Paranoid: How Black Sabbath Charted the Future of Heavy Metal
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Before there was heavy metal, there was Black Sabbath. Arising from the ashes of the bleak industrial landscape of post-war Britain, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward charted a new course in the harder-blues-rock of Britain. With the release of the lead single from their second studio album, “Paranoid” Black Sabbath codified the sound which would become Heavy Metal Music.
Black Sabbath was formed in Birmingham, England in the late sixties. Tommy Iommi led with guitar and flute, Ozzy Osbourne took lead vocals and harmonica, Terry “Geezer” Butler played bass, and Bill Ward covered drums. At first they went by the name ‘Earth,’ but another local band, with a bigger following at the time, went by the same name. Ward explained that much of their inspiration came from the rough childhood of industrial urban life, in an area still struggling with the aftermath of the World War 2 bombings: “We came from a place called Aston in Birmingham. We’re proud of it. Lot of people condemn it because it was a rough part of town, but that’s what I knew when I was a kid and it was home. The fact it was like that when we were kids gave us aggression to succeed. It’s a very heavy industrial section and when you see your fathers just workin’themselves to death, you say you want to improve yourself and the only way to do it then was to be in a band.”
The band released their self-titled debut in 1970, and although it took several months to be released in the US, it ended up on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. This first album premiered Black Sabbath’s signature heavy sound to the world. The industrial sounds of their childhood not only affected them psychologically, but also physically. At the age of 17, Iommi lost several of his fingertips in a factory accident while working a guitolline-like press. Iommi actually plays guitar with prosthetic fingertips which he originally fashioned for himself out of necessity. Inspired by the guitar playing of Django Rheinhardt, Iommi first tried to create prosthetic fingertips out of a melted down soap bottle, but couldn’t grip the strings. Finally he used pieces of leather which allowed him better control.
Still, the injury affected his ability to play quickly and he had to develop new ways to make sound on his instrument. In doing so, he began playing simple, but full-sounding chords, which became the iconic sound of the band. He explained that the injury was “[…]what made me sort of come up with the Black Sabbath thing, the sound. Because it’s trying to make the sound bigger, to fill in for the full chords that I couldn’t play anymore.”
Pairing Iommi’s guitar playing with Butler’s bass style brought an even fuller texture to the band’s sound. Butler had played rhythm guitar before switching to bass for the band, and thus modeled his experience with a 6 string instrument. He explained: “And because I’ve never followed anybody else before on bass, I’ve never learned anybody else’s basslines. So when it came to writing our own stuff, I sort of went along with what the guitar riff was playing. Then I’d write riffs on my bass, and that sort of evolved into the Sabbath sound, really.”
Black Sabbath as an album, and a single, stopped listeners in their tracks, but it was the lead single from their second album, released only a few months later, which would change everything – “Paranoid”
“Paranoid” opens with an iconic guitar riff – a right of passage for every aspiring guitar player. It was the guitar riff which actually inspired the whole song. The band needed a song quickly, and they used Iommi’s guitar riff to kick it off. Butler told Guitar World in 2004: “‘Paranoid’was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a 3 minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the rif . I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.”
Ozzy’s signature vocal whine carries itself above the deep, heavy drive of the guitars and drums. According to Butler, the song’s dark, anxiety-filled lyrics depict the experience of drugs and depression: “Basically, it’s just about depression, because I didn’t really know the dif erence between depression and paranoia. It’s a drug thing; when you’re smoking a joint you get totally paranoid about people, you can’t relate to people. There’s that crossover between the paranoia you get when you’re smoking dope and the depression afterwards.”
The paranoia of the lyrics falls in line with our current expectations for a Black Sabbath track – dark and mysterious. The band has often been associated with the occult, but band members have stated several times that the music came first, and that the dark lyrical themes derive from an attempt to match the sound of the music. Iommi told Record Mirror in 1970: “We were never into Black Magic. The lyrics were chosen to go with the heavy music. It wasn’t an intentional Black Magic thing.”
The entire Paranoid album was recorded at Regent Sound Studios and Island Studios in London, England, only a few months after the release of their debut album. It was produced by Rodger Bain, who is also known for his work with Judas Priest, Budgie, and Barclay James Harvest.
“Paranoid” was released in August of 1970, a month ahead of their second studio album of the same name. The album wasn’t released in the US for a few months, finally hitting the market on January the 7th, 1971. Its exhilaratingly dark sound captivated audiences and critics alike, and along with Zeppelin II and Deep Purple in Rock, has been credited with establishing the sound which became known as heavy metal. Prior to the seventies, “heavy metal” was a scientific and often medical term, referring to poisonous compounds and their effects.
But as rock music got darker and heavier at the start of the decade, rock journalists like Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh started to apply the term to bands like Black Sabbath. And with the massive success of songs like “Paranoid,” this “heavy metal” musical compound inspired generations of hard rocking bands to follow in their footsteps. “Paranoid” has become a mainstay of the story of Heavy Metal’s history, and one of the genre’s most important songs that changed music.