Poetic Sludge- the Early Years, Part 2
by James Fleming
Only the groove survived the cull.
Part III: Spitting Venom And Spreading Wings.
Gone were the nods to Cream and the straight(er) blues riffs, the cover versions and the ramshackle jams. Only the groove made it through.
A groove is essentially the leaving of breathing space for the various components of a song. It is this space, this void, that separates Black Sabbath from their descendants. It is the distinction between "heavy" and "extreme."
This musical cull, this distilling of Black Sabbath's defining individual elements, came to sweet fruition on Paranoid. A blossoming Deadly Nightshade of an LP, Paranoid was recorded just four months after the release of Black Sabbath in order to further capitalise on the debut's success.
Mission accomplished: chart topping album in the UK, number 12 in the USA and a top twenty single, again in England, with the title track. But there was an enormously beneficial side-effect to rushing back into the studio.
Recording their follow-up album so soon after their first release kept Black Sabbath's gears turning, their momentum up and their mojo flowing. They were jammed in third gear from roadwork and recording. And it was at this rapid pace that the sludge really started flowing. It was the groove that released the sludge, that broke the conformist levee. Without that groove, there would have been no room for movement. No space for poetry. And what good would mere sludge have been without the poetry to accompany it?
But the poetry is not just in Geezer's venomous lyrics. It's in the space between "War Pigs"' two-chord verse riff, the slithering menace of "Electric Funeral," the head-down battering-ram charge of "Paranoid." It's in the nuances of the rhythm section and the primal energy of the whole album. It's on Paranoid that the sludge started to take on an identity of its own. To become an entity.
If Black Sabbath was an album born of general dissatisfaction, both musical and cultural, then Paranoid refines that chaotic fury and experimentalism to laser-point precision. Where on their debut the rage was implied by the occultist lyrics and the ultra-modern music, Paranoid states its rage in prose raw as William Burroughs' novel Junky.
They channel that anger at everything from warmongering politicians to nuclear arms to skinheads. Lucifer and his demons are exchanged for science-fiction menaces straight from the comic books, updating centuries-old occult leanings for the new technological generation. The sci-fi inspired Iron Man's riff lumbers along at a terrifyingly slow crawl. This is not a madman in hot pursuit of his victim. This is the sound of a horror movie monster that knows there is no escape for its prey.
The story Butler's lyrics tell has been retold countless times, of the man transformed into a being of solid metal seeking revenge on the people who have spurned him. It could be - and was - dismissed as mere cheesiness. But to listen to Ozzy's pained howl, mimicking Tony Iommi's now signature riff, it becomes clear that while it may be B-movie stuff, that fact does not diminish its horrifying quality.
It's not unsophisticated, it's simple. There's a sophistication to simplicity that gets its deserved acknowledgement all too rarely. "Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort," as TS Eliot put it with his trademark eloquence. Black Sabbath understood that music belonged to the people. That's all people. And that to reach the people you have to be simple, direct and thrilling.
Rage ticks all those boxes. What was born of mere shock-value satanism and christened Walpurgis, after the pagan holiday, was reincarnated as a venom-spitting anti-war anthem for draft-dodgers and right-thinkers. War Pigs is scathing in its simplicity, poetic in its venom. It's no mere two-fingered "fuck off." It's Ozzy's trademark "peace" V-sign that he flashed night after night on stage.
Where the hippies begged and pleaded for an end to the conflict in Vietnam, Black Sabbath sought to highlight its atrocities: napalm, slaughter, war-profiteering. And through this ugliness, they quested for an end to the blind destruction.
Ozzy's vocals tear through the speakers like the crow-goddess of death The Morrígan surveying the sprawling death of a spent battlefield. Where Slayer would recount the horrors of WWII on "Angel Of Death," they would do so with a wall of dense riffage. Iommi reached into that cauldron we call consciousness and pulled out riffs by the fistful. All with his trademark space, AKA groove, leaving the listener to imagine the darkness that lurks between the notes.
"Satan laughing spreads his wings," is the last echoing line of "War Pigs," Paranoid's opening track. Indeed Black Sabbath were spreading their pitch-black, leathery wings on their second album. But where other lesser groups would have clumsily welded ill-fitting genres together in an attempt to spread their own wings, Sabbath just plunged deeper into the well they were already drinking from.
