Thursday, November 13, 2014

Black Sabbath

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) was one of the albums my peer group at Paul Roos Gymnasium held in particularly high esteem. The album was passed along from boy to boy and all of them ostentatiously flaunted their temporary possession of the album, to arouse envy and awe in their mates who did not have the record. Nobody ever bothered to offer to lend it to me. At the time I did not know much about the music (simply known as “underground” in Stellenbosch) anyway and probably would not have liked it much.

Perhaps the cool guys truly liked Black Sabbath; perhaps listening to this stuff was a simply prerequisite for appearing to be cool. The thrill of listening to a group that was ostensibly  connected to Satanism and anti-religious sentiment was probably related to the perceived illicit nature of the material in a country and a town that were firmly in the grip of Christian Nationalism. At this point, or just a few years later, our school principal took time out at two school assemblies to warn us of the subversive and non-Christian nature of the music of the Beatles, who had not been a functioning band for more than 6 years and were no longer very hip and happening.  The principal completely missed out on Black Sabbath. This went to show that teachers can be pretty ignorant and dumb concerning the real lives and interests of the kids they are supposed to teach.

I was not particularly keen on heavy metal when I was in my late teens. My first musical love was blues and basic roots rock and roll. I did once own, for a few weeks, Deep Purple's live album Made in Japan but soon grew tired of it. Uriah Heep never appealed to me. As far as I was concerned Heep was an obvious copy of the Purple template, but completely crude and clueless with it.  I liked glam rock, with the likes of Bowie, Slade, Sweet (when they started rocking), T Rex, Mud (before they became cheezy) and Suzi Quatro. Then I discovered Dr Feelgood and Cream and was hooked for life.

Around about 1979 I started buying Led Zeppelin albums, starting with Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II and then moving to The Song Remains the Same (the movie soundtrack) and ending up with Led Zeppelin IV.  Although I understood that Cream and Led Zeppelin were the forerunners of the heavy blues style that mutated into heavy metal, the blues aspects were paramount to me and I hardly saw even Led Zep as particularly heavy. Then I moved on to Aerosmith and Blue Oyster Cult, both of which rocked pretty hard but Aerosmith seemed to be closer to straight rock and roll than metal and Blue Oyster Cult was far too melodic to sound truly heavy. I also bought a couple of Grand Funk Railroad albums and even these seemed kind of twee compared with the others. Apparently Grand Funk was incredibly loud on stage yet their records sounded underproduced and weedy.

At no time did I fancy buying any Black Sabbath product until the closure of the Ragtime Records outlet in Stellenbosch. During its extended closing down sale I splurged on a bunch of legendary Seventies records. Amongst my purchases was the Black Sabbath debut album called, uh, Black Sabbath (1970) with a cover of a sinister figure in what could have been a cemetery, illustrating the title song en emphasising the black magic aspects of the band's image. Paranoid (1970) was also available but for some reason I could not persuade myself to buy this record even though I had already heard the title track, which sounded pretty much like the kind of speed freak rock that could have come from Detroit at around that time.

Black Sabbath was ponderous, slow and heavy and the lyrics sounded ridiculous. I did not like Ozzy Osbourne's reedy, slightly shrill, voice either. The arrangements were intricate, a trademark of the band's music, but somehow too incoherent and all over the place for my taste. The darkness of the album was a good theme though and though I cannot say I ever loved the record,  I did appreciate it.

A while later I also bought Master of Reality (1971) and was a lot less impressed. The music was as stupidly intricate and heavy as ever and the lyrics, if possible, even dumber than before and Ozzy's singing style grated all the more because the words were so stupid. Apparently this album was quite influential on many teenagers who later took up music and one or more the various sub-genres of metal.

My final Black Sabbath purchase to date, was a cassette tape of the album Live at Last (1980), that I could never listen to because the tape surface was damaged. It had been a cheap buy but I was still kind of disappointed. After that I never felt any need to own any further Black Sabbath product, even when I started buying CDs and began replicating  a good deal of  my record collection. I have Led Zeppelin, Blues Oyster Cult and Aerosmith and I got into Metallica. Heck, the other day I even bought a budget compilation of Mötley Crüe hits. But for all that, Black Sabbath has not made any appearance in my music collection, especially since I gave away all of my records a couple of years ago.

