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Black Sabbath (1970)
Such was original manager Jim Simpson’s faith in Black Sabbath that an album was recorded and in the can before a deal had been even been signed. Released on Friday 13 February 1970, Geezer Butler claimed "We approved the cover, but it wasn't our decision. We just thought it went with the name." And, according to guitarist Tony Iommi, "That was nothing to do with us. That was a record company's decision to do the inverted cross .“
The sleeve was photographed by Vertigo Records' in-house designer Keith “Keef” Macmillan, who had also created David Bowie's infamous “frock” version of The Man Who Sold The World and later went on to direct music videos for, among others, Kate Bush and Paul McCartney. The cover features a woman standing in front of Mapledurham Mill in Oxfordhsire, just north of Reading. Although not perfectly clear on the grainy photo, close inspection of the LP show that the “witch” (an actress hired for the shoot) is holding a black cat.
War Pigs, the original title for Sabbath’s second release, was vetoed by US label Warners, and the band’s debut US tour initially postponed in the wake of the Manson Family murders. The song itself was originally titled Walpurgis, after the pagan festival to ward off evil, and mutated into War Pigs. When the Paranoid single became a hit, the album was given the same title. The band were on tour in Switzerland when they first saw proofs of the artwork. But it was too late to replace the futuristic, sword waving “war pig” on the cover. According to Jim Simpson, “We felt the artwork was totally inappropriate, but there wasn't time to change it if we were going to meet the release date.“ The band readily admitted that they didn't really know what the word “paranoid” meant either, as in ‘70s Britain the word was regarded as something of an “Americanism”.
Master Of Reality (1971)
A cock-up at the record label's art department meant that the third Sabbath album was called Master and not
Vol 4 (1972)
Sabbath's fourth LP was slated to be called Snowblind as a reflection of the band's spiralling drug use, but once again the group's choice of title was blocked by their label. Despite this, the artwork still carried a dedication to “The great COKE-cola company of Los Angeles”, and named their music publishing company as Rollerjoint Music. The back and front cover featured a stark live shot of Ozzy, once again taken by Keef. As if to redress the imbalance, Tony, Geezer and Bill had two shots each to Ozzy's one inside the booklet that came with original pressings. For their live shows for the rest of the decade, frontman Ozzy was invariably relegated to the side as Iommi took centre stage.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
Discounting the debut's inverted cross, fourth album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is the only record that has anything actually satanic about its design. It was created by Drew Struzan, who would later go on to create blockbuster movie posters for Star Wars and Indiana Jones. According to a 1974 interview with Ozzy, “The front of the cover represents a man dying on his deathbed...there are all these distorted figures bending over him and gloating as he lies there. These figures are actually him at different stages of his life. He's a man of greed, a man who's wanted everything all his life and done all this evil stuff. But flip the album over, and the back represents the good side of life. The person dying on the bed has been really good to people. He's got all these beautiful people crying over him as he's dying. This represents the good and bad of everything.“
Geoff Halpin, who produced the typography on the record, subsequently felt responsible for single-handedly yoking heavy metal music with a Teutonic, almost neo-Nazi look to the genre's logos, with his use of “Schutzstaffel“ capital S's for the title, coupled with an old English-style font for the band's name.
In a music industry and media world now dominated by marketing and focus groups, it's hard to visualize a pre-MTV age when a band was allowed to turn up to a photo session for their new LP wearing an assortment of kaftans, tank tops and red tights. In fact inspired by Surrealist painter René Magritte's La Reproduction Interdite, the original concept came from Sabbath roadie Graham Wright, who envisioned the band dressed completely in black, stood in the corridor of a gloomy castle, staring out of a mirror, surrounded by stained glass. When the record label organised the shoot, it wasn't in the gothic castle as requested, but a photographic studio in London's Soho.
Instructed to bring their stage wear, no black clothes were provided, hence checked underpants showing through Bill's red tights (borrowed from his wife). According to Sounds’ Geoff Barton, later reporting from the Sabotage tour, “Bill Ward was slightly anomalous in his laddered, red ballet tights”, and as if in way of explanation, the drummer claims “We split from our management 18 months ago, and now we handle all our own affairs. It's difficult enough doing that, without having to worry about how you look playing on stage.” Suffice to say Sabotage is one of Tony Iommi’s least favourite sleeves.
Technical Ecstasy (1976)
If the debacle of the Sabotage cover had been the result of a band in need of professional direction and management, Hipgnosis, famed for their iconic sleeves for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, were wisely commissioned to create the design for the following year’s Technical Ecstasy. This featured two robots, designed by George Hardie, painted by Richard Manning and montaged against a photograph taken by Aubrey Powell. “Two robots fucking on an escalator“ was Ozzy's take on the cover, though Hipgnosis founder Storm Thorgerson more delicately describes, “The encounter is one of love at first sight. Robots of the future may not be so humanoid as to fall for each other, but if they do then they might well show it with laser beams and squirts of lubricating fluid.“
Never Say Die! (1978)
Ozzy quit after Sabbath’s 1977 world tour, and made tentative plans to begin a solo career. After returning to record their eighth album in 1978, drummer Bill Ward came up with the title Never Say Die! as a positive rallying cry. The title track had been issued as a single in time for the 10th Anniversary UK tour in June, but the album was not released until October that year. The single sleeve had featured “Henry” the dancing devil, a now familiar Sabbath motif, designed by Geezer Butler and previously used only on tour merchandise. Sabbath were given the choice of two designs for the cover: two US airmen in biohazard gear in front of their aircraft, or a photograph of somebody looking up from a hospital operating table. Though the latter was rejected, it allegedly re-surfaced as the cover of Rainbow’s Difficult To Cure album three years later.