20. Black Sabbath

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Black Sabbath? This is Ozzy Osbourne's band, but I think he quit after a bit.  I think Tommy Iommi is in this band.  Or is he in Deep Purple?  For some reason I get these two bands mixed up.  I know, I know.  Is Ritchie Blackmore in one of these bands?  He's Deep Purple, I think.  Eh, who cares.  Black Sabbath songs: "War Pigs" is famous, but I can't think of how it goes.  "Iron Man" is theirs, and also "Paranoid".  That's all I've got.

Have to pick an album to listen to: my web-search for "Best Black Sabbath album" yielded the usual array of a few dozen listicles.  There doesn't seem to be a consensus at all on their best record.  A bunch of titles all seem to jumble around for the top few spots.  Turns out that all of the Black Sabbath songs that I know are on their second album, Paranoid, which is occasionally at the #1 spot in rankings (and always in the top four at least), so that seems as good as any.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today, aside from picking a record to hear.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

But first...
What''s up with this?

The source image for both of these covers was clearly the same.  Look at them; the position of the fingers, and everything else.  Even the negative space between the baby's left pinky and shoulder is the same shape.  This is the same piece of art, re-purposed in two very different ways.  And both of them are creepy as hell.  There's got to be a story here, maybe this piece of art in its original unaltered form was famous in Thatcher's Britain. The Black Sabbath record is their album Born Again (1983). But Depeche Mode used this horrorshow first (1981) with the 12" version of their second-ever single, "New Life".  These bands couldn't be more different.  Aside from being British, I don't think anyone ever claimed that Black Sabbath and Depeche Mode had anything in common, whatsoever... and now they are forever united by deeply questionable choices in their album art. 

OK, and now we present...

Black Sabbath
Paranoid (1970)
Version: Japanese SA-CD, UIGY-9034 (2010)

War Pigs
This title is famous, but this song doesn't seem familiar at all.  We've got these big grindy chords played over a sort of loping rhythm section (really thin and badly recorded); then a siren comes in.  This whole extended section feels like it's leading up to something, like this is not the song, it's a teaser.  Not even an intro per se, just a kind of vamp while the band hunts for a song.  I'm thinking that just the band name "Black Sabbath" was probably a huge contributing factor to the whole "Satanic Panic" thing in the 1970s and 1980s.  Lots of bands got called out for their supposedly satanic content. There was no shortage of radio, television, and print hysteria over our kids being corrupted by the devil's music.  While parents were on a witch hunt against the relentlessly wholesome Electric Light Orchestra for their supposed backward messages (the band responded by putting completely innocuous real ones on their next album) a band called Black Sabbath just seem to be screaming for the attention of parents and preachers to piss off.  Ok, after this extended intro we get Ozzy singing nearly a capella lyrics that seem to be nearly a manifesto for this band:
"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death's construction"
Got the checklist handy?  We have witches, black masses, evil minds, sorcerers, death, destruction.  It's all right there.  Everything your parents and preachers are gonna hate.  But Ozzy keeps singing, and it turns out the lyric is a very plainly worded screed against war.  There's no poetry here, no metaphor, no subtext, no wordplay (I mean, he has already rhymed "masses" with... "masses".  Nice one, Oz).  He just says what's on his mind in a manner that couldn't be misconstrued by anyone:
"Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor"
Well, that's a message few parents or teachers or anyone remotely sane would actually disapprove of, unless your parents are these titular war pigs.  Well played, Ozzy.  Since we can't actually fault Black Sabbath's message, it seems that the people obsessed with saving our children had to pick on the band who wrote "Mr. Blue Sky" instead.  What the fuck were they thinking?  These religious-wrong nutjobs didn't have enough real social problems to tackle, so they went after music?  All of this said, this song is pretty dull.  Yeah, the guitars sound big, but the song is kind of tedious.  Not a whole lot happens, and it's got no energy, no spark.  It's got a lot of space, but not in a cool atmospheric way.  More like a "we couldn't think of anything good to play" kind of way.  This album is a cornerstone of metal, but the band just seem bored.  There's very little of musical interest.  The song is nearly eight minutes long, but what it has to say, musically or lyrically, is all said within three minutes.  A pop-single edit wouldn't cut anything really important.  The rhythm section is sloppy, as are synchronized guitar solos for the last two minutes.  Around 7m 17s, the guitarists get sloppier, fall way out of sync, and then just give up.  There may not be a more anti-climactic ending on record.  Ha, at the end there's an effect where the tape speeds up.  That's the best part of the song.

Is this the song during which Ozzy allegedly bites the heads off of live animals during concerts?  Who knows if that actually happened.  Probably not.  Maybe they were props, fake animals.  I can't be bothered to research that.  This song is also pretty thin on ideas, but if you have little to say musically, it's best to play faster so the few ideas are closer together and seem like more ideas.  I just made that up, but maybe I believe it.  Man, for music that's supposed to make you want to pump your fist in the air, make devil horns with your fingers, break shit, and be mad, this is really kind of tepid.  The band really sound like they're holding back.  And they really just aren't very good players.  There's a lot of slop here and the solos kind of suck.  But wait, this guitar tone in the solo, it's kind of twisted.  Honestly it sounds like something that early Devo would use (if the only Devo you know is "Whip It'" you have no idea... go listen to the album Duty Now For the Future).  Might be an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer or some similarly obscure and arcanely designed guitar pedal.  The mastering on this song is completely different from the rest of the album.  Way bassier, with a low end murkiness that doesn't need to be there.

