This week I’m going back to the beginning of time. Or, the beginning of heavy metal, anyway. Well, it wasn’t really the “beginning” since they already had an album out that same year. It’s like the continuation of the beginning of heavy metal.
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Released September 18, 1970 via Vertigo Records
My Favorite Tracks – Paranoid, Electric Funeral, War Pigs
This isn’t an album that needs a huge introduction. Paranoid is the most famous album in heavy metal. It was a rush job of a record, with the label wanting to cash in on the success of the debut album, so everyone crowded into the studio and banged the new album out. Paranoid was on store shelves roughly 7 months after Black Sabbath.
The quick pace of album creation led to a few last-minute decisions – the album was originally going to be called War Pigs, with the album art reflecting that. The single Paranoid was doing great business though, so the album name was changed without redoing the album art. Hence, some dude swinging a sword on an album called Paranoid.
And War Pigs itself was originally going to be called Walpurgis, a Satanic holiday/ceremony of some sort. The record label vetoed that title, as they were (rightfully) concerned about the link being drawn between Sabbath and Satanism. War Pigs summed up the lyrics nicely and was used instead.
Paranoid comes in with 8 tracks at a 41 minute run time. It’s a fairly quick process to get through, though we are talking about the most famous songs in heavy metal here so there’s some exposition to be had.
The once-titled Walpurgis opens the album with a scathing take on the Vietnam War. The band’s intent was to show the politicians who start wars as the real Satanists, a case plainly stated in the lyrics but missed by the “Satanic Panic” movement that would see Black Sabbath as arch enemies.
War Pigs is one of metal’s most significant songs. Its darker topical fare, combined with the signature riffs from Tony Iommi as well as Bill Ward literally pounding the piss out of the drums, totally recast what rock music could do or be about. This song was a stark dividing line, even considering the prior Sabbath album that same year. It is one of the more widely played and covered song in Sabbath lore.
The title track was a hit single in advance of the album’s release and, as stated above, the warm reception was the cause of the album’s name change. Paranoid as a song was a unique Sabbath achievement – it is the their only Top 20 UK hit, peaking at number 4. That seems odd for such a popular act, but Sabbath never were singles-minded hit makers.
The song was conceived in quick fashion and wasn’t really thought of in any significant terms by the band, which is often how hits go. Geezer Butler’s lyrics tell a despondent tale – of depression, not paranoia. The song’s quick pace and pounding riff was reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown, something that Sabbath members were cognizant of and worried about, though no harm came from the similarity.
Paranoid is short, spooky and to the point – a winning formula for a hit. The song has remained in constant rotation on classic rock radio for 53 years and will likely be a fixture of radio playlists until the death of the format.
An odd turn but one not out of bonds for a band who, while shaping heavy metal, would also be massively influential to “stoner” culture. This song is trippy and ambient,with several layered effects to generate a calm and muddled atmosphere.
For some the song is a skip because it doesn’t fit the mold of Sabbath heavy metal, while for me and others it’s a welcome change of pace and nice diversion. A band that lasts any length of time is going to record a bunch of songs – might as well branch out here and there.
Sabbath have several highly recognized songs and many are from this album. But none may be as widely known as this one. Iommi pulls riffs straight from Hell to shape this song about a guy who time travels and sees the end of the world. On his return he is turned to steel and mocked by the populace, who ignore his warnings about the apocalypse. Instead of saving the world, he decides to become the end and takes his wrath out on the people who mock him.
Iron Man joins Paranoid and War Pigs as Sabbath staples that have seen constant rotation in the five decades since the album’s release. I believe it’s a felony for a radio station not to play Iron Man at least once a day. (don’t’ quote that) Iron Man was Sabbath’s biggest “hit” in the US, though only charting at 52, the song has become immortal. And while having nothing to do with the Marvel Comics character of the same name, this song was used in the 2008 Iron Man film that saw that character go from an afterthought to the lead role in the MCU.
Here Sabbath combine their doom-laden heavy metal with some groove and jam from the music of their time. It’s a pretty interesting mash-up that sees some groove and boogie over lyrics about nuclear holocaust. These for me are some of the more interesting parts of the Sabbath catalog, getting to hear heavy metal shaped alongside the other music of the day. It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s when heavy metal ran along established lines, so this early stuff contained a lot of cool asides and nods to other forms of rock.
Hand Of Doom
This appropriately named track was, in all reality, some ground-level field reporting exposing one of the many horrors of the Vietnam War – the drug use of soldiers. Heroin was the drug of choice among the GI’s in the field, then it came back with them along with the often-untreated horrors of war. The song is a stark admonition against drug use, which does sound a bit odd coming from the lips of Ozzy Osbourne or honestly anyone from Black Sabbath. But the message is on point and this song was a harrowing early account of just how messed up the Vietnam War was.
A brief instrumental, this was based on Bill Ward’s super long drum solos of the early days when Sabbath had to fill large amounts of time between sets in order to land gigs. It’s a nice jam, I’ve always enjoyed the heavier jams of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Fairies Wear Boots
The final song is a striking title but isn’t about some mythical creatures who sprinkle pixie dust and wear Doc Martens. Instead the lyrics take aim at skinheads, this was in Britain before “skinhead” became synonymous with “nazi.” Sabbath had run-ins with the anarchist-minded skinheads, including a fight that left Tony Iommi injured and hence served as the inspiration for the song. Iommi has also admitted that the lyrics might be unusual due to the band’s habitual weed use.
Paranoid was a breakout hit for Black Sabbath – it did what they were only able to accomplish one other time, that being top the UK album charts. (the other time being the band’s final album 13) The album was a hit in many other countries including the US, where it peaked at number 12 and has 4 official platinum certifications.
But the legacy of Paranoid goes far beyond its sales figures or chart positions. This is the definitive album of heavy metal. It is the band’s most recognizable effort and the point where they laid the blueprint for their new, mutated form of rock music. The shadow that Paranoid casts over the heavy metal landscape is immense and inescapable. The Black Sabbath legacy is undeniable and this album is a large reason why.