Negative Creeps

Oh, sure, nowadays everyone likes Black Sabbath. You know, there used to be rules for this sort of thing. Black Sabbath at one time was viewed as a joke by most folks. The only people who liked them were kids so completely stoned all the time they were mesmerized for hours watching cigarette smoke emit from their mouths. These sloths were considered bottom-rung, jobless losers who liked this horrible sludge because it was the only thing slower and stupider than they were.

Of course, this view isn't fair. And God knows the alternative back then -- James Taylor; Elton John; Crosby, Stills, and Nash -- was far more disgusting. Who could blame these kids for not wanting to be a part of the "mainstream"? Just imagine, if you will, walking into a party where everyone's sitting around cross-legged singing "American Pie," then tell me "Paranoid" doesn't make just that much more sense. (Fact is, I grew up in the Eighties when things were worse. Kids danced to Huey Lewis and the News, who told us the heart of rock and roll was still beating, and Starship, who supposedly built a whole goddamn city on the stuff but played nothing of the kind. Sabbath's loud, primal guitar riffs and cloddish rhythms worked as both a fuck-you to the masses and as a complementary soundtrack to the loserville we knew literally inside out).

For people who consider rock music to be a social function, harder-edged music is alienating, as intended, every time. Why? Who knows? You'd think after years of living through all this musical junk and seeing that Western civilization is still standing, people wouldn't be so quick to cry foul when some lame form of debased entertainment shows up at a corporate amphitheater near them. But then again, if it weren't for these reactionary doomsayers, half the acts they decry wouldn't have careers in the first place, so we're back where we started. The honchos at the New Jersey Sport and Exposition Authority tried to halt Ozzfest from appearing there. Marilyn Manson apparently create "safety concerns." Fortunately, the law reminded them we have a constitution we use from time to time.

Black Sabbath came together at a time when values were shifting as audiences expanded. The lame white-boy English blues they had developed as Earth transmogrified into slower, modern blues, just as bands like Led Zeppelin were making it louder and raunchier. Sabbath got their shtick down fast. Their Halloween motif completely overtook their debut album, from cover art to subject matter, and set the pattern for subsequent releases. But conceptually sound though they began, no one could have predicted the actual grand noise they would make.

In today's sweepstakes, where rock seems to go through its own rough version of Darwinism -- pruning the weak, the out of tune, the hesitant to tour -- groups like Black Sabbath are anomalies. If a band is only as strong as its weakest link, then Sabbath is not the pillar of power it's been trumpeted as, but rather a mass of dysfunctional, maladjusted, social 'tards without a single clue of what correctly played professional music is.

Let me put it this way: Would you form a band based on the following qualifications? First, a drummer who sees no need to keep time, who can't swing in the current fashion, who plays entirely too many fills, and who within those fills hits too many drums. Second, a bass player who cannot lock with the bass drum in the traditional fashion, who solos whenever the mood strikes, and whose bass fails to stay in key above the fourth fret. Third, a guitar player who lost several fingers in a factory accident, who as a result can play only two-string chords, and who insists on extended solos regardless of the fact that he misses every third note. And finally, a singer whose voice wavers on and off pitch and has the tonal quality of an untrained seal and who writes lyrics about Satan, whom he claims to know intimately.

You see, times have changed. No one can play now, but everyone's technically deficient in the same way. Back in the old days, you had leagues of incompetents, from the Doors to Iron Butterfly to Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had no idea of what they were actually doing, but they all managed to make incredibly diverse noises. (It's much like cars. Today, every damn car looks like a big bubble. Back then, you had the Beetle, the Chevy Nova, the Firebird ... all crap, but distinctive crap).

Black Sabbath made a powerful noise. That they've now re-formed without original drummer Bill Ward is a true shame, since it took all four to crank out the trademark sound. Ward's replacement is Mike Bordin, formerly of Faith No More; no matter who they got, it wouldn't be the same. Heck, even if they had gotten Ward it wouldn't have been the same. Fun, for sure, to watch these ol' bad boys so near to collecting their social security checks crank out the fodderstomp for the crowds one more time, but Sabbath -- like all great art -- was truly of its time and place.

