My friend Brad W. once made an offhand remark in an online discussion that has been preying on me for years now.
We were discussing early heavy metal, in particular Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult, in particular a certain riff that shows up on both bands’ debut albums. Who was copying who, I wondered? It now seems clear that Black Sabbath originated the riff, but that’s beside my point here. Brad mentioned that one reason he liked BÖC was their sense of humor, something he felt Black Sabbath lacked.
I’m a huge BÖC fan, but I’d never appreciated their humor before. I believe Brad’s right, in the main, and I thank him for giving me cause to revisit some old familiar music and hear it afresh.
And yet…. and yet… something has been nagging at the back of my mind, lo these many years — namely, the lyrics to those two songs we were discussing.
First let’s consider the lyrics of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Cities on Flame with Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
My heart is black, and my lips are cold
Cities on flame with rock and roll
Three thousand guitars they seem to cry
My ears will melt, and then my eyes
Oh, let the girl, let that girl, rock and roll
Cities on flame now, with rock and roll
Gardens of nocturne, forbidden delights
Reins of steel, and it’s alright
Cities on flame, with rock and roll
Marshal will buoy, but Fender control
I will be the first to admit that as a teenager I didn’t see the humor there. I just thought it was badass. The song has a murky, sinister sound, and that riff is heavy and baroque. But now I see, in the lyrics, a bit of ironic detachment, a faint tongue-in-cheek mockery, a send-up of rock-god hubris that lends the musical bombast an intellectual edge. That’s awesome, and I’m grateful to Brad for opening my eyes, which were previously only melted.
So far so good. BÖC’s humor checks out. It’s not exactly a laugh riot, but it’s there.
Now let us turn our attention to “The Wizard.” Here’s the same riff, apparently the original, blown through a harmonica. Consider the lyrics.
Misty morning, clouds in the sky
Without warning, the wizard walks by
Casting his shadow, weaving his spell
Funny clothes, tinkling bell
Just keeps walking
Spreading his magic
Evil power disappears
Demons worry when the wizard is near
He turns tears into joy
Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by
Sun is shining, clouds have gone by
All the people give a happy sigh
He has passed by, giving his sign
Left all the people feeling so fine
OK, did you get the joke? The wizard is clearly your friendly neighborhood dope peddler. And that’s my point. At a casual first listen, this song seems like some Tolkeinesque fantasy, but upon closer examination it’s about some hippie dude selling dime bags, a committed stoner with a Gandalf fetish. And that, my friends, is frickin’ hilarious. Anyone who has lived in Bloomington, Indiana, of all places, should have no trouble cuing in to this one. We’ve all bumped into this guy in front of the Eye, or maybe hanging out at Lothlorien.
Now perhaps this song is an exception. Perhaps it is a rare example of humor in the otherwise dour universe of Black Sabbath. Perhaps as a rule BÖC is funnier. But if you compare these two particular songs, BÖC gets the points for sinister rock stylings, while Sabbath comes out ahead in the funny department. Furthermore, since the riff was stolen, I think the only possible conclusion in comparing these two songs is: Advantage Sabbath.