John The Rock Doctor Talks Black Sabbath Deluxe Reissues Jan.24th, 2016

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BLACK SABBATH DELUXE REISSUES: BLACK SABBATH, PARANOID, MASTER OF REALITY, plus PAST LIVES Black Sabbath (Rhino) *****

As Black Sabbath gets the North American leg of their final tour underway- they’re in their mid 60’s and guitarist Tony Iommi says his health won’t allow him to continue- the catalogue arm of their North American record company has issued deluxe 2 disc editions of the band’s iconic first three albums; the first disc of each the album as we know it, the second disc a set of bonus tracks- alternate takes, instrumental versions and whatnot.

Before you get too excited, this isn’t anything new.  To our continent maybe, but these deluxe sets have been available in Europe for awhile now, via Universal/ Sanctuary.  They HAVE been available here as imports, but the cost is prohibitive; I bought the Master Of Reality set last year at a cost of around $40, and several deluxe editions of the group’s album from the 80’s at around the same price.  Rhino has made these available on these shores now for a cost of about $20 (2 CD’s) and $32 (2 LP’s) respectively. Now that we have that out of the way let’s look at each release individually, shall we?

BLACK SABBATH Black Sabbath (Rhino)

This is the album that started a genre, setting off shockwaves around the world that reverberate to this very day.  Recorded in 2 4 hour sessions over a couple of days at a cost of around $1,000.00, give or take, this is ground zero for heavy metal. Ozzy has said that, at rehearsals one day, Iommi remarked about people paying good money to see horror films to scare the s**t out of themselves, so why don’t they write scary music?

The first song they wrote in this new direction was Black Sabbath, and they knew they were onto something.  Bassist Geezer Butler had been noodling with a piece from Holst’s The Planets using a series of notes, a tri-tone arrangement known throughout the ages as “the devil’s interval”, the opening notes and melody of the song that we know so well, and a career was born. 

The rest of the album followed but in what order exactly I’m not sure. Wicked World can surely be classified as a heavy metal jazz dirge, and their cover of Lonesome Crow’s The Warning is a mighty blues epic of Herculean proportions.  The Wizard features some fine blues harp from Ozzy, and NIB starts with a short bass solo from Geezer.  SIDE NOTE: Over the years that number has become known to fans as Nativity In Black but the band insists it is simply “Nib”, so named after a beard that drummer Bill ward had at the time that looked like a pen nib.

The album proper in this deluxe reissue is the re-mastered version from 2012 and sounds great to my ears- it very nearly feels like we’re in that tiny room with the lads as they’re laying it down.  The draw here for long time fans, though, is the bonus disc.  It starts with a poppy cover song Evil Woman, not available on the original North American release of the album.  The band didn’t want to play it but then manager Jim Simpson thought it might get them some chart action so the guys grudgingly went along. They shouldn’t have bothered- it’s weak track and their hearts clearly are not in the performance.

The rest of the bonus disc is taken up with alternate takes and versions of the songs from the album, some with Ozzy’s scratch lyrics as he works out the vocal melody, there’s an instrumental version of the title song, plus stand-alone versions of Behind The Wall Of Sleep, Bassically and N.I.B. that were woven together on the finished record.  As a fan of nearly 45 years, and the fact that this is my very favourite group above all others, it is priceless to hear these songs at various stages of development. 

If your interest is more casual, however, you won’t care.  This bonus stuff, as with similar packages for any other band you’d care to name, are for the hardcore fans that aren’t satisfied with a greatest hits collection or the original albums.  When you’re really into it you want to hear every note the band played, and you’ll get a bit of a thrill at hearing the songs you know and love so well at an earlier stage of development.  That certainly is the case for me here.

ESSENTIAL CUTS:    Black Sabbath, Warning, Black Sabbath (instrumental)

Paranoid_coverPARANOID Black Sabbath (Rhino)

Of the albums being discussed here today, and out of the 8 records put out by the original line up in the 70’s, this is the most popular of the lot.  No doubt you know by now that Sabbath had originally wanted to call this album War Pigs, but with the Vietnam war reaching a fever pitch around the same time (the fall of 1970) Warner Brothers objected to the proposed title and settled on Paranoid instead.  Call it what you will but one thing’s for certain- Paranoid is a stone cold classic.

Similar to their debut record, Paranoid was recorded quickly and cheaply, the band just basically blasting through their live set at the time and throwing on a few overdubs.  If you really want to look into this album in more depth, there’s a terrific edition of the video show Classic Albums devoted to Paranoid that includes interviews with the band and the deconstruction of several of the songs with the engineer from the sessions Tom Allom, who would go on to fame of his own in the 80’s as the producer for Judas Priest.  The DVD only costs about $10- I have it in my collection and have watched it about a dozen times.

Paranoid is a dark and emotional record, the antithesis of the flower power hippy movement of the times.  The epic War Pigs is an indictment of those in power who wage war for their own gain, aimed squarely at the Vietnam war.  The title track was an afterthought, thrown together in less than 2 hours start to finish, when producer Roger Bain told them the album was 3 or 4 minutes short and they needed one more song.  Against all odds it became the most popular song of the band’s career, their only hit, and the one that they’ve ended every show with virtually ever since.

