Interview With Brad Schreiber On ‘Music Is Power’: Part 3—Black Sabbath, Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy
Covering around a century, Music Is Power is a book by Brad Schreiber that takes readers on a tour of music that challenged social injustice and spoke to the masses during uncertain times.
Schreiber is an award-winning author, journalist, and screenwriter, whose past books include Death In Paradise, Becoming Jimi Hendrix, and Revolution’s End.
Music Is Power was released in 2019, and it is a finalist for a 2020 Foreword Indies Book Award. The book explores the impact of a number of musicians, including Joe Hill, Lesley Gore, Janis Ian, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, and Pete Seeger.
In the third part of a conversation, Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola, who curates Shadowproof’s Protest Music Project, talks with Schreiber about Music Is Power.
Schreiber discusses how Black Sabbath came to record “War Pigs,” one of the most important metal protest songs. He highlights the mark Gil Scott-Heron left on protest music, and he recalls what happened when Public Enemy released “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
You can listen to the conclusion of this series by clicking on the player at the top of the post. The book can be purchased from Rutgers University Press here.
GOSZTOLA: While we’re talking about war, let’s get into the part of your book that looks at hard rock or the rise of heavy metal; that Black Sabbath, this iconic band was responsible for, and the way in which these stories about Americans fighting in Vietnam inspired Black Sabbath to record one of the best songs against the military industrial-complex ever recorded—”War Pigs.”
SCHREIBER: That’s a really almost comical story. War is tragic, obviously, but the way they stumbled on to writing “War Pigs”—They had played a gig in Switzerland, and they were interacting with a lot of American military who were based there, and they were telling pretty harrowing stories of what was going on there in Vietnam. So, all of a sudden a heavy metal band that is obsessed with the occult and dark imagery is starting to gain a political consciousness.
The actual lyrics and name for “War Pigs” came out of something that might have been in the mockumentary “Spinal Tap” because they wanted to call the song “Walpurgis,” which is this pagan holiday. Of course, their label said we’re not going to have any suggestion of the occult or Satanism or paganism or anything like that. We’re not calling it “Walpurgis.” And I believe it was Tony Iommi, the guitarist, who said, why don’t we just call it “War Pigs”? It sounds like “Walpurgis.” “War Pigs,” yeah, yeah. Let’s do that. So then the song ensued.
All that aside, Black Sabbath did something that hadn’t been done before and surprisingly wasn’t done very often after and that was taking a musical genre that is perfect for protest, heavy metal, the basic sound of the songs, the anger, the sometimes horrifying imagery in heavy metal, and connected it to war. What could be more natural? And yet, a lot of heavy metal musicians and composers, they would come up with anything other than political consciousness. They would come up with cannibalism and Satanism and being burned alive and what have you.
Because “War Pigs” was really the first metal song that was political, it set an important standard, and I know a lot of people have called it the most important heavy metal song ever recorded.
GOSZTOLA: Let’s move on to Gil Scott-Heron. Talk about your inclusion of him in your examples of music. I think he’s one of the more under-rated musicians when you look at the way music has such a power. The way he could express social and political ideas was always clear. He really cut right to the heart of what needed to be said.
A song that really stuck out to me. Again, I’m listening to a lot of this music. Everybody who considers these artists now and what they mean and how they protest. They have their context in which they were recorded. Gil’s responding to Nixon. Gil’s responding to Reagan. But I couldn’t help it. When [Donald] Trump was inaugurated, I connected all the themes and everything he talked about in “B Movie,” having this actor elected to run the United States. It’s a little worse in this era. We have a C-list or D-list actor, who is running the country.
The lyrics for that song are all appropriate for our moment, but then his other songs—it’s very rare for a musician to sing so clearly and pointedly about the threat of nuclear war, as well as environmental destruction. You don’t have a lot of those songs out there from artists.
SCHREIBER: Yeah, and “Johannesburg” was one of the most powerful indictments of apartheid in South Africa. Of course, most people remember, if they know Gil Scott-Heron’s work, they think of the “Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
And you make a really good point, that even though he’s talking about the ’70s and his cultural and political references are from that period, you can take Nixon and Spiro Agnew, as he mispronounced him, and John Mitchell and just plug in Trump and Giuliani and Lev Parnas and Devin Nunes, and the list of horrific people goes on and on.
It’s a time capsule, but it also suggests there’s a continuum of corruption that we have to be responsible for battling. And it’s also funny. It’s outrageously funny. Bullwinkle the Moose and Julia, which was Diahann Carroll as the first black female running character on network television.
He also showed that you could do really beautiful soulful music. He did a piece called “Pieces of a Man,” which is a stunning R&B number, very soft and very mournful and the character who is speaking the lyrics is remembering his father coming apart after he loses his job.
The song ends with the character, who is speaking the lyrics, hearing a siren wailing and knowing it’s something his father has done that is illegal in order to support his family. It’s very elegiac and a very stunning piece, and it summarizes what happens when you have institutional poverty of any color of people in any society. You force them into crime because they have no other options.
Gil not only could write the overtly political. He could write in other ways that were more subtle and more lasting. He used Brian Jackson to create backgrounds of jazz, soul, or blues. And part of his lasting legacy was he inspired all musical artists but especially black artists to use poetry.
I wish it was obviously used more in hip hop, but we got to a point where we had poetry slams. You go to a poetry slam, and you see young people carrying the mantle of what Gil Scott-Heron did with his words back in the ’70s.
