Ginger Nuts of Horror
THE SUN, THE MOON, THE STARS, BLACK SABBATH, FANTASY, AND THE SATANIC PANIC: A REFLECTION BY BRACKEN MACLEOD
"My friends and I were unwittingly thrust into the center of a dangerous counter-culture, and listening to the songs on Black Sabbath was like hearing the shot heard ‘round the world. It was a rallying hue and cry for teen rebellion."
I grew up in an environment filled with music. Something was always playing either in the car or the house (at least until we got cable—that’s right, not everyone always had cable their entire lives) and so I grew up accustomed to always having music to fill the otherwise quiet moments in life. My mother’s collection of vinyl and 8-tracks included The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, 10CC, Buffy Saint Marie, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Kiki Dee, and Fleetwood Mac.
But what she didn’t have was Black Sabbath...
I had to find them on my own, like most people fear their kids discovering something harmful “on the streets.” There was graffiti around town extolling the virtues of the band, but I didn’t really hear them until I was thirteen and Mtv finally came to our area. For those of you too young to remember, the network didn’t have much in the way of contemporary music videos to fill the time at first, so they played whatever they had, which included a lot of experimental and classic rock. The first time I remember really listening to the band Black Sabbath, was when Mtv played the videos for “Iron Man” and “Paranoid.” Despite the psychedelic visuals which didn’t appeal to me, I was hooked on the sound. Unlike the peace and love ‘60s hippie music which I strongly disliked (I later came to love The Doors, but have never liked The Beatles and still don’t) and disco which was emotionally vacant, there was a magic to the heavy darkness of Black Sabbath which the records in the rest of our collection lacked. Everything else in the house was about peace or partying. Sabbath was about going insane and spacemen made of steel getting revenge.
I saved my money and as soon as I had enough, I ran to the local record shop and started sorting through the tape wall for the right album. I picked out tape after tape looking for the songs I knew and eventually found Paranoid. The cover image didn’t appeal to me as much as other albums did though. Not like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Born Again (the cover to Mob Rules honestly scared me more than a little). Thirteen is an age when looking cool meant as much as being cool. So, based on the mysterious cover and a couple of provocative song titles, I picked up the eponymous album instead. As much as I liked the two songs Mtv had introduced me to (more on that album next time), it was the album Black Sabbath that solidified my lifelong love of the band. There were two reasons I fell in love so hard with that record in particular. The first was fantasy fiction and the second was Satan.
At thirteen, I was an avid fantasy reader and tabletop gamer. I read The Lord of the Rings, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, and Lovecraft, squeezing every drop of pleasure I could out of them. I also played Dungeons & Dragons obsessively. That the second and third songs on the album, “The Wizard” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” were written about Tolkien and Lovecraft’s stories respectively, sealed the deal. That the band sang about the things I loved was an experience I hadn’t had yet as a young music fan. I was too young for psychedelic experiences, free love, and fast cars. But I related to wizards and cosmic dream travel. I would close my eyes and listen to The Wizard, imagining Ralph Bakshi’s Gandalf challenging the Balrog in Moria.
But then I also mentioned Satan, didn’t I?
At the same time I was playing D&D and discovering heavy metal, the Christian right in America was ramping up a nascent moral crusade against a supposed hidden global Satanic underground. Pretty much everything I thought was cool was eventually revealed as evidence of this conspiracy against decent Christendom. My best friend and I would watch videos and read books about the influence a worldwide cabal of Satanists were having on society and people our age, and we would laugh and laugh, because it was so patently absurd to us. We were trying to have fun and escape from our ordinary lives by playing games and listening to music, imagining ourselves as medieval heroes and rock stars. And the earnest opposition of these arbiters of virtue pushed us in a direction toward everything even a little sinister. If they hated it, it must be worth looking at.
And there again were Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. This time, however, it was the title song and N.I.B. that spoke loudest. The dark stories of Satan visiting Bill Ward in his bedroom or Lucifer falling in love were sinister, but were also were clearly meant to be received as stories in the same vein as their nods to Tolkien and Lovecraft. That their sympathies didn’t lie with evil (note Ozzy shouting “Oh no, no, please God help me!” in the middle of “Black Sabbath”) didn’t seem to matter to the preachers. To the religious nutters looking for the devil in every gamebook, lyric, and tritone riff it was enough that darkness was mentioned at all. My friends and I were unwittingly thrust into the center of a dangerous counter-culture, and listening to the songs on Black Sabbath was like hearing the shot heard ‘round the world. It was a rallying hue and cry for teen rebellion.
The Satanic Panic eventually faded as people realized how ridiculous it was (though, not before lots of lives were forever ruined), but that feeling of being a part of something subversive and dangerous never has. As an adult, I feel ever more affinity with this album. Every time I listen to it, I am transported back to that time in 1983 when I first heard it, and was amazed by a rock band that I could relate to. Even the songs on Side B that I haven’t mentioned, like “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games with Me)” and “Sleeping Village/Warning” bring me back to those times. Though not as powerfully visceral in my experience then, or my recollection now, I still loved that a song about frustrated romance (which I was just starting to experience in ’83) and romantic game playing could be communicated with crushing riffs and Ozzy’s plaintive wail. But honestly, it was rewinding Side A that wore that first (and second) tape out. While The Village Voice originally panned the album as “bullshit necromancy,” with songs about high fantasy, cosmic horror, and faux-devilry, Black Sabbath offered me the kind of intellectual kinship that was lacking from their peers’ better received work, and led me toward a lifetime of occult music appreciation.
And I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. You can hear “Black Sabbath’s” influence in both tone and concept in modern retro-metal, occult, and “stoner” bands like Electric Wizard, Lucifer, and Witch Mountain. Ghost, while owing more to Blue Oyster Cult in terms of sound, draws a direct conceptual lineage from songs like “Black Sabbath” and “N.I.B.” on work like “Cirice” and “Ritual.” Even their first album title, Opus Eponymous, can be interpreted as a clever reference to Sabbath’s debut.
There certainly were Black Sabbath albums that had more hits, and more memorable songs by casual listeners, but if you ask me what my favorite Sabbath album is, the answer will always be, “The first one.”