Monday, February 20, 2012

Dispelling the "Satanic" Metal of The 70's - Black Sabbath

I wrote this article about two years ago, and it still holds firm. Enjoy.

While I don't really remember the first time I ever heard Black Sabbath, I do know that I grew up listening to a good amount of them. The first song I recall hearing is "Paranoid". It would either have to be that, or "Black Sabbath".

In my experience here in Canada, either someone knows every detail of my background or they know nothing. So to clarify, I came from a very Christian based religious background. Not my parents, though Christian they are/were, my grandparents and other whatever you want to call them on my dad's side were very strict Christians. Strict enough that even The Power Rangers were considered satanic since they obtained power from a source other than "God".

But growing up with my parents I became very familiar with the metal and rock from the 60s, 70s, and even the stuff from the 80s which I still don't touch with a ten foot pole *cough* WHITE SNAKE *cough* and I also was made very abundantly aware by other people the controversies that surrounded these bands. So what better place to start, than Black Sabbath. The band who pushed me to further explore metal as a whole.

This is something I've been wanting to do for a while. Because one of my pet peeves are people who judge something, or someone based upon it's/their looks. And most controversy that surrounds Black Sabbath is based on their appearance, and stage set up. With the "satanic" images portrayed upon the stages and on the album covers, the name ALONE suggesting the sabbath day is a black day, they must be satanists set upon damning ones soul to hell, right? Not to mention those people who LOVE to pick and choose verses and see it separately than as a whole.

With their muddy, sludgy, generally slow riffs (Excluding some awesome songs such as The Wizard, After Forever, Paranoid, ect) they were considered "Doom" Metal.

Lets take a moment to examine some songs, and later we'll get into album covers and appearances.

Just for shits and giggles lets take the lyrics from one of the more popular, controversial songs "Black Sabbath" from their debut, self titled album.

"What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn 'round quick, and start to run
Find out I'm the chosen one
Oh no!

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan's sitting there, he's smiling
Watch those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me!

Is it the end, my friend?
Satan's coming 'round the bend
people running 'cause they're scared
Yes people better go and beware!
No, no, please, no!"

We can plainly see, the lyrics are about Satan and him wanting to take a soul. But honestly. Can this song really be perceived as satanic? As dark as it may be, most satanic/black metal embraces Satan, and don't run from him. Like the person portrayed in this song, who also asked for God's help. But since it centers around Satan, I guess it's evil. Even though portions of the Bible center around Satan, I guess that is okay, just as long as it is not music.

Moving on.

Since we've explored a song which in most eyes can go one way or another, I've decided to pick my absolute favorite Black Sabbath song to date. "After Forever", from the 1971 release Masters of Reality. Let's take a look.

Have you ever thought about your soul - can it be saved?
Or perhaps you think that when you're dead you just stay in your grave
Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you?
Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?

When you think about death do you lose your breath or do you keep your cool?
Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope - do you think he's a fool?
Well I have seen the truth, yes I've seen the light and I've changed my ways
And I'll be prepared when you're lonely and scared at the end of our days

Could it be you're afraid of what your friends might say
If they knew you believe in God above?
They should realize before they criticize
that God is the only way to love

Is your mind so small that you have to fall
In with the pack wherever they run
Will you still sneer when death is near
And say they may as well worship the sun?

I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced
Will you be so sure when your day is near, say you don't believe?
You had the chance but you turned it down, now you can't retrieve

Perhaps you'll think before you say that God is dead and gone
Open your eyes, just realize that he's the one
The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate
Or will you still jeer at all you hear? Yes! I think it's too late.

This song taken in parts, can obviously be seen as bashing religion in its many forms. Wholeheartedly I feel that most religious extremists would stop listening all together, or tune out the rest of the lyrics after the line
"Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope - do you think he's a fool?". Not taking this line in the context of a question, especially. As we can continue reading on the lyrics begin to delve into something light. The fact that someone has indeed found a higher power and is questioning a person who either is too embarrassed to admit their religion in front of people, or someone who is still figuring out their religious beliefs, or someone who all together has turned down religion without giving it a serious thought.

Anytime someone tries to tell me Black Sabbath paved the way for Satanic Black Metal, I retort with this song and say "Maybe in image and song structure, but not lyrically." Even in image, they didn't really, but there are some aspects of imagery that they used that are "dark".

