I was a punk, in spirit and predilection at least, if too middle class and too young to actually, like, be one. I knew nothing of Black Sabbath, but had them bracketed with both Led Zeppelin (hippies, basically) and heavy metal (a laughable music which took the sonic force of hardcore punk, largely removed the humour, replaced the desperate energy with technical proficiency and then wrapped the whole package in spandex).
Then in 1999 I was sent a review copy of ‘The Last Supper’, a documentary built around the Black Sabbath reunion tour of 1999. I watched it and within ten minutes realised I was wrong. Three things particularly struck me. Firstly, they rocked. They were four guys who seemed about to blow the walls out from whichever faceless Enormodome they happened to have rolled up to. Secondly, they were genuinely down to earth, funny, thoughtful and entertaining. They’d been to the ends of the earth in all sorts of ways, but still seemed like people you could enjoy hanging out with. Thirdly, Ozzy Osbourne, by then known as a reality TV freakshow, and on the evidence of these shows barely able to perambulate about the stage effectively, is one hell of a frontman.
So I bought a ‘Best Of…’ and then a while later I bought ‘Paranoid’ and I came to realise that much of the music I have loved or been intrigued by, can be found somewhere downstream from Sabbath, drinking from this dark wellspring.
‘Paranoid’, released in 1970, is Black Sabbath’s second album. It’s everything it’s reputed to be but not at all what you might expect. Perhaps the reason I get along so well with it is that unlike so very much of the music it inspired, it is unpretentious, direct, humane and, frankly, charmingly shoddy in parts. Spot the times Ozzy has to stretch a syllable to cover the space of two because the lyrics just don’t scan to the music. Accept that the opening lines of ‘War Pigs’, easily among the finest, most evocative in rock history, JUST REPEAT THE SAME WORD instead of finding a rhyme: “Generals gather in their masses/Just like witches at black masses”.
Nonetheless, ‘Paranoid’ succeeds through the sheer blunt force of its intention. ‘War Pigs’ is amazing, ‘Iron Man’ a spiralling riff-fest and ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ boogies and rolls irresistibly. And amongst this, none of the high-school satanism we’ve been conditioned to expect from the band. Instead they deliver forceful social commentary, chilling portraits of mental illness and disintegration and oppressive nuclear paranoia. ‘War Pigs’ is as powerful an anti-war song as I know, at least the equal of, if not better than, ‘Masters of War’. ‘Hand of Doom’ is a genuinely frightening warning about where drug abuse would lead you. Nowhere are we invited to take Lucifer’s hand and skip off to Hades for a tea party.
Critics were snooty about ‘Paranoid’ on its release and sure, it had little of the sophistication the early Seventies may have revered. But it smashed a sledgehammer through a wall no-one never suspected was there and music has not been the same since.[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Pw83GXdDvfI%5D
Tom Listened: Of all the genres of music, ‘heavy metal’ (not sure this fully qualifies) is the one I find the hardest to appreciate – I have never found anything remotely pleasurable or interesting in anything I have heard that would fall under that banner. I am intrigued about why this would be, what it is about the music that causes this aversion but have always come up short.
I was delighted that Rob took Paranoid because so often the motherlode sounds so much better than what it spawned – DRC has exploded so many misconceptions for me that I was fully expecting a similar reaction to this….but, alas, I didn’t get it, and now I doubt I ever will. My loss I suppose.
(Really like the album cover though).
Nick listened: The vicissitudes of cultural memory being what they are, I’m more familiar with Ozzy Osborne’s wife and children than I am with him, except as a bat-eating, delirium-tremor riddled caricature. And part of the soundtrack to a Robert Downey Jr superhero movie. I’ve always avoided metal for myriad reasons, from heavy to black to doom to nu to hair, but it is sometimes worth going back to the progenitors: I quite like some Led Zep, if you strip away the lyrics about hobbits. So this was actually really good, but in an “I’m glad I’ve heard that” rather than an “I must own this” way; the riffs were awesome, the rhythm section brilliantly unsophisticated (but not hidden in the mix), and Ozzy, well… he wasn’t batshit, he was really good.