Black Sabbath – Paranoid
May 2, 2021
OVERALL (OUT OF 10): 8
Why does anyone like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid? What a bunch of sophomoric, idiotic songs. Phony gloom and doom, infantile apocalypsism, and comic book Satanism. Who listens to this stuff? I mean, have you ever taken a look at any of the lyrics for the songs on this album? Geezer Butler must have thought he was in some kind of bad lyrics contest with Pete Sinfield. For example, take a song that everybody knows and loves, “Iron Man”:
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?
Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We’ll just pass him there
Why should we even care?
Those are some really, really awful lyrics. “Electric Funeral” is even worse:
Earth lies in death bed
Clouds cry for the dead
Is a burning pain
Those are the kind of lyrics 14 year old wanna be hair metal band singers write in the back pages of their math notebooks (and no, I, ahem, don’t know that from experience). Does an album with a song as ridiculous as “Electric Funeral” deserve a decent review? With its dumbo lyrics and that goofy voice repeating “Electric Funeral” over and over in the middle? The whole song has a real “21st Century Schizoid Man” vibe to it without being 1/10 as interesting as the song it rips off.
This is music for stoned loser teenagers.
So why is Paranoid so damned irresistible?
I mean, I really can’t figure it out. On paper, Black Sabbath is a band nobody over 15 should ever be caught dead listening to, stoned or not. But I can’t help it, I love the album. How is it even possible that I like Paranoid so much???
That’s part of the mystery of music though – why does a series of compressed sound waves in sequence have such an effect on us? How is it that an instrument or a vocal cord triggers vibrations in the air that enter the auditory canal, cause the tympanic membrane to vibrate, transmitting those vibrations through three small bones in the inner ear, the last of which strikes a membrane on the cochlea causing movement in the fluid and little hair cells on the basilar nerve to vibrate, stimulating transduction of auditory energy into a neural signal that is sent to the primary auditory cortex among other parts of the brain, creating an experience so pleasing we spend hundreds of hours of our lives seeking that kind of aural stimulation. In terms of mere physics and biology, it is impossible to explain the power music holds over us, and even impossibler to explain a band like Black Sabbath creating that power.
But then life is a pretty mysterious thing all the way around, and literally nothing on this whole damn planet makes any sense anyway, so why not? After all, Paranoid does actually have some pretty strong things going for it:
Most albums would be lucky to have one undisputed heavy metal classic on it. Paranoid has three. And this is at the very dawn of the genre, mind you, it’s not like Black Sabbath had a whole lot of other bands to look to so they could see how it is done. “War Pigs” is a pretty amazing song all the way around, goofy apocalyptic lyrics and all, with its cool melody, crunchy guitar riff and heavy metal boogie backing. I personally prefer later versions on live Ozzy albums, the one on Just Say Ozzy is the one I like best, Zakk Wylde really kicks the song up a notch with his phenomenal playing, although the version on the Speak of the Devil isn’t bad either, if Brad Gillis were Zakk Wylde it would be just as good. Great song though.
“Paranoid” is the song that made Black Sabbath really – the lyrics are just as iffy as any other Black Sabbath song, and the phrasing in the verses is pretty awkward in parts, but that opening guitar salvo is universally recognizable, the verses actually make you feel kind of paranoid, and the pounding beat is so infectious no one really cares. Upon hearing it, Warner Brothers record executives decided to rename the album from War Pigs to Paranoid, rendering what had been an already marginally incoherent choice for the album cover completely incomprehensible. And actually, I personally think War Pigs would have been the better title, but that’s just me. No question, though, the song is a classic, and I am pretty sure Ozzy has sung it at every concert he’s played since it was released.
And who doesn’t love “Iron Man”? Yes, the riff gets a bit overplayed, yes, Ozzy’s vocal just aping the melody of the riff isn’t all that creative, yes it has some more of that awkward phrasing in the verses, and it’s an all around dumb concept for a song anyway. But that riff is so catchy, and it has become so iconic, how could you not like the song?
It’s hard to imagine what heavy metal would have been like without these three songs. You can draw a direct line back from most heavy metal that followed straight to these three songs, their influence really can’t be overstated. And there are a couple of other songs on Paranoid that are also great, if not on the same level of magnitude as those three. I absolutely love “Planet Caravan”’s moody ambience, and “Hand of Doom” is pretty good too.
