Listen: I don’t ask much of my music. Put aside all the pretension for a moment. It’s difficult, I know, but let’s try. What I want is this: either do something nobody else is doing, that challenges, surprises and delights my ears… OR do whatever you do so bloody well that it stands head and shoulders above the rest.
This is one reason why the majority of my music collection is heavy metal (first criterion). Well, strictly speaking Motörhead belong in the second criterion, but my three favourite bands — Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Type O Negative — are all firmly in the first.
There’s more, of course. Prodigy also fall into the first camp, as do Autechre, Brian Eno, The Sisters Of Mercy, Julian Cope, Atari Teenage Riot, Jean Michel Jarre, blah blah… but yeah, it’s mostly heavy metal.
And then there’s the second option. ABBA, Girls Aloud, a-ha, the Carpenters… Phonogram readers are wise enough to know that my being a huge fan of these bands is PERFECTLY COMPATIBLE with banging my head to Death, Testament and Anthrax when the mood strikes. YES IT IS SHUT UP.
I was eight years old when I got my first record player. A hand-me-down from my grandfather, it was a “dansette” — one of those old systems that comprised a radio tuner, turntable and amp all in one unit. The turntable spindle also featured a latch where you could stack half a dozen records, and a lever mechanism would automatically drop each one onto the platter when the previous record finished playing. Yes I am very old I said SHUT UP.
Obviously, being a nipper, I didn’t have many records of my own. In fact, I had just one: the STAR WARS soundtrack (recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with a confusing second side containing “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from Kubrick’s 2001 and a few planetary-themed pieces that were strangely NOT from Holst’s suite. Bloody odd, in hindsight).
Luckily, my parents had plenty of records. Most of them I was only allowed to listen to on “Dad’s stereo” in the lounge, where my parents could supervise me and presumably ensure I didn’t take a hammer and tongs to the vinyl, or something. But a few — evidently the ones they didn’t care about — I was allowed to take to my room and play on my own stereo.
One of these was a compilation album of what might now be termed “classic rock”. The Who, Captain Beefheart, Medicine Head, Cream, that sort of thing. It was called ROCK OF AGES, with — wait for it — a cover illustration of the title carved into a huge rockface. GEDDIT. This was the most awesome thing I had ever seen (apart from STAR WARS) and I immediately put it on the dansette and sat six inches from the speakers as the first track began to play.
“Paranoid” by Black Sabbath.
I was eight years old, for fuck’s sake. How was I supposed to deal with that? I didn’t understand a bloody word of it, and I mean that mostly literally — Ozzy’s high-register wail and congenital inability to enunciate consonants meant that for years I was singing such glorious mondegreens as “I tell you to end your life…”, which is a whole story in itself.
But on that first listen, I didn’t hear a single word. I only heard — no, FELT — the urgent four-square beat right THERE in the pit of my stomach, while Iommi chugged THAT riff with relentless precision, full of energy and power. It made me want to nod my head very fast. It instilled in me a strange feeling that can only, albeit unfortunately, be described as “thrusting”.
Paranoid remains the greatest heavy metal song of all time, and I’ll fight anyone who says different. It’s the riff that all subsequent metal was built on. The musicianship is faultless — yes, even Ozzy, bless him. The dynamics are superbly crafted. The sound is fuzzy but sharp. The guitar solo is deceptively simple and powerful. The final bar is a cliff-hanger of the highest order. And it does not fuck about — all of this awesomeness fits into less than three minutes.
It took me about a week before I even bothered listening to track 2.
Even now, when everything else from that age evokes feelings of nostalgia, fondness, even amusement at the inevitable naivety of childhood, Paranoid is different. It makes me want to bang my head, to air-drum, to grab my guitar and try to write something even a hundredth as great. Which is of course impossible, as the thousands who’ve tried already know.
Now you tell me that’s not magic.