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February 06, 2007


Reader Defends Black Sabbath
Got a response from a reader to my column "Black Sabbath Is a Joke." In the spirit of fairness, here's the rebuke from Racer, who says:
Obviously you have not heard enough of Black Sabbath's catalogue to judge their music, nor have you a good grip on the history of hard rock and where heavy metal branched off to become its own genre. Led Zep, Purple and Hendrix influenced metal, but they are not metal anymore than are Blue Cheer, the MC5 or the Stooges.

I noted the Dolly Parton link on your page; stick with what you know! Regarding Lynyrd Skynyrd ... well, you're entitled to your opinion. Personally I don't prefer them to many artists at all; they neither created anything new, nor did they do anything exceptionally well, in my humble opinion.

I'm sorry that you choose to judge a band based on two examples. I'm also sorry that you don't appreciate them. You're entitled not to like them.

Oh, and by the way - I'm a professional, own my own business, live very, very well and am almost 50 years old. Spare me your categorizations of fans, and I'll spare you my true feelings about the absolute redneck inbreds I've in the past met who just love Skynyrd.

My response:

Racer, I seem to have cheesed you off by presuming to criticize your fave band. I didn't really intend on being personally disrespectful to you as a fan, however - particularly considering that I don't know you. However, I appreciate that people take their favorite music very personally, so it's cool if you're a little miffed. I understand that poking at someone's sacred cows (or in the case of Black Sabbath, UNsacred cows) might cause some consternation. Hey, I catch myself getting a little pissy when some idiot occasionally tells me that Prince or Elvis Costello - my top heroes - are no-talent bums. So that's fine.

Dolly Parton on Hee Haw, 1975 image
Returning that poke hopefully rather more gently though, I am rather less than impressed that a Black Sabbath fan would pick Dolly Parton as an example of hick music that is beneath them. Oh, like Ozzy is a more thoughtful and substantive artist than the author of "Jolene" and "Little Sparrow."

But you're not really making a substantive argument about music. It's only the first paragraph where you are actually addressing music at all.

That might have been more instructive if you had filled it out. Now, as you perceptively recognize, I'm something of an inbred redneck, an ignorant Lynyrd Skynyrd listening Kentuckian. As Lonesome Rhodes would say, shoot - I'm just a country boy. Perhaps you can educate me.

Facetiousness aside, perhaps you could in fact improve my understanding by explaining your statement. Obviously there are lots of stylistic differences between the various artists you list, but I'm not sure how significant they are to this discussion. To me, most of those bands are pretty much playing aggravated electric blues scales - some of them (Hendrix) obviously much better than others (Stooges). Broadly, they all sound like "heavy metal" to me.

So here are some questions you (or other readers) can answer that might sharpen the proper understanding and appreciation of music for both of us, starting with: What is your practical musical definition of "heavy metal"? What is it that I should be listening for that would tell me that this is "heavy metal" versus some other genre? Specifically, what is it that makes Black Sabbath "heavy metal," but not Led Zeppelin - whom I would generally think of as the main original codifiers of the genre? What would be the proper genre classification for Zeppelin or Hendrix or Deep Purple? And where do Van Halen fit into this picture? Enquiring redneck minds want to know!

To which, Racer responds:

Sir, I'm glad that you appreciate it when somebody sticks up for their favorite artists. By the way, my favorite songwriter is Elvis Costello ... given his wide range of styles and influences it amazes me even more that would pick on any musical artist or genre. Obviously you missed the photos of the original Napoleon Dynamite chumming it up with Sharon Osbourne at the Rock 'n' Roll hall of Fame induction.

And I never said Dolly Parton was beneath me; I simply stated that you should stick with something you know best. After all, Al, anybody who would offer "Welcome to My Nightmare" as the best Alice Cooper example when there are infinitely better selections from which to chose on his albums Love it to Death, Killer, School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies, shouldn't be acting as a music critic in the hard rock/heavy metal genre.

Why is Led Zeppelin hard rock and Black Sabbath heavy metal? Why isn't Humble Pie's version of "I don't need no doctor" on Rockin' the Filmore heavy metal? To be perfectly honest, it's a tough call, and although most (certainly not all) have come to the conclusion that Zeppelin is hard rock and Sabbath are metal, not everybody agrees. Obviously, however, enough people agree that Black Sabbath are now widely recognized as the band that pushed hard rock over the edge ... and at the bottom of that cliff was heavy metal.

In my opinion the album you used to criticize Black Sabbath is the first true metal album ever made. The difference is in sheer heaviness, the liberating ability to go against usual songwriting norms (such as Black Sabbath's use of tempo changes), and the use of "implied beat" rather than the usual 4/4 snare snap.

Keep in mind as well, Al, that to a fan of the band it's obvious that you don't care for their music and have rushed to judgment. Like you have had to, I'm sure, I've spent plenty of days defending Declan McManus (Elvis Costello - but you knew that) from those who didn't like his voice (which admittedly is an acquired taste) and so dismissed everything he's done out of hand ... they didn't like "My Aim is True" so they completely missed out on the beautiful tapestries of "Imperial Bedroom" or the Motown colorings of Get Happy.

You hated Paranoid, so you missed the positive anti-drug and pro-religious commentary on Master of Reality, and the progressiveness of the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath record, which featured Rick Wakeman on keys. Plus the fact that only mention Ozzy as a vocalist, it's obvious you're not in tune with other eras of the band, which did see incorporated the use of intricate guitar and vocal harmonies.