Not that every song on the album works.“Electric Funeral” is awful, nothing redeems that stinker, and to me it really does feel like too much of a ripoff on “21st Century Schizoid Man” without the dazzling musicianship. Ozzy’s vocal lines follow the guitar riff so slavishly that it sounds really stiff, like he’s strapped his voice in a vocal straightjacket. Nothing about the song works. “Rat Salad” is filler, just a fairly uninteresting guitar riff and several seconds too long of Bill Ward drum solo. And I’ve always hated “Fairies Wear Boots”, it doesn’t really rock, it’s more of a limp boogie really, and it’s just a dumb song anyway. It just of kind of fades away at the end without having done much. Kind of a flaccid way to close out a great album. But there are enough great songs on Paranoid to make for a winner.
Tony Iommi was a pretty creative guitarist really. In the early days of the band the guy could crank out solid riffs like nobody’s business, and riffage subsequently became one of the cornerstones of heavy metal. But those heavy riffs weren’t the only thing he had going for him, like Jimmy Page, he understood the power of dynamics, the “light and shade” Page never stops going on about, he didn’t just wield a musical sledgehammer all of the time (much of the time, but not all of the time). So you have the moody, spooky “Planet Caravan”, a song whose lyrics are indecipherable but nonetheless conjures a phenomenal atmosphere given how few instruments are used. “Hand of Doom” has some great shifts in dynamics, and is unfairly overlooked on the album. Iommi’s lead parts were always tasteful, even thrilling at times, he may not have been the most technically proficient lead player but for the most part his fills are better than average. The section in “Iron Man” with two of his solos playing at the same time is a lot of fun. If I have one criticism for Mr. Iommi, it would be that it seems to me his rhythm parts could be played with more energy at times – sometimes he has a cool rhythm part he’s put together, but he doesn’t play it with the oomph guitarists like Zakk Wylde would later bring to it when Ozzy did these songs live as a solo act. Oddly, I feel the same way about Bill Ward as a drummer, his drum fills are great (and check out his mood-setting drumming on “Planet Caravan” and “Hand of Doom”), but he’s another one of those drummers who didn’t hit the skins all that hard (I’ve made a similar criticism of Mitch Mitchell). Hitting the drums hard can bring a lot of power to a song, and I find the drumming on Paranoid creative but not powerful. But I guess everybody can’t be John Henry Bonham “Moby Dick Dick Dick Dick…”
And it must be said, Ozzy has a pretty unique voice. Ozzy’s voice is distinctive – you hear it, and you know right away it’s Ozzy. He’s not the most proficient vocalist – just listen to the notes waver at the end when he sings “Generals gathered in their massesehsehsehs”, he has a little trouble holding the note. But his unique vocal approach fits Black Sabbath’s music perfectly. He brings the right amount of frenetic energy to “Paranoid”, his vocal helps give “Planet Caravan” its spooky sheen, and all in all his vocals were paramount to giving early Black Sabbath its distinctive sound. He wasn’t the greatest vocalist, but he was the greatest vocalist for Black Sabbath (sorry Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillian, Ron Keel, David Donato, Jeff Fenholt, Glen Hughes, Ray Gillen, Tony Martin. Damn, who didn’t sing for Black Sabbath? There’s a band that had a hard time keeping a lead vocalist.).
Finally, Paranoid is the sound of heavy metal being born really. Sabbath’s debut doesn’t count on this score. Sure, you can argue that Led Zeppelin II had already come out a full year before, but I don’t consider Zeppelin a metal band, and you shouldn’t either. When I look at the prototypical heavy metal bands like Metallica and Megadeth and Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and those kinds of bands, they have far more in common with Black Sabbath than Led Zeppelin. Of course, I never listen to any of those kinds of bands, so it’s a bit of a mystery why I like Black Sabbath so much. Maybe it’s because no matter what you think of their music, you have to admit they weren’t derivative, which can’t be said for about any metal band that followed them.
So yeah, Paranoid. There are a ton of reasons why I shouldn’t like it, but then some pretty strong reasons why I should. If you’ve never heard it, set aside your musical snobbery for a moment and bask in the oldest heavy metal music known to man-and-womankind. And some of the best.