Black Sabbath Ruined My Life (2005)

I was asked to write something for Tony Iommi’s website, back in 2005. This is what I came up with. The title is, of course, tongue in cheek, and taken from an official Sabbath tour shirt.


Confessions of a Black Sabbath fan: Episode One
by Hugh Gilmour

It was my first (and I was praying my last) Glastonbury mudfest when I first saw the words “BLACK SABBATH RUINED MY LIFE” emblazoned on the front of a t-shirt of a passing punter. Sipping lemon cider from a waxed paper cup whilst sitting outside a beer tent, it made me laugh out loud, but also made me wish that the Sabbs were on the bill, as it would have definitely cheered my mud-soaked-self up. I managed to pick up one of those shirts at the following year’s Ozzfest in Milton Keynes. It seemed to sum up so much to me and my life since discovering heavy metal at around the age of eleven, twenty five years ago. Sure, Black Sabbath can’t be held solely responsible for ruining my life, as motörhead, Iron Maiden and Kerrang! magazine must also have some accountability in this. I was once stopped by some female hick in one of Las Vegas’s grimier casinos, and asked “Did they really ruin yer life? They ruined mah life too,” in a drawn out Southern drawl that wasn’t looking for a hint of irony. They may have ruined my life, for without them I might have wanted to look for a “normal” career; in the military (as I grew up near Sandhurst), the police or as a lawyer; but I don’t have a single regret for that ruination. I got into heavy metal as much for their sordidly enticing sleeves of flaming skulls, murderous ghouls, viking warlords and robots spraying fluid at each other on lifts as the music held within. I wanted a part of that, to create that art, and if nobody would let me, I’d form a band so they’d have to let me paint my own LP covers.

In 1980 I loved both Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne with equal meausre, but I have to confess that at the age of eleven I didn’t know that Ozzy had even been in Black Sabbath. I didn’t know that Ronnie James Dio had been in Rainbow either. I loved that first Blizzard Of Ozz album, even if the things I’d heard about the singer from my school friends sounded quite horrific. That riff at the start of ‘I Don’t Know’ just sounded like the …FUTURE! Equally, I loved ‘Heaven And Hell’, with it’s sleeve featuring three suspended angels, smoking and playing cards. And I loved the music. It was heavy, but it was melodic with quiet passages that wouldn’t annoy my mother. I vividly recall hearing their new single, ‘Turn Up The Night’ played on Radio 1′s Top 40 chart run down just before setting off for school one morning, and it just sounded amazing. I went out and bought it on a seven inch picture disc that featured the silhouette of a dancing devil. This is one aspect that today’s young music novice sadly misses; that sense of discovery found by hearing the snatch of a track on the radio, seeing a short clip on Top Of The Pops, or scouring the bargain bins of Our Price for reduced compilation LPs so you could learn more about specific bands and what they sounded like without having to spend all of your pocket money on one LP by a single band only to find it was a complete duffer. Axe Attack Volume Two featured a Black Sabbath song called ‘Die Young’, but confusingly the singer didn’t look or sound like the guy on Axe Attack Volume One, which featured three minutes of the most vital fuzz-pedalled-rock music in the form of ‘Paranoid’. More frustratingly, just when I got a sense of line-ups and chronology, Dio left and was replaced by Ian Gillan from Gillan, and apparently he used to be in a band called Deep Purple that those blokes from Rainbow (them again) used to be in to. Today, a quick browse through the web will give you all the information you need, complete with sound samples or downloads, sent to your computer or to your phone.

My mum bought me a guitar, a Korean Kay electric, managing to make a god awful racket through my record player before it one day stopped working. I also trawled the Record & Tape Exchange in Camden Town for Sabbath LPs every time we visited my grandmother in Chalk Farm, just down the road. I bought a big, black double compilation, as it seemed like value for money, even if I found that dead looking girl holding a cross whilst laying in a coffin a bit too morbid. I detuned my trusty Kay guitar, and strummed along to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Children Of the Grave. How good or bad a sleeve looked was a very big deciding factor in my purchases. I thought Technical Ecstasy looked amazing. I even even appreciated its clean white border, and this was copied into my sketchbook. I bought the self-titled debut LP at Elephant Records in Aldershot, took it home on a dark and gloomy autumn Saturday afternoon, and played it as loud as my hi-fi would allow. My mother genuinely thought there was a thunder storm outside, which alone justified my purchase. There was a spooky girl on the grainy cover. And although it was a relatively simple image, it seemed to hold so much drama and hidden menace.

