Let’s be fair. Sometimes critics just don’t fully understand what they are dealing with. Sometimes a band is so far ahead of their time, or so different from what came before, that a fair critical evaluation is difficult, if not impossible. And what do critics always do with something that they don’t understand? They hate it, of course. What do critics do with something that becomes hugely popular, despite their protestations? They try to kill it.
With Black Sabbath, they failed… although it would take decades before Sabbath were fully accepted by the mainstream. The Rolling Stone Record Guide tells an interesting story: In the 1979 edition of this venerable reference book, the review of Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ album received a lowly One Star. Ditto in the 1983 edition. In the 1992 edition, RS upgraded ‘Paranoid’ to 3.5 Stars. 2004: Five Stars. So it took RS 34 years to fully understand what we all knew in 1970.
Rolling Stone was the most widely-read and well-respected rock mags of the 70s. And they got Black Sabbath wrong four times on a row, trashing each Sabbath album from ‘Black Sabbath’ right through ‘Vol 4’. Robert Christgau, writer for The Village Voice, and self-proclaimed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, was another important journalist of the era who disparaged or dismissed Sabbath at every opportunity. The legendary Lester Bangs, whose work appeared in Rolling Stone and also in Creem, was also responsible for the first trashing of Sabbath in the American press: a scathing review of Sabbath’s debut. Journalists in the UK were no less abusive. So the biggest writers and publications in 70s music journalism all stepped up to disparage the Black Sabbath phenomenon. Of course, the widespread critical disdain of Black Sabbath did not destroy them; in fact, as we saw in Part I, it only made them stronger.
Now: A word about Grand Funk:
Before the mainstream the rock cognoscenti decided that Black Sabbath Must Be Destroyed, Grand Funk Railroad was their favorite whipping boy. GFR’s first 6 albums were all universally panned by critics; 8 of their first 9 went Top Ten in the U.S. The band also scored four Top Ten singles during 1973/74. Despite their enormous popularity, critics consistently dismissed the band and their music, attributing their success to ‘hype’, constantly referring to their music as ‘phony’, and generally unleashing the same level of vitriol and spite that they would visit upon Black Sabbath. In fact, writers often referenced GFR while beating up Sabbath, as we’ll see below, while we look back at how Sabbath’s first four albums were assessed by the more notable writers of the early 1970s…
Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone: “Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap… The whole album is a shuck—despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley… —just like Cream! But worse.”
Robert Christgau, The Village Voice: “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter–bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything… I’ve been worried something like this was going to happen since the first time I saw a numerology column in an underground newspaper. C-“
Robert Christgau: “They do take heavy to undreamt-of extremes, and I suppose I could enjoy them as camp, like a horror movie–the title cut is definitely screamworthy. After all, their audience can’t take that Lucifer bit seriously, right? C-“
Nick Tosches, Rolling Stone, April, 1971: Tosches, a highly-respected writer, wrote a 1,500 word ‘review’ that mentions neither the band’s name nor the name of the record, or any of the songs on it, blatantly dismissing both the band and the album. If there’s a point to his critique, I suppose it can be found in his use of the term ‘bubblegum satanism’.
MASTER OF REALITY
Richard Green, New Musical Express, August 1971: “At last here it is, but don’t expect this one to win any awards. It is quite possible to play tracks at random and, with one or two exceptions, not be able to tell much difference… Sorry, lads, not this time.”
Mike Saunders, The Rag, September 1971: “Grand Funk has been the most important band in the land for the last year, which you’re probably aware of anyway. Grand Funk in concert are as big an attraction as the Beatles were in their heyday, and the truth is this: Grand Funk are the first SUPERGROUP, popularity-wise, America has ever had. Black Sabbath have been creeping up on Grand Funk, though… Well, what should one make of all this? Is it all just another sign of the decadence that seems to be everywhere these days?”
Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, November, 1971: “The real question is whether Black Sabbath can grow and evolve, as a band like the MC5 has, so that there is a bit more variation in their sound from album to album. And that’s a question this group hasn’t answered yet.”
