Black Sabbath's Paranoid at 50: Potent Anthems of Working-Class StrifeBreaking News
tags: music, rock and roll, popular culture, Heavy Metal, Ozzy Osbourne
I first heard Black Sabbath’s second album during the part of my childhood when I was most susceptible to its charms. As a quiet, earnest Catholic school kid – the kind that excitedly whispers “I’m clean!” to themselves after their first confession – it’s not all that surprising that I eventually got bullied. The boys called me names, pushed me into lockers, and dug their pens and markers into my clothes, as if to tell the rest of the pack: “He will let you do this!”
I’ve never felt more alone than when I was walking those halls, my white dress shirt littered with streaks of black and red ink. It seemed like all I had was my Walkman, which I would blast at top volume, searching for understanding. I found it all over Paranoid, an album that stuck up for the downtrodden while spinning ominous hooks into delirious, rampaging jams. I didn’t know that I was listening to the band that introduced this specific form of hard rock alchemy to the mainstream. I just knew that it made me feel better.
As we reach the 50th anniversary of Paranoid’s release this Friday, we have the benefit of looking at the album without the contextual noise of its original, occult-focused media narrative. (“Black Sabbath win struggle against black magic tag,” went the headline to a 1970 NME feature.) We can trace the origins of its eight songs not to some altar in the middle of the woods, but to the streets of Birmingham in the 1950s and 60s and see how the band’s signature sound was, in part, the unintended result of its need to circumnavigate physical and psychological pain. And we can marvel at how effective it could be at helping listeners do the same.
Geezer Butler, Sabbath’s bassist and main lyricist, may have had the most fully formed political opinions of the group, but they all understood what it meant to struggle, growing up in postwar Birmingham, a city haunted by the aftermath of 77 Nazi air strikes that killed more than 2,000 people. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD in a row house with no toilet, wandering through the ruins of bombed-out homes, dropping out of school at 15. Guitarist Tony Iommi also dropped out at 15, only to cut off the tips of two fingers on his last day of a welding job, forever altering the way he played. Butler grew up in a strict Catholic household and “didn’t realise that people had hot water” in other neighbourhoods. Drummer Bill Ward learned his craft at a young age because the guy who set up a kit at his parents’ house parties was often too drunk to break it down at the end of the night.
“In those days, the working person’s mentality went like this,” shared Osbourne in his 2010 memoir I Am Ozzy. “You got what little education you could, you found an apprenticeship, they gave you a shit job, and then you took pride in it even though it was a shit job. And then you did that same shit job for the rest of your life. Your shit job was everything.”
These Dickensian realities shaped Sabbath’s sound in ways that would make them notably different than the hundreds of other bands melding blues and psychedelia in 1970. Perhaps the most famous moment of Paranoid can be traced back to Tony Iommi’s workplace catastrophe. He achieved his uniquely deep guitar sound by tuning the instrument down a half-step, which made the strings looser and therefore easier on his injured fingers. (Iommi further blunted the pain by wearing form-fitted “thimbles” made out of melted plastic.) Hence, we get the groaning siren of doom that is the opening note-bend to Iron Man – a fascinatingly economical bit of mood-setting that communicates a sense of dread more effectively than a thousand arpeggios.
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