The world today is such a wicked place,
Fighting going on between the human race,
People go to work just to earn their bread,
While people just across the sea are countin' the dead;
A politician's job they say is very high,
For he has to choose whose gotta go and die,
They could put a man on the moon quite easy,
While people here on Earth are dying of all diseases;
A woman goes to work every day after day,
She just goes to work just to earn her pay,
Child sitting crying findin' life much harder,
He doesn’t even know who is his father.
“In a world of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” ~George Orwell (1984)
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” ~Acts 2:40
Recorded on September 19, 1969, “Wicked World” is Black Sabbath’s first original composition, a protest song demonstrating how the system that benefits the elite shatters the poor and disenfranchised. Along with several songs on the first album, “Wicked World” establishes the thematic bedrock upon which the band would extrapolate a wide range of socially-critical songs over the course of the decade, denouncing war, oppression and authoritarian deception, and the ways in which these affect the common man.
Musically, “Wicked World” wears its swing roots proudly on its sleeve, though the funereal mood and gravelly vocals go far in camouflaging that to an audience unfamiliar with the music of the Big Band era. “Wicked World” sees Black Sabbath merging the material they’d been playing in clubs (as Earth) with the moody ebon tones that came to characterize their sound. A good part of what makes “Wicked World” so interesting is its mosaic properties. It begins as a swing piece, switches to a bluesy riff for its main melody, presents a psychedelic middle-eight, and then returns back to swing for its outro. The original version clocked in about forty-five seconds longer, and included a jazzy bridge and vocal part after the second verse. Tempo changes, rhythmic flexibility and dynamic variation are common devices in classical music and progressive rock, and would be impressive for even an experienced band, but for a new band’s initial composition, it’s extraordinary. The live versions were even more striking, featuring an extended jam, complete with a jazz solo, several unique and embryonic riffs (some of which would later be developed into parts of songs and recorded), and, by 1971, a phantasmal, elegiac section containing “Orchid” and bits and pieces of the middle-section of “Warning.”
The world today is such a wicked place.
“Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.” ~Genesis 6:11 (NASB)
Ward’s jazzy hi-hats set the stage for Iommi’s tempestuous primary riff, which after the introductory passage alights upon a splenetic, blues-structured verse riff wherein Osbourne’s ancient-sounding, grainy vocal bellows the ultimate reality of the times in which we live and the countless years in which injustice, violence and cruelty held dominion.
“The world today is such a wicked place” is an introduction as powerful and pregnant with meaning as “What is this that stands before me?” from “Black Sabbath,” and lights the first spark of the band’s righteous indignation, which will burst into a five-alarm fire on the following albums’ anti-war polemics to continue the thread of protest music from the era that had just passed. Near upon a decade later, the final stanza of their final song “Swinging the Chain” will chillingly echo this, reminding listeners that “the world’s still on fire.”
The opening verse sets up the song’s basic premise, with the first two stanzas taking a macrocosmic view to demonstrate the different reasons the world is “wicked”:
2. poverty/social inequality
4. political elitism and oppression
5. untreated pandemics
The final stanza looks microcosmically at a single-parent family:
6. daily drudgery
7. economic oppression
8. the suffering of the innocent
9. loss of a parent
Butler’s exposition on the global scene is forthright, conjuring mental images and dark recollections from the pages of history and the evening news, but his portrayal isn’t dry or journalistic, but elegiac and almost religious. His use of the word “wicked” to describe the world calls biblical imagery to mind, and although Butler doesn’t begin to explicitly employ religious language until “War Pigs,” “Wicked World,” like “Behind the Wall of Sleep” conjures implicit notions of religious themes. The song-title itself may be borrowed from the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of Galatians 1:4, which in speaking of Jesus Christ states that he “gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present wicked world.” This very event is depicted at the climax of “War Pigs” and “Electric Funeral.”
Fightin’ going on between the human race.
“No freedom, peace or happiness has ever come out of war.” ~Anonymous
This simple and aptly conceived line condemns the wide range and scope of violence in the world. As with Black Sabbath’s later incendiary songs, “Wicked World” is mostly free from specifics. A listener in 1970 would have understood the context, but in resisting the lure of writing too topically, Butler accords the song a timelessness free from cultural and political boundaries. “Wicked World” takes a gargoyle’s-eye-view of the world that transcends time and place, avoiding any then-topical mentions of the draconian threat of Nixon and his administration that was on the minds of many. In the ever-widening political divide in the United States and abroad, Black Sabbath remained apolitical, neither advocating nor indicting one nation or political party above another, but condemning any and all political leaders who advanced the cause of war and suffering.