Even Sabbath, however, had trouble being Sabbath after a time. They recorded four chapters of the heavy-metal primer in the early Seventies: Black Sabbath (1970), Paranoid (1971), Masters of Reality (1971) and Vol. 4 (1972). Then in true Spi¬nal Tap fashion they added their own Viv Savage on keyboards and started the downward spiral toward a more artful debasement. (Despite its misleadingly decadent cover of the boys in their tasteless rock-star finery, 1975's Sabotage is their last furious blast and worthy of a relisten).

These days, with metal on the outs but ready to take off again once the alternative revolution collapses from its pretenses, Sabbath is poised to play to a great many folks. You can thank Ozzy for this. His ability to keep a career going has allowed these guys to be more than a fuzzy memory to battered veterans of heavy-metal wars. And time's passage has made possible Sabbath's critical acceptance, whereas back in the day they were reviled by the tastemakers at Rolling Stone.

But it's not today's acceptance that matters. Any band worth its hair extensions has now paid tribute to Sabbath's obvious influence. (And the tribute album Nativity in Black, by the way, stands as one of the few worth hearing before you trade them in for the real thing.) What matters is that these guys took all those aforementioned negative traits and turned them into pure synergy. So much so that average folks hated them and wrote them off. You couldn't dance to them and they weren't cool. It didn't even work as camp, because Sabbath meant it and so did those creepy kids who inherently understood what was going on.

I remember going to a "disco dance" for kids at my father's Knights of Columbus lodge. All night long I listened to Seventies disco -- the Bee Gees, Alicia Bridges, Tavares. I was no more than eleven years old and was discovering rock music in misguided forays. The kid standing next to me was impatient. He was a bit older and had extremely long hair. (My dad would never go for that, I remember thinking.) The kid kept asking the DJ, an older man in his forties, when his record was going on. The DJ waved him off, saying it would take a while in order to make it fit. The kid wouldn't let up, insisting that everyone wanted to hear this record. The DJ finally relented and put the request on the turntable. The current song ended; the crowd waited in anticipation. There were wind noises and other gobblydegook that didn't go with the fast-paced atmosphere. Everybody walked off the dance floor as the song went into its windup. The kid shuffled away dejectedly and hid in a corner; if no one else would dance, he wouldn't either. The ultimate Sabbath fan: He thought in his heart that once the music got out there, everyone would understand. No one did.

The song, it turned out, was "Johnny Blade," from Sabbath's 1978 album Never Say Die. It was Ozzy's last record with the band, whose moment had been over for several years. There's a beauty in the sludgefeast of those records; they're raw and majestic in a way no one could have imagined. By the mid-Seventies, sound reproduction had improved so much that a lot of the mystery had been removed. If Black Sabbath had always succeeded as the aural equivalent of a black-and-white horror film, they failed when brought into the Technicolor age. Their allure was destroyed by advances in the same technology that had brought them their success.

Fittingly, the greatest bands influenced by Sabbath will never take the stage with them. They're too undesirable, too much the pathetic mess Sabbath once was. Bands such as Sleep and Earth (the Washington-based group that borrowed Sabbath's original handle) plod in that same horrific, dinosaur way, whereas Pantera, Type O Negative, and Fear Factory reincarnate Sabbath as a strengthened animal, limber and able to pounce at will. Sabbath, though, was about weakness and vulnerability; their riffs suggest defeat. The only live album released with the original lineup was an import called Live at Last. It sounds like a Quaalude. The rhythms never gel; Iommi solos like all his fingers are broken; and Ozzy sings out of time and off-key. It's one of the scariest-sounding documents I've ever heard, up there with Iggy's Metallic K.O. and the live half of Joy Division's Still -- it's a band on the edge, falling off.

It's too easy to forget that rock once stood for something. Not that it meant to stand for something -- the music was more an accident before people realized how much money was there. They tried things because, well, why not? Sabbath did that. They took music and stripped it of its essential pleasures, then created a new sensation. They were like a junk shop, full of odds and ends you can't find anywhere else. You take the stuff home and wonder what you're going to do with it.

Ozzfest '97 is being held Monday, May 26, at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury Way, West Palm Beach, 407-795-8883, with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Pantera, Type O Negative, Fear Factory, and Machine Head. Tickets cost $23 and $36. Showtime is 12:30 p.m.

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Rob O'Connor