Marking the beat: Paranoid, 50 years on

Watch a supremely young Ozzy Osbourne keeping the beat with his head as he sings. Paranoid is a song of carefully placed syllables:

The move between the single syllable drumbeat sounds of “Make a joke and I will sigh/And you will laugh and I will cry” and the extra musical depth of the three-syllable satisfy/pacify/occupy/happiness is important. Like the bluesy vocal ornamentation Ozzy Osbourne uses to punctuate the song, the three-syllabled words are important to stop the song feeling overly repetitive.

Each triple syllable word, even though Ozzy Osbourne separates them into single beats as he sings Paranoid, is stored in the listener’s head as a three-syllable package. Three syllable words have an intrinsic, satisfying melody. There’s always added interest in bouncing between words as we hold them in our minds and the words as they are being sung to us

The drumbeat power of the song lives in the relentlessly even stressing of the words and how they’re placed. It’s a choice to write Nothing seems to satisfy rather than Nothing satisfies me. Try singing nothing satisfies me to Paranoid‘s beat. You end up having to add an extra syllable to satisfies – turning it into sat-is-fi-es.  All things are possible in English, but the power of Paranoid also lies in the ease of catching the words. True, the words aren’t always clear on first listening. Some are hard to predict. But they all fall on a natural pronunciation pattern, even though the stress pattern has been evened out to suit the drum beat.

Paranoid‘s power doesn’t only live in its lyrics. The song repeats within a range of a few notes.  It finishes a cycle and starts again on the next beat. The vocal melody isn’t fleshed out with all the notes you’d need to identify the key, in most classical or rock contexts. The vocal line alone sounds kind of ‘keyless’ (the listener can’t tell which note’s the most important) which makes it more mysterious and makes you listen harder. The brain tries to figure out where the music’s going. The guitar line tells you where the music’s going. Ozzy Osbourne’s voice doesn’t. The brain finds that intriguing.

Paranoid has something more like medieval modality. In plainchant you identify the mode from which note the melody starts with, which ones it emphasises the most and which note it ends on. None of that information is available to the listener in Paranoid.

On the Black Sabbath website they say:

The band’s musicality was generally overlooked, but they possessed an inventiveness and fluency that, in hindsight, makes them seem as much of a progressive-rock band as a heavy-metal one. Their lengthy songs had frequent meter changes, like the works of such peers as Jethro Tull (to which Iommi briefly belonged) and Yes (with whom Black Sabbath toured). There was ample room for improvisation, and Iommi, Butler and Ward were up to the task. In fact, Black Sabbath could swing with a jazzy temperament using bluesy forms and scales. Consider some of their influences: Drummer Ward grew up listening to Count Basie, bassist Butler had his head turned by Frank Zappa, guitarist Iommi found inspiration in gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, and vocalist Osbourne was a rabid fan of soul music in general and Sam and Dave in particular. His voice was melodic and well-pitched, and he never resorted to the sort of histrionic screaming that became a hallmark of metal’s lesser lights.

The Black Sabbath story began in Birmingham, England, where Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were looking to escape a life of factory work through music.

Interesting article on Black Sabbath’s working class roots in The Guardian here.

© Sing Better English, 2020


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