Critics Bloody Critics (Part 2)

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…

BLACK SABBATH

black-sabbath-evil-woman-wicked-world-572084Lester 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-“

556544ddc0e22_110247bPARANOID

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.”

Black_Sabbath-_Children_of_the_GraveRobert 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-“

VOL 4

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.

http://www.ideologic.org/news/view/creem_bangs_sabbath_72_pt1

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…

Tomorrow'sdreamTom 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

51b5997502db1_110247nBy 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.”

SABOTAGE

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.”

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Critics Bloody Critics (Part 1)

As Black Sabbath nears The End, few would argue their status as the most important Heavy Metal band of all time. The passage of time and several generations has seen the Sabbath Mythos grow in depth and stature, and the band (or brand), regardless of its current configuration, is being honored in the mainstream press with overwhelmingly positive reviews for both their ‘comeback’ album ’13’, and the band’s live performances on their current ‘The End’ tour. The Sabs are enjoying a well-deserved critical pass, as fans heap love, respect and appreciation on their heroes, and rock critics everywhere take their seats on the bandwagon. It’s as if the mainstream press are hosting Black Sabbath’s retirement party.

But Black Sabbath’s relationship with the music press was not always so accommodating. In fact, if we move from ‘The End’ back to the beginning, we find that the mainstream music press absolutely despised Black Sabbath, from Day One. Seriously; it was brutal.

Keith Altham wrote in the New Musical Express, 14 April 1973:

When it comes to obvious targets for critical assassinations, then Black Sabbath are sitting ducks very loud, very basic, very brash… What is it that most critics seem to find so objectionable about Black Sabbath music or, more positively, what is that they miss which is enjoyed by their thousands of fans?

To fully understand the extend of the disdain directed at this band in their earliest days, we need a little context. What was American popular culture like when Black Sabbath arrived on the scene?

America, at the close of the 1960s: The flower-power era is over. The era of Peace and Love has ended, and will soon give way to the cynicism and disillusion of the early 70s. The cultural backlash against the Hippie idealism and the ‘free society’ social experiments of the previous decade includes a preoccupation with the occult, which pervades all areas of popular culture; occult-themed horror movies, the zodiac and the beginnings of New Age mysticism, witchcraft, and a flirtation with Anton LeVay’s Church of Satanism. The counterculture has fallen to the dark side.

0Black Sabbath, with their dark lyrical imagery, menacing music, and apparent embrace of black magic, were the perfect band for the time, although this synergy wielded a double-edged sword: the band capitalized on the dark zeitgeist of the day, while the rock press blamed Black Sabbath for killing the hippie dream.

There is an element of truth to this theory, however. As Ozzy says in the book ‘Louder Than Hell’ by Wiederhorn & Turman:

When I was a kid, I was hungry. I had my ass hanging out of my pants. I hated the fucking world. When I heard the silly fucking words, “If you go to San Francisco, be sure to put a flower in your hair” I wanted to fucking strangle John Phillips [of the Mamas and the Papas]. I was sitting in the industrial town of Birmingham, England. My father was dying of asbestos from industrial pollution and I was an angry young punk.

The churning, grinding, smoke-belching steel mills of Birmingham were a long way from Haight/Ashbury. Sabbath and their music delivered a bleak, desperate message: The swingin’ Sixties are Dead; or, to quote Blue Oyster Cult, This Ain’t the Summer of Love. For the rock critics and journalists who lived and loved the music and culture of the 60’s, Black Sabbath just pissed in their Cheerios.

Context: Heavy Metal in general, which was only recently becoming recognized as a distinct genre, was constantly dismissed by the ‘straight’ rock press as ‘puerile’, ‘primitive’, or worse. Creem Magazine described it in its early stages as ‘music for young men without a war of their own.’ When Sabbath emerged, they were one of a very few bands tagged with the HM label, a label which the music press quickly turned into a derogatory term. Black Sabbath quickly became the whipping boy for an entire genre; a genre uniformly looked down upon by the mainstream media of the day. The ‘straight’ press often to referred to the average Heavy Metal fan of the day in caricature, as in this piece from Sounds in 1973:

A Sabbath fan is a youth who sees his future as just a long dark alley with a row of hoods lined up in the shadows on either side, waiting with knives. The only escape is to go to one of the band’s concerts, get wasted mindless and let a black, menacing wave crash over you for the evening.

1More Context: The high of choice at the dawn of the 1970s is actually a low. The use of psychedelics is on the wane; Downers are now the ‘in’ thing. Depressants like ‘reds’, Valium and Quaaludes, are where it’s at. I was amazed at the number of times Tuinal was mentioned in the many contemporary articles and reviews on Sabbath that I read to prep for this piece. Mike Saunders wrote in The Rag in 1971:

Black Sabbath are ten times cruder… (They) sing lyrics about Satan and death and evil, and attract the most strung out 16 year-old-reds-users audience of any group around.

