CARITAS CORNER: Good Catholic Songs
By Andy Barton
Let me just get this out of the way: the band Black Sabbath is not for everyone. If their choice of band name is not enough to turn off good and proper people, the anecdotes of their excessive living are sufficiently dissuasive. It is an infamy that stems, in large part, from their lead singer Ozzy Osbourne who, for those of my generation, was the subject of playground legend for biting off the head of a live bat during a concert in 1982 (which is not fiction, by the way).
Black Sabbath shocked people when they arrived on the music scene in 1969, just like they planned. They played to an audience looking to rebel and if their parents were horrified by the name on the record, so much the better. It is that immaculately cultivated dark identity that makes one of Black Sabbath’s early songs so fascinating. “After Forever” is the second song on their third studio album “Master of Reality”. The intro comes like something off the soundtrack to a 1970’s horror film, then transitions to some lighter guitar before going sinister and heavy with the bass playing of Geezer Butler. The opening line is: “Have you ever thought about your soul, can it be saved?”. From there, “After Forever” takes one of the more curious routes in heavy metal history.
The song was written by the bassist Butler who had grown up in a devout Irish Catholic home in Birmingham, England. Though he was not practicing at the time, he put his faith on full display in a hard core, heavy metal, Catholic sermon. Few mainstream rock bands could have pulled off “After Forever.” With its snide interrogative opening, “Perhaps you think when you are dead you just stay in the grave?” and then onto “Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope? Do you think he’s a fool?” There is nothing subtle in the song’s approach as it chastises those very people who had spent their hard-earned money on the album.
Then comes the third verse:
“Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say
If they knew you believe in God above?
They should realize before they criticize that
God is the only way to love.”
From Geezer’s pen to Ozzy’s lips to hundreds of thousands of metal heads listening over the past half century, Black Sabbath had turned 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and he who abides in God and God abides in him” into a heavy metal classic.
The divinity of music is as much a part of the church as scripture and prayer and serves as the vehicle for both. Psalms and Song of Songs are ancient playlists preserved through the Old Testament. Humankind has been singing about God from the beginning. The urge to segment by genres results in categories like Gospel, Christian Rock and ”Holy Hip Hop,” but Catholic themes are present throughout mainstream music as well.
“After Forever” makes sense at least in the fact that it was written by a Catholic. It is different when musicians with no professed faith express profound and beautiful Catholic themes in their music. Neither David Bowie nor Freddie Mercury, the late lead of Queen, sited any religious inspiration for their 1981 hit “Under Pressure.” In interviews, Bowie shrugged off the genesis of the song as the product of a jam session in a Swiss recording studio where he and Queen were recording separately. Nonetheless, the song is a brilliant exemplification of Catholic Social Teaching.
“Under Pressure” is best known for that base line which, eight years later would be sampled by Vanilla Ice and reintroduced to an entirely new generation of listeners. The lyrics speak to what happens to people on the margins, alluding to the breakdown of family and people living on streets. There is a brief and important bridge in which Bowie sings:
“Turned away from it all like a blind man.
Sat on a fence but it don’t work.
Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn.”
The power of “Under Pressure,” both musically and lyrically, comes in the plaintive crescendo: “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love that one more chance?” It is a fundamental question about caring for our poor and vulnerable. The song answers:
“(L)ove dares you to care for the people
on the edge of the night
and love dares you to change our way
of caring about ourselves.
This is our last dance.”
“Under Pressure” portrays essential elements of Catholic Social Teaching both in the stress on the common good and, more generally, in the assertion that love is the answer to suffering. In juxtaposing the act of turning away “like a blind man” with the call to “give love one more chance,” echoing the parable of the Good Samaritan. The use of “caring about ourselves” at the end of the song aligns with the teachings of solidarity and common good. Pope Benedict XVI, in “Deus Caritas Est” writes: “Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren, we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.” Bowie and Queen are not talking about “bubble gum / pop crush” love in this song, they are speaking about caritas — that big love for all mankind.
A Catholic song does not need to be about God or Jesus. It just needs to be about love. As Pope Benedict writes, “Love is ‘divine’ because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).” Whether it is Black Sabbath singing “God is the only way to love” or David Bowie asking, “Why can’t we give love one more chance?” hearing these themes in a couple of rock and roll classics is a reminder of the fundamental nature of our faith. It is woven throughout our culture in ways that we sense more than we hear or see. There is a kind of reassurance in that notion. Rock on.