A friend recently gave me three books of Charlie Brooker’s TV reviews going back a decade or more – ideal lavatory reading material, as it turns out, and that’s where I keep them. As amusingly acerbic as ever, Brooker’s musings on what his job forced him to watch on the box are nevertheless significant pointers as to the transient disposability of contemporary pop culture. I would probably laugh out even louder were I able to recall any of the programmes or personalities he rips to shred with such witty malevolence, yet the fact that I’m stumped when he describes a particular ‘Big Brother’ contestant or some doomed ITV celebrity circus makes the reading experience a tad frustrating.
Like looking at old copies of ‘Private Eye’ from the 90s (I have a few) and trying to remember some obscure Minister in Major’s Government who’s been caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till, leafing through Brooker’s early noughties time capsules reminds me how the lifespan of even the most entertaining critiques of the here and now is as limited as the figures they mock.
Judging by the already meaningless accounts of events going back barely a decade, it’s probably fair to say very few (if any) of the characters that dominate today’s media mediums will still be on the tip of the masses’ tongues 47 years from now. It’s testament to the enduring appeal and remarkable staying power of their predecessors, however, that the apparently final performance of Black Sabbath yesterday made the headlines.
Some say the combination of the words Heavy and Metal first appeared in a late 60s review of a Jimi Hendrix gig – ‘like heavy metal falling from the sky’ was the phrase Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler recalled; some trace it back to Steppenwolf’s 1968 biker anthem, ‘Born to be Wild’ (‘Heavy metal thunder’); but as a musical genre, even acknowledging the influence of Hendrix and Cream’s turbo-charged psychedelic blues, it’s possibly fair to pinpoint the beginnings of Heavy Metal to the arrival of Black Sabbath.
Led Zeppelin always disassociated themselves from the term, and to be fair, the virtuoso musicality of Led Zep offered up a good deal more than just the riffs that continue to inspire air-guitarists the world over; similarly, the quasi-classical leanings of Deep Purple often aligned them with nascent Prog Rock as much as guitar-led Hard Rock, so they too can’t be held solely responsible. When it comes to Sabbath, though, there’s no doubt every band to have launched an axe attack upon the eardrums of teenage boys (and their parents) ever since owes them a colossal debt.
Listening to Black Sabbath’s most famous and biggest hit, 1970’s ‘Paranoid’, it’s evident that this was a band whose natural allies were not Led Zep or Purple, but The Stooges. Like Iggy Pop’s band of brothers, Sabbath emerged from the unfashionable industrial heartlands – in the case of The Stooges, Detroit, and in the case of Ozzy’s gang, Birmingham. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Sabbath didn’t enjoy the Art School route to pop stardom and all the esoteric influences such a leg-up afforded, but were genuine working-class heroes, far more genuine than, say, The Clash. They grew up in a tough, dirty city and endured an underprivileged background of hard menial labour and dysfunctional families scarred by war. They had nothing to lose.
Guitarist Tony Iommi was working in a sheet metal factory when he lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand, but used the accident to develop his distinctive sound as he and his band Earth became a draw in the Birmingham clubs that had earlier proved to be a fruitful cradle for bands such as The Moody Blues, The Move and The Spencer Davis Group. A name change came when their shared love for horror movies and Dennis Wheatley novels produced a song titled ‘Black Sabbath’ that encapsulated everything that made them so unique.
The astonishingly guttural drone of Iommi’s riffs that never leave the ear once lodged there, working in tandem with Geezer Butler’s bowel-shattering bass-lines and Bill Ward’s frenetic drums were complimented by Ozzy Osbourne’s raw, untutored vocal delivery. Unlike the thuggish showmanship of The Who’s Roger Daltrey and the preening Sex God posing of Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Ozzy kept his stage excesses to a minimum and the band never indulged in cock-rockery. The ear-splitting power of the music didn’t need it.
London-based critics were instantly hostile to these uncouth oiks from the midlands, but the brilliantly hairy ambassadors of rock stripped to its bare, uncompromising bones revelled in their outsider status when the commercial success that came in the wake of the unexpected top five chart placing of ‘Paranoid’ rocketed them into the big league and all the trappings that went with it in the 70s. Their on-the-road activities became the stuff of legend, but their musical influence outlasted the exit of Ozzy at the end of the decade that made them and ushered in a less inspiring era when they were fronted by the likes of Ronnie Dio and even (briefly) Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
Black Sabbath can be seen as the Godfathers of Metal, Goth, Grunge and even Punk, but by the time Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career and then unlikely reality TV stardom made him a universal household name, the respect that had always evaded Sabbath belatedly resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Osbourne and Iommi performing ‘Paranoid’ in the grounds of Buckingham Palace at HM the Queen’s Golden Jubilee bash in 2002. A long-overdue reunion of the original line-up led to the 2013 No.1 album, ‘13’, whose chart-topping status in their homeland broke a record of gaps between No.1 albums previously held by Bob Dylan. The band were finally recognised as the groundbreaking innovators they always had been.
A couple of weeks ago, a few friends of mine saw Sabbath live and commented that it was akin to seeing some of the greatest musicians ever, fronted by ‘my granddad’. This is a comment largely based on Ozzy’s OAP manner of staggering across the stage, though his vocals were apparently on form. One could say the legacy of past chemical indulgence may have left its mark on Sabbath’s frontman, but we shouldn’t also forget Mr Osbourne is pushing seventy now. Just think of how ancient Sinatra looked at the same age, and note how alert and refreshingly witty Ozzy is in interviews; as with many who share his refined years, his mind is often let down by his body.
Sabbath fittingly signed off on stage in Birmingham to the strains of (inevitably) ‘Paranoid’. The audience was witness to the final act of a career that none of its members could ever have expected to span almost half-a-century, but what the band achieved in a near-fifty year existence is something none of the current contenders will ever manage because Black Sabbath rightly take their place in a pantheon of pop culture that defined an epoch that has passed and has yet to be surpassed; it still defines the age we live in, even if its practitioners are all granddads. The bostin’ boys done good.
© The Editor