Black Sabbath: An Alternative Counterculture

Theatre and Performance
June 26, 2017

Alice Ridgway examines the imagery used by the band, Black Sabbath, and their role in defining a heavy metal subculture.

The V&A Department of Theatre and Performance holds a large collection of Rock and Pop memorabilia. This assortment of posters, t-shirts, badges, concert tickets and other ephemera allows an insight into pop and sub cultures from the past.  This blog will focus on some examples of objects relating to the heavy metal band, Black Sabbath.

2017 saw the final Black Sabbath tour.  Aptly titled ‘The End,’ the tour marked their departure from the music scene as the band that defined the heavy metal genre.

Black Sabbath’s self titled first album was released in 1970, a time now popularly viewed as an era of free love, utopian visions and prosperity. However Sabbath’s satanic imagery, horror-inspired lyrics and frontman dubbed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ offer a stark contrast to this propagated view of life in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Poster advertising the music group Black Sabbath at Odeon, Hammersmith, 1976, printed ink on paper, S.3640-1995  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The band members’ working class upbringings in the industrial city of Birmingham resonated with a legion of fans who were unable or unwilling to embrace the lifestyle of the middle class counterculture. Black Sabbath offered an outlet for their frustrations and lack of opportunity in a town that was dominated by a future in factory work.

Fans of Black Sabbath used band memorabilia to show their allegiance and create a loyal heavy metal community as fans could be easily identified.

Black Sabbath patch, impressed leather, Black Sabbath patch, S.3156-2010  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Battle jackets became an iconic look. These DIY jackets were mostly leather or denim jackets with cut off sleeves. Fans would sew on their favourite band patches and pins to express their music taste. The jackets would express an individual’s style and each would be unique.

The black leather patch above depicts the bands subversion of religious imagery with gothic gold writing on a black cross. Similarly, the pin badge from 1973 shows a wooden cross inscribed with Black Sabbath and a white hand making ‘the sign of the horns’ which became a popular symbol in heavy metal culture. The imagery of the merchandise aimed to challenge authority, disrupt normality and intimidate people whilst simultaneously uniting the large allegiance of fans in metal subculture.

Black Sabbath badge, 1972-73, S.3161-2010  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Black Sabbath ‘Greatest Hits’ poster and album artwork further illustrates the band’s wish to portray a bleak, satanic aesthetic. The poster uses the painting ‘The Triumph of Death’ by Bruegel in which the army of skeletons comes to destroy the living, wreaking havoc across a desolate landscape. The Black Sabbath logo and writing in a rusty orange mimics the infernal scene unfolding. It can be argued that the landscape of post-war Birmingham following severe Luftwaffe bombing raids and extensive housing demolition were drawn on by the band when selecting the above imagery to celebrate their hit songs.

Poster advertising the recording ‘Greatest Hits’ by the music group Black Sabbath,
printed ink on paper, S.3632-1995  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The imagery embraced by heavy metal bands and their fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stands at odds with the more middle class utopian counterculture most associated with the period.  Ozzy Osbourne, frontman of Black Sabbath, aptly conveys the feelings of early heavy metal subculture:

‘You gotta remember the time, 1968 was still that flower power. To us that was bullshit, living in the dreary, dismal, polluted town of Birmingham. We were very angry about it. We thought, let’s scare people.’

For more information on rock and pop memorabilia in the V&A Collections visit Search the Collections.

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