Black Sabbath’s founding drummer Bill Ward reflects on a half century of their heavy metal milestone
On September 18, 1970 Black Sabbath released its second album in the UK, a mere seven months after its eponymous debut.
Has there ever in history been another one-two punch like that? Those two albums defined a new genre and inspired countless bands to follow along. Thousands of doom metal bands have attempted to match that leaden swagger. They may grasp the riffs, the tempo, the banshee wail, but none seem to ever capture the jazz-inflected rhythms of master Bill Ward.
Like the rest of his former bandmates, Ward was born and raised in Birmingham. Just a few years earlier the city had been rocked and cratered by German aircraft.
“You know,” says Ward, “the house where I was born was next to a bomb site. We called them the ‘bomb buildings’ and I played in the bombed buildings and that was my playground. I found out later that it was bombed during World War II. But to me, as a child, it was just like, oh, wow, you know, more adventure.”
Ward also found escape through his parents’ love of 1940s jazz. Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa were particular heroes. If any song initiated his specific interest in percussion, it was Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” with Krupa’s rolling thunder tom intro.
Thanks to the support of his mother, teen Ward was able to purchase a simple Premier drum kit and graduate beyond the pots and pans stage. Eventually he played in a band with Tony Iommi called Mythology. When that group folded, the two young Brummies joined forces with Terry “Geezer” Butler and John “Ozzy” Osbourne to form a heavy blues band called Earth, which, after a hard working apprenticeship rebranded itself Black Sabbath.
In 1969 the band was signed, contracted, and on their way. Ward speaks of those simpler days with fondness. “Well, at that time, we were obviously very young, so I was excited, you know, every day about the way things might work out. We were in the middle of, or at the beginnings of, all these new adventures.”
Sabbath’s first album was the most refined early version of heavy metal. That landmark achieved Top 20 status in their homeland. On a rampage to build their career, there was little time to rest due to a rigorous tour schedule.
Looking over those 1970 itineraries today, Ward recalls, “We were dodging back and forth from England, going across the North Sea, going across the English Channel, back into France, going up to Scandinavia, going over to Berlin, coming back and playing a few gigs in England and going back again. And it was crazy. It tired me out even to think that we actually did that kind of work, you know, just playing in so many different places.”
With interest in the band far greater than Vertigo had expected, the label clamored for another record. Sabbath practically lived in their Transit van; there was no rest for the wicked. “Can you believe that?” asks Ward. “Then we had to find the energy to go into a studio, you know. Thank God we were all young. I mean we were only 21, 20, 21 years old.”
Many of the songs on Paranoid had been written in advance. “War Pigs” famously began its life as “Walpurgis” but primary lyricist Geezer Butler decided to shy away from the uncomfortable witchcraft and devil-worship associations that the press (and their publicists) had thrust upon them. So he changed the topic to something far more timely.
While the air raid siren in “War Pigs” recalls the WWII rubble amongst which the members of Sabbath had played as lads, contemporary ears heard it as a criticism of US interventions in Vietnam. “If I had any thoughts about that war at all,” Ward says, “it was about the humanness of that and the human tragedy of that.”
VIDEO: Jamel aka Jamal reacts to a live version of “War Pigs”
Ward may have disapproved of war, but he makes it clear that he has always supported the troops. “When we finally arrived in America we would see those soldiers coming back from Vietnam and we would say hello and try to be courteous. But I know that it was not, in America at that time, it was not popular war–if there’s ever such thing as a popular war. But I know that there was a lot of controversy surrounding that.”
A few other tracks that had been kicking around were “Rat Salad” which included a rare nod toward then de rigueur drum solos, and “Faeries Wear Boots” inspired by a run-in between Sabbath and a group of skinhead yobs.
The rest of Paranoid was composed in Wales. Ward recalls, “We were actually for the first time in Rockport, down in Monmouthshire. I think it was Kingsley Ward’s studio, which became Rockfield Studios a little bit later on and became quite famous for the different bands that played there. But when we played there, it was a very small cottage, a very small house, and we lived very…not luxury but very basic living quarters.”
His most vivid recollection from their days of preparation revolves around the crafting of one of the most monolithic songs ever put to tape. “I remember particularly working on ‘Hand of Doom’” he says. “We were in the living room and I had my drums set up…and I remember we were doing the really sinister parts, ‘What you gonna do?’ Those parts… I was doing that little thing on the snare with the stick across the snare drum… so it’s kind of a clicky sound and there’s almost like a little jazz feel to it. And I remember that. I just loved the whole thing about it.”
“If I think about it just for a second, there’s something that I enjoyed about it because we were in such a remote place…in this farmhouse in the countryside. And, you know, there was a warm fire burning and food was cooking in the kitchen, and there was a safety to that. There’s a safety attached to that. Mounmouthshire was a very quiet place. It’s, you know, just a nice place to be.”
In contrast to this feeling of safety were the lyrics to “Hand of Doom”–about a veteran struggling with heroin addiction. “I don’t think it’s a nice memory in some instances about what we did lyrically–they were very pointed,” says Ward. “And I’m not going to say that the lyric was a bad lyric. The subject matter was very, very tough to write about. Just a lot of people were getting killed, you know, so that’s not always a good subject.”
With their next opus assembled, the band migrated to Regent Studios in London to spend five days recording the album that they still planned to title War Pigs. Artwork had been prepared featuring a neon knight who has since become the butt of many jokes. The fact that an image so corny was incapable of snuffing the power of the music within is a testament to the timeless quality of the compositions. Paranoid boasts no filler tracks, no dull moments.
