So, this week sees the re-release of some classic remastered albums by an epoch-making band. No, not The Beatles, that was the other week; this time it’s the turn of Black Sabbath, the archetypal heavy metal band who can arguably lay claim to spawning an entire genre of music since their debut in 1970.
The albums in question are Volume 4 (1972), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), Sabotage (1975), Technical Ecstasy (1976) and NeverSay Die! (1978). These were the ones that were written after the heavy-duty drug abuse problems had really started to affect the band, and which never received the same critical acclaim as their ground-breaking predecessors; by this point, Sabbath had started to abandon their original doomy aesthetic for synths, string sections and more “traditional” rock arrangements and tempos, and Ozzy himself was becoming increasingly disinterested and substance-raddled. All but the most die-hard and uncritical fan would probably agree that these four albums don’t represent the band at their creative peak, be that with Ozzy behind the mic-stand or without him.
So why are they being re-released? PR hyperbole about Black Sabbath‘s massive influence is based in an inescapable truth, but trying to pitch this fistful of reissues as “essentials” is a stretch too far; the band’s best tunes of the Ozzy era are found on the albums preceding Volume 4, and the Dio era begins after Never Say Die! was rushed out. And it’s not as if by reissuing the Sabbath back-catalogue Universal are somehow bringing to light some hugely-overlooked legacy or undiscovered rarities. On the contrary – this is the sort of move that the phrase “flogging a dead horse” was coined for.
This is in common with the Beatles reissues from the other week; it has nothing to do with reinstating a neglected cultural legacy, and everything to do with squeezing the last few drops of money out of a dying format, as the age of digital music distribution yanks the rug out from beneath record label behemoths grown fat and sluggish on the corpulent profit margins of the compact disc format. Let’s be honest here: Ozzy and Sharon don’t need the money (though they’re probably not averse to those extra zeros in their bank balance), and while the rest of the band haven’t ended up in the same luxurious carriage of the gravy train, none of them are grubbing around for their next meal or queuing up at the Job Centre once a fortnight. On the contrary – this is Universal hoping to extract a last wedge of income from an investment that was made and paid off long ago. It’s about getting one last donation out of a generation that hasn’t yet taken to the digital lifestyle of their offspring, but which will surely do so sooner rather than later.
I might have a bit more sympathy if I thought Universal were going to use that income to bring up new young artists from the toilet venues and live-music bars of the world, but I sincerely doubt that’s the case. Instead, it’ll go on maintaining the opulent bonus schemes of the record company executives, the luxury cars and all-expenses boondoggle dinners, the cynical high-end lawyers, the ill-advised and ultimately doomed high-profile lawsuits against filesharers, the promotion of shallow and safe non-entity artists like Lily Allen, Coldplay and countless of other mediocre musical wallpaper manufacturers. The copyright on these albums is owned by Universal themselves; Ozzy and the boys will get a cut, sure, but the lion’s share will go to the toothless and asthmatic lion itself.
Look at it this way: if you’re a die-hard Black Sabbath fan, you’ll already have these albums. If you’re not a die-hard Sabbath fan, you don’t need them, and they’re not going to make a bigger fan out of you – the best stuff can be found elsewhere. If you’re a lover of rock and metal music with £15 (or more) to spare, don’t wank it away into Universal’s wallet on sub-par music that’s long past its sell-by date. Go down to your local music venue, buy a ticket or two to some live shows, or pick up some merchandise from a young band’s website. Support musicians, and ensure that there will always be a way for them to make a living from doing what they love, what they’re best at. The fact that you’ll be starving the increasingly desperate and cynical middlemen of their heretofore easy income is an added bonus.
Think of it as puppy training; if you don’t rub their noses in it, they’ll never stop shitting on your rug.