Japanese Breakfast Listens to Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid' for the First Time
Welcome to the first installment of Blind Spots, in which we force some of our favorite artists to finally check out the most famous albums they've never heard.
Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch; Illustration by Theresa Chromati
Without Black Sabbath, metal wouldn't exist as we know it, if at all. If Sabbath's self-titled debut practically invented the genre, their 1970 sophomore album Paranoid defined it. Their best-selling and most iconic album to date, Paranoid boasted songs as iconic as "Iron Man," "War Pigs," and its title track, had memorable riffs for days, some of the coolest drum-fills ever, and of course, Ozzy Osbourne. Whatever your thoughts on the band, through 19 albums, especially their unassailable first six, it's clear four working class blokes from Birmingham, UK. changed music forever.
While many people would dub Black Sabbath the Most Important Band That Ever Lived, many more aren't familiar with them. One of those Sabbath-neophytes is Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner. Her latest album Soft Sounds From Another Planet (out now), an excellent and remarkably diverse indie pop collection featuring spacey synths, delicately shimmering ballads, and emotionally-blunt, sometimes science fiction-inspired lyrics, unsurprisingly, sounds nothing like Black Sabbath.
So, before her show opening up for (Sandy) Alex G at Chicago's Bottom Lounge recently, Noisey cracked open a cold one with her in her green room and put on Black Sabbath's Paranoid, an album she's never heard until now. Below is her song-by-song reaction.
1. War Pigs
Michelle Zauner: I know this song because it's on Guitar Hero 2 and it's towards the end of the game and I remember it was really hard to play. I was really into playing that when I was in college. There was also a Muse song "Knights of Cydonia" that was so hard! My boyfriend and I at the time, we would just not go out, stay in and try to beat all the Guitar Hero songs on Expert. We probably spent three days trying to get those songs down. It was really fun.
Noisey: So Guitar Hero was your gateway to Sabbath or were you into any other metal bands at all?
No, definitely not. I'm too much of a soft-tenderoni baby to like ever listen to metal. My dad had some Fleetwood Mac albums and I had a classic rock phase because I thought that's what people were into music listened to as a kid like The Doors, Pink Floyd, and stuff like that. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where indie rock was hugely accessible. Being from Eugene, Oregon, specifically, Elliott Smith was the Portland hero who opened the doors for me to Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, Modest Mouse, Built To Spill and stuff—the beginning of the music I loved that developed my taste.
But my one memory of anything related to Sabbath is watching The Osbournes on TV when that was airing. My first image of Ozzy Osbourne was that show. I don't even know what he looked like when he was younger. Also, How many guitarists are in this band?
It's just Tony Iommi. It's a four-piece band. Along with Iommi and Osbourne, there's bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward.
Wait. There's only one guitar in this band? That's absolutely crazy. I don't think this is what I'd usually associate with a metal band. This has very bluesy, classic rock kind of vibe. One of the bands I mentioned when we were figuring out the album I hadn't heard was Metallica and I know they're much heavier. When I played in Little Big League, our drummer was a huge Metallica fan.
Isn't this on Guitar Hero as well?
Yeah, Guitar Hero 3 . According to Geezer Butler from an old interview, "We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing." It all seemed to come together extremely fast but it still ended up being their highest-charting U.K. single.
It sounds kind of like a punk song. I'm really into it. It's really funny to me because I know there must've been people in that generation who first heard this and thought, "what is this noise?" but to me now, this is almost like pop music. You know what I mean?
Where the band really terrified people back in the day now you'll hear the songs at sports stadiums. But it still shreds.
Oh, it really does. In general, I want to write more guitar solos in my songs. It's nice to hear a band do it so well. There's not enough guitar solos in music right now. I felt the same way last time I saw Veruca Salt. My next record is going to be all butt-rock guitar solos.
3. Planet Caravan
Whoa, this is really sleepy and chill and also, what a cool title: "Planet Caravan"! While this whole album feels like a smoking pot record, this song especially does. Also, I know they have Black Sabbath songs in Almost Famous but this reminds me of when the kid was sitting by the record player in his room and he's freaking out because this song from the '70s was unlocking his world.