The tumult of the late ‘60s saw a surge of upheaval, with fighting going on between nations, and within them. The U.S. saw a growing divide between blacks and whites, young and old, working classes and the wealthy. Student uprisings featured not only at Berkley University in California, but in Prague, Paris and Mexico City. The fighting “going on between the human race” certainly refers to the conflict in Vietnam, but with equal measure to virtually any conflict in the intervening years. It could even apply to the more personal, but no less tragic pandemic of domestic and criminal violence.
People go to work just to earn their bread,
While people just across the sea are countin’ the dead.
“A struggle is going on in all nations of the civilized world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer...” ~American Federation of Labor Constitution, 1886
The stanza links the struggle of the working class, who agonize to just get food on the table, with the anguish of the grieving in war-zones, to underscore social inequality, specifically the way the poor and middle-classes in different countries suffer. Butler, Iommi, Osbourne and Ward understood the effects of abject poverty firsthand. “It was rather dreadful and everybody in my family worked in factories,” Osbourne recalled. “Really mindless jobs that were physically exhausting… We had a bucket of piss at the bottom of the bed… We never had clean sheets; we used to have overcoats as fucking bedclothes. This is God’s honest truth.” (McIver, 2007)
The numbers of those living with a minimal of basic daily living needs (which comprises nutritious food, safe and adequate shelter, sufficient clothing, access to education, health care and political representation), or without them, due to lack of sufficient income is inestimable. Sociological assessments generally point to several multifaceted reasons, which include weak or callous governance, war, the foreign policies of nations, imperialism, colonialism, lack of access to birth control, lack of education, white-and-blue-collar crimes, discrimination, inadequate nutrition, disease, mental illness, substance abuse and emigration. Greed author, Julian Edney, addresses how, over time, social inequality rots the individual and the nation from within.
“Besides hunger and fear, lack of health care, decent education and housing shortages, which make living hard, the poor live with brash opulence in their faces. People in decaying buildings daily watch glittering television scenes of shining cars, ocean yachts, and overflowing parties of the rich and famous. Owned by these images, a poor person cannot but feel the differences, and year by year these images add a sedimented frustration, resentment, sense of failure and inferiority which they cannot avoid. Poverty is also punitive. The poverty-struck family is not just paying the price of its own failure: it is also paying the price of others’ success. Still, many regard these problems as if they were no more than the economy’s stubble, moles, and split ends… Great social inequality creates an unstable equilibrium. The swelling numbers of the poor and resentful come to rival the power of the rich. As grievances and restlessness grow, government worsens, becoming tyrannical. Eventually a critical point arrives. Wealth will be redistributed, either by politics, or by revolution.”
Black Sabbath later depict this revolutionary “critical point” on later albums, though their predictions on the fate of tyrannical governments center on eschatological scenarios, apocalyptic rather than political conclusions.
