Cover Stories: Black Sabbath’s Self-Titled Debut
What is this that stands before me?
Back in 1970, music fans were pretty limited as far as visual accompaniment went. Promotional videos existed but they were really rare. The only time fans caught one was if a broadcast television show happened to play it. We’re talking not only pre-internet but pre-cable television, after all.
The way fans matched visuals with music back in the stone[d] ages was by throwing the album onto the turntable, putting on a pair of headphones the size of Mickey Mouse ears, lying back in a bean bag chair and staring at the album cover.
Figure in black which points at me…
The best album covers brought something to the music, and that’s exactly what the sleeve of Black Sabbath‘s eponymous debut did, released on Friday, February 13, 1970. Sabbath was hellbent on scaring 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 those early days were the work of one man: Keith MacMillan, aka Marcus Keef.
MacMillan was only in his early twenties when Vertigo opened shop in 1969. Another Keith McMillan almost 15 years his senior was already a well-established photographer in the U.K., which likely explains the pseudonym. Not that anyone would have confused their work: McMillan shot ballet stars and royalty; Keef’s work bordered on the psychedelic, courtesy of infrared film.
The trippy, false color aspect of Keef’s photos was certainly a draw, but the designer’s true genius was creating images that reflected the music within. Martin Popoff and Malcolm Dome quote Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler in their book, The Art of Metal:
The album cover did a brilliant job in representing the music. When I first saw it, I did think, “What the hell is this?” But the more I saw it, the more I became convinced it was visually just right. It’s haunting, eerie, and a little scary. That’s what we were after on the album. I don’t think you could pick up the album and think you were getting 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.”
Keef was back for Sabbath’s next two albums, Paranoid and Master of Reality, but neither sleeve captured the music as well as Black Sabbath. In the case of Paranoid, though, it was hardly the photographer’s fault. That record was supposed to be titled War Pigs, and the artist dutifully adhered to that theme. Fearing Vietnam-era backlash, the band’s label changed the title at the last minute, thematically orphaning Keef’s cover photo.
He worked in album cover design through 1976, and then he switched to video production. A recent profile in Rare Record Collector quotes a 1979 interview with the artist:
I started in the business as a photographer and sleeve designer. About 1968 I started, I used to photo and design album sleeve covers and I did that for seven or eight years. I got a bit fed up doing that because I’d done basically over a thousand by then and I was just basically a little bored with it. And [I] really thought that the up and coming thing was film and specifically video tape for the music business.
His timing couldn’t have been much better. The same article states that Keef produced videos for “Blondie, Queen, Abba, Pat Benatar, Paul McCartney, Blancmange, [and] The Who.” He leveraged that work into a long-running British music video series named The Chart Show, which in turn led to a career that continues to this day as an executive producer of television programs in the U.K. under his given name: Keith MacMillan.
As for Sabbath, they’ve had a pretty okay career, too, and honestly, they still scare the hell out of me!
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