Among other things, last week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Paranoid, Black Sabbath’s second album of environmentally conscious, doom-laden Christian metal. Unquestionably their biggest album, songs like “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Fairies Wear Boots” have been blasting in the trucks of dads who don’t understand the album’s not-exactly-convoluted lyrics from the time of the 8 Track cassette to the dawn of classic rock radio to it’s spot in the rotation on satellite radio, an album hundreds of thousands of people who now vote against the legalization of marijuana got ludicrously high to because Black Sabbath’s album about getting ludicrously high hadn’t been recorded yet.
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It’s also the album that has “Iron Man” on it. You know “Iron Man,” of course, even if you never wanted to. Like Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s an almost impossibly long single that nevertheless dominates the Black Sabbath catalog, a song so inescapable that every beat, from its kick drum beginning to its riffy conclusion, is recognizable. Presuming you like Sabbath or the song, if it comes on the radio you know exactly where you are in its world, you’re either like “hell yeah, this song rips” or “damn, I just missed that song, which rips,” or “this song rips, but how many times do I have to hear it.”
But if, by chance, you heard it while standing in a wrestling ring in the 1980s, your thought process would be a little different. Less “this song rips” than “I am about to get ripped apart,” if you were the Mulkey Brothers in the National Wrestling Alliance or an undercard tag team in All Japan Pro Wrestling, it heralded the arrival of Hawk and Animal, the Road Warriors, and their manager, Paul Ellering. It meant that you were in for a rough night, the most painful four minutes of your life, a studio audience cheering for your impending demise at the hands of two freaks from outer space who may have actually been turned to steel, as the song goes, in some great magnetic field. And given that Road Warriors matches were so short and often began before introductions were made, the song might play out over the entirety of your beating. You take the Doomsday Device, you stare at the lights, and you eat your pin, the whole time thinking “hell yeah, this song rips.”
Chart Hits as Theme Songs
When we think about wrestlers using “real songs” as entrance music, the image and sound conjured is of wrestlers like Ric Flair and Randy Savage coming down the isle to a recording of a piece of classical music. But it used to be that the major stars of professional wrestling were played to the ring by songs performed by the biggest bands in the world. Back then, famed WWE composer Jim Johnston was still a drummer in a Detroit-area rock band and The Wrestling Album, produced in part by Cyndi Lauper’s manager David Wolff, featured “Real American,” a song written for the US Express, the tag team of Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda. Instead of that, Hogan entered to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III, the film that launched him to superstardom. Junk Yard Dog came out to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” NWA video packages were heavy on real music, using Sade’s “Smooth Operator” to introduce Buddy Landel’s New Nature Boy character, Terry Funk entered the ring for his legendary I Quit match against Ric Flair to the score from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and so on. And the smaller territories, man. You could lose a day watching vaguely homoerotic music videos highlighting the likes of Rick Rude, the Fabulous Ones, and, best of all, the New Fabulous Ones.
It was a different time. Before “Rock and Wrestling” exposed young audiences—and record labels—to the major leagues of pro wrestling, and way before overzealous music stans could file DMCA complaints about the illegal use of copywrited material, people in a position to care about IP really did think of wrestling as backwoods, yokel entertainment. Flip past an episode of World Championship Wrestling on TBS, and you’d never know. Pay per view was in its infancy, and most major shows took place off camera. The World Wrestling Federation put Hulk Hogan at the top of the card on its television tapings, but that was to draw the crowd in for an evening of Hercules Hernandez squash matches that’d later air on Superstars of Wrestling. And, yeah, when it came time to pay up for a song, the company did so, which is how “Obsession” came to be the theme song of Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC.
But until the explosion of Hulkamania and the mainstreaming of wrestling, you could get away with being an act called The Freebirds, who entered the ring to “Freebird” before Michael “Potato Skins” Hayes hit the recording booth to lay down “Badstreet USA.” The transition to original compositions for wrestlers was easy enough—Jim Johnston was very good at what he did, capturing the look and feel of a wrestler more often than not, and Vince McMahon’s relentless push into every possible avenue of merchandising meant that we got not one, but two Wrestling Albums. Jimmy Hart, the legendary manager who got his start in the Memphis promotion, was a member of The Gentrys, who scored a top five single in 1965 with the song “Keep on Dancing.” He wrote a couple of songs on The Wrestling Album, along classic themes for the likes of Shawn Michaels and Demolition. When he made the switch to World Championship Wrestling along with Hulk Hogan, he took over the role of being the company’s main composer, writing over 100 songs, just in time for the Monday Night War to make a lot of them as iconic as the ones playing across the dial on Raw.
Indie promotions continued using chart hits as theme music, of course. Extreme Championship Wrestling and Smoky Mountain Wrestling as the most famous of the two, as the former used unlicensed songs as bed music and every wrestler had a song that felt almost too perfect for their character, and the later was financed by Rick Rubin. When ECW One Night Stand happened in 2005, the absolute best call was forking over the money so that Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” could play over The Sandman’s entrance. It is, and I am not joking, the best six minutes of television that WWE has ever produced, so unexpectedly genuine that it’s easy to forget that the show isn’t an outlaw production running out of a bingo hall. Of course, the WWE didn’t license it in perpetuity, not even for the show’s DVD release, rendering the whole thing a little hollow if you watch it on the WWE Network. That goes for every ECW and SMW show on the Network—they’re so saturated with chart hits that paying for them on what’s essentially a value-add just isn’t worth it, leaving them without a little piece of their heart.
