Black Sabbath—
War Pigs

Released 1970 on Vertigo/Warner Brothers/Others
The Seth Man, May 2007ce
During their peak in the first half of the 1970s, Black Sabbath set about creating a series of albums that would only grow in stature. And it was with their highly accomplished second album, “Paranoid” where their credentials were solidly double-stamped forever into the heaviest ingot of metal yet to be forged.

And yet, Sabbath were beyond metal and in a category all their own. These four young, working class guys from ‘rough, unfashionable Aston in Birmingham, England’ together held one unique chemistry that yielded major thrills of no-frills, downer/lumpen bombast that not only thundered all the world ‘round but continues to do so: leaving in its wake a soundtrack of five insanely powerful albums, dozens of sub-genres and legions of gleeful hard rock enthusiasts and heavy metal aficionados. Although stating the obvious, it is a fact that they remain to the present day responsible for some of the most durable, relevant and unique statements ever carved into Rock.

Sabbath were (and are) still one of the most misunderstood groups in all of Rock. More than any other band of their time, they were a paradox filled with inversions: the inverted cross on the gatefold of their first album, guitarist Tony Iommi’s cherry red Gibson SG a southpaw reverse of Clapton’s psychedelicised one; a so-called ‘Satanic Pop group’ who wrote of compassion, love and dreams while the singer was a baleful messenger perched on the edge of doom with both kneecaps self-tattooed with smileys while the other three ‘Black Princes of Downer Rock’ were down to earth Brummies partial to nothing darker than pints of ale, practical jokes, sitting in the rain to watch Aston Villa football matches whilst being burdened with fearsome nicknames of daemonic possession like ‘Stinky.’ But onstage and on record, what they projected were vocals of life-enhancing woe arcing over a relentless and thorough pounding of riffs set to a solidly swinging beat to make faces grimace, fists to rise on high, the heart beat faster, the head throb harder and the lugholes ring louder (What? I can’t hear you) and one of their best moments was the bludgeon-fest they called “War Pigs.” But it was originally called something else...

aka: “Walpurgis”

“Originally, ‘War Pigs’ was called ‘Walpurgis’, about Satan's Christmas thing, but we had to change the lyrics because all the Satan stuff was going on.” –Geezer Butler

Walpurgisnacht is an ancient celebration that falls on the last eve of April, which renders lyricist Geezer Butler’s use of Walpurgis as a title of a song narrating an event confusing -- not least of all because Walpurgis was a Christian abbess born in 710. Travelling from Wessex, England to Germany to take charge of a monastery, she was consequently made a saint in 779 with May 1 accorded her saint day. But reaching further back in time reveals earlier roots of Walpurgisnacht. Deriving its name from the similarly-named Teutonic fertility goddess, Walburga who was celebrated and worshipped in Germany and throughout the Baltic region of Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Sweden, once under the domain of Christianity her previous attributes and symbolic significance as a Northern European White Goddess and The Spring Queen were merged with those of St. Walpurgis.

Errant pronoun usage notwithstanding, Geezer was dialed in to something deeper than just Boris Karloff films and chillums for his taste in literature was more than just a smattering of supernatural paperbacks by Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley. Goethe’s “Faust” certainly hovered about on in on his bookshelf. In fact, it may have been the single strongest influence on his original concept and lyrics for “Walpurgis.” Dig this:

“The witches t’ward the Brocken strain
When the stubble yellow, green the grain.
The rabble rushes - as 'tis meet -
To Sir Urian’s lordly seat.
O’er stick and stone we come, by jinks!
The witches f---, the he-goat s---...”1

Except for the exclamatory “Oh Lord, yeah!” as punctuation, the translation remains remarkably true to the cadence of “War Pigs” aka “Walpurgis.” Which is appropriate, as the above quote from “Faust” is taken from a scene that occurs on Walpurgisnacht when Mephisto escorts Faust on Der Brocken to consort with a coven of witches.

“Witches Gather at Black Masses...”

“War Pigs” is the first of eight powerful, entirely slackless and perfectly programmed tracks that comprise Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” album. “War Pigs” doesn’t just open their second album so much as split the silence that precedes it down half with a direct hit from the opening bog blast of guitarist Tony Iommi’s Laney amplification up until its instrumental coda crazily speeds up into a wall of silence (unless you’re listening to the Quadrophonic version, of course.) Although constantly shifting in tempo, vocal tone and texturing, “War Pigs” is resolutely focused in fixed defiance throughout its length and was where Black Sabbath laid bare what would be their simplest and most bloodstained indictment, ever. Electrically-charged with myth and atmosphere, the musical backing hangs relentlessly tight and visceral against four bleating stanzas projected from the gob of Oz that switch from opening soaring supplications as though with raised palms faced inwards into a series of perfectly bellowed rant-on sentences and its cumulative effect was a razing declaration on war.

