DISCLAIMER: The following article reflects views of the author and the author alone. Anything other than historical fact should be dismissed strictly as B.S. from a BS fan.
Well, here we are again for yet another major Sabbath milestone of 2020 after Heaven and Hell‘s 40th anniversary in April, and Black Sabbath‘s 50th back in February, but this is the big one. Considered by some mainstream critics as “the greatest metal album ever” (Rolling Stone, 2017), Black Sabbath released their sophomore album Paranoid on September 18th, 1970. Fifty years down the road, the world once again finds itself in the midst of social unrest and widespread anxiety, and the tones behind Paranoid still seem right at home. So let’s do a quick recap of the record’s history and see just how salient its echoes remain today.
Rare Breed, The Rest, Mythology & Earth: Sabbath Predecessors
Six months after shearing his fingertips off in a factory accident, guitarist Tony Iommi was still getting over the pain and getting used to shielding the exposed bits of flesh with custom-designed sewing thimbles when he practiced. Around late 1966, Iommi accepted an invitation from drummer Bill Ward to join his Birmingham-based quartet The Rest, covering then-top 20 artists like The Shadows, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Despite some limited success in the local pub scene, The Rest soon fizzled out. Still a young man living with his parents, Iommi had never left Birmingham before, but an offer to join relatively high profile group Mythology near the Scottish border town Carlisle coaxed Iommi (and the rest of…The Rest) to take the three-hour drive up the road.
Mythology’s style catered more to Iommi’s blues tastes and gave him more opportunities to improvise across increasingly extended guitar solos. However, this modicum of progress coincided with a set of obstacles: harder drinking clubs whose surly patrons often demanded popular covers, Bill Ward’s ongoing reluctance to change clothes (a trend that would lend itself to his unfortunate-but-seemingly-fitting nickname “Smelly”), and the band occasionally purchasing hash from a dealer who directly visited Mythology’s shared house (and once left several suitcases of product there for a weekend before disappearing indefinitely). The latter proved to be Mythology’s undoing, with a drug bust (from – you guessed it – those suspicious suitcases) escalating into a widely publicized fiasco that barred the group from getting gigs.
Ward and Iommi were zero-for-two in their pre-Sabbath attempts and now back in Birmingham, the ongoing collaboration continued with a search for a singer. When they saw a posting in a music shop that read, “OZZY ZIG requires gig, owns his own PA”, Iommi rediscovered his former classmate, Ozzy Osbourne, whose friends Iommi had bullied back in school. Osbourne had provided lead vocals for a band formed in 1967 by guitarist Geezer Butler called Rare Breed, and though Butler tried to recruit Ward as his own drummer for a new project, Ward stayed loyal to the existing chemistry between himself and Iommi. When it was suggested that they (along with slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips and saxophonist Aker Clarke) all give it a go together, Butler decided to switch to bass guitar, initially tuning his Fender Telecaster down an octave before borrowing a beat up Hofner bass with a missing string. And after an initial jam session, the six-piece dubbed themselves The Polka Tulk Blues Band, whose sets often included simultaneous solos from both Phillips and Clarke, something the main players weren’t too keen on. Iommi, Osbourne, Butler, and Ward discarded these extraneous elements with a fair amount of passive aggression by telling Clarke and Phillips that Polka Tulk was breaking up, when in reality the remaining members soon re-emerged as The Earth Blues Band, abbreviated shortly thereafter to Earth.
The quartet’s jazz-blues style earned them an opening spot for rising rockers Jethro Tull a couple of weeks after Earth first began gigging, and consequently (in one of rock history’s most fascinating lineup changes), Iommi briefly replaced Mick Abrahams as JT’s lead guitarist. But after moving to London and rehearsing with Jethro Tull for a few sessions, Iommi was wholly turned off by the band’s level of work discipline and lack of casual irreverence, especially surrounding lead singer Ian Anderson and his holier-than-thou demeanor. With Jethro Tull now in the rear-view, Iommi had had it with heavenly hippies but was also dissatisfied with how safe Earth’s sound was, leaving him and his cohorts only one place left to go…
“Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath off Black Sabbath
With Iommi back on guitar, Earth had to address two major issues with their current handle. There was already another “Earth” within the small-time London area circuit (leading to a hilarious case of mistaken identity when a posh venue booked the wrong “Earth” for a black-tie event), and, of more importance, Ozzy hated the name. Osbourne came up with the phenomenal substitute of “Jimmy Underpass and The Six-Way Combo” before Butler glanced out the band’s rehearsal space studio. Across the street, a crowded movie theatre was screening Mario Bava’s 1963 picture Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff, leading to his at-the-time offhand observation about how strange it was, “that people spend so much money to see scary movies”. Butler and Osbourne then co-wrote the lyrics to “Black Sabbath”, tapping into the macabre, occult-leaning aura of Dennis Wheatley, as well as Butler’s own recount of seeing a ghastly bedside apparition…only after admittedly painting the entirety of his flat completely in matte black, save for Butler’s decorations of inverted crosses and depictions of satan (which, from my own personal experience, minus those specific adornments must’ve one hundred percent been a sleep paralysis episode). Tortured lyrics now hastily scribed down like a first draft of the Necrominicon, the band still known as Earth planted a simple tritone loop (employing what classical music had referred to as, “the Devil’s interval”) as the structural effigy behind Ozzy’s visceral, nearly-chromatic read of the verse lyrics, all at a crawling tempo. Sure, the new sound was bleak overall but Ozzy got to enjoy his theatrics, Ward got to enjoy a character-appropriate dank atmosphere, a still-novice Butler could master the simple bass riffs, and even Iommi got to sate his love of the blues with some wah-wah pedal action. Some weeks later, on August 30th, 1969, Ozzy announced to a Workington crowd that Earth had formally changed their name to Black Sabbath, and though this move was undiscussed with the rest of the group prior to the live stage moment (not for the first or last time)…Ozzy did good.
