Hands Of Doom: Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward looks back on ‘Paranoid’

A storm was brewing on the northwest coast of England around 1969 and 1970, and it was moving inland fast.

The origins of this tempest, however, first stirred in the industrial wasteland of a city called Birmingham, where four scraggly, but wildly creative, young men were transforming the heavy blues of such legends as Cream and Blue Cheer into a new kind of minor-key sonic monster, a ponderous beast capable of pummeling of great pillars into pebbles with immense, explosive guitar riffs, pounding rhythms that buffeted and followed those powerfully struck chords to hell and a singer whose pained howl expressed horrors both real and imagined.
It was a scary, almost apocalyptic sound that both shocked and awed rock audiences in Cumbria, an English county that relied on the bounty of the Atlantic Ocean to eke out what was at times a meager existence. And they loved the devastatingly loud, sludgy dirges and hallucinogenic jams that were blasting out of the rugged amps of a then-unknown Black Sabbath that toured the area hard.

“We’d done a lot of work in northwest England in what they call Cambria,” remembers Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, “and without realizing it we built up quite a fan base in northwest England.” Playing to increasingly packed houses in the region, Sabbath cultivated a rabid, extremely loyal following that Ward believes put its collective shoulders to the band’s foggy, drug-addled, yet crushingly powerful and disturbingly spooky, self-titled debut, released in May 1970, and helped nudge it into the U.K. Top Ten album charts. All of which set the stage for Sabbath’s master stroke, Paranoid, also unleashed in 1970, in September of that year, and the subject of a new Eagle Vision “Classic Albums” series DVD as we approach its 40th anniversary.

“I was just amazed,” exclaims Ward. “I think [our debut] came in at No. 26 out of the Top 30. It was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ And it was something that, after all the years that you are playing on the stage and playing all the clubs, playing all the different places we had to play, comes as a surprise. So it was enormous, really. It was like, ‘Oh, wow. We’ve actually accomplished part of a dream,’ if you like. That was a big part of the dream, to get a hit record.”

But, why Cumbria? What was it about Sabbath’s bleak musical black magic, still in its infancy but growing more and more mature with each performance, that appealed to denizens of the area’s sparsely populated towns?  

Ward explains that, “On the west coast, the northwest coast of England, they’re mainly fishing villages. However, they’re very hard. It’s a very hard life, and it’s very hard weather. It’s a really tough place to be, working in Aspatria, Whitehaven … these are all tough towns. They’re granite. The houses are built of black granite. And so they actually look quite dismal when it’s raining with these black, monolithic houses that exist up there. They paint the landscape with granite silhouettes if you like. But at the same time, you can see the beauty in that as well, but there’s almost a sense of morbidity there that was … I know we were very attracted to playing there. We wanted to be there all the time (laughs). The biggest city in that specific area is Carlisle, and Carlisle is a fortress. It’s a fortress town. It’s right on the border of England and Scotland. So it’s got a lot of pagan history, and it just goes way back in time. And so [Sabbath guitarist] Tony [Iommi] and I used to live in Carlisle. We were in another band, but when we had Black Sabbath, we all loved Carlisle. That’s where a lot of our roots were in the beginning, to play our music. So, I don’t know. The people just, you know, really liked hard-core music.”

That’s putting it lightly. Ward compares Sabbath’s original fans in that area to the more intense ones you’d also find in places like New Jersey and Philadelphia. In other words, they’re extremely passionate about what they like.

“I think it was great in the sense that not much came up to that part of northwest England,” says Ward. “You know, there are rolling hills; it’s called the ‘lake district.’ There are lots of lakes there. There’s not a large population. It’s quite isolated. So, being up there, it was a real treat when a band went up there, and I loved the audiences around that area. And they loved it when rock bands would go up there and visit these different small towns and so on and so forth. It’s just a very fanatical crowd, and I like the Scots. The Scotsmen were the same way.” 

With momentum building among the black masses, Sabbath, true to its blue-collar roots, continued working. Touring was constant, and on the road, the quartet of Ward, Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and iconic metal vocalist Ozzy Osbourne jammed and wrote during the hours when they weren’t onstage. There was a bit of a break, though.

“Yeah, well, what was happening was, as we were playing more and more, we became more and more intuitive toward one another, and so, by the time we’d done our first album, we were continually on the road,” says Ward. “It didn’t stop us from jamming out. You know, we could jam out in hotel rooms. So we’d get ideas all the time.”

