None More Black: Reassessing Black Sabbath’s First Three Albums (or, The Unholy Trinity)


In the classic movie Chinatown, the villainous Noah Cross offers a sardonic take on his longevity. “I’m old,” he laughs, adding the immortal line, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Black Sabbath is old.

Never Say Die! they said, so they didn’t.

Alive, still, touring, again, allegedly for the last time.

Ozzy Osbourne, rock music’s all time clown prince, has been shrewd to never take himself—or his fame—too seriously. Indeed, his self-deprecating tendencies appear equal parts perceptive and a preemptive strike against the scorn he’s habitually expected from others.

Except his band, Black Sabbath, is now respectable, and has been for some time. To be certain, the band was always serious. Dead serious, at least while Ozzy was still the front man. But the band was seldom taken seriously, at least by the same so-called Establishment that now venerates them as a matter of course.

Of course, as always, the people who knew, knew, but few of them wrote for Rolling Stone. It’s not that Black Sabbath was ever considered an outright joke, at least while Ozzy was still the front man, but some of us can certainly recall a time when they were alternately dismissed or lambasted as Satan worshippers and an unsavory influence for impressionable young minds.

Nevermind the fact that today it could be argued that they are even more influential than Led Zeppelin. To be fair, and accurate, Zeppelin, like the Beatles before them, simply weren’t human, so while many bands imitated them, no one could emulate them. Sabbath, on the other hand, were always undeniably human, particularly while Ozzy was still the front man.

It’s at once lazy and erroneous to suggest Led Zeppelin had anything to do with heavy metal; they certainly brought a bombast previously unimaginable—for better or worse—to the blues, and then sprinkled everything from folk to Tolkien to Elvis and Rockabilly into the mix, and while Jimmy Page became the ultimate golden god of the electric guitar, the best thing one should say about Zeppelin’s musical legacy is that they’re, in the final analysis, unclassifiable.

No such issues exist with Black Sabbath. Like Led Zeppelin, they took the blues as a foundational text, but even from the get-go, they were onto something deeper, darker and louder. The sound Sabbath cultivated remains, at once, neither derivative nor capable of duplication. That is one definition of genius. It’s not relevant or especially important whether or not Sabbath “invented” heavy metal; they did something even more momentous. Among their many attributes, Sabbath can be credited with engineering an elemental music that the various sub-metals of subsequent decades melted into.

If it’s incredible, looking back, to imagine how huge Black Sabbath would become, it’s easy to imagine how dumbfounded the band was by their success. The debut album, recorded pretty much live in the studio in a single setting, with no hit singles and the surreal image of a witch (a nod to their attempted single “Evil Woman” that went nowhere?) on what endures as one of the most stark and unsettling album covers of all time, did not portend big things. But the one thing the band had going for it, in spades, happens to be the most important thing in art: honesty.

It resonated, and the album (released on Friday the 13th, naturally, in February, 1970) broke into the Top 10 on the UK charts. Yes, Lucifer is name-checked, Iommi employs the infamous tritone (on the opening track, which could hardly be a less cohesive statement of purpose: “Black Sabbath”, by Black Sabbath, on the album Black Sabbath. Any questions?), and the mood generally matches the browns and grays from the cover. But each second of every song crackles with an earnest if not entirely innocent vibe, and the energy pulsates from the introductory thunder rumbles to the exclamation point of its concluding note.

The music certainly reflects the raw reality of its recording conditions, and like so many first albums, the band wants to cram every salvageable idea and worthwhile fragment into a whole that’s at once unified and wonderfully messy. Not yet the proto-metal that launched so many simulations, there is a discernibly British blues being used as a jumping off point: it’s definitely white, but it’s not the white boy blues that dominated the previous generation’s plundering. Consider the extended jamming on “Warning” or the mercurial tempo shifting on “Wicked World”: this is not appropriation (think British Invasion covers) so much as the development of a bruising, almost aggressive assault; a blackened, or black and blue blues.

