Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Jan 26, 2005


CREEM—June 1972

by Lester Bangs

I need someone to show me
The things in life that I can find
I can’t see the things
that make true happiness
I must be blind.

—Black Sabbath, "Paranoid"

"The world’s comin’ to an end."

—British bobby, interviewed on network
news in the first bloom of Beatlemania

We have met dark days; the catalog of present horrors and dire morrows is so familiar there’s not even any point in running through it again. It may be a copout, but people will do almost anything now to escape from the pall. The (first) Age of Anxiety gave way to the clammy retreat of the Fifties, when every citizen kept a tight bomb shelter, then to the sense of massive change in the Sixties, but the passing of that agitated decade has brought a new Age of Implosion, yesterday’s iconoclastic war babies siphoned off en masse, stumbling and puking over each other at the festivals which were celebrations such a short time ago. Tying off their potentials and shooting them into the void in bleak rooms.

It’s a desperate time, in a "desperate land" as Jim Morrison said just when things seemed brightest. If the terminal dramas of the Doors and the Velvet Underground were prophetic, their "sordid" plots have now become the banal stuff of everyday life, which certainly doesn’t lessen the pervasive dread, but does imply a new music, a music which deals with the breakdowns and psychic smog on another level and, hopefully, points toward some positive resolution.

We have seen the Stooges take on the night ferociously and go tumbling into its maw, and Alice Cooper is currently exploiting it for all it’s worth, turning it into a circus. But there is only one band that has dealt with it honestly on terms meaningful to vast portions of the audience, not only grappling with it in a mythic structure that’s both personal and universal, but actually managing to prosper as well. That band is Black Sabbath.

Naturally, you can’t pull off something as heavy as that without creating a bit of controversy. Most people are familiar by now with the great Sabbath-Grand Funk vs. rock press controversy (although the press has begun a large-scale reroute in the last year). The band’s first album made the top 20 in England, their second went to number one, the single of its title song made number three on the British charts, and by the time they came to America their record company was ready with a hype fronted by "LOUDER THAN LED ZEPPELIN" banners, though, as lead singer Ozzy Osbourne says, "They had to drop that fairly soon because we just told them not to fuck around." The company has never really known what it has in the group or how to handle them. But it really didn’t matter at all, because Black Sabbath wasted no time in repeating their English triumph in this country; all three of their albums were on the charts at the same time for months on end.

The audience, searching endlessly both for bone-rattling sound and someone to put the present social and psychic traumas in perspective, found both in Black Sabbath. They were loud, perhaps, with Grand Funk, louder than anything previously heard in human history; they possessed a dark vision of society and the human soul borrowed from black magic and Christian myth; they cut straight to the teen heart of darkness with obsessive, crushing blocks of sound and "words that go right to your sorrow, words that go ‘Ain’t no tomorrow,’ " as Ozzy sang in "Warning" on their first album.

The critics and others who just couldn’t hear it, whether they were so far from it as to find their spokesman in a James Taylor or merely felt that the riff’s essence had already been done much better by the Stooges or MC5, responded almost as one by damning it as "downer music." Since much of it did lack the unquenchable adrenaline imperatives of its precedents and one look around a rock concert hall was enough to tell you where the Psychedelic Revolution had led, the charge seemed worth considering.

Lots of Black Sabbath fans take downs, but there are certainly many that don’t, and just as many barbiturate and heroin casualties that have no truck at all with the group, including many of those devotees of the mellow acoustic sound who are supposedly into healthier lifestyles than the minions of the music of desperation; if the pop audience knew how many of the heroes whose pockets they’ve filled were on smack right now, they... would probably not be the least bit surprised. But somehow it’s easier to picture the kid down the block, as fucked-up as we’ve watched him become, slumped in his bedroom gorged on Tuinal, listening to Black Sabbath prate of the devil and nuclear war and what a cruel kitchen the world is, nodding to himself as he nods along anyway and finding justification for his cancerous apathy.

That’s the public myth. But it’s not exactly Black Sabbath’s myth, not really, and a consideration of the true vision inherent in their "downer rock" reveals that phrase for exactly what it is.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
Then you turn and run farther
when the fast bullets fly.

—Bob Dylan, "Masters of War"

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at Black Masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds.

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that all to the poor.

Now in darkness world stops turning
Ashes where the bodies burning
No more war pigs of the power
And as God has struck the hour
Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees the war pigs crawling
Begging mercies for their sins
Satan laughing spreads his wings.

