I used to work with a guy named Scott who was a bit… eccentric. Perchance one day I saw inside one of his filing cabinets, and in it I could see probably 20-25 cassettes. I asked him what it was all about, and he responded, ‘Oh, ya, those are my train cassettes. Check ’em out of you want.’ I did. Each tape was a homemade compilation, with meticulously lettered title/artist notes. I pulled out one cassette, handily numbered #16, took a closer look at the titles inscribed on the insert, and saw that each song title contained the word ‘train’, or was somehow related to trains, railroads, engineers– you get the picture. I must have looked a little confused, and Scott helpfully added, ‘I collect songs about trains.’ As I picked up tape #8, a 90-minute TDK which looked to contain 20-or-so different versions of the song ‘Mystery Train’, I said ‘Oh ya? Cool.’ What I was really thinking though, was ‘This guy is nuts.’
Years later, I remembered that incident and how weird Scott was, but the voice inside my head that likes to play the devil’s advocate whispered ‘It’s not so weird, really. What would Scott think if he went through your music collection? What kind of songs do you collect, Bob?’ I thought about that for a while, and laughed to myself. Scott would have probably assumed I collected songs about the Devil.
I don’t worship the Devil. I don’t believe in Hell. Am I Evil? No, I’m not. But the Good/Evil ratio in my music collection is slanted significantly toward the dark side. Lyrics are important to me; in my opinion, a well-written lyric can save bad music, and a crap lyric can sink great music. I admit that most of the Devil-centric lyrics eminating from my record collection are garbage. I know, HM is not known for the quality of its lyrical content. But there are a small handful of outstanding lyricists in the hallowed Heavy Metal Pantheon, so I went looking through their stuff to see what they had to say regarding all things good and evil. I focused my search on my three favorite writers… and I found a lot of cool stuff.
Motorhead’s Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister has never made his disdain for organized religion a secret. Politicians and the church have been frequent targets of Lemmy’s wrath throughout Motorhead’s long history. Lemmy’s father was an ex-Royal Air Force Chaplain, so perhaps the seeds of his spite can be traced to his early childhood. In ‘Poison’, from 1979’s ‘Bomber’, Lem reveals,
‘My father, he used to be a preacher
Never taught me nothing but scorn
If I ever catch him on the street, yeah
I’ll make him wish he’d never been born’
Lemmy pulls no punches when waxing poetic about his belief system, which is perhaps best summed up in ‘(Don’t Need) Religion’ from 1982’s ‘Iron Fist’ album. Here, Lem lays out, in just 10 brutally simple couplets, how he (don’t need) religion. Here, belief in God is compared to belief in Santa Claus and fairies. In ‘No Voices in the Sky’ from Motorhead’s 1996 US major label debut ‘1916’, Lemmy debunks Christianity in a deceptively upbeat, melodic tune with lines like:
‘You don’t need no golden cross to tell you wrong from right
The world’s worst murderers were those who saw the light
Ritual remembrance when no one knows your name
Don’t help a single widow learn to fight the pain’
The Granddaddy of them all, though has to be ‘Orgasmatron’, where the evils of organized religion, global politics and world history are all rolled up into one and spewed forth in a toxic barrage of venomous hatred. It’s one of Lemmy’s finest lyrics and one of Motorhead’s greatest songs. Reading this lyric without the music behind it gives me chills. The first verse is dedicated to religion; here’s a sample:
‘Obsequious and arrogant, clandestine and vain
Two thousands years of misery, of torture in my name
Hypocrisy made paramount, paranoia the law
My name is called religion, sadistic, sacred whore’
On ‘Hammered’, late-period Motorhead reveals no changes in Lemmy’s stance; ‘No Remorse’ is yet another red-hot poker in the eye of God, and one not without a touch of sarcasm:
‘Satan waits, goatee beard
Long old tail, nasty spear
If you believe these tales they tell
Then you deserve to burn in Hell’
I’d have to say my favorite of Lemmy’s anti-religious works appeared fairly recently in 2006. ‘God Was Never on Your Side’ contains a plaintive lyric delivered in a sad, melancholic tone; this time Lemmy’s wrath is softened just a bit by acoustic guitars and strings, but his underlying condemnation of blind, unquestioning belief is plainly evident in this intelligent articulate plea for common sense. Check this song out is you skipped the ‘Kiss of Death’ album.