As brilliant as the debut manages to be, the band went all-world on the follow-up, and Paranoid must be on the shortest of lists as most influential album of all time. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, from Kiss to Van Halen to Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, to Slayer and even Bad Brains—and about a billion lesser bands as well—without the outline provided, at once a short cut (for cheaters) and sacred text (for the wise to worship). How did it happen? It happened the same way the rare and inexplicable masterpieces in any genre happen: because it could; because it had to.

Two things, aside from its sheer listenability, are crucial to keep in mind when assessing Paranoid’s staying power. For one, the band is as resolute, musically, as they’d ever be: there is still a looseness and making-it-up-as-we-go quality (for instance, the title track, which became a breakthrough single, was written and recorded on the spot, allegedly from start to finish in less than an hour), but there’s a confidence and sense of direction that seems all but unimaginable with such a relatively inexperienced outfit. Secondly, there is a relevance to the lyrics that, while dated for all the good (and bad) reasons, is neither cynical nor opportunistic. Special props for “Fairies Wear Boots”, which is a droll dig at Doc Marten clad skinheads. If the gloom and despair are still palpable throughout, the environmental concerns delineated in “Electric Funeral” and anti-heroin messaging of “Hand of Doom” elevate the proceedings, avoid pretension, and keep things (very) real.

Special mention, of course, for the anthem initiating the proceedings, “War Pigs”. Inspired by the then all but obligatory disdain for events in Vietnam, Sabbath achieves the near impossible by attacking a topical (even clichéd) social issue but, as only blue collar lads from Birmingham could do with such conviction, create an abiding indictment of the powerful men who plan and prosper from ensuring “the war machine keeps turning.” It’s on this song that intent and execution are combined to perfection by the only band of its time that could channel such indignity and belligerence, while infusing it with defiance that never wallows in pity or nihilism.

Indeed, that’s probably the one thing people have seemingly never grasped when it comes to Black Sabbath and why they matter: the preponderance of their material dealt neither with heaven nor hell, but the here and now. The joys and sorrows of drug use, the ways the wealthiest players pull the proverbial strings, the alternating drudgery and tumult of daily existence, as well as the escape and solace offered by music itself. This band spoke plainly to misfits in part because they were outcasts themselves, and while Sabbath made no bones about how much life could suck sometimes, there is always a purposeful insolence informing their songs; their overarching message involves waking up, staying aware and kicking the wicked world in the ass as often as possible.

Of course, at the end of the day, the exquisitely black magic of Black Sabbath has everything to do with the riffs. With the possible exception of Jimmy Page, no electric guitar player in the history of rock and roll uncorked more memorable and indelible riffs than Tony Iommi. Seemingly each song on their first three albums is anchored by at least one addictive riff, and throughout the ‘70s, all of Iommi’s solos are disparate but instantly identifiable. The first album became a showcase for a shadowy new talent; the second a wrecking machine of riffs and the third, the innovation of a whole new sound.

Master of Reality, released less than a year after Paranoid, is certainly a continuation and development of familiar fixations (sex, drugs, rock and roll and…religion), but it’s, if possible, a (much) deeper and darker dive into the abyss. The legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry used to exhale ganja smoke on his tape reels during production, and it’s hard to fathom a case study of comparable dedication and obsession. And yet, on Master of Reality Black Sabbath somehow conjures up the smells and sights of a darkened room sticky with residue. It’s not that the album sounds like drugs so much as drugs informing music filtered through a prehistoric tar pit, then shot out of a cannon into the void.

