Tony Iommi on Sabbath's Occult Past

The Dark Lord of heavy metal guitar reflects on Sabbath's early image as rock sorcerers.

On the first Black Sabbath album there were overt references to Lucifer and Satan, and there was an inverted cross image on the British version. After that the references were less specific, and songs like “The Wizard” are almost anti-demonic—but the satanic image really stuck.
Yes it did. And when we first came out it sort of brought with it a whole series of problems, particularly in America. Doing something like that left us open to all sorts of things. The imagery was really created by the record company, certainly on the album cover—the inverted cross and stuff like that. But the imagery did, I suppose, change to a point as we went on.

I read that you were surprised and a little disturbed when the British record company put the inverted cross in.
I don’t know if we were disturbed, but when they put that in, as I said, that sort of did open a can of worms with everybody—the churches and the lot of them came out against everything. It hadn’t been done by anybody else before so obviously we got the full brunt of it. Now if you did it people would say, “So what?” But then it was a big thing and we had people trying to stop us from playing here and there—all sorts of weird things happened to us in the early days because of that imagery. But we still went ahead with it even on stage. And later on we had the stage sets built with gargoyles and God knows what else. It was a part of what we did. We were very interested in the satanic side of stuff—certainly Geezer and myself. We were interested in the occult just out of curiosity.

How long did you continue that interest?
It’s always been an interest and still is. We wondered what would happen if we did certain things, just like we wondered about life after death. We got into all sorts of stuff. Maybe it was the drugs in those days—I don’t know! And we’re still using that imagery with Heaven & Hell.

You can’t really be a metal band these days unless you’ve got some sort of satanic imagery.
God! How far they’ve gone now. If we’d done that in the early days we would have been shot.

Did you guys ever kind of creep yourselves out and wonder whether Satan might actually appear onstage at some point?
Well, all sorts of thing happened—you wouldn’t believe it—but Satan never appeared on stage. It started getting pretty heavy for us with not just the churches, but with the Satanists themselves turning up at gigs and hotels. We thought, “What have we done? What’s going on now?” And we did get wrapped up in athe bloody Son of Sam thing, as well, because he recited some of our songs. We thought, “God, this was all we need—one thing after another.”

Photo by Paul Haggard