Black Sabbath did everything by accident, and they never did anything by halves.
Thirty years after the appearance of their self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath remain the undisputed number one heavy metal and hard rock group in the world. To understand how this came to be, line up your CD player, insert Disc 1, turn the volume up to eleven and read on……
Their faithful covers of ‘The Warning’ and ‘Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games With Me)’, as they appear on that eponymous debut LP, betray their roots of playing sweaty blues clubs, such as Henry’s in Birmingham. Both loved (by fans) and loathed (by critics), Sabbath had one unlikely ally at the start of their career, in the form of Big Bear’s Jim Simpson. A stalwart of the British Jazz scene, Simpson offered to manage them, his influence can be heard on Bill Ward’s jazzy drum patterns from Wicked World and Fairies Wear Boots. Terry “Geezer’ Butler and John “Ozzy” Osbourne had played together semi-professionally in Rare Breed, where Tony Iommi and Bill Ward were regulars on the Northern club circuit as part of a four piece called Mythology. Despite building a loyal following in the Midlands and North East of England, Mythology split in July 1968, after a gig in Carlisle, with Bill and Tony returning to the gritty streets of Aston in their native Birmingham. At the height of psychedelia, Polka Tulk (named after a local Indian clothing emporium), was not such a strange name for Tony, Bill, Geezer and Ozzy to group together under, though the band swiftly changed to a more tangible Earth. One of Earth’s first engagements was a residency at Germany’s infamous Star Club in the notorious Reeperbahn area of Hamburg, where the Beatles had cut their teeth almost a decade earlier. Although installed at one venue, the endless repetition of sets at the Star Club was no less gruelling than the trawl of sweaty blues clubs in England. Earth tried anything to break the potential monotony of the endless run of forty-five minute sets. When the band had exhausted their repertoire, a set would be devoted to a guitar solo from Tony, another to a bass solo from Geezer or a drum solo from Bill. Not to be left out, Ozzy once threw a bucket of purple paint over himself, to draw a reaction from the often apathetic, sleazy crowd that the Star Club pulled. The group could accept being loved or hated, but not ignored, and they certainly weren’t going to be the background music for a some sailor trying to pull a local whore. So Earth got louder and louder. They weren’t going to let let you ignore them. It was in this cauldron that the roots of Sabbath’s sound, and the template for their first record, with its guitar and bass solos, were forged and formed.
I’m Not A Hippie, Man!
This band may have looked liked hippies, but Ozzy didn’t know the way to San Francisco, and if he ever got there, he wasn’t about to wear some fucking flowers in his hair. Fuck that hippie shit, it didn’t mean a thing in Aston, Birmingham. Whilst rehearsing across the road from a cinema, Geezer remarked how funny it was that people were prepared to pay good money to be scared shitless at a horror film. It was in three, evil-sounding chords and the title of a 1935 Boris Karloff film that Earth found their true calling with a new direction, sound and name. Black Sabbath were born. Anyway, there was another, more established group called Earth, and the confusion over which band you were booking could be embarrassing if these four hairy herberts showed up to play at your wedding. They didn’t want to be hippies, not the peace and love kind at least. They had more in common with the sweaty, unwashed, two wheeled Vikings found in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels than the Jefferson Airplane. Only The Doors at that time were prepared to tell you that all was not well with the world, but they wanted to tell you about art and poetry as well. These were the offspring of Altamont, not the children of Woodstock, and Altamont was coming to a theatre near you, and soon.
In the wake of the British blues boom in the sixties some new, heavy bands had emerged from the dying scene. Fleetwood Mac had been known to “rock out”, but never left their bluesy roots, and the Yardbirds were known to cook up a storm on stage, but had disintegrated around Jimmy Page’s velvet loons. Keith Moon had yet to inform Pagey that calling his new band the New Yardbirds would go down like a lead balloon. Even future hard rock titans Deep Purple were still a cabaret act and about to record a concerto. The Cream had split up, and Hendrix was off in a cloud of his own. In America, the Blue Cheer, named after a brand of LSD, were as gonzoid as it got with their unique approach to rock ‘n’ roll, and Grand Funk and Vanilla Fudge couldn’t be taken that seriously.
