The Provocative and Challenging Meaning Behind “Mob Rules” by Black Sabbath

After Black Sabbath ousted Ozzy Osbourne in April 1979 for his excessive substance abuse, things looked rather dire for the band. But along came Ronnie James Dio. The American rocker with the powerful pipes had just spent several years in Rainbow. Having a potent frontman and passionate lyricist in the fold allowed Sabbath to solider in with a new creative songwriting partner. It also emboldened them to play faster songs, something that Osbourne was not as adept with. One of those amped up anthems was “Mob Rules,” which features possibly the most memorable riff from guitarist Tony Iommi.

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An Instant Classic

Sabbath did two studio albums with Dio back then. Heaven in Hell was very successful, selling half a million copies in America (eventually going Platinum in 1986) and launching an international tour. The follow-up album Mob Rules went Gold and featured one of the most iconic heavy metal album covers of all time. 

Driven by piledriving riffs, a pummeling rhythm section, and Dio’s commanding presence, the original version of “Mob Rules” was recorded for the Heavy Metal anthology movie soundtrack and features a slightly faster tempo and a more raw mix than what ended up on the album of the same name. There are some fans who prefer that version. There’s also plenty of epic soloing from Iommi.

Heavy Metal was a pioneering animated film from 1981 that was inspired by the magazine of the same name that in itself had been inspired by a French magazine called Metal Hurlant. “Mob Rules” was prominently featured during a bloody city siege in the penultimate segment of the movie called “Taarna.”

According to bassist Geezer Butler, the song was recorded at John Lennon’s house right after the band had played Hammersmith Odeon in London on the Heaven and Hell tour. They wrote the song in a couple of hours, and the filmmakers loved the raw demo and used it in the film.

Don’t Listen to Fools

The album cover and lyrical content of the song invoked the kind of dark subject matter that made many parents bristle back them. “We’ve had that problem all along, where people thought things were different to how the songs really are,” Iommi told me in 2008.

As this writer noted in his 2008 liner notes for the Rhino Records reissue of Mob Rules: “Even with Dio bringing in more fantasy-based lyrics and moving the group away from seemingly Satanic verses, the title track to Mob Rules, not to mention its menacing cover, could easily imply a call to anarchy. But beyond the snarling guitars and vocals is actually a cautionary tale against mindless mayhem.” 

Kill the spirits and you’ll be blinded
And the end is always the same
Play with fire you burn your fingers
And lose your hold of the flame, oh

It’s over, it’s done
The end has begun
If you listen to fools
The mob rules

It’s often been noted that when people are riled up in a large group, such as at a concert or a sporting event or an election revolt, it can be easy to set them off on a path of mindless destruction. There’s a distinct impressive irony with Dio tackling a subject that actually addresses something that some of his band’s and genre’s fans might not have thought about. It was a warning to not get riled up over something without contemplating the consequences.

The bold Mob Rules cover by artist Greg Hildebrandt featured hooded, whip-wielding figures in ragged garments seemingly staring at the viewer, with the black holes in their hoods mirroring the sewer-pipe openings in the wall behind them. They flanked a mounted canvas bloodied with a possibly Satanic visage. The painting was created in 1974 and called “Dream 1: Crucifiers.” It was inspired by Hildebrandt’s disillusionment with the hypocrisy of the Christian Church, whom he felt were using allegedly good works to mask the horrific deeds done in their name. That’s pretty metal in itself.

A Message for the Ages

Although the title track only broke the Top 50 in the UK, the Mob Rules album did well for Sabbath, hitting No. 12 in the UK, No. 29 in America, and going Top 20 in Canada and Finland. The album went gold in the U.S., UK, and Canada. Thanks to its inclusion in the movie Heavy Metal and with airplay on specialty metal radio shows, the song drew an audience.

Ultimately, those stats don’t matter as much as the song itself. It is one of Sabbath’s most potent anthems and a classic example of listen before you judge. 

The late Ronnie James Dio told me in 2008 that the song “Heaven and Hell” itself as a cautionary tale, “but ‘Mob Rules’ had a little bit more of a guideline because it was done for the film Heavy Metal, and we chose the part that we were going to write for in the film. We had that luxury. The visuals for ‘Mob Rules’ start with a revolutionary army attacking a walled establishment, so it was very easy to talk about how they’re knocking down walls, and if we don’t change our attitudes the same thing is going to happen to us. But it was a little bit more premeditated because we did have somewhat of a storyline to deal with. Of course, it depends upon what you write. You can have a storyline, but if you write something stupid, it’s never going to work. The song worked. Once again, it was an example of what we were on the first album—faster, aggressive kind of pieces—and you couldn’t get much more aggressive than ‘Mob Rules.’ After all these years, it’s just held its own with being one of those classic fast rock songs.”

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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