How Black Sabbath Creates a Tribal Bond with Its Fans

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One of the miracle stories of rock music is the resurgence of Black Sabbath. In 2013, the band overcame serious setbacks — substance abuse, internal strife, and cancer among them — to release its first-ever Billboard Number 1 album and complete a successful tour of North America that will continue to South America and Europe. Three of the band’s founding members, now in their 60s, are playing with renewed passion and energy even as one of them, lead guitarist Tony Iommi, receives treatment for lymphoma. I believe the success of Black Sabbath demonstrates the power of tribalism – a mysterious but effective form of audience bonding.

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Tribalism occurs when people or organizations create a cult-like bond with their followers, often through the use of visual symbols, language, and rituals. Tribal brands (and musicians are brands, too) make their fans feel like they are members of a special club, no matter how big that club actually is. Harley-Davidson creates tribalism through events and In-n-Out Burger through its Not-So-Secret Menu.  Tribal branding is essential to the success of many pro and amateur sports teams.

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Black Sabbath embodies a special kind of tribalism that combines a heavy dose of attitude, powerful music, the appeal of a Satanic jester and a lot of good old-fashioned head banging.

Exclusionary Music

Central to Black Sabbath’s tribal appeal is a body of music characterized by dark energy that has frightened parents and certain religious groups for decades.

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Black Sabbath’s music has always inhabited a world of violence, emotional upheaval, decadence, and despair, evident in landmark songs such as “Paranoid” and “Black Sabbath” that have defined Heavy Metal.

As such, the band’s music is exclusionary, which is essential to tribalism. For a person or organization to create tribal appeal, they must create a sense of otherness: you belong to us, not the other tribes. The music of Black Sabbath draws a line in the sand: you are either for us or against us. Join our tribe or stay the hell away. By contrast, the Beatles are not a tribal band because the music of the Beatles is accessible and nearly universally admired, even by casual listeners. It’s a lot easier to cozy up to “All You Need Is Love” than to “Paranoid.”

Black Sabbath’s debut album in 1970 was a sign of things to come: scary lyrics (“Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling/Watches those flames get higher and higher/Oh no, no, please God help me”), Ozzy Osbourne’s plaintive voice, Geezer Butler’s churning bass, the thudding drumwork of Bill Ward, and the searing lead guitar of Iommi (who would later be ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the Top 25 guitarists of all time).

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The band would continue to plumb the depths of the human condition for more than 40 years, with songs like “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and albums such as Heaven and Hell.

Along the way, Black Sabbath endured turmoil (fueled by drug abuse of historic proportions) and a period of inactivity. Ozzy Osbourne left the band to pursue a solo career, but even apart from Black Sabbath, he contributed to Sabbath’s sinister reputation, writing controversial songs such as “Suicide Solution” that only confirmed for the band’s critics that Black Sabbath was a force for evil (especially when Osbourne was sued by parents who claimed the song contributed to the suicide of their son).

That three core members of the band would record together again was something of a miracle; the 2013 release of the album 13, which became Sabbath’s first-ever Number 1, was astonishing.

And with 13, Geezer, Iommi, and Osbourne show no sign that age has mellowed their sound, as demonstrated by the guitar-heavy single “God Is Dead?”

Author William Irwin, PhD, commenting on the band’s overwhelmingly dark, intimidating sound for Psychology Today, claims the band has successfully captured the sound of diabolus in musica, or the “Devil’s Interval“:

From the opening riffs of the song “Black Sabbath” through most of their classic albums, the music can sound downright evil. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the secret to this sound is something known as the Devil’s Interval or diabolus in musica. The sound is so ominous that this interval was supposedly banned by clerics in the Middle Ages for fear that it would raise the devil himself. Still, what actually makes this musical interval sound evil? The diabolus in musica is also known as a tritone (or diminished fifth). Spanning three tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener.

You might suspect that the boys in Black Sabbath rediscovered this tritone in a dusty old tome and purposely used it to create a sinister sound. But no. The tritone came to them by way of classical music. Geezer Butler was a fan of The Planets, an orchestral suite by the composer Gustav Holst. On the day before Tony Iommi came up with the epoch-making riff for the song “Black Sabbath Butler played “Mars, the Bringer of War” on his bass. Guess what figures prominently in “Mars”? The tritone. It must have stuck in Iommi’s subconscious because out it came the next day. The tritone became a signature element of Black Sabbath’s music and a mainstay in later heavy metal music.

