Black Sabbath, Paranoid (August 1970) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10

All right. You knew this one was coming …

Along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath make up the great trinity of classic heavy metal bands. In a sense it’s strange that these three should so often be classified together, as they actually sound very different. While Zeppelin were a blues band gone heavy and Deep Purple were a pop group gone heavy, Sabbath were … well, listen to this.

If you’re a heavy metal purist, Sabbath may be the band that you most like. It’s not immediately obvious what other influences they had in their music besides heaviness for its own sake (although as a matter of historic fact, they started out as a blues-rock band). Far more than Zeppelin or Purple, they distilled heavy metal down to its purest essence: doom-laden distorted guitars, bottom-heavy bass, a rock-solid rhythm.

Paranoid is the title track from their second album, released only seven months after their self-titled debut. In some respects, it’s the quintessential Black Sabbath song, not only because it was their biggest hit (reaching number 4 on the UK singles chart) but because its stripped-down simplicity so well represents the band’s character. It was written and recorded in the studio in twenty minutes flat when an extra song was needed to fill out the album, and that goes some way to explaining its endearing lack of sophistication. As with Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, the guitar and bass double each other for much of the song; and the vocal melody is essentially the guitar riff shifted up a third. You feel that if they could have made the drums play the same riff as well, they would have.

And their song Iron Man, from the same album, is even simpler: the guitar, bass and vocal all use exactly the same plodding, near-comical melody. But somehow — and I am going to struggle to explain this — it all works. I criticised MC5 for stripping away all textural variation, but stripping away melodic variation in these Black Sabbath songs doesn’t leave me cold in the same way. It may help that the instrumentation is so distinct, whereas the MC5 instruments blur into a homogeneous mess.

Of course Black Sabbath were by no means universally acclaimed. Lester Bangs, whose harsh words about MC5 we’ve already seen, memorably reviewed the first Sabbath album for Rolling Stone as “stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book […] plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms”. Yet the same magazine would later place it among the 100 best debut albums of all time, and modern critical opinion is very positive. While there were plenty of earlier hard-rock songs — that’s what this series is all about — Black Sabbath is generally considered the first heavy metal album, predating Deep Purple’s In Rock by four months.

(If I was doing this series all over again, I’d probably pick one of the songs from their debut album rather than Paranoid, to better reflect the chronology. But I very much doubt Black Sabbath had any direct influence on In Rock: it’s not just that they were too close in time — at least some of In Rock was recorded well before Sabbath’s album was released — but also that the two bands’ sounds are so very different.)

[See also: Black Sabbath addendum.]

11 responses to “Black Sabbath, Paranoid (August 1970) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10

  1. Much as I love ‘Paranoid’ I don’t think it could really be called “the quintessential Black Sabbath song”. Even if it wasn’t written to be a hit single, that’s effectively what it is by default. It would be like picking ‘Communication Breakdown’ instead of ‘Dazed and Confused’, or ‘Black Night’ instead of ‘Child In Time’.

    I think you’d have to pick the song that defined their sound so well they renamed the band after it, the one which kicked off their first album. ‘Black Sabbath’ has it all – the nightmarish intensity, the dirgey pace, the ominous guitar riff whose notes never seem to end. I think I used the Eno quote earlier about feeling “encased in sound”. Yes, the lyrics are typically endearingly goofy (“Satan’s coming ’round the bend/People running ’cause they’re scared”), but they work within the context of the music. It was a game-changer in music and even today is nothing less than a thrilling track! I listened to it again just now for what must be the zillionth time and it still thrills me.

    If the great trinity were so different from each other, I think that was more an advantage than something that needs explaining away. If before then heavy music had been a place on the dial you visited but then had to come back from, something that didn’t seem like it could be sustained, suddenly there were three bands all basing their music round heavy riffing who didn’t sound that much like each other at all. It’s like painting with black. You figure there should only be one shade, but once you get started you realise there’s more and more.

    Alas, I don’t think it ended up that way. Having established heavy music didn’t have to be formulaic, the next thing that happened was people made it into a formula. I’m hoping to be proved wrong, but I may be sitting out the next few tracks until we get to Motorhead. (We are getting to Motorhead, aren’t we?)

  2. There’s a hilarious german “cover” version of Paranoid

  3. Having established heavy music didn’t have to be formulaic, the next thing that happened was people made it into a formula.

    As we get farther into the timeline I was reminded of Henry Rollins’ jokes about how terrifying it is to be the opening act for Iron Maiden.

  4. On further reflection, Gavin, you’re right. As I was writing about Paranoid, I found myself more and more wanting to talk about the earlier album. If I ever do convert this series of posts into (part of) a book, I’ll do a new Sabbath chapter. Meanwhile, stand by for a Sabbath addendum before I get to part 11 — which is the one I’ve been most looking forward to writing.

    On the Big Three being very different from each other — I certainly hope I’ve not given the impression that I think that’s a bad thing! I love variety in music, and the world would be a much poorer place if, because of the existence of Zeppelin, there was no room for Purple or Sabbath. The lack of unity between the three is a source of fascination to me rather than of disappointment.

    Yes, there were plenty of formulaic bands in the wake of Zeppelin/Purple/Sabbath; but also plenty that were not. I’ll be mostly focussing on the latter. And finally (spoiler alert) yes, I will be getting to Motorhead.

  5. Pingback: Black Sabbath addendum — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10a | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  6. ”I found myself more and more wanting to talk about the earlier album.”

    The big drawback of the first album is in a way the same thing that makes it interesting. It contains a lot of heavy blues tracks from when they were still called Earth, and they just don’t have that Sabbath magic. Back in the days when there was still such a thing as ‘records’ with ‘sides’, people used to say the two sides were effectively by two different bands. By hearing them effectively not being Sabbath, it throws into relief just what they were doing when they were Sabbath.

    ”…the one I’ve been most looking forward to writing.”

    At a guess… Blue Oyster Cult?

  7. Pingback: Blue Öyster Cult, Workshop of the Telescopes (January 1972) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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