There were hints of it, here and there: thundering riffs by Zeppelin and Cream, manic fury from the MC5, the dark swirling intensity of Deep Purple, even the first Black Sabbath album had pieces of what was to come. But no one had perfected it yet, not until Black Sabbath dropped Paranoid on the world back in 1970. Everything changed on that day. Everything.
“War Pigs” was your first and only warning. Feedback-drenched guitars, melodic bass, thudding drums, and that air raid siren…it was telling you, right up front, Do Not Enter. This was the warning shot that introduced the world of rock n’ roll to the molten sounds of Heavy Metal. Unapologetic, unwavering, unrelenting, pummeling, pounding, Heavy Metal. Ozzy’s ghostly, wobbling vocal followed, ushering us into a world maddened with war, unending war. “War Pigs” was a bitter, wretched screed against war (“Oh Lord Yeah!”) that spoke truth to power from the men on the ground. The song just beats you, shambling along like some kind of crippled, limping monster with such heft and fury that it will be sure to bury you deep with only a broken cross marking your passing. And then it has the temerity and the grace to slide into that epic (Luke’s) wall of melody at the end, taking you from the dirt of the grave to the skies above.
“Paranoid” blasts in next, all fury and speed. Everyone knows the story: they needed a short song to fill up the running time and Iommi was like “How about this, mates?” and proceeded to off-handedly create Speed/Thrash Metal, long before such things ever existed. And again, only Ozzy’s plaintive voice can accurately tell this tale. It is fraught with terror, confusion, and yes, paranoia. Just under three minutes long, maybe one of the most important songs every recorded, and certainly no throw-away track.
“Planet Caravan” brings the world Stoner Prog weirdness. This one drifts along, cosmic and beautiful, Iommi bringing that soft, gentle sound that would become a part of nearly every Sabbath album, leaking light into the darkness so that you can see just a little bit better, even if it is in some kind of druggy, celestial vision. Bill Ward doesn’t get enough credit for his bongos on this track, and that is no joke. And as usual, Geezer shows why he’s one of the greatest bass players of all time, his twisting, warped notes adding the perfect guidance and path for such a strange tune to warble along.
And of course the Greatest Metal Song of all time follows. “Iron Man” is simply crushing. The riff. Man, the riff! It does not get any purer than that titanic, colossal crunch that shatters skulls and makes ordinary mortals bang their heads in furious agreement. A wild, sci-fi tale about a man out of time who is come to save humanity but despised for existing, this man created in a great magnetic field will one day have his revenge. Ozzy sings the shit out of this song, and has any drummer on the planet (other than Bonham) ever bludgeoned their cymbals the way Ward does on this track? The precise, out of control swing of this one can drive a man to madness.
Folks, that’s just Side One.
“Electric Funeral” is a drowsy, slurry, echoing tale of pure terror: nuclear war and how it will lay waste to the planet. It drags, man, but in a good way, slow and groovy, lava lamp bubbly. It takes you by the hand and leads you to an atomic grave, its skeletal grip cold and somehow still reassuring. Then you get that rockgasm right there in the middle, where the engines rev and the guitar does this freak-out, followed by the rest of the band. Geezer walks the fuck out of the bass, and the band swings, swings, swings, Ozzy straining to shriek out the ghastly death by radiation that is creeping across the land.
“Hand of Doom” is a horrifying, harrowing tale of heroin abuse, ostensibly written about U.S. troops in Vietnam getting strung out on the poppy highway, it becomes a riveting account of self-destruction. This is a dark, dark song, people napalming their own blood in an attempt to escape the living hell of this world. It’s quiet, and bleak, rising up to vomit its epitaphs here and there, before Iommi brings an almost funky riff in to sweep the earth clean of the detritus of mankind. “You’re giving death a kiss,” Ozzy sings. He’s talking about abusing heroin, but he could also be talking about dancing with this album as a whole.
“Rat Salad” is a forgotten song, a slight instrumental that features a short drum solo. It’s a bridge song and as essential to the flow of the record as any other track. You can’t just go from the utter desolation of “Hand of Doom” into the mirthy, whimsical final track. “Rat Salad” does just that, adding some jazz into the mix to keep things fresh, to remind you that you’re in the hands of a group of masters, and nothing can be trusted. Sabbath will take you anywhere they goddamn please and you’ll go along willingly, from Satan spreading his wings to heroin junkies and all the way to skinheads dressed like fairies. Speaking of which…
“Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” is the last, final gasp on the album. At this point, you’ve survived quite a lot and you deserve a good laugh at the end, and that’s just what the boys serve up. A sexy groove opens the song before sliding into another epic riff, Iommi just bleeding riffs left and right, as Ozzy guides us through an apocryphal story of a man walking home late one night who spies fairies dancing on the lawn. Fairies wearing, you guessed it, boots. A song meant to mock skinheads Geezer once saw in real life, it transforms into something more. It morphs into a funny little tale where a guy is convinced he’s seen fairies but his doctor isn’t so sure. The doc thinks it’s smoking and tripping and all Ozzy can say is “Yeah…!” And this is a perfect end to a perfect record. The story just runs out and you’re left with a satisfactory “Yeah!” as you headbang your way right out the door and fade into the distance.
50 years and this record never gets old. It has hoary anthems that the radio continues to jam out. It has deep album cuts that reveal layers of greatness decades on. It has a trippy ballad and an oddball instrumental. It has songs about war, drugs, men from the future, fairies wearing boots, and nuclear devastation. In short, it has it all. But mostly, it has the genius musicianship of Iommi, Butler, Ward, and Ozzy, firing on all cylinders.
Sabbath brought us Heavy Metal via the absurdly amazing album, Paranoid. And now, 50 years later, it is still unmatched.
Kelly is the author of dozens of stories and dozens of reviews. He likes to write, he likes to read, he likes going to the movies, and he loves to laugh. He hails from the wilds of Kentucky and if you'd like to see more of his work, check out his website: www.kellymhudson.comor on Amazon