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January 28, 2007
Black Sabbath is a joke
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Black Sabbath blows. They're a joke, a cartoon band. Specifically, they are THE ultimate Beavis and Butthead band, as you may remember. That is to say, they're a dumb band for glue sniffing teenage boys who have killed whatever brain cells they may once have had.
I don't want to be mean. The members of the band may be really great guys. Ozzy has become something of a beloved ironic post-modern dad, or whatever the hell that MTV schtick is. I'm sure he's a nice fellow.
Further, I congratulate them on their success. Being a rock star is nice work if you can get it. It beats pumping gas. More power to them.
However, for unknowable reasons, some fairly large number of people not members of or related to the group are apparently under the mistaken impression that they are a classic band. Not just silly teenage boys, but adults who should know better seem to think this. They have been nominated repeatedly now for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is an outrage against any proper ideas of theology and geometry. It's a confederacy of dunces, I tell you.
Even chief muckity-muck Blogcritic Eric Olsen says they belong in the Hall of Fame- over Lynyrd Skynyrd, for crying in a bucket. What? I wouldn't trade you "Simple Man" for the whole Black Sabbath catalogue- much less "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Free Bird." See, those are real SONGS, with memorable MELODY, by a band that could PLAY their instruments.
Let me try to break it down a bit, starting with Duke Ellington, who famously said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." These guys would not have known a groove it came up and bit them on the ass. "Lumbering sludge" describes their ideas of rhythm. Think of "Iron Man" for starters. They certainly didn't make rock and roll. You might call them "rock," but they had no idea of the "roll" part whatsoever.
Even besides the lacking element of rhythm, they were no great shakes as songwriters. They didn't have much in the way of MELODY, which is the most important part of having a real song. They managed to come up with a few modest hooks, to be generous, but they did very little to DEVELOP them. The famous first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony made a decent hook, but even that wouldn't have amounted to anything if he hadn't developed it with bunches of interesting variations and extensions building up on one another.
The melody of "Iron Man" for example consists most of just four notes of two durations. The melody doesn't get much more development than the ham-handed rhythm. Most of the verse melody of "Paranoid" consists of ONE note, for crying out loud. Think through the tune of "finished with my woman cause she couldn't help me with my mind."
For comparison, contrast Black Sabbath songwriting with Duran Duran. Few people would pick Duran as a Hall of Fame worthy band. I doubt I would. However, they achieved more melodic development in "Hungry Like the Wolf" than Sabbath did in their entire career. Plus, this song has far more rhythmic variation and unique pulse to it- more swing- than Sabbath would ever have dreamed.
Dare I even mention HARMONY, the third major musical element? This is the weak suit among even most of the better rock era composers and performers anyway, but Sabbath is below average even from there. Do they know as many as three chords?
Also, these guys were no great shakes as instrumentalists. They were just purely substandard on a basic level of technical skill, for anyone who would be considered serious musicians. They'd be okay for a bar band playing to a couple of hundred drunks on a Friday night, but they're not real musicians. Half of even just the bar bands out our direction could play rings around these guys.
As lyricists, they were mediocre- which makes this their strong suite. They exhibit only marginal skill in this, however. They were never storytellers, like Tom T Hall explaining his "Salute to a Switchblade." Nor would they have recognized a metaphor, such as Paul Simon's trip to "Graceland." They never generated immediately visceral imagery like Robert Johnson running from the "Hellhounds on My Trail." They never approached the fine eye for lyrical detail of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." Lord knows they'd never have dreamt of anything witty, such as "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." Closer to home, they could never mix different emotions together, like Alice Cooper's "Welcome to My Nightmare."
In fairness though, they did manage to at least halfway generate a somewhat unique and recognizable personae. They conjured up a little black magic satanic hokum, mixed with their own brand of paranoid schizophrenia. It wasn't the greatest thing ever, but they did have some flavor.
Defenders of the band might say that they were influential, even that they invented heavy metal. They certainly have been influential, but mostly in a bad way. Lots of bands purposely set out to make humorless sludge, and certainly lots of bands have picked up on their silly satanic schtick. And speaking of satanic, hey- Kenny Rogers was influential, too.
In fairness, the satanic business might have been shocking or provocative when they started doing it 35 years ago. However, there was no depth or nuance to it. Now it's just fodder for Spinal Tap.
As to inventing "heavy metal," I'd rather give credit for that to better bands. Jimi Hendrix, maybe, or Led Zeppelin. Heck, even Deep Purple could get some credit.
Again, I don't want to be a big meany here, but rather I hope to sharpen your music appreciation. If you somehow think that Black Sabbath was a hot band, then you're probably not really getting it when you hear a band that's actually good. Let us hone our critical listening skills.
So, next time you start to reach for a Black Sabbath record, remember that you could just as easily listen to Alice Cooper or Guns 'n' Roses.