story of when Ozzy met Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings — which presumably didn’t really happen in real life, but stranger things have happened to Ozzy.
7. “Tomorrow’s Dream”
As the curators of their own original sound that would eventually come to be known as heavy metal, Black Sabbath would never do a song that was staunchly in the style of another genre or artist. It was always infused with their own sound. For example, “Sweet Leaf” is a psychedelic weed song infused with the sounds of Sabbath.
And “Tomorrow’s Dream” is a trippy, dreamy, lucid trance written in C-sharp minor and infused with the heavy, electric sounds of Black Sabbath. It was released as the only single from Vol. 4 with “Laguna Sunrise” on the B-side, although it didn’t manage to make it onto a single chart.
But numbers and charts and sales figures aren’t everything. “Tomorrow’s Dream” is still a great, haunting, and surprisingly emotional tune that’s a favorite of any Sabbath fan.
6. “End of the Beginning”
Black Sabbath have been going strong — well, on and off, but relatively strong — for decades now. You’d think that at some point between the 1960s and this year, they would’ve lost their way or dipped in quality and never recovered from it. And you’d be right to think that, because that’s the way it is with most bands.
“End of the Beginning” was the opening track from their album 13, which was the big release when they got back together for a four-year stint that will end this year. Being the first track on their reunion album, “End of the Beginning” was Black Sabbath’s comeback song. It would have been easy to let fans down, but they pulled it off.
It was the perfect song to return to our ears with it. It’s long and unwieldy and epic and when you’re listening to it, you escape into a world of apocalypse and heavy metal. As soon as the term “robot ghost” comes up, you know it’s classic Sabbath.
Anything about witches or robots or the occult and you know you’re in uniquely Sabbath territory. They’re the kinds of things that would sound childish if done wrong. But Ozzy has a way of making them awesome, even for adults. All in all, a great song.
“Supernaut” is a mostly instrumental piece, but there’s serious talent on display. The blaring, amplified sound of Tony Iommi’s electric guitar is so raw and uncut. It’s the kind of sound you don’t get in music today. Nowadays, you get untalented people who enhance their voice and sounds with computer software to make it all sound perfect.
What results is utter tripe. There’s no soul to it; it’s just computer-generated, artificial noise. But “Supernaut” is different. It showcases immense talent. No computers were involved in making it; that’s just Iommi’s fingers strumming on a guitar and sending the sounds blasting through an amp.
And that’s before Bill Ward’s drum solo comes into play. Drum solos are usually just filler. The band will leave the drummer out on the stage to keep the audience occupied for a few minutes while they nip backstage for a couple of lines. That’s just the music business for you.
But Ward is one of those drummers who engage the audience during a drum solo — they usually just tune it out until the rest of the band return with white-powdered nostrils. And Ward’s never been given a better chance to show off than on “Supernaut.”
“Supernaut” was a favorite of both Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
4. “Children of the Grave”
Master of Reality is without a doubt the trippiest Black Sabbath album you’ll ever hear and that’s it’s USP, but what is perhaps the least trippy song on the album is also quite possibly its best. “Children of the Grave” is a song about peace and love and understanding veiled in the shadow of Sabbath’s dark persona.
Sure, it is a staple of the mosh pit and it warns listeners of revolution and anarchy on the streets. But it’s not trying to inspire Satanic hatred; quite the opposite. The band are simply telling parents to “show the world that love is still alive” instead of using fear against their kids. Otherwise, their kids will eventually rise up and show them who’s boss.
That’s all. It’s not a threat. It’s not even a warning. It’s just a suggestion. And it has one of Sabbath’s best and most memorable guitar riffs.
3. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath may be Black Sabbath’s greatest album. It’s a toss-up between that and Vol. 4 for sure. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is certainly the catchiest. It has the best guitar riffs; it’s the best one to bang your head to. The lyrics on this one are pretty typical Sabbath, like, “the gates of life are closed on you, past the point of no return.”
However, it does have one nice little lyrical inflection that comes out of nowhere. Ozzy sings, “fill your head all full of lies,” in the first chorus and the song dives straight into the next verse. But the second time he sings it, the chorus guitar beat continues and you’re wondering where it’s going next and then he adds, “…you bastards!!”
It’s a nice little touch you’d only get in a Sabbath song. And then it goes straight into a heavy guitar solo. Overall, the lyrics are catchy, the guitar and drums are moving so fast and loud that you can bang your head hard to them, and that’s really all you’re asking for in a Black Sabbath song. It would be a great one to have seen live, if anyone missed it.
“Paranoid” is easily the best known and best loved Black Sabbath song in the mainstream. It’s also pretty highly regarded amongst the fan base, too. It’s the title track from the band’s second album and it’s fast-paced, catchy. You can bang your head to it. It’s quick, it’s tragic, it’s aggressive. It’s great. It’s everything that Sabbath is about. ‘
But the band hates it. According to bassist Geezer Butler, he wrote the song as “an afterthought” since their new album needed “a 3-minute filler,” per the request of the record company. He said, “I quickly wrote the lyrics and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.”
Now that you know that little tidbit, you’ll be able to hear in Ozzy’s voice on the song that he’s reading the damn thing off a piece of paper in the recording studio. That’s crazy, right? The song that they’ll be remembered for forever was merely filler. Ozzy didn’t even learn the lyrics before they started recording.
And one of their best albums got named after it and it was released as their first ever single. But regardless of what anyone thinks — even the guys who made song — “Paranoid” is great.
It’s also apparently a joke in Finland of all places. Smart alecks shout out at music concerts, “Soittakaa ‘Paranoid!’” (“Play ‘Paranoid!’”), regardless of the performing artist, because they think that’s funny.
1. “War Pigs”
“War Pigs” is Black Sabbath’s attempt at an anti-war song. Everyone who was creating music during the Vietnam War from Bob Dylan to John Lennon did an anti-war song, and Sabbath of course made theirs with Satanical overtones.
Its original title was “Walpurgis,” which bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler explains as “sort of like Christmas for Satanists.” He named his anti-war song after it because “to me, war was the big Satan.” However, the title had to change because the record company thought it sounded “too Satanic.”
The band also wanted it to be their first single, but the label insisted on it being “Paranoid,” so they put “War Pigs” on the other side. According to Butler, the song, which compares military generals to “witches at black masses,” is not about “politics or government or anything,” but rather about “evil.”
He says that “War Pigs” is “totally against the Vietnam War about how these rich politicians and rich people start all the wars for their benefit and get all the poor people to die for them.”