Robert Christgau: “As an increasingly regretful spearhead of the great Grand Funk switch, in which critics redefined GFR as a 1971 good old-fashioned rock and roll band even though I’ve never met a critic (myself included) who actually played the records, I feel entitled to put this in its place. Grand Funk is like an American white blues band of three years ago–dull. Black Sabbath is English–dull and decadent. I don’t care how many rebels and incipient groovies are buying. I don’t even care if the band members believe in their own Christian/satanist/liberal murk. This is a dim-witted, amoral exploitation. C-“
Lester Bangs emerged in June of 1972 as a full-fledged convert, vehemently supporting Sabbath’s music as well as their message. His extensive 2-part piece in CREEM is not only an intelligent and passionate analysis of the Sabbath phenom (Master of Reality was then at #8 in the US, pulling the two previous LPs back into the Hot 100 with it), but also one of the finest pieces of rock writing you or I will ever read.
Bangs peeks behind the curtain of negative hype and busts several myths surrounding Sabbath. The legendary scribe even goes so far as to compare the lyrics in ‘War Pigs’ to those in Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, in a bid to legitimize Sabbath’s oft-misunderstood lyrical stance. To stand tall among your peers and compare one of the most respected songwriters in all of rock music to one of the most hated and reviled bands ever took massive balls. Cheers to you, Lester Bangs. For the rest of Sabbath’s critics, however, it was still business as usual…
Tom Clark, Rolling Stone, December, 1972: “As the Sabs poured into ‘Wheels of Confusion’ like giant gobs of wet cement gushing from the heavens in the never-ending sameness of a taffy-pull performed by mutants…”
The rest of Clark’s review is jammed with more of this bizarre language and exaggerated hippie-speak, rendering the review impossible to comprehend or take seriously:
“Ten-ton dogs snarled in the mouth of the volcano. Storms of liquid metal blasted their way into the soap factory. Soaring zoos, etc.”
Billboard Magazine, hardly able to hide their sarcasm, wrote: “The red kings of demon rock have gotten it together and gifted their adoring public with a long awaited fourth album. They have not disinterred any new musical pathways here, their sounds are, as always, immediately recognizable. Some nice titles include ‘Wheels of Confusion’, ‘St Vitus Dance’, and ‘Cornucopia’.”
Max Bell, Let It Rock, December 1972: “Despite Black Sabbath’s protestations that they have spent both a great deal of time and money on their latest album (earthshatteringly entitled Volume 4) the end product still manages to be a monumental bore. In the past, say the Sabbath, their discs have suffered from a lack of the above essentials and, as a result, they have failed to do themselves justice on record. I am inclined to think that even with unlimited resources they would be hard put to make a really good album. They just don’t have sufficient talent or musical direction.”
SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH
By 1973 and Sabbath’s fifth album, the shift in critical appraisal that Lester Bangs began the previous year had begun to take hold. It didn’t hurt that ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ displays a healthy level of maturity and subtlety, and the band was rewarded with their first positive mainstream reviews. Their detractors were still out there, but the tide was starting to turn…
Gordon Fletcher, Rolling Stone, February, 1974: “This record transcends third-generation rock in that it possesses a degree of internal intricacy that belies popular conceptions of heavy-metal… An extraordinarily gripping affair… Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath is nothing less than a complete success.”
Billy Altman, Rolling Stone, September, 1975: “Sabotage is not only Black Sabbath’s best record since Paranoid, it might be their best ever… Even with the usual themes of death, destruction and mental illness running throughout this album, the unleashed frenzy and raw energy they’ve returned to here comes like a breath of fresh air.”
So Black Sabbath survived all attempts to destroy them, and a gradual critical reappraisal had begun. You’d think that after all of this, by the time of Van Halen’s debut, the critics would have learned their lesson:
Richard Riegel, reviewing Van Halen’s debut, Creem 1978: “LET ME TELL you about dinosaurs. No, ‘dinosaurs’ may be too harsh a term, even if Van Halen-style rockers do find their evolutionary fulfillment in a quick extinction…. Van Halen. Big rock. Remember the names. Extinct is forever.”