Now we have original themes, composed by the likes of Johnston in the past, CFO$ and Downstait now, sometimes performed by the minor stars of buttrock. Sometimes we’re gifted bangers. Sometimes we’re given something laughable. Most of the time we’re given something indistinct, one chord bleeding into the other to the point that the lyrics may as well be “This is / a wrestler. / He will / be wrestling.” The chart hits era of theme music, if you’re the kind of person who downloads VCR recordings of shows from the early-to-mid 80s, is different. They’re not a wrestler’s song, they’re our songs, a jukebox of arena anthems so big that they’re passed on by osmosis. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” was the best of these, and it’s not particularly close.
I Am Iron Man
It shouldn’t be, though. That’s the strange thing about that era of theme music—thematically, unlicensed songs and wrestlers are an odd match-up. The “Nature Boy” Buddy Landel “Smooth Operator” video is one of my favorite things in existence, but one of the reasons I love it is how badly Sade’s jet-setting sex anthem exposes Landel as a backwoods knock-off of Ric Flair. That’s the point of the character, but not the video package. When it comes to the Road Warriors, “Iron Man” is a lyrical mismatch. Yeah, what you’re going for in a theme song is tone over content, and tonally “Iron Man” lets you know what you’re in for, but the song is about a loner abandoned by society whose transformation into an ultra-powerful being of mass destruction allows him to seek retribution upon those who spurned him.
This is me nitpicking, but the Road Warriors were not loners, nor were they abandoned by society. Typically a group of three—Hawk, Animal, and wrestler-turned-manager Paul Ellering—the Road Warriors were beloved by fans (unless they were stabbing Dusty Rhodes in the eye) because, well, how could you not love them. They were massive slabs of beef clad in spike-laden leather, armored warriors from the future who looked like they could have easily occupied any number of pop culture entities where ripped men dominate large groups of less ripped men, from He-Man cartoons to Schwarzenegger movies. Their interviews were boastful, three men gleefully describing the impending evisceration of whoever was next on their dance card. They never particularly struggled, either. Ellering’s in-ring career was brief, as he injured his knee in 1982, but he was talented enough on the mic that he was hired by Georgia Championship Wrestling to be a manager. Hawk and Animal, already a fledgling team, were repackaged with gimmicks ripped from The Road Warrior, were paired with him and took off. Wrestling is full of characters ripped from Mad Max, but truthfully once the Road Warriors were a thing, every subsequent act that looked more like guzzoline raiders than professional wrestlers were echoes of them rather than the movie, an act whose popularity seemingly knew no limit as opposed to a film anchored to the year of its release.
But what the Road Warriors couldn’t rip from their progenitors was the theme music. Composed by Brian May of Queen fame, the scores for Mad Max and The Road Warrior are moody, serious takes on the apocalypse, fine for a film filled with explosive action, but film scores are an accent, and the distance between accent and introduction is vast, especially in a medium that usually shirks music as an accompaniment in favor sports broadcast style narration. “Iron Man,” then, is perfect—it’s an ominous song that, ignoring the parts about loneliness and despair, is about obliterating one’s fellow man, and when two men are running to the ring to it in big, spiky football pads, it’s impossible to not take notice. Check the beginning of this 1987 tag match they had against Jumbo Tsuruta and John Tenta in AJPW—the minute the kick drum hits, everybody stands up.
The Road Warriors commanded attention. Their theme song commanded attention. When it hit, fans went nuts, to the point that a massive pop for a wrestler’s entrance is still known as a “Road Warrior pop.” One might be tempted to say that, given how the Warriors couldn’t use “Iron Man” forever, this had more to do with the wrestlers than the theme music, but I’d argue that the tag team were one of the first acts in wrestling truly wed to their song, like Flair and Savage but with a song that’ll never be in the public domain. Arguably more famous (in wrestling, at least) due to its being a WWE song, Hawk and Animal’s Jim Johnston composed theme starts with a chord that’s a Guitar Center version of the opening, soul-crushing one in “Iron Man.”
NWA/WCW, when the Road Warriors went back their way, either employed straight-up rips like “We Are Iron Men” or a more generic, Jimmy Hart produced number that hides its thievery until it’s time for the guitar solo. In the 90s, when Hawk went to New Japan Pro Wrestling and began tagging with Kensuke Sasake as the Hell Raisers, they didn’t stick with “Iron Man,” but were given the solo Ozzy Osbourne number “Hellraiser.” No matter when, no matter where, and no matter what moniker they went under, the Road Warriors were pretty much married to “Iron Man” in a way few other chart hits are associated with the wrestlers who used them.
I make a lot of claims about the greatest things in wrestling history, all of them serious, but none more so than this. It’s indisputable how good “Iron Man” is as a theme song, how important it was to the mystique of one of wrestling’s most legendary acts. That it’s been played to death over the last 50 years is of little consequence—the song (and subsequent attempts to replicate it in some form or fashion) absolutely defines an element of modern professional wrestling that’s as essential to its presentation as the matches themselves. Every song given to every act since has been chasing after what “Iron Man” did for the Road Warriors for decades. Plenty have come close. Most of them will be left chasing.