Years later, after training to become an illustrator, I returned to my studies in the hope of finding a more stable career as a graphic designer. After a year, I was confident enough to turn an Apple Macintosh on and off, but little else, but when I saw an advert in a local paper with a vacancy for a Mac Operator at a record label in nearby Chessington, I figured I had little to lose by applying. It looked like a slightly more appealing summer job than the one I had lined up in Surbiton’s Victoria Wine off license (liquor store). The record label was Castle Communications PLC, a company that specialised in issuing deleted catalogue on the still relatively new compact disc, previously only available on 12” vinyl LP. Castle Communications PLC had shrewdly picked up the supposedly dead catalogues of labels such as Bronze and Pye, and had a knack for presenting classic albums such as Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic, and make them look as cheap as possible. After a second interview with the company, they offered me a job with five grand more that I had asked for. I quit my degree and have never looked back. Just two months prior to joining Castle Communications PLC, I had finally completed my Black Sabbath collection on compact disc with the purchase of Live At Last, bought for a fiver at Plymouth’s indoor market. Castle Communications PLC controlled the rights to that live album, as well as Black Sabbath’s first six studio albums, from that self titled debut up to 1975′s Sabotage, as well as their attendant compilation albums (another speciality of the company). They looked awful. In all fairness, packaging for CD was still in its infancy. LPs usually had a single sleeve, and maybe an inner bag or lyric sheet, and if you were really lucky, a gatefold sleeve. The scope for how to package CD in their little jewel cases had yet to be realised, and although the music market has always been competitive, it didn’t feel in any way as tight and competitive as it does today. If truth be told, I joined Castle Communications PLC solely because they had Black Sabbath’s catalogue AND it looked awful, but specifically because it looked awful, one day it would have to be re-done more sensitively, restoring the integrity of the original packaging and artwork, and maybe adding extra elements if possible, and I was going to make sure I was there when it happened. Black Sabbath weren’t considered even remotely “cool” in 1993. Their post Ozzy albums had been a mixed bunch from the great to the not so great, but I for one was grateful that one man, Tony Iommi, was insistent on keeping that flame alive during those 16 or 17 Ozzy-less years, making sure that the Black Sabbath name was headlining major venues each year.

So 2005 is something of an anniversary for me, as it was ten years ago that I started work on re-vamping and restoring the artwork to Black Sabbath’s first 15 albums, including lyrics and remastered audio. I insisted they include sleeve notes, as I saw it was important for each album to have some sense of perspective and some sense of history, but when I was told that there was no budget to commission liner notes I just went ahead and wrote them myself, each approved (by fax, in those pre-email days) by the respective managers, and supplemented by photos courtesy of Ross Halfin and Chris Walter. Product managers happily pointed out that I’d probably have been happy to have done it for free (steady!), but I can’t deny that it was a labour of love. It was imperative to me to ensure each was packaged in a way that myself as a fan would want to buy, as we were expecting the punters to go out and buy CDs that they already owned (which included myself). I was incredibly pleased to hear from one of the sales team that several Our Price record stores had complained that the booklets were regularly stolen. Not the CDs themselves; the booklets. I also felt that heavy metal, and Sabbath in particular, were very misunderstood, and a series of compilations CDs and videos featuring skulls, crosses and rosaries, all of which looked more Remembrance Sunday than Prince Of Darkness, did little to dispell that notion. It was important for me to package their compilations in a way that a Joy Division fan might appreciate.

The first Sabbath albums I bought were scratchy, dusty LPs found in the basement of the Camden Record & Tape Exchange, complete with their swirly inner bags, or images of space ships on their Vertigo labels. Those re-issues I worked on back in 1995 are what many kids, in Europe and Japan, at least, are their first experience of these important records, and I was proud to have been a small part of that.

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