I was not into heavy metal much as a kid, at least, not the darker stuff like Black Sabbath. They were so different from the more mainstream metal I liked (Def Leppard, Van Halen, Twisted Sister), a lot scarier, and nobody at my school ever mentioned them. They were not played on the radio station I listened to, WGCL, but WMMS, which was at that time famous all over the country, played them. WMMS played a bunch of shit I did not know much about. I was never interested in devil worship or a bunch of bullshit props and gimmicks onstage or anything like that, and that’s what I knew about bands like Black Sabbath.
I’m not sure what made me buy the first couple Black Sabbath albums when I was in my twenties. I was expanding my music interests in large part thanks to the PBS rock & roll documentary, so maybe that’s where I became more interested in Sabbath. “Paranoid” was used in Dazed and Confused, one of my favorite movies, so maybe that sparked my interest. I watched Ozzy’s MTV show and loved it, but I had Sabbath albums before that show was produced. In my mid-twenties I worked at a grocery store with a 19-year-old girl who loved Ozzy. Maybe she had some influence. Who knows? However I came upon Black Sabbath I am glad I can now call myself a fan.
I remember listening to Paranoid when I was driving home from Toronto one night with my friend Pat. He is the one who turned me on to Green Day, and we were friends because we loved music. I don’t think he really knew much Sabbath at the time either. We had gone to Toronto on a Monday night and were going to just stay until Wednesday morning. A guy I had met there a few years earlier said we could stay at his place, and we were happy to be able to save that hotel money for beer instead. Pat was 19 or 20 (I was about 27) at the time so he could drink there.
Pat and I walked around the city all day while Marc, my Canadian friend, was at work, and then the three of us went out that night after dinner. The Bovine Sex Club was where we spent the last few hours we had in Toronto. I had been to the city a few times before but never went to this bar. The guys I had gone to Toronto with before were gay and not really into punk or anything so we only went to gay bars, which was fine by me because Church Street is amazing! But I was very curious about the Bovine Sex Club, and knew Pat would want to go.
We only stayed for a few hours, but we definitely liked it. Pat met some girl who called herself Squirrel, but all they did was talk. Marc and I chilled and had a few drinks. None of us got out of control, and so I decided that Pat and I would head back to the States after we left the bar. Pat was probably a little tipsy, but I only had two beers and was fine. We said our goodbyes to Marc and started driving back home.
I had Paranoid on for part of the drive, I think while we were either on the QEW or in New York. I remember telling Pat that it was the perfect soundtrack for driving late at night. And I still feel that way. It was released in 1970 and is like hippiedom gone wrong. There are some political statements here. “War Pigs” is the most obvious one. Ozzy has disagreed with band mates over the song was specifically an anti-Viet Nam War anthem, saying that it’s just about war in general. And maybe that’s true, because everyone in Sabbath grew up hearing stories about The Blitz of London in 1940, and surely they saw first-hand many of the places that had been destroyed that remained in shambles year after the war had ended. Wars are usually run by the wealthy using the poor as pawns.
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait ’til their judgment day comes
The war in Viet Nam was still going strong when this song was released, so naturally people latched onto it as another protest song.
“Hand of Doom” mentions Viet Nam by name, and it definitely addresses some of the problems faced by Viet Nam vets and many others who were simply lost in that era. Drug addiction plagued lots of people, and there were so many who felt that freeing your mind through psychedelic drugs and weed and shit was the way to go. Unfortunately, drugs can and usually do fuck you up no matter what your reasons are for trying them in the first place.
What you gonna do?
Time’s caught up with you
Now you wait your turn, you know there’s no return
Take your written rules, you join the other fools
Turn to something new, now it’s killing you
First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm
Disillusioning, you push the needle in
From life you escape, reality’s that way
Colors in your mind, satisfy in time…
You’re having a good time baby, but that won’t last
Your mind’s all full of things, you’re living too fast
Go out enjoy yourself, don’t bottle it in
You need someone to help you stick the needle in, yeah
Now you know the scene, your skin starts turning green
Your eyes no longer see life’s reality…
It’s bizarre to think about it these days, but this is really more of an anti-drug song than anything. Clearly, Ozzy was not listening to his own lyrics. Whether it was a soldier trying to escape the memories of war or a girl back home mourning the death of her boyfriend, another casualty of the pointless war in Viet Nam, or just a dirty hippy who wanted to get high and reach another level of consciousness (cough—bullshit!), this song speaks to and about them all. As with any vice that seems like fun in the beginning, it will ultimately destroy you. Just say no, kids!
“Fairies Wear Boots” is obviously a 1970 song about drugs. For real. What the hell else could it be? It’s awesome. The music is exciting and Ozzy’s voice is at the top of his game, and the lyrics describe a super-fucked up acid trip.
