There are two societal fields in which most of us remain almost muzzled and our hands are tied: economy and politics. We might be allowed to vote, to buy and sell as we see fit, and to line up for rallies against everything we dislike – but in essence we are powerless when greater forces decide the fates of our nations. The generation of Black Sabbath were heirs to their forefathers’ swoon. Having grown up in the post-war depression marked by lack and loss as much as by restart and stoical strength, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward soon turned a critical eye on the subject of war and political cowardice. Their second album “Paranoid” (1970) features songs such as “War Pigs”, “Iron Man” and “Electric Funeral”, haunting reminders of the havoc humans are capable of wreaking.
Make love, not war: Iommi and Osbourne making peace in 1973
Faceless Generals are compared to witches and deathly sorcerers in “War Pigs”. They are accused of having poisoned the masses’ minds, whereas politicians, blinded by power, “[make] war just for fun” and “[treat] people just like pawns in chess”. Wars are fought by and on the backs of common people, yet not by those who pull the greater political strings – nothing about this perception has changed since Ozzy claimed that “Politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war. Why should they go out to fight? They leave that all to the poor.” Finally, characteristic Black Sabbath manner of course demands the introduction of the threat of Judgement Day, with “Satan [who] laughing spreads his wings” as every political wrongdoer’s eternal host.
Less unambiguous but equally gloomy a message is contained in the lyrics of “Iron Man”. When dealing with lyrics, behind every corner lurks the danger of interpretation. However, this step sometimes must be taken for the sake of understanding the words in a song as more than random expressions. What if Iron Man, who “was turned to steel” and plans vengeance because “nobody wants him” is understood to be a soldier after war? “Has he lost his mind? Can he see or is he blind? Can he walk at all, or if he moves will he fall? Is he alive or dead? Has he thoughts within his head? We’ll just pass him there, why should we even care?”, Ozzy sings. Similarly, Iron Man could be a greater metaphor for war itself, leaden, unwanted, vindictive, and randomly chasing any group of victims. I am Iron Man.
In “Electric Funeral”, Black Sabbath finally turn towards the hysteric threat of atomic war, again deploying religious metaphors linked to occultism. The burning globe resembles “electric funeral pyre”, and during its expiration it’s the “supernatural king” of atomic power who takes mother earth under his wing, accompanied by Hell’s angels.
At a time when war had ceased to be part of people’s daily worries, politics, economy and society opened up various new vistas of critique for the eager musician.The Metallic nineties brought recollections of revolution, hints at global pollution, and a general sense of being lost in a world too big and too fast for us. An outright pessimistic view of our world was put into lyrics by Machine Head on their record “Supercharger” in 2001. The “Blank Generation”, this is us, confronted with the ills of progress, regress, excess.
Machine Head in the Nineties: the Supercharger cover
Robb Flynn sings that “they say we been going down and going down, been traveling on the road to nowhere.” He describes how when growing up he slowly realised that the world was worse than she seemed, and her way could only lead downwards. (Note: I am aware that the narrator in these lyrics is not necessarily Robert Flynn, but I point-blank refuse to employ artificial academic terms such as lyrical persona in this blog!) Corruption, greed, hate and pain, which “we learned to see” and, perhaps, to accept as normal, put an end to mankind’s innocence. Machine Head’s toast to this lost innocence is a toast to the generation of the blank, and it reads thus:
So here’s to our collagen lips and saline tits
To our growth hormones and antibiotics
To the Hollywood world we made out of Barbie doll hearts
After we melted them down so we could make our new start
Here’s to a generation scared and always wondering why
Instead of playing doctor, we play shoot each other and die
Instead of ring around the Rosie, we play hide from Mommy
‘Cause Mommy’s been drinking again and we don’t want to get beat
Even with all our tattoos and all our cheap thrills
There’s still a hole inside of us that may not ever get filled
So we give back a little bit of what the world’s given us
Giving back a bit of never giving a fuck
Here’s to the justice never dealt, to innocent, proven guilty
Here’s to bad cops turning cheeks when real cops are on the street
Here’s to the rat-tat-n-tat of gun shots, and your life is shattered
Here’s to “Gimme me your cash or your brains is gettin’ splattered”
Here’s to mad cow disease and all that yummy MSG
Here’s to Mickey d’s serving all those mutant chick-a-dees
This is a toast to celebrate the end of our innocence
This is a toast to celebrate how
We’ve become desensitized
If life is to grow
Some life must die
Are we the “Blank Generation”? Convince yourself.
There is truth in these words. Enough truth to suggest that, lyrically, Heavy Metal is far from dumb and evil…