“It Broke Down Barriers”: Tony Iommi On How Black Sabbath’s Paranoid Changed The Game
“I think it was Ozzy that picked up the hammer…” begins Tony Iommi casting his mind back some 50 years to the fateful night of June 13, 1970, when the four members of Black Sabbath found themselves embroiled in an all-out street war with a bunch of marauding skinheads.
Sabbath had just finished playing a gig at the Winter Gardens Pavilion in Weston-Super-Mare when a dispute over their fee led to Geezer Butler popping out of the venue in search of the nearest payphone in order to call the band’s manager. As he entered the phone box, Geezer realised he was surrounded by a mob of bovver-booted skinheads. As the shouts of “Get the hippy!” went up, the 21-year-old bass player ran for his life.
“They frightened him half to death!” continues Tony. “Geezer’s normally Mr. Peaceful and not one to go looking for trouble. He got out of the phone box and came running back in to tell us what was going on. It felt as if a member of our gang had been threatened, so we all headed out front to sort it out. That’s when Ozzy grabbed the hammer but, to be fair, they had all sorts of weapons too. They were yobs and they were ready for a proper fight.”
The sight of a hammer-wielding Ozzy Osbourne emerging like a whirling dervish from the venue did little to deter Sabbath’s aggressors, although Tony does recall the singer using his weapon to good effect. “There was quite a lot of blood,” says the guitarist. “It was a pretty vicious fight. At first there about half a dozen of them, but all of a sudden a load more emerged from somewhere. We just thought, ‘Oh god, we’ve had it!’”
Somehow, though, Tony, Ozzy, Geezer and drummer Bill Ward battled their way to their van, tending to their wounds as they headed back up the M5 to their hometown of Birmingham.
“I’m not quite sure how we managed it, to be honest, but we just about got out of there in one piece,” says Tony, who at the time was still living with his parents. “I remember getting home and my mum shouting up the stairs saying, ‘How did it all go?’ I replied, ‘Oh, yeah, really good, thanks!’ as I was looking at myself in the mirror with a black eye and blood everywhere…”
Three days after that brutal encounter, Black Sabbath were in the studio, back down at Regent Sound on London’s Denmark Street where they were due to record the album that would become Paranoid.
Photographer Chris Walter popped in to snap them at work taking group shots as well as individual portraits. Look closely past Tony’s curtains of hair and you can see the shiner on his right eye. Physical scars aside, the band’s recent punch-up had also inspired them to write a new set of lyrics to a tune they’d been playing live. Originally designed as cautionary tune about drug abuse, Geezer’s recent scare now informed the opening verse of the track they called Fairies Wear Boots.
Eight months earlier, in October ’69, Sabbath had first visited Regent Sound to record their self-titled debut album. This time, they’d been booked in for six days rather than just two. The decision to treble the band’s studio time was a reflection of the success they’d enjoyed around their first album. Released in the UK on February 13, 1970, Black Sabbath had sold impressively, peaking at Number 8 in the British charts. As far as their label Vertigo was concerned, Sabbath were now a band worth investing in – a point that seemed lost on the four-piece, who remained unused to the idea of any sort of luxury.
“As everyone knows we actually recorded the first album in a day, so when we came to the second album we said, ‘Blimey! We’ve got a whole six days! What are we going to do with that?’ We genuinely didn’t know,” laughs Tony. “Our way of recording was quite simple; we’d turn up, set up, and play. That was it.”
The job of capturing their performances was down to 25-year-old producer Rodger Bain, the man who’d worked with Sabbath on their debut album, along with engineer Tom Allom (soon to become a producer of note thanks to his work with fellow Brummies, Judas Priest).
“Rodger became really involved with us at that point,” continues Tony. “It was hard to bring somebody in with us because we had our own idea of how we wanted things to sound. Rodger didn’t interfere. He’d listen to what we were doing and he’d suggest various things that we could develop. Tom would mic everything up, and we’d just play. It certainly wasn’t a case of it taking five hours just to get a guitar sound or a drum sound. It was just a case of getting things down in a natural manner, and that’s what Rodger and Tom allowed us to do.”
