UK audiences delivered them six Top 40 hits, including their only Top 10 designation for “Paranoid,” but in the US their highest position was “Iron Man,” reaching number 52. “Paranoid,”only reached 61. No other Sabbath song even charted. So how does a band with no major hits, to speak of, sell 70 million records? By developing a sinister, butt-kicking style and then scaring the crap out of everyone with dark, dark lyrics. It doesn’t hurt to develop an over-the-top reputation for excessive chemical use and outrageous antics either.
Despite many lineup changes that style and those lyrics have stayed consistent making Black Sabbath an instantly recognizable brand. Here is a list of their ten best.
# 10 – Black Sabbath
Sounding more like the audio from a musical horror film, Black Sabbath is claimed by many to be the song that started it all. Reportedly based on a Geezer Butler nightmare, Black Sabbath not only gave the band its name but its feel as well. The demonic sensibility and fiendish story became the trademark of Sabbath from that point forward. Perhaps a bit overly maudlin to some your patience will be rewarded with a classic Iommi guitar groove about four minutes in.
# 9 – N.I.B.
Supposedly a nickname for drummer Ward’s beard, N.I.B. begins with a wah-wah bass solo that slowly descends in volume to the point of near silence before you can physically hear Butler turn up the knob on the amp and kick into the body of the song. Ozzy Osbourne is singing from the perspective of the devil himself as he falls in love and essentially becomes a better person. I don’t know about all that but Tony Iommi’s guitar solo on this track is sick!
# 8 – Planet Caravan
One of the softer songs in the Sabbath oeuvre, “Planet Caravan,” tells the story of a simple romantic getaway…in space. Originally the band was unsure whether to include it on their second album, Paranoid, but has gone on to become a widely recognized testament to the band’s ability to do something other than crush your skull with power chords and distortion.
# 7 – Supernaut
Often overlooked, Supernaut is basically the musical equivalent of a pistol whipping. The guitars hit you from the first note and don’t let up til the end. The fifth track off the album, Vol.4, Supernaut was reportedly a favorite song of Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, and compositional genius, Frank Zappa.
# 6 – Heaven and Hell
The title track off the band’s 9th album, Heaven and Hell was the first recording to feature vocalist Ronnie James Dio after Osbourne had been fired for drug and alcohol abuse. Dio originally came on as both singer and bass player due to personal issues in Butler’s life that were keeping his status with the band in question. Heaven and Hell became the band’s highest charting album, reaching number 28 in the States.
# 5 – Fairies Wear Boots
Listed as “Fairies Wear Boots,” on the album, this song begins with a short instrumental piece entitled, Jack the Stripper. Fairies was released as the fourth single off Paranoid but failed to chart anywhere. The distinct crunch of the guitars and the sporadic grooves have all the hallmarks of a classic Sabbath song. There has been some speculation that the song is about an attack by skinheads that the band witnessed, though Iommi disputes that version and describes its origins as a pot induced afternoon in the park.
# 4 – Neon Nights
The first track on Heaven and Hell, this song was also the public’s first official introduction to Ronnie James Dio and the reformed Sabbath. Neon Knights manages to speed things up while still maintaining that distinct sound that Sabbath fans had become accustomed to. It was, and is, however, distinctively Ronnie James Dio sounding, which is a good thing.
# 3 – Iron Man
The top three songs for Sabbath are basically no surprise. The only real question is which one goes where but there’s very little doubt what comprises their best songs. It’s also worth noting that all three of these songs are from the same record and five of our Top 10 are as well. What this tells you is that if you do not own Paranoid there is a problem that needs to be rectified immediately. “Iron Man,” is Sabbath all the way to its core. The guitars, the teasing grooves, the dark lyrics. What else do you want from a song?
# 2 -War Pigs
Wait, I know the answer to that question. You want it to be “War Pigs,” that’s what you want. Everything about this song rules. The guitar sound is the perfect mixture of dirty and clean. The drums are dry and forward. Ozzy’s vocals are so sharp they almost seem impossibly high. Heck, even the spaces between chords are awesome, with nothing but Ward’s high hat to hold us over til the next retina-detaching blast from Iommi and Butler. Good grief. No wonder Guitar World described this song as the “greatest heavy metal song ever”.
# 1 – Paranoid
Then there’s this one. It’s so simple, so mind-numbingly plain and repetitive, but it could go on forever couldn’t it? The “dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun” sound would not only become a staple of heavy metal bands for the rest of time but it would also become the first thing any long-haired kid would want to learn from his guitar teacher.
The first single off the album of the same name, “Paranoid,” would be the band’s biggest hit in the UK, reaching number 4, while climbing to 61 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. “Paranoid,” is the “gateway” song for people who are intimidated by the heavy sound and dark material Black Sabbath built their reputation around. “Paranoid,” is accessible, thrilling, and, dare I say it, fun?
Photo By Warner Bros. Records (Billboard, page 7, 18 July 1970) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons