The Paranoid Mind Of Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward
Inside The Paranoid Mind Of Bill Ward
40 Years On, Black Sabbath's Metal Masterpiece Still Reigns Supreme
The first heavy metal album. That’s what critics routinely say when referring to Black Sabbath’s 1970 magnum opus, Paranoid. It’s serious baggage for a band to carry around, but Bill Ward could give a toss. Paranoid represents something larger than a genre template for this 62-year-old, and his band’s second album is on the order of a generation’s clarion call, a musical-cultural sea change, even. That several eras’ worth of keg-chugging devil’s horn—flashing metal fans still embrace it four decades after its release, well, bully for ol’ Bill.
When we rang him up, Ward, comfortably nestled in his beach-front condo just south of Los Angeles, had recently viewed the making-of DVD documentary celebrating Paranoid’s 40th anniversary for Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Classic Albums series (which also features the original disc, a quadraphonic mix (a ’70s version of surround sound), and some instrumental mixes and versions with alternate lyrics). “The only thing that I was a little bit grumpy about was that the guitar parts – showing how each thing was played – I felt just went a little bit too long,” Ward says, voicing a universal drummer gripe as timeless and relatable as anything he played on Paranoid.
The biggest myth about the salad days of Black Sabbath is that it was all just one big limo-chauffeured, drug-gobbling, female-thronged blow-out. What substance there was to that media-massaged image, the band scarcely had the time to savor. “We were in the eyes of the hurricane,” Ward says of the weeks just prior to the Paranoid sessions, which Sabbath spent on the road promoting their debut throughout Europe. To the band and Warner Bros.’ surprise, 1969’s Black Sabbath was ascending rapidly up the charts, so label execs were keen to have them crank out another record. No sooner had they finished the continental jaunt than they were thrown into London’s Island Studios with producer Roger Bain and engineer Tom Allom.
During those five days at Island, the work pace was so frantic and the process so new, it barely had time to sink in. Funny how the little things stay with a person. “I was bowled over at the time by the way Roger Bain looked,” Ward recalls. “He wore Converse sneakers and so did I. It was nothing what he’s done for records or his skills as a producer or anything else. It was literally something like, ’He looks pretty cool. All right.’”
Before a single note could be recorded, Bain and Allom struggled to do justice to Sabbath’s brand of wide-screen blues metal. “The producers were still trying to figure out, How do we grab this enormous sound? How do we put a lasso around it and pull it in? We were actually in [our] early twenties when this was done. We were very outspoken, and I think at times, quite rude. It’s like, How do you get all that onto the records?”
You record live for a start. Tape was rolling as soon as Ward counted in the other guys. Sometimes, during subsequent albums, if they got a good front end and a good back end, they’d splice the tape. But as Ward recalls, that never happened on Paranoid. “There were no metronomes and everybody just went in and played live, and that was that. That’s as theatrical as we got, you know? So Tony [Iommi, guitars] and I had to lay a really good base in the rhythm tracks. We had to really get it right.”
Paranoid was a steep learning curve as far as studio process. The drums were all close-miked, and unfortunately it wouldn’t be until the following release, Masters Of Reality, that Ward would begin to learn about ambient miking, boom mikes, and all that other good stuff. “A lot of our drum sounds were very click-y,” he says, the word curdling in his mouth. “They were very boom-y or blatt-y. I listen back and I still go, ’Ooh …’ It’s pretty painful.”
Shots From The Hip
The band had intended to record seven tunes for Paranoid that they had written on the road while touring in ’69, but the label thought they needed a single. “Tony was already working on the lick that you now hear on ’Paranoid,’” Ward says. “We all looked at each other because we knew something is gonna happen. So, as he rushed to keep behind the microphone, I was fumbling with my drum kit, trying to get into this little booth, you know, put my headphones on, because I knew we are going to roll. We did, we rolled it out.”
“Paranoid,” with its busy, propulsive tempo, is key to deciphering Ward’s rhythmic approach. “I had one bass drum only when we did “Paranoid,” and I’m playing six notes across it. We’re kind of almost pumping. Pumping back in drums, and that holds everything steady while Tony’s off playing his melodies.”
“Ironman” employs similar strategy, but to greatly different effect: A slow, repetitive bass drum on the 1 at the song’s outset sets the ominous tone for what is probably the band’s most widely recognized hit. “It was a 22" Ludwig, quite beaten up,” Ward remembers of that infamous bass drum. “You know, just trying to do its best to emulate something walking menacingly towards [you] – some kind of a giant.”
The rhythmic novelty in “Ironman,” even as we hear the opening salvo in our collective head-banging heads, is the way Ozzy’s vocals are pegged to each of Iommi’s guitar notes. Ward, in turn, follows the phrasing of the singer and guitarist in the verse. “We were all going to the same place at the same time, and that was one of the key marks that we had recognizable as Sabbath music, which is actually the opposite of what Led Zeppelin were doing: They use air as a sound.”
It wasn’t until the summer of 1970, just after the album’s release and right before the tour, that Ward got a second bass drum (one pulled from a George Hayman—brand kit; later he got a Buddy Rich 26" special). Yet his right foot is so strong, fast, and agile throughout Paranoid, you’d never know it was a single kick. “What we would do is try to fill up any holes.”
At one point on the making-of documentary, Ward states that “Hand Of Doom” is his favorite Paranoid track. “It’s almost like a day in the park,” he says. “It’s just real funky, it’s really jazz-like to me. I can do a lot of nice hi-hat work, a lot of stick work. I play on the rim, live, like a rimshot. I can put in nice big bass drums. But ’Electric Funeral’ is like that, and ’Into The Void.’ I know ’Into The Void’ is a separate song on a different album, but they all have that same kind of really funky groove.”
To understand why Paranoid’s beats are so unlike today’s metal, a little context is helpful. In Britain in the 1950s, everyone listened to the swing records the American G.I.s brought over during World War II. Gene Krupa, Glen Miller, and Count Basie were default influences. (“I loved the drums [of Jo Jones] in Basie’s music”). As a teen in the mid-’60s, it was British blues rock, especially John Mayall’s Blues Breakers drummer Huey Flint, that opened Ward up to new rhythmic possibilities. “One of the things I learned is that I play orchestrationally. So, I paint and I react. I paint pictures to Geezer’s bass and to Tony’s guitar, and I react to it. I love spontaneity. I have no plan and I have no rhyme and I have no reason and I certainly have no rhythm, such as what we normally have from what we call a drummer.”