Sabbath Then and Now

Martinos By Martinos, 1st Apr 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Music>Hard Rock & Metal

A look at the early music of Black Sabbath and its origins and inspiration.

Black Sabbath-40 Years of Volume 4

Recalling my first trip to Birmingham with my dad in the 70’s, I see in my mind’s eye the concrete jungle that was the Bull Ring development: a symbol of 60’s socialist optimism, sci-fi utopianism and muscular, utilitarian vulgarity. As an avid reader of the science fiction of the day, structures like the Bull Ring, with their majestic, cruel simplicity and their assertive but doomed-to-die promise of a bright, material future, seemed to indicate to my teenage head that Asimov’s world was only a step away, and a Gerry Anderson space shuttle could launch at any time from the top of the rotunda.

Those nasty concrete jungles have all been uprooted. The Bull Ring in Brum has been updated to something prettier, yet weirdly uglier, grimmer, and much more cynical. Few of those old architectural monstrosities are left for us children of the sixties to enjoy. Even East Berlin has lost its Stalinist nasties.

But landscapes, be they geographical, cultural, or political, have their musical soundtracks, and concrete jungles are no exception. One of the Bull Ring’s soundtracks is surely the merciless and monumental riffing of Tony Iommi on those early Black Sabbath albums. They are solid, heavy, but perfectly constructed, like the weight-bearing piles in a multi-storey car park. They march on and on, like the columns and arches of a shopping mall. The guitar solos that decorate them are beautifully simple scribbled patterns (graffiti?) that do not move very far, that stay within a narrow tonal range. This band knew how to turn municipal monotony into a beautiful, invigorating art.

Sabbath were as famous in their day for the antics of the band members as they were for their music. Many years later, who will care who did drugs, had drink problems or bit the heads off harmless birds? When not only the Sabbaths, but their original teenage fans are old men or even dead men, the music is what will survive.

This music will surely survive, and live long. Great music has a way of doing that. And who really cares, listening to Robert Schumann’s famous piano concerto, that the guy was totally nuts, and tried to kill himself by jumping out of a window? Well, they certainly wouldn’t care if the music was rubbish. But it isn’t rubbish, it is very good-and that’s the point.

Where the larger than life Ozzy persona does matter, is where it impacts on the musical performance. He is one of those rare people gifted with a towering stage presence. Ozzy stepping onto a stage and picking up a microphone, always creates a ripple of excitement and tension: he doesn’t have to sing a single note to mesmerise his audience. While much of this appeal is visual and can be felt more obviously in a live show or a video, it is remarkably tangible even in an audio recording. Presence is hard to define, but easy to recognise. Ozzy has it in shed loads, and he pours it into every one of those early Sabbath recordings.

A few years ago, I sat through the rather dull concert at Buckingham Palace, where a host of aging rock stars from McCartney to Cliff Richard put in performances for Her Majesty the Queen. Many of the stars appearing were my musical idols (Paul and Cliff included…) Somehow, though, the whole thing was lifeless and depressing. Ozzy stepped up (with Tony Iommi on lead and Phil Collins on drums) and gave a blistering performance of Paranoid, rounding it off with a shouted “God save the Queen!” It was electrifying. Yes, he can still do it.

As the original Sabbaths, like the Beach Boys, plan to reunite this year, and are making a new album, maybe it is time to have a new listen to those early Sabbath tracks. What do they mean for us now, beyond the anorak-clad corridors of nostalgia? Does this music still speak to us?

The 1972 Black Sabbath album Vol. 4 had a very troubled genesis. It was recorded mostly in June 1972 in LA. (The first reunion gig is planned for June 2012, forty years after that turbulent LA recording stint.) The personal and musical difficulties the band went through in Los Angeles during the recording sessions have been much documented and I don’t plan to repeat what can be read in the many excellent biographies. What is clear is that they turned out a very fine album, more varied musically and lyrically than previous efforts, and dipping their toes into musical styles hitherto untried. It reminds me, in a way, of The Notorious Byrd Brothers album. The Byrds started recording it as a 4 piece, and finished it as a 2 piece band. They literally fell apart during the sessions, but turned out an innovative masterpiece, which took their sound in entirely new directions.