You seem to like Alice Cooper ... so why allude to Sabbath's name as if it's some satanic cult? The name comes from a Boris Karloff horror movie. They chose to make dark music to reflect the urban decay from which they came. There was nothing satanic about it, and positive messages are laced throughout their work, the body of which I am sure you never gave a listen. Plus Black Sabbath is a band that, unlike Alice Cooper (who I also enjoy), never relied (or had to rely) on theatrics; while Alice Cooper was smashing plastic dolls onstage to the tune of "Dead Babies," Black Sabbath vocalists performed with nothing more that perhaps a cross hung behind the band as a prop ... no gimmicky stage show whatsoever. Oh, and by the way, the Black Sabbath song "After Forever" has been dubbed the first Christian Metal song ever recorded ... about 25 years before bands were actually trying to exploit that genre (Stryper comes to mind).

Lack of harmonies? Weak shot, Al, as they certainly are not alone as far as bands that didn't overdub vocal harmonies in 1970. Lack of groove? That's not accurate, either, I just don't think you get it and nothing I say will convince you.

Lack of melody is simply wrong. The examples you cite obviously were used because they were the commercial successes of the band in the early years and would be familiar to your readers. But being an Elvis Costello fan, you must know that those corporate people who push songs and artists to the top do not usually push the best work - they push the more easily accessible work.

The most important aspect of Black Sabbath's music is the powerful, in-your-face guitar - a lot more so than Page was in Zeppelin, or Blackmore in Deep Purple's popular incarnation. The guitar is why Van Halen is (or was in the beginning) heavy metal. The plodding, powerful repetitive nature of the music also differentiates it from most hard rock.

And some of it is just attitude. Black Sabbath didn't care what people thought, and didn't care if they composed a lot of songs that didn't follow a normal verse-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus song structure. There is a fine line ... in fact, the members of band are the first to say that they see themselves as a hard rock band and nothing more.

But no other band can say they influenced as many bands that followed. Go look up the biographies of a dozen hard rock bands that were formed from 1974 until today. Find out what band is listed most as an influence. In the genres of hard rock and heavy metal, it'll be Black Sabbath. The fact that you don't prefer them doesn't take away from their influence, especially among the people who are creative enough to want to make music of their own. You just shouldn't be criticizing something that you really don't get.

Metallica have been called the Led Zeppelin of our day. Watching the members of Metallica get choked up talking about what Black Sabbath meant to them and how much the band influenced them at the Hall of Fame induction should show you ... this band means something to people.

I share your love of Elvis Costello. When I go to an Elvis Costello show, it's more than just going to a good concert performed by a brilliant songwriter; I'm enjoying something that's MINE, because the majority of people just don't get it. It's the same thing with Black Sabbath. For those of us who literally grew up with them, they belong to us. That heavy, brooding music was special; it had power. And that power is what makes it metal. Forget your "whole Lotta Love" ... I'll take Iron Man coming back from the grave for revenge anyday of the week.

I'll apologize for my Lynyrd Skynyrd comments; they were (and are) a competent band. But I never said Dolly Parton was beneath me, Al; in fact, Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison CD has been playing on my computer all day as I work. I appreciate various styles without criticizing them. ... I just don't think Black Sabbath is your taste in music. That's fine. Personally I cannot listen to much rap. Oh, and I do enjoy Dolly Parton, by the way. ;-)

Ol' Al responds: Thanks Racer, that's much more specific and useful detailed testimony. Sorry if I's a bit overly adamant in my defense of Dolly - but I must defend a lady's honor! :)

Also, another thoughtful reader, Karl writes:
You said...

"..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."
"..they're a dumb band for glue sniffing teenage boys who have killed whatever brain cells they may once have had...”

I love Sabbath, I like a lot of Skynyrd, love Zeppelin, love lots of Deep Purple, love SRV, love Hendrix, some Prince, some Parton, lots of Duran Duran, however I don't see why enjoying any particular band relegates one to being glue sniffing brain deads. I like different bands for different reasons. There is more to Black Sabbath than their name and the material released in the early 70s, but, if you don't like Sabbath, that's your loss.

What's Heavy Metal? No one knows, it’s like saying 'what’s dance music?' its different things to different people. For me Hendrix and Led Zeppelin are border line Heavy Metal, where as Sabbath are closer to the truth, however, even Sabbath are a little too eclectic for me to say that they are totally Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal is an attitude, rather like Southern Rock, Punk or Blues, it's a lifestyle AND a form of music.

You site Freebird as a good example of a good quality music, yet it's straight forward musically, with mediocre vocal and lyrics (I still love it however, but I don't perceive music as a competition). Ed King's out of key solo on Sweet Home Alabama is interesting, yet the song is plain simple (again I still like it). Put it this way, when I was hammering out Iron Man or Paranoid on my acoustic guitar all those years ago, I was also playing with the simple rhythms of those two classic Skynyrd songs.

Why Sabbath? In Sabbath they only need one guitar to get the power needed in their material.


Thanks again fellows for your thoughtful comments. Between you, I almost start thinking maybe I haven't given Sabbath perhaps 100% proper consideration. Maybe I'll have to dig up We Sold Our Souls out of the archives and give it another spin these years later.

Keep those cards and letters coming! Maybe some of y'all can learn me something yet.

posted by Al at 2/06/2007 02:53:00 PM

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