However you want to describe the origin of Black Sabbath’s sound, I witnessed its impact recently when the band created an intensely tribal experience at the First Midwest Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park, Illinois.

I have never seen so many people in one space worked into such an emotional frenzy (except perhaps at a Pentecostal church), expressing a rabid love captured by this fan blog post.

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From the start of the show, the band (minus founding drummer Bill Ward) sent a surge of energy throughout the auditorium with the opening salvo of “War Pigs.” The crowd, ranging from teens to Baby Boomer bikers, was on its collective feet from the start, pumping their fists and screaming with a raw fury.

Black Sabbath does not play songs; the band unleashes anthems, punctuated with Iommi’s scorching guitar solos (some of the most mesmerizing I’ve ever heard in concert) and Butler’s lively bass sound — even more remarkable given that Iommi alternates tour dates with trips to the doctor to receive treatment for the cancer that struck him in 2012. These are the kinds of songs that do not make you want to dance or smile; they inspire mass screaming and head banging — in short, an emotional outpouring.

Lead singer Ozzy Osbourne, who has improbably played the role of both madman and loveable stoner through his career, played the role of shaman at the Tinley Park show, exhorting the crowd to clap, raise their hands, and sing. He alternated between clowning (borrowing an audience member’s jester hat at one point) and snarling. His eyes occasionally flashed the demonic gaze that has repulsed and attracted people for decades:

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Ozzy Osbourne does not move like Jagger. He won’t bring sexy back like Justin Timberlake. This a man who once bit off the head of a bat in concert. At age 64, he continues to make headlines for substance abuse and steadfastly refers to Black Sabbath’s music as “Satanic blues.” And he bonds with his fans onstage. He creates a line in the sand. And that’s just the point of tribalism.

Visual Symbols

Visual symbols often play an essential role in creating tribal appeal. Sports teams tout their logos. Nike fans create tattoos from Nike’s Swoosh logo as a badge of pride. Black Sabbath’s visual iconography acts as a velvet rope to turn away those who have no business belonging. Its first album featured the image of an upside-down cross on the inside jacket, an obvious symbol of the occult:

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Tony Iommi would later claim that the disturbing symbol was inserted into the album artwork by the band’s record company. But no matter; from the start, the band reveled in dark images befitting the tone of its music, such as the fallen angel:

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And its album covers could be downright scary:

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Inevitably, fans took note, and adopted its symbols as their own:

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It’s no wonder that the symbolism, combined with the band’s music and lyrics, would fuel speculation about Satanic ties that continues now.

And Black Sabbath continues to express itself visually and inspire commentary, such as speculation about hidden meanings embedded in the video for “God Is Dead?”

Visual imagery also added to the Tinley Park show I witnessed. Video clips projected on a giant screen displayed a constant stream of images, sometimes evocative (bombs falling and exploding to the song “War Pigs”), sometimes disturbing (women in stages of bondage during the song “Dirty Women”). The official touring merchandise emphasizes repressive images, such as this suffocating mask that looks like a cross between Darth Vader and a nuclear waste inspector:

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Of course, Black Sabbath is not the only band to complement its music with strong visuals. The runes that Led Zeppelin created for its fourth album, and the Rolling Stones’s lascivious “rolling tongue” logo, are more famous, and, arguably, far more effective uses of visual iconography.

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But whereas iconography probably helped spread the popularity of Zeppelin and the Stones (as the Swoosh logo did for Nike), Black Sabbath’s fallen angels and upside-down crosses have created a permanent gate. The door is shut, but not locked. The band will not come out to greet you; you have to decide whether you want to go inside.

The Tribe Endures

Black Sabbath has sold more than 70 million records worldwide over the past 40 years. MTV ranks Black Sabbath as the top Heavy Metal band of all time (according to MTV, “Sabbath’s inception marked the moment when rock, blues, psychedelia and the occult fused into a powerfully volatile medium”). But here’s the thing: the album sales and honors really don’t matter. Black Sabbath’s real legacy is the emotional bond it has formed with its fans — the millions who Like the band’s Facebook page, the readers of its fansites, and the headbangers, young and old, who share a ritual when the band takes the stage. As the band has risen, faltered, and returned, the tribe has endured.

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