The Sabbath Vol.4 album sees the Aston lads striking out in a new direction, and at the same time experiencing internal tensions within the band relationships, with Bill Ward particularly feeling out of synch with the others. The album is not without its weak spots, notably Ward’s audible discomfort in certain places, where his jazzy patterns seem ill fitting, like last year’s school uniform. Ward’s drumming style was perfect for the first two or three albums, and was an integral part of the early sound. This album is the first where he seems to be slightly at odds with what is going on elsewhere in the band. Even so, there are points where the drumming is perfect. Often where it feels slightly wrong, the wrongness itself creates a tension and a discomfort which, paradoxically, suits the music. It disconcerts the ear, in an entirely appropriate way. Geezer Butler’s often high pitched bass guitar meanderings have a similarly pleasing if disconcerting effect. These are troubled songs from troubled times, after all.

The tracks which do not sound at all like the earlier Sabbath, the jangly Spanish guitar and strings instrumental Laguna Sunrise and the deeply moving ballad Changes, with its gentle piano and mellotron accompaniment and heartbreaking vocal, make a perfect balance with the heavy riff based songs more akin to the band’s work on the albums Paranoid and Master of Reality.

The riffs themselves are often beautifully crafted, setting up expectations and then dashing them by going in a slightly different direction than the one expected.
Even the more typical songs seem to have reached a new dimension on this album-exhibiting a greater complexity in their construction. The opening track, ostensibly a hard rocker not too far from War Pigs, is in fact quite a complex creature, with contrasting sections replete with elements of jazz, rock and even hints of 70’s melodic pop, and an unusual ostinato-with-guitar-solo coda.

Lyrically the songs project a nihilistic dissatisfaction with the status quo, a frustration with religious dogmatism and insincere relationships. Snowblind deals with cocaine use in an ironic way. The user is enjoying and celebrating his habit, while his words give the lie, and let us know that, on a deeper level he knows that it is destroying him. He is comfortable but blinded, emotionally and sensually numbed. Perhaps he can no longer bear to look at what is out there, and snow-blindness is his only recourse. Changes is perhaps the one ray of light, the incipient solution to the nihilism and despair elsewhere in the music, in spite of its apparently negative outlook: things are bad but at least they are changing---something new is around the corner. What was new around the Sabbath’s corner was a new musical style, a drift away from hard blues rock and the disintegration of the original band line-up a few albums later.

What I love about these early Black Sabbath songs is their utter truthfulness. Ozzy’s vocals have the quality of matter of fact, utterly clear pronouncements, lacking nuance or emotional subtlety, but charged full with the power of truthful, matter of fact statement. The uniform quality of his voice and his always perfect timing, rhythm and immaculate tuning seem to emphasize the honesty of these utterances: “Believe me, listen to me, I am telling you how it is, but not always what you want to hear.” He expresses perfectly the dissatisfaction and frustration of the young of the 70’s, face with the hypocrisy and outworn attitudes of the establishment. Equally, he voices the disappointment of those same young men with the dying, dreamy promises of the 60’s flower power lot, whose dreams of love, peace and sandalwood had turned to a pile of ashes. And perhaps, too, he mourns the failure of the more solid promises of a concrete, prosperous future for all, emblazoned on the monstrous monoliths of the Birmingham Bull Ring, the prosperous socialist dream that the 60’s fostered and the 70’s slaughtered---Black Sabbath wrote and recorded one of that dream’s most enduring epitaphs.


Black, Metal, Ozzy, Rock, Sabbath

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author avatar Martinos
Musician and writer, specialising in rock music from the 70s.

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