During a time that was heavily dominated by a ubiquitous release of sexual tension, a feeling that had been caged and trapped during past generations — which began boiling up to the brim throughout the 1960s and eventually spilling over by ’67 — the hippie movement had started on college campuses across the States, and it’s slogans of peace, love and happiness began to spread like wildfire. Of course, the notions of communal leaving and regular drug partaking were other ideas associated with this counterculture.
What is not so often talked about, however, is the shadow of the hippie movement, a subsector acting as a counterculture’s counterculture, if you will. Butler Geezer, Black Sabbath’s bass player and primary lyricist, once recalled his feelings about the hippie movement, according to Louder Sound: “I was scared stiff that we’d be dragged into Vietnam, and World War Three seemed a very real event,” Sabbath’s bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler continues, a half-century later. “I was really into flower power in the sixties. I went to the love-ins at Woburn Abbey in sixty-seven and sixty-eight, with kaftan, beads, and flowers in my hair. But by the time we wrote the Paranoid album reality had set in. A lot of my lyrics were my disappointment that the love era was just a pipe dream. The love-ins and protests were all in vain.”
Black Sabbath was indeed a kind of dark awakening of the soul, one perhaps born from a self-imposed exile from society or involuntary victims of rejection. Either way, Sabbath’s debut eponymous album proved to be an international success, reaching number eight in the UK charts and 23 in the US.
The hippie counterculture was, in large part, a response to the debacle of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Hoards of hippies took to the streets and college campuses to protest the war. As pointed out by Geezer, members of Black Sabbath had been swept up by this along with other hippies in the late ’60s in Britain. Disillusionment and resentment towards those in power began setting in. For the Sabbath boys, they were tired of looking for answers from other places, and they decided to create their own solution. They became the rejects of the hippie movement, the embodiment of that movement’s shadow.
“In some sense, what they did was bring the hippie culture to the working class. Things like smoking dope became really widespread,” stated Tony Iommi, the band’s leader, and virtuosic guitar player who was in conversation with during the Classic Rock documentary series on Paranoid. “We kind of covered the side that no one else was covering,” he added. “It was all love and peace when we started – all the hippie and flower power stuff – and we had just done something that was really happening; the Vietnam war and the side of life that no one else was mentioning.”
Henry Rollins, a modern renaissance artist of sorts, so brilliantly quipped: “You drove up to a party on a cold winter night when it’s too cold to stand outside. There are the four lonely guys standing outside on the front porch, drinking cold beer. Because either they can’t get into the party, or they don’t want to be inside the party. Those are your Black Sabbath fans – the lonely stoners – the ones who congregate and party in the woods – not at the dance.”
Released in 1970, marking the 50th anniversary in 2020, Paranoid is oblique and, in ways, desperate, almost self-referential in its message and title. The album faces the darker and maybe pessimistic side of reality; what happens if all hell breaks loose? Exploring themes of war, madness, and the very real possibility of an all-out nuclear combat.
The album’s self-titled single would be Black Sabbath’s only top 20 hit, ranking number four in the UK Singles Charts. Bill Ward, the band’s drummer, explained the story behind the brilliant but dark hit: “We didn’t have enough songs for the album, and Tony Iommi just played the guitar lick and that was it,” he said. “It took twenty, twenty-five minutes from top to bottom.” Geezer Butler recounts that they wrote the song in five minutes, “then I sat down and wrote the lyrics as quickly as I could. It was all done in about two hours.”
According to the liner notes found in one of their live albums, ‘Paranoid’ would prove to be the epitome of Black Sabbath’s formula for the writing process: It would all start with Tony Iommi sparking the seeds of inspiration with an alluring riff, Ozzy Ozbourne would then develop a vocal melody by mostly mouthing syllables. Geezer would then provide his thundering bass playing along with Bill Ward brilliantly nuanced drumming. “Again, bass players don’t seem to exist like that, they actually play, instead of playing one note, you know, he’d be playing all over the place, bending the strings,” Iommi once commented on Geezer’s work. “That’s what we got into – I’d play the riffs and bend the strings, Geezer would bend the strings, we’d do that, to make it bigger and wider sound.”
The sound of Paranoid continues to remain an essential listen to this day, proving even more so, with the passing of time, that the album still predates and kicked off the start for many other hard-rock and metal bands. While the album still is a reminder of the darker and uglier side of the hippie movement gone bitter but harder, to this day, it still serves as an anthem for those who still truly merit rebellion within their hearts.