How Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ Defined Heavy Metal As We Know It

Vertigo Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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It’s hard to follow up an instant classic, which Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut certainly was. Armed with a guitar sound like no other, a goosebump-inducing atmosphere, and lyrics about Satan sung by a madman, that album threw wide the gates to rock’s abyss and unleashed pure sonic darkness upon the Earth. And yet, though it possessed unmatched gloom and gravity, Black Sabbath went heavy on the acid-fueled fantasy, its songs about wizards and demonic pacts giving listeners a form of escape at the end of the day. For all their spookiness, Sabbath were confronting only the idea of horror — not horror itself.

It wasn’t until Paranoid came out 50 years ago today that Black Sabbath truly became the revolutionary band we know and love. By employing new rhythms, strange flavors, and most of all harrowing realism, the Birmingham quartet injected rock music with the wickedness it needed to mutate into what we now know as heavy metal. And for millions of fans the world over, it carved out a place in which they’ve felt truly understood.

From the very start of its creation, Paranoid explored darker ground for Black Sabbath. As guitarist Tony Iommi describes in his memoir Iron Man, the band wrote much of the album in Zurich shortly after a show at a wretched club; Iommi recorded his parts with a huge black eye due to a recent fight between the band and a gang of skinheads (Sabbath got their hits in too, Ozzy bludgeoning one neo-Nazi with a hammer). All four of the dudes were smoking a shitload of weed, experiencing their first taste of rock-star excess but not yet so over-indulged as to graduate to harsher drugs. 

More importantly, Sabbath began to tilt their Hammer Horror vibe towards the swiftly-unfolding bummer that was the early ‘70s. The track “Walpurgis,” referencing the ultimate yearly gathering of witches, soon became “War Pigs,” replacing cackling crones with bloated generals with evil minds that plot destruction. The track “Paranoid” used a speedfreak rhythm to illustrate the life of someone who just can’t swallow the world they’re being fed. “Electric Funeral” depicted an otherworldly apocalypse much like the one humanity was living through at the time, while “Hand of Doom” examined the gut-wrenching decay of someone giving their life over to heroin. 

Even the more fantastical elements of the lyrics were imbued with real human struggle. “Fairies Wear Boots” might include lines about seeing dwarves dancing in a window, but in truth it described the broken mind of the era’s acid casualties. Meanwhile, epic mega-single “Iron Man” could be about an immortal robot frozen in time, or it could be about the everyday dirtbag trapped in a culture to which they simply cannot relate. “I suppose there was a serious though behind that,” Iommi recalled of the track, “that somebody living couldn’t get out of that body, couldn’t get out of this thing.” 

When it was released, Paranoid smithed listeners into a new kind of rock fan — more primal, more rabid, overall heavier. The gut-deep repetitive riffs of “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” drove guitarists to try tuning lower and using their instrument as a form of delicious percussion. The bombastic agitation of “War Pigs” and “Hand of Doom” brought in those burnouts and outsiders who weren’t buying any of this flower-power love-heals bullshit of the previous decade. And most of all, its real-world hostility towards the powers at be and society’s judgmental gaze gave everyone out there sick with dope and ‘Nam a theater in which they could witness the real world and recognize their own hopelessness and rage. All of these elements instantly became the core tenets of rock’s loudest, angriest, most terrifying new identity, a genre that in its many forms we still recognize today as heavy metal.

It would’ve been easy for Black Sabbath to follow up their debut with a bunch of songs about witches, spaceships, and Lucifer — and, to the band’s credit, that record would’ve no doubt been pretty rad. Instead, they wrote Paranoid, a haunting vision of the world that was faster, creepier, and realer than what anyone else was making at the time. Fifty years later, the album is as definitive to heavy metal as it’s ever been, helping fans grapple with a world where it seems like every day, Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.


Words by Chris Krovatin