There’s something bittersweet in Black Sabbath’s currently highlighting the set lists of what’s probably their last-ever tour with performances of their great antiwar anthem from 1970, “War Pigs.” It’s a classic song that’s one of the foundational documents of heavy metal and a devastating indictment of militarism, but it’s also become a golden oldie. Have the generals gathered in their masses been spared the hand of God?
The first track on Sabbath’s breakthrough album Paranoid, “War Pigs” has been part of the rock canon for generations. Covered by acts from Faith No More and the Foo Fighters to Gov’t Mule, mashed up with both Led Zeppelin and Spongebob Squarepants on YouTube, featured in the video game Guitar Hero II, and jammed by innumerable air and amateur guitarists worldwide, no self-respecting pop music fan doesn’t know the sludgy menace of the opening chords, the desolate call-and-response of Tony Iommi’s guitar and Bill Ward’s hi-hats against Ozzy Osbourne’s stark vocal, and the band’s malefic boogie backing Geezer Butler’s insurrectionist lyrics: Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight? / They leave that role to the poor…
“War Pigs” took shape during Black Sabbath’s earliest European gigs, and an early recorded take was titled “Walpurgisnacht” and featured completely different words, about witchcraft rather than war; Iommi’s one-two D-E chordal declamation may have been copped from similar figures in Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and Jimi Hendrix’ “If Six Was Nine.” The key to the song is Osbourne’s delivery – like a prophet in the wilderness, one critic has said – of Butler’s AA BB CC DD rhyme patterns, which read like mere doggerel on the page but are transformed into a howling jeremiad when sung. Inspired by news coverage of America’s futile campaigns in Vietnam and global protests against the military establishment (“Pigs,” of course, was a common epithet of youth rebellion), the writer connected the political debacles of his era with occult imagery to craft a timeless work of humanist art. In Sabbath expert Martin Popoff’s book Doom Let Loose, Butler is quoted explaining his work as “about how these rich politicians and rich people start all the wars for their benefit and get all the poor people to die for them.” With an air-raid siren squalling over the intro, prefacing Iommi’s clanging Gibson SG, the sound of “War Pigs” is that of a horrendous combat, yet it is a pacifist lament – the contradiction is brilliant and staggering.
Almost fifty years later, middle-aged audiences sing along to the a cappella couplets of “War Pigs” even as wars still ravage the planet, while defense personnel have decorated aircraft and tanks with “War Pig” insignia, and reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne was a guest at George W. Bush’s 2002 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Talk about brainwashed minds. What began as a pseudo-Biblical rail at class and power is now a staple of FM radio and extreme-sport playlists, while pumped young men who haven’t undergone the experience of battle in Iraq or Afghanistan may find “War Pigs” to be the next best thing. Yet even if the music’s moral force has been blunted, you have to wonder if its apocalyptic message of death, doom, and cosmic evil has nevertheless seeped into our collective consciousness. If, as a species, we ever finally forsake violence and reject the cynical, martial exhortations of our leaders, Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” will deserve some of the credit for taking us there.