As one of Sabbath’s most compelling and universally themed songs, “War Pigs” began as a piece they’d been working on sporadically in live performance since late 1968. Although the main structure and arrangement remained unchanged since its earliest “Walpurgis” incarnation, the lyrics were an altogether different matter. The opening line “Witches gather at black masses” would endure despite a jumble of permutations and although the narrative runs through a description of a witches’ convocation (with sinners on a hill awaiting Satan’s arrival as “evil doings” ranging from “carrying banners which denounce the Lord” to “eating dead rat’s inners” abound) its location “on a hill, a church in ruins” is but a hint of Der Brocken: the highest peak of Germany’s Harz region best known as the setting of Walpurgisnacht.

When Black Sabbath’s debut album appeared littered with occult references in the lyrics, sleeve photography and (most obvious of all) their own name, several lesser bands followed suit boasting more direct links to black magic, consequently causing a minor sensation in the British music press during early 1970. But as the supernatural mystique foisted upon Black Sabbath became too large an inverted cross to bear, they decided their load would be lightened sizably by jettisoning some of the more provocative occult references from their lyrics.2 Concerned with their perceived association with black magic and how it could jeopardise their first American tour later in the year, it was unanimously decided by band, management and record company to altogether overhaul the lyrics to “Walpurgis.” Whether inspired by an infamous lapse of the John Osbourne memory banks, a spur of the moment ad-lib off the top of Ozzy’s head or just the thought of having to contend with two sets of lyrics for the same song was enough to make the Mind of O seize up even more than usual -- thereby causing the Jovial One to blurt out in a bout of supreme frustration “For fuckssake: ‘Walpurgis,’ ‘Walpiggus,’ ‘Walpurgis,’ ‘Walpiggus’ let’s call the whole thing off and I’ll just sing it in Latin, I can’t be arsed, y’know fuckin’ ‘ell”) is not recorded. Although in those pre-teleprompter days, Ozzy forgetting, adding, dropping, repeating or mixing up lyrics was hardly an uncommon occurrence. Perhaps it was only Geezer sneakily re-arranging the letters on his talking board late one night. But however it happened, it did and although the music and arrangements remained virtually unchanged, the lyrics and title of “Walpurgis” were transformed into “War Pigs.” But it took several months to stay that way.

“…Just Like Witches at Black Masses”

“I’d get comfortable with the melody line and Geezer or I would write them [the lyrics] in the studio. But other than that, I don’t know where they’re from.” – Ozzy Osbourne

“Listen to me
While I sing this song
You might just think the words are wrong...”
- Black Sabbath: “The Writ” (“Sabotage” LP, 1975)

But the newly re-written “War Pigs” did not keep things resolved for long. As both opening track of their forthcoming second album and projected title of said LP, with an important first tour of the United States looming late in the year their record company expressed concern and refused to release it as “War Pigs.” Although it’s never been clear as to which of Sabbath’s labels (Vertigo in Britain or Warner Brothers in America) were responsible for the veto, several causes for rejection would seem to indicate the latter as anti-war sentiment in America had been escalating in tandem with the Vietnam War and a pervading sense of unease and tension had been causing a divisive split throughout the nation for years. Although Sabbath were for the moment out of the satanic frying pan, no one wanted to see them fall outright into the anti-war fire. For as archaic as it now may seem, ‘pig’ was the strongest derogatory slang used at the time to address persons of authority and especially policemen. As well as people of ugly, selfish or greedy bearing, it was also suffixed onto other slang terms like ‘sexist’ or ‘male chauvinist.’ But one association everyone wished to avoid altogether was how “War Pigs” could be misconstrued as an endorsement of the Manson murders of the previous summer where the epitaphs “POLITICAL PIGGIES,” “DEATH TO PIGS” and “PIGS” had been smeared at the gruesome murder sites in the victims’ own blood. At first, the murders were even rumoured to have been the work of a satanic death cult and the sensational image of a long-haired hippie commune on a murderous rampage frightened both the status quo and longhairs alike.

Substituting the potentially offensive title with the safer and more saleable moniker of their forthcoming “Paranoid” single was telling, as it may have also been chosen to reflect the concerned state of the band and record company over the whole affair. Then again, paranoia was a commodity in no short supply in 1970 and Warner Brothers hedged their bets even further with a promotional advertisement that read with the typical hard-sell, tongue-in-cheek “Loss Leaders”-styled copywriting style so beloved of the label: “Black Sabbath is a lot of things -- a couple of things they aren’t though, and we and they insist that no one lump them in with witches, warlocks, werewolves or other black magic by-products” (And to think this was the same record company that three years later would vet the cover painting for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” -- one which broke both elbows throwing in the occult kitchen sink all over the front cover.)

