Black Sabbath The Eternal Idols
Published Nov 01, 2002It was hard to believe, but there they were, Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi blasting out "Paranoid" at Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee celebration at Buckingham Palace in June. What that says about how far society has progressed since she was handed the crown is grounds for serious debate, but certainly rock and roll would not the same had Black Sabbath not come along 33 years ago. The band's first six albums remain the textbook of heavy metal: sludgy, power-chord riffing providing the foundation for songs that hail or condemn (take your pick) our social evils. While critics routinely dismissed them as peddling a shtick, as their career progressed, the four members succumbed more and more to the subject matter of their music. Not surprisingly, the burden to live up to their image most often fell on front man Ozzy Osbourne, and through his sheer ability to survive relatively unscathed, he has managed to introduce the Sabbath legacy to several new generations of fans. Now with his position as one of the most recognised pop culture figures on the planet, Sabbath merchandising is guaranteed to be a self-sufficient industry for years to come. Yet, it's fair to say that the legacy would have survived anyway, given its influence on every band from Black Flag to Nirvana and heavy metal as a whole. The pure power of their glory days can be experienced again with the new double live collection, Past Lives, and upcoming DVDs and box sets regaling their history, proving once again the benefits of selling your soul for rock and roll.
John "Ozzy" Osbourne, Frank "Tony" Iommi, Terry "Geezer" Butler and Bill Ward grow up within half a mile of each other in the Birmingham, England suburb of Aston, a working class neighbourhood hit particularly hard by German bombs during the Second World War. Iommi regularly bullies Osbourne when they attend the same elementary school.
After learning to play guitar, Iommi loses the tips of three fingers in an industrial accident. Rather than give up, he fashions plastic tips. He forms Mythology, a band that includes drummer Ward, while die-hard Beatles fan and budding petty criminal Osbourne joins Rare Breed with bassist Butler. "To us, being in a successful group seemed the quickest way out of the fucking slums," Ozzy told long-time Sabbath chronicler Mick Wall.
1968 to 1969
Iommi, Ward and Butler team up with a slide guitarist and sax player in the Polka Tulk Blues Band. Needing a singer, Iommi responds to an ad posted by Ozzy, not expecting that it's the same Ozzy he used to beat up in school. The six-piece plays three gigs before Iommi whittles the band down to a quartet and renames it the Earth Blues Company, then soon after, Earth. Not able to find immediate success, Iommi accepts an offer to join Jethro Tull. Although his stay is brief, he does appear with them in the Rolling Stones' television special, The Rock N Roll Circus. The experience causes Iommi to get serious about Earth, although their set is still mainly covers like "Blue Suede Shoes" and extended blues jams. At one rehearsal, Butler and Iommi work out a song Butler dubs "Black Sabbath," inspired by the schlock horror movie of the same name, as well as the then de rigueur dalliances with the occult among the British rock underground. Of the four members, Butler is the most taken with the ideas, painting his apartment black and wearing inverted crosses, but the others eventually follow his lead in varying degrees. "All the love and peace thing had gone," Geezer explains to Mojo. "The Vietnam War was happening and a lot of kids were getting into all kinds of mysticism and occultism. I was lying in my bed one night and woke up suddenly, and there was this black shape standing at the foot of my bed. I wasn't on drugs or anything, but for some reason I thought it was the Devil himself. It was almost as if this thing was saying to me, it's time to either pledge allegiance of piss off." After hearing Butler tell the story, Ozzy writes the song's lyrics as a warning against Satanism, but as will happen throughout his career, his intentions will be roundly misinterpreted. The band debuts the song before a stunned crowd in April, 1969 and soon after takes its title as their name when another band called Earth is discovered.
Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album is released on Friday, February 13. A collection of all the finished songs they have at the time, it is recorded in one marathon all-day session. Few critics know what to make of it, but the band's growing audience of dope fiends and other fringe dwellers snap it up. Confounding critics even more is the album's immediate success in America, where is stays on the charts for 18 months. According to Geezer, "We knew we'd made it when we played a gig in Nottingham and we got taken in a car instead of a van, and we found an ounce of hash waiting for us in the dressing room. It was like, yes! This is the life!" Just prior to recording the album, the band does an extended run at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. To get through the demands of playing several hours a night, six nights a week, Ozzy pulls several stunts, the most famous being painting his entire body purple one night. They also create sketches for many new songs based on riffs that Iommi and Butler come up with. These provide the backbone for Paranoid, recorded and released only six months later. Songs like "War Pigs," "Iron Man" and "Fairies Wear Boots" will ultimately define the heavy metal aesthetic, and the title track (their shortest to that point) becomes an anthem after reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. They continue to be a lightning rod for controversy when their first U.S. tour coincides with the sensational Manson Family trial, and accusations that the last line of "Paranoid" advocates suicide. When asked about it, Ozzy famously says, "I don't know what people were hearing. I've always said enjoy life,' not end your life.'"
With Paranoid still gaining momentum in Europe and North America, Sabbath releases the equally powerful Master Of Reality. Among its gems are another anti-war diatribe, "Children Of The Grave," and the blatantly pro-marijuana "Sweet Leaf." By now their success allows free access to any drug of their choice. Unlike some other artists of the time, the band has no problem acknowledging the influence that drugs are having on their music, endearing them even more to a majority of their audience. Iommi told band biographer Steven Rosen, "There was a lot of drinking around that time. Later on when we started touring, we started trying acid. We weren't really into it. Just uppers and downers and Quaaludes, whatever you like. In those days I shared songwriting and publishing with everybody. But until I'd come up with something, nobody would do anything. They were all out of it."
Increasingly spending more time in America, the band records Black Sabbath Vol. 4 in L.A. The decadent setting results in their most schizophrenic album, highlighted by the epic opener "Wheels Of Confusion," the ode to cocaine "Snowblind" and the mellotron-drenched ballad "Changes." The world at large may have still viewed Sabbath as corruptors of youth, but Lester Bangs (one of their few real critical supporters) nails the band's ethos in a lengthy examination in Creem: "Despite the blitzkrieg nature of their sound, Black Sabbath are moralists. Like Bob Dylan, like William Burroughs, like most artists trying to deal with a serious present situation in an honest way. They are certainly much less articulate, subject to the ephemerality of rock, but they are a band with a conscience who have taken it upon themselves to reflect the chaos [around them] in a way that they see as positive." They continue to attract a more and more fanatical following, many believing that the band members are in fact representatives of the church of Satan. It all culminates at a gig at the Hollywood Bowl when a man in a black robe nearly stabs Iommi on stage. "I did feel uncomfortable about it," he would later tell Mojo. "But I think in those days we were doing so many drugs that it all just flowed into one. Oh, somebody wanted to stab me? Give me another line then.'"
1973 to 1974
Seizing an opportunity to take a break, but not get too far away from the L.A. drug scene, the band holes up in a rented mansion to work out new material. Ozzy set the scene for Mick Wall: "Tony and Geezer would do their own drugs in their own private space. Me and Bill were the worst. We were like the drug commandos we would never come through the door, it would have to be a plate-glass window or the fucking roof! We used to have dealers coming around every day, only it wasn't just coke by now, it was also Demarol, acid, dope." Iommi added, "It became a ritual. Every time we'd do an album, we'd get a load of dope and some coke, and whatever else. And of course off we'd go I never used to want to leave the studio. I'd be there all night every night." From this atmosphere comes Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in early 1974. The more polished studio effort is clearly a progression for the band, incorporating synthesisers for the first time. They play the massive California Jam festival, but soon a dispute with their management company leads to new harsh realities setting in. "[Our management] would give us money, get us coke and all that stuff, but they would always have control over us," Ozzy told Wall. "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was our final record as far as I'm concerned."