Their fertile imaginations working overtime, the men of Sabbath were becoming more and more cohesive as a unit, and when they did get a little window of time to exit the road, they decided to go to Monmouth in Monmouthshire, Wales, for more work.

“We actually took a week or maybe 10 days to rehearse some of our songs,” says Ward. “I’ll give you an example of that. I’ll always remember, we rehearsed ‘Electric Funeral,’ ‘Hand Of Doom’ and I think we did some of ‘War Pigs’ there as well. So we actually had - which had never happened to us before – rehearsals, just writing material for what was to be Paranoid. So, with the combination of having licks and different things in our heads and what have you, and also by now being a very intuitive band, when we played, we knew almost … I can’t describe it. We knew where the other person was going to go. We would often sit down and write something, and we’d all go to the same place at the same time. It was actually a little strange, a little scary. But without being too analytical, it was just something we had as a band that we were able to do that. We knew intuitively when to change, when we were going to go into a different place, you know. So it was really quite a ride in making a Black Sabbath track, you know.”

Deciding on a driver for the trip was easy. Everyone followed Iommi’s lead, the guitar wizard who seemed to be able to pluck innovative, instantly memorable riffs out of thin air. Ward and Iommi, both of them heavily influenced by what Ward called the “incredibly rich soil” of the British music scene of the 1960s, began playing in bands together at the age of 16. In Birmingham, Iommi was, even at that tender age, was as good as any guitarist in the city. In quick order, he moved past them all, fluidly navigating more complex pieces than the blues and rock standards of the day.

“I just watched him all his life, you know; observing from his later teenage years, he just shot up,” says Ward. “He just grew into this young songwriter, this riff master. His uncanny ability to come up with parts and pieces, and just even sometimes [with] three notes, and then they were so devastatingly good, they would just blow the rest of us away. I mean, just playing drums, as far as playing drums to the notes that he was playing, it was a drummer’s dream. It was the best job in the world. But then, of course, it was all about talent [allowed] to flourish when we started making more and more music. But it was a prime growth period for all of us, and definitely for Tony.”

However brief, that short rehearsal period, plus the nonstop gigging, prepared Sabbath well for the tight studio timeframe the band had to record Paranoid. Having booked just two days, Sabbath was ready and willing to work long hours to get the job done, going from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Undaunted, Sabbath was up to the challenge.

“God, we were so weird,” laughs Ward. “I don’t recall us being savvy enough to put that together. It’s almost like we were told that this is what it is, this is what you have fellas. This is what you do. It was like, okay, well, we’ll just do it then. So we just showed up and did it.”

Having engineer Tom Allom and producer Rodger Bain, real recording professionals, onboard helped Sabbath stay on schedule. Allom, for his part, says on the DVD that he knew exactly how to record Sabbath.
“With what he had, and with what Rodger had, I think that they used the tools very well,” says Ward. “You know, we tried to scramble everything to put it all together the best we could. We had some fairly decent microphones, which was the case back in the late ‘60s, around ’69, early ’70. So, I think with the tools that they had and the equipment that they had, they were able to capture at least part of what we sounded like.”
Time being an issue, Sabbath laid down tracks in three takes or less. “I don’t think we’d ever [gone beyond] that,” admits Ward. “I think if we were in Take 4, we’d probably forget the song, you know, because we knew we were on a timeline, and we intended to keep to that timeline, much to Tom Allom and Rodger Bain’s efforts to keep that tight. We knew that’s what we were being given, to try to take every advantage of that. So in that sense, we encouraged each other. We were very pushy towards each other.”
And Sabbath, being the force of nature they were live and always pushing to play at a volume that was troublesome to manage, had trouble adjusting to the confines of the studio.

“This was like the band’s fifth day in a recording studio, ‘cause we were only a couple days with Black Sabbath and now we were doing Paranoid and it was like a few more days for Paranoid,” says Ward. “We were very inexperienced, but what we were at the time was we were a touring band. We were playing live and we were playing loud and we were playing very aggressively. So, for anybody to capture that in a very small studio, with the baffles and the microphones of the day … I remember just my snare drum, they were trying to just get the microphone to not just go into the red and just overpower the microphone, ‘cause I was just playing full strength. You know, I didn’t know how to play in the studio.”

Being young and somewhat naïve about the recording process, Sabbath decided, whether consciously or unconsciously, to sort of mimic the chords and notes Iommi was churning out, and in doing so, they added incredible heft to the overall sound.

