[14 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s incredible to think that many of the most important, influential Black Sabbath riffs came from essentially a two-year period, when the band churned out their first three albums in quick succession over the course of 18 months in 1970 and 1971. What’s even more confounding is how guitarist Tony Iommi has no explanation about how any of those riffs (“Black Sabbath”, “N.I.B.”, “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, “Sweet leaf”, “Children of the Grave”, and on, and on) came to be.
In a burst of inspiration that rivals any creative streak in rock ‘n’ roll history, Iommi simply plucked these riffs from out of the ether, turning rock music on its ear and essentially spawning an entire genre of music. That’s always the case when it comes to musical geniuses. They can’t exactly articulate how those moments of inspiration happened; they just do, and all we can do is listen to those songs in complete awe.
Singling out the best Black Sabbath album out of their first six is a daunting task, as each one (Black Sabbath, Paranoid Master of Reality, Volume 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage) is outstanding in its own right, but of all of those seminal releases, 1970’s Paranoid is the one record that seems to be regarded by many as the one canonical Sabbath release. This is for good reason, too, as the album is led by the three songs that have been most embraced by the classic rock set: “War Pigs”, “Iron Man”, and the ubiquitous title track. If you dig deeper than those well-known songs, though, you’ll discover music that’s even richer and more diverse, from the jazzy “Fairies Wear Boots”, to the mellow psychedelia of “Planet Caravan” (their finest mellow song), to the underrated “Hand of Doom”, one of the darkest tracks, both thematically and musically, that the band ever recorded.
Considering that Paranoid is going to turn 40 years old this coming September, there’s no better time than the present to celebrate and dissect the album. Eagle Rock’s terrific TV series Classic Albums does just that on their latest episode, which has since been released in expanded form on DVD. Unlike VH1’s often cornball Behind the Music series, Classic Albums puts the music front and center with no annoying narration – just the artists in their own words – and it’s wonderful to see all four members of Sabbath (Iommi, singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward) participate.
The original episode is excellent in its own right, but extended to 97-minutes on the DVD (including 50 additional minutes of excellent bonus interview footage), Sabbath fans will be thrilled. Viewers are given a quick and snappy run-down of the events leading up to Paranoid, but the bulk of the DVD is devoted to the actual music. All eight of the album’s tracks are given a thorough analysis: Iommi demonstrates his riffs, the camera zoomed right in so we can see his famous prosthetic fingertips, Butler explains his lyrics, and engineer Tom Allom offers samples of isolated tracks (one revelation being the story of the recurring electronic “beeps” on “Planet Caravan”).
Better yet, the focus is not solely on Iommi’s legendary riffs. Butler and Ward formed a formidable rhythm section that could swing like none other, as “Fairies Wear Boots” attests, and close attention is given to their chemistry as well as their techniques. In addition, the musical contributions of Ozzy are not glossed over either, with his former bandmates mentioning how good he was at creating vocal melodies.
Allom notes how amazing it was that much of the album was recorded on first, second, or third takes. After extensive touring and a demanding residency at Hamburg’s Star Club (eight 45-minute live sets daily), the foursome was a very tight, well-rehearsed, very focused unit by 1970, and it shows on Paranoid especially. It’s a little detail like that that make this Classic Albums release so enjoyable, and one of the finest episodes the series has produced to date. It’s mandatory viewing for metal and popular music fans alike.