Speaking of which, how do you remaster mud? Do we want, or need the typical post-production sheen applied to these eldritch discs? Yes, and it’s long overdue. Let’s face it, at least a portion of that murkiness (especially on Master of Reality) was due to hasty of half-assed assembly. A little of that still goes a long way, but with the fresh polish we’re still scraping the bottom of the ocean, yet allowed to further appreciate how this beautiful muck got made. The welcome clarity on a familiar favorite like “Children of the Grave” showcases the million-per-minute whacks of Bill Ward and that cavernous bottom, built bass line by bass line, courtesy of the unflagging Geezer Butler.

The real draw here, and something that might appeal equally to loyalists and newcomers, is the inclusion of outtakes and instrumental tracks. As is typically the case with reissues like this, most of the alternate versions are not fully formed or quite there yet although, considering the studio time involved hours instead of days, further underscores how locked in the lads were. Some of the earlier versions of works-in-progress with different (and inferior) lyrics are interesting as curiosities, and other versions offer fresh insights. One example, the early take of “Planet Caravan” features an extended outro wherein Iommi’s jazzy licks illustrate how dexterous and multi-faceted he was, even in the earliest days. Another, “Lord of This World” may actually be a technically or at least aesthetically superior track, employing very judicious use of piano and slide guitar not present on the final take; these embellishments provide coloration and smooth out the edges, giving the song room to breathe, even expand. Of course, the band needed to strip away these touches, however effective, because Master of Reality is not about expansion or color; it’s about being immersed into a deep, distant darkness that is somehow at once suffocating and liberating.

The all-instrumental versions should be a revelation for folks who’ve heard the hits, but never experienced the pleasures of Sabbath’s sheer musicianship. For fans who have savored the original classics all this time, these trio-only versions might be revelatory, and a whole new way to understand and appreciate the riches. As preposterous as it is to imagine any of these tunes without Ozzy, there’s something special about “Hand of Doom” and “Fairies Wear Boots” sans vocals; the extra space will only augment our awe of Iommi’s bottomless pit of riffs, and certainly makes a case that Butler and Ward remain the most underrated rhythm section in rock. Make no mistake, on these three albums—and the remainder of the decade—these supernauts were as tight as a screwed-down coffin.

What else? Oh, the band had few problems translating their albums in a live setting. The big-time bonus of this package is the expanded Past Lives, which gets the sonic upgrade/beefed-up liner notes treatment. Some of their earliest live footage is included, and other versions of songs from the early ‘70s. Nothing could possibly replace being there, but these remastered tracks do for the ears what the various YouTube clips do for the eyes. It’s all very necessary stuff.

The only remaining question is whether this “final” tour signifies the final end of Black Sabbath. And the answer, obviously, is that it doesn’t matter. Sabbath, as much as any band, can never be referred to in the past tense: the music they made is ineradicable, the musicians they continue to inform and influence are inestimable. Now, they are a brand as much as a band, and that’s okay; they’ve earned that adulation the good old fashioned way: by putting in the time, and surviving. Their legacy is making a body of work that, once the shallow and silly reactions ceased to resonate, remains seductive and irresistible, and very much alive.

 Originally published on 3/11/16 at PopMatters.

Less Cowbell; More Cult (Blue Öyster, Naturally)

Your reaction to this image might reveal many things about yourself and your attitude toward, and awareness of, a certain sort of music.

Quick: what is Blue Öyster Cult’s most famous song?

(Hint: it’s the one with the cowbell.)

Okay: what is Blue Öyster Cult’s second most famous song?

(Yes, the one about the Japanese movie icon.)

Next: what is Blue Öyster Cult’s third most famous song?

(If you were able to listen to the radio circa 1981, or if you still listen to certain radio stations in 2011, you know it.  Thirty years, baby: that’s serious staying power and, when you stop and listen, it’s not the least bit surprising. Typically great guitar, excellent vocals and a short-lived adaptability, giving the band’s sound a sensibility somewhat compatible with that early-’80s moment before synthesizers and MTV held sway for the remainder of the decade. It happens to include one of the great lines –and deliveries– of that period, or any period: “Time to play B-sides”. There is something extremely rock and roll, on obvious and subtle levels, there. As it happened, all of us would have plenty of time to play B-sides as music started sounding better the older it got.)

