Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’: Round 51 – Rob’s choice

Black Sabbath - ParanoidI 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.


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.

The MC5 – Kick Out The Jams; round 20, Nick’s choice

When Tom said “bring something loud” I thought about some kind of clever definition of loud, and bringing a record of over-compressed ballads or mushed-up AOR or something, but only for a second. My second thought was to bring XTRMNTR by Primal Scream, but upon revisiting it revealed itself to be 24 seconds longer than our allowed album length of 60 minutes – given that I’ve broken the rules so often I thought I’d adhere to them for once, and look elsewhere. The raucous guitars and screaming, noise-descending chaos of XTRMNTR made me think of an older record, though, so I bypassed Fugazi and the recently-reformed At The Drive-In and went to the source – The MC5, and their legendary debut album, recorded live over two nights of Halloween weekend 1968 and Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, notorious for its guitars, energy, sermonising, and the profane introduction to the title track that got them dropped by Elektra.

I first bought Kick Out The Jams when I was about 17 or 18, and we played it for the first time at my friend Ben’s house. His dad had a big stereo, and we were astonished by the guitar sound, which was nothing like we’d heard from other 60s music before; it felt like the motherlode of alternative rock, grunge, punk, metal, anyone and everyone who’d tried to squeeze an amplified, distorted, excited squall of riffs out of a guitar. It was great.

Factor in the crazed sermonising (I’d not listened to Kick Out The Jams in years, but could still quote along with every word – “I wanna see a sea of hands!”; “Are you ready to testify? I give you a testimonial; The MC5!”; the infamous use of the word “m*th*r*ck*r”, etc etc), the crowd noise, the energy of the rhythm section, Rob Tyner’s squealing vocals to “Ramblin’ Rose” – at astonishing odds with his voice (assuming it’s him) giving introductory testimonial – and you’ve got a hell of a record. It’s mad to think that most of the band were only a couple of years older when they recorded it than I was when I first heard it (guitarist Wayne Kramer was only 20).

If I’m honest, it wanes a little bit after the first four songs, the tempos slow, the energy dips, and by the time Starship’s 8 minutes of Sun Ra-inspired explorations roll around I’m losing interest; Lester Bangs’ review of it for Rolling Stone was apparently unfavourable, describing it as “ridiculous, overbearing [and] pretentious”, and you can certainly see where he’s coming from during the dirgy “Borderline” and “Motor City is Burning”.

But those first four songs are still immense; the twin-guitar chaos of “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)”, the irresistible momentum and chaos of “Come Together”, the shock of “Ramblin’ Rose” and the fact that the title track somehow seems to embody the platonic essence of every piece of energised, loud guitar music ever made before or since…

Rob listened: The sound of religious fervour fired through with pure adrenalin. The first half of ‘Kick Out The Jams’ could serve as a one-shot tester for anyone who’s never heard rock and roll before. If you don’t get it after those first four tracks, you never will. Back to chamber music with you. If, however, the wave catches you, dive in. The waters are choppy, the currents dangerous, but there’s a hell of a time to be had. [File under both ‘mixed’ and ‘painfully over-extended’ metaphors].

Tom Listened: In contrast to Big Black, I fully expected to fall for Kick Out The Jams (and have almost bought it on many occasions in the past), but I just couldn’t get into it. Obviously close relatives to Iggy and The Stooges both geographically and sonically, on closer inspection I found little in common between our two offerings other than the fact they are both, indeed, LOUD. But whereas I love The Stooges pounding bass lines and grooviness I found KotJ to be too screechy for my taste and, whilst I’m sure that once you dig a bit there is treasure to be unearthed, I think the fact that Graham’s  reaction was positive upon also hearing this for the first time on the night suggests that, for me, this may be one of those records best left on the shelf.

Graham Listened: Whatever the secret recipe of rock might be, energy and madness must surely feature in the ingredients. Perhaps unfairly compared to Funhouse, I found far more of both in KotJ and it kept my attention longer. Maybe I could access this easier as buried in the madness there is some  guitar work and grooves  I could relate to Jimmy Page on early Led Zep stuff. All in all, wonderfully, “out-there man”!


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