The Devil Rides Out
The Devil made them do it. Geezer did have an interest in the occult, and although this rarely went beyond flicking through the odd Dennis Wheatley paperback or playing with a ouija board, it made the basis for some great lyrics. It also cemented their image as four shoeless, devil-rock types, travelling the UK in a Transit van that didn’t have a floor. They primitively recorded an album in three days for £600, and promptly went on to play the next gig. Sabbath thought that was how LPs were recorded, as they didn’t know better, at the time. Countless bands, from Monster Magnet, Cathedral and Orange Goblin to countless other new stoner-doom rock gods, now spend thousands and thousands on trying to replicate that amazing sound. Produced by Roger Bain and engineered by Tom Allom, the album was made without a record deal for Tony Hall Enterprises. The recordings were basically a representation of their then current live repertoire, and featured the only two cover versions of their career. Nobody wanted to touch the as yet unreleased record. Maybe those stuffy, suited, London record company types didn’t want this vile looking hoard messing up their tidy offices. However, a deal was eventually struck with new progressive rock label, Vertigo. Preceded by the ‘Evil Woman’ single (issued on Phonogram label Fontana), Vertigo finally unleashed the LP Black Sabbath on Friday 13th February 1970. Although the now highly collectable single had not bothered the charts, the LP climbed to Number 8, sharing the Top Ten with Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, The Beatles and Andy Williams. Some accused this seemingly unheard of band of being hyped, but the truth is that Sabbath were a real, grass-roots phenomenon, built by tireless gigging to a growing fan base. Just four punks from the Midlands, Black Sabbath looked like their fans and sang about subjects their followers could relate to.
Maybe salacious gossip and rumours never really followed the reviled Black Sabbath, but that’s because everything you need to know is documented and testified in the grooves that make up the body of their back catalogue. Fleetwood Mac may have claimed to take more cocaine. Zeppelin may or may not have tortured groupies whilst making Faustian pacts with Lucifer, as their Valhalla on wheels rampaged across the world. But you can hear Sabbath’s crimes, madness and misdemeanours in Snowblind, Sweet Leaf, Dirty Women and Am I Going Insane. But this was a shitty world of War Pigs, Megalomania and Writs, a Wicked World that was like that when Ozzy, Geezer, Tony and Bill found it. Anyway, the best story is when Tony’s wireless guitar unit picked up a local cab firm’s call during one of his quieter, gentler guitar moments.
Are You Satan Are You Man?
Few of Sabbath’s songs dealt with anything truly Satanic, with the exception of N.I.B. or their theme song. Initially, Black Sabbath were confused with contemporaries such as Black Widow, who did employ mock sacrifices and ritual into their stage show. However, an inverted cross inside the gatefold of the album confirmed to many that Sabbath were dabbling with dark forces. Apparently this was a record company decision, as they didn’t see (or were asked to approve) the jacket’s artwork until it was in the shops, and selling by the bucket load. The identity to the girl and exact location of the ethereal sleeve are lost in time – it was apparently taken somewhere near Reading in Berkshire. Although Vertigo’s press department were happy to advertise Geezer’s occult obsessions, they may have been less convinced by the knowledge that Mr Butler had been a vegetarian since 1968! None the less, a US tour was postponed in the wake of the Sharon Tate and Labianca murders at the hands of Charles Manson’s Family, despite the album already selling in the thousands Stateside. War Pigs, the follow-up album Sabbath had already began recording for an Autumn 1970 release, received a swift name change when Paranoid was a huge hit single in July that year. At the height of the Vietnam conflict, War Pigs was considered too strong a title by their American label, Warner Bros. This was still too late to alter the artwork that had been prepared for the second LP’s original title. Few people in England probably knew what the word meant, but luckily the lyrics to what the band had considered to be a bit of a throwaway number, written in five spare minutes of studio time, fitted perfectly. You could now see Black Sabbath on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops performing their Number 4 hit, for which the band received a whole new, much younger audience. Many of these new fans were too young to see the band perform live at the clubs that Jim Simpson had booked them to play before they had a hit. Preferring to be seen as a more serious, album orientated proposition, it was a few years before they agreed to release another single. Just like Led Zeppelin the year before, America greeted Sabbath with open arms when they eventually made their first appearance in October 1970, with all the associated drugs and professional groupies a top drawing band from England could expect to be offered on tour.