Did you know Blue Öyster Cult had several members share lead vocal duties? Kind of like The Beatles, except few people realize it (and/or care). Of note, however, is the curious fact that lead guitarist Buck Dharma sings all three of these, their most popular, songs. Curiouser fact: as silly a stage name as Buck Dharma might be, it’s an improvement on Donald Roeser. You simply can’t have a lead guitarist named Donald.

Did you know Blue Öyster cult were an American band (from Long Island, no less!)? I didn’t. I always figured they were not only from the UK, but quite possibly a more eastern-European country. Maybe it was because of their semi-epic proclivities (and/or pretensions), and their subject matter, which did not square with so much of the ’70s cock-rock American heavy-metal light sound (think Kiss or Aerosmith or even Van Halen).

Did you know Blue Öyster Cult collaborated with a then mostly-unknown Patti Smith? I didn’t. Sure enough, her association with the band (and their encouragement) led her to consider making her own music, and the rest is most definitely History.

Did you know that the enigmatic symbol (above) has appeared on every one of Blue Öyster Cult’s albums? Did you know what it represents? I didn’t. Over the years I’ve heard everything from a symbol of evil (or Evil, the always unspecified type; the sort associated with idiots who spun records backward to get the hidden –and obviously evil– messages), to an upside-down question mark surrounded by three exclamation points (cool!). Apparently, it is in fact the symbol for the Greek God Kronos, but it also (close enough to being) the symbol for Lead, e.g. the heaviest of metals. Get it?

Did you know Blue Öyster Cult was the first band to use the now near-obligatory umlaut?

So what are Blue Öyster Cult, aside from a band less celebrated than perhaps is warranted? I would venture to opine they are of the progressive rock era, but not necessarily a prog-rock band: even at their most eccentric they were writing short-ish pop-ish songs that at least aspired to being played on the radio. And there is nothing wrong with that. The converse, that a “pure” prog-rock band eschewed commercial consideration is not axiomatic; however, when your band makes songs that last more than five minutes, and sometimes ten, and occasionally occupy an entire album side, heavy rotation in the Billboard Top 100 is not going to be in the cards. Blue Öyster Cult seems to exist peacefully in between the rusty spaces of prog-rock and Heavy Metal, with touches of glam-rock and arena-rock to round out the edges.

However: Blue Öyster Cult, perhaps because of the times or more likely because of their personalities, were not reluctant to throw down with a combination of the esoteric and ambitious that could satisfy fans of both Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and Jethro Tull.

Consider a song like “Nosferatu” (from ’77, which means they were two years ahead of the great Werner Herzog and his risky but brilliant vision to have the inimitable Klaus Kinski reprise the role made famous by the inimitable (!) Max Schreck). Perhaps this is why I tended to think these cats were European (German, even!): who made songs like this? Bands in the ’70s, that’s who. And this one speaks saliently to the better angels (or demons) of the prog-rock ethos, taking liberty with literary tropes and wearing those artsy-fartsy influences proudly on their leather sleeves. Of course, there is an extremely fine line between ambition and self-parody, as Spinal Tap (umlaut!) illustrates. As always, the music has to account for itself without excess elaboration or even explanation. Decide for yourself if it is worthy (hint: it is).

And while we’re on the subject of the best songs you may never have heard, how about “The Vigil”? I dare you to be unmoved by that guitar work, and the multi-tracked vocals soar (yes, soar!) in the way the best ’70s songs did. Don’t blame the drugs, the clothes or the groupies; this was all about inspiration and the reason we return to this music –even if some of us have never listened to it– is because there is definitely a soul sorely lacking from entirely too much of the safe, pre-packaged, status seeking, sugar-free swill that pollutes so many minds of this wet-behind-the-ears iPod generation.

To be continued. Be afraid.