"Britain was on the verge of being brought into it, there was protests in the street, all kinds of anti -Vietnam things going on. War is the real Satanism. Politicians are the real Satanists. That's what I was trying to say."
- Geezer Butler on War Pigs
The Paranoid album begins with a towering thud, the full, swelling power chords of the first moments of War Pigs, one of the greatest opening tracks in the history of rock. The sound here, as the band tip back and forth slowly, clumsily almost, from E to D, with loose drums, heavy power chords and chugging bass, sounds so massively monstrous that it’s hard to believe you are listening to what is essentially a three piece band. As the sirens wail out, the apocalyptic feel is in the air, and Sabbath are at their doomiest, roaming with gloom in this dystopian manmade hell which the earth has now found itself reduced to. The nuclear age is in full swing, the atomic era of hopeless destruction in the push of a button, and Sabbath are its dark messengers. This song is more relevant in the present day than perhaps ever before.
Then it all grounds to a halt, as if the train of rhythm has come crashing down. After the elongated introduction, that brilliant D to E riff begins its jagged edged attack, like the bayonet blade on the end of a rifle. Again, the whole band is striking out together, like a line of soldiers going over the top. As they hit their simplistic two note coda, the band sound not unlike the almighty blast of a bomb sent out by one of the song's pompous, heartless generals, the explosives shattering buildings in an instant, and turning bodies mercilessly into dust.
Geezer’s provocative lyrics describe the horror of conflict, in a direct reference to the disturbing events unfolding in Vietnam at the time. He wrote of the gathered generals and though one could not get away with saying so in any other medium, the fact they are the true Satanists, like witches gathering together in their black masses. They plot destruction, and the song descends into a nightmarish description of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (fittingly, a painting of Bosch's was later used on the cover of a Black Sabbath Greatest Hits release), with field of bodies burning, war machines turning and general devastation, man against man, in the eternal struggle for peace. Geezer's lyrics are not poetic or pretentious, and they do not hide behind metaphorical frilliness or reek of middle class academia. They are, essentially, plain and simple, straight forward, as if one of the pawns in this savage game has written down his views on the war in question immediately after a bout of combat, pouring out his heart for future generations to see.
That said, this grounded lyrical simplicity was not contrived in the slightest, and Butler had not adopted the humble literary skills of the average solider just to get his point across. He wrote down the purest, most guttural reaction to the war that he could, and paired it with his own pessimistic, ever aware, anti authoritarian outlook. Geezer for one was aware of the plight of many a working class Brummy bought and sold in the market place, destined to sweat and slave until he could no longer do so, all for a pittance while the establishment lined their pockets with gold. Looking back, Geezer was as passionate as ever about his drab prospects, though not patronising against anyone who stuck behind in the factories. They were not to be made fools of; it was just that they could stick it out, while Geezer and Sabbath clearly couldn't. But he also had an affinity with those who had been drafted, and that is what War Pigs is all about.
“We were four working class people in the most industrial part of England and all we had to look forward to was a job working in a factory,” Butler said later. “We felt hopeless and constantly frustrated and we thought at any second we’d be called up to drop in to the Vietnam War because it looked like Britain was going to get involved in it as well. So there wasn’t much future in anything for us.”
Things get politically savage when it is noted that the men who started the war in the first place seek refuge from a complacent, snug, safe distance, with the ordinary folk fighting the battle, oblivious to the true aims of their dishonest, traitorous schemes. While protest songs of the 1960s defined the counter-culture revolution, now that the hideous war dragged on into the next decade, very few bands were addressing the battles in the East. Geezer took note of this and knew it was something that needed to be spoken about. “Nobody ever sings about what’s frightening and evil,” Geezer said in a 1972 interview. “I mean, the world is a right fucking shambles. Anyway, everybody has sung about all the good things.”
While War Pigs rages on and Ozzy has delivered Geezer’s harsh lyrics with gusto (the first verse and bridge now over), Iommi leads us into an extended solo based around the key of E, always keeping the low string open to pad the sound out, gliding and running around the scale. Tony's tasteful solos are always simple but effective, and there is no need for showboating or theatrics. Observe Tony live, even back in the early 1970s, and you will see he did not feel the need to perform the clichés; throw his hair back, jump around and act the love god guitar hero - as indeed some of his contemporaries did. There was a workman like efficiency, and good taste, despite the band's reputation as gutter rockers, was always prevalent in his sole moments in the spotlight.
Then there’s the second verse, with the band returning to their three pronged assault in D to E, as Ward links the silence with subtle hi hat hits. The lyrics then extend their concerns with the ugliness of war even further, with vivid images of charred corpses and mass greenery filled with smoke and heaps of bodies. Now though, all hell has opened up and the War Pigs themselves are begging Satan for forgiveness. They have created this vile hell, and now they must repent and get on their knees for their sins. In the end, the politicians get what they deserve, and for once suffer the same plight as the working classes they brainwash and send out to fight their pointless, endless, thankless battles. Unfortunately, the song is chillingly of the now.