Through rough sketches of “N.I.B.”, “Warning”, “The Wizard”, and the Macabre Four’s eponymous pivot point, “Black Sabbath”, Black Sabbath had four outrageous originals under their belt. The morose sonics and adventurous arrangements of the new stuff didn’t mesh at all with Earth’s traditional twelve-bar blues numbers, but after some convincing from manager Jim Simpson, Black Sabbath acquiesced with a cover of Minneapolis group Crow’s “Evil Woman” (not to be confused with the Fleetwood Mac/Santana hit), both introducing and concluding Sabbath’s willingness to do “something commercial” in one fell swoop.
None of these youngsters had any real experience in a recording studio (even Iommi, who’d ducked out of Jethro Tull before their final Stand Up sessions in April 1969), only onstage pell-mell performances at hazy, liquor-riddled, arid drinking holes over a couple years. And between them… they maaaybe had a total of a few dozen gigs in their still-juvenile days. That said, Black Sabbath apparently absorbed a litany of valuable technical lessons in those twelve short hours recording their self-titled debut, not to mention creating what many refer to as the “original doom metal song”. But as we all know, stumbling upon a cursed windfall can only culminate in something greater and more sinister…
From Walpurgis to War Pigs
Black Sabbath took over the UK countryside like a depraved, frenzied coven after its domestic release the day before Saint Valentine’s in 1970, all while Iommi was crashing at his mother’s home intermittently. When Black Sabbath hit the U.S. in the Summer of 1970, the charts made it clear that Sabbath was due for international success. Renowned live appearances and oft-requested radio singles began looping around the Sabbath’s proverbial Maypole. The temporally-exalted Sabbath reunited with future Judas Priest producer Rodger Chamberlain to help refine the rough material written immediately after Black Sabbath was released on vinyl, including the building blocks beneath “War Pigs” instrumentally composed by Iommi during Sabbath’s Spring 1970 inaugural European tour.
According to Iommi, similar to Black Sabbath‘s tracking process, the Paranoid sessions were pretty compact, albeit expanded to three or four days total. On “War Pigs”, engineer Tom Allon and Chamberlain were the ones to come up with the air raid siren in the building intro along with the decision to speed up recording for its big finish. Allon was behind the piano heard in “Planet Caravan”, and also figured out the best method to record Ozzy’s vocals – through a Leslie rotating speaker with lots of oscillator modulation. Taking a page out of Ian Anderson’s book, Iommi provided the flute performance, which was overdubbed on top of the master recording of “Planet Caravan” played in reverse. Ozzy created the “robot voice” in the intro of “Iron Man” by singing behind a metal fan, re-capturing his initial observation that Iommi’s main guitar riff sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about”.
As for the title track? In the midst of psychedelics, disassociates, and depressants, the millennia-ancient eight-night feast of Walpurgis was considered a reasonable follow-up to Black Sabbath, and why not?! That’s a great sequel title! When then-infantile company Vertigo Records deemed Walpurgis “too satanic”, the band suggested War Pigs in its place. Sabbath wasn’t super heavy on the anti-Vietnam stance, but many Westerners in 1970 were, and an LP entitled War Pigs could’ve come across in a similar anti-establishment vein as Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” to a big portion of listeners. Marcus Keef‘s triple-exposure cover photo of a “War Pig” was already developed and Black Sabbath was ostensibly done with the record, save three minutes of material to meet their contractual obligations. The tired Iommi did as any lead guitarist would do in metal mythology and casually created the aggressive blues-rock spine behind “Paranoid”, with Butler writing the lyrics and Ozzy recording the final vocals in the very first take. An oddly-appropriate substitute title now surfaced, and Paranoid was ready to ship out internationally.