‘If the sky, turned into stone,
It would matter not at all,
For there is no heaven, in the sky,
Hell does not wait, for our downfall!
Let the voice of reason shine,
Let the pious vanish for all time,
God’s face hidden, all unseen,
You cannot ask him what it all means,
He was never on your side,
God was never on your side’
There are, of course, many other examples. The Jesus references in both ‘Brave New World’ (‘Hammered’) and Get Back in Line’ (‘The World is Yours’) are both scathing and hilarious. And while we’re on the subject of God, I would love to know how Lem feels about the infamous ‘Lemmy is God’ slogan… Nonetheless, his religion-themed work is where Lemmy the intelligent and articulate thinker is revealed, belaying his popular image as the ultimate in badassery.
Motorhead’s next (and last?) album, ‘Bad Magic’, comes out in August of this year, and will close with a cover of the Rolling Stones classic ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. If this does indeed turn out to be Motorhead’s last record, how ironic is it that this vehement atheist’s recording career began in a band called The Rockin Vickers (as in ‘vicar’) and ended with a classic song about the Devil himself?
In September of 1968, a struggling pop band called Episode Six released their eighth single, ‘Lucky Sunday’. The single’s B-side, ‘Mister Universe’, was written by Roger Glover and Ian Gillan. The song’s lyric, one of Ian Gillan’s first, questioned the existence of God, and his plans for humankind. The single, like the 7 before it, failed to chart in the UK. E6 released one more single (which also failed) before Gillan and Glover joined Deep Purple in June of ’69. G&G’s first recording with Deep Purple was a cover of a Greenway/Cooke song called ‘Hallelujah’. The song is sung from the perspective of a prophet trying to enlighten his people. The following year, Tim Rice offered Gillan the part of Jesus Christ for the original recording of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Are we seeing a pattern here? Gillan accepted Rice’s offer, and recorded all of his parts in just 3 hours… A feat some have called miraculous.
While much of the focus in Rice & Webber’s rock opera falls on the Judas Iscariot character, Jesus Christ has several epic moments throughout the musical. Without a doubt, the most powerful song in the work is ‘Gethesmane’, which represents a crucial moment for the Jesus character. It’s also a vocal tour de force for the 24 year old Ian Gillan, and remains one of his most emotionally powerful performances. In ‘Gethesmane’, Jesus, exhausted and disillusioned, he admits his doubts and fears to God and pleads for answers. He gets none, and begs for God to take him. Just then, Judas and the Romans arrive…
Although written by Tim Rice, ‘Gethesmane’ echoes Gillan’s earlier ‘Mister Universe’ in it’s inquiry into the nature of God. It questions God’s existence, his motivations, his plans, which indicates an Agnostic worldview; one that harbors doubt, and neither embraces nor rejects the existence of God, but one that could be convinced should sufficient evidence is supplied. What Jesus/Gillan is asking for in ‘Gethesmane’/’Mister Universe’ is a reason to believe.
Ian Gillan would later re-work the song ‘Mister Universe’ with his namesake band, Gillan. In the 8 years in between the two versions, Gillan had little to say about religion; ‘The Mule’ from Deep Purple’s ‘Fireball’ album has been mistaken for a song about Satan, although it’s actually about Ian Paice! In the song ‘Painted Horse’, the line ‘Why did the carpenter die?’ is a clear nod to Jesus in an otherwise obtuse lyric, and the title of the album it was recorded for, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’ is also a clever play on a line in the song ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. His lyrics for the Ian Gillan Band featured forays into witchcraft and sorcery (‘Scarabus’) and Alistair Crowley (‘Abbey of Thelema’, which mentions Shaitan, the Islamic Satan), but the only overt religious lyric is Gillan’s cynical look at ‘religion twentieth century style’ in ‘Over the Hill’ from the ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ album.
In 1979, a revised version of ‘Mister Universe’ emerged with some key differences, lyrically; Gillan again questions God about the nature of His relationship with Man, but this time he is not pleading, he’s demanding answers:
‘Are you God, are you man, do you live in fear?
Are we trash in your can, a bubble in your beer?
I just need some information
Tell me what’s my destination
Is your smile just a smile or is it just a trick
To make me walk another mile? I must be so thick
Universe is cruel deception
Freedom is a contradiction’
Then Gillan rails against God’s stony silence with an angry declaration of strength and individualism:
‘Maybe we’re going somewhere
If so we can find the end
Everyone’s getting nowhere
But not me, you’d better understand!’