War Pigs (Six Different Ones)

A cross-section of six different versions of “War Pigs” illustrates the alterations made to the original “Walpurgis” lyrics during the period of March to November, 1970. Comparing the final studio “War Pigs” lyrics (recorded June, 1970) with those of five live renditions (recorded March, April, June, October and November 1970) highlights immense differences and show the lyrics for “Walpurgis” in a constant state of flux: most notably in the middle pair of up-tempo stanzas that precede the first instrumental break. Instead of beginning with the now familiar “Politicians hide themselves away” and “Time will tell on their power minds” were instead “Carrying banners which denounce the lord” and “Don’t hold me back ‘cos I just gotta go” while the rest of the lyrics also conjured up a pulse quickening mix of unrelated imagery depicting panicked flights of fear underneath ‘Dies Irae’-styled skies set to a high tempo bash. And these lyrics continued to shift wildly from performance to performance for months prior to the American tour.

Konzerthaus, Köln: March 3, 1970

It is fitting that two of the earliest live recordings of “Walpurgis” extant are from gigs in Germany, where the legend of Walpurgisnacht originated. This earliest known recorded version from Köln contains a middle pair of stanzas that go:

“I don’t care if you don’t wanna go
They are the devil in disguise
Carrying banner which denounce the Lord
They are Lucifer inside
(All right, now!)

Look at me, don’t anoint my head with blood
See me burning down [obscured]
Closer and close to you, and you’re not there
Say, what you gonna do now?
(All right, now!)”

And like all versions of “Walpurgis,” the final verse is always a variation of the following:

“On the scene a priest appears
Sinners falling at his knees
Satan sends out funeral pyre
Casts the priest into the fire
It’s the place for all bad sinners
Watch them eating dead rats’ inners
It’s the same where’er you go
Black masses, they’re coming out
(All right, now!)”

BBC, London: April 26, 1970

Available for a limited time on the second disc of the Ozzy Osbourne compendium “The Ozzman Cometh,” the version of “War Pigs” recorded for the BBC is the highest quality version of “Walpurgis.” The lyrics adhere mainly to the Köln version, except for the ever-changing middle pair of stanzas which are the goriest extant, as well as sharing some of the imagery with the Köln version:

“Carrying banners which denounce the Lord
See me rotting in my grave
See them anoint my head with dead rat’s blood
See them stick the stake through me

Don’t hold me back ‘cos I just gotta go
Satan got a hold of my soul now
Look in my brain and there was blood and see
Look in my eyes and there I go

Regent Sound Studio & Island Studios, London: circa June 16; 21-25, 1970

Although the dates vary from source to source, it has been loosely determined that the “Paranoid” album was recorded during the period of June 21-25, 1970. Produced by Rodger Bain, here the re-written, ‘de-Walpurgisnacht-ed’ lyrics from “generals gathered in their masses” to “Satan, laughing, spreads his wings” make their earliest known recorded appearance.

Audimax, Freie Universität, Berlin: June 26, 1970

This gig was promoted with a red and black poster bearing the appropriate legend “LIVE: The Magic of Black Sabbath.” Sabbath blasts into a lumbering and vicious rendition of “Walpurgis.” Directly after the last up-tempo stanza prior to the guitar solo, Iommi makes the only playing error of his career AND winds up saving it by sustaining a single riff that bleeds across several beats as a howling storm. As a massive fan of Anthony Frank Iommi, I love it not because it catches him with his pants down, but that even in a pinch his self-assured monochording still could turn a misstep into a fluid, heavy improvisation.

Of note is the third stanza, which varies wildly from all others:

“See me going like my head is gone
See me running down love now
It’s conceived evil, I want to run
I want to know what you’re gonna do now

“Olympia, Paris: December 20, 1970”

Although the famous “Paris 1970” performance of Black Sabbath broadcast on Yorkshire Television has been circulating for decades in collector’s circles, its identifying date and place are still the stuff of speculation. The 2-CD Sabbath “Past Lives” collection not only incompletely collated the performance, but incorrectly listed the place and date as ‘Paris Olympia, December 20, 1970.’ Now in the film it is plain to see the venue is a far smaller hall than the Olympia while the Olympia’s stage was not composed of rough wooden planks. With the faintest of supporting evidence in the form of the film credits comprised mainly of Belgian surnames, the show may very well date from either a day earlier at Vorst Nationaal, Brussels, Belgium or on October 3, 1970 from the same city (Although entirely conjecture on my part, anyone with substantiated proof please clue me in.)