The band was anxious to move beyond its blues roots and make a more definitive statement. “Even though we’d got some experience,” says Ward, “a year’s experience or six months experience, a lot can happen in that time when a band’s growing and moving along very quickly. So we had to do it again to find out what we’d changed to by the time we reached Paranoid.”
Sabbath’s first album had also been recorded at Regent, using the same produce in Rodger Bain, and according to Ward, the same Ludwig drum kit. But contrast the drum sound on the two albums and a wrinkle unfurls.
Ward explains, “I like the open sound that we had on the first record. But by the time the second record came–I’ve complained a bit about [this]–I didn’t know enough about sonics. And we’d already gotten louder with bass and we’d already started to double track guitar. So we had multi-tracks. And the one thing that hadn’t changed was I was still bouncing my drums. So we’d record the drums and bounce them all onto one track or two tracks.”
This process left Ward competing for frequencies with Geezer’s increasingly prominent bass tone and Iommi’s burgeoning layered approach to guitar tracking. Listen to the kick drum sound at the start of “Iron Man” and you’ll notice that what could easily been the report of a cannon has been muted to an underwhelming quartet of taps.
VIDEO: Black Sabbath “Iron Man”
Neither did the band have much studio experience yet. Sabbath had built its prowess on stage. Translating its dynamic riffage onto four-track tape was a challenge. “I think it was difficult for everybody coming from, at a very rapid pace, day after day, coming from acoustic halls, big halls, outside arenas. And the ears have to be accustomed to different acoustic sounds. Those changeovers were difficult–to come into a dead room and have no reverberation coming from any place (he laughs) like, ‘oh my God, I’m playing on a box!’”
No matter how he or anyone feels about the drum sound, the performances were incendiary. “One of the things that I did was I pushed all of my energy into every single take. And so everything was forceful. I mean that’s where we come from. Twenty-four hours before I was kicking the crap out of my drum kit on some of those songs. And so, you know, I didn’t have a chance to change anything in terms of the aggression or anything. So I would come in and play like I did the previous day.”
Beyond the dynamics within individual tracks, Iommi was aware that the album as a whole needed a softer tune, if only to give heavier tracks like “Electric Funeral” their full weight. The space age ballad “Planet Caravan” served this purpose well, and gave Ward the opportunity to develop new skills.
“I think that was the first time I ever played a pair of bongos,” he admits. “I started to get more percussion as time went on and started playing around with all kinds of things. But at that point, you know, having some bongos was like really a step forward. You know, that was a huge thing. It’s just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to play some bongos,’” he says with a laugh.
AUDIO: Black Sabbath “Planet Caravan”
Thrown into deep space with only a pair of small hand drums to cling to, Ward found a sense of gravity in the song itself. “I tried to play to the lyric. The lyric on that song for me was the lead instrument. The lyric and, you know, Ozzy’s voice, obviously. So I tried to play where it suited Ozzy’s voice, and lyrically, what was he saying lyrically… And I tried to play to the lyric and add more to the lyric. So I tried to do that, you know, with what little I had.”
Knowing that the songs were often tracked with a scratch vocal, I wondered how that affected Ward’s approach to playing to the lyric. After all, the Sanctuary release of Paranoid includes the “alternate lyrics” version of “Planet Caravan” featuring Ozzy’s love song, placeholder first pass. Ward dismisses this as being an obstacle. “I would go calculate what needs to be done,” he says. “And it’s a natural calculation. It’s not something you work for days on end. It’s a calculation that you can do within seconds.”
The story of the last minute composition of Paranoid’s title track has been mythologized over time. Some have suggested that the album was too short, that another track was needed to fill up time. But there’s ample evidence that the record was plenty long enough–Vertigo simply pressed the band to write something short that could be used as a single. No matter the true story there’s no arguing that playing “Paranoid” on Top of the Pops shoved Sabbath into a different echelon than its progressive, album-oriented intentions.
Knowing the band had a tour schedule to maintain, I wondered if they were even present for the final mix of the album. Ward peers back through fifty years of time to recall. “I think we were there when it all came together. I’m not entirely sure, but I think once we’re [done] at that studio, we were gone. We were on our way. I don’t ever remember coming back into the studio to listen to a final mix or some of the luxuries that we have today. I don’t recall that at all. I just recall, ‘That’s it. OK, thanks.’”
And what about the moment Paranoid hit number one in the UK? Where was he then? “I think me and Tony were back in London at the publishers, or we were doing an interview. And someone came in and told us that we were Number One. I think that might have been that occasion, I could be wrong.”
In the midst of unprecedented success, Ward was more focused on playing, and in those days, partying. The accolades were water off a (humble) duck’s back. “All the other stuff is a little bit kind of heady. I didn’t know what all that meant, you know? I imagined what that would mean when I was like 15 or 12 years old, when I wanted to be a rock star. But when it actually arrived, I mean, those kind of big things happen to you. I didn’t quite know how to be a part of that. I didn’t know what to do. To be honest.”
VIDEO: Black Sabbath “Paranoid”
The fact that heavy metal—the loudest of musical genres—is now fifty years old, and its most iconic album statement has reached that same milestone is not lost on Ward. But he continues to nurture and study the next generation of percussionists.
“Now I’m 72 and I’ve been having a few health problems…I don’t feel like I’m an old man yet. But being in a more mature age it’s a great place to be alongside watching some of my favorite guys in the world go into action and revolutionize drumming.”
Every heavy metal drummer of the last fifty years has had Ward’s shoulders to stand on, and Paranoid remains a gold standard as one of the greatest albums of all time.
AUDIO: Black Sabbath Paranoid (full album)