Black Sabbath

The Story Behind The Song: Black Sabbath’s sci-fi epic ‘Iron Man’

Officially, Black Sabbath were a band of equals. Unofficially, Geezer Butler tended to do most of the work. True, Ozzy Osbourne sang the numbers, and the songs would have been nothing without Bill Ward’s towering drums behind them, but ultimately Butler ended up doing most of the writing, whether it was writing the ominous riff to ‘Black Sabbath’ , or writing the lyrics to ‘Paranoid’, it was Butler who made the majority of creative decisions.

But Butler recognised he was best suited to the band format and needed Osbourne to bounce some ideas off. “He’ll usually come out with the title,” the bassist admitted in 2013. “When he’s like jamming along to the music, he makes up all these lyrics. He has a knack of coming up with one good line. And then I’ll take that idea and write what I think it’s about and give it to Ozzy and usually, it fits his vocals perfectly.”

Responding to Tony Iommi‘s pounding lick, Osbourne joked that it sounded like “a big iron bloke walking about.” Working with the title ‘Iron Bloke’, Butler turned to his collection of science fiction books to further the narrative. “What I always attempted to do with my science-fiction plots was to make these relevant to the modern world at the time,” he acknowledged, “so I brought war and politics in. It was also an era when the whole issue of pollution was starting to get attention, and this affected my thinking quite a bit.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Butler watched factory smoke paint the skies above him, as factory workers, like Iommi, returned home with injured hands. It was a time of change, revelation, even rebellion, and as rock started to get more aggressive in the early 1970s, Butler fashioned his lyrics to match the times. It was less “put a flower in your hair”, and more “put a bandage on your bleeding ear.”

As if matching the anger of the track, Ward created a barrelling drum contribution that emulated the noise of an iron being, lost in foreign terrain. “Technically, we had real problems getting it right in the studio,” Ward recalled. “The trouble was that the microphones available to us in 1970 just weren’t up to the task of capturing the power and depth of the sound. I played very loud back then, and wanted a powerful bass drum sound; that’s what the song needed. Yet all I could get was a dull thud. For Rodger [Bain, producer] and Tom [Allom, engineer], trying to make ‘Iron Man’ work was so tough. In the end, they did an excellent job under the circumstances. Today it would be so easy for a band to get the proper sound on a song like this, because the technology exist.”

The tune features on Paranoid, the band’s second album, and comes directly after the more Latin-flavoured ‘Planet Caravan’. The album is rife with science-fiction references, but the album also holds not one, but two anti-war protest anthems, the first being the guitar-heavy ‘War Pigs’ and the latter was ‘Hand of Doom’, a lament to the soldiers recovering from the battlefields to recovering from heroin addiction. But if the album holds a masterpiece, it’s ‘Iron Man’, a sparsely produced rock number that oozes charmism, atmosphere and anxiety. Listeners who were happy before listening to the song, were less happy with their lives immediately afterwards.

Contrary to popular opinion, Butler was unfamiliar with the Marvel Iron Man comic book but was an avid reader of The Dandy. More likely, he was influenced by “Tin Lizzie”, a robot who featured regularly in the British comic (Dublin rockers Thin Lizzy got their name from the character.) Black Sabbath agreed to let Marvel use the tune for their 2008 opus, Iron Man, although Butler chuckled that it started people asking him if he was inspired by the Tony Stark character.

Fuelled by the drums behind him, Osbourne delivers one of his more committed vocals, wailing across the instruments like a crow warning its young of the impending danger. There’s no sense of levity in the track, as the characters walk into a danger they are sure to die from. But just as the danger becomes too great, the vocals stop, and Iommi breaks into a suitably ferocious guitar passage. No less a luminary than John Lydon admitted to enjoying the group, precisely because they were so tight on their delivery, and so deadly in their resolve.

Weirdly, the single failed to chart in Britain, although the song has certainly made an impact, making it one of the band works Osbourne has been happy to perform as a solo artist.

It’s easy to praise the bone-crunching drums, the shimmering production design, but for my money, it’s the lyrical content that makes it stand out from the other songs that were released in 1970. And out of all the songs Butler has penned over the years, this may very well be his masterpiece.

“I think it worked best at the time in the context of the album,” Ward agreed. “We never thought of ourselves as a singles band anyway. But, over the years, ‘Iron Man’ has grown and grown. I don’t think we believed at the time that it would turn out to be so special. But that’s the beauty of what happens: it’s the fans who decided this was a great song.”

Stream the tune below.

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