What a Rockumentary Can Really Teach Us.

(This was originally posted at emusician.com on June 24, 2010.)

Black Sabbath is one of the most influential bands for young, aspiring rock musicians for two simple reasons: their riffs are heavy and they are easy to play. Like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, but unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” “N.I.B.”, and “Paranoid” take moments to learn, but provide the gateway drug to a lifetime of rock guitar playing. Or drumming. Or bass playing.

I’ll let others debate whether that’s a good thing.

I had a reawakening to the charm of these riffs after hearing “Fairies Wear Boots” on satellite radio a few months ago. It wasn’t difficult convincing my bandmates in Pink Mountain that it would be the perfect cover song (we only play one) for our West Coast tour last year. “Fairies Wear Boots” has it all—a driving rhythm, awkward tempo and feel changes, and impenetrable lyrics.

Watch Sabbath play the song live in 1970. Merely a year or two before this performance, they were still a boogie band. See what a bad influence the blues can be?

Black Sabbath’s most influential album, Paranoid, is the subject of the latest installment in the Classic Albums series (distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment). If you are unfamiliar with the Classic Album documentaries, queue a couple of them up on Redbox or Netflix. The albums covered so far include Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon, Steely Dan Aja, Queen A Night at the Opera, Bob Marley and the Wailers Catch A Fire, and Frank Zappa Apostrophe (‘). Metallica, Elton John, Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed, Nirvana, Meat Loaf—the list of artists covered in the series is long and varied.

The documentaries are based around interviews with the main players of each album—musicians, engineers, management, label execs—with some critics and younger rock stars thrown in for whatever reason. But unlike the MTV or VH-1 take, which fixates on the sordid details behind depraved lifestyle choices, the DVDs in this series focus on the music itself—how it was created, what the band was trying to do, and who did what, when. Okay, there are some juicy bits, too, but they’re tastefully downplayed.

Often the individual musicians demonstrate their parts from a hit song or two, talking you through what went into creating it. This may sound like a “for musicians only” affair, but the pacing and editing keeps things moving nicely.

For me, the highlight of each DVD is when the engineer, sitting at the mixer, solos tracks from the multitrack master tapes. You’ll hear parts that didn’t make it into the final mix, or the individual components of a difficult-to-discern submix. Anyone can dig up grainy photos of a band when they were slogging it out in the clubs. But to locate and playback each of the basic tracks for the first time in four decades? Priceless!

In this case, engineer Tom Allom walks us through a handful of tunes that were originally recorded to 1-inch, 4-track tape at Regent Sound Studio, but were later filled out with guitar doublings and final vocals at Island studios. Thanks to Allom we get to hear Ozzy improvising lyrics as the band does the basics. It was Ozzie’s penchant for singing along with the guitar riff in Sabbath that nearly killed the concept of melody for a generation of rock musicians. Yet Osbourne’s delivery is outstanding: He may have become a rock-and-roll clown through media overexposure, but the man can deliver hard-rock lyrics like few others.

Overall, these documentaries are very well shot and have excellent sound—particularly when the musicians are demonstrating their music. Watching Tony Iommi play his riffs close up is a revelation. And you’d never know by hearing him play that he has prosthetic caps on two of the fingers of his fretting hand—the fingers he severely injured in an industrial accident. It was after he heard Django Reinhardt, and learned of the jazz player’s own hand injury, that Iommi realized that he could play guitar again.

At one point, he walks us through the various riffs in “War Pigs.” If I was 12 years old and into music, that section alone would inspire me to take up the guitar. Unfortunately, it’s not included in the documentary itself: Some of the most interesting playing is saved for the extras part of the DVD. I realize this series is intended for general broadcast and not meant to be instructional videos, but come on—who doesn’t want to hear their favorite guitar player play a killer lick!

For that matter, who really cares what Henry Rollins has to say about Black Sabbath? Let the people who were there tell the story. (Rollins would be just as pissed off as I was to have to sit through a gratuitous rock-star cameo before hearing more from the band members themselves.)