After a puzzling second mention of Shaitan in the single B-side ‘Higher and Higher’, Gillan (the band) revisited the subject of Heaven & Hell in a big way with the single ‘No Laughing in Heaven’ from their 1981 album ‘Future Shock’. Here, Gillan (the lyricist) seems to have survived his crisis of faith and feels comfortable enough to have a little fun with the man upstairs. Gillan adopts the role of a bad guy who cleans up his act in order to be ‘saved’ but finds out that Heaven ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…
‘I knocked on the pearly gates
Neatly side stepping the long queue
Waved hi to St. Peter
Who checked my card and let me through
I smiled, threw my hands in the air
Laughed and got arrested
They said, “hey man, you’re in the wrong place
Your behavior is a disgrace”
Our hero promptly discovers the error of his ways and begs to be sent to Hell, which is presumably a lot more fun:
‘Let me out of heaven
I’ve got it wrong, no, I can’t stay here
No laughing in heaven
Oh God, it’s awful here
Going crazy in heaven
Take me out and let me go to hell
No laughing in heaven
Don’t laugh, this place is hell’
The song was a minor hit in the UK (#31; the album reached #2) and scored the band a Top of the Pops appearance. ‘No Laughing…’ represents Ian Gillan’s last serious (??) exploration of religious themes in his lyrics.
Two years later, Gillan joined Black Sabbath for the controversial ‘Born Again’ album. Unfortunately, Mr. Gillan was just killing a year, waiting for the Deep Purple MkII reunion, and passed on the opportunity to again explore religious themes with the band that wrote the book on the subject, instead handing in a bunch of rubbish about wrecking cars, evil women, and phone calls to Hell. Gillan either didn’t ‘get’ Black Sabbath, or just didn’t care enough about the band to take his contributions seriously. There is one half-assed attempt at working within Sabbath’s lyrical oeuvre. ‘Disturbing the Priest’ explicitly addresses the eternal battle between God and the Devil and their yin/yang dynamic, but, masterfull delivery notwithstanding, the lyrics are Sub-Dio level at best, and the vocal melody is lifted from Gillan’s own ‘Scarabus’, from 6 years previous:
‘The devil and the priest can’t exist if one goes away
It’s just like the battle of the sun and the moon and night and day
The force of the devil, that we’re all told to fear
Watch out for religion when he gets too near too near’
Yeesh. Gillan’s lyrical contributions to ‘Born Again’ represent a huge missed opportunity for someone who has such a rich history of dealing with religious themes in his music. Which brings us to:
I’m not the first person to view Black Sabbath as the first Christian Metal band, and I won’t be the last, because it’s a fact. One of the biggest misconceptions in all of rock music is that Black Sabbath worship/celebrate/glorify Satan in their lyrics. They don’t. In fact, a detailed read through bassist Geezer Butler’s lyrics proves the opposite is true: Black Sabbath worship/celebrate/glorify God, by explaining/condemning/warning of Satan. For true Black Sabbath fans, who have heard, studied and most importantly understood Butler’s lyrics, this is not news. But for the several million knee jerk morons who have misrepresented Sabbath (to the band’s benefit, I get it) for decades, it’s time to get a clue.
When looking for an example of the massive misunderstanding of classic Black Sabbath’s message, one need go no further than the very first song on their very first album. ‘Black Sabbath’ is a first person narrative in which our subject is met by a ‘big black shape with eyes of fire’ who has arrived to escort him to Hell. Ozzy’s screams of torment that end each verse are so effective, I’m tempted to say that this is his finest vocal performance, because of how convincingly he communicates a sense of soul-destroying terror and doom. The message is crystal clear: somebody fucked up, and now they’re gonna pay the price. Anyone who hears this song as anything other than a warning is trying really hard to be a total dick.
‘N.I.B.’ is a tale of the Devil as The Great Deceiver, and an illustration of the seductive power of evil. This time, our narrator is O’l Scratch, plying his victim with romantic promises of undying love and immortality. Only after it’s too late does Satan reveal his true self:
‘Now I have you with me, under my power
Our love grows stronger now with every hour
Look into my eyes, you will see who I am
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand’
The last line in ‘War Pigs’, the opening song on Sabbath’s next album ‘Paranoid’, is ‘Satan laughing spreads his wings’, which is cool because now we know that Geezer Butler’s vision of Satan has wings (awesome!), but also because we learn that all of the war, bloodshed, death and destruction described in the song is the handiwork of the Devil… and he is pleased. In ‘Electric Funeral’, also from ‘Paranoid’, Satan appears to claim a world ruined by ‘atomic fire’:
‘And so in the sky shines the electric eye
Supernatural king takes earth under his wing
Heaven’s golden chorus sings, Hell’s angels flap their wings
Evil souls fall to Hell, ever trapped in burning cells!’
