How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you explain the sheer sonic beauty of Black Sabbath? And how do you review yet another Black Sabbath compilation?
This is the band that gave the riff life. When taken in conjunction with Led Zeppelin, this is the band that established a rough hewn template for every future generation of white boy rock musician.
I can’t remember who it was (though my money’s on Geoff “Deaf” Barton, the father of Kerrang, the biggest selling weekly music magazine in the UK), but someone somewhere once wrote that the first Def Leppard EP boasted more riffs than the first four Black Sabbath albums. Crackhead ahoy! There are more riffs on the first four Black Sabbath albums than the global consciousness can handle. 32,767 to be precise. And while a song like “Paranoid” rocks a single stuttering groove from start to finish, the band’s more interesting moments lurch from riff to riff like a demented drunk on roller skates.
Consider first “NIB”, the riff that ate Manhattan. “NIB” may, or may not, be a nativity in black, but there’s no doubt that this monster-on-mandrax essentially ass-kicked Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” while casting John “Ozzy” Osbourne as Lucifer, hell-bent on seduction. If there’s a better bass riff anywhere, I’ve yet to hear it—and I have every Motörhead album. The very epitome of the Sabbath paradigm, “NIB” is very metal, very silly.
Then there’s “Sweet Leaf”, Ozzy’s shameless sonet in praise of the manly charms of Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix. “Snowblind”, his tribute to the life-changing thrills of extreme alpine sports. And “Hole in the Sky”, a subtle call to arms against the raping of our environment by the women (and poodle-headed rockers) who continue to use hairspray and fridges despite all the warnings from science, industry, musicians and government.
These four songs alone surpass the complete works of every rock band that ever took Van Halen or Randy Rhodes as their model. And “Snowblind”, in particular, is perhaps the best rock song ever written by anyone who wasn’t Jimmy Page, Robert Plant or Lemmy. Black Sabbath, in short, are the sonic temple at which lesser beings must worship.
Yet still, released to coincide with the inevitable Wolfmother bandwagon, this is probably the least essential greatest hits collection of all time. If I had a dollar for every Ozzy-era Black Sabbath compilation on the market today, I’d probably have the price of Greatest Hits 1970-1978, and enough left over for a cup of coffee to boot. Or even drink. For heaven and hell’s sake, I already own two of them myself: the original classic double vinyl We Sold Our Souls for Rock’n'Roll, and the much more recent twin CD package Symptom of the Universe: The Original Black Sabbath 1970-1978.
Of course, if you’re one of the handful of people who don’t already know and love the sludge chord fuzz fest that was Black Sabbath at their very best, then this distillation of Symptom of the Universe into just a single CD might not be a bad place to start.
It opens, as tradition dictates, with the gothic storm effects and tolling bells of “Black Sabbath”, the self-titled first song on the band’s self-titled first album. An almost painfully slow guitar underpins a happy-go-lucky tale of Satan and the flames of hell. Thunderbolts and lighting, et cetera ...
Forged in the same British black country furnace as Robert Plant and John Bonham, Black Sabbath were the first band to move from the electric blues into pure heavy metal—Led Zeppelin never were metal—and the three tracks featured here from that first album show that progression most clearly. Unfortunately, presumably to distance Greatest Hits 1970-1978 from every other like compilation, the glorious nonsense of “Black Sabbath” is followed not by the second track on their debut album, but the third. If you can hear the sounds of civilization collapsing, it’s probably not in shock at this sequencing faux-pas, but because that third track, the second here, is “NIB”.
Next up, inevitably, is the debut album’s second song, “The Wizard”. How confusing, how silly is that? Anyway, this is the number that makes the band’s roots black magic crystal clear: here a blues harp, there a piledriver riff, and over there in the corner, Ozzy giggling gleefully over his discovery that “walk” and “talk” rhyme.
In many ways, Sabbath were little more than a ham-fisted parody of the majesty of Led Zeppelin. No-one was ever likely to call Tony Iommi’s guitars “intelligent”, or even “angular”. But in all the ways that mattered, they were a magnificent, primitive force of nature that could not be denied. As proof, check out the band’s second album, Paranoid, from which this compilation—like every one of its predecessors—offers “War Pigs”, “Paranoid” itself, and “Iron Man”.
As sophisticated as Sabbath ever needed to get, “War Pigs” is all gloom metal, gear changing, simplistic but powerful politics, and, of course, a complete rifferama of utter bludgeonworthiness. While “Iron Man” is a Marvel comic made metal magnificent.
But, and this is where I need to take serious issue with “executive producer” Sharon Osbourne and whoever else selected and sequenced this compilation, chopping “Iron Man” down from its original six to a laughably mere three-and-a-half minutes, is metal abuse of the highest order. Why, Sharon, why?
And for that matter, why continue to pretend that “Changes” is anything other than a piece of maudlin shite that should never have seen the light of day, let alone every single Black Sabbath compilation since the dawn of man? Does Ozzy want a special prize for helping to invent the power ballad? Because I’ve got a bullet with his name on it right here, if so.
And why include the horribly inferior “Rock’n'Roll Doctor”, “Dirty Women” and “Never Say Die”? Yes, I know they help justify the last three years in the title of this compilation, but let’s face it, Sharon, everyone knows that Black Sabbath did nothing worth listening to after 1975’s Sabotage. Throw “Changes” out like the poorly trained pooch that it is, drown Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die at birth, and you have plenty of room for the full “Iron Man” and several of the other great Sabbath grindfests that everyone needs to hear. Like “Fairies Wear Boots”, “After Forever”, “Symptom of the Universe” and “Into the Void”, all of which should have been on this compilation.
One last point, like the Symptom of the Universe compilation before it, and the completist’s box set Black Box released last year, Greatest Hits 1970-1978 features versions of the Sabbath classics that have been re-mastered to try to bring out the hidden subtleties and sophistications of the band’s music. I think someone completely missed the point.