Saturday, 26 January 2013

Heavy Metal Gates

I was sitting around a while ago, not sure whether I was yet in the mood to watch Henry IV Part 1 on the BBC iPlayer, and started idly browsing through the programme listings.  My eye was caught by a programme in the "classic albums" series: apparently Black Sabbath's Paranoid is now considered a classic. A classic? In my day -- the day when it first came out -- it was considered a bit of a joke, machine-shop riffing propping up some of the most risible lyrics you could hope to come across this side of the Eurovision Song Contest.

But I started to watch the programme with some fascination.  The unpretentious honesty of Ozzy, Geezer, Tony and, ah, the other one immediately shone through. Like a lot of "musicians" of that era, they were just unlikely lads who got lucky but, unlike most of the ones you and I have heard of, they had the saving grace of knowing and appreciating the scale of their improbable good fortune.  They have clearly never quite got over it; well, it certainly beat working for a living.

The really fascinating thing, though, was their creative method: Tony would come up with a riff, Ozzy would wail a tune with nonsense words, and Geezer Butler would get out his Encyclopaedia of Black Magick and knock out some lyrics.  "I was interested in all that mystical astral plane cobblers at the time", he said.

armchair boogie, 1973

It's easy to forget how far the level of education and information has increased since the 1950s, due in part to state education but mainly due to the mass media and, since the 1990s, the internet.  Contrary to what educational reactionaries would have us believe, the level of general knowledge back then was actually very low; much more a case of general ignorance.  Most people knew very little about anything that didn't put food on the table, and for a young man to have any interests beyond sport, music and "courting" -- especially anything involving books -- was considered downright strange.

Acquiring knowledge used to be a very shallow, dry, and colourless affair.  Deliberately so: to crave anecdotes and illustrations was regarded as the mark of a third-rate mind.  You might learn the principal exports of Brazil at school, but have no idea what Rio de Janeiro looked and felt like, or how the experience of watching Santos or Corinthians play might differ from a drizzly winter afternoon on the terraces at Anfield or Highbury. The Girl from Ipanema might as well have come from Yarmouth.

In the decades since, the knowledge base really has spread and deepened, with the amazing result that the general knowledge pub-quiz has become as entrenched in popular culture as the car-boot sale.  Thanks to TV, we all know (or think we know) the sights and sounds of the Rio carnival and the Amazon jungle, though we'd probably flounder without the helpful voiceover should we ever get to witness the real thing.  Even quite taboo areas have become common currency.  Who doesn't smile (or wince), at least inwardly, whenever the word "Brazilian" comes up?

An album like Paranoid is what you get when young people of limited opportunities and restricted access to education and culture suddenly get the chance to paint their own vivid pictures.  Like a tattoo or a comic, the result is garish, and a little crude, but full of energy and a longing for a bigger, brighter life.  It's also full of false emotions and trite posturing.  It takes more than opportunity and youth to make art.

Inevitably, Metal was the music of choice of East European youth when the Iron Curtain came clanging down in 1989.  It is a strange thought, that the supernova of energy released in a place as quotidian as England's Black Country would burst open the massive iron gates of Heavy Metal, and that grotesque, rough beasts would be slouching out of there, without pause, for the next 40 years.

Surely some revelation is at hand!


eeyorn said...

Well its not my cuppa chai but Paranoid is to my mind a classic of the genre it pretty much founded.

Pop music has always evolved from clashes of cultures and Ozzy and the boys opened up a new market and made a lot of money out of it. Could be worse, they could have been another Slade.

Were Ozzy and the boys harbingers of The Apocalypso?

Well maybe, but Ozzy's only recently come to terms with the fact that he's not the son of Satan, so its probably best not to stir up old memories for him :)

eeyorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zouk Delors said...

"the Iron Curtain came clanging down in 1989"

If it weren't for that lovely clanging noise, I'd have sworn it LIFTED!

Is that an early iphone you're looking at in the picture? Tariq Ali doesn't look very impressed.

Guidlines, Eeyorn, guidelines.

Mike C. said...


Pop is full of recognised classic albums I don't myself much like -- never did get "What's Going On", for example.


I prefer to think it fell over; don't like the idea of it still hanging up there somewhere... The thing in my lap is a .22 revolver for blanks.


Dave Leeke said...

Hmm, is that some kind of metaphor about "The Revolution"?

Anyway, I know the programme and saw it a year or two back. Oh the joys of endless repeats in Satellite World. I got rid of Sky and keep to Freesat these days. But "The Band" is the best of the series.

Personally, although I'm no fan, I love the fact that Ozzy and co are still surprised by what could loosely be termed as "getting away with it" for so long. The early seventies was fuelled for many of us by "Man, Myth and Magic", Dennis Wheatley novels, Waddington's Ouija board game (oh, yes!) and the first Black Widow album. The kudos I got for seeing them live when I was 14! A naked lady being sacrificed!!

Black Sabbath were just noisy - although "Planet Caravan" from this album was nice.

Martin said...

I remember buying the 'single', but in 1970 I was just an unsophisticated 15 year-old. That's my excuse anyway, albeit a poor one.

Zouk Delors said...

 .22 revolver

That come with the sherrif's badge, then?
(Sorry, haven't got the link to the relevant post.)

Mike C. said...


It was an unsophisticated time (kinda my point, really) -- so many people were just "making it up" in quite a creative but undisciplined way. Some got lucky, some didn't.

My ears have never recovered from a Hawkwind gig in a concrete cellar somewhere deep under our local youth club.

The pistol was a theatrical prop being passed around -- somewhere I've got a similar snap with a Hamlet-style skull. Both are probably illegal these days.