This leads into one of the album’s finest moments, a strangely emotional and utterly powerful closing section where Iommi’s solo reaches new heights, and tugs at the heart strings. Even to this day, I get a shiver up my spine whenever I listen to the finale, as if Tony is playing for all the fallen, the bodies that never could be found in the debris, the names on the countless graves. It stands alone as one of the mightiest and most intense parts of Sabbath's whole career. When the band played it at their final gig in Birmingham in 2017, the effect was staggering and the crowd not only chanted along to the minor key rhythm Iommi plays in that section, they cried too, knowing that the band were now bowing out after all those years. War Pigs then, retained all its power, both as an anthem and a vital piece of no frills socio-political commentary, nearly fifty years after being recorded for the Paranoid LP.
War Pigs started as an extended jam the band performed while under residency at the Star Club in Germany, when they played four 45 minute sets a day, and needed more material to pad out their limited blues-rock repertoire. The aimless riffing then began to develop from there, moving from a jam to an actual song. Originally intended to be titled Warpurgis (an obscure reference to a witchcraft wedding Geezer had read about in his Occult days), it was changed to War Pigs once the controversial subject matter came into a lyrical form. With the label wanting Sabbath to distance themselves from the Occult, as a title War Pigs may have been badly timed, but it was also open ended and political, not Satanic. And given the recent Charles Manson murders the previous year, the American market was not overly keen on promoting evil.
The words began to take proper form when the band played some US shows for Vietnam veterans after the first album came out, and had become disturbed and saddened by both the physical and mental plight of many veterans from that entirely pointless venture. Seeing as no one was singing about the war (even The Beatles took little note of it, and Dylan did not refer to it once in song), and most groups were content to stay clear of the controversy and freak themselves out on elongated, twirling, often pathetic guitar solos and mind expanding drugs (or should that be "mind compressing?"), these four Brummies knew they had nothing to lose. If no one else was addressing the war, then Sabbath were the guys to do it!
By 1970, when Sabbath cut their war epic, prog rock was also a slowly growing phenomenon. Generally a middle class movement, the prog rockers sang of gremlins, goblins and fairytales, and seemed to be distracted from the world’s grotesque wrong doings in favour of fantasy. Sabbath, a working class band very much aware of the injustice towards those that the politicians and upper classes felt beneath them, were not afraid to shout out about something so utterly wrong. And when the album was released in the US in early of 71, it still went down a storm; clearly the American fans were in agreement with the band’s sickened view on the war in Vietnam. Anyone who thinks Sabbath were just generic 4 chord rockers singing of devils and nothing else, should take note of their daring satirical elements too. It makes perfect sense to assume that although Sabbath do sing of hell and all things evil, much of it should not be taken at face value. In truth, Sabbath camped up their darker Satanic themes, and probably did so for early publicity. War Pigs is more serious. The true evil, Sabbath tell us, is mankind, the men in suits who think nothing of sending young men out to die for a cause they don’t even believe in. Yes the music is great, yes it is compelling and wonderfully played, but the themes on the Paranoid album are worth thinking about too, and are possibly, in some ways, the most important aspect.
“The lyrics will always stand up,” Geezer told Hellbound, looking back on War Pigs. “The one thing that human kind always seems to have is war. They never learn.” Other band members have been clear on the fact that Sabbath made a special effort to write lyrics that mattered, and not just resort to mindless late sixties clichés. “When we started writing things we didn’t want to present bullshit like I’m gonna see my chick and we’re gonna get it on,” Ozzy told UCLA in 1972. Conventional words certainly did not fit into the Sabbath ethos.
“I think we made a good statement and we put a lot of force into it,” Ward told Goldmine Magazine looking back on War Pigs. “It still stands. Unfortunately, it still stands in today’s dynamics as well with Iraq and all the different places where there’s so much trouble and death going on. That’s the downside of it but we made a good record and a good statement.”
Lyrically it still hits the sore spot, and on a musical level the song has not aged one bit either. Its theme may be relevant, but had the music not kept its power and foreboding meatiness over the decades, the message would ultimately have dimmed. However, the tight structure, superb musicianship and approachable accessibility of the arrangement ensures the song has not become an early 70s relic, a faded artefact from the period of metal's birth, but a hard rocking, still exciting and invigorating example of Sabbath's power when at their most effective as a unit. Ozzy's vocals were never better, Geezer and Iommi are at their closest in the song's epic journey through war itself, and Ward keeps up the energy with his full, creative and inventive drum patterns. War Pigs is, pretty much, one of the finest moments in rock, something that few if any bands could hope to stand up to.
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