Black Sabbath Back From the Dead in 1999

By Bruce Edward Walker

1970 was a pivotal year for rock music. By the time it entered its second full decade, rock already had pushed its boundaries beyond the limitations of its nascent possibilities. Skiffle, rockabilly, blues and country quickened inside Terpsichore’s great belly, pushing into the world mewing and crying to the sound of a million amplified instruments in the 1950s. Elvis proved there was milk in those hills, and multitudes crowded to suckle her ample breasts.

The brat barely survived infancy with the arrests of Chuck Berry, the social disapproval of the Killer’s marriage to a cousin barely in her teens, the death of Buddy Holly, the military draft of the King, and – perhaps worse – the onslaught of the teen idol selected as much for his screen presence as for his musical prowess. But survive it did with a vengeance thanks to the British Invasion, the San Francisco scene, Greenwich Village bohemianism, Memphis soul, Detroit Motown, swinging London, and Canterbury cool. Musical hybrids abounded with intermarriages of funk, blues, jazz, reggae, folk, Tin Pan Alley, classical, country, and show tunes.

By the time rock greeted the 1970s, it seemed as if it had reached the end of its adolescence and moved into comfortable early adulthood. Of course, some of its best and brightest shuffled off the mortal coil at decade’s dawn, Dylan seemed past his born-on date, and the breakup of the Beatles heightened concern that the genre as a whole might’ve moved to the cultural cul de sac on the outskirts of town. What else was there to prove before settling into sensitive singer-songwriter mode and riding out the decade contemplating one’s own navel?

Yet the music continued to recharge itself.

In 1970, glitter was still on the horizon. What became known as punk was called garage music and wouldn’t gain real traction for another five or six years. Progressive rock flirted with instrumental virtuosity, a dash of pompousness, and a pinch of pretentiousness on the fringe. The Band and early Elton John explored the margins and mythology of Americana, the Byrds donned Nudie suits and made a stab at real country, Leon Russell perfected Okie gospel, and Dr. John added his touch of weird gris-gris to the gumbo.

Blues-based rock continued its unabated importation from England as well as below the Mason-Dixon Line. Beginning with Cream in England and the Butterfield Blues Band from Chicago, and continuing with the original Fleetwood Mac and the Allman Brothers, blues rock had become a staple of any self-respecting music fan and record collector. Add a bit of flash, as in Ten Years After and Savoy Brown, and the genre sustained itself quite nicely, settling in with groups that cross-pollinated American black music with British folk traditions. Bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin alternately rejuvenated and minstrelized the blues.

That the blues is a very restricting and rigid format led many musicians to express their frustration by playing them faster and louder, using the amplification and speed of sound to break the 12-bar curse—and heavy metal was born. Prior to 1970, many bands had flirted with heavy metal. Britain’s Gun, fronted by the Gurvitz brothers Adrian and Paul, released the first of two albums in the 1968. All the essential ingredients were there—demonic laughter, fuzzed-out guitars, thundering bass. A single—“Race With the Devil”—reached the Top 10 in England, and it contained all the elements that set the stage for what was to follow, silly lyrics with all the emotional depth of an Archies’ single, behind bone-crunching, ear-splitting power chords and nerve-jangling guitar runs. Yeah, it was and remains pretty cool.

And so it came to pass that the heavy metal template fired from the Gun would pierce the armor of the British blues band named Earth. The abandoned their hopes for success at playing the blues and turned to hard rock that retained some of the progressiveness its guitarist had picked up as a brief member of Jethro Tull. Changing its name from Earth to Black Sabbath, the quartet played dumbed-down Who—a power trio with a frontman who sang trite sentiments seeking the type of lyrical resonance of Pete Townshend but never coming close—and somehow found an adoring audience even before its 1970 piece de resistance, Paranoid.

Forty years of it, and somehow I escaped writing about Paranoid until now. It was introduced to me by an older brother who abused me with his eight-track of the album before joining the Navy in ’72, again by burnouts and stoners in high school who played it constantly to show how “heavy” they were, and finally by college classmates who needed a musical companion while nodding on barbiturates, glue, cough syrup, and alcohol. Two scary-looking kids even wore shirts emblazoned “Ozzy” and “Geezer” at the arcade where I worked and was forced by my boss to stop playing Zappa and the Who incessantly.

Paranoid. I didn’t get it then, and must confess I get it only slightly better with 40 years hindsight. With all that was available musically at the time, why would anyone pick Sabbath? I scramble for words that might describe it in a larger cultural context: “groundbreaking.” Nah, not really. “Apex.” Again, close but no cigar.

So I acquired the album and the Classic Rock Album DVD focused on Paranoid. And I listened. For a week. And I viewed. Twice. Was Bill Ward a great drummer? Check. Geezer adept on bass? Check. Tony Iommi a guitar wiz? Check. Ozzy the preeminent rock singer? Uh, not so much. But he did capture something with a voice that Rolling Stone critics aptly described as “keening.” So I take nothing away from the group as musicians and performers.

To describe the lyrics as sophomoric would be to insult sophomores around the world. But, still, they managed to express something that those more inarticulate could not. It wasn’t Townshend, Lennon, or Dylan, to be sure. What’s all this silliness about the occult, folderol about the war, tissue paper-and-comb nonsense about an iron man? And the title track? It’s called “Paranoid,” but there’s nothing in the song to suggest paranoia in the slightest.

All told, Sabbath is to this listener less than the parts of its sum. But that’s okay. It’s still more than bubblegum for glue sniffers, but significantly less than … well, anything that Sabbath and metalheads would label me a snob for daring to compare the two. And it’s okay to be a rock music snob, just as it’s okay to be someone who worships at the dark altar of Black Sabbath. Forty years later, the lethargically plodding beats and simpleminded words still speak to some who don’t require Dickens, Shelley, or Keats—or at least Pete Sinfield, Rod Stewart, or Burton Cummings—to convey their thoughts and feelings.

And I guess that’s the point. Sabbath filled a void in the musical realm and continues to resonate with a wide swath of music fans. It ain’t my cuppa, but I can appreciate that rock music birthed yet another subgenre, and that Black Sabbath produced what may be the first classic album of its type 40 years ago.

Happy Anniversary, Paranoid!