And listening to Chris Phipps, “Music Historian,” state the importance of the band so emphatically that his jowls shake reminds me of how easily critics and historians can suck the enjoyment out of music with their exaggeration. Do we really need someone to tell us how important a band like Black Sabbath is to rock history? Why else would there be a documentary about only one of their records?

(Beatles + jazz) x tritone = proto-metal
Although I’m a bit tired of hearing Ozzy Osbourne go on about things in general, his take on the early days of Sabbath is pretty entertaining. But the tales from the other band members are far more enlightening, such as learning that the lyric contributions were often from bassist “Geezer” Butler.

After Ozzie and the gang tell how the Beatles inspired each of them as young players, drummer Bill Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi relate their jazz influences—something you definitely hear (at least in retrospect) on Paranoid. “It really is like Swing, with power.” Ward says, describing the rhythm section. In fact, it was Ward’s jazz-inspired feel and his triplet-based fills that knocked me out as a young drummer. It’s those subtle swing and shuffle feels in the drumming of many of the early British rockers such as Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr that makes it difficult for modern bands to convincingly cover the music of that era.

As a drummer, my reaction to Ward’s technical abilities reflects what I’ve written earlier about the playing of Starr and Watts: the music is most compelling when these guys are playing at the edge of their ability. And Paranoid has some of the roughest drum parts of nearly any hit record. (The album was number one on the charts, shoving aside Simon and Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones to get there.)

Not only is Ward’s time all over the map, the band can’t quite agree on where the downbeat is after a few of the drum fills. (Granted, they disagree by only a few milliseconds.) Where John Bonham’s playing of the same era was solid, often behind the beat, but with a clockwork feeling of the Big Ben variety, Bill Ward—raised on the same music as Bonzo—pushed and pulled, stretching the time like a wad of gum. His fills might tumble around like tennis shoes in a dryer, or he might race to cram as many hits into a roll as he could, sometimes cheating them into the down beat. (There’s a bit of that in the video clip above.) But it’s the feel, musicality, raw energy, and risk taking that makes Ward’s drumming so exciting. I can’t think of another drummer who has taken as many chances on a hit record since then. Keith Moon comes closest.

Sabbath at the Star Club
All of that is a reminder that there were no magazines that covered the techniques of rock drumming, or that focused solely on the latest guitar and bass technologies. Musicians at the time fumbled through things as they developed their sound. Those were naïve times when it comes to the music and its tools. It’s interesting to hear the band explain that, after flying their PA over for their first U.S. tour, they learned the hard way that our power mains are at a different voltage level than the UK’s.

Like most of the major acts coming out of Britain at the time, Black Sabbath cut its teeth playing live, including a stint at the Star Club in Hamburg doing eight 45-minute sets per day. It’s the classic regimen that worked for the Beatles and many other bands, who not only honed their act but used it as a way to develop new songs. At the beginning of their booking in Hamburg, Sabbath’s repertoire was so meager that Ward would be given an entire set to work out on the drums, just so the band could save up enough tunes for later sets (as well as renew their buzz at the bar in the meantime).

It’s a reminder that the bands of that era had places to play on a regular basis. Where can bands go these days to play three sets of originals in front of a crowd, several nights in a row, in the same venue?

“Nobody but the public digs Black Sabbath.”
I can’t recommend the Classic Album series enough. The episodes will be far more interesting to gigging and recording musicians because of the layers and nuance in every scene, whether it’s about how the band wrote a song, hearing the engineer talk about the psychology of doing multiple takes, a record exec explaining the importance of sell-through, or the manager describing how the band name and the sound need to be aligned for a group to have serious commercial potential.

That’s the hidden value of the Classic Albums, but the rockumentaries in this series merely hint at what’s possible. I wish that somebody would take the genre a little further. Imagine a DVD about [your favorite record] where every person involved—musicians, engineers (mixing and mastering), manager, booker, publicist, label, etc.—gave you the details on what really happened to help make a certain album take over the world. No doubt there would be juicy tidbits, too. Just ask the roadies.

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