There has been a slight change  in this situation. Emma gave me the DVD of the documentary God Bless Ozzy as a Christmas 2012 present. This movie is a biography of Ozzy Osbourne, released in 2011, and made at around the time Osbourne turned 60, a sober 60 at that after years of alcohol and drug abuse. The basic Ozzy story is familiar and I knew the outlines of it. This documentary fills in some gaps and expands on the life story. Now suddenly it has also  piqued my interest in the back catalogue, primarily of Black Sabbath and the Randy Rhoads years, in much the way Some Kind of Monster made me go to the Metallica back catalogue beyond the Metallica (1991) album.

Ozzy's story is almost the Sixties rock star cliché  of an origin in dire poverty, music as escape from that background, massive success coming quickly to young men utterly not emotionally or psychologically equipped to deal with the fame and fortune, the resultant excesses and addictions, the almost disastrous firing from the band that made him famous and then a whole new career and a whole different level of success and, ultimately, after the years of abuse, the redemption of getting clean and sober, connecting with children and loved ones. Now Ozzy is an elder statesman of heavy metal who still tours and who still draws massive adulation.

One thing the documentary does not tell us, is why The Osbournes got made at all. Whose idea was it? I never saw any of the episodes and perhaps I should seek out the box set, but it was talked about and revered. I had lost track of Ozzy's career after the Eighties and had  no idea whether the man was alive or dead or even had an any career left, though I did read that for a couple of years the Ozzfest tour was one of the most successful, if not the most successful, of the  type of travelling rock caravan first popularized by Lollapalooza.

In the biggest scheme of things, I guess, there was obviously no reason why Ozzy could not tour when the Rolling Stones were still doing massive tours and in general the heavy peer group with whom Black Sabbath came up during the early Seventies, such as Purple or Heep, were also still touring albeit to more selective audiences.

The original members of Black Sabbath reunited in 2011 to record new material, although it seems that Bill Ward may after all not be part of the package. A new album titled 13 was released in 2013. One wonders why these guys would still want to write and record new stuff to appeal, presumably, to the kind of young audience that follows Ozzy.  Do they want to show up Metallica?  Is there one more economically massively successful nostalgia tour in them as pension plan? 

Yeah, why doesn't either Ozzy as solo act or Sabbath as band play in South Africa?  Metallica  is coming; Red Hot Chilli Peppers are coming; Bon Jovi has been; Kings of Leon have been.  Surely these granddads of metal can fill a stadium, or large auditorium, and find some decent local metal act to support them. I guess I would pay money to check them out.

So, after Christmas 2012, I was in my local Musica and came across a Black Sabbath Greatest Hits compilation covering the Ozzy Osbourne years. Coincidence? I think not. I bought it. The album kicks off with “Paranoid” off the eponymous record and concludes with “N.I’B.” from the Black Sabbath album. In between we have cuts from most of the albums between Black Sabbath (1970) and Never Say Die (1978). The emphasis is on the early years and there is nothing from Sabotage or Technical Ecstasy, and only one track each from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and the final album with Ozzy Osbourne, Never Say Die.

I had not heard the songs I know well, off Black Sabbath and Master of Reality, for a number of years and I have to confess that my re-acquaintance was quite warm. The sound is bottom heavy, but the digital remastering (I presume) adds clarity and the separation of instruments gives one a more dynamic, lively sound than I remember from the records. Bill Ward’s busy, driving drumming is a particular delight. He sounds like an amalgam of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker and his playing serves to alleviate the ponderousness of the guitar and bass riffs.

These ‘greatest hits” are meant to be the best of the bunch and this is probably how Sabbath should be approached and appreciated. Ozzy Osbourne’s vocal style is still a tad irritating yet also affecting on “Changes”, which adumbrates the kind of sound and melodic song Ozzy came up with in his solo career.

