1970 was a busy year for rock band Black Sabbath. In February, they released their debut self-titled album, following it up in September of the same year with their second album Paranoid. Paranoid has come to be regarded as one of the most quintessential and influential albums in heavy metal history and features several of Black Sabbath’s signature songs, including the title track, Iron Man and opening track, the anti-war anthem, War Pigs.
In 2006, in Black Sabbath: Doom Let Loose: An Illustrated History, a book by Martin Popoff, drummer Bill Ward recalled performing an early version of what would become War Pigs as early as 1968 at The Beat Club in Switzerland. During their early period, the band were often required to play several sets in one night but because of the limited amount of material at their disposal, would perform lengthy jam sessions to fill out the sets. In conversation with Wes Orshoski for Billboard in 2002, guitarist Tony Iommi confirmed that War Pigs did indeed originate from these live jam sessions: “We were playing this club in Switzerland, it was the early days and of course, there were about five people there. So we used to get bored and start making up stuff. And we used to do a long jam. And that’s when I came up with War Pigs”.
War Pigs criticises those who wage and carry out war but keep their distance through fear of getting their hands dirty, a case in point at that current time, the United States and the ongoing war in Vietnam. In Carol Clerk’s 2002 book Diary of a Madman: Ozzy Osbourne: The Stories Behind the Songs, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne states that the band “knew nothing about Vietnam. It’s just an anti-war song”. However, bassist and War Pigs lyricist Geezer Butler told Martin Popoff for the 2006 book Black Sabbath: Doom Let Loose: An Illustrated History that War Pigs is “totally against the Vietnam War, 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”.
War Pigs was originally titled ‘Walpurgis’ and dealt with the witches’ Sabbath. Walpurgis Night is the English translation of Walpurgisnacht, a German name for the night of the 30th April, the eve of the feat day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century abbess in Germany. In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht, also referred to as Hexennacht, literally translated as “Witches’ Night”, is believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains. The Harz Mountains lay between the rivers Weser and Elbe in central Germany.
Butler explained to Noisecreep in 2010 that “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 (about ) 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”. Whether accidentally a song about the horror and destruction of war or not, what is true is that War Pigs is now an essential part of the anti-war song genre.
With the opening lines of War Pigs, “Generals gathered in their masses, Just like witches at black masses”, Black Sabbath, in a leftover element from when the song was named Walpurgis, compare the meeting of witches with meetings between politicians where wars such as the Vietnam War are conceived. Think here of the War Room scene in Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
In the following lines, “Evil minds that plot destruction, Sorcerers of death’s construction”, the song tells of the way in which the generals, through their plotting of destruction, serve only to cause death through lengthy conflict as their primary purpose.
Following this, the lines “In the fields the bodies burning, As the war machine keeps turning” refer to thousands upon thousands of deaths of civilians and soldiers caused by the US’s bomb and napalm air-strikes on Vietnam. “Death and hatred to mankind, poisoning their brainwashed minds” continues the song, telling of how little regard the masters of war have for human life.
In the song’s second verse, we find the lyrics “Politicians hide themselves away, They only started the war, Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor” which speak of the upper class politicians’ exploitation of the seemingly expandable lower classes in order to carry out tasks in the war that the politicians do not want to.
The following verse starts with the line “Time will tell on their power minds”, where the band tell of how those who start wars will eventually get their comeuppance for causing countless numbers of deaths. “Making war just for fun, Treating people just like pawns in chess” continues the third verse, condemning draft into the US army where soldiers were treated like pawns, low powered chess pieces routinely sacrificed in order to achieve a tactical or strategic purpose. The final line of verse three, “Wait ‘til their judgement day comes” reiterates the idea of comeuppance talked of in the opening line of the verse, this time introducing the biblical idea of Judgement Day.
These lines and the lines “Now in darkness world stops turning, Ashes where the bodies burning, No more war pigs have the power” in the fourth and final verse are a prelude to the aforementioned Judgement Day where the war pigs will be punished. This judgement Day arrives in the next few lines of the song, “Hand of God has struck the hour, Day of judgement, God is calling, On their knees the war pigs crawling, Begging mercy for their sins”, where we find the war pigs begging to be admitted into heaven, but as we see in the last line of the verse, “Satan laughing, spreads his wings”, they are destined to end up in hell for their terrible sins, with Satan amused at the politicians’ pleas for forgiveness.
War Pigs was also the original title of the song’s parent album. However, the band’s record company, Vertigo Records, allegedly changed the name to Paranoid due to fear of backlash from supporters of the ongoing Vietnam War. Additionally, the first single from the album, Paranoid, reached number 4 in the UK singles chart and the record company felt that the album would be easier to sell if it was named after the successful single. Despite the fact that the album was, in part, renamed Paranoid in a shrewd marketing move made by the record company, it was actually a brilliant move. At the time in which Paranoid was released, the Cold War, of which Vietnam was a proxy-war, was in full swing and paranoia regarding the nuclear bomb was rife.
In his 2010 autobiography I Am Ozzy, Osbourne says of the album’s name change:
“Paranoid went straight to number four in the British singles chart and got us on Top of the Pops – alongside Cliff Richard, of all people. The only problem was the album cover, which had been done before the name change and now didn’t make any sense at all. What did four pink blokes holding shields and waving swords have to do with paranoia? They were pink because that was supposed to be the colour of the war pigs. But without “War Pigs” written on the front, they just looked like gay fencers. “They’re not gay fencers, Ozzy”, Bill told me. “They’re paranoid gay fencers””.