Written by Sombra Blanca
It’s hard to believe the song "Paranoid" was an afterthought for Black Sabbath. The title track from their seminal 1970 album was also the last to be added, created in 20 minutes and, along with "Iron Man," has come to define the four lads from Aston, England. Band members Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Terry "Geezer" Butler all share the tale of the creation of "Paranoid", both the song and the album, during the Classic Albums documentary series.
A wonderful concept, the series lets those who created some of music’s most important modern albums — Dark Side of the Moon, Songs in the Key of Life, The Joshua Tree and Graceland, for example — give in essence a play-by-play for the origins of each song. Series producers also bring in the assorted cast of critics and musicians for praise of the music and its place in history.
One of the great things about the Black Sabbath documentary, compared to some of the others, is all four original band members are still around to discuss Paranoid, giving even dedicated "Sabbath-teurs" some new insight into a band that changed rock 'n' roll, and arguably created heavy metal.
With the band’s now 40-year influence still present, so much of what they created seemed to just materialize out of thin air, or perhaps fermented liquid and pungent herbs. The documentary provides just enough discussion about the band’s history, which of course started with an emulation of the Beatles, as well as their self-titled first album. That’s key because the viewer hears about gigs at the Star Club, where the Fab Four got their start. Black Sabbath had eight 45-minute time slots each day, but only eight songs, so each set was a 45-minute jam of one song.
One could, and perhaps should, be punched in the face for calling Black Sabbath a jam band. Yet it was that experience through which the band not only became a four-piece juggernaut, but also developed much of the material for the first two albums. "It just flowed out with the riffs," Geezer says. "We all played together like each of us knew what was coming next."
The documentary takes us into the studio with the band and sound engineer Tom Allom, who worked under producer Roger Bain. Bain had seen the band live and wanted to recreate that sound – all in two 12-hour sessions.
But it’s mainly awesome for two reasons: each of the three bandmates, except for Ozzy, all play their parts at one time or another while discussing the songs. We watch and listen to Iommi on the origin of the "Iron Man" riff, and Geezer gets his due, showing how "Mars" from Holst’s The Planets suite evolved into the bassline for the song "Black Sabbath."
The other reason is Allom, who mans the production boards and singles out instruments with some of the songs – playing each individually on "Paranoid", for example. That includes Ozzy’s vocals – and not the ones you hear on the album.
The funniest part of this documentary is listening to Ozzy adlib "Paranoid" while trying to figure out how to compliment the music. But it’s nice to hear Geezer talk about Ozzy’s contribution when, even though he didn’t write the lyrics, Ozzy had a knack for coming up with harmonies on the spot, or singing exactly in tune with the guitar and bass.
As far as the outsiders’ perspective, it adds the most to "Iron Man" mainly because of what Henry Rollins has to say, especially about recreating the riff at the end of the song. While Rollins is his usual eloquent and just-plain-cool self, it’s unfortunate he’s the only musician brought in to discuss the album. The rest are historians and music writers and editors. It would’ve been nice to see those influenced by Sabbath talking about Paranoid, even if it’s the stoned-to-"Planet-Caravan" kind of stories.
As the band members and Allom explained, the song "Paranoid" sprung from the need to fill the last three or four minutes of the album and came together on a dime after the band returned from the pub. Iommi picked up the guitar, plucked the strings for the now-legendary riff, and "we all started scrambling for our instruments," Ward said. The song not only went to the top of the charts, but was also the second and final choice for the album title.
What some times gets lost in the power of the music itself — several used the word "menace" — is the overtly political and social lyrics mainly written by Butler. As he explains in his soft-spoken, always smirking style, the peace movement and the hippies had mostly overrun popular music. Although I’d disagree with Butler that nobody was really singing about the war and other, occasionally controversial issues, it was important to the band to bring that element into their music. So the documentary puts Geezers lyrics into a context fans of classic rock radio might not yet understand.
These were four guys from middle-class homes in working-class neighborhoods outside of Birmingham, and their environment didn’t inspire flower power. Butler, at the same time, developed an interest "in the occult and astral planing and all that cobblers," and his interest spread to the other band mates. He was quick to point out there was no Satanism, other than Walpurgis, the satanic Christmas that was changed to "War Pigs." The lyrics that evolved delved into politics and war, drug abuse and a celebration of drugs, and even racism — the latter creeping into "Fairies Wear Boots" after Ozzy’s confrontation with a skinhead gang in England. What makes the Classic Albums series unique, though, is hearing Geezer and Ozzy explain how there weren’t enough skinhead lyrics to finish the song, so the singer just made something up about LSD.
Again, these are tales coming straight from the band members, and that is the best part about the documentary. The critics and historians, nuts to them. It’s just fun to hear Ozzy talk about his first royalty check, and Paranoid is full of those fun moments.
The special features really could be called deleted scenes, because it’s more background told by the same people. But the band does talk about its first U.S. tour and the difficulties of moving across the pond, and expands on their influences aside from The Beatles.
Not every band deserves this type of treatment, to delve into their lives and music. But this is Black Sabbath. Enough said.
Article first published as DVD Review: Classic Albums Makes Paranoid Fun on Blogcritics.