If their debut album had essentially been based around their live set of the previous 18 months, this time around the four-piece had written new material that was a little more diverse and, in some cases, more progressive. The bluesier inflexions of their first record were replaced by a harder, more cohesive sound – the result of their own increased confidence as a band, and the fact that they had now fully established their own identity. Some of their new material had been routined in their rehearsal room in Aston, other tunes had been worked up during a break down in Monnow Valley, in verdant Monmouthshire, where the four members had attempted to get away from the distractions that surrounded them on their home turf.
“The idea was to go and live together somewhere where we would feel less encouraged to do, er, other things,” chuckles Tony. “But of course everyone ended up in the bleeding pub anyway, so it was not a lot of use! But it did mean that the next morning you could always go a bang on someone’s door and go, ‘Come on! Get up now! We’ve got to rehearse!’ It was good to be under one roof so that everyone could be together and we’d actually get things done. Then, there was also the material we’d written on the road too that we’d worked up over time.”
Walpurgis was among the latter. Named after the spring celebration of the witches’ Sabbath on Brocken Mountain, the track had started out as live jam. A recording of the tune for John Peel’s Top Gear radio show aired on April 26, 1970, and shows the work in progress, most specifically with regards to the track’s lyrics. Two months on, the tune’s meaning had changed, Geezer replacing its initial pagan inspiration with hard-hitting lyrics that dealt with the evident horrors of the Vietnam War. The song now sported an altogether simpler title.
“War Pigs was a song that went back to the earlier days in the band,” confirms Tony. “I came up with those riffs when we were doing a residency in Switzerland [at Zürich’s Hirschen Club in April ’69] to about three people. Playing those kind of shows was pretty terrible, but it gave us time to get songs together properly without anyone really noticing.”
The hulking, epic track is also emblematic of Sabbath’s collaborative songwriting process which, on most occasions, began with their guitar player presenting new ideas to his bandmates.
“Our songs pretty much all happened the same way,” he says. “I came up with a riff and started playing it, and then Geezer, or whoever it might be, would go, ‘I like that one’ and then we’d all pile in and build the song from there.”
Now that it had been fine-tuned, War Pigs was the track that set the tone for the album itself, providing them with what they thought was the perfect title for the record. Once they’d finished the song, Rodger – who had been responsible for adding the sheets of rain and tolling bell sound effects to the band’s signature tune on their debut album – introduced the air raid siren (which cuts in around the 30 second mark) and also suggested that the final 10 seconds of the tape be sped up to bring the tune to a suitably frenetic climax.
One of Rodger’s other major contributions to the Paranoid recording process also involved the decision to use a ring modulator on Ozzy’s voice on the introduction to Iron Man, providing the track with its distinctive metallic opening phrase and adding to its lurching, overwhelming crunch.
“Rodger also used that [ring modulator] on the guitar solo on the track Paranoid itself. At first, I said, ‘What the hell’s that?! It sounds horrible!’ But they went ahead and picked it as the solo that ended up on the record all the same. I’ve got to used to it now,” shrugs Tony.
If Iron Man is a vehicle for Geezer’s apocalyptic vision, then War Pigs is a tune that reflects the anti-war sentiments that were prevalent in the summer of 1970. The same is true of the inspiration behind the super-charged Electric Funeral and the light and shade of the monolithic Hand Of Doom. Less obvious are the sentiments behind Rat Salad, a showcase for Bill Ward’s drumming skills with a decidedly curious title.
“We probably called it that because Bill looked like a rat at the time,” smiles Tony. “I don’t know who came up with that name, probably Ozzy. We did call Bill ‘Ratty’ sometimes. Then again, we’d call him all sorts of things and he’d always answer to them. ‘Where’s Smelly?!’ ‘I’m here!’ He took it well.”
