As the compact disc rose to ascendancy in the second half of the 1980s it appeared that vinyl was headed to the dustbin of history to hang out with Betamax tapes, rotary telephones, and disco. Cassettes hung on for a bit, but it wasn’t long before the Walkman was replaced by the Discman and the CD completed its domination, having crushed all before it. There were things we lost as part of this transition. Music recorded specifically for digital fell victim to its own hubris, the loudness wars reducing sonic range. Album art became less important with the smaller format. And, most importantly in my opinion, we lost the concept of the “album side”.
Having distinct album sides gave artists options in laying out their albums, providing a natural break between two groups of songs (or four if it was a double album). Often this held little if any significance other than the leading singles generally occupying side A. But occasionally the separation was like a line in the sand. Side B of Black Flag’s My War was a complete departure from the band’s sound, a move that pissed off their fan base something fierce. In 1968 Iron Butterfly gave over the B side of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to a 17-minute version of the title track, one that took the entire side and became the litmus test of both heavy psych and, to some extent, self-indulgence. Of course Blue Öyster Cult threw a curve ball at the whole thing with Imaginos, a concept album with a linear storyline but with the songs appearing in non-linear order, which is bizarre on a lot of levels. But I digress. The other thing albums sides do is give us the ability to break down an album into smaller parts. Sure, we can talk about the greatest albums of all time. But we can also talk about the greatest album sides of all time, the best four for five (or three… or six…) songs in a row, sides that force you to listen to them all the way through because they’re so perfect. The kinds of sides that you play from start to finish, meaning you had maybe 15-20 minutes before you’d have to get up and put something else on the turntable.
Which brings me to Paranoid. Side A of Paranoid is one of the all-time great album sides. And I do mean all-time greats.
- War Pigs
- Planet Caravan
- Iron Man
Black Sabbath are one of the originators of truly heavy metal, revered by just about everyone and producing a list of hits as long as your arm. And yet arguably three of their biggest all-time most popular songs appear on the four-song side A of their second album, Paranoid. The anti-war “War Pigs” combines weight, shredding guitars, and completely music free stretches in which Ozzy basically sings a cappella. Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight / They leave that role for the poor. “Paranoid” was written as a last-minute filler, a throw-away song that immediately caught on with it’s matter-of-fact depiction of mental health struggles. I tell you to enjoy life / I wish I could but it’s too late. And that brings us to the criminally underrated “Planet Caravan”, a psych trip of spacey grooviness, an acid-soaked journey through the inner space of the mind, the guitar work sounding more like something by Santana than by Sabbath. Which brings us to “Iron Man”, a truly strange song both in structure and story. The opening metronome-like kick drum followed by the tuned down distorted guitar, then launching into the heaviest and most plodding jam ever. The entire time you’re waiting for the pace to increase and it doesn’t; it stays relentlessly heavy and in time, never breaking free, like nails being pounded into your head. He was turned to steel / In the great magnetic field. A song about alienation and revenge. Nobody wants him / They just turned their heads / Nobody helps him / Now he has his revenge. It’s a comic book story come to life, only without a hero to come and save the day in the last 10 pages. No. This time there are no heroes. Only revenge.
Four songs. The powerful. The fast. The slow. The heavy. All excellent in their own rights, and fitting perfectly together across 21 minutes of grooved vinyl.
The B side of Paranoid is no slouch in its own right. “Electric Funeral” is the love-child of “Planet Caravan” and “Iron Man”, all dense psych and great riffs, and all four of the flip side tracks are solid. But that A side, that sweet, sweet A side, is a masterpiece and definitely one of the all-time greats.