We Wish To Thanks The Great COKE-Cola Company Of Los Angeles: VOL 4
The early seventies became a bit of a blur of recording and touring for Sabbath, all fuelled by class A narcotics, their profile growing to the point where they could sell out respectable venues such as the Royal Albert Hall at home, and prestigious gigs like Madison Square Gardens, in New York. Despite this fame and fortune, the music establishment were not prepared to accept that Black Sabbath were any more that a satanically flavoured bludgeon, fit for nothing more than a festival crowd of bikers and drop-outs on downers and booze. Few were prepared to delve deep enough to acknowledge the social conscience in many of Geezer’s lyrics, the jazz tinged beats and rhythms of Bill’s drumming, the melody and sensitivity found in their instrumental passages, Tony’s desire to push the band’s musical boundaries beyond what some may have seen as a limited, four piece format, and that in Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath had a true, down to earth, working class hero and one of the most dynamic front men of the era. Sabbath just got bigger and bigger, but the albums took longer to record, with 1975’s Sabotage taking a full year to make. Am I Going Insane was a track Ozzy had discussed a couple of years before it appeared as a single, that year, and unsurprisingly the endless grind of touring and recording with their associated alcohol and drug intake, was taking its toll. If an album cost fifty grand to record, then double that would have been spent on coke. 1972’s magnificent Vol 4 carried a dedication to the stuff, which Geezer later admitted was being ingested by the soap box full at the time. Ozzy quit for the first time in 1977, at the end of the Technical Ecstasy tour, and was briefly replaced by Savoy Brown’s Dave Walker. Walker made one appearance with Sabbath, performing Juniors Eyes on BBC Midlands TV in January 1978, before Ozzy was back once more to record Never Say Die. This ballsy rocker was a rebuff to the punks that saw them as obsolete dinosaurs, and saw them in the charts and on Top Of The Pops for the first time since Paranoid. It was a short lived victory, as a tour with young bucks, and US label mates Van Halen saw Sabbath eclipsed by their juniors. Maybe Sabbath had just had enough of each other, or maybe Tony Iommi felt Ozzy was not that crucial to Sabbath’s sound. He already had another singer in mind when he ordered Bill Ward to fire his best friend Ozzy, after the Never Say Die 10th Anniversary tour finished in December 1978. Tony, centre stage, was obviously the focal point of the band. And anyway, everybody was scared of Tony.
Ozzy spent three months as a virtual recluse in a haze of booze and drugs in an L.A. hotel. Despondent by his treatment from the band that had been his best friends and accomplices for ten years and made him a rock icon, Ozzy had become a shadow of his former self. That was until he was given enough confidence to pull himself together and consider a solo career by his future manager and eventually wife, Sharon. Ozzy had almost given up auditioning a guitarist for his new band, The Blizzard of Ozz, when after an endless parade of Iommi clones, a young blond guitarist called Randy Rhoads plugged in and blew Ozzy away. Randy cut two LPs with Ozzy, making the singer a household name, and public enemy number one across America, launching his hugely successful solo career.
The World Is Full Of Kings And Queens
The singer Tony had waiting in the wings when Ozzy was given his marching orders was Ronnie James Dio. Ronnie had recently left Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow after the Long Live Rock And Roll album and tour. Maybe Tony didn’t feel Ozzy gave enough to the band, whereas Ronnie was not only a respected vocalist but also wrote music and lyrics. In truth, however, the last couple of Sabbath albums had been patchy to say the least. Both Never Say Die and Technical Ecstasy had some good material, but where the earliest albums were recorded virtually live in the studio, the albums of the mid to late seventies were becoming more and more over produced. Their records began to sound more like Queen than the evil behemoth of yore. The gothic-romance of Ronnie’s lyrics may have alienated a large proportion of Sabbath’s following, but there was no doubt that 1980’s Heaven And Hell was the strongest album the band had made in years. The album reached the Top 10, with Neon Knights a Top 30 single, followed by a sell out world tour. Their live set was balanced between the strong new material, such as ‘Children Of The Sea’, ‘Die Young’ and an often lengthy rendition of the album’s title track, mixed with classics ‘War Pigs’, ‘N.I.B.’ and of course, ‘Paranoid’. Geezer had been convinced to stay in the band after briefly quitting in the wake of Ozzy’s departure, but one victim of the Heaven And Hell tour was Bill Ward. Bill had battled with drink and drug abuse for years, but this, coupled with the loss of his parents as well as his best friend, Ozzy, Bill quit the band, but not for the first time.