Planet Caravan is a trippy, jazzy affair as Iommi cops an excellent Wes Montgomery vibe while Ozzy’s heavily treated vocals go on a space journey.  Iron Man comes from band lyricist/ bassist Geezer Butler’s love of science fiction, and when he originally heard Iommi’s main riff for this one said offhand “That sounds like a big iron bloke”.  Electric Funeral is about the cold war, Hand Of Doom warns against the dangers of drug use even though the band had started on crippling habits of their own by then, and Fairies Wear Boots was supposedly inspired by an encounter with skinheads in the park one night… but the lyrics are trippier than that, and there have been several different stories over the years- so who knows?  In a recent interview before the start of the band’s final tour, Tony Iommi reckoned that every song from this album is being played on stage this time except Planet Caravan, so the band knows how their fans feel about the record.

The bonus disc for Paranoid sports instrumental versions of several of the songs; War Pigs, Iron Man, Electric Funeral, Hand of Doom and Fairies Wear Boots. There’s an alternate mix of the instrumental Rat Salad plus alternate versions of Paranoid and Planet Caravan with Ozzy’s scratch lyrics.  Again, a fascinating look at songs we know so well in various stages of development.

ESSENTIAL CUTS: War Pigs, Hand of Doom, War Pigs (instrumental version)

Master_Of_Reality_coverMASTER OF REALITY Black Sabbath (Rhino)

Though this is Black Sabbath’s third album in less than 2 years, released in 1971, it is ground zero for me.  I still remember the day I heard it- dropping by my buddy Mike Collier’s place to hear this wild record that his brother had just bought.  Up until that moment my rock & roll was The Beatles, CCR and Neil Diamond, but before Sweet Leaf (the first track) had even finished, I knew my world would never be the same.

 The band’s studio techniques became more sophisticated with this record, employing more overdubs and different processing for a much thicker sound. Subject matter was similar though; drugs Sweet Leaf), religion (After Forever, Lord Of This World) science fiction (Into The Void) and war (Children of The Grave). Critics still hated the band, and think they always did- but with this album, everybody knew who Black Sabbath was.  It didn’t have a hit single like Paranoid did, but my sense of the times was that this record was everywhere.

Of the three deluxe reissues here today, the bonus disc for Master of Reality is the most pleasing.  It includes a previously unknown track called Weevil ’71 plus versions of Sweet Leaf and Children Of The Grave with alternate lyrics, instrumental versions of Grave and After Forever, an outtake of the acoustic instrumental Orchid with Tony counting in, a version of Lord of This World that includes piano and slide, Solitude with an alternate guitar tuning, and an alternate version of Into The Void known bizarrely as Spanish Sid.   Trivia buffs might enjoy knowing that Into The Void is Eddie Van Halen’s favourite Sabbath riff ever.

This bonus disc best showcases the songs from the original album in a different light, showing the songs we know so well under construction s Sabbath laboured to update and update their sound.  Unlike the two previous albums they weren’t rushed in and out of the studio and had some time to get the album down.  Two weeks, I think it was, or maybe a month- still shockingly quick by today’s standards, but luxurious compared to their previous efforts.

ESSENTIAL CUTS:  Sweet Leaf, Children Of The Grave, Lord Of This World (with piano & slide)

Past-Lives-cover-200PAST LIVES Black Sabbath (Rhino)

This one has been available since 2002 on Sanctuary/ Divine, and is no doubt a licensing arrangement with Rhino to have a live album from the old days out in time for the North American tour.  When Sabbath were going through legal difficulties with management in the 70’s Live At Last was issued against the band’s wishes, as they judged it inferior.  The album makes up the first disc of this set, while disc 2 is a series of live cuts, recorded presumably around the same time period if not a couple of years later, that had not been heard (except by bootleggers of course) until the 2002 release of this set.

The recording quality isn’t be best fidelity-wise, but to my ears it seems to be an accurate depiction of the band on stage at the time.  All of the standards from the first 4 albums are represented on the first disc, and an early version of Killing Yourself To Live with different lyrics was included in the set as well. 

The second disc was, in listening to Ozzy’s stage patter, recorded on the tour to support Sabotage and so three of the songs from that album are represented in the set.  While in many ways this live set is inferior to the sound quality of the studio counterparts of all these songs, I find the live version of Hole In The Sky to be somehow better, more heroic than its Sabotage versions for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. 

Perhaps my fondness for Live At Last and now Past Lives lies in the sheer rawness of these performances, and in the fact that I was never able to see Black Sabbath live on stage in their heyday, save for a televised appearance on the California Jam broadcast.  Indeed, my first chance to see Ozzy era Sabbath live was on the recent tour for the 13 album- with Bill Ward on drums it didn’t quite feel like the real thing, but Tommy Clufetos was a total monster on the kit, almost a show in and of himself.  If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t have flown out to Vancouver for the show that summer, then bought tickets to seem them again in Saskatoon the following Spring, and  now January 30th in Edmonton on their The End tour.

As a souvenir of Black Sabbath’s stage show back in the 70’s Past Lives has a place of fondness and respect in my heart and in my CD collection.  It isn’t perfect but it is raw and honest, and it will make you wish you had been present at these gigs.

ESSENTIAL CUTS:  Cornucopia, Wicked World, Hole In The Sky, Fairies Wear Boots

A chapter in music and metal history will close when Black Sabbath’s current tour wraps up sometime next year.  Ozzy will go back to his solo career, and Tony will no doubt go on to make music with other people, he’s already spoken to former Sabbath singer Tony Martin about the possibility.  As for Geezer, perhaps he will reform his solo band or pull a John Deacon, just stay home and count the royalty checks.  Both have said that while Sabbath’s live career is winding down, they wouldn’t be opposed to doing another studio album together, so I guess we’ll see.  In the meantime, I intend to enjoy the CD’s covered here today repeatedly and for a very long time, both before the Edmonton show and after.  Long live Black Sabbath.

John The Rock Doctor

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