Revisiting Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4”: How the Band’s 4th Album Marked the Beginning of the End
Released 45 years ago this month, we take a look back at the band’s cocaine-fueled hit album which was the beginning of the end for the band’s classic lineup…
Black Sabbath broke out on the rock scene in 1970 with dark new sound. The band’s self titled debut album arguably started the heavy metal genre. The band’s next two albums, Paranoid and Master of Reality, would launch them into rock stardom with hits such as “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, “Sweet Leaf”, and “Children of the Grave”. Guitarist Tony Iommi brought forth the idea of tuning the guitar down one and half steps which created the heavy sound the band was known for. The low tuning also made it less painful for Iommi to play after his fingers were severed, partially, in a factory accident.
By 1972, the band was at the top of their game. Paranoid was album to chart #12 on the U.S. album charts with virtually no airplay and the following year Master would reach #8 upon its release. When it came time for a 4th album, the band had made some changes…
On Vol. 4, the band started to experiment with newer sounds and not be pigeon holed into the genre they helped create. The was the first to not feature their longtime producer Rodger Brian, instead, production duties were assumed by guitarist Tony Iommi. “The experimental stage we began with Master of Reality continued with Vol. 4, and we were trying to widen our sound and break out of the bag everyone had put us into” says Tony Iommi in a 1992 interview.
The album features the band’s traditional heavy sound with tracks “Tomorrow’s Dream”, “Supernaut” (a favorite of Frank Zappa and Beck Hansen) and “Snowblind” (also the album’s working title but changed by the label due to the song’s obvious reference to cocaine). The tracks have a raw, punk sound that sound like classic Stooges songs. Iommi’s guitar has a dirt, muddy, sound who’s riffs chug along almost as if the band is following him. The band’s experimentation with new sounds can be heard on tracks like “FX”, “Laguna Sunrise” but perhaps the most prominent track to feature the band’s ideas is “Changes”.
With music composed by Iommi and lyrics written by bassist Geezer Butler, “Changes” is a piano ballad inspired by the ongoing breakup between drummer Bill Ward and his wife. Iommi composed track on a piano and a mellotron he found in the ballroom of the Bel-Air mansion the band was renting out at the time. Iommi taught himself to play both. Singer Ozzy Osborne sat down next to Iommi and hummed the melody over the riff while Butler wrote the lyrics. “I thought that was brilliant from the moment we recorded it,” says Ozzy in his memoir.
The acoustic instrumental “Laguna Sunrise” was composed by Iommi after staying up all night watching the sunrise at Laguna Beach. The track features an orchestra and Iommi on acoustic guitar. In his memoir Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi recounts that the band brought the orchestra in to accompany the guitar, however, they refused to play until their parts were properly written. The same orchestra also performed on the track “Snowblind”.
Despite the band’s successful ventures into new sounds and styles, the recording process was plagued with problems which can be attributed to the band’s significant substance abuse. Iommi stated in his biography that the band would have boxes of cocaine delivered regularly. “By the time we got to Bel Air we were totally gone. It really was a case of wine, women and song, and we were doing more drugs than ever before,” says Iommi.
Bill Ward recounted in his biography the troubles of recording the song “Cornucopia”: “I hated the song, there were some patterns that were just horrible”, Ward said. “I nailed it in the end, but the reaction I got was the cold shoulder from everybody. It was like ‘Well, just go home, you’re not being of any use right now.’ I felt like I’d blown it, I was about to get fired.”
In a separate interview, Ward states “Yes, Vol. 4 is a great album, but listening to it now, I can see it as a turning point for me, where the alcohol and drugs stopped being fun.” Butler, in the same interview also recounts the band’s lifestyle during the album “Yeah, the cocaine had set in. We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio … We rented a house in Bel-Air and the debauchery up there was just unbelievable.”
In his biography, I Am Ozzy, Osborne also revisits the band’s debaucheries during the recording, “In spite of all the arsing around, musically those few weeks in Bel Air were the strongest we’d ever been…Eventually we started to wonder where the fuck all the coke was coming from … I’m telling you: that coke was the whitest, purest, strongest stuff you could ever imagine. One sniff, and you were king of the universe.”
Despite the problems caused by the band’s drug use, the album was still a success for the group reaching #13 on the US Charts and eventually reaching gold status a few months later. However, “Tomorrow’s Dream”, the album’s only single, failed to chart. The album has been cited by many heavy metal groups ranging from Iron Maiden to Metallica for its influence in metal music but in spite of all its success and influence, the album would be one of the last to feature the original line up and singer Ozzy Osborne who would be fired from the band due to his extensive drug and alcohol abuse.