By Martin Popoff
Had a dream last night that demonstrated for me that I better knock this book on its head, call it done, quit adding stuff.
I was looking in a rack, sort of outside at my cousins, mounted on a work bench among rusting machine parts, and found an eight-track of Paranoid. First thought was ‘Cool, something else we can take a picture of and shove in the book.’ Then I looked more closely and each song had one of those extra song bits/subtitles I’ve been wracking my head to verify/get straight for the last few days – and they’re all pretty long and silly. Can’t remember them, but I thought with a sly chuckle, “No one knows this – this is new terrain, baby!”
Then, man, right below the art for Paranoid, I see that this is a two-fer! Yes, two albums on one eight-track, the second being… Sabbath Plays Purple. I’ve unearthed something major here, he thinks. It’s the cover of In Rock adapted with the Sabbath guys in there, with slashing Sabbath typography everywhere, the band running through classics from In Rock, Fireball and Machine Head.
My cousin tells me, yes, we’ve got an old eight-track home deck around here somewhere, and it works, and then I wake up.
Anyway, like anything, you gotta know when enough is enough and I’m cuttin’ ‘er off here, today – heck, along with dreaming about Sabbath, man, I don’t know if there is much Sabbath left I can ever listen to again without being thoroughly sick of it (Never Say Die and the Tony Martin records are always the last frontiers).
But it wasn’t always that way of course. I remember first hearing Sabbath and loving it, though finding it a mess. It would have been about ’71 when I was eight, and that mess was the first album, a record that sounded old and not in a good way. Quickly it was onto Paranoid and me an’ the buds were certifiable metalheads, with the most immediate headbang for pups that age being scary monster song Iron Man, which also had a riff dumb enough for us to absorb.
The first Sabbath album I ever bought was Vol 4, and decades later, I realize how smart we were ignoring the guff about the two mellow tracks, realizing this was heavier than the debut, and about as heavy as Paranoid. This was also the heaviest band we knew, our older brothers’ and older cousins’ Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf and CCR (!) records paling in comparison. Significantly, Sabbath was our band, and not the domain of our elders. No real reason, except for the fact that my friends and I were getting these albums first, and not them.
We loved that Oz looked our age, and that the other guys had these big handlebar moustaches, just like our favourite hockey players, Derek Sanderson and Rick MacLeish and maybe some of our favourite Sabres like Rene Robert, Rick Martin and Danny Gare (from Nelson B.C, just up the road from our hometown, Trail). I dunno… maybe none of them had them, but they would have invariably looked cooler if they had.
Anyway, Vol 4 was the first to call my own, then Master Of Reality blew our minds, although I don’t think I had one to cal my own for a while. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath I recall as almost too scary – we’re talking mainly the album cover here – with the music sounding uneasy in a different way, not exactly always heavy, kind of druggy, a concept we didn’t get at all. Sabotage was more of the same, and for some reason, we (the we I often lapse into is myself and metalhead-in-crime and best friend Forrest Toop) talked a buddy into buying it first. We must have had something else to spend our dollars on that day. Anyway, Geoff Cahoon came home with it and we thought Sabbath had made another weird record. It took us a while to get into it. Supertzar was classical, Am I Going Insane was ghey, there were mellow bits they were trying to hide on us (but oh, we found them out). Bear in mind we were only 12. Kiss – Alive! was more our speed (and yes, we were Kiss veterans by this point – Hotter Than Hell was the first bought as an anticipated new release).
Oddly, my favourite Sabotage memory is racing back home on my bike for lunch, hoping intensely as a 12-year-old metalhead in the ‘70s does, that the new Circus had arrived. It did, and it was red, and there was a more than cool shot of Oz in a brown jacket. This was the best Circus cover ever. Better than anything a Kiss shot could conjure. Inside was a Sabotage feature, but groovier was the ad for the album, featuring a bunch of guys in suits perusing a train wreck, sorta 1940s or so. Turns out this had nothing to do with the album art and I was over the moon – my favourite ad ever.