The album’s most atypical tune is the slow burning, space-rock odyssey of Planet Caravan – a track that relies on atmospherics with Ozzy’s vocals running through a Leslie speaker, while Rodger added an oscillator to the proceedings to further enhance the music’s other-worldly feel. While the core of the album relies on capturing the band’s live performance, Planet Caravan marks the start of Sabbath’s exploration of studio technology and sees them adding further texture to their developing sound.
“We weren’t sure about Planet Caravan at first, and it did seem a bit obscure for us at the time, but we liked it,” says Tony. “It had a few jazz guitar bits on there, it sounded very different but it still sounded like us.”
Despite the track’s woozy feel, suggestions that the band were all on acid during the recording Planet Caravan are wide of the mark. “Oh, god no!” counters Tony. “If we’d have been doing that, I don’t know where we would’ve ended up! Geezer had taken acid before so maybe that’s where that story comes from. Before we played together, we used to see him in his other band and I thought he was a complete loony! He’d try and climb up walls and things like that because he was on acid! But when we got to recording, a lot of the time we kept it together. Geezer just knew the feelings that you’d go through with various drugs and stuff.”
The drugs, it seems, came later.
“Yeah. They did. Oh dear…”
As Sabbath finished work on their second album, one thing became clear to Rodger Bain: the record was too short. The producer informed Tony that they needed another track – a short one, and fast. It was this last minute scramble that spawned Paranoid.
“The rest of the band were out of the studio when Rodger said to me, ‘Have you got any more songs?’ and I said, ‘No.’ We genuinely didn’t; we’d used everything. I had a basic riff and I showed it to the band when the others came back. As everyone knows, we just recorded that song really quickly and pretty much at the last minute,” says Tony. “It was going to be a filler and that was why it’s also the shortest song we’ve probably ever done as a result.”
As it turned out, Paranoid – the lyrics again written by Geezer and reflecting the thoughts of a terminally depressive individual – would take on a life of its own. When the label heard the song they insisted it be released as a single and the album’s title-track – instantly making a nonsense of the sleeve they’d already commissioned.
“We didn’t have much pull in those days, so we didn’t really have a say in the matter but we were pretty angry about it,” admits Tony.
When the track was released as a single in August 1970, it immediately began to scale the UK chart, landing the band an appearance on weekly TV show Top Of The Pops.
“We didn’t want to be on Top Of the Pops at all,” grimaces Tony. “It wasn’t our audience. We we were an album band, a more underground band. Paranoid obviously did a hell of a lot for us but [when it became a hit] we were getting screaming kids at gigs, and they just weren’t our sort of fans. We didn’t want to attract Beatles fans or anything like that. The music was heavy and powerful and we wanted to keep it that way, rather than record music that would attract pop fans, so the best thing was not to release singles.”
Sabbath’s decision not to play the pop game meant that in the UK it would take another eight years for them to score a hit, this time with the title-track of Never Say Die!, the final studio album recorded by the band’s original line-up.
“We went on Top Of The Pops again with Never Say Die! and it was just as bad as the last time! We hated it…” recalls Tony. “We said ‘That’s it we’re never going to do this again!’ And that really was it for us!”
In the intervening 50 years since it was released as a single, Tony Iommi has made his peace with Paranoid as a song: “I really like it. I always have. Nowadays people know what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved so I can accept what Paranoid represents, whereas back then I would’ve been more critical of it because it stood for something else,” he reflects.
Back in 1970, while the British press remained ambivalent at best towards the band, the single helped propel Sabbath’s second album to the top of the UK album charts when it was released on September 18, 1970. “That was incredible! It just proved that not only did we believe in what we were doing, other people did too,” says Tony.