Planet Caravan
Ah fuck, a ballad.  This is not what I want to hear this from this band.  I'm really really shocked to discover that one of the records that birthed metal is so fucking boring to listen to.  If this were a different band, I'd like the woody percussion on this song, and... oh.... wait.  This is also interesting vocal processing.  Sounds like maybe they ran his voice through a Leslie (the special type of loudspeaker usually used with Hammond organs) and some kind of filter.  Wait, then there's some weird electronic effect.  This is kind of trippy.  I kinda like this actually.  Completely not what I expected, at all, but these kinds of surprises are exactly why I'm doing this project. This almost sounds like Can or something.  Longish guitar solo kind of sucks though.  Go figure.  Sounds like a totally different band, but one I like better.  If they made a whole album like this, I'd be into it.

Iron Man
See, this is what I was looking for.  This one brings that bombastic heavy power to the music.  The sense of weight that gives this genre of music its name.  The recording is better than on the other songs too.  They spent more money on this one, it's easy to tell.  They knew it was going to be the iconic one.  But it's just as repetitive and thin on musical ideas as the others.  Ozzy just sings along with this repetitive guitar riff, over and over, it doesn't develop.  What is this song even about?  Certainly not the titular super-hero.  Seems like it's about a giant robot who was sent into space and has now returned as an enemy?
"He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he traveled time
For the future of mankind
Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfold"
Maybe this is a metaphor for something, perhaps some kind of social isolation.  Ozzy normally doesn't like to get that arty with his writing.  He normally doesn't like to get arty at all.  Is this lyric a rare example of euphemism from the Oz, or just something he found in an issue of Amazing Stories, transcribed for our pleasure?  You decide.  Ah, then this tempo-change mid-song.  Things pick up, some new ideas come in.  Bass player is reaching a bit, trying to do something more interesting, but struggling.  Guitar solo is just as lame as the others.  But again: some more ideas here: after going back to the main verse, there's another tempo thing, and then another whole new section.  This is easily their most inventive song.  I'm still amazed that the playing on this album sucks so bad, but this song is one of the tighter efforts.

Electric Funeral
Here's another war tune, this one appears to be describing an atomic bomb blast.  Same as the others though: repetitive and simple.  The arrangement gets so amateurish toward the middle, with some even messier playing as Ozzy repeats the title over and over.  That part of the song feels more like a preview of some especially sloppy garage punk that would come along by the end of the decade.

Hand Of Doom
The biggest surprise on this record are how socially conscious the lyrics are.  We've had at least two anti-war tunes so far, and now we're unambiguously warning kids away from drugs, during the peak of their era of glorification.
We get:
"First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm
Disillusioning, you push the needle in
From life you escape, reality's that way
Colours in your mind, satisfy in time"
And soon:
"Oh you, you know you must be blind
To do something like this,
To take the sleep that you don't know
You're giving Death a kiss
Oh little fool now"
Maybe Ozzy's absolute refusal (or failure) to employ any sort of allegory in his music works in his favor here.  These lyrics are too plain in their intent to miss.  Fifty years ago this music may have seemed intolerably noisy and offensive to authority figures, but these lyrics are unimpeachably pro-social.  It's like the band's name and all the dark imagery was there to lure the malcontented kids in, but then the record is almost as full of messages as positive as anything by the mostly-insufferable Howard Jones.  Anyway, this is another long song (7m 8s) and it's boring as hell.  The second biggest surprise on this record is how dull it is musically.

Rat Salad
This is a quick instrumental.  Instrumentals are a bad idea for this band; they need Ozzy's words to add another layer of interest (such as it is) to partially bolster the instrumentalists' lack of musical invention.  The drum solo in this song is one of the worst in history.  It's just super lame.  Rote and sloppy.  And it lasts for nearly a minute of the 2m 30s song.  Man...

Fairies Wear Boots
Alrighty.  Fun delays on the guitar foreshadowing U2's The Edge, and then the album closer is about... well, let Ozzy say it:
"Yeah I looked through a window and surprised what I saw
A fairy with boots and dancin' with a dwarf,
Yeah, fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
Yeah I saw it, I saw it, I tell you no lies
Yeah Fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
I saw it, I saw it with my own two eyes".
This basically repeats for more than six minutes, until we get the big moral:
"So I went to the doctor
See what he could give me
He said "Son, son, you've gone too far.
'Cause smokin' and trippin' is all that you do."
Ok, yeah, whatever.  Nothing new to say about this song.  Same as the others.  Inexplicably, the playing is a notch tighter.  Wait, so is the mix.  This whole song feels like it wasn't just placed last on the album, but recorded last too, and by the end these guys got warmed up and figured out how to play their instruments better.  And they're sounding a little more inspired.  Still not a great song, but why didn't they have their shit almost-together to this degree on the other songs?  I'm also not crazy about the trite lyric, but musically, this is one of their better efforts.  The fade-out at the end is lame though.  They needed to just bring the song to a climax and end it properly.

Ok, I had to look a few things up after the fact.  Yeah, Ozzy left the band eventually, and was replaced by Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, who we'll be listening to next time.  During their 1983-1984 tour, Black Sabbath also used Bev Bevan, drummer from Electric Light Orchestra.  Maybe these rather different bands were in cahoots over the whole Satanic messages thing, or maybe its because both bands were from Birmingham.  During that tour, there was a mix-up about the size needed for a Stonehenge set-piece, which directly inspired one of the most memorable gags in the rock-mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap, released within a year of the tour's conclusion.  

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
It should be "Iron Man", but that one is too long for a mix, so we're going with "Paranoid", and maybe we'll hold "Planet Caravan" in reserve for a mix of trippy / ambient tunes. 

Deep Purple, coming February 15, 2022

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