Sadly, Ronnie James Dio is now lost to the world of heavy rock and metal, but the chance of the original Black Sabbath reuniting are looking positive – even with the sad news that Tony Iommi has cancer. His amazing response and faith that he will continue making music is a fantastic lesson for us all. The original Black Sabbath, fronted by Ozzy Osbourne, have promised a new album. So why are so many of us excited about the greatest come-back of all time? Aren’t they just a bunch of metal dinosaurs – or worse a bunch of Satanists?
No, and no.
It’s common knowledge the band are named after a 1963 European horror movie starring Boris Karloff and that the band’s early aim was to scare their audience: If you can have horror films, then why not horror music? It was an excellent aim – why shouldn’t a band attempt to ape horror conventions for their own brand of theatrical art? Black Sabbath’s lyrics in their first albums show an obsession for altered states of mind, drug and alcohol use as well as religious imagery. But they are not and never were devil-worshippers. To lazily assert a song is evil just because it name-checks Lucifer is like saying Paradise Lost is the work of the Devil.
The song Black Sabbath (1970) with its dissonant harmonics and use of the ‘augmented fourth’ riff, just sounds dark and scary. The lyrics led to early speculation about the band’s beliefs, but the truth is bassist Geezer Butler had a penchant for Denis Wheatley novels. In fact, it was a nightmare that inspired the lyrics of this infamous song: ‘What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black that points the way.’ The lyrics become a ghoulish warning if anything: ‘Oh no, no, please God help me’; and finally, ‘The people better go and beware’.
The other song that makes the evangelicals jittery is the doom-laden N.I.B. One urban myth claims the title stands for Nativity in Black, but the band admit it only refers to drummer Bill Ward’s beard shaped like a pen nib.
Possibly the Sabs’ greatest track is an anti-war number, War Pigs, from their second album Paranoid (1970). The Generals and politicians who begin and run the war sit back, using their “Evil minds that plot destruction” whilst “the war machine keeps turning”. Those at the front line are just ordinary poor people like you and me being exploited as brainwashed “pawns in chess”. But the twist comes when Judgement Day arrives the cowardly leaders get their comeuppance: “On their knees the war pigs crawling/ Begging mercy for their sins/ Satan laughing spreads his wings”. It’s the war-mongers who are the side of evil.
Later albums contained songs (often penned by Tony Iommi) that shocked the hard-core fans with their seemingly pro-Christian lyrics (although I’m not suggesting they are a Christian band! Agnostic perhaps). Songs like After Forever (1971) asks philosophical questions such as, “Is God just a thought within your head or is he part of you?” without offering a particular answer. The final conclusion is a general celebration of love, and if God is love then he might just be “The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate”. Ironically, this opinion is actually quite radical – when you consider that they are the definitive heavy metal band. Similarly, in the sublime You Won’t Change Me (1976), Ozzy sings powerful words that many folk secretly echo in times of desperation – “If there’s a god up there, well I hope he helps me/ I need him now to set me free”.
Other songs during the Ozzy years expounded on such themes as altered states of mind, such as in Paranoid (1970), originally only intended as a ‘filler’. It expresses feelings of madness and depression, entreating, “Can you help me occupy my brain?”. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) echoes this cry for help: “Nobody will ever let you know/ When you ask the reasons why/ They just tell you that’re on your own/ Fill your head all full of lies”. There is a deep sense of anger, angst, frustration and dissatisfaction with life here.
But it’s not all gloom as many songs offer an optimistic view. Spiral Architect (1973) contains a very positive philosophy: “Of all the things I value most of all/ I look inside myself and see/ My world and know that it is good.” At the end of Symptom of the Universe (1975) we hear how “We’ll find happiness together in the summer skies of love”. But the band have suffered and these darker moments spring up in the guise of drugs and alcohol. Behind the Wall of Sleep (1970) is clearly about opiates: “Precious cups within the flower/ deadly petals with strange power”. Fairies Wear Boots (1970) tells the true story of when Geezer was beaten up by a gang who ran away before he could get help. The final verse gives a clue to the band’s habits at the time, as the doctor tells him “Son, son, you’ve gone too far/’cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do”. Snowblind (1972) details the effects of cocaine, whilst Killing Yourself To Live (1973) is fairly self-explanatory regarding alcohol abuse – warning against it. It’s fair to say the Sabs have been through it all – paranoia, hallucinations, nightmares, near-death experiences, depression, desperation and even insanity (Am I Going Insane (Radio): ‘radio rental’ is the rhyming slang for ‘mental’). But their over-riding philosophy is expressed in the title of yet another great song – Never Say Die! (1978). And they have certainly lived this out being still here to entertain us royally. More Kings of Rock than Princes of Darkness.