Don’t Just Sit There!
1980 also saw the release of Live At Last, the first live album from the band. Made up from shelved recording made on the Vol 4 tour of 1973, the LP was issued without sanction from either Sabbath or the ex-lead singer that it featured, by NEMS records – who had also gained control of the band’s catalogue from the debut until 1975’s Sabotage. Dismissed as a cash-in that featured a now defunct line-up, Live At Last still managed to go four chart places higher than Heaven And Hell, reaching Number 5 in the UK charts. The Sabbath legend was further exploited when a re-issued ‘Paranoid’, backed with ‘Snowblind’, made the Top 10 the same year, ten years after its initial release, and at the height of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.
American drummer, Vinnie Appice, replaced Bill for the remainder of the tour as well as drumming on the two subsequent records, Mob Rules and Live Evil. Ronnie James Dio had given a much needed breath of life to Sabbath’s career, but this line-up broke up in an acrimonious clash of egos during the mixing of their first official live album. As Sabbath’s fortunes were taking on Spinal Tap proportions, they announced Deep Purple’s leather lunged singer, Ian Gillan, was taking over the vocal spot. Gillan later admitted he was the worst choice for Black Sabbath, as they were derided by the press as Deep Sabbath. As this new ultimate in dinosaur rock took to the live arena, fears were not dispelled by a Stonehenge stage set unveiled at the Reading Rock festival in 1983, that was so unwieldy that the band could not move on stage – Ian banging away on his bongos whilst refusing to wear the mandatory silver cross, whilst ELO’s Bev Bevan thumped along on his drum kit. Born Again, the fruits of this unholy alliance, actually turned out to be a much better (and heavier!) album than anyone could have anticipated, even if Ian couldn’t decide if he hated the cover artwork more than the mix that made the release. A tour was cut short, however, when Ian jumped ship to join a Deep Purple reunion. The next ten years were somewhat restless for the group, with Tony often the sole member keeping the Black Sabbath flame alive. A succession of fine singers and musicians filed through Sabbath’s ranks, but rarely for more than one or two albums. The original line-up did resurface for Live Aid in 1985, but Ozzy’s superstar status hardly made it worth his while. Dio made one more album with Black Sabbath, in 1992, but quit once he heard about Sabbath’s plans to support Ozzy at the end of Ozzy’s US No More Tears tour, when the band reformed once more to play four numbers before a rapturous Costa Mesa crowd. Two dates were booked for the Birmingham NEC that year, but then cancelled. It looked as if the band would never put their differences behind them. There was possibly resentment that Iommi felt he could carry the Sabbath banner alone, admittedly aided by some of the greatest and respected musicians and vocalists behind him. Black Sabbath was something that Tony Iommi wasn’t prepared to let die so easily, but a reunion couldn’t take place without Ozzy. Then at the end of 1996, it was announced that Sabbath would reform, and tour the US the following summer. The first, highly successful Ozzfest, toured America through the summer 1996, on a bill supported by the best in contemporary, “Nu-Metal”, but the following year’s would be something special, ending with a set from Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, but no Bill Ward, unable to play due to ill health.