—Black Sabbath, "War Pigs"

Listen to my last words anywhere.
Listen to my last words any world.
Listen all you boards, syndicates and
governments of the earth. And you
powers behind what filth deals con-
summated in what lavatory to take
what is not yours. To sell the ground
from unborn feet forever . . . And
what does my program of total resis-
tance and total austerity offer you? I
offer you nothing. I am not a politician.
These are conditions of total
emergency. And these are my in-
structions for total emergency if
carried out now could avert the total
disaster now on tracks: Peoples of
the earth, you have all been poi-
soned . . . Any minute now fifty
million adolescent gooks will hit the
street with switch blades, bicycle
chains and cobblestones..."

—William S. Burroughs, "Last Words
[of Hassan I Sabbah]" Nova Express

Despite the blitzkrieg nature of their sound, Black Sabbath are moralists. Like Bob Dylan, like William Burroughs, like most artists trying to deal with a serious present situation in an honest way. They are not on the same level of profundity, perhaps; they are certainly much less articulate, subject to the ephemerality of rock, but they are a band with a conscience who have looked around them and taken it upon themselves to reflect the chaos in a way that they see as positive. By now they’ve taken some tentative steps toward offering alternatives.

In his book The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak suggested that given the current paucity of social leaders worth investing even a passing hope in, the coalition made up of the young and the free-form wing of the Left should turn to the ancient notion of the shaman, the holy madman whose prescriptions derived not from logic or think-tanks or even words sometimes, but an extraordinarily acute perception of the flux of the universe. Well, we’ve reaped Roszak’s script in spades by now, there’s a shaman slouching on every corner and tinhorn messiahs are a dime a dozen. Some are "political" and some are "mystical" and some are building their kingdoms on a "cosmic" stew of both, and each seems to have his little cadre of glaze-orbed acid casualties proselytizing for him.

Then there are also the cultural shamans, Dylan being the supreme artifact. Burroughs too, of course, and his "Hassan i Sabbah" is nothing more than a particularly malevolent form of shaman, while the "Nova Police" are the benevolent regulation agency out to save the universe from addiction and control. Burroughs has been one of the foremost moralists in American literature; his work amounts to a demonology for our times, portraying the forces currently threatening our planet’s survival as evil gods operating from without.

Dylan, of course, has always been the moralist par excellence, but his referents are more Biblical, more rooted in the soil and tradition and his own Old Testament brand of conscience.

Where Black Sabbath fits into this seeming digression is that they unite a demonology not far from Burroughs’ (if far more obvious) with a Biblical moralism that makes Dylan’s look positively bland, although they can be every bit as vindictive in their Jehovahn judgments as Dylan.

They are probably the first truly Catholic rock group, or the first group to completely immerse themselves in the Fall and Redemption: the traditional Christian dualism which asserts that if you don’t walk in the light of the Lord then Satan is certainly pulling your strings, and a bad end can be expected, is even imminent.

They may deny all this; Ozzy Osbourne responded to a question about how the bands’ concept came about with a vague "I don’t know. I met the guys, we got together and rehearsed for about two years, starved, bummed around hoping for a break and it just happened. You relate to me that it’s about doom or something, but I can’t relate it to you because I’m in the middle of it."

It really doesn’t make any difference how conscious they may be of that they’re saying, though. The message is there for anyone with ears, and it’s unmistakeable. The themes are perdition, destruction and redemption, and their basic search for justice and harmony in a nightworld becomes more explicitly social all the time. On their first album the social quality only appears in one song, "Wicked World" ("The world today is such a wicked place/Fighting going on between the human race/People go to work just to earn their bread/While people just across the sea are countin’ their dead") and the prevailing mood is a medieval sense of supernatural powers moving in to snatch the unwary soul and cast it into eternal bondage.

The band was named after an above-average British horror flick from the Hammer company, starring Boris Karloff, and their namesake song actually opens with rain sound effects and a tolling bell that’s echoed in the slow, dolorous fuzz guitar that will set the pace for opening cuts of future albums and do much to lend credence to the "downer rock" stigma. Satan appears in their material in this song for the first, but hardly last, time, leering and licking his lips as he tots up the fresh-caught souls. Though "Warning" really seems to be his entry point, rounding off what sounds at first like a rather Creamish love song and jam with a surprising twist that make it into something entirely different from what you thought it was:

Follow me now
and you will not regret
Leaving the life you led
before we met
You are the first
to have this love of mine
Forever with me
until the end of time...

Look into my eyes,
you will see who I am
My name is Lucifer,
please take my hand.