Geezer Butler’s vision of Hell doesn’t sound like much fun. And that’s the point. There’s an enormous difference between an invitation and a cautionary tale; in fact they’re polar opposites. Sabbath’s songs about evil, Satan, and Hell sit squarely in the realm of the latter. In Butler’s lyrics, the consequences of choosing the dark side are always clear. Here’s another example from ‘Master of Reality’, in a song called ‘Lord of This World’:
‘Your world was made for you by someone above
But you choose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed
You think you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear
You don’t know me, you say, but isn’t it clear?
You turn to me in all your worldly greed and pride
But will you turn to me when it’s your turn to die?’
Here, the Devil reveals that he looks down on his followers, pitying them for having made the wrong choice. What an asshole!
By Sabbath’s ‘Vol. 4’ album, it appears that Butler has reached his own crisis of faith. In ‘Supernaut’, he claims he’s ‘Got no religion’, and in ‘Under the Sun’ he denies both sides of the equation in a Lemmy-esque declaration:
‘Well I don’t want no Jesus freak to tell me what it’s all about
No black magician telling me to cast my soul out
Don’t believe in violence, I don’t even believe in peace
I’ve opened the door now my mind has been released
Well I don’t want no preacher telling me about the god in the sky
No I don’t want no one to tell me where I’m gonna go when I die
I wanna live my life with no people telling me what to do
I just believe in myself, ’cause no one else is true’
But what about God? As Butler continued to grow as a lyricist, he began to write eloquently on all things Heavenly. In ‘A National Acrobat’, on the Sabs’ fifth album, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, Butler expounds on the ‘universal secret’ of reincarnation, and has this to say about life itself:
‘Just remember love is life
And hate is living death
Treat your life for what it’s worth
And live for every breath’
The album closes with the magnificent ‘Spiral Architect’, a brilliant (if psychedelically-informed) attempt to see the world, in all its triumphs and failures, through the eyes of God:
‘Of all the things I value most of all
I look upon my earth and feel the warmth
And know that it is good
You know that I should’
In ‘Thrill of it All’, on 1975’s ‘Sabotage’ album, a disillusioned Butler asks ‘Won’t you help me Mr. Jesus, won’t you tell me if you can? When you see this world we live in, do you still believe in Man?’ At the time this song was written, Sabbath were embroiled in an epic legal/financial battle with manager Patrick Meehan, and Geezer Butler knew exactly where to go to ask for spiritual guidance. But for the ultimate example of a misunderstood/misrepresented Black Sabbath lyric, we need to go back to the band’s third album, ‘Master of Reality’, and the song ‘After Forever’:
‘Have you ever thought about your soul – can it be saved
Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead
You just stay in your grave
Is God just a thought within your head
Or is he a part of you
Is Christ just a name that you read in a book
When you were at school?
When you think about death do you lose your breath
Or do you keep your cool?
Would you like to see the Pope, on the end of a rope
Do you think he’s a fool?’
Apparently, all of that offended a whole lot of people. These lyrics, especially the last two lines, have been used countless times to condemn Sabbath as anti-Christian agents of the Devil, Satan worshippers, blasphemers, blah blah blah. But these intellectually dishonest fools invariably stop quoting from the song right there, just before these important lines:
‘Well I have seen the truth. Yes I have seen the light
And I’ve changed my ways
And I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely
And scared at the end of Our days’
And a little deeper in:
‘Perhaps you’ll think before you say
That God is dead and gone
Open your eyes, just, realize that he is the One
The only One Who can save you now from all this sin & hate
Or will you still jeer at all you hear?
Yes! – I think it’s too late.’
Get it right, Sabbath bashers! These are quite possibly the most Christian lyrics EVER. Certainly they’re the most Christ-affirming lyrics in my music collection. These lyrics alone make up for the rest of the Satanic nonsense in Heavy Metal, and saved my record collection’s soul… So thank God for Black Sabbath.