Paranoid at 50: Celebrating the balm for "beaten-down listeners" in Black Sabbath's classic record

In this Joe Sweeney Guardian piece on the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath's second album, Paranoid (released on September 18, 1970), he pays touching personal tribute to the record and how it got him through Catholic school.

I've never felt more alone than when I was walking those halls, my white dress shirt littered with streaks of black and red ink. It seemed like all I had was my Walkman, which I would blast at top volume, searching for understanding. I found it all over Paranoid, an album that stuck up for the downtrodden while spinning ominous hooks into delirious, rampaging jams. I didn't know that I was listening to the band that introduced this specific form of hard rock alchemy to the mainstream. I just knew that it made me feel better.

Like him, I too was an awkward Catholic kid who used to steel myself against the indignities of high school each morning by blasting Sabbath and Led Zeppelin into my brain before heading to the bus stop.

Sweeney also foregrounds the working-class Birmingham roots of the band and the unappreciated influences of that upbringing.

Geezer Butler, Sabbath's bassist and main lyricist, may have had the most fully formed political opinions of the group, but they all understood what it meant to struggle, growing up in postwar Birmingham, a city haunted by the aftermath of 77 Nazi air strikes that killed more than 2,000 people. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne grew up with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD in a row house with no toilet, wandering through the ruins of bombed-out homes, dropping out of school at 15. Guitarist Tony Iommi also dropped out at 15, only to cut off the tips of two fingers on his last day of a welding job, forever altering the way he played. Butler grew up in a strict Catholic household and "didn't realise that people had hot water" in other neighbourhoods. Drummer Bill Ward learned his craft at a young age because the guy who set up a kit at his parents' house parties was often too drunk to break it down at the end of the night.


These Dickensian realities shaped Sabbath's sound in ways that would make them notably different than the hundreds of other bands melding blues and psychedelia in 1970. Perhaps the most famous moment of Paranoid can be traced back to Tony Iommi's workplace catastrophe. He achieved his uniquely deep guitar sound by tuning the instrument down a half-step, which made the strings looser and therefore easier on his injured fingers. (Iommi further blunted the pain by wearing form-fitted "thimbles" made out of melted plastic.) Hence, we get the groaning siren of doom that is the opening note-bend to Iron Man – a fascinatingly economical bit of mood-setting that communicates a sense of dread more effectively than a thousand arpeggios.

Read the rest of the piece here.