|For the “people across the sea,” revolution, war and genocide raged in places like Vietnam, which saw more than 58,000 American soldiers killed and upwards of four million Vietnamese civilians counted dead. Cambodia would soon afterwards count three million of its own people slaughtered during the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime. Far from isolated or uncommon events, such atrocities are ubiquitous in the record of human history. Going back over a century, estimated totals of the genocide against Native Americans by Europeans range from the highly conservative 15 million to upwards of 100 million, which left a mere 2.5% of the population alive by 1891 (which would make it one of the greatest human massacres in recorded history). The first genocide of the 20th Century, the Great Calamity, was Turkey’s genocidal massacre of 2 million Armenians, which took place before and during the First World War, which ended in 20 million casualties. The Second World War (and the Sino-Japanese War that merged with it) left an even greater death-toll between 50 and 72 million people, including the 11 million killed during the Holocaust. The Holodomor saw between three and 10 million Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin. Bangladesh, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous others have since carved out alarming numbers, altogether presenting an unspeakable account of a race plagued by a lust for violence and propensity towards self-destruction.|
A politician’s job they say is very high,
For he has to choose whose gotta go and die;
“In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful.” ~Leo Tolstoy
After a short bridge, the riff builds again with Butler underscoring “Wicked World’s” primary object of acrimony, the world’s ruling elite who perpetuate both war and the disparity between the affluent who live, parasitically, off the blood, sweat and tears of the lower social classes. “The United States has the greatest disparity of wealth in the entire industrialized world,” wrote Professor and columnist for The Statesman, Huck Gutman. “That fact is a national disgrace, though it is largely invisible both in the media, and in the endless accolades about the wonders of capitalism. While America seems to be enjoying a banquet of unbelievable richness, most Americans do not get a full plate, and a remarkable number go hungry.” (Gutman, 2002)
The sarcasm inherent in the line demonstrates the band’s disgust with the political leaders who, by virtue of their so-called “high” positions, are not only exempt from the very conflicts they create, but, like true tyrants, employ youth (particularly from the lower and middle classes) to kill and be killed so they can gain greater wealth and resources. Author and activist Thomas Hayden indicates that the “elite classes often stoke ideology, hatred, or a desire for revenge for their own reasons, most of which have to do with staying elite… That means going to war, though the underlying cause can be hard to discern behind the official reasons—patriotism, ideology, security.” (Hayden, 2004)
Its subversive, anti-war statements anchor “Wicked World” firmly in the protest music of the 1960s. Six years prior to this composition, Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” discussed how the politicians build weapons of destruction, and then hide away while the young people they’d sent to war are slaughtered. Phil Ochs dedicated an entire catalogue of songs to the deception and abuse of power by corrupt political and corporate leaders who profited from violence. “[Black Sabbath’s] ideas had always been influenced by the 1960s counter-culture the band’s members had lived through and been associated with, as well as its accompanying ideas about spirituality, love as a force for change, and peace as an objective.”
But it wasn’t just folk and rock musicians who railed against a corrupt system. Among the first to paint a foreboding picture of the madness, cruelty and corruption of war in the modern age were British poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who during the First World War, wrote controversial verse against a political military elite who they felt were waving patriotic flags whilst prolonging a war that the wealthy industrialists were profiting from. Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer declared that the reason wars continued was not just the “paltry politicians” and their “mind-deafening propaganda,” but society itself which betrays a shocking “contempt for life. We waged war for questions which, through reason, might have been solved. No one won. The war killed millions of men, and brought suffering and death to millions of innocent animals. Why? Because we did not possess the highest rationality of reverence for life.” (Schweitzer, 1947)
They could put a man on the moon quite easy,
While people here are on earth are dying of all diseases.
“The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” ~George Bernard Shaw
It’s not entirely insignificant that the first song written by Black Sabbath while named Earth utilized the word “earth” in its lyric (along with a stinging depiction of its mismanagement). In the context in which it’s placed, it’s clear that Butler wasn’t entirely immune to the temptation of commenting on current events, and these verses are the most specifically topical on the album, referring directly to the July 20, 1969 moon landing (less than seven months before this album’s release) that an estimated 500 million people watched on television. By the time most of the nation viewed Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin’s lunar landing, it was hailed as one of mankind’s all-time great achievements, a symbol of what humans can accomplish when they put their minds to it. Prior to its success, however, controversy existed as to whether the government should be allocating astronomical taxpayer funds to exploring space when there were so many problems on earth that needed attention. While the lyric makes it clear that Butler agreed, he himself was hardly immune to the lure of the stars, and the moon landing became a source of inspiration for him, providing a literal and metaphoric framework for escape from a world engulfed in war and chaos (c.f., “Planet Caravan” and “Into the Void”). In an ethical context, however, he places the high expenditure of the moon mission (with an estimated cost of approximately $30 billion in 1968) against the desperate need of funding for the sick, money that might instead have been used to fund research for cures to the countless ailments and pandemics spread across the planet. In such a context, the governments (specifically, the American and Soviet governments) are shown to be grossly insensitive. Phil Ochs’ 1963 “Spaceman,” looks similarly askance at the space race:
“Way high, so high, travellin’ fast and free.
Spaceman, look down, tell me what you see.
Can you see the hunger there strike without a sound?
Can you see the food you burn as you circle round?
Way high, so high, all the world will cheer.
Spaceman, look down, tell me what you hear.
Can you hear a child cry, body filled with pain?
Deadly sores when cures are there. How much fuel remains?
Way high, so high. Spaceman made of steel.
Spaceman, look down, tell me what you feel.