Fans in the UK felt a little short changed when the festival didn’t reach British shores in the following summer, but this was more than made up for when two dates were announced for the 4th and 5th December 1997, at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. The atmosphere that night was charged, not least for the fact that Bill Ward was rightly behind the drum kit. You could not deny there was something in the air whilst even approaching the site of the venue, as the capacity crowd converged on the hall in expectation of seeing the original line-up of Black Sabbath playing their first gigs together on British soil for almost twenty years. I was less than a year old when Sabbath released their first LP. Many of the kids here tonight probably hadn’t been born when the original line-up split up, when Ozzy was “fired for his antics”. The Americans had always been spoilt by Black Sabbath, or at least this is a view I shared with a lot of UK bound fans. They got the first, abortive reunion at Live Aid in Philadelphia, in 1985. The USA was treated again in 1992, at Costa Mesa, when on the second night of two dates, Sabbath had rejoined with Ozzy to perform four numbers, but nothing else followed. The States had been treated to a fully fledged reunion on that summer’s hugely successful Ozzfest, even if the drum stool was occupied by the guy from Faith No More. But this wasn’t the self styled travelling freak show, circus, featuring the best contemporary metal America had to offer. This was a fully reformed Black Sabbath playing a home town gig. Entering the Arena, after downing a couple of beers and buying the obligatory t-shirts we took our seats. As the lights are went down, there was a roar from all around, above, below, by my sides and from inside. It’s Black fucking Sabbath on stage, together. The atmosphere reaches near religious fervour as they launch into ‘War Pigs’. ‘War Pigs’! They could have played the ‘Birdy Song’, and I wouldn’t have gone home happy. An hour and a half later, the set inevitably closed with Paranoid. As the satisfied crowd files out of the auditorium, the cavernous area behind the NEC’s stage, was a Who’s Who of hard rock and heavy metal. Strangely, Vinnie Appice, drummer from the Dio era Sabbath, was present, apparently on hand to step behind the drum kit if Bill Ward’s health failed him.
The amazing thing was that Sabbath had come back, seemingly bigger than ever. Both the reformations of Deep Purple and Led Zep’s Page & Plant seemed to serve mainly to spoil the band’s mystique, something that hadn’t afflicted Sabbath, as they returned to the Arenas of America and Europe. Sabbath, permanently derided by the press (in England, at least) and after a lifetime of being uncool, were suddenly hip, hailed as one of the most, if not the most, influential heavy metal bands. Finally, it was announced that Sabbath would headline the first UK Ozzfest at the Milton Keynes Bowl on 20th June 1998, my twenty-ninth birthday. Rock is dead? 60,000 muddy metal fans beg to differ. After a day of Coal Chamber, Slayer and Fear Factory, Sabbath were a welcome relief. The set hadn’t altered much since the NEC shows, but the main difference was the absence of Bill Ward, who had suffered a heart attack during rehearsals. Bill still joined the band to take a bow at the end of the set, only to have Ozzy pull down his trousers to bear his arse to 60,000 punters. Probably not the treatment a man in his delicate condition needed, but demonstrating the genuine warmth and good humour within the band.
A year after its recording on 5th December, Epic released the double CD, Reunion, featuring the second night from the NEC, as well as two new tracks, Selling My Soul and Psycho Man, which was made available as a single in certain territories, featuring a Danny Sabre remix.
The Last Supper
Although 1999’s Ozzfest was booked for London’s Earls Court in August, sub titled “The Last Supper”, the gig was cancelled due to Stateside touring commitments. Two dates were arranged for Birmingham’s NEC, the location of their UK reunion shows two years earlier, and it was also announced that this would be Sabbath’s final shows. Sad news indeed, but thankfully Bill Ward was back behind the drum kit. The NEC gigs were preceded at the beginning of December 1999 by a fantastic performance at London’s 2000 capacity Astoria, as part of heavy metal magazine Kerrang!’s X-Fest. Apart from being the first London show the line-up had played since 1978’s Never Say Die tour, at Hammersmith and Lewisham, it was also the smallest venue they had played since 1972. A rare event and a momentous occasion, even wheeling out golden oldies Tomorrows Dream and After Forever to the ecstatic throng. The final NEC shows were equally well received, and Sabbath gave them selves a well deserved rest, not least for the fact that each member had now passed the age of fifty!
It looks unlikely at this stage that any new material will see the light of day, as all the individual members intend to pursue solo careers. But at least hundreds of thousands of fans, old and new, have had the opportunity to see then heroes play together. The important thing is the music, the best of which you now have in your hands