The Christian Right has long been a powerful and vocal component of American culture, influencing corporate and government policy in the name of family values. In an effort to maintain moral ground, fundamentalist activists have found, and derided, Satan’s impact in a wide array of activities, many of them rooted in popular culture. In the same vein that ostensible witches were hunted and persecuted in fifteenth-century Europe, so Lucifer is rooted out in such insidious occult areas as board games, television, children’s movies, and pop music. Any mention of New Age spirituality, astrology, witchcraft, or the Devil himself is viewed as the epitome of evil. Parker Brothers’ ouija board, fantasy role-playing games, and Black Sabbath have all been singled out for their Satanic influences. The following introductory article aims to focus specifically on one such figure in an attempt to understand the nature of this derision and how it may be evolving in the new millennium.
Branded a Satanist since his days in Black Sabbath, at the vanguard of the heavy-metal rock genre, the now self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness has become a household name and a veritable “Father of the Year.” Through a brief biographical sketch, it becomes evident that Ozzy Osbourne is far from a worshipper of the Dark Lord, but merely a talented iconoclast with a flair for creating controversy, and thus publicity. A comparison can be made between Ozzy Osbourne and the turn of the century occultist, Aleister Crowley. Aleister Crowley too was branded a devil-worshipper, and equally relished the attention that came with the title of “Most Evil Man in the World.” The connection between the two has been reinforced by Ozzy Osbourne’s song, ‘Mr Crowley,’ which has been described by some as an homage to the Great Beast himself. While neither of these men actually worshipped the Devil, their anti-authoritarianism, combined with such vices as drugs and women, made them both suitable straw men against whom conservative moralists might rally against.
In 1948, John Michael Osbourne was born into a struggling, working-class family in Birmingham, England. Suffering from dyslexia and seeing the economic hardship of his family, Ozzy Osbourne left school at the age of fifteen. Though he worked a number of menial jobs, from plumber’s assistant to killing cows in a slaughterhouse, none satisfied him either emotionally or financially. He opted for a brief life of crime that saw him arrested more than once for petty theft and burglary. Two months in prison convinced him that crime was not the path he wanted to take.
Still searching for himself, Ozzy Osbourne decided to follow the dreams of many young British folk inspired by the recent success of The Beatles. With no technical skills as either a musician or a singer, Ozzy Osbourne placed an ad in a local record store stating pragmatically: “Ozzy Zig seeks gig. Owns own PA.” From this posting, he soon joined three other local musicians, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, and together they and formed a blues band, which the de rigueur of the day. Originally called the Polka Tulk Blues Band, they later changed the name to Earth. Meeting with little success, the band sought to change. Noting that people paid to see watch movies that scared them, the band mused that people might similarly pay to listen to scary music. Inspired by the title of a William Henry Pratt horror film, ‘Geezer Butler,’ the group’s bassist, penned the song, ‘Black Sabbath,’ the title of which would also become their new name. With the renamed band, they transformed the everyday blues they had been playing a plodding, sombre sound, combined this with lyrics drawn from gothic horror, and thus aimed to strike fear into the hearts of those who would listen. Thus, from the modest union of, in Ozzy Osbourne’s words, “four dimps from Birmingham,” the heavy metal rock genre was born.
Black Sabbath, emerging from the poor, working class of Birmingham had great difficulty breaking into the busy London music scene. They infused common rock and roll with an aggressive sense of frustration known only to the silent working classes of the time. This sense of frustration would eventually catch on with a vast population that connected with Black Sabbath at an emotional level. Still, the rock establishment was slow to catch on.
Black Sabbath catered to the emotions of the disenfranchised. As the drummer, Bill Ward, put it, “Most people are on a permanent down […] however, just are not aware of it. We are trying to express it for the people.” They combined gothic horror with the dark and gloomy world-view of the downtrodden and added a thunderous soundtrack that expressed the turbulence of their own lives powerfully. Black Sabbath certainly succeeded in creating a musical style that might instil fear, but they also unintentionally succeeded in encapsulating the emotional state of a large segment of the silent population. Building upon the sombre atmosphere of the music and lyrics, the record company for Black Sabbath marketed the group with an emphasis on ‘Black Magic.’ The album contained a picture of an inverted crucifix and a picture of a black-clad woman, what many believed to be a witch. An early press release stated that the band, with its name change from Earth to Black Sabbath, was getting more in tune with the dark arts, going so far as to claim that the bassist, Geezer Butler, had perfected techniques to summon a demon. This first record was appropriately released on a Friday 13th in 1970.
As part of the counterculture movement growing out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, many who had become dissatisfied with traditional society and religion were turning to alternative forms of spirituality, often in the form of occult philosophies and popularised Eastern mysticism. Almost immediately, the band issued denials of any involvement in black magic and Satanism. Although they were interested in the gothic subject matter, actual involvement in the occult terrified them. Still, covens of witches invited them to play at black masses, and Satanists stalked the halls of their hotels. Alex Sanders, one of the early fathers of the burgeoning Wiccan movement, invited Black Sabbath to play a particular concert for a ritual at Stonehenge. When they refused, however, the self-proclaimed “King of the Witches” is said to have put a curse upon them. In response to the unwanted attention, Black Sabbath began wearing hastily constructed aluminium crosses to ward away evil, but this was no avail in warding off their image as a group of occultists and Satan worshippers. While some critics were condemning Black Sabbath as, “Black Magic for the sick masses,” Geezer Butler replied, “People like us because they want to listen to our music, not because of any black magic gimmicks. We only do two numbers about black magic in fact, and they are both warnings against it.” Despite their attempts, the media latched onto the notion of their Satanic involvement and the image stuck.
Their music was not the only aspect of Black Sabbath that provoked fear, however, as, in addition to their working-class heritage and occult persona, the lifestyle adopted by the young rising stars was less than conservative. With increasing success, the temptations of fawning young women and recreational drugs consumed the young foursome, like many thrust suddenly and drastically into fame and fortune. Within a decade of their first album, Black Sabbath was a gang of drug-addicted alcoholics living in a continuous daze, though somehow still capable of producing immensely popular music. Moreover, this was the only background for the derision that would later face Ozzy Osbourne when he embarked upon his solo career in the 1980s.
After a decade with Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne was fired, ostensibly due to his over-indulgence in drugs and alcohol, although his lack of technical musical knowledge and his compulsive wildness had always made him somewhat of an outsider among the four. Succumbing to a deep depression after losing his best friends, combined with the recent deaths of both his parents and a separation from his first wife, Ozzy Osbourne locked himself in a hotel room with the determined goal of drinking his way to oblivion. He was only saved from himself when Sharon Arden, the daughter of manager Don Arden, arrived at his door to claim a debt. When she saw Ozzy Osbourne’s deplorable state, she promised to become his manager if he would promise to clean himself up. With her confidence in him, Ozzy Osbourne gained a renewed spirit and launched his solo career with the 1980 album, ‘The Blizzard of Ozz.’ Unleashed in his right, Ozzy Osbourne’s manic personality not only entrenched his name as a rock and roll icon but also enraged conservative sensibilities like never before.