50 Years Ago, Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' Broke Open Heavy Metal Recorded in a few days and released just months after the band's self-titled debut, Paranoid delivered bleak but unforgettable songs about war, corruption and trauma.

50 Years Ago, Black Sabbath Found Its Sound And Took Metal Worldwide

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/913974144/914281604" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Today marks a musical milestone. Fifty years ago, Black Sabbath released their album "Paranoid." The band's first self-titled release had come out just months earlier. But it was "Paranoid" that helped turn the world onto heavy metal. NPR's Bo Hamby has this appreciation.

BO HAMBY, BYLINE: It starts with a bang.


HAMBY: "Paranoid" came out in Europe on September 18, 1970. Its title track reached No. 4 on the U.K. charts shortly after. Fifty years and many, many albums later, it is still the band's most successful.


BLACK SABBATH: (Singing) Generals gathered in their masses just like witches at Black Masses.

HAMBY: 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. He says Sabbath's first album was like a sketchpad. On the second album, the musicians find their focus.

HENRY ROLLINS, BYLINE: They're realizing their strengths, like, oh, we can do this. And there's not a lot of music on the "Paranoid" album. But that's not a put-down. I'm just saying there's a lot of space. And that's where "Paranoid," the album, gets a lot of its power.



HAMBY: The album came together rapidly, the band writing songs and coming up with the riffs while touring their first album in Europe. When the tour ended in just four months after finishing their self-titled debut, the band went back into a studio in England and made "Paranoid." They did it in six days, playing and recording as if it was a live concert. And in that whirlwind, they created what's become some of the most iconic heavy metal ever.

ROLLINS: Those songs really lodge in the memory. You hear them once and you get it.


BLACK SABBATH: (Singing) People think I'm insane because I am frowning all the time.

HAMBY: The band's original members were vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. The four grew up in Birmingham, England, and met in the local music scene. Joel McIver is the author of two books on Black Sabbath. He says the band wouldn't be the same without Birmingham.

JOEL MCIVER: You cannot separate the environment of Black Sabbath from the music that they made.

HAMBY: All four original members were born in the late 1940s to what McIver says was a bleak future. The factory city had been largely destroyed by bombs in World War II. And a lot of families were struggling.

MCIVER: If you were a lad back then in this environment, then your future was 45 years on a factory assembly line. That's literally the truth. That was what so many people faced.

HAMBY: But, McIver says, it is that firsthand experience with post-war tragedy that drove the musicians' sound and their songwriting. The song "War Pigs" is a rebuke of politicians and war. "Hand Of Doom" is about the horrors of the Vietnam War and the many soldiers who came home addicted to opium. And "Electric Funeral" imagines a world destroyed by nuclear bombs.


BLACK SABBATH: (Singing) Flashes in the sky turns houses into sties, turns people into clay. Radiation - minds decay.

ANGEL DERADOORIAN: The lyrics are just so like - oh, they're so good (laughter).

HAMBY: That's Angel Deradoorian, a musician who was formerly with Dirty Projectors. She's since gone solo while also occasionally playing the role of Ozzy Osbourne in a Black Sabbath cover band. She says the "Paranoid" album is timeless in part because of the lyrics.

DERADOORIAN: They're simple yet very universal in what they're telling. And I think that really translates over the years because these are universal truths. They're anti-war. They're anti-establishment. It's about being real with the darkness that surrounds all of us in the world.

HAMBY: Sabbath was not the only band writing anti-war or anti-establishment songs in 1970. But they were unsparing and maybe even prophetic, says Henry Rollins.

ROLLINS: It's the first time I ever heard, you know, post-traumatic stress and, you know, nuclear holocaust, radiation. All of this is addressed on the "Paranoid" album. And you start to see that Sabbath was quite visionary.

HAMBY: Radical songwriting, ear-shattering riffs, unforgettable vocals, an all-time great rhythm section, even a love song set in outer space. "Paranoid" has it all.

ROLLINS: I mean, the album, in its own way, is perfect.

HAMBY: Like Rollins said, once you hear it, you just get it.

Bo Hamby, NPR News.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.