by Black Sabbath from their 1970 album Paranoid
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death’s construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
Oh lord yeah!
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
Time will tell on their power minds
Making war just for fun
Treating people just like pawns in chess
Wait ’till their judgment day comes
Now in darkness world stops turning
Ashes where the bodies burning
No more war pigs have the power
Hand of God has struck the hour
Day of judgment, God is calling
On their knees the war pig’s crawling
Begging mercy for their sins
Satan laughing spreads his wings
Oh lord yeah!
It’s fascinating to reflect back on how a young cold-sober god-fearing band were writing an obvious anti-war pacifist song, which was interpreted as being the exact opposite and attacked viciously by white American “Christian” groups.
The band’s “innovative” sound borrowed heavily from a long tradition of “wailing” in American blues.
Consider, for example, how famous and controversial Janis Joplin was already for using a loud and raw screaming style that “scared” people. The following rough newspaper review of Joplin is from 1969, labeling her whitewashed blues style with very prototypical “metal” language an entire year before Black Sabbath released even their first song.
Clearly British musicians emulating American music would have seen an opportunity to capitalize on such a style to express their own “blues” of that time.
Black Sabbath’s bassist Geezer Butler explained in a 2010 interview in Noisecreep that he was keying into British working class themes of protest against inequality and powerlessness.
Noisecreep: It’s no secret that you guys drank a lot and experimented with all sorts of drugs. Did that contribute to the creative vibe on Paranoid?
Butler: No, because we really weren’t doing anything back then besides sharing the occasional joint. We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t even afford booze, so none of us were drinking yet. The music we were making was more a reflection of what we were thinking and experiencing at the time. We weren’t into flower power and good vibes. That was crap to us, because from where we were, everything was bleak and dark. […] We were four working class people in the most industrial part of England, and all we had to look forward to was dead-end jobs in factories. And we thought at any second we’d be called up to drop in to the Vietnam War, because it looked like Britain was going to get involved in it as well. So there wasn’t much future in anything for us.
Butler goes on to explain it was an anti-war protest behind this particular song.
The song was written as ‘Walpurgis,’ which sounds a little like ‘War Pigs.’ But ‘Walpurgis’ is sort of like Christmas for Satanists. And to me, war was the big Satan. It wasn’t about politics or government or anything. It was evil. So I was saying “generals gathered in the masses/just like witches at black masses” to make an analogy. But when we brought it to the record company, they thought ‘Walpurgis’ sounded too Satanic. And that’s when we turned it into ‘War Pigs.’ But we didn’t change the lyrics, because they were already finished.
In an interview from 2015 Butler even doubles-down on his religious upbringing and pacifism.
I was brought up strictly Catholic and I guess I was naïve in thinking that religion shouldn’t be fought over. I always felt that God and Jesus wanted us to love each other. It was just a bad time in Northern Ireland, setting bombs off in England and such. We all believed in Jesus — and yet people were killing each other over it. To me, it was just ridiculous. I thought that if God could see us killing each other in his name, he’d be disgusted.
At this point I have to mention how the latest research on WWI based on documentary evidence suggests that British troops sometimes reported that being sent into outdoor killing fields was an improvement over being drafted into the slow, agonizing programmed death of the class-enforced loneliness and toxicity from indoor factory work.
I am definitely not saying Black Sabbath members would have been happier being drafted into the Vietnam War instead, just that the recorded misery of British life was severe enough some before them even called it a life worse than trench warfare.
Black Sabbath was singing the blues.
War Pigs thus fits quite simply as another anti-war blues song, drawing from the brash “wailing” style of guitar licks and screaming voice popularized decades before in America. Here are some obvious examples from the mid-1960s:
Black Sabbath (who found their band name upon noticing long lines of people trying to get into a 1963 Italian horror film called Black Sabbath) inventively drew from old American blues styles, added Italian horror film marketing, and then wrote lyrics of British mysticism and a post-world-war trend of the youth very intentionally and directly trying to shock a culture trained to not be shocked (given horrors of war) — force audiences to notice and have any kind of reaction.
It was the opposite and arguably more potent method than “hippie” group shame tactics in Lennon’s 1969 syrupy anti-war blues piece “Give Peace a Chance“.
All that being said, Butler wrote the War Pigs lyrics so we have to take his word for it (pun not intended) when he explains the true meaning and motives.
In a SPIN interview from 2013 you can even read why the religiously suggestive word “masses” was repeated at the start.
SPIN: For some reason in “War Pigs,” it always bothered me that you rhymed “generals in their masses” with “just like witches at black masses.” Why use “masses” twice? Did you try to think of a different word?
Butler: I just couldn’t think of anything else to rhyme with it. And a lot of the old Victorian poets used to do stuff like that — rhyming the same word together. It didn’t really bother me. It wasn’t a lesson in poetry or anything.
And as a final thought on musicians borrowing, Ice-T was perhaps being ironic when he sampled War Pigs in his far more poetic 1987 song “Rhyme Pays” (1:50 guitar riff).