We had peaked early. Saturday afternoon: pub then football.
We went to see the Albion but then caught up in a fracas with Blues fans while drinking in Birmingham City Centre again after the game. The shout of ‘Zulu’ went up and the pub emptied as if some sort of apocalypse had just hit. Then it was off for a curry and then back to my digs tired and jaded, it was about eight o’clock in the evening and it felt like the day was over.
By then the weather had matched our mood as a thick fog had descended on the city…Birmingham bleakly receding into a chilly autumn night. Trying to rescue the evening I put on an album I had recently bought in a jumble sale, a ‘best of’ set from Black Sabbath. Sabbath were a band that I had always dismissed, a band who existed before my year zero: 1976. They were a group who to me were ageing rock stars unable to compete with the new raging of Johnny, Joe and Jean-Jaques. I was twelve then and interested in the now. If there was no future there was no past either.
And so it remained for twenty two years until that night in Birmingham, one of those moments when you can close your eyes many years later and see how it was, or at least your version of it. As we stood smoking in the front garden staring into the abyss of the night we heard the likes NIB, Paranoid, War Pigs, Iron Man and Black Sabbath blast from the speakers as if for the first time, and, we both somehow got it…we could not explain it…but we got it.
Fast forward to the present and I have just come back from a fantastic weekend at the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia, where I saw a number of great bands who were clearly influenced by Sabbath; who also made it onto at least one DJ set during the weekend. So they were very much in my mind when I saw the above quote from Henry Rollins on Facebook, and though I would test it by having the albums playing on a long walk.
It was a misty morning, not unlike that foggy night in Birmingham for mood and atmosphere, and as I set off with ‘Black Sabbath’ playing in my ears like some sort of Brummie Forest Gump (life is just a box set of Sabbath?) I did not have much expectation beyond enjoying some great music but I soon got into my stride and before I knew it I was on the second album, having in particular re-assessed ‘Warning’ as a work of consummate genius.
Then as I hit 6’30” of ‘War Pigs’ the sun burnt though the mist to reveal the barrenness of the post-industrial land of my surroundings…the whole thing just seemed to open up inside me.
I am not going to try to claim any particular synchronicity between music and life, this was not Dark Side of the Moon and the Wizard of Oz, but after that the tracks just kept on coming and I heard many of them afresh. ‘Paranoid’ sounded somehow more bold and heartfelt; ‘Planet Caravan’ was just beautiful, coinciding as it did with my reaching a lake; and with ‘Iron Man’ I managed to strip away the cultural ephemera that has attached itself over the years.
Picking up the pace I also began to notice more and more nuance to the music, Bill’s brilliant jazz-influenced drumming, Geezer’s powerful bass-lines, Tommy’s amazing and unique genre-creating guitar, and Ozzy’s often powerful and diverse lyrics on such as ‘Embryo’ and ‘Solitude’ as I moved on to the ‘Masters of Reality’ album; while ‘Children of the Grave’ and ‘Into The Void’ were just immense.
Just as I was beginning to feel that this could not get any better the fourth album came on and I was taken somewhere else. I not only realised just how much Sabbath were responsible for all sorts of different styles of rock and metal, I also experienced more emotional power than I had ever done before. When ‘Changes’ came on I had to stop and cry, being reminded of the vagaries of my own life; Ozzy’s lyrics and delivery brought up so much for me at that moment…the power was just amazing. This album is for me the apogee of the band’s genius, when it was at the peak of its powers, but, as with songs like ‘Snow Blind’ there was also a recognition that things were not as they seemed.
By the time I got to ‘Under The Sun/ Everyday Comes and Goes’ I was beginning to feel jaded after walking seven or eight miles, and my experience of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and ‘Sabotage’ were perhaps reflections of that; and it came as no surprise to me that further research on the Rollins quote suggests that he talks about the first four albums, not six. The latter two are good, but the do not quite reach the stunningly consistent peaks of the first four.
So what is the point in all this? Well I guess I could extrapolate all sorts for my time with Black Sabbath over the years: the denial and belated start, being drawn to music that is clearly inspired by the band, and listening to the albums afresh and getting new perspectives and experiences from them. My main reflection is that good music, no great music, is something that can inspire and re-invent itself over the course of our lives and our developing relationship with it helps us understand our own lives and development.
Music is important for me to keep my balance, perhaps, even my sanity; it gives me an emotional outlet and it feeds me in all sorts of ways; and Black Sabbath is an key element in that.