Can you feel the money gone, as you sail through space?
Can you feel how many die when you win the race?”
“Wicked World’s” perspective takes on greater validity when the space race is seen as less about national prestige or scientific discovery than espionage and militarization. Former U.S. President Johnson stated, “Control of space means control of the world. From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.”(Caro, 2002)
“Wicked World’s” phantasmagoric bridge continues in the gothic overtones that permeate the album, a haunting and evocative oeuvre, like an eerie echo of The Shadows, serving as a prelude to the strange, twisty passages that unearth in the album’s closer “Warning.” Silence ensues for a moment before Iommi’s lead breaks in, almost violently, seeming to indicate a cataclysmic end to all that’s come before, but then Ward hammers forth and the riff starts again, as if to signify the continuing cycle of destruction.
In the original, uncut version (and live performances), there occurs an unusual tempo-shift at this interval, and the song moves to an upbeat jazz section with additional vocals:
“I don’t know whether it is worth all,
Though whatever trouble I got on my mind,
Everybody’s runnin’ round in circles,
Runnin’ ‘round everyday as if they’re blind.”
The stanza in this cut section critiques the way people blindly live their lives, running through the same cyclical behavior again and again. Though it doesn’t state it specifically, one can surmise from songs like “Cornucopia,” “Under the Sun” and “Over to You” that Sabbath have in mind the rat race people run, blindly slaving for more money, for their employer, or for whatever authority tells them how to live. There are two other remarkable aspects of this section; one is that the song’s reproach is directed, not to the political leaders, as with the main thrust of the lyric, but “everybody,” mankind in general. This is present in “Black Sabbath,” as well, but is considerably more oblique, and won’t find more explicit expression until “War Pigs.” The other remarkable feature here is the interjection of the voice of the narrator, who wonders aloud if it’s even worth saying, but compared to his own troubles, everyone else is in far worse shape. Butler won’t utilize the technique of interpolating the narrator’s voice again until Master of Reality’s “Lord of this World.”
A woman goes to work ev’ry day after day;
She just goes to work just to earn her pay.
“As usual, single mothers are having the hardest time of all. More than 40 percent of women who head families are now living in poverty. With more than half of poor children living in female-headed families in 2010, the child poverty rate jumped to 22 percent… And as usual, most of the powers that be aren’t paying attention.” ~Leslie Bennetts
The macrocosmic overview of the first two stanzas leads directly to the intimate, microcosmic look at how war and poverty affect individuals, specifically a single working mother and her child. Although only touched upon, this perspective is impressive. The plight of struggling, impoverished women and children is not a topic commonly found in rock music, then or now. “Johnny Blade” builds on this idea as well, looking at the effects of poverty and violence on a young man. “Wicked World” depicts a woman who appears to have lost her husband in combat, leaving her forced to take on full-time employment (and possibly more than one job). The verse says a lot in a short space: “she just goes to work just to earn her pay” indicates just how extreme her situation is, with employment that’s likely menial and low-paying, and barely enough to support herself and her children. Studies consistently show that women and children are the first and hardest hit during times of war, militarization and economic downturn, subject to impoverishment, brutalization, exploitation, domestic violence and rape.
As with any discussion of social injustice, “Wicked World” compels listeners to take a hard look at the causes of economic inequality in a culture that celebrates affluence. “Inequality is more tolerated now than ever before in modern history,” wrote Assistant Professor of Political Science, Michael J. Thompson. “The culture of everyday life has become infested with a culture of inequality, a culture of hierarchy.”(Thompson, 2006) While Black Sabbath don’t get into any kind of systematic breakdown of the issues, in exposing them, “Wicked World” focuses on the same cause and effect that others, such as Gutman, who notes that the top one percent of the population owns more than the bottom 95, citing “three causes for this monstrous maldistribution of wealth: capitalism, government, and pay… The rich get richer is a fundamental corollary of capitalist dynamics… and in America tax policies have been skewed to take from the working people and give to the wealthy… In the United States today… the CEOs of large corporations earn, in salary and other compensation, five hundred times what their average workers make. Put in less arithmetical terms, they earn in slightly over half a day what their workers earn in an entire year.”(Gutman, 2002)
Child sittin’, cryin’ by a life that’s harder.
He doesn’t even know who is his father.