Let us bypass the ghostly image of John Michael Osbourne standing in front of the decrepit house on the debut album art, and go to 1974 when "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" was released. Which I literally hold in my lap on original release vinyl, straight from the 70s from my inherited personal collection.

On the front of the LP, in all shades of red we see a man laying on a bed, around his neck is a serpent choking him and he is surrounded by what appear to be hellions, demons, devils. His bed frame has turned into a skeleton with long arms, reaching out to grab him. At the skeleton head, we can see what appears to be the headboard shaping to horns. The foot board into actual feet with claws holding orbs and his headboard portrays the oh so well known number of the beast, 666.

Dark imagery, no doubt about it and without sarcasm in me saying that.

In fact. I recall when I was a kid, my mom always kept these albums in a cabinet on a bookshelf. I would wait until she went to run errands or she want to take a nap and start looking through them. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to look at the album art on these vinyl records. Since I thought I would get in trouble, that's why I always waited. I picked this album up several times and it intrigued me. Never once did I look on the back. The front of the album art always got me studying it intently.

I also recall, many years later when packing these things up for my move to Canada, having the people I'm related to on my dad's side stand over my shoulder as I packed up these albums. And again, a small smile crossed my face as I packed this one. They however saw it, and noticed right away the evil number located on the front. Needless to say, they had choice words about Black Sabbath.

When you turn this nearly 40 year old LP around. The imagery takes on a very different tone. Though not as interesting, at least to my eye, the same man is laying in bed. Facing upwards this time, before he was facing down. There's an over all blue tone to the art, with hints of yellow and green. There are figures all around him. Mostly women this time, even a little girl and a man reaching out for his hand as he cries on the bed. In the background, faintly you see a built body. No head, but his arms outstretched, and I'm going to say to me that reminds me of a higher power. His bed frame now has wings and two sleeping lions at the foot board seeming to guard him. The representation of angels and heaven.

The point I'm getting at, is that if you only look at the base of something and judge it, you're judging falsely. Though we're not supposed to judge at all, who are we to judge anyway? The representation of both Heaven and Hell is apparent. But why represent Hell at all? Well I can say honestly if it was just the back picture on this album when I went into a store in the 70s and was going to pick up some metal, I would bypass it. Hell, I still would.
Most people want things that are interesting, controversial. Not monotone, and mundane. But in no reasoning do I believe music should be judged on cover art. In fact, not ONCE on that record is Satan mentioned, nor referenced, nor are there any lyrics given to misinterpret as satanic.

Plus, lets face it. Most people in the 70s did drugs. They NEEDED something interesting to look at. That was a joke, you can laugh, its okay.

But this does bring me to my final thought on this subject for this band. Live props and appearances.

In all of the live 1970's videos I have watched for Black Sabbath. Do you know what I've seen? Crosses. The kind that are right side up and NOT satanic. I also see Ozzy Osbourne giving the ever abundant peace signs, and not the "satanic devil horns", which if I remember correctly only came later in his solo career. I see Geezer Butler wearing a white shirt with a black cross. And I also see every band member wearing aluminum crosses. The story behind those? A satanic cult wanted Black Sabbath to play at Stonehenge. When they declined, the cult informed the band they placed a hex on them and Ozzy had his dad construct the crosses for the band to wear, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. 

I also see a lot of really, REALLY ugly bell bottoms.

Most say "Black crosses, that means evil." Does it? So you're saying the device that was created to torture and kill many people, including Jesus Christ is supposed to always be seen as white, gold or silver? I didn't know color mattered. I always thought it was the upside down cross that was blasphemous.

In the shows, particularly in 1975, the huge cross hanging above drummer Bill Ward shines brightly in the light as it is lined with gems.

Now while this article only covers 5 years of the Black Sabbath career, I don't LIKE Black Sabbath after Ozzy left in 1979. I don't LIKE Dio. And if I spent time reviewing the span of their immense career, we'd both be here all day. Me writing and you reading.

But I feel I've dispelled a good chunk of the darkness that surrounds Black Sabbath, their lyrics, the art, and their style.

Things to take away from this:

1. Satanic metal embraces Satan.

2. Satanic members wouldn't wear right side up crosses fearing being hexed from a Satanic cult.
3. Art, in visualization, shouldn't be the basis for judgement on an album, artist, book, etc.
4. See the whole instead of the part.
5. Open your mind.


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