Even the jazzy "Planet Caravan" has its roots in Tony Iommi and Bill Ward's fondness for the genre. When as a teen, Iommi lost two of his fingertips in an accident at the sheet-metal factory he called his workplace, it was a gift of a Django Reinhardt record that pulled him from the depths of despair and got him playing again. And Ward had grown up with American jazz records in the house. These youthful influences birthed "Planet Caravan"'s psychedelic jazz sensibilities. With Butler's bass playing accenting the space between the song's two chords and Ozzy's mixed-low vocals run through a Leslie speaker and then an oscillator by Rodger Bain, back in the producer's chair, the end result is a track adrift on the outer edges of the cosmos.
But after "Planet Caravan" and "Iron Man"'s exploration of outer space, "Electric Funeral" is painfully, frighteningly earthbound. That great dick-measuring contest called The Cold War was in full swing in 1970, and the sizzling doom of nuclear war seemed inevitable. Even imminent.
Paranoid may have the title, but it's "Electric Funeral" that reeks of paranoia: "Dying world of radiation, victims of mad frustration, burning globe of obscene fire, like electric funeral pyre!" A snaking main riff evolves into a high speed workout complete with bass string-bending from Geezer, matching Iommi's own string-warping twists. The hangover from WWII hung heavy over the culture of the day "keep calm and carry on," etc. The zeitgeist remained unspoken until bands like Black Sabbath dared to stand up and shout it. The sixties outspoken optimism died with the tragedy at Altamont and in its place came heavy metal. The stark reality that the world never turned on an axis of optimism. But that it could.
Before you can solve a problem though, you have to identify the problem. That's what Paranoid is about: naming and shaming the problems of the mid-20th century Western World. Sabbath raged against the war, the status quo, inside of their own heads. The title track is as much a portrayal of depression as it is a damning indictment of our attitudes towards mental illness. By illustrating the crippling effects of depression - "I can't see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind" - Geezer was not only speaking of his own struggles with mental ill-health, but highlighting its terrors and providing a focal point for downtrodden people the world over in place of traditional British "stiff-upper-lip" stoicism.
Butler's lyrics were married to a cavalry-charging backing track that pre-dated the buzzsaw guitars of punk rock. Under three minutes of no bullshit rock n' roll. But rock n' roll devoid of Presley-isms and Little Richard ripoffs. This was all the unsettling qualities of the original wave of rock n' roll music distilled into one powerhouse of a track. All the balls, brass-neck and taboos in one nigh perfect song.
Taboos are often held up as "values." Values of decency, propriety and goodness are often a case of can't-dos in oppose to can-dos. Black Sabbath tore down those taboos and replaced them with the can-dos that have come to define the developments the 21st century is currently undergoing. Where these things are just beginning to be discussed in frank, honest terms. Just like the music on Paranoid.
"Hand Of Doom" couples two taboos, war and addiction, into one quote-un-quote "value" smashing tune. The soldiers drafted into the Vietnam war often took to hard drugs to escape the horrors they were forced to enact and witness on a daily basis. And heroin proved to be a very effective means of escape.
Black Sabbath witnessed these strung-out and scarred young men returning from their terms of duty when they played the clubs in Hamburg. The soldiers would be left there for a few weeks to dry out before being shipped home in something approaching a reasonable state. But Sabbath were having none of that.
"First it was the bomb, Vietnam napalm, Disillusioning, You push the needle in," all the creeping toxicity of intravenous addiction is present and reporting for duty in "Hand Of Doom"'s malevolent sludge music. Extreme could never have pulled it off. But heavy hammers the point home: that there were no victors in that war. Just ruined young men and a ruined people.
These war songs of Black Sabbath's transcend mere war-profiteering-via-entertainment accusations. Where the hippies refrained from really discussing the blood and dirt of the wrongs of war, Sabbath presented them in all their vile, disgusting, wrath-inducing reality. This is the news as deemed unfit to print by the mainstream media.
The only dip in Paranoid's quality is the instrumental "Rat Salad." 'Tis but a minor blemish. But a blemish all the same. Taking heavy inspiration from Led Zeppelin's John Bonham show-off piece "Moby Dick," "Rat Salad" is a showcase for Bill Ward's monumental skill behind the kit. But it could have been so much more.
Its potential energy at the start of the track is in uncountable joules. But when Ozzy's vocals fail to make an appearance over Iommi's riffs, not even Ward's powerful drumming can rescue "Rat Salad" from what it could have been. And thus, it fails to gain in kinetic energy what it promised in its potential, and becomes one of those mistakes that Sabbath's descendants would latch on to and replicate.
