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BLACK SABBATH's "Paranoid" Almost Didn't Make The Record – The Compelling History Behind Their Biggest Single

A massive hit with an interesting, darker side to it.

Black Sabbath 1970

"Naw, we can't do that!" was Ozzy Osbourne's reaction (according to Geezer Butler) after hearing Tony Iommi's riffs for "Paranoid," which sounded much like Jimmy Page's in Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown." 

In Finland, it is customary to yell "Soittakaa Paranoid" ("Play Paranoid") at a live band. It's a riff on the bizarre American tradition of yelling "Play Freebird" (a heckling practice the late comedian Bill Hicks referred to as "the mantra of the moron") at a live band. And this is merely one of many stories related to Black Sabbath's 2:48 second metal masterpiece "Paranoid." The band's biggest hit of their entire career which, according to members of Sabbath, only came to be because they needed to make the album a bit longer. According to drummer Bill Ward, noted in the 2015 book Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, whipping the head-pounding jam together took less than 30 minutes. Other members of Sabbath have varied recollections. When listening to the recording, Geezer Butler (who wrote the lyrics), along with Ozzy were both unsure about "Paranoid," as it sounded very similar to Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown." In a 2018 interview, Ozzy reiterated he wasn't even entirely sure what the word "paranoid" even meant at the time. Eventually, Ozzy asked Butler (much to the bassist's surprise) to explain the definition of the word to him in 1971. Oh, how the mythology and legend of Ozzy Osbourne never, ever disappoints – much like the history that went into making "Paranoid" and its enduring influence in metal, popular culture, and beyond. So, in no real particular order, let's get to the time Frank Zappa almost joined the band on stage in 1976 to perform three songs with Sabbath that he had previously learned to play. One of the songs was allegedly "Paranoid," a jam the band saved for their encores.

Frank Zappa was on team Black Sabbath early on, praising the band and specifically the song "Supernaut" from the group's 1972 powered-by-cocaine album Vol 4. As far as Sabbath goes, Geezer Butler was a Frank Zappa superfan whose life was "changed" after hearing Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention when he was still a teenager. Tony Iommi spoke about Zappa's love for Sabbath's "Snowblind" (also Vol. 4), and detailed the events of the show at Madison Square Garden in December of 1976 – the night Zappa was set to take the stage with Sabbath (after learning three of their songs). The plan was devised during Zappa's annual Thanksgiving dinner which was quite the rock and roll shindig. Frank had invited Geezer and Ozzy to his special Thanksgiving dinner in 1976 during which conversation turned to Zappa joining Sabbath on stage to perform two songs, "Iron Man" and "Paranoid" during the band's encore. 

Unfortunately, Sabbath wasn't at the top of their game that night. In addition, Zappa hadn't been summoned for the show's soundcheck. Zappa told his version of the night's events to Sounds journalist Hugh Fielder saying when he showed up, Tony Iommi was having issues with his guitar strings and, at the last minute, changed them out. At this point, the crowd of 20K had been milling around for over an hour waiting for Sabbath to get going. And though there was a stack of sweet Marshalls waiting for Zappa on stage, he would only end up introducing Sabbath that night. Iommi recalled things a bit differently in his book Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven And Hell With Black Sabbath, echoing the notion Sabbath was not in top form and advised Zappa that joining them would've been "disastrous." Recordings of the show exist and at least one unofficial release – Black Sabbath: Archangel Rides Again, where you can hear Zappa's banter including describing Sabbath as the "rockin' teenage combo known to the universe as Black Sabbath." Understandably, the crowd went fucking bananas. Later, Iommi would take in Zappa's show in Birmingham (noted in Iron Man), during which Zappa and The Mothers launched into a cover of another of Frank's favorite Sabbath songs, "Iron Man."

This brings me to this strange piece of ephemera which at first glance, appeared to be a four-song 7" pressing of cover songs performed by Zappa and various members of his band. Pressed in Thailand, the four songs on the 7" are all covers, including "Iron Man." Initially, this made me go hmmm, however, after finding images of the oddball pressing, it seems safe to say someone in Thailand got the idea they could sell more unauthorized records with the help of Frank Zappa's mug. 

Bassist Geezer Butler is Sabbath's primary lyricist whose many credits include "Paranoid." Quite literally a lyrical and musical wizard, Butler has been very open about the inspiration for "Paranoid" as it relates to his personal experience with depression. Butler suffered from it long before people talked about the struggle openly, or were properly diagnosed/treated for it. He would resort to cutting himself in order to bring himself "out" of his depression. Being on the road made things worse for Butler, specifically when it came to finding food to eat, as he was Sabbath's lone vegetarian, leaving him with few options when it came to meals on tour. Just prior to writing "Paranoid" Butler lost a few close family members which didn't help matters.

