Why art-school toffs never got Black Sabbath

Sabbath 'trod water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry’, and they were all the better for it.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

In the 1970s and 1980s, heavy-metal music was probably the most unfashionable genre out there. Whereas punk and hip-hop were considered edgy and rebellious, metal was music for white, working-class or lower middle-class teenage boys who lived in the suburbs and didn’t have girlfriends. Whereas the likes of the Clash and Public Enemy spoke of police brutality and over-throwing capitalism, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath confined themselves to a geeky realm of dungeons, war, mythology and flying saucers. No wonder the right-on journalists of Melody Maker and NME used to print such taunts as: ‘He had a degree but now he’s a brickie / He likes heavy metal so he must be a thickie.’

‘It was like admitting to liking Coldplay nowadays’, remarked Black Sabbath’s bassist Geezer Butler in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last week: ‘You like them, but you pretend you don’t.’ But last week, Black Sabbath’s new album, 13, went to number one in more than 50 countries, and how fitting that this should coincide with the simultaneous rehabilitation of painter LS Lowry. Like Lowry, heavy metal also used to be comparably dismissed as naif art that was too unsophisticated for the refined palates of metropolitan liberals.

Of course, heavy metal is essentially ridiculous. Consider the opening lines to Black Sabbath’s famous protest song, ‘War Pigs‘: ‘Generals gathered in their masses/ Just like witches at black masses/ Evil minds that plot destruction/ Sorcerers of death’s construction/ In the fields the bodies burning/ As the war machine keeps turning/ Death and hatred to mankind/ Poisoning their brainwashed minds.’ This fare is almost forgivable from a sixth-form poet, yet Sabbath still haven’t grown up. As the music critic Neil McCormack observed recently: ‘Worrying about the “regeneration of your cybersonic soul” would be embarrassing from a teenager but is just kind of pathetic coming from a 64-year-old whose self-exposure in reality television has shown him up to be a clown not a monster’, (a reference to the lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne). The first single from the album, ‘God is Dead?’, has an image of a mushroom cloud and even that of every black-clad adolescent’s favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

‘We wrote a lot of science-fiction lyrics, anti-war songs, songs about pollution, politics’, Butler elaborates. But the critics remained unimpressed with the band’s essentially hippy message (Sabbath had previously been called Earth). In the Village Voice in 1970, Robert Christgau castigated them as ‘the worst of the counterculture [with their] bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything’. Rolling Stone‘s Lester Bangs agreed. ‘Just like Cream. But worse!’, he wrote, dismissing ‘clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence’. He rebuked their 1971 Master of Reality album for its ‘naive, simplistic, repetitive doggerel’.

A famous fictitious review of Spinal Tap’s album, Smell the Glove, went: ‘This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.’ This could apply to most of Black Sabbath’s albums from 1970 to 1975. But so what? These were glorious and imperious albums. And many of their albums from the 1980s could likewise be filed under ‘shit sandwich’.

Most metal fans admit that the genre is inherently ridiculous – this is why the biggest fans of Spinal Tap are metal fans themselves. The same cannot be said for fans of Wagner, Shakespeare or installation art, who often treat their objects with sacred reverence. Invisibility helmets and people turning into frogs? Grown men pretending to be a medieval prince of Denmark? An un-made bed is art? Are you sure about all this?

Heavy metal may be pretentious, but it’s also honest. If you grew up in Aston, Birmingham, you weren’t really bothered about the opinion of what were then called ‘Hampstead liberals’. People who went to art school, like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or boarding school, like the Clash, were well suited for NME and Rolling Stone writers and readers, the types who wanted to slum it with the proles and the ethnics. Unlike Mick Jagger or Joe Strummer, metal musicians didn’t change their accent in speech to suit a public image. Iron Maiden’s founder Steve Harris remains unmistakably Cockney, Def Leppard retained their Yorkshire accents and the voice of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford has West Bromwich stamped all over it.

This is why right-on journalists always mocked metal’s ‘naivety’: it failed to live up to the noble savage stereotype of the working class. Instead of preaching revolution, as they were told, Sabbath merely wrote about things that interested them. Tracks such as ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Killing Yourself To Live’ made open reference to drug experiences, and their songs about war and Vietnam weren’t entire juvenile fantasy. ‘All my brothers were in the army’, says Butler, ‘and we all thought we were gonna get called up as well, to go and fight there’. Osbourne came to lead an excessive lifestyle for the same reason many footballers do so today: if you give loads of money to someone who grew up poor they probably aren’t going to spend it wisely. The liberal-left’s vilification of rich, uppity footballers today is part of a long tradition.

Metal’s rehabilitation is a symptom of something wider. It’s connected to the fact that the middle-classes feel threatened. Hence, being money-conscious, aspiring and middle-class is no longer something to be ashamed of; since being poor has lost its stigma and its exotic ‘otherness’, so ‘slumming it’ has lost its allure. Indeed, snobbery is becoming one of the biggest taboos, which is no bad thing.

As mentioned above, there has been much talk recently of the rehabilitation of LS Lowry. In the Times last week, Stuart Maconie wrote of the artist working in 1920s Manchester: ‘There was something about the chilly, aggressive shabbiness of that difficult decade that made Lowry the perfect accessory for the day… Lowry’s children are… isolated individuals lost in a landscape not of their making; one of rubble, boredom and violence.’ As Lowry himself remarked: ‘I’m attracted to sadness. Everywhere you see suffering and it gets worse. I’ve a one-track mind, I only deal with poverty, only with gloom.’ There were a lot of bombed-out buildings in the Aston in which Black Sabbath grew up. Their Birmingham is the one depicted by Jonathan Coe – a great, grimy city in decline, in an era when the false hopes of the Sixties were starting to turn sour.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence

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Topics Culture


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