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.]