Sunday, February 21, 2010

SONG #80: Iron Man

Black Sabbath, Paranoid, 1970

What better way to celebrate the week off than to blog to you Will's first five picks for his CD mix that we started making together this week?  These are currently Will's (age 6 1/2) favorite songs, and they've all been in heavy rotation for a few years now.  I'm not sure what links them in his head, but let's take them one at a time and see if we can find a pattern.  Regardless, I thank my lucky stars every day that my son would rather air-drum to Black Sabbath than sing along to the Vegi-Fundamentalist-Tales.  I'll try to get through all five as fast as I can.

So here we go...

Will's Pick #1 is from Black Sabbath's second and greatest album, Paranoid, which has most of the Sabbath songs you know even if you're not a fan.  It came out only a few months after the band's trippy and genuinely chilling debut album, which is a very different affair.  The first Sabbath record has two ten minute suites that give a new meaning to the word "dirge."  I had a friend in college who broke up with a new girlfriend because she played him this record a few weeks in and told him that she thought it was "beautiful."  (He's the same guy who gave Will a Vegi-Tales CD, actually.)  By the second album, they'd tightened things up and realized that they needed a few catchy numbers to win over fans.  I don't know if I'd describe "Iron Man" as catchy, but it's certainly memorable.  The riff is a classic sludgy affair from guitarist Tony Iommi, and it has four distinct sections.  The first is the one everyone knows (I... AM... IRON MAN!).  The second acts as a bridge between the verses, and is a little more subtle, but not much,  The third, which becomes the heart of the chorus ("Nobody wants him... he just stars at the world"), starts to show the band's agility, and the fourth, my favorite, leads into the double-time guitar solo where the band proves it can actually play.  Sabbath for me is always at its best when Ozzy is not singing; I really love the sound of the band, especially when it speeds up the tempos.

It's hard not to hear "Iron Man" as a autobiographical song.  If you check out the live versions of "Iron Man" on YouTube from 1970, Ozzy is painfully awkward.  He claps like Bigfoot, can't stop playing with his hair, and seems to feel completely out of place unless he's banging his head.  I've always thought he was the Iron Man, forged in the grit and steel of industrial Birmingham, only beloved when he's making a spectacle of himself, and secretly wishing he could burn down the whole sneering planet.  For me, Black Sabbath is the sound of industrial English adolescent rage at seeing no future beyond their parents'.  Instead of building more blooze-rock for the London scene that would always look down at them, Sabbath built their own unapologetic, metallic beast and trounced and trampled right over swinging London and found an international audience more than ready to fistpump along.  Americans could easily tap into Sabbath's class-based frustration and cartoonish imagery.

I played this for Will when the Iron Man movie came out, and someone gave him an action figure.  He loved it instantly, and we made up a story about what was happening in the instrumental breaks.  We decided that, during the guitar solo, the Iron Man was saving a village that had shunned him earlier, and that they came to understand and accept him even though he was different.  Will's understanding of the song is as a kind of Frankenstein with a happy, singalong ending.  I think that's a fair interpretation of these lyrics:

Now the time is here
For Iron Man to spread fear
Vengeance from the grave
Kills the people he once saved

I appreciate his optimism, though I think he's a tad more upbeat than the boys in the band.  Far be it from me to supress his sense that the Iron Man just needs love like the rest of us.

Black Sabbath is dumb and about as subtle as Glenn Beck, but they're (dare I say it?) fun, and I listen to the Paranoid album all the time.



  1. I think I'm the guy who broke up with the Sabbath fan, no? It's not ok to be really into that first Sabbath record. I assumed I would wake up in the middle of the night naked in a pentagram if we stayed dating.

    You know what's weird about this record? In comparison to other records that came out in 1970 it sounds really dated. Slow, plodding and over simple. I totally get that this record more than any other launched heavy metal, but it sounds weirdly dated to me, the way a buddy holly record does. You know that it led to a bunch of other stuff, but it just sounds crappy.

  2. That's totally true. It sounds rushed, doesn't it? But unlike Zeppelin II, which sounds rushed and fresh, this one just sounds hurried. Still like it, though.

    That Sabbath fan is now probably a macrame artist on Martha's Vinyard now-- she was about as dangerous as a smurf.