It is hard to imagine how terrifying Black Sabbath must have seemed when they released Paranoid in the autumn of 1970. Nowadays, they are metal royalty but at the time they may as well have sprung up from hell itself.
Other rock bands at the time had their rough edges but remained approachable. The Rolling Stones were mostly writing about girls and partying. Creedence Clearwater Revival had obvious influences from safer genres like country and soul. Even Hendrix was not afraid of penning a blissful love song now and then.
But Black Sabbath were different. Sabbath felt like pure evil in audio form and they clearly revelled in it.
For proof of this, you do not need to look further than the opening track, ‘War Pigs’. Beginning with an ominous crawl to the first verse, all angular guitar, and bass riffs. An air raid siren wails away to indicate the metaphorical bombing you are about to be subjected to.
And then the main riff hits you. Guitarist Tony Iommi slams your head against the wall with a devastating two chord punch over and over.
Meanwhile, Ozzy Osbourne conjures up some of the most vivid and horrifying imagery in a rock song. Hollering about burning bodies, poisoned minds, and Satan himself laughing at mankind’s feeble attempts to not kill each other. It remains a startling picture to this day.
In just one song, Black Sabbath showed all their contemporaries how to write the genre that we now call metal. Other bands came close but were not able to bottle pure fear in the same way.
Deep Purple had some chaotic riffs on their In Rock LP from earlier in the year but the blues influences were still strong. Same goes for acts like Cream and Led Zeppelin who feel positively tame by comparison.
Some of the underground groups from the time had a crack at sounding busier and more frenetic. The Stooges for instance, with their sexually charged lyrics and raucous live shows. Bands like Steppenwolf and Sir Lord Baltimore also followed this fast and loose style of song writing but they all feel much more indebted to punk rock. At the time, nothing sounded like Sabbath.
But it was not just metal that the band were pioneering on Paranoid. There is experimentation, odd recording techniques and melding of styles all over the album.
The closing track ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ has that trademark Sabbath heaviness, but it also swings like a great soul track. Complete with a jazzy riff that shifts restlessly.
Jazz crops up frequently on the record, thanks to the bands hidden weapon, drummer Bill Ward. Breaking up the monstrous guitar and bass and the haunting vocals is copious drum fills and weird patterns.
The average band will use their drummer as a timekeeper, to keep everyone else in check. Bill does this but also throws in flurries of drumming chops. Showing off his skills while also making the music even more apocalyptic with furious lunges all over the kit.
The one quiet spot on the album is the moody and calming ‘Planet Caravan’. A rare love song for Sabbath complete with a gentle, soothing bass line and a middle eastern sounding guitar rhythm.
You might think that it sounds dangerously close to a hippie tune until you realise the lyrics, penned by bassist Geezer Butler, are about drifting endlessly through space with your lover. Marvelling at the size of the universe together.
The ethereal tone is heightened with bizarre electronic murmurs that pan from one speaker to another like pieces of cosmic debris passing you by.
Even a track like ‘Iron Man’ has its quirks. Most people associate the song with its monolithic riff that sees Osbourne, Iommi and Butler all playing the same phrase in a pummelling race to the finish. But just as noteworthy is the buzzing, robotic call of “I am Iron Man” which was achieved by having Osbourne sing directly into a desk fan.
It is perhaps no surprise that this bizarre and punishing record with all its strange production choices, was met with ambivalence from critics when it first released.
Respected American critic Robert Christgau gave it a mediocre C- in his review and compared the music to a campy horror film. Writing for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs called the band “unskilled labourers” and said the album was full of dribbling guitar, plodding bass lines and “stiff recitations of Cream clichés”.
Paranoid received almost no airplay on commercial radio in Europe or North America. This left the band to build up their reputation with successive albums.
They also had the ability to win over audiences at festivals such as 1974’s California Jam alongside unlikely co-headliners like Earth, Wind and Fire and the Eagles.
It was in the crowds of these festivals and grimy basement shows that Black Sabbath found their audience who would make their mark on the world in the coming decades.
Love for Sabbath and Paranoid has been rampant since the 80’s. Tracks from the album have been covered by a diverse range of artists from Faith No More and Metallica to Big Country and Cake. Even sugary Swedish pop group the Cardigans did a cutesy rendition of ‘War Pigs’.
The nature of the bands influence was summed up well by Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, in an interview with Rolling Stone.
“Eight years old, I put on the Black Sabbath record and my life is forever changed. It sounded so heavy. It rattled the bones. I wanted that feeling”.
This would prove to be their legacy. Black Sabbath would teach a legion of suburban kids there was a different way to perceive the world. That there was a way to harness their anger, boredom and restlessness and turn it into something beautiful.
Fifty years later, Black Sabbath are the undisputed champions of heavy metal. They have sold millions of records, been on sold out tours around the world and are beloved by critics and fans alike.
But it is in their disciples that their sound will live on forever. The ominous lyrics of Slayer. The weirdness of Faith No More. The aggression of Slipknot. The sound of metal.
Words by Sam Bullock
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