“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children” ~Howard Zinn
The opening jazz riff returns in full-swing, as if to begin the cycle anew, but this time, the guitar takes over in an appropriately morose tone, bringing the song to its desolate conclusion. Osbourne’s voice is especially disconsolate, as the tragic final stanza points to the ultimate casualty in the political machinations of the rich and powerful: an innocent child bereft of a father and, potentially, a future. Aside from the emotional toll of losing a parent—depicted by the child’s crying—there is the danger of privation. Without the financial support of the primary wage-earner, this family is placed in a precarious situation of not being able to earn enough to get by. At, or already below, the poverty line, this mother and her child (or children) have been cast off by callous forces beyond their control, left on the threshing floor of homelessness, crime, malnutrition, disease and death.
If it all sounds rather depressing, it should be remembered that Black Sabbath and other artists of their ilk are not interested in merely entertaining, but reflecting truth. “I call it working class music,” said Ward. “I always considered Black Sabbath the first punk band. They were thoughtful lyrics, but at the same time they were different, and they were topical… (People) just didn’t like the subject matter.” For Black Sabbath, that included exposing the forces that govern millions as diabolical, and admonishing the younger generation, still open enough to be motivated to bring about the realization of a better world.
From its swing opening to its sludgy pentatonic riff and gothic passages, “Wicked World” remains as timely now as it was forty-four years ago, its subject matter still grimly ringing out its warning to all who’ll listen.
“Give me the money that has been spent in war and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens will be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to peace.” ~Charles Sumner
 Not counting their still-unreleased instrumental, “A Song for Jim.”
 Extended live versions of “Wicked World” were the highlight of Black Sabbath’s earliest shows in the United States (the Fillmore West shows in late November being the earliest known). A lengthy acoustic section was added in late March 1971, where “Orchid” emerged in full as part of that section. It’s clear that some aspects of this were derived from the middle-section of “Warning”—which by mid-1970, Sabbath were no longer playing live—but without the original, uncut version of that song, it’s impossible to know what is unique to his live performance and what came from the original version of “Warning.” Though certain aspects of the live “Wicked World” remained fairly consistent, as time went on, Iommi’s jam began to include a variety of new material (e.g., a rudimentary version of “Cornucopia’s” verse riff appeared in July 1971). After 1972, “Supernaut” and, later, “Sabbra Cadabra” were interpolated into the mix.
 Played not on his well-known Gibson SG, but rather a beloved Fender Stratocaster, which broke immediately after the recording of this song.
 This final stanza may be an Osbourne contribution, as it has his more trademark homespun quality. Rarely florid and often rudimentary, the styles lends a primal rawness to the mix, an interesting accompaniment to the bassist’s more poetic “Irish bard” approach.
 Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Joel McIver; 2007, Omnibus Press.
 Other factors include geographic and environmental factors, such as erosion, deforestation, desertification and overgrazing.
 Greed, Julian Edney, 2008: http://www.g-r-e-e-d.com/GREED%20I.htm.
 This number includes around 6 million Jews, 1.5 million Romani (Gypsies), two to three million Soviet POWs, 2 million ethnic Poles, 200,000 handicapped, 15,000 homosexuals and 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
 “Black Sabbath 1968 - 1979: A Lyrical Reassessment,” by Andy Johnson: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/123480-black-sabbath-1968-1979-a-lyrical-reassessment
 In his “Act of Willful Defiance,” Sassoon wrote, “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/act_willful_defiance.htm
 Butler may have had in mind recent pandemics, such as the ‘68-’69 Hong Kong Flu that swept through the globe beginning in Hong Kong and spreading to Vietnam and Singapore, India, the Philippines, northern Australia, Europe and the United States. It reached Japan, Africa and South America in 1969, causing 700,000 deaths worldwide. While horrific, it’s a number considerably lower in comparison to the Asian flu (from which the Hong Kong Flu may have been related) of the prior decade, which saw a death toll worldwide of around 2 million.
 From The Broadside Tapes I
 As he had done with “Black Sabbath,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “Warning,” producer Rodger Bain cut this portion of the song.
 Bill Ward: “Black Sabbath and the Birth of Heavy Metal” http://www.vice.com/en_uk/on-the-road/on-the-road-black-sabbath-and-the-birth-of-heavy-metal.
Lyrics © 2013. Essex International. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without the express permission of the copyright holder.
Text © 2013. Joe Bongiorno. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without the express permission of the copyright holder.