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Paint It Black (Sabbath)

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Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
A case could be made that Sabbath is by far the most misunderstood and underrated band. Ever. (Indeed, I've already made that case. Now I'm going to make it again.)

I’m so proud of my Pops.


Last night, quite out of the blue (or, out of the black, as the case may be), he said he had to ask me a “technical question.”


I braced myself, prepared to disappoint him. A “technical” question had to mean he was going to ask about computers, and I would have to remind him that, despite working closely with them for almost two decades, I probably know less about the inner workings and mechanics of these things than the average ten year old.


To my considerable relief, it was a question about music.


To my considerable delight, it was a question about Black Sabbath.
  


“So I heard a Black Sabbath song on the radio the other day…they were actually a really good band, huh?”


“Are you kidding? They were a great band.”


“But, I mean, they were seriously good musicians…”


“Arguably some of the best, instrument for instrument, in all of rock.”


“That drummer…he is pretty impressive!”


“Bill Ward is indeed a very bad man.”


I asked him what song he had heard, assuming it had to be “Iron Man” or “Paranoid”, as those are the only two Sabbath songs I’ve ever heard on the radio. I dared to hope that maybe, somehow, some station had sagely determined that “War Pigs” would, in fact, be a very welcome addition to the heavy rotation so many other lesser songs enjoy on classic rock channels. He could not confirm what song it was, and I remain intrigued, because I’m pretty certain he would recognize the first two songs. And other than “War Pigs”, I can’t think of another song that seems commercial enough for even a more progressive-minded classic rock station to consider. But there are certainly plenty that could be.


And therein lies the rub. There are tons of Sabbath songs that could peacefully exist with the largely underwhelming and predictable numbers you hear every time you listen to the radio. (The other issue, of course, is whether or not anyone actually listens to FM radio anymore. Well, my old man does.) It’s not a quality issue; if that were the case, we could discuss the dozens of bands who get little to no airplay (King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to name a few). And it’s not an issue of accessibility. Even with the acts who do get plenty of airtime (Yes, the Doors, Rush, Neil Young), it’s for the most part a surface-level shuffle of their half-dozen most successful and/or “popular” songs. I think I’d drive off the road if I ever heard Neil Young’s “Powderfinger”, but at least when the firemen showed up to pull me from the wreckage I would have a smile on my face. The point, then, is not that FM radio, for mostly understandable (if ceaselessly self-defeating) reasons, plays it safe and consistent; that could be an entire discussion in and of itself.


Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today, and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day, sound safe, generic and half-ass:


No, the issue here is of and about the band Black Sabbath. A case could be made (and I have made it: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/earth-day/) that Sabbath is by far the most misunderstood and underrated band. Ever.


I wrote (in a piece I now notice went live on my father’s birthday last year, causing me to consider if larger forces are at work here) that the band’s name, which certainly caught people’s attention, also has always worked against them:


The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.


Sabbath, not Zeppelin, had more to do with establishing what came to be known (however lazily) as “heavy metal”. And that is not a slight on Zeppelin; indeed, it is a compliment. To pigeonhole their blues and folk-based sound, as well as the possibly unrivaled virtuosity of Jimmy Page and severely under-appreciated compositional acumen of John Paul Jones, is a disservice on several levels. More to the point, there is little, if anything, on any Zeppelin album that sounds like what most people call (or called) heavy metal.


Sabbath, on the other hand…


Like Zeppelin, their early material was heavily grounded in blues, and both of their debuts were recorded virtually live in the studio without overdubs. Both bands were restless and productive, and within a few years each had cultivated a sonic template that substantially exceeded—and improved upon—the uncomplicated formula of their early work. Where Zeppelin began incorporating folk, country, and even reggae into their increasingly technicolor albums, Sabbath found its sweet spot in the black and white riff-centric blitzkrieg. That sound—raw and hungry on the first album—irresistibly flowed with the current into heavier and darker waters, culminating in the visceral assault of Vol. 4. After the transitional and experimental (and quite successful) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band upped the ante on Sabotage, and in the process created a song that launched a thousand imitations. Behold, the birth of thrash metal:


To plagiarize again from the earlier piece:


And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”), to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”), to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.


Consider “Cornucopia” from Vol. 4: it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much heralded fin de siecle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals, and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book; indeed this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades. Granted, their music is not for everyone, but in this iPod age it would be a compelling experiment to cue up a track list that includes “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, “Don’t Start (Too Late)”, and “It’s Alright”, then give an uninitiated listener ten guesses to name that band.


Indeed, if you can’t play “Air Dance”—a truly moving song (!) about an aged ballerina (!!)—for your significant other, it might be time to reconsider that relationship. A more sustained—and entirely subjective—analysis of Sabbath’s magnum opus, Never Say Die! is overdue, but for now, this track can represent the whole. “Air Dance” features some truly astonishing work by Tony Iommi, who was increasingly able to add nuance and texture to his multi-tracked guitar parts (check out the jazz guitar and piano interplay, and then the calibrated frenzy of the final solo, and then…is that brass being deftly applied to embellish the coda? You better believe it is.) Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as just about any other band’s.


Finally, from my previously mentioned piece, I conclude thusly:


Once Ozzy exited the picture, it is fair to assume that the band would have faded into the void if they had made the courageous decision to soldier on with drummer Bill Ward assuming vocal duties (the aforementioned “It’s Alright” and the last song on the last album, “Swinging the Chain”, offer evidence that this experiment may have worked out quite nicely). It was never going to happen, but they would have arguably made better albums in the Ozzy aftermath if they had given it a shot. Instead, with the very unsatisfactory Ronnie James Dio grabbing the mic, the good old bad days stayed in the ‘70s.


Looking back, one wishes they had just pulled a Brian Wilson and gotten Ozzy his own sandbox, or let him work the wet bar in the caboose of his custom-made crazy train. But then, he had to leave; it had to end so we could have the subsequent Behind the Music special. Without Ozzy hitting rock bottom there would be no rebirth, no Randy Rhoads, no PETA protests, no reality TV show. The Sabbath singer had worn out his welcome, but Ozzy’s work was not yet done: there were ants to snort, doves’ heads to decapitate, and most significantly, the Alamo to urinate on (and let’s face it: someone had to urinate on the Alamo).


And so, in the end, it is as it should have been: one band, one decade, one legacy—everything that came after comes with an asterisk. Nevertheless, the records need to be set straight: Sabbath is one of the very few bands that is actually better than it sounds.


So, in sum, what Sabbath do you need? Eventually, you’ll want all of the stuff from the ‘70s, but most people start with Paranoid and go from there. And remember, Never Say Die!


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