GOSZTOLA: The first album Gil recorded that became popular was entirely spoken word album that had bongos in the background, right?
SCHREIBER: Yeah, percussion. That’s right. It’s not that he was the very first person to do this. There were guys in Harlem. There were guys here in Watts in Los Angeles, who experimented with that form and really in your face street language and simple musical accompaniment. That was the beginning of it, and Gil used it and he raised it to a political artform.
GOSZTOLA: Like the Last Poets, for an example.
SCHREIBER: The Last Poets and the Watt Prophets, that’s the name of the group out here in Los Angeles.
Sadly, Gil came to an end because he was addicted to crack-cocaine, and there’s an amazing New Yorker profile of him, where the guy interviewing him could not get him out of the house. He would spend all day in the house in his apartment in Harlem, and the guy writing the profile of him said, hey, let’s go get some lunch. And in his typically sly way, Gil Scott-Heron said, oh, I don’t know man. I hear sunshine isn’t good for you.
Even to the end, he had this amazing perspective. Especially for people who want to write songs that can be subtle or overtly political, I think they should look to his work.
GOSZTOLA: Gil did get an opportunity to make some music in the final years of his life. The 2010s, I think one of the top albums of the 2010s was the album he recorded, which has “New York Is Killing Me” and “Me and the Devil.” Those were really rich songs. He also got back out and did some performances.
That was the only time I had a chance to see him perform, being as young as I am. I was pleased to be able to catch a later performance. He’d talk about his work to make Martin Luther King Jr. a holiday. He [worked] with Stevie Wonder to make that happen.
SCHREIBER: That’s an amazing timeline because it actually starts with James Brown.
James Brown is at the peak of his renown with, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud.” He’s created an anthem for his people, and he wants to create a national holiday for Martin Luther King. He goes to Richard Nixon and meets with him. Nixon only meets with him because he thinks if he’s photographed with James Brown he’s going to siphon off some of the black vote. He had absolutely no intention and played James Brown.
Then you had Stevie Wonder creating a tour, and Gil Scott-Heron was on it, and it marshals enough momentum to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
I love stories like that because a lot of time I bump into people who say it’s important to create socially conscious music, but in the end it just makes you feel good. It doesn’t change anything. That’s absolutely dead wrong. It’s dead wrong in the case of Stevie Wonder helping to create Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday.
It’s wrong in the case of P.F. Sloan, who wrote “Eve of Destruction” and had lyrics like, “You’re old enough to kill but not for voting,” that led to an amendment of the Constitution so that 18 year-olds could vote.
Peter Gabriel changed history when he wrote “Biko” about Steven Biko, the anti-apartheid leader who was murdered in his cell in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. And then “Biko” started a movement where college students.
Not Democrats, not organizations, but college students started going to the administration of their individual colleges and said we know you’ve invested money in South Africa. We want you to divest, or we’re going to protest every single day. And most people have forgotten about this, the divestment movement that started with Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” in 1980.
By the end of the decade, billions of dollars had been pulled out of South Africa by the U.S. government, and it was all generated by protests from college students. So the next time someone says a song can’t change anything, you say, oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
GOSZTOLA: The last example I want to highlight is Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona.” As you write in your book, you talk about the state of Arizona voted by a margin of 17,000 votes in 1990 not to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a holiday as stipulated by federal law.
So then Public Enemy recorded this song with lyrics that were directed at Governor Evan Mecham, who after his election in 1986 canceled the mandated celebration. He said, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”
Talk about Public Enemy’s foray into this and also how the video was banned by MTV.
SCHREIBER: Evan Mecham was not only years behind the time in recognizing, along with the other 48 states (New Hampshire was holding out) that an MLK Jr. holiday was overdue, he was also using the term “colored people.”
Chuck D and the gang at Public Enemy created a video where they show Evan Mecham getting into a limo, and it blows up. They were under fire for “advocating” violence against an elected official. But my favorite response was on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where Chuck D was asked, what would Martin Luther King think about your advocating violence against Governor Mecham?
Chuck D said I don’t think he’d be very happy about it. To start with, he wouldn’t be very happy about being shot. And the audience erupted into applause.
There’s more confrontational quality in hip hop music today, which again I wish we saw more in all forms of music and especially in metal as I mentioned.
GOSZTOLA: I would like to also have you talk about the example of “911 Is A Joke,” which you cover in your chapter on Public Enemy. You quote Denise Sullivan, who is the author of Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.
What makes this a great protest song is it is one of the first songs to articulate how police don’t respond to the emergencies of people of color.
SCHREIBER: It came from Flavor Flav being on the street, and there was a disagreement. A friend of his was stabbed, and they called 911. Instead of being there within minutes, they were there 25 minutes later, and his friend was dead. So there’s a direct living response that connects to the reason for writing that song.
John Oliver on HBO has a very amusing and very important show. Just a few years ago, like four years ago I believe, he had a segment about dialing 911. He said there are hundreds of thousands of accidental calls that are made that the infrastructure does not exist to respond to all true emergency calls. Even today, we still haven’t found a way to do that. I think he made some crack that even Domino’s can figure out how to deliver a horrible pizza to you, and we still can’t do 911 right.
Part 1 explored Dixie Chicks and Marvin Gaye. Part 2 explored Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.