Despite being hated by the music press Black Sabbath’s self titled debut album sold well and the record company were keen to follow up its success. It is difficult to comprehend these days but less than four months after the release of that debut album Sabbath were back in the studio working on the follow up.
Once again Rodger Bain was at the production desk and the walls of the Island and Regent studios were soon shaking to the heavy riffs of Tony Iommi as the band laid down what is generally regarded to be their greatest album.
The opening track and live show mainstay ‘War Pigs’ was initially going to be the title track, hence the cover, but this was changed by the record company fearful of a backlash in America where the first album had gone down well. In fact ‘War Pigs’ started life as early as 1968 as a track called ‘Walpurgis’. It had a slightly different subject matter lyrically and was actually rejected by the reord company for being ‘too Satanic’ ! The track itself is of course these days hailed as a rock classic right from the demonic riffing, siren and doom laden bass of the introduction through to the jazzy melody of the outro which was actually given its own title (Spock’s Wall) on the American release. Even the lyrical laziness of rhyming masses with masses can’t detract from a track which voiced a generations opinion of the Vietnam war. With Iommi’s flashes of guitar over the top of Osbourne’s vocal, thunderous drums from Ward and Butler’s bass holding the whole thing together it is undeniably one of their best compositions.
‘Paranoid’ follows and little needs to be said about it really. It is a typical peice of seventies hard rock single material. Curiously enough, like Deep Purple’s ‘Black Night’ and Free’s ‘All Right Now’ which also reached the higher echelons of the singles chart in the same year the band claim the song was simply a throwaway track they put together very quickly and because they were short of material.
‘Planet Caravan’ must have come as a shock on first listen when the album was initially released as it is more Simon and Garfunkel than Black Sabbath. Osbourne’s dreamy sounding vocal was achieved by feeding his voice through a Leslie speaker. Iommi plays some great laid back almost jazz like guitar and Ward beats out a tribal rhythm on (presumably)congas. It is a lovely dreamy atmospheric song and as far removed as anything else on the album as you can possibly imagine.
Its back to the demonic riffing and supernatural science fiction lyrics more associated with Sabbath for the following ‘Iron Man’. On first hearing the riff Osbourne stated that it sounded like a iron bloke marching about and ‘Iron Bloke’ was the initial working title. Butler based the lyrics around this title but changed it to ‘Iron Man’. Starting off with a steady drum beat and some hard riffing it soon turns into a full blown stomping menacing strut and is rightly hailed as not only a Sabbath, but also a rock, classic. There is even a tastefully short bass and drum solo as a lead into Iommi’s final guitar solo and Ward’s drumming towards the end is as fast as any you will hear.
For me, the second half of the album is not as good as the first. ‘Electric Funeral’ gets things under way and is typically dark and menacing with a trademark Iommi Sabbath riff but the track as a whole just doesn’t compare with the likes of ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Iron Man’. It may even be heavier and in places faster than either of those but for me Osbourne’s vocal detracts from the song and in places he is clearly struggling to hold it together. At some points the lyrics are indecipherable but thats not to say that it isn’t a decent enough track. Just considerably inferior to the classics of side one.
‘Hand of Doom’ is another that struggles to rise above the ordinary but the pace and tempo changes and the rarity of Osbourne singing a melody give the track a certain something and as ever Iommi delivers top notch riffing and soloing.
The instrumental ‘Rat Salad’ is another surprisingly jazzy affair in parts and as well as being a vehicle for Ward’s drum solo it features some nice playing from Iommi and some good steady bass work from Butler. Although I would have preferred to hear it as a section to a longer track rather than as a short stand alone instrumental.
The closing track ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ was split into two tracks on the American issue with the opening instrumental part being subtitled ‘Jack The Stripper’. A loose mid paced jam with some typically frenetic Osbourne vocals over the top, for me, it is on a par with the classics of side one and ensures the album ends on a high note.
“Paranoid” was released in September 1970 only seven months after the debut album and like that album it was derided and panned by music critics throughout the world. Despite that the album sold quickly and was the first and only number one album that Sabbath ever had in the UK. The American release was delayed until January 1971 as the debut album was still in the chart there at the time of the UK release.
Nowadays “Paranoid” is generally regarded as one of the all time rock classics and for me it deserves that accolade. Personally though I slightly prefer the debut but there is no doubt that this is a genuine must own five star classic for any lover of heavy rock music.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM January 2012