This song, I think, needs no introduction. If you haven’t heard it before, hear it now. If you have, hear it again.
The lyrics are unlikely to make sense to you unless you know that this song was written not about the superhero Iron Man, but about a science fiction story in which a man travels to a future in which, to his horror, he discovers a frightful apocalypse. When he returns to his time, he finds that he cannot get anyone to believe him. Things are not helped by the fact that the magnetic field he passed through during his return journey turned him into metal, rendering him mute and making his attempts to warn mankind of the impending danger markedly comical. It was the 60’s. Don’t ask.
Driven mad by the laughter and scorn of his fellow humans, the metallic prophet flies into a fury and takes his revenge on the civilization that rejected him. Only when he has vented his rage does he realize that he was responsible for the apocalypse that he foresaw. All of the above is according to Geezer Butler, who wrote the lyrics and generally seemed to have a better idea of what he was doing than his work would otherwise suggest.
Musically, the track is very strong. The riff is genuinely interesting and the instrumental work is first-rate. In fact, it is very possible to enjoy this song immensely so long as you make very sure to ignore the lyrics, which are incredibly bad. How bad are they? They are worse than the lyrics to Deep Purple’s “Black Night,” and the lyrics to Deep Purple’s “Black Night” were intentionally written to be the worst lyrics the band could think of.
Let’s take this line-by-line…
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
The first thing you will notice in listening to this song is that the vocal line is just the riff, delivered in the irritatingly strained vocals of Ozzy Osbourne. There is nothing inherently wrong with the reuse of a musical phrase, but such repetition places extra responsibility on the lyrics, which are now unenviably saddled with being the sole providers of surprise and nuance. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics run into problems after just two lines. First, while there is nothing wrong with the question as to whether the subject of the song has lost his mind, the query is just a little too vague to compensate for the lack of surprise in the music. The next line is a textbook illustration of pointless restatement. Can he see? An intriguing question. Or is he blind? Yes, that would be the alternative to being able to see. The line simply asks the same question twice, once positively and once negatively for no other reason than to fill its syllable quota.
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?
First off, the rhyme of “all” and “fall” in a plain couplet is childishly simplistic. The verse also falls into the same trap we saw above and asks a question twice, slightly rephrased. This would probably also be a good time to talk about collaborative coherency and syllable stretching. It is mightily tempting, when syllable count falls short, to simply stretch out vowels until they get you where you need to be. However, this is a temptation that must be resisted at all costs. In this couplet alone, we see “or” stretched over two notes (and rather awkwardly at that), only for “moves” to find itself stretched over three full notes. The result is a verse that sounds like it was written by a creative team consisting of a five-year-old and a particularly insightful gust of wind.
Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We’ll just pass him there.
Why should we even care?
He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he travelled time
For the future of mankind.
If you already know the story that the song centers around, these lyrics make a trifle more sense than they would otherwise, not that this is saying much, but even the lyrical problems are getting repetitive now… “Is he alive?” I don’t know. “Or dead?” yes, that is certainly the other possibility… “Are there thoughts within his head?” They’re certainly much more likely to be there than in his gallbladder… “We’ll just pass him there,” why add a “there” to the perfectly coherent statement “we’ll just pass him,” or “we’ll just pass him by?” Who says “we’ll just pass him there?”
“Steel” and “field” don’t actually rhyme, nor do “time” and “mankind.” And don’t we mean “when he travelled through time” rather than the incomprehensible “when he travelled time?” Maybe it’s just me.
Nobody wants him,
He just stares at the world.
Planning his vengeance
That he soon will unfold.
This verse actually isn’t bad. It isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it sounds like it was written by a grown adult. There is no syllable stretching, no awkward expansions or condensations of previously meaningful statements. My only quibble is that “world” does not, as it happens, rhyme with “unfold.” I have expressed my blanket disapproval of using “world” in song lyrics at all in a previous post, but anyway:
Now the time is here
For Iron Man to spread fear.
…And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen. The music clashes horribly with the natural emphases of the sentence, “for” and “man” get stretched over two and then three syllables respectively, and on the whole we’re back to the lyrical ineptitude that characterized the opening stanzas of the song. I was blindsided, therefore, when the next lyric was:
Vengeance from the grave,
Kills the people he once saved.
There’s actually a good lyric in this song! True, “grave” and “saved” don’t strictly rhyme, but the couplet manages with gleeful vindictiveness to sum up something approaching the central irony of the story. The high from this verse is often enough to get me through the rest of the song, a desperate slog though it is from here on out:
Nobody wants him
They just turn their heads.
Nobody helps him
Now he has his revenge.
If I may simply note that “heads” and “revenge” don’t even come close to rhyming, we can move on.
Heavy boots of lead
Fills his victims full of dread.
Running as fast as they can,
Iron Man lives again!
To start out with, who the hell says “dread” anymore? When did “fill them full” become a phrase in the English language? And when did Iron Man live the first time that this time he “lives again?” These are questions to which we may never know the answers. Nor do I, for one, particularly want to.