Remember the Sabbath

Every cool riff has already been written. By Black Sabbath. Anything anyone else does is just basically ripping it off. You’re either playing it slightly different, or backwards, or faster, or slower, but they did everything already.

Rob Zombie, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, 2004

I don’t know that I’d call myself a ‘metalhead’ – I feel like as a genre it kind of lost its way in the 80s, and despite some bright spots here and there, overall it’s never really found its way back. But it would be hard to overstate the influence Black Sabbath’s first six albums had on me, both as a music enthusiast and as a musician. Seeing the original lineup live in 2004 rivaled any spiritual experience I’ve ever had.

As a teenager learning guitar, I once told an instructor my goal was to be able to put on Paranoid and play the whole album start-to-finish. That’s been at least 20 years ago, now, and if I’m being very honest, I still don’t know that I’ve reached it. I still discover inexplicably delicious bits in Tony Iommi’s guitar work, I may well spend the rest of my life unraveling it all – but I do play a mean War Pigs.

The thing about Black Sabbath is at this point it’s not even dad-rock anymore – it’s pushing grandpa territory. The eponymous LP (Black Sabbath, the album) turns fifty next year. Black Sabbath, the band, has put out nearly 20 studio albums over that span of time, and just as many live albums and compilations. While a lot of it was incredible, in my opinion, not all of it has aged well. Black Sabbath, the song, is kind of camp now – from this side of the satanic panic of the 80’s, it’s hard to remember devil-worship used to actually be scary. Volume 4 is part of the Sacred Six, but it’s definitely got some questionable choices – although admittedly I’ve never listened to it in a hot tub while doing lines of cocaine off naked women with Farrah Fawcett hair, which was apparently the artists’ intended listening environment. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die show evidence of a band starting to lose their way, they’re not nearly as cohesive as the albums that came before. And I don’t see how the Dio era is even listenable to anyone that didn’t live through hair metal – there, I said it.

Despite all that, Black Sabbath (the band) doesn’t need me to defend them. Boomer-era nostalgia tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth these days, but even your most uber-hipster postmodernist post-punk would have a hard time dismissing the influence they’ve had – entire genres trace roots to Black Sabbath. Like Robert Johnson, so many musicians that came after credit them as an influence, it’s hard to imagine what music in the English-speaking world would’ve even been without them. Rob Zombie’s statement that every cool guitar riff was already written by Black Sabbath may not be too far off the mark; the blend of rootsy blues rock with classical and jazz influences as well as then-emerging hard rock and metal styles means their work covered a lot of ground. The endless box sets and best-ofs still go platinum and gold, and their work still gets introduced to new listeners every day, sometimes through unlikely avenues.

All that to say, there’s still a lot of people that LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH. Their legacy is secure, and they don’t need me to curate it. But for me, personally, I wanted to take some time to think about what tracks I would point to in order to justify my esteem. I find it kind of interesting that whenever you’ve got bands with storied pasts and varied catalogues, fans frequently end up with highly personal perceptions of ‘definitive’. When I say “LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH”, what tracks, specifically, do I mean? If someone told me they’d never heard a single Sabbath song, which ones would I be the most excited for them to hear for the first time?

It’s tempting, of course, in response, to just throw those first six albums in a playlist in their entirety. To avoid that, I decided to pick ten songs. What are the ten Black Sabbath songs everyone should hear before they die?

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Never Forget

In 1970, if you heard an anti-war song, I’d imagine it was an entirely reasonable assumption that it was a Vietnam protest song. There were enough of them to go around, and many of your most revered anthems by prolific songwriters of the era drew inspiration from speaking out against what they felt was an unjustifiable war.

Despite that, members of Black Sabbath have stated “War Pigs” actually wasn’t a Vietnam protest song. Bill Ward claims the band was anti-Vietnam, but Ozzy Osbourne has been quoted as saying they really didn’t know anything about Vietnam at all. Rather, “War Pigs” was a song about the horrors of war in general. Anti-Vietnam, sure, but generally, not specifically. Instead, the War Pigs were fictitious, archetypal evil minds that plot destruction – not just in 1970, but throughout humanity’s history. Given that Black Sabbath generally writes about fantasy, mythology, and sci-fi, rarely venturing into politics, I’m inclined to believe it – “War Pigs” was a fiction, maybe inspired by current events surrounding Vietnam, but not about it specifically.

When I covered “War Pigs”, I wanted to release it as an EP with something original along the same lines. I wrote about a near-future dystopia. One where a country is embroiled in endless wars for profit, and raises up generation after generation of youth to fight in them. They maintain the illusion of choice, of voluntary service; but through propaganda, social engineering, and economic manipulation, they plan children’s whole developmental process around making good soldiers, and give all but the most privileged of young people few other realistic choices. An America where our schools focus more on teaching obedience and tribalist loyalty than academics. An America where a living wage, education, and healthcare are inaccessible unless you enlist. An America where we sell our kids on the idea that going to war is the most noble choice a person can make, but minimize the risks and long-term effects, and then neglect them and deny them care when they come home physically wounded or emotionally traumatized.

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