What no one else could ever replicate though, was the trademark Black Sabbath groove. But that's largely because few ever tried. And those that did failed to build on it in any new and exciting ways. Just re-hashing the old tricks that made Black Sabbath legends and grasping futilely at the straws of their myth.
"Fairies Wear Boots" was built on such a groove, but would become the runt of Paranoid's litter. Unsung by all but a few diehards, its chilling, delay-soaked guitar introduction seamlessly mutates into a shuffling groove. Ozzy supplied the lyrics after he was assaulted by a pack of wild skinheads late one night for no other crime than being a long-haired rock n' roller. It was Frank Sinatra that famously said "the best revenge is massive success." While those skinheads only claim to fame is once beating up Ozzy Osbourne, Ozzy shaped pop-culture's future. His revenge closed what is arguably the world's finest heavy metal album.
And that sweet success did shower upon them like gifts from the gods. Paranoid would eventually be certified four times platinum in the USA. A rare feat and one not even the band dared to dream of. The music press of the day tried to drag them down to the level of the Hell they believed spawned Black Sabbath. But Sabbath would not fall. Not for another four albums at least.
There was more slander and more success on the horizon for Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill. With less than a year before they recorded their third LP, the rush of adrenaline kept their momentum up and the magic at their fingertips. Iommi's dogged determination would see the Black Sabbath sound crystallise into something beyond characterisation until the ripoff artists started calling it "doom" or "stoner" metal.
It was on their third album that they breathed life into the sludge.
Suffocating, claustrophobic, toxic. Master Of Reality is when the world realised the waters Sabbath had dived headfirst into were polluted. It is the bottom of Black Sabbath's well of inspiration. But not the end.
Part IV: Into The Void.
At the bottom of this poisonous well was an underwater world, virgin territory for our four explorers. Mutated by the pollution, the creatures of this world were unlike any before seen by mortal eyes. And Black Sabbath sent us back an LP rife with hellish music. The soundtrack to their explorations of Davey Jones' Locker.
Master Of Reality plays out like a nightmarish fantasy novel. Half Alice In Wonderland and half Hieronymus Bosch painting, it's wondrous, glorious and frightening all at the same time. Where Paranoid was all about earthly terrors, Master Of Reality stakes a claim to the nether-territories. A black flag in the freshly discovered dirt.
And the people flocked to this new land. Master Of Reality would be certified twice platinum for sales clocking in at over two million. Black Sabbath's third LP captured the fear of and the fascination with the unknown on tape. And achieved their final US top ten album until their swan song release, 13, in 2013. 42 years on from Master Of Reality's release in 1971.
God, Satan, outer space, love and hate and dope and despair are the lofty themes tackled across Master Of Reality's eight tracks. Explorations set to a soundtrack of the deepest, blackest sludge. This album marks the beginning of Iommi's experiments with down-tuning his guitar. His accident at the sheet metal factory meant that his injured fingers were nothing more than skin stretched over bone. And after years of heavy touring, the pain of trying to play a standard tuned guitar was agonising. So he de-tuned his Gibson SG by three semitones, to loosen the strings for his aching digits. And in the process of lowering his guitar's pitch, he increased the weight of his riffs tenfold. Couple that with the sparse use of reverb and delay, and Master Of Reality is a claustrophobic listen.
As if one is trapped in a six by eight cell with Gojira, the sludge finally blossomed into consciousness and took on a life of its own. And Black Sabbath's success would make the sludge an all-consuming force of nature. Grunge, doom and stoner metal would all be bereft of a foundation without Master Of Reality. And the 21st century would be a very different sort of terrifying without it.
For fear of the unknown would have us all buckled. Without the bands that Black Sabbath spawned with this record, we would be without the confrontational artists unafraid to look the abyss in the eye. And the abyss is useless at staring competitions. It always backs down in the end.
"Sweet Leaf" is the track that, more than any other on Master Of Reality, birthed stoner metal. An ode to dope, Iommi's lurching riff would be filched by that psychedelic-punk-noise-rock beast Butthole Surfers and used on the opening track of Locust Abortion Technician, "Sweat Loaf" and the Beastie Boys' "Rhymin & Stealin" from their debut Licensed To Ill. Iommi also contributed the now-iconic cough that opens the album before "Sweet Leaf"'s avalanching music kicks in. And the tape loop of his marijuana-induced coughing also predates Butthole Surfers' studio manipulations.