In America the situation was different. As a single, Paranoid peaked at Number 61. Equally, American audiences were also playing catch-up, Sabbath’s debut having only hit the racks in June 1970, four months later than its UK release. As a result, their second album was held back for a January 1971 release.
Nevertheless, following a short run of British and European shows, Sabbath headed Stateside for the first time in late October 1970. There, they found their American label, Warner Brothers keen to build on their increasingly notorious reputation.
“Audiences accepted us straight away in America and they weren’t so narrow-minded. They seemed to understand how different we were,” says Tony. “The thing that did bother us is that we felt more accepted in America than we did in England.” If U.S. audiences started to embrace Sabbath’s so-called ‘downer rock’, however, the press most definitely did not.
“Rolling Stone absolutely hated us!” says Tony, recalling the review of the Paranoid where the journalist Nick Tosches confused Black Sabbath with occult rockers Black Widow, and began his piece with fictionalised gibberish that evoked a sexualised, teenage neo-Satanic ritual. “It’s funny how it’s all turned around now, but back then things were pretty hurtful. We actually stopped doing press because literally everything we did got used against us.”
The band’s earliest U.S. shows were equally inauspicious. “When we first got there we played two nights at Ungano’s [in New York City]. It was this little club, down these terrible stairs, about 300 capacity. We had no idea that the voltage was different so we plugged our gear in and the stuff blew up! We thought, ‘Oh, this is America, then.’ It was a bit of a disaster,” remembers Tony. “But around our third gig, we played Fillmore East and we hadn’t seen a monitor system as big as that it our entire lives! All of a sudden we could hear each other, too! We were absolutely blown away. It was so advanced compared to what we were used to. It opened a whole new door for us.”
In America, they also discovered a world where FM radio stations had begun to focus on playing album tracks rather than singles, transforming the musical landscape in the process. The result of this cultural shift meant that pop was being replaced by rock music and, in the wake of Led Zeppelin’s arrival in the U.S. in late ’68, British rock in particular was in the ascendancy. Radio play coupled with Sabbath’s ferocious live shows would prove to be a winning combination.
On a more basic level, the foursome of Tony, Ozzy, Geezer and Bill also found themselves in the land of plenty in every single sense of the term. In America the drugs were better, the booze more plentiful, and, when it came to visiting English musicians, the sex was looser.
“We did go a bit mad,” admits Tony. “It was the first time we’d ever attracted groupies, which was quite wild! We’d never experienced anything like that. Everyone seemed freer and a lot more open to accepting us so, yes, we enjoyed ourselves.”
On that first U.S. run Sabbath maintained their wide-eyed innocence and marvelled at the chaos that seemed to surround them. Parachuted into a country in transition between the failed hippy dream and the oncoming wave of greed-is-good capitalism that would engulf America during the course of the following decade, they also found themselves as Satan’s unwitting standard-bearers – much to their own bemusement.
“The name had a lot to do with it. It seemed to frighten people and I suppose our music did, too,” says Tony, reflecting on the accusations that the band were genuine practitioners of black magic. “That led to a reaction from the press, but the more the press said, ‘Don’t go and see them!’ the more people came to see us. It built up this whole scary thing around the band and, ironically, the church trying to ban us in various states actually helped promote us, too. People became more interested in coming to shows as a result just to find out who we were.
“I remember we were in Canada and I was watching the news. They were talking about us, and people who were coming to our show were being interviewed and genuinely saying that they were frightened of coming to see us. I couldn’t believe that. God knows what they thought was going to happen at the show! They probably thought we were going to turn them all into rabbits.”
Tony’s humorous depiction of the hostility that Sabbath encountered masks some of the realities that they actually faced. The idea that rock’n’roll was the Devil’s music had not abated in America since the ’50s. The fact that the Manson Family murders had occurred less than a year prior to Sabbath’s arrival in the States had further stoked the fires of paranoia amongst a moral majority who continued to believe that rock music had genuinely been designed to corrupt their children.