Goin’ home, late last night
Suddenly I got a fright
Yeah I looked through the window
And surprised what I saw
A fairy with boots on dancin’ with a dwarf
Fairies wear boots and now you gotta believe me
Yeah I saw it, I saw it I tell you no lie
Yeah fairies had boots and you gotta believe me
I saw it, I saw it with my own two eyes
Woah right now!
So I went to the doctor to see what he could give me
He said, Son, son, you’ve gone too far
‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do
So, yeah. Fairy wearing boots? And dancing with a dwarf? I think your doctor is right; you’ve gone too far with your smokin’ and trippin’. But it’s fun to hear Ozzy say this shit over and over. But once again, just say no!
“Paranoid” is clearly about being crazy, whether that is drug-induced or organic. Why does this album have so many songs about being fucked in the head? Art is a product of the artist’s state of mind, of their soul and their experiences. But it’s also a product of the time out of which it springs. 1970 was a pivotal year in so many ways, no matter where you lived. There were major political changes taking place on the African continent. A massive earthquake killed over 1,000 in Turkey. Anti-war protests continued. There was racial violence all over the United States. 4 students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The Beatles broke up. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died of drug-related causes within weeks of each other.
Many young people who had felt empowered were now becoming frustrated, as the war in Viet Nam did not seem to be even close to ending, and the racism that they had been fighting for years was just as prevalent as it had been when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. The generation gap was widening, as Baby Boomers grew more and more distant from the ideals of their parents and questioned everything. I think that some of the psychological heaviness of this album and this song in particular is a reflection of that. Kids everywhere rebel against their parents; that’s the nature of being young. I think there is a slight difference in Great Britain because that society places so much emphasis on class and knowing your place, whereas Americans are taught that we can change our stations in life if we work hard enough. That sort of social stratification is really significant when you think about the artists that came out of Great Britain after WWII, whether it’s Black Sabbath or the Stones or Monty Python or The Sex Pistols or The Young Ones. They all thumbed their noses at authority in some way.
This is the mindset of a band like Black Sabbath when they record an album like this. “Paranoid” as a song is about so many things, but its essence is the unhappiness, rather, the dissatisfaction of a generation that was raised to follow in the footsteps of their parents, an impossible task in the 1950s and 1960s, times of remarkable upheaval and social change.
Finished with my woman ’cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time
All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify
Can you help me occupy my brain?
I need someone to show me the things in life that I can’t find
I can’t see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind
Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry
Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal
And so as you hear these words telling you now of my state
I tell you to enjoy life I wish I could but it’s too late
He wants to be happy, he thinks he is supposed to be happy, but he just cannot be happy. Young people just did not want to do the same things their parents did. They wanted racial equality. They wanted the right to choose their own careers. They wanted to never get married. They wanted to smoke weed. They wanted women to get jobs outside the home. They wanted revolution in every way they could get it. Obviously, I am generalizing here, but I think we need to consider how much change was actually happening despite the resistance of The Establishment. Change happens slowly and is not always recognized as progress at the time. We are seeing this now with the fight for LGBT equality. Society affects us all, whether we realize it or not. And when changes are happening in our world they are happening in our art. And it can drive us mad. At least artists have a way to express it.
“Iron Man” is also about a sort of madness. You can listen to it as a commentary on the technological revolution that was changing the world. You can listen to it as another anti-war song, that the Iron Man is the modern war machine that fills its victims full of lead. But you can also listen to it as a statement about the psychology of man as he struggles to deal with all the evil in the world, all the technology and war that are turning mankind into robots. Drugs can be part of this as well, since people often indulge to escape rather than cope.
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
Can he walk at all or if he move, will he fall?
Drugs turn people into soulless beings, zombies, walking around with blank eyes and nothing to say. Whatever it’s about, it’s a cool motherfucking song.
“Electric Funeral” is the same sort of song. “Robot minds of robot slaves/ Lead men to atomic graves.” Lots of fun lyrics like that to describe the modern world. We are on the eve of destruction, and there’s nothing that you can do about it.
Reflex in the sky
Warn you you’re gonna die
Storm coming, you better hide
From the atomic tide
Flashes in the sky
Turns houses into sties
Turns people into clay
Radiation minds decay
Pretty deep stuff. This is the kind of shit that scared people in 1970 and made people them Black Sabbath’s music was Satanic. Well, that, and the fact that their name is Black Sabbath. That kind of set the stage for what their image would become. And it’s another cool motherfucking song.
“Rat Salad” is an amazing instrumental song that sounds like it could go on for 20 minutes, yet it’s only two-and-a-half minutes. The drums are great, just what the song needs, and you barely notice that there are no vocals. Sometimes instrumentals are gratuitous and indulgent, but this one is a welcome addition to a lyrically heavy album. The music is superb, and it fits perfectly with the other tracks.
Before writing this it been a while since I listened to Paranoid, and until tonight I never listened to it like this. It’s a badass collection of music, but it’s also reflective of its time more than I had ever considered. Thinking about all that was happening in the world in 1970, Black Sabbath had to make this album. It’s deeper than anyone could imagine. I am glad I can see that now.