Since the band’s name is what it is and the thematic content of this album, as well as its packaging, leaned so far towards this sort of thing, it’s easy to see why people should stereotype the group as either exploiting for profit or living and promulgating the form of pop Black Magic which finds high school girls intently reading books on how to become a witch and trying out spells on prospective boyfriends (and a sharpie like Anton La Vey cleaning up) even as dead (literally)—serious organizations such as the Process carry out their grim rites in Los Angeles, Mexico, New York and elsewhere, promoting total nihilism and the end of the world, engaging in incredible machinations to, yes, get people in their power (obtaining zombies fit for any job they don’t want to soil their own hands with) even committing murder in some instances with the ritualistic precision of absolute psychopathy. There are scheming salamanders like Manson everywhere, finding fantastic utility in this phase when it comes to their own less bizarrely "religious" ends. What Black Magic is about is absolute control; since rock ’n’ roll is power music with strange effects on people, sometimes, with undercurrent themes of almost fascist dominance and subjection running from the earliest blues through the Stones to Alice Cooper, there were bound to be some psychic and subcultural connections made. No doubt there are Black Sabbath fans who like the groups because it seems to reflect their own preoccupation with hocus-pocus and supernatural manipulation, just as people used the Velvet Underground once as soundtracks for the hard-drug movies they’re living to the stone hilt.

But the band themselves will have no part of any of this, according to Ozzy: "We never have been into Black Magic. But one time, just to get a break, we decided to do a thing because it’s never been done before—the crosses and all that, that black mass on the stage, but we didn’t intend it to be a thing where you go onstage in a pair of horns, and yet even now people come up and think we’re going to put a fucking curse on them. Or if they’re not afraid they think we’re heavy, heavy heads. For instance we did a gig on one of the tours, and after the show we went back to the hotel, and I could hear a lot of feet walking up and down the hall outside, so I went and opened the fucking door and there’s all these weird people with black candles walking up and down and writing crosses on the doors and things, and they fucking frightened me, I tell ya. We all blew the candles out and sang 'Happy Birthday,'" he laughs. "They didn’t like that at all."

Not only that, but when you begin to listen to their music with open ears, it quickly becomes apparent that rock ’n’ roll sorcery is only a handle devised to make Black Sabbath into a concept more immediately graspable. As much as Satan, the righteously vindictive Old Testament God and spiritual-super-natural agonies recur in their music, they are almost invariably used to make a moral point. "The Wizard" is a song of reassurance for those nursing paranoias about neighborhood witches and warlocks who might be nursing a grudge against them, painting a benevolent shaman:

Evil powers disappear
Demons worry
while the Wizard is near
Everyone’s happy
when the Wizard walks by

The Black Sabbath vision of life on earth and the machinery of civilization becomes concrete in their second LP, Paranoid, whose very first song takes the epithet applied so indiscriminately for the past half-decade to anyone the speaker happens to be in disagreement with, and carries it to its ultimate gross characterization in a vignette reminiscent in verbal content and unbridled bitterness both of Dylan’s "Masters of War" and the firebrand rhetoric of agit-prop pamphlets of the Socialist Workers and other parties farther left since the time of the First World War. I remember seeing old books with vitriolic cartoons of Capitalist Pigs (literally) strolling along in tophats and waistcoats with buttons ready to pop from the accretions of fat, lighting giant Havana stogies with $100 bills. Possibly the only difference between that was conscious inflammatory propaganda and this is (you can accept this to whatever degree you choose – I tend to take it all the way) true folk culture, where the hatred is more organic and sensate, churning straight up from the bowels in catharses of rage as apocalyptic as the End they visualize in this song and "Electric Funeral," probably the two most vicious statements we’re ever going to hear from this band. Even Dylan, after finding it in himself to write "I hope that you die," realized that there was nothing more he could say on the tip of that particular limb.

"War Pigs" ends up a fantasy of Judgment Day, the sword of the Archangel cleaving the necks of those who have chosen to serve Lucifer and now must follow him into Gehenna. You can laugh, but Black Sabbath are something of the John Milton of rock ’n’ roll: "You turned to me with all your worldly greed and pride/But will you turn to me when it’s your turn to die?" The Christianity running consistently through their songs is cruel and bloodthirsty in the way that only Christianity can be (which is to say, lopping off heads with feverish pleasure, clad all the while in the raiment of righteousness and moral rectitude). "Electric Funeral" is their picture of atomic war as the Second Coming:

Dying world of radiation
Victims of mad frustration
Burning global box of fire
Like electric funeral pyre...

Supernatural king
Takes earth under his wing
Heaven’s golden chorus sings
Hell’s angels flap their wings
Evil souls fall to hell
Ever trapped in burning cells.