Paranoid came out in its first run on September 18th, 1970, and immediately garnered both praise and controversy in the UK. Within several months of the release, Sabbath was linked by the press to an American nurse taking her own life, but only after homicide detectives discovered a copy of Paranoid endlessly looping on her turntable. “Paranoid” became Black Sabbath’s only top 20 hit, reaching #4 on the UK charts, and enticing screaming fans everywhere. When Paranoid hit the states on January 1st, 1971 the “ritual satanic abuse” pandemonium was still a full decade away, but Black Sabbath had already made the whole world absorb their distant gazes and detached facial expressions, inverted cross necklaces, Crowley-like lyricism, and – let’s just say it – some twisted shit overall. The heart beating behind Summer of Love had finally lost its pulse, and Black Sabbath was lapping up its pool of blood. All said and done, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid tour ran from September 11th, 1970 to April 26th, 1971, during which manager Jim Simpson was fired, Ozzy witnessed the birth of his first child, and the band recorded their third album Master of Reality in full.
Track by Track
The very beginning of “Luke’s Wall/War Pigs” matches the intensity of Sabbath’s eponymous album opener, but quickly shows how much the band had honed their skills in the short time since their debut. The tempo and rhythm changes as “Wall” transitions into “Pigs” mark a matured sense of structure for Sabbath, and their appreciation for space between instruments gives this near eight-minute arrangement a “clean” feel, even with its neurotic ending.
Historians may suggest that the group didn’t by any means “phone in” the album’s hugely successful title track, yet in retrospect, there is something haphazard about the main riff, not just in simplicity of melody but also in its raw performance, almost akin to those of The Stooges’s Ron Asheton. You can feel the proto-punk vibes throughout “Paranoid”, not just in its faster tempo, but its concise arrangement.
As a huge fan of psychedelic rock, “Planet Caravan” is my personal favorite on Paranoid, even though I know its blasphemous to pick that one, or “Changes”, over any of Sabbath’s harder-rocking tracks. But with its creative use of the Leslie (whose best use in rock history is still the “ping” sound effect at the heart of “Echoes” by Pink Floyd off Meddle) and Iommi dipping back into his jazz-blues roots with a clean tone, it could’ve almost been David Gilmour from his Dark Side of the Moon days. Even more interesting to see how the song has been covered over the decades, most notably by fellow metal innovators Pantera.
“Iron Man” is great. Its got a huge sound that just keeps giving and you could tell the guys had a lot of fun writing it. That said, it’s suffered the curse of countless other classic rock songs in that it’s been played a few hundred too many times on the radio and in the media. C’mon y’all, it’s already a repetitive song; we don’t need to repeat it more.
Now prepped with the variety of heaviness across the A-side, “Electric Funeral” is the ideal start to Paranoid‘s B-side, dipping you right into the sludge with lots of distortion and labored vocals, ultimately evoking the wicked nature of Black Sabbath.
For those that paid close attention to “Hand of Doom”, it was a staunchly anti-drug message inspired by soldiers returning from Vietnam and their spiral into heroin addiction. But, of course, many didn’t, and instead jumped to the conclusion that it was a commercial for hard drugs. Listening past the lyrics, “Hand of Doom” is another prime example of Sabbath’s growing understanding of dynamics, with its reserved bassline perfectly contrasting the explosive chorus.
“Rat Salad” is another one where you could tell they were just having fun jamming out. Butler holds it down while Iommi and Ward absolutely lose their minds (and presumably Ozzy is elsewhere doing Ozzy things).
I always loved how subtle the delay guitar is for the “Jack the Stripper” portion of Paranoid‘s final offering; it’s like the band kept trying harder and harder to psych listeners up before going all in. While it doesn’t burn as slow as “Hand of Doom”, it may be the best-packaged transition on the whole record. The effects-drenched exit of Ozzy at the height of his vocal theatrics, followed by Iommi’s commanding guitar work over a long studio fadeout wrapping up “Fairies Wear Boots”, makes it the ultimate Sabbath farewell song, one that gives a sincere “goodbye for now”, but also a suggestive, “how about you go back to Side One?”
Paranoid contained many of Black Sabbath’s signature songs, with “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, and “Paranoid” all on the record’s first half. For many metal-heads, it’s the ultimate 8-track. Paranoid launched what is easily the greatest era of Black Sabbath and lasted until the drug-addled cancellation of Vol. 4‘s US tour in April 1973. And with all four original members still around as of this publication, Paranoid‘s legacy lives on, and Sabbath remains relevant in the 21st century.
Though it had no prior connection to the Marvel character, 2008’s Iron Man ushered Black Sabbath’s track back into the cultural zeitgeist and introduced a younger generation of superhero fans to the band. Just this past year, the band’s website released a new set of official shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” in the style of Master of Reality’s minimalist album art, and are donating the proceeds to the Black Live Matter Global Network Foundation. But on September 6th, Ozzy stated he’s no longer interested in the prospect of a reunion, regardless of how COVID continues to affect indoor music venues.
Even if we’ll never see Sabbath hit the stage again, we keep ourselves sane in quarantine with Paranoid, since it almost seems like it was written for a society plagued by rampant substance abuse, unstable mental health addiction, and widespread unrest.