Geezer was inspired to pen the lyrics by a pack of Sweet Afton cigarettes that was emblazoned with the slogan "it's the sweet leaf." Black Sabbath's weed intake is the stuff of legend, only surpassed by their hoovering up of cocaine. But what was well known was also unspoken. And to make no bones of their own recreational drug use, in song was taboo smashing of a ballsy sort.
"Sweet Leaf"'s mutant groove carries that message atop gargantuan shoulders before it metamorphoses into a barrage of rolling thunder toms and Iommi's lightning guitar solo. Butler's bass playing is wild and unhinged, cut loose from its usual role as anchor. "My life is free now, my life is clear" Ozzy sings in the instrumental section's preceding verse. And the music follows suit, breaking free from its smoky haze into the greater unknown.
Before returning to that riff. The riff that birthed so many bands who built careers on monolithic music and eulogising marijuana and its surrounding culture. But it was Black Sabbath that raised that culture up from subterranea into the spotlight of public consciousness. Without "Sweet Leaf," the stoner-metal bands of today would be without a target market.
At the opposite pole of Master Of Reality is "Into The Void." In '71, man had only stepped on the moon two years previous. And in the decades that followed, it seemed as if the more we learned about the final frontier the less we knew. On Into The Void, Sabbath launched themselves into the vast emptiness of the universe on a rocket of changing tempos and detuned ostinati, going where very few dared venture.
Black Sabbath's music was always by and for outcasts. No matter how many units they sold, it was always the outsiders they spoke directly to. So it's fitting that they would decide to explore existence's outer reaches. Where the freaks and bedroom-bound dwell. And on "Into The Void," they bring those pariahs with them on a voyage to their far-flung natural habitat.
"Leave the earth to Satan and his slaves, leave them to their future in their grave," the quote-un-quote "fuck-ups" have left this earth to the real-deal fuck-ups. The ones who were drafting harmless, scared young people into that still-raging war and making money on their corpses. For a band associated with evil, and for a record as wicked-sounding as Master Of Reality, the message of the LP is predominantly one of love: "Make a home where love is there to stay, peace and happiness in every day" as Geezer opted to close "Into The Void"'s lyrics.
The music was uncharted, distorted territory. And the new is always terrifying. But the hope in the lyrics, a hope for a new world Shangri-La, balances the scale. The extreme metal bands a few decades down the line would tip that scale back towards the darkness with over-indulgent satanic references and white noise riffing. Perhaps because they had not grown up with the optimism of 1967, Black Sabbath's music may have been pitch-black in its singling out of the problems of the early-mid seventies. But by raising awareness of these issues in all their true horror, they hoped to rectify them in a way the flower-children of '67 could not.
"Children Of The Grave" is a choice-cut example. Its horror-flick title and pre-Iron Maiden malevolence cloak the cautionary ultimatum of the lyrics: "Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave, or you children of today are children of the grave." The nihilism of the music on Master Of Reality may be proto-punk in its attitude. But Geezer's words add light to the shade. A clarion call for the new generation to learn from the past's missteps.
As the prophet Kristofferson put it "yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow is out of sight." The future belongs to no one, and certainly not to the past. But Black Sabbath were trying to lead the way out of the mire and into the pasture. And on songs such as "Children Of The Grave," they came very close to being a lighthouse in the fog.
Bill Ward drives the song, a powerhouse behind the wheel. The impending doom of Iommi's riffs illustrate the ultimatum of the lyrics: "this is it folks, it's die dog or shite the license." This is the ultimatum the "fuck-ups" faced on "Into The Void." There is no hope on this world, but there might be elsewhere.
"Children Of The Grave" marks the halfway point of Master Of Reality with sludge-laden guitar work in its instrumental bridge section. A towering obelisk of blackest stone erected by the hands of Black Sabbath's four members. A tower-keep they struggled to escape from in the following years.
Master Of Reality did nothing to persuade the music press of Black Sabbath's merit. Rather, it convinced them that what they had here was four young men from Birmingham engaging in a most vulgar strain of knuckle-dragging neanderthal-ism. The subdued instrumentals on either side of "Children Of The Grave" – "Embryo" and "Orchid" - were viewed as pointless, jarring and futile grasps at progressive rock credibility.
But even these vaguely medieval-sounding tracks would have an impact on the course of heavy metal, where traces of them can be heard in the modern day's folk metal sub-genre. But "Embryo" is little more than a starkly contrasting introduction to "Children Of The Grave." And "Orchid" is only a marginally more interesting, and lengthier, acoustic intro to "Lord Of This World."
