Paranoid – Black Sabbath – 9/18/1970

Things were barreling along for Black Sabbath since their first album. Black Sabbath didn’t do it for the critics at the time, but it sold well. The band was like lightning, and they did their best to capture that lightning in a bottle with their first two albums. They returned to the studio just a few months after Black Sabbath was released, and they again did a recording at hyper-speed. It was 6 days and Paranoid was ready for the presses.

In 3rd century BCE, the Macedonian author and war strategist Polyaenus wrote an account of Macedonian king Antigonus II Gontanas’ siege on the Greek city of Megara. Antigonus came with an impressive array of war elephants, but they failed because the Megarians outsmarted them by doing a simple but ingenious thing. When the fearsome elephants approached, the Megarians took several pigs, doused them with pitch and resin, lit them all on fire, and sent them out the city gates where they ran pell-mell, screaming and squealing. They ran right into the elephants. Instead of crushing the much smaller animals under their feet, the elephants panicked and fled in terror of the killer pigs, quite often killing the soldiers driving them. Antigonus had to admit that he had lost to a bunch of pigs.

This could be seen as the Little Guy (the Megarians) using pretty ingenious methods to overcome the Big Guy (the Macedonians) who was pushing him around. It’s kind of a cool underdog story, but what about the pigs? Any way you spin it, it pretty much sucks to be them.

From there we go to “War Pigs.” In Black Sabbath’s narrative, the “pigs” are reversed to mean politicians who carelessly and arrogantly send others off to die. BS must have been feeling the injustice of the powerful making unilateral decisions that have no effect on them, but a huge effect on the powerless. But the song was originally about witches and satanic rites, a darker but less sophisticated subject. The original lyrics can be heard on The Ozzman Cometh, a retrospective of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career released in 1997.

Whereas their record company generally ignored them the first time around, they were slavering dogs for Paranoid. Executives paid it very close attention, meddling only a little in the scope of record companies’ involvement in the creative process. The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs, but label bigwigs thought that would cause too much controversy about the ongoing Vietnam War. The band members had to be saying, “What’s wrong with controversy? It is about Vietnam!”

The title track comes next, though it almost didn’t exist. Near the end of the recording process, they found they didn’t quite have enough material. They also didn’t have a punchy, radio-friendly single, as the record company reminded them. Tony Iommi started playing a guitar riff, the rest of the band joined in, and Geezer penned lyrics on the spot. “It took twenty, twenty-five minutes from top to bottom,” drummer Bill Ward explained.

Twenty or twenty five minutes to give birth to what is largely thought of to be one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. In Finland, its name is even shouted out at concerts, regardless of who’s playing or what style of music is being performed. The riff is one of the easiest guitar licks to play, and the legacy of “Paranoid” has grown so that for nearly every young rock guitarist, this is one of the first songs they learn.

no, not THAT Iron Man… jeez

Amazingly, this album houses yet another iconic and uber-classic metal song, “Iron Man.” When Tony first played the riff for the rest of the band, Ozzy said it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking around.” Lyrics were again written on the fly in the studio, and recording of it couldn’t have taken that long. Again, this is foundational stuff for rock guitarists. In the movie School of Rock, Dewey Finn is introducing classical guitar prodigy Zack to the electric by playing him rock licks and seeing if he can copy them. And what’s the first riff Dewey plays for him? You guessed it.

Tomorrow: can music be evil?