“Looking back it wasn’t funny at all, because there were all sorts of strange people that would come to the shows. You didn’t know who you were going to attract,” admits Tony. “You’d play a show and there’d be some witches in the front row. Fair enough! But you didn’t know if there was some nutter out there who was going to stab you or shoot you, or god knows what – especially in certain religious areas where people were genuinely against us. It was easy for people to build their hatred against us, and these were people who really didn’t know us at all. It was a frightening time in that respect.”
Sabbath’s first American tour was relatively short, lasting around five weeks and establishing their hardcore audience. It wouldn’t be long before they would return to promote Paranoid properly. Their first show on U.S. soil following the album’s release took place in mid-February 1971. The tour that followed would last close to nine weeks, with the band continuing to open for various artists (Fleetwood Mac included) as well as headlining their own shows. Touring conditions, however, were a far cry from the luxury which Sabbath would enjoy later on in their career.
“I think we pretty much had one set of clothes in those days! We were working pretty hard just playing all the time. We’d get on a flight and then all get in a car together with suitcases on top. At one point, we all shared one hotel room and then, as things started to happen, we got two rooms. I shared a room with Ozzy, and Geezer shared with Bill,” remembers Tony. “Quite often me and Ozzy would be in the same bed, pissed out of our minds. I’d be trying to sleep and all of a sudden I’d feel this strange warmth creeping through the bed and I’d realise he’d pissed himself. After a few moments like that I tried to swap with the others. Oddly they didn’t want to.”
Despite the perils of the road, Sabbath would end 1971 with an album that had had dented the U.S. Top 20 and sold over a million copies in America alone. In simpler terms: in the space of two short years Black Sabbath had well and truly arrived.
Fifty years after its release Paranoid remains an undisputed cornerstone of modern music. It is earthy, soulful, textured, and heavy, all while pointing a way forward for the band. So what does Tony Iommi hear when he listens to it today?
“I hear the rawness of it, and could you even describe it as innocence? I’m not sure…” he ponders. “But it does take me back to that time and I can listen to it and relax, as opposed to listening back to some records where you go, ‘That sounds wrong! We need to change that!’ I can just listen to Paranoid as a full album and it still stands up.”
Paranoid is undoubtedly more rounded and more ambitious than its predecessor, but its success also helped transform Black Sabbath into global superstars. That stardom was worn lightly by the four band members, whose gang mentality remained intact despite their increasing fame.
“I don’t know if Paranoid really changed the band as such,” he continues. “Nobody became more egotistical or anything like that. We didn’t fall apart as a result of it, either. It was just exciting for us to go and play these amazing places in America but we stayed the same as people. People accepted us and that was a great feeling. We actually felt that we’d broken through a barrier with Paranoid – and there had been quite a lot of barriers that we’d encountered up until that point.”
Paranoid’s success not only provided Sabbath with a personal sense of vindication, it also remains genuinely game-changing in so many respects. From a fan’s perspective, it captures the four-piece at their most relentless and unstoppable, building on the raw power of their debut. Just as significant, however, is the fact that the near-punkoid simplicity of title-track has inspired countless musicians to actually pick up a guitar in the first place, most specifically in America where, five decades on, every major music scene – from thrash metal to grunge via hip-hop and alternative rock – has acknowledged a debt to both Sabbath’s music as well as their attitude.
“When you hear the impact that the music has had on people, it’s really incredible,” concludes Tony. “It means that we’ve been there for a purpose, and that people can relate to what we’ve done and learn from it. Our music is, by the standards of today, basic. But what we had comes from the heart. It’s the combination of the four of us that makes that sound. I’ve had really good players down the years, really good people I’ve played with, but nobody can sound like the four of us and I’m really proud of that.”
Black Sabbath’s Paranoid: Super Deluxe box set (complete with two live albums on vinyl, hardbound photo book, replica tour book and more) is out October 9 via BMG.
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