Technical Ecstasy was a grave disappointment, but I soon grew to love it. The cover art mesmerized me and the music depressed me. Never Say Die… I fondly remember staring out our picture window waiting for my buddy across the street, Mark Donaldson, to return from an orthodontist trip to our record buying mecca, Spokane, two hours directly south of us in scary America. His instructions were to locate and buy me Never Say Die and The Saints – Eternally Yours. He was successful on both counts, and Eternally Yours was the slightly better album, a pleasant surprise because it improved on (I’m) Stranded. Never Say Die? I don’t remember being too pleased with it. In fact I recall struggling to hear what was going on on the record, through the noise of it. We were pretty sure it was heavier than the last one, but this would take a mathematical comparison to verify the position.
I do remember thoroughly digging the cover art, as well as the higher gloss put on US copies of albums versus our Canadian issues, along with the less angled way the plant folded and glued them together. Years later I still have my original copy and now it’s signed by all four guys. I have a bunch of stuff signed by all of them, but this is my prized music collectible, simply because the way the autographs are arranged is nothing short of beautiful.
Come Heaven And Hell, and I remember the hype. At 17, I was a friggin’ metal expert and had followed the reports leading up to it. And there it was, a stack of them at Vancouver’s A&B Sound, for a long time all of British Columbia’s favourite place to buy music – literally, without exaggeration, for years, A&B had the cheapest record prices in the world. Can’t remember why I was there, but I plucked one off the stack and flipped it over and there was that oddly aristocratic shot of the band. I liked it, and once home in Trail, loved the album along with a growing Sabbath legion at our high school. We were rooting for Sabbath at this point, even though it was almost dizzyingly disorienting that they had hired Dio. I don’t remember anybody thinking this was sacrilege though. We all loved Ronnie and were rewarded in that love by Black Rainbow turning in a glossy, professional, heavy record.
Years later, I actually prefer its denigrated predecessor Never Say Die. Heaven And Hell sounded manufactured, machine tooled to precision. Never Say Die sounded like a tiny figure skater giving birth to an anvil. Whether it was the end of the Ozzy years or my loss of innocence as an already world-weary encyclopedia of metal, or indeed, metal’s loss of innocence given the commercial prospects afforded the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, I’d never feel that rush again when buying Black Sabbath albums.
But, as you can see, Sabbath had been getting absorbed into my circuitry for a long time, and now I finally get to put together a book on them. And in the spirit of an appreciation, what I’ve done is focus primarily on the music, as I’ve done with previous books, going record by record, song by song, touring touched upon as well. I suppose the main reason I do these books at all is to get a bunch of the known facts down in one place, along with my opinions (because I really, really want to convince you to buy Black Sabbath albums), so I can purge it from my trivia-cluttered head.
And in terms of my trademark if you will, the format you see here is one I’ve used in all my “biographies” thus far, and I see no reason to change it. I’ve always felt that what we can all experience together, and have experienced together, is the actual albums, less so the shows, even less so the makers of the music and their private lives. Additionally, I’ve always felt that a judicious analysis of the albums at hand, if done right, makes you want to revisit those records, hopefully with renewed appreciation given the things learned about them. You’ve spent this money, those records are sitting there. Why not get more use out of them, enjoy them more, mathematically and quantifiably, make yourself happier?
And what would make me happy right now is firing off a couple of lists… no reason, other than I love lists, and, like I said, I want to turn you onto all things Sabbatherian. We’ll keep this simple and traditional; first, my 25 favourite Black Sabbath songs of all time, Ready, set… Killing Yourself To Live, A National Acrobat, The Writ, After Forever, Spiral Architect, Swinging The Chain, Megalomania, Hole In The Sky, Sabbra Cadabra, Symptom Of The Universe, Lord Of This World, Die Young, Shock Waves, Trashed, Hot Line, Hard Life To Love, Back Street Kids, The Thrill Of It All, Born To Lose, Dirty Women, Country Girl, Into The Void, Danger Zone, Gypsy and Neon Knights.
And next, the Sabbath stones ranked best to not so hot: Sabotage, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Master Of Reality, Technical Ecstasy, Never Say Die, Heaven And Hell, Born Again, Mob Rules, Vol 4, Paranoid, The Eternal Idol, Dehumanizer, Black Sabbath, Seventh Star, Cross Purposes, Forbidden and in the pooch spot, Headless Cross.
That was fun… in any event, enjoy the book, hope you learn something, and thanks for letting me wistfully reminisce for a bit. Email me at email@example.com if you wanna say hi. Next stop, Birmingham.