4. Iron Man
This song actually has nothing to do with Iron Man, the superhero. It's actually about a man who travels to the future, sees the apocalypse, and gets turned into steel and can't warn people about it.
That's fucking tight.
Also, one of my favorite anecdotes about this song is that it apparently was originally supposed to be called "Iron Bloke" because Ozzy Osbourne thought Tony Iommi's riff "seemed like a big iron bloke walking about."
Who changed it to "Iron Man"? Were they just like, you know what would be better than "Iron Bloke"? "Iron MAN!"
That's probably exactly how it happened. Also, this one was on the first Guitar Hero .
Wait, really? You're telling me that there are three songs on this album on the Guitar Hero? From an eight-song record? Also, do you feel like most drummers miss this Sabbath-era heyday where they could just fill the fuck out of everything? This guy is going crazy.
5. Electric Funeral
I'm going to read these lyrics: "Supernatural king/Takes Earth under his wing/Heaven's golden chorus sings/Hell's angels flap their wings/Evil souls fall to Hell/Ever trapped in burning cells!" Holy shit, dude. But we all have to admit that "Robot minds of robot slaves/Lead them to atomic graves" is deep as fuck.
I also like that aspect of metal where it's very rooted in Norse mythology and how they're really into the fantastical. You don't get that in really any other genre.
6. Hand of Doom
I can tell right away this one is about the draft. Or is it about heroin with that "push the needle in" line?
Well, both. It's specifically about the addiction that plagued veterans returning from Vietnam.
That makes sense. Listening to this section, I still can't believe there's just one guitar. These riffs sound so full. Oh my god, these drum fills are so, so funny and crazy. I'm going to let my drummer play like this tonight.
7. Rat Salad
They are very good at these song titles but I think "Rat Salad" is my favorite. I like that it's instrumental, all guitar
8. Fairies Wear Boots
This is the only song that Ozzy Osbourne wrote lyrics to on the album. So there are two main threads to the lyrical this song: One is that Osbourne's referring to a group of Doc Martens-wearing U.K. skinheads he'd fight as fairies and the other is that Osbourne was doing a lot of drugs and came up with some fantastical imagery to go along with it.
This is a cool song. So far, "Fairies wears boots and you gotta believe me" has been most of the lyrics. You know those memes where they put a picture of classic Bob Dylan lyrics or something against a Nicki Minaj song about butts to prove she's actually not a great artist or whatever? You could post these lyrics sans-context and make the same shitty meme about the most seminal metal band of all time. It's so annoying! Remember when people were making memes pitting Beck against Beyonce after the 2015 Grammys? Guess what? There are some dumb fucking Beck lyrics!
I really enjoyed it. It's also much shorter than I expected. When I think of metal, I think of more Pantera-style chuggy and scream-y kind of thing. This seems so much more chill, stoner-and-classic rock kind of vibe. Like "Paranoid" seems like a pop-minded punk song to me: it's super-tight and only around two minutes and 45 seconds.
I think that one thing I'm taking away from this is how metal bands explore themes in their music like that kind of fantasy, mythology, and occult kind of stuff. I love how this genre is attracted to these common things and it's so stylized and particular. It kind of disrupts this idea that we like music that we can immediately identify with, where some music tries to build this cult-of-personality thing where you can really relate to someone's identity or feelings.
I remember reading every Chan Marshall, Bill Callahan, or Jeff Tweedy interview I could get my hands on because their songs made me want to keep knowing more about the person making it. But I feel like with this, it's not really personal it's all political, or rooted in the occult or weird, wacky drug trips so what do you grasp on? I love that it's a completely different relationship to the music and the artist. I guess you think of metal musicians as these Norse Gods, like how you'd conceive of Ozzy Osbourne from just the "bat thing"—like an otherworldly person that you can't immediately relate to other than just pure spectacle.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.