"Lord Of This World" wipes the slate clean. And lost in its heaviness, one forgets about those misguided pleas to the equally misguided music journalists of the time. The track's murky shuffle carries Satan's words: that he is the lord and ruler of our earthly plane. The Dark One taunts the listener - "You think you know but you are never quite sure, Your soul is ill but you will not find a cure" - who is the one who raised Lucifer to his elected position. "But you choose evil ways instead of love, You made me master of the world where you exist."
It's tracks such as this that were cited in the case for Black Sabbath's supposed satanic leanings. But tracks such as the proud "After Forever" were ignored. "After Forever" occupies the space on Master Of Reality that "Paranoid" occupied on their previous album: a take-no-shit rock song. But where "Paranoid" was a song of despair, "After Forever" makes the case for believing in a loving God. Geezer was always a Catholic and remains so to this day. But unlike the Christian rock/metal music of more recent years, there is nothing wimpy or diluted about "After Forever."
Veering between rock n' roll's backbeat and the sludge that defines this LP, "After Forever" holds its head high as if it were dragging Beelzebub by the tail. Handing His head on a platter to the fearful and the conservative in a totally "I told you so" gesture.
"Solitude" was similarly un-cited in the case against Black Sabbath. It proves singlehandedly that the band were capable of many things, that there were facets to this uncut diamond. It retains the otherworldly shimmer of Paranoid's "Planet Caravan," but replaces the jazz swing with an almost waltzing beat. A lonely pining song, Ozzy's tender vocals carry "Solitude"'s pained weight on sagging shoulders. Iommi's guitar work skates on the drum-less terrain before segueing into the final track, the interstellar "Into The Void." And Master Of Reality comes full circle: from the outer reaches of the mind on "Sweet Leaf," to the warnings of "Children Of The Grave" and back to the rocket-fueled explorations of "Into The Void."
Master Of Reality hails from the domain of the sludge. That underwater world at the bottom of Black Sabbath's toxic well. A no-man's land that until those fateful days of recording in 1971, had remained not undiscovered, but unacknowledged for centuries. These four nobodies from Birmingham launched an expedition to the darkest corners of the human condition and brought back this thing called the sludge. A living, breathing mass of neglected humanity.
Part V: Poetry.
"A terrible beauty is born" as W.B. Yeats once wrote. And that's what the sludge is: a terrible beauty.
Black Sabbath would strive for the recognition their greatness deserved in the coming years. And they would craft another three classic albums with Ozzy at the mic (Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage), before plummeting from grace on two dismal final LPs and giving him the boot. They would strive to escape the sludge they helped birth with more grandiose projects. But it can't be outrun. For wherever you go, you bring yourself with you.
That's what the sludge is: it is the oft-ignored side of our human condition. The part of you no one wants to deal with, least of all yourself.
It is fear and anger, sorrow and hopelessness. It is a corner no one wants to turn. But a road Black Sabbath set off to venture down.
In recording and releasing these songs, Sabbath achieved a level of success previously thought impossible. They did so on the back of the sludge. Paranoid would not have gone four times platinum if it had not said the unspoken and dared to bare the feelings lying dormant, bottled-up, inside millions of ordinary people.
Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward crossed borders on their travels that needed to be crossed. They brought back the tales of their journeys beyond the horizon and blessed them unto us with those first three albums: Black Sabbath, Paranoid and Master Of Reality. They released the sludge. But they also tamed the beast.
For if this music had not been made, there would have been no adequate outlet for the pent-up aggression of the countless young people who bought these records at the dawning of the seventies. Led Zeppelin seemed like Gods. Their musical virtuosity and DeSade-worthy lifestyle placed them atop a peak that seemed impossible to scale to the commoners below.
But Black Sabbath, in an age before punk rock's highly relatable output, spoke to these young people. They wrestled with the same fears and rages their audiences battled. The sludge is the gnawing voice of human evil. The poetry is the battle against it.
It's an epic still being written. An epic that will be added to and revised and agonised over for years to come. Black Sabbath were not prophets nor were they warriors. They were simply sound-smiths telling us what we already knew but didn't know how to say. They harnessed the beast that is the sludge and rode on its back up the mountainous pop music charts and carved their four faces into its side like a heavy metal Mount Rushmore.
There's no erasing a monument. You can tear it down, but the memory echoes on. And Black Sabbath are a monument. A monument of sludge and poetry.
In case you missed it, see Part I of our Black Sabbath article
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