“It was whatever Tony was doing, we’d try to enhance, fill and do that,” says Ward. “That was the priority: getting as big a sound as we possibly could. And so, in doing that, keeping that in mind, then we would look at how to create that bigger sound that we had to make it dramatic or dark or hard or critical – any of those things. So, that would be our focus. Whatever we needed to do, whatever the ingredients were note-wise or rhythmically to get to those places, of the latter that I just mentioned, whatever we would do, we’d go wherever we needed to go to get that and just pour all that out.”

That flood intensified tracks like “War Pigs,” the title track and Ward’s particular favorite, “Hand of Doom.”
“It’s just raw and naked, and Ozzy’s phrasing is superb,” says Ward. “I like the fact that we got some of our little jazz things going on in there (Ward being a big fan of drummer Gene Krupa and Iommi being heavily influenced by Django Reinhardt). And we go from our little jazz things to a wonderful dynamic of sheer volume. When we played that live, we used to blow everybody away, because we were playing very, very soft and then suddenly you can hear the amps just rise up, baarrangg … you know, so to me, that’s pure metal.”

If “Hand of Doom” was “pure metal,” the trippy, acoustically sketched out space travelogue “Planet Caravan” was something altogether different.

“I think it was something that we would go to when we needed a bit of peace, and I strongly suspect it was the same formula, as always, which was that Tony had, you know, some kind of a riff going on or some kind of chord, because that’s how things would normally start,” says Ward. “When I listen to that, it sounds like Ozzy immediately caught on to the guitar and interpreted a melody straightaway, so even after 30 seconds of it, we could turn it into a song. Yeah, it was a nice resting spot.”

There wasn’t much rest for the wicked, though, on Paranoid. The album starts with the raging anti-war epic “War Pigs,” which, perhaps surprisingly, has some basis in Sabbath’s appreciation for the Latin-tinged poly-rhythms of a band called The Shadows, whose influence on Sabbath, according to Ward, is subtle but omnipresent.

“That was one that we had rehearsed before, so it wasn’t something that was brand new that we built in the studio or anything,” says Ward. “And we’d already been playing that out, playing it in front of audiences. I thought it was just such a good song live, very compelling. But yeah, I like the way we did play the grooves, especially the top groove … you can feel the jazz influence, only it’s played extremely f**king loud.”
Another song that was honed to perfection live was “Jack The Stripper/Fairies With Boots.” Ward says, “It’s one of the band’s favorites. It always has been. I think it was fairly well recorded. We’d been playing that for quite some time. And it was a fun song to play. Onstage, we got really, really raucous with it.”

Speaking of raucous, the stinging, frenetically paced title track, a classic song that describes, in horrifying fashion, a struggle to maintain one’s sanity, was something unexpected, a last-minute fill-in that Sabbath put together in under half an hour. It all started with an idea in Iommi’s head. As Ward, Ozzy and Butler went to lunch that last day in the studio, Iommi excused himself. He wanted to work on what’s become one of the greatest riffs in rock history, “ … and we followed about 10 minutes later,” recalls Ward. “He was playing the top 30 or 40 seconds of what was going to be ‘Paranoid,’ and so, we didn’t say a word. It was quite subdued actually. I got up there on my drums, Geezer got on his bass, and Ozzy [got] behind the mic, and we just slammed in and took about 20 minutes to do it. And again, I think that’s one of the good things about being a band sharing everything equally and being intuitive to each other. And that’s what can come out. And I think it was 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes, from beginning to end. We recorded it, and then there was an overdub the next day, I think, where Tony played through it, and I played through it.”

Firing on all cylinders, Sabbath, in just two days, had created not only an album for the ages, but they had also drawn up the blueprints for what a genre that become known as heavy metal. Critics, at the time and for years afterward, loathed Sabbath, but they got the last laugh. Paranoid went straight up to #1 in the U.K. and the songs “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” marched into the lower reaches of the U.S. charts.
As for Sabbath, the realization of what they’d accomplished took a while to sink in.

“I guess we must have stopped to enjoy the party and congratulate each other for being No. 1, but I don’t think any of us knew even when we were doing it what that meant,” says Ward. “It must have meant something different for everybody, like ‘Oh, we’re No. 1’ and I was expecting something to happen, like there’d be a bolt of lightning out of the sky or something, you know, and I’ll be invited to see the Queen. The only thing we really thought about was getting a little bit of sleep and making sure we had some food. It’s strange because when it actually happens, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, right. What do we do with this now?”
Sabbath was about to find out.

- Peter Lindblad

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