But the location and date of this gig do not matter nearly as much as the performance itself for Black Sabbath were captured at the peak of their powers AND on a night when they were totally on (So exactly WHEN is this amazing artifact going to be released?! Clips surfaced from it in the “Ozzy: Don’t Blame Me” retrospective DVD on Sony, and both visual and audio content are PRISTINE. Sanctuary, Sharon, SOMEBODY: please sort this out and SOON as it’s the best Sabbath concert from 1970...or any year for that matter. Then arrange a release schedule for Cal Jam. And the ’75 Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert performance. Before the original tapes deteriorate. Do it...)

Although introduced by Ozzy to zero audience acknowledgment (“We got a number now called ‘War Pigs’, it’s a number off our new LP, hope you like it, thank you”) by the time of the final stanza the audience is blitzed to Hell and clapping along with Bill Ward’s final hi-hat build up like they’ve been banging head to it for years. The version of “War Pigs” performed here may or may not provide a clue as to this performance’s date by pushing it back to the middle of 1970 for as it is the only known recording where stanzas from “Walpurgis” are aligned cheek by jowl with those from “War Pigs”: The second stanza is a merger of both second and third stanzas of “War Pigs,” the third stanza is entirely different to all other known versions while the fourth (and final) stanza is straight up “Walpurgis.” But of all the different takes of “Walpurgis”, this one has gotta take the Beltane carline cake:

“People running like sheep in fields
People blowing out their minds
They’ve got your dying day and know it’s now
They’re gonna rot in the end

Fillmore West, San Francisco, California: November 21, 1970

Sabbath’s anticipated American tour did not get off to the best start. According to a 1992 interview in The Philadelphia Daily News with Rick Green (the promoter of their first U.S. show at Glassboro State College, New Jersey) the band’s passage through customs at Kennedy Airport in New York proved to be “a day-long trauma that left the group tired and humiliated,” causing them to be three and a half hours late for the gig. Finally appearing onstage at 1:00 in the morning, the power to their sound system cut out during the first song. It was fixed within a few minutes, but once they recommenced they caused a second power outage that not only knocked out their sound system but the power to the gymnasium, the campus and “...most of the power in the neighborhood. The street lights were out and there was darkness.” Appropriately enough, the date was Mischief Night: exactly half a year away from Walpurgisnacht on October 30th.

Three weeks later, they reached the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the lyrics to “War Pigs” were faithfully reproduced by Ozzy as per the album (except for the word ‘man’s’ used in place of ‘death’s’ in “Sorcerers of death’s construction...” but seeing as Ozzy even managed to derail “War Pigs” four years later at Cal Jam by repeating the “In the fields the bodies burning...” couplet in the last stanza, it was probably due more to Osbourne’s lackadaisical temperament than any sort of nervous decorum.)
Luckily, the rest of the tour ran smoothly for the band and helped establish their reputation as a top new export of high volume, energy-driven Rock that would continue to grow throughout the 1970s. And ever since that first American tour, “War Pigs” never once reverted back to “Walpurgis” with its best-known lyrics on the “Paranoid” album striking -- and continues to strike -- a chord up to the present day.

Oh Lord, yeah!

As a 36 year-old album, the iconic power of the “Paranoid” sleeve generally deflects objective visual judgment and criticism. But when viewed under various circumstances for nearly three decades (as I have) one can switch between how stunning AND how ludicrous it is. It was recently mentioned to me that if “Paranoid” had somehow turned out to be a musically weak dud, the derision poured on its cover sleeve would probably equal or surpass even that of the first Toe Fat album. This is not to lay blame at the doorstep of Keef (the gifted photographer whose work adorned not only “Paranoid” but many of Sabbath’s early albums as well as a wide swath of many other early Vertigo releases) for the sleeve art had already been photographed with the projected “War Pigs” title in mind. But riddle me this: what the fuck does a shot of a bearded man wielding a fluorescent blue plastic samurai sword and shield wearing blue undies over pink tights sporting a crash helmet and sash rushing out from behind a late night copse have ANYTHING to do with “generals gathered in their masses”?! It’s enough to almost make me think “Fairies Wear Boots” may have also been under consideration as a provisional title but promptly abandoned when it was discovered that the American audience would be oblivious of its British meaning and lurking entendre. Almost.

But on other occasions the cover falls completely in place: glimpsing or hallucinating something out of the corner of your eye emerging from the darkness is a pretty solid visual metaphor for paranoia. But at other times, the collective visual dissonance of the title, the photography and the mid-sixties Yardbirds-a-go-go-logo all conspire to make it look a little out of time, definitely odd, completely ridiculous, not a little mysterious and in a paradoxical dum-dum zone all its own.

...A lot like Black Sabbath, come to think of it.

  1. Goethe: “Faust” (bilingual edition) translated and edited by J.F.L. Raschen. Ithaca, NY: The Thrift Press, 1949.
  2. In the April 4, 1970 NME (‘Black Sabbath Have Nothing To Do With Spooks!’) Iommi was quoted: “We might change some of the words of the songs so that we don’t get any trouble!”