In Conversation: Geezer Butler

In Conversation: Geezer Butler

The man who gave metal its morbid sheen looks back on 'Paranoid' for its 50th anniversary...

If you were lucky enough to catch Black Sabbath on their final tours, you'd be struck not only by the undiminished power of the band's live prowess but also by the age range on show in the audience. For all the rock n' roll mythology built around Sabbath's legacy over the decades, it's clear that the material's raw glory has triumphantly endured. 

With the hippie dream dying fast, a meaning little to four working-class blokes from Birmingham, 1970 saw an unknown Sabbath lay the ground-work for heavy metal with just two albums, unwittingly changing the course of popular music forever.

To mark the group's second full-length celebrating half a century of rocking ears, 'Paranoid' has been given the deluxe treatment with a 5-LP/4CD boxset out now.

Clash was lucky enough to discuss the album's creation, occultism, and the infamous cover art with bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler.

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First things first, how does it feel to be celebrating the album’s 50th anniversary? It must be very surreal yet gratifying to have people discussing the band’s second album all these years later.

Well I suppose after the band being given no chance of succeeding, and only a begrudgingly granted record deal, it's great to still be relevant after half a century, and celebrating an album that was recorded 50 years ago.  

1970 was a busy time for the band; you rolled straight back into the studio mere months after the debut dropped. How many song ideas did you have left remaining after the debut was finished?

I think we had most songs written, or half written by the time the first album was recorded. I know we had war pigs written, but didn't want to risk having a debut album full of original material, which is why the warning was on the first album.  

After the mere day you had the first time around, six days to record must have felt like comparative luxury. Was there anything you’d learned, or wanted to avoid recording your second LP?

No, there wasn't much time to think about it - we knew we had a certain amount of time so there was no messing about or time-wasting. There was a bit more time for second takes and over dubs, but that was about it.  

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As the primary lyricist, you expanded on the dark imagery from earlier songs and mixed in elements of sci-fi, themes of drug addiction, and more politically slanted material, like on ‘War Pigs’. Being as you wrote the handbook on the dark and brooding focus of metal, was there any kickback at the time from the rest of the band as the lyrics got heavier? It was new terrain.   

I don't think Ozzy particularly liked the ‘War Pigs’ lyrics, and he didn't know what 'Paranoid' meant, but that was about it.  

I’ve always wondered… how did a young man, raised Catholic, get into the occult in 60s Birmingham? What was your gateway into that world?   

There was a lot of different religions and mysticism being introduced to me around that time.

I had been taught there was only one true religion, but when a Hindu family moved next door to me, I saw how devoted they were, and then a Muslim family moved in the other side of me, and I started to learn about other religions, including Satanism, which pissed my parents off, so that became the one to delve into.

I had lots of other-worldly experiences growing up, and astral planing and the occult gave me some answers to my experiences.  

The live sound of those early Sabbath albums has helped them avoid sounding dated - a style you returned to for final album ‘13.’ How much was this out of necessity (time) as opposed to wanting to capture what you were like on stage, a unit?

It was basically a live album recorded in a studio, only limited by the technology of that time.  

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The box set also comes with two live releases, an August 1970 show in Switzerland and a set recorded for Belgian TV a few months later. What’s it like listening back to that era of the group?

To be honest, I haven't listened to it lately - I've heard them before in past years.  

‘Paranoid’ is rightfully cited as a classic album, not just for the metal community, but for pioneering heavier music as a whole. At what time did the band and yourself start to notice its wider impact?

Not really until bands like Iron Maiden and Anthrax cited us as influences.  

The majority of the album is fan favourites, but which song do you get the most kick out of playing live?

Probably ‘War Pigs’ - the guitar solo section is never the same, bass-wise, so it's always a bit of a challenge.

We can’t look back on 50 years of ‘Paranoid’ without addressing its infamous cover art. Working with the original title ‘War Pigs,’ designer Keith MacMillan says the label grabbed his test shots in a rush and slapped it on the cover. What was the band’s reaction when you first saw it?

We thought it was a joke. After the amazing album cover of the first album, we thought it looked like our manager pissing about in the woods.

If you could go back in time and tell a 20-year-old Geezer that you’d still be discussing this album five decades later, what do you think his response would be?

You're having a laugh.  

As well as this edition of 'Paranoid,' we also see re-issues of three of your solo albums - ‘Plastic Planet’ (1995), ‘Science’ (1997), and 'Ohmwork' (2005). Looking back to the mid-nineties, why did it feel right then to make your first solo release? It was an exciting time for rock and alternative music, but the bubble was soon to burst.   

It was a challenge fitting  my solo stuff in between Sabbath and Ozzy stuff, but I had written quite a few songs that didn't fit either… and I felt the need to record them without the pressure of trying to outdo previous albums, and get back to the fun part of making music.

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'Paranoid 50th Anniversary: Super Deluxe Edition' is out now. Geezer Butler solo reissue albums ‘Plastic Planet’, ‘Black Science’ and ‘Ohmwork’ are out October 30th.

Words: Sam Walker-Smart

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