This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… Black Sabbath January 21, 2017Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
Black Sabbath have, briefly, featured in this slot along with some other groups, but it seems appropriate to consider them given they played Dublin last night. I’ve some thoughts on that event elsewhere today, but I’ve got to admit to feeling conflicted about them. Of the big three – Purple, Zeppelin and Sabbath, those being the early 1970s heavy/hard rock/metal groups it would be fair to say that I like them all pretty much equally but in different ways. It might be more truthful to say that Sabbath is slightly ahead of Zeppelin who are slightly ahead of Purple. And it would also be accurate to note that all three had a range of flaws as well as strengths. But Sabbath were the ones who genuinely dug into a sort of proto-punk rawness that manifested itself in some unusual places subsequently. And it was they who, arguably, were most influential with whole sub-genres in metal and rock budding off from their primal example.
Now quality control was variable. The first eight albums – the original and remarkably productive Ozzy years – still hold up for me. The two with Ronnie James Dio likewise. The one with Ian Gillan is an enjoyable oddity – listening to it again in the last two years after a break of three decades I found it kind of fun. Subsequent to that there’s a lean period in the 1980s and 1990s where the group became in large part a solo vehicle for Tony Iommi and then there were a coupe of not bad, not great, reunions, first with Dio, then with Ozzy, then under a different name with Dio again – before he passed away – and then more recently with Ozzy.
Some day, though not today, there’s the possibility of examining the Dio era – quite the charismatic front man he was and easily Ozzy’s equal as vocalist. But given that they are ending their touring (and presumably song writing run) with Ozzy it seems appropriate to consider their early output. There’s an absurdity there, of course. A sort of Hammer Horror camp, with little or no substance to their supposed occult leanings. It’s odd, the lyrical output ranged from cartoonish, at best, to affecting. Sometimes in the same song. Sometimes not, though as time went on they improved markedly. That said there is something in Ozzy’s voice that lends some tracks, the original Black Sabbath comes to mind, a certain uneasiness. He doesn’t believe that schtick, but he kind of sounds like he does. And what schtick – the lyrics provided by Geezer Butler have a rawness – what’s most obvious on listening to them is the recurrent fear of nuclear conflict and an odd, albeit not entirely convinced belief in the power, or the necessity of young people, to push back against it. All these trappings come together with and in the music and combine…
And consider how influential those trappings were. To say that Sabbath’s aesthetic and concerns triggered others is near enough an understatement. There was the crunch of proto-metal shading into metal. That proto-punk streak, already mentioned, exemplified but not limited to Paranoid was admirable and pointed the way to ever increasingly speedy forms of metal. Then there was the opposite tendency, that towards slow doomy riffs, cue another tranche of groups influenced by them – stoner rock will be eternally (one presumes) grateful for. I’d make no grand claims for their being innovative but even the sheer ugliness of some of the riffs – Iron Man springs to mind, is oddly refreshing – a riposte to the very idea that music has to be easy, comfortable or melodic.
For myself there’s something on all the albums from that first period – the first I love for the way in which there’s a jazzy undertow to much of the music particularly in tempos and percussion on slower tracks (and on later songs too, Planet Caravan and Solitude), which mixed with an oddly but rather dark hippyish vibe reminds me of some of the Ladbroke Grove outfits of the same period – Pink Fairies and Hawkwind amongst them. The second and third are in a way cruder, more pared back, more metal, the fourth (Vol 4 – natch) attempts greater complexity with mixed results. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath I think sees them take a step forward, and Sabotage (whatever about its truly ridiculous cover – go see) sees a consolidation of their sound. I’m still very fond of the last two of the Ozzy period – Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die (both of which featured Ozzy somewhat intermittently) which flail in all directions seeking inspiration and largely finding it albeit lacking the cohesive focus of earlier work.
So for me it is the first eponymous album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die which I come back to most frequently – there’s hardly a month where I won’t listen to tracks from one or other of those albums. And if I were to say that one or two are slightly ahead of the others then that would probably be Black Sabbath, their first and Sabotage, but only by a fraction. The first for its careful distillation of what would become metal. The latter for its heaviness, quite an achievement for a group who had already cornered that end of the market, but also for its control. And oddly – or perhaps not given the time, there’s more than an hint of prog rock.
Where other groups of their generation were holed under the waterline by punk, one thinks in particular of Zeppelin, somehow Sabbath kept going – perhaps because in Paranoid they’d already written a defining proto-punk track all their own or perhaps because they simply didn’t care – and while critical acclaim was hard won – looking at the encomiums that are written about them today and comparing and contrasting with the near universal loathing expressed about them in the early 1980s is an entertaining exercise – it wasn’t unjustified. Perhaps somewhat like AC/DC they managed to make that part of the musical map they traversed so much their own that that, hard work and sheer longevity and the songs themselves justified everything.
Wicked World (from Black Sabbath, 1970)
Paranoid (from Paranoid, 1970)
Solitude (from Masters of Reality, 1971)
Supernaut (from Vol. 4, 1972)
Spiral Architect (from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
Hole in the Sky (from Sabotage, 1975)
Symptom of the Universe (Sabotage, 1975)
It’s Alright (Technical Ecstacy, 1976 – sung by Bill Ward)
Never Say Die (Never Say Die!, 1978)