Black Sabbath’s Debut Cover Art: The Real Story

3 min read

WHAT IS THIS THAT STANDS BEFORE ME?

 

Back in 1970, promotional videos existed but they were very rare. The only time fans caught one was if a broadcast television show happened to play it. After all, we’re talking not only pre-internet but pre-cable television.

The way fans matched visuals with music back in the “Stoned Ages” was by throwing the album onto the turntable, putting on a pair of GIANT headphones, lying back in a bean bag chair and staring at the album cover art.

FIGURE IN BLACK WHICH POINTS AT ME…

 

All the best album covers brought something to the music, and that’s exactly what the sleeve of Black Sabbath’s debut did, released on Friday, February 13, 1970. Sabbath was determined to scare the shit out of you. Sure, it was an idea born from a Boris Karloff movie of the same name, but what a great idea.

Remarkably, for all of their horror rock intentions, the band had no input into the album’s sleeve. Black Sabbath was initially released on Vertigo Records, a brand new subsidiary of the Phillips/Phonogram label. In fact, theirs was only the sixth album released on the label. Vertigo’s roster was diverse — prog-rockers Colisseum, future top 40 stars Manfred Mann and Rod Stewart, Sabbath — but their visual style was consistent. That’s because Vertigo’s sleeves in the early days were the work of one man: Keith MacMillan, aka Marcus Keef.

The album cover was brilliant in representing the music. It could never be mistaken for a collection of Christmas songs!

The photo’s setting is the Mapledurham Watermill, located in Oxfordshire, England. The mill was built sometime during the 1400s and remained in use until shortly after World War II. Remarkably, the mill remains operational to this day, though the flour it grinds is used solely for the treats sold to visiting tourists. Aside from the Black Sabbath album cover, the mill enjoyed one more moment of pop culture fame: It was used as a location for the 1976 film The Eagle Has Landed.

 

The star of the cover, though, is that eerie “figure in black” who “stands before me.” In The Art of the LP, authors Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle write: The ghostly figure dressed in black robes standing there is an actress hired for the shoot by Vertigo Records’ in-house designer “Keef” Macmillan….She may not represent death but must have done a good job of unsettling the more pharmaceutically affected Sabbath fans. Look closely and — supposedly — she’s holding a black cat.

Rumors abounded in the pre-internet days: She was a real witch, “she” is really Ozzy in drag, the photo was taken at an actual “black sabbath,” and perhaps the best one: There was no woman at the photo shoot — the ghostly figure only appeared when the film was developed. As fun as the legends are, that’s all they are: stories. She was really there, really paid for her day’s work, and might have been named Louise.

Another favorite story was that the band had no idea who the apparition was, which happens to be true, though Sabbath may have encountered “Louise” years later. Geezer Butler told author Martin Popoff for his book, Fade to Black: “We had a gig in, I believe, Lincolnshire in England, and this girl came up to us, dressed just like the cover. And she was allegedly that person. Whether it’s true or not, there’s no way of proving it.”

Now, with the band being retired, we will definitely miss the live shows. But the memories are permanently burned into our brains…Thanks for enriching our metal loving lives!