Black Sabbath. 50 Years of Paranoid.

It was only months after Black Sabbath’s debut scared some people into panic. Others turned it up loud, and drew themselves in to a music revolution. When the music world woke up to a heavier sound. The second album from the Birmingham quartet would set a definitive standard for heavy metal music. There is not a single artist in the genre and sub-genres of metal that are unaware of the impact of Paranoid. The title track is played daily on classic rock radio stations the whole world over. Paranoid was more than a statement about music. It was a proclamation reflecting the reality of the times. It warned people that there is a real world going on around them and the negativity cannot be swept under the rugs. It reflects the reality of the present times now fifty years after it’s release. No one can argue otherwise how this album has stood the test of time for half a century. In another fifty years, it will still be standing above most heavy records as a prominent influential chapter within the metal bible.

Tony Iommi is the undisputed world champion of heavy riff composition. Almost every good heavy metal riff ever written can probably be connected to Iommi’s influence as a guitarist and composer.

“War Pigs” could be played against the backdrop of so many events over the last fifty years. The messages are the same. It is a scathing sermon against the politics of war. Politicians continue to hide themselves away. They can start wars, and take credit for when they end in victory. They blame others for the defeats. Soldiers on the battlefields engaging in combat against their will. Engagement in defence of country. It is the subordinate telling their stories. Asking why should they be the ones to go and fight? It is all being left mostly to the poor in entry-level ranks.

“Paranoid” remains a timeless staple of heavy radio. A basic riff and structure that churns along a thundering drum track. We hear more bass punctuation and accents from Geezer Butler adding punch and octave jumps. Lyrically, the track carries significant weight reflecting on general fears of humanity. This is a theme relevant at the fifty year anniversary mark given the instability and chaos that a pandemic has brought on. Butler’s lyrics intended to be a story on depression. He admitted in interviews that at the time he was not clear on the definitions and differences between paranoia and depression. It is a call for help. It is the paranoia and fear of not being able to escape the grips of mental illness.

“Planet Caravan” is an outstanding display of musicianship. It is a phenomenal trip invoking imagery of space and clear skies with bright stars. Tony Iommi shows his guitar virtuosity with jazz influenced note choices. Geezer Butler crafts a great bouncing bass line in perfect syncopation with Bill Ward’s percussion. The track is punctuated with great piano chords played by producer Tom Allom. Ozzy sings the tripped-out lyrics through a Leslie speaker achieving a combination of mix midrange and treble along with vibrato.

You can play the riff to “Iron Man” on any instrument and the majority of metal and heavy rock fans recognize it. The natural appeal of this track goes right to fans of the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The Iron Man franchise has continued to draw in generations of fans who ultimately discover the classic Sabbath track via internet searches. The track’s time changes are a display of the polished improvisation skills drawn from their blues and instrumental rock influences. The rhythm section of Butler and Ward carry Iommi through a blistering guitar solo during the uptempo run.

“Electric Funeral” is another track with a stark look at the reality of nuclear warfare. It is a heavy riff with an equally heavy bass part doubling, then answering Tony Iommi’s wah-pedal drenched riff notes. The lyrically bleak song is frightening to think of if you put yourself in the place of someone on the ground of a war zone. The flecks in the sky, incoming attack. Then a description of what can happen on the ground after such an attack. As technology advances, the threat of nuclear war still remains fifty years later.

“Hand of Doom” was written for support of veterans who returned from war with major health problems. So many were returning home from Vietnam having become addicted to heroin and other substances. This is a hard look at post-traumatic stress disorder. Here we have another theme of importance fifty years later. The world is still sending people off to fight. When they return, what is to become of them? What is to be done to prevent them taking their lives via the hand of doom? The hand represents the action, doom representing addiction and self-harm. I’ve listened to this track and thought of the veterans who returned from wars with missing limbs and how drastically their lives have changed. So many have never received the support they deserve. They too easily fell into addiction and mental health problems. Was their mental health forgotten about? Was it overlooked because of the focus on their physical injuries? We know this has happened.

“Rat Salad” is a strictly instrumental showcase building on the strength of instrumental passages from the first record. Sabbath’s ability to jam through darkened riffs is a continuation of their days as the Birmingham Blues Band “Earth”. Bill Ward records a thunderous rolling drum solo with all kinds of jazz influences dotted throughout his accents and fills. The title came from a dig at Ward’s wiry wild hair looking like a “Rat Salad”. The song is a great “salad” of music with heavy instrumental work.

The album closes with a heavy chapter in “Fairies Wear Boots”. It is a dark riff that dives into further darkness during the verses. There is conflicting information among band members on the lyrical inspiration. Geezer Butler indicated it was about an experience running into a group of skinheads, with the term “fairies” being weaponized in name calling. Toni Iommi would mention it was about a bad trip Butler and Osbourne took after smoking some potent weed. They saw fairies wearing boots as part of their hallucinations. Given the lyrical content and these stories, you could support either account of the origins. It would be impossible to ignore the sheer brutality of the riff for the time. While perhaps not musically as memorable as “Iron Man”, Fairies Wear Boots is a domineering riff with a ton of power behind and in front of it. Iommi’s intricate note choices between chords give the song almost a classical-like composition structure.

Paranoid has really stood the test of time because of it’s relevance and relatability with the past, present and future. It remains a favourite among metal fans and critics now spanning generational gaps. Heavy Metal is still a relatively young genre of music. Black Sabbath helped to define the metal and every sub-genre that would follow. In another fifty years, Black Sabbath’s mark on music history should be celebrated on a festival-level scale.

In 1970 two albums in one year brought metal to a growing base of fans. Those fans felt they were being heard and that their reality and lives were understood. It was fine to hate war and lash out at the politicians writing the scripts of attack on the front lines. It was fine to feel sadness and fear of your own feelings and dream of defeating your personal enemies. Planet Caravan granted permission for hard and heavy music fans to chill out, have a drink, smoke weed and look at the stars. It warned of the dangers of drugs and the consequences of overlooking personal mental health.

Fifty years from now, will the world be less paranoid? Will education stop war before it starts? If not, at least the soundtrack will be around. If the world does change for the better, Paranoid will still be recognized for everything it was and still is. A masterwork of metal music.

@WriterDann

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