Undiagnosed, Butler was left to grapple with his emotions on his own, translating them to Sabbath's lyrics in an effort to try to understand them. With the lyrical simplicity and directness of "Paranoid" as a vehicle, Butler would attempt to differentiate "between depression and paranoia" exacerbated by his drug use. In this case, his use of marijuana would cause him to become paranoid and unable to "relate" to people. When the effects of the weed wore off, Butler would become depressed. And on at least one occasion, his depression helped him create "Paranoid," a song from an album that was also in part a response to the hippy movement and the music and lifestyle associated with it. Ozzy explained this rather perfectly in an interview from 1992 – likely relatable to the members of Black Sabbath who all came from humble means and blue-collar, working-class families in Birmingham. Here's Ozz with some words of wisdom for those free-loving barefoot hippies: 

"My father worked nights, my mother worked days, we had no money, we never had a car, we rarely went on holiday. And suddenly, you know, we hear about 'If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear a flower in your hair.' And we're (the members of Black Sabbath) thinking, 'What the fuck is San Francisco? Where is this? What's all this flower shit? I've got no shoes on my feet." 

What really makes Ozzy's comment here compelling is it is actually the truth. In fact, the first time Butler met Ozzy, the future Black Sabbath vocalist appeared on his doorstep sans shoes and socks. On the other hand of doom, Butler was actually into the whole hippy movement for a short time and spent a couple of years with flowers in his hair at the UK's first few Festival of the Flower Children festivals in Woburn Abbey starting in 1967. Butler's flower-power days wouldn't last once he came to realize the movement wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Luckily for us, Butler would use his disenchanted experience as a long-haired bohemian as fuel for his lyrics on "Paranoid." 

As a song, Butler, Ozzy, and Iommi all had their doubts about "Paranoid." After hearing the recording of "Paranoid," both Ozzy and Butler took a hard stance against releasing it, causing a temporary rift within the band. The idea that "Paranoid" sounded (to Ozzy and Butler) so much like Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown" had the pair convinced it would not be received positively by their fans. Upon hearing what has since become one of the single-most recognizable guitar-riffs in the history of heavy metal, Tony Iommi called his work on "Paranoid" horrible. His negative assessment of the solo that made it onto "Paranoid" was based on how it sounded after producer Roger Bain added ring modulation – the often noisy multiplication of audio signals – altering the solo he performed. This leads us to the next issue with "Paranoid," which was released as a single by their label Vertigo/Universal Music Group without consulting the band first. Sabbath had no interest in being the kind of band that released "singles." In an interview with the Record Mirror in November of 1971, the members of Sabbath collectively "banned" the release of any future Black Sabbath singles calling "Paranoid" their "first and last" single. 

Of course, the label's move to release "Paranoid" as the first single from the album would prove to be the right one. At least when it came to album sales, and both the song and album's chart positions. The success of "Paranoid" was undeniable, but not everyone was into it. Like legendary DJ and early champion of Black Sabbath, John Peel. According to Tony Iommi in an article published in the Record Mirror in 1972, Peel soured on the band after "Paranoid" became a huge hit. Acid-tongued music journalist and critic Lester Bangs dubbed the band "unskilled laborers" who wrote "inane lyrics" while paying "doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley." In a Rolling Stone's review of Paranoid, journalist/critic Nick Tosches used the phrase "bubble-gum satanism" to emphasize his loathing of Paranoid for the magazine's readers. Fifty years on, and the album (and the band's) only single are two of the greatest things to ever happen to heavy metal and music in general. You will always find both the album and "Paranoid" on lists that attempt to compile the greatest albums and songs in the genre of metal and rock. This will likely be the case a long time from now. 

There is another piece of rather grim history concerning not just "Paranoid" but also the record itself. As Tony Iommi briefly touched on in his book Iron Man, sometime in the early 1970s the news was that a nurse had committed suicide, and when she was found, Paranoid was still spinning around her turntable. It had been reported that the terrible event occurred in the U.S. or, according to Iommi (as noted in Iron Man), in England. At one point during the investigation, the theory the album influenced the actions of the nurse was proposed – that the songs on Paranoid were the cause of her depression and suicide. The notion Black Sabbath was in any way responsible for her death would quickly be dismissed.

If for some reason your music collection does not include Paranoid, the good news is the record has been reissued many times over the decades. The most recent reissue, Paranoid: Super Deluxe Edition (Rhino, 2020), includes not only the original album, but four other vinyl pressings; a sick quadraphonic mix of Paranoid, as well as two live recordings captured in Montreaux, Switzerland and Brussels. You also get a sweet collection of extras such as a hardcover book featuring new liner notes and interviews with all of Sabbath's original members, and a poster-sized replica of the Paranoid tour book. It's well worth tracking down if you didn't pick it up in 2020.

Let's end this Black Sabbath history lesson by watching a few videos. First up is footage of Sabbath shot in Belgium in stark black and white. The video was shot for Vertigo Records and features Vertigo's trippy early spiral logo spinning around in the background. Next is color footage shot in front of a green screen originally aired on the German TV show Beat Club. The video features an aggressive live recording of  "Paranoid" making it appear Sabbath is playing live. Lastly, we have footage of Sabbath performing live in Brussels at Theatre 140 on October 3rd, 1970. This also happens to be the same performance in Brussels included in Rhino's box set. The footage, which is nothing short of fucking incredible, includes some very cool candid moments and interviews with the band. It would later be broadcast on Belgian television in 1971 for the show Pop Shop

(Official video for Vertigo Records, 1970)

The official video for 'Paranoid' filmed for Vertigo Records, featuring the label's famous white spiral label spinning around behind the band.

'Paranoid' (Beat Club, 1970)

Black Sabbath live during the Paranoid tour in Brussels, October 3rd, 1971. Geezer Butler was the oldest member of Sabbath at the tender age of 22. 

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