Fifty years ago today, a genre-defining album was released. Black Sabbath‘s Paranoid came out in Europe on Sept. 18, 1970, and its title track reached No. 4 on the UK charts shortly after. The band’s first, self-titled release had just come out months earlier, but it was Paranoid that helped turn the world on to heavy metal.
Singer Henry Rollins is a self-proclaimed Black Sabbath advocate. He fronted the band Black Flag for a while, and he’s now a writer and music presenter for NPR member station KCRW. Rollins says Sabbath’s first release was more like a “sketchpad.” On their second album, the musicians found their focus.
“They’re realizing their strengths,” Rollins says. “And there’s not a lot of music on the Paranoid album. That’s not a put-down: I’m saying there’s a lot of space, and that’s where the album gets a lot of its power.”
Paranoid came together rapidly. The band wrote songs and came up with riffs while touring their first album in Europe. When the tour ended, the band returned to the studio and made Paranoid in six days, playing and recording as if it was a live concert. In that whirlwind, they created what’s become some of the most iconic heavy metal ever. “Those songs really lodge in the memory: You hear them once and you get it,” Rollins says.
Black Sabbath’s original members were vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. The four grew up in the factory city of Birmingham, England and met in the local music scene. Joel McIver, author of two books on the band, says Black Sabbath wouldn’t be the same without its hometown: “You cannot separate the environment of Black Sabbath from the music that they made.”
All four original members were born in the late 1940s to a bleak future, according to McIver. Birmingham had been largely destroyed by bombs in World War II, and many families were struggling.
“If you were a lad back then in this environment, your future was 45 years on a factory assembly line,” McIver says. “That’s literally the truth. That’s what so many people faced.”
That firsthand experience with postwar tragedy drove the musicians’ sound and songwriting. “War Pigs” is a rebuke of politicians and war. “Hand of Doom” is about the horrors of Vietnam and the many soldiers who came home addicted to opium. “Electric Funeral” imagines a world destroyed by nuclear bombs.
“They’re simple, yet very universal in what they’re telling,” she says. “They’re anti-war. They’re anti-establishment. It’s about being real with the darkness that surrounds all of us in the world.”
Black Sabbath wasn’t the only band writing anti-war or anti-establishment songs in 1970, but they were unsparing, and maybe even prophetic, according to Rollins.
“It’s the first time I ever heard post-traumatic stress. And nuclear holocaust. Radiation,” he says. “All of this is addressed on the Paranoid album. And you start to see that Sabbath was quite visionary.”
Radical songwriting. Ear-shattering riffs. Unforgettable vocals. An all-time great rhythm section. Even a slower love song set in outer space. Paranoid had it all — and, like Rollins said, once you hear it, you just get it.