War Pigs by Black Sabbath! Sorry, it’s such an obvious choice for ‘Record of the Day’. What’s next? Smells Like Teen Spirit? Bohemian Rhapsody?
There are easily ten Black Sabbath songs I could have picked for this – personal favourites like Supernaut, Sweet Leaf and Sabbra Caddabra – but nothing quite compares to War Pigs. Some people will tell you that Paranoid is Black Sabbath’s best song; these people are wrong.
War Pigs was the first track on Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, recorded just four months after their self-titled debut LP. It was constructed from scraps of the on-stage jams that the band used in their early days of performing when they didn’t have enough material for a full set. Sabbath took the base metal of these riffs, melted them down and cast a multi-part, eight-minute, heavy, funky, anti-war epic. It was a true collaboration involving each member of the original line-up – Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward – and they all take credit for polishing it up into the masterpiece that it is.
The song showcases Tony Iommi’s genius for crafting guitar riffs, from the lumbering, monstrous opening chords, through the jagged urgency of the first verse, the lip-curling funk-metal of the middle section and the intricate drama of the outro. Backed up by the incomparable rhythm section of Butler and Ward, the song became an absolute behemoth.
Bass player Geezer Butler was the man responsible for the lyrics, a vehement indictment of warmongering governments, shot through with bitterness that it’s the lower classes who are expected to die for their worthless causes. The opening lyric is the classic couplet that famously dares to rhyme ‘masses’ with ‘masses’:
Generals gathered in their masses,
Just like witches at black masses
That’s not the only example of lyrical clunkiness. Later on Ozzy accuses politicians of ‘starting wars just for fun’. It would have been more accurate to say ‘starting wars to feed the military-industrial complex’ or ‘starting wars to distract from domestic matters’, but I guess these wouldn’t have scanned or rhymed.
Naïve as some of the words might be, it’s hard to argue with the sentiment and more lines hit the mark than those that don’t – ‘Death and hatred to mankind’ is a neat inversion of the hippie ‘peace and love’ mantra, for example. Anyway, Ozzy sells it all completely with his earnest, anguished howl.
War Pigs is the seminal moment of Black Sabbath’s long, illustrious career. Their first four albums are packed with quality and this is the high point of that period – their creative peak. It’s as relevant today as ever. Tragically, that includes the subject matter. But just listen to those riffs!
As an acknowledged heavy metal standard, War Pigs has been covered dozens of times. My favourite is Alice Donut’s punk/brass version from their 1991 album Revenge Fantasies of the Impotent. Lines like ‘Evil minds that plot destruction’ are given powerful new resonance when farted out on a trombone.