The cathedral of the riff
By Miguel Ángel Ariza
ourselves in the moment. It’s 1970, and everything is full of colour and hippie
cheer, everyone wanted to go to San Francisco with a flower in their hair, the
recently created festivals were all overflowing with world peace and love,
hallucinogens and psychedelia...when suddenly four guys appear on the scene
from Birmingham with the aim off putting an end to the summer of love forever. And
they didn’t do it in a soft way; they did it by creating the hardest and
heaviest music that had been played to date. The petals of the flower withered
in the heat of their guitar riff, the darkness of the music, and the images in
their mind. Their songs spoke of hallucinations, the devil, the ‘pigs’ of the
Vietnam war, mass destruction and nuclear apocalypse. They
wanted to transmit fear. And they achieved it.
In the context of hippie music the album called Paranoid seems like a punch to the head. This was the second album in Black Sabbath’s career, released only a few months after their sublime debut; but the first never had the same aura of a definitive master work as the second.
We have already noted several times here that there are certain albums that, after their appearance, seem to provide an instruction manual to follow for other contemporary bands. Without doubt this album achieved this effect as many today still consider it to be the 'big bang' of Heavy Metal and it was (and continues to be) imitated even today. Personally I don’t like to put labels on anything nor anyone, on any style, but what we can say is that if rock was going heavy then Sabbath turned it into steel, thanks mainly to the incredible ease of the unforgettable riffs of Mr Tony Iommi, an authentic vending machine of guitar licks that can worm their way into your brain on first listen. One of the distinctive marks of this band is that on each of their songs co-exist many riffs that other bands would take as a main theme for their next single. So while it was common to use one riff Black Sabbath joined three or four, or whatever was required for a single song, and the weight that this gave each song was incredible.
A good example of this is War Pigs, the songs that opens the album and that originally provided the title of the album. That did not happen due to the appearance in extremis of what would become its symbolic theme for the rest of eternity. They say that Ozzy and company used to tease Iommi (who at that time used a 1965 Gibson SG Special with Laney amplifiers) so that he didn’t stop composing new riffs, by saying to him that he could never better the previous one… well okay, when the entire album was done they suddenly realized that they were a little short of songs for the album and they encouraged him to try out one more thing… there is no need to say that he did come up with something; specifically the riff of Paranoid, one of the most famous song intros in history, and the song that changed the course of the band forever and took them to the top. No-one cared too much that it was similar to the riff of Communication breakdown of their admired Led Zeppelin. The album broke into the top 10 both in the UK and the USA, and today continues to be its biggest seller. That is not bad for a song that the whole band coincides that was put together in just a few minutes.
The album continues with the track Planet Caravan, which was at the point of being rejected because it was a laid back song and the nearest the guys got to psychedelia – that was so fashionable at the time - but we are happy that they kept it because it is a magnificent song with a lovely bass line, probably from a 69 Fender Precision which Geezer Butler (author by the way of seven of the eight songs on the album; so that it could be said that he is the brain of the band) repeats like a mantra; second because we can hear Iommi tease with jazz; and third because it is the perfect calm before the storm is unleashed: Iron Man, the best song on the album, and the sum of everything good that these four guys do in six minutes of pure pleasure.
Next up on the album are Electric Funeral and Hand of Doom - perhaps the most radical example showing that if you have good riffs you must use them even if you don’t believe that they fit together too well. This is the case of Hand of Doom where the change is quite abrupt; but it doesn’t matter because at this point on the album we are already hooked to the baritone voice of this barely twenty year old called Ozzy Osbourne who, without being the best singer in the world, made sure that the spotlight, and most importantly the ears, were only centred on him. It is impossible to imagine these songs being sung by anybody else.
Rat Salad is on the album for the only reason that they wanted to offer something from their live concerts as they used to start their gigs with a jam that ended in a solo of the giant Bill Ward of up to 45 minutes, on occasions. Finally the album finishes with Fairies Wear Boots, another classic from the band and the only track whose lyrics were written by Ozzy Osbourne.
The album finishes as it starts, with a masterful union of riffs, each better than the one before. This was a band in ‘a state of grace’ that toughened up rock music forever, and a singer who knows he wrote the lyrics not because that is what he remembers but “because everybody tells him that it was he who wrote them.” He doesn’t recall having done it, nor what they are about, but he couldn’t care less. What is important is that he did it, ‘pure’ rock and roll; the rest is cheap literature; he, together with three geniuses of the band, gave us a master class of how to definitively make music rage after too many years of the flowers of San Francisco.