And the vengeance motif ain’t just limited to Biblical referents, because "Iron Man," one of their greatest songs, is a piece of almost pure program music utilizing lugubrious drums clomping like the falls of Golem feet and a guitar riff that swoops recklessly like a Hulk arm demolishing buildings, to depict a miscreant, much reminiscent of the Karloff Frankenstein’s monster who really only wanted to play with the other children, who finds himself ostracized as a total freak because of his size and lumbering lack of grace (Hmmm, know some people like that myself; maybe Iron Man is really a symbol and fantasy for every adolescent ever tortured by awkwardness and "difference") and responds with understandable rage and a havoc-wreaking rampage:

"Is he live or dead?"
"Has he thoughts within his head?"
"We’ll just pass him there
Why should we even care?"

Nobody wants him
He just stares at the world
Planning his vengeance
That he will soon unfurl

People are strange, when you’re a stranger. It’s a melodrama of alienation, just as "Paranoid" is a terse, chillingly accurate description of the real thing, when you suddenly find that you’ve somehow skidded just a fraction out of the world as you have and other still do perceive it. "Paranoid" renders perfectly the clammy feeling of knowing that at this point there is absolutely no one on the planet to whom you can make yourself understood or be helped by. All alone, like a real rolling stone; it’s no wonder in such circumstances that the imagination might get a little hairy, and turn to dreams of science-fiction revenge. I’ve felt the arctic wedge of disjuncture myself at one time and another, stuck in the painful place where you can only send frozen warnings cross the borderline and those inevitably get distorted. Because they’ve captured it so well Black Sabbath means a lot to me and a lot of my friends for "Paranoid" alone. With the experience so common these years is it any wonder that this group has conquered the world (so to speak)?

And now that they have conquered it by detailing several of our most prevalent forms of malaise, what have they got to offer as curative? Well, this is where their moralism begins to break down, for many of us at least, because what else would an Old Testament group be offering but Jehovah? Or, to slip across a few centuries into the Greek Scriptures, Jesus. It’s not that they’re acting as sycophants for the virulent proliferation of hippie fundamentalist sects. Master of Reality conveys the impression that with the cloud of gloom hanging over their persona, and the "downer-rock" label, they felt obliged to carry their moralism into outright proselytism, suggested by "Lord of This World" and clinched in "After Forever," which follows a paean to the joys of cannabis (see, kids, we don’t take those horrible pills, we use and advocate this healthy stuff...) called "Sweet Leaf" with:

Have you ever thought about
your soul—can it be saved?
Or perhaps you think
that when you’re dead
you just stay in your grave.
Is God just a thought in your head
or is he a part of you?
Is Christ just a name
that you read in a book
when you were in school?...

Well I have seen the truth.
Yes I have seen the light
and I’ve changed my ways.
And I’ll be prepared
when you’re lonely and scared
at the end of your days.

The song goes on to assert that "God... is the only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate" and even includes a line that goes, "Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope—do you think he’s a fool?" Well, yes, and yes, as a matter of fact, because the Pope is a War Pig if ever there was one, or at least an evil angel. Maybe I’m making a fool of myself but I see this band making an attempt to provide direction for a generation busy immolating itself as quickly as possible. Since nobody else around that I can see seems to have any better advice for them than Black Sabbath, it pains me perhaps unduly to see them suggesting the hoariest copout conceived in 2,000 years. I mean, what’s the difference between a vegetable babbling about how much crank he can hold and stay alive, and one locked into repeating a zealot litany with mindless persistence to every stranger coming down this side of the street?

But then, I suppose I shouldn’t expect Black Sabbath’s answers to be sophisticated. Master of Reality has more than one alternative to suggest anyway. "Into the Void" is a fantasy of escape from the dire mess in this orbit via "Rocket engines burning fuel so fast/Up into the night sky they blast... Freedom fighters sent out to the sun. Escape from brainwashed minds and pollution" a la the reedy Starship recently promoted by the Marin County Cocaine Casualty Musical Auxiliary. This version of the fantasy at least has the advantage of some solid, pulverizing music behind it.

A much more interesting solution is drawn in "Children of the Grave," a deep, gutty, driving piece that’s one of their finest and one of the highlights of their current live show. It couches the expectable hints of looming catastrophe ("Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear?") in a romanticized picture of the children born in the megaton shadow standing their ground, insistent on the salvation of the planet, with an uncharacteristic happy ending:

Revolution in their minds—
the children start to march
Against the world
they have to live in.
Oh! The hate that’s in their hearts!
They’re tired of being pushed around
and told just what to do.
They’ll fight the world
until they’ve won
and love comes flowing through

Which is fine with me. The cloudy romanticism of the song’s social conception removes it from the limitations of any one faction’s Utopia, making it much more palatable than the vested-interest jams of a group like the Up (musical agitprop arm of the Ann Arbor Rainbow Peoples’ Party) or the dilettantism of a Jefferson Airplane, even if it does bear about as much dialectical meat as Grand Funk singing "People Let’s Stop the War."

thanks to for this gem