Intentional or not, for some, Sabbath’s music was the aural equivalent of a handful of barbiturates, and the journos of the time applied adjectives like ‘plodding’ and ‘droning’ to describe the Sabbath sound ad nauseam. Bill Ward acknowledged the connection and defended the band against the ‘downer rock’ tag in Rolling Stone in ’71:

Most people live on a permanent down, but just aren’t aware of it. We’re trying to express it for people.

Strong elements of psychedelia are present in Sabbath’s early sound, and the down-tuned, dirge-like qualities of much of their music lent itself to the ‘downer’ stereotype thrown around by Sabbath’s critics at the time. ‘Heads’ were an instant and obvious audience for Sabbath’s music, and this made the band an easy target.

3Forty years ago, the young Sabs were not viewed by the press backward through the lens of four or five decades of rock and metal history, as they are today; rather they were a new band with a new sound, and could only be critically assessed against the bands of the day, particularly their ‘heavy’ contemporaries: Cream, Purple, Zeppelin, and Hendrix. When Sabbath first visited the U.S., they toured as an ill-fitting opening act for Cactus, Mountain, Canned Heat, Fleetwood Mac, Jehtro Tull, ELP, and Grand Funk Railroad, and later, headlining over Yes, Nazareth, Three Dog Night, Humble Pie, and Wild Turkey. Black Sabbath spawned a thousand imitators along the arc of their career, but in those early years, they were an anomaly; a band apart.

Sabbath’s first single, ‘Evil Woman’, failed to chart in any territory. While it reached #4 in the UK, the ‘Paranoid’ single peaked at a dismal #61 here in the States. ‘Iron Man’, released as a single in the U.S. only, actually charted higher, peaking at a still-lowly #51. In fact, Black Sabbath’s next 5 singles would all fail to chart anywhere. Each of the band’s first 5 albums, however, went Top Ten in the UK, and Top 40 in the U.S. Suffice to say Black Sabbath was not a ‘singles’ band, and did not need the support of mainstream rock radio to sell records. The fact that Sabbath was able to achieve such success while working outside of the established ‘system’ further confounded the Sabbath-haters, who were utterly incapable of grasping just what it was about this band that made then so successful.

There were some in the media who made note of the vehement bashing of Black Sabbath by the mainstream press. Here’s an excerpt from a piece called ‘Black Sabbath: Nobody But The Public Digs Sabbath’ by Keith Altham, from Record Mirror, 30 January 1971:

There would seem to be a lot of unnecessary resentment over Black Sabbath’s success in this business. And even outside it by those bastions of public musical taste who regard any kind of youthful success on an inflationary scale as some kind of obscene hype.

The word ‘resentment’ in Altham’s piece was well-chosen. By 1972, Black Sabbath were one of the biggest bands in the world. 1971’s ‘Master of Reality’ had shipped as a Gold record on advance orders alone. It reached #8 in the U.S. (#5 UK), and it’s success pulled both ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’ back into the Hot 100. There was no ‘hit single’ associated with ‘MoR; both singles pulled from the album, ‘After Forever’ and ‘Children of the Grave’, failed to chart anywhere. ‘Vol 4’ went Gold in three weeks, and became their fourth consecutive platinum album. Radio did not support them, as most Rock stations in the U.S. at the time ran with a Top Forty-based format, and the ‘Paranoid’ single only reached #61. So how did Sabbath achieve this level of success, without the support of radio or the press? Critics just couldn’t figure it out, didn’t understand the Black Sabbath phenomenon, and so they resented the hell out of them for their success.

2Touring the States repeatedly (eight times in 16 months) was part of it, but perhaps an even bigger factor was word-of-mouth. Sabbath was regarded as a ‘people’s band’, meaning ‘regular people’ dug them but the critics just didn’t get it (Grand Funk Railroad was perhaps the first band to be assigned this title; more on them in Part II). This ‘outsider’ status was pivotal to Black Sabbath’s early success… and every time a critic published a piece about how terrible Black Sabbath was, their legions of fans just loved and supported them even more. Black Sabbath did not just succeed despite the constant critical drubbing; in part, they thrived because of it.

Perhaps a 17-year old David Harris of London’s Putney district said it best, when he responded to Keith Altham’s question about the consistent trashing of Black Sabbath in the music press in that 1973 NME article:

I read some of the musical papers and I’ve always thought they’ve had a rotten deal from the critics, because they are not playing for the benefit of reporters they’re playing to us.

 


(In Part 2, we’ll look at contemporary reviews of Sabbath’s first handful of records, 1970 – 1975. And I’ll explain that Grand Funk thing.)