Unlike, say, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, who stuck firmly to songs on mock-medieval or mythic themes or simply sang about having a good time, Black Sabbath actually wrote a number of songs addressing political and social issues, from “Iron Man” and “War Pigs” to “Snowblind” and “Sweat Leaf,” albeit often in a simplistic, naïve way, and this makes them unique amongst heavy bands for whom the celebration of rock and roll itself was most commonly the stuff of lyrics. Perhaps Ozzy saw himself as the Bob Dylan of heavy metal.

After listening to this collection of prime Sabbath I am almost inclined to seek out the parent albums. When I look at the track listings of the first 6 albums (Black Sabbath to Sabotage) I realise that I know many of them. Although my memory is bit fuzzy it may be that, probably during my last years at varsity, I knew someone who owned the records and lent them to me at least to listen to. The surprising thing, given the incredible ponderous heaviness of Black Sabbath, was how many delicate instrumentals the band had recorded. They obviously arose from Tony Iommi’s ambition to demonstrate that he was not just some dumb-ass metal guitarist but as much of an artist as Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore.  In the pantheon of Seventies British metal I would once have pigeonholed Sabbath as very heavy and very dumb. They are certainly very heavy. They are nowhere as dumb as Uriah Heep though. 

The San Francisco based band Blue Cheer, and various Detroit bands of the late Sixties, could have been the inspiration for the early Black Sabbath sound though I would not have expected such influences to have penetrated to Birmingham in 1969. Who knows, though. The Ozzy documentary does not offer a detailed history of Black Sabbath and perhaps one should look at the recently published Tony Iommi autobiography, Iron Man, for more information on the minutiae of the genesis and the  influences on the musicians. If Iommi’s memory can still serve him. Apparently the sudden success and easy money went to the band members’ heads and quite a lot of the money went up their noses.

For a reason that eludes me, unless it is simply a commercial fact that  the potential readers of rock biographies are only interested in salacious stories of debauchery and decadence and not the technical stuff of making music,  most rock biographies or autobiographies really skim quickly and lightly over the arcane aspects of song writing and recording. Nowadays there is a sub-genre of rock book that concentrates on the making a particular influential or popular album but even they deal with the surrounding circumstances, band relationships, social context and so forth,  and not  too much with technical matters.

Anyway, I want to know how Iommi came up with his riffs and melodies; what inspired Osbourne to write lyrics he wrote; what the drumming influences on Bill Ward were; and who inspired Geezer Butler to play bass.
When one listens carefully to the greatest hits it is evident that the band can play and whatever ostensible dumbness can be ascribed to heavy metal, it does not reflect in the virtuosity of the musicians. After all, metal is the one musical genre where great technical virtuosity in guitarists is prized and almost expected.

It’s good that there is revival of interest in Black Sabbath even if I won’t go any further than the greatest hits. The band had no specific significance to me from my teenage years, other than as a hip name to bandy about, and my curiosity has more to do with my general and eclectic interest in music than with reliving a memory from youth.  Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics and sometimes excruciating singing style often irritated me and the ponderous riffing does tend to go beyond the limits of my tolerance. Black Sabbath is a good example of the kind of band where I would be quite happy to own only the greatest hits set without feeling a need to investigate or own the rest of their output.  A collection of the best known songs would represent the best songs period and what more does one want than a collection of killer tracks?

Whether Black Sabbath really was the first heavy metal band is a question that may be debated for as long as there are heavy metal fans. That the band has been influential seems beyond question. That they have recorded some good stuff is also beyond question. Black Sabbath is  also not the kind of band that bears critical examination beyond the riffs and trite lyrics. It is a force of nature and by now an institution.  From fringe act to grand old men of metal within the space of 40 years. One more example of rock bands that started as outlaws or marginalised artists and then grew into the establishment, whether or not they made money along the way, simply by staying around and keeping going until the changing times caught up with them.

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