1975 to 1978
Embroiled in legal wrangling to win back control of their catalogue and their individual assets, as well as struggling with their ongoing substance dependency, the band releases Sabotage, an album that retains some potency ("Hole In The Sky," "Symptom Of The Universe"), but also clearly shows that paranoia is setting in ("Megalomania," "Am I Going Insane?"). After more touring, they record the disappointing Technical Ecstasy. Tensions run high as Iommi continually accuses the others of leaving him to shoulder the creative burden. However, Ozzy is already formulating plans for a solo project to be called Blizzard Of Ozz, and following Sabbath's 1977 world tour he announces his departure. The band quickly recruits Birmingham singer Dave Walker, but Ozzy returns to the fold in January, 1978. He explains to British writer Chris Welch, "I tried working with other guys but these days bands haven't got it together as much as they used to. The first thing they want to talk about is money, which is really the last thing that concerns me. I missed the family atmosphere of Black Sabbath." The band records Never Say Die in Toronto and embarks on a tenth anniversary tour, but by the end the others are fed up with Ozzy's increasing volatility. Bill Ward is nominated to tell Osbourne he's out of the band. "To be perfectly honest, Tony Iommi and I were never very close," Ozzy tells Steve Rosen. "He always had a barrier around him. I never really knew him."
1979 to 1981
Sabbath enlists ex-Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio and records Heaven And Hell. Despite continuing animosity within the band (Geezer briefly quits and Ward's alcoholism is reaching dangerous levels) the album stands alongside their best work with Ozzy. Ward eventually quits in November, 1980 during an American tour and is replaced by Vinnie Appice. This line-up records the less consistent Mob Rules a year later. Meanwhile, Ozzy discovers hotshot L.A. guitarist Randy Rhoads, then with Quiet Riot, and strikes up a songwriting partnership. The results become Ozzy's first solo album, Blizzard Of Ozz, an immediate hit. Ozzy recruits the rest of Quiet Riot for his new live band and sets out on an extensive American tour.
Ozzy releases Diary Of A Madman, another huge success. By now, Rhoads's pyrotechnics are earning him his own legion of followers, while Ozzy's antics continue to grab headlines. During a meeting with record executives, a plan to release a flock of doves in the room backfires when Ozzy grabs one and bites its head off. Later on stage, someone throws Ozzy a bat and he bites the head off thinking it is a fake. It's not. Ozzy is forced to undergo rabies shots. While in San Antonio, a drunken Ozzy is arrested for relieving himself on the town's landmark, The Alamo. He is barred from ever appearing in San Antonio again. Tragedy strikes when Rhoads is killed in a freak plane crash, putting a halt to everything. Ozzy appears only days later for an interview on Late Night With David Letterman, looking heavily sedated and clearly shattered. He subsequently spirals into a deep depression and is only rescued by the care of his manager Sharon Arden, whom he eventually marries. Ozzy tells Steven Rosen, "I'll do anything on the spur of the moment. That's why I should have been on that plane when it went down with Randy in it. I believe that fate takes his hand, you know? Then there was the funeral and the half-dozen groupies in the church. It was like a fucking Fellini movie, a bad dream." On the Sabbath front, the band releases the perfunctory Live Evil drawn from shows on the Mob Rules tour. But with Dio's opinions frequently at odds with Iommi's, the guitarist decides to finally dissolve the band after the release of the album.
Iommi surprises many when he announces Sabbath's reformation with former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan. They release Born Again but it's clear that the combination of styles doesn't make much sense. Again, Ward is in no shape to tour and the drums are manned by Bev Bevan, ex-ELO. Ozzy emerges with the all-Sabbath live album Speak Of The Devil, a shameless reaction to Live Evil and attempt at recouping past royalties. He tries out several guitarists until settling on Jake E. Lee, and later, Rhoads's true heir apparent Zakk Wylde.
1984 to 1985
By the start of 1984, with Gillan leaving in favour of a Deep Purple reunion, and Geezer quitting in frustration, Iommi decides to carry on with a revolving door of supporting players. What follows is a string of albums (The Headless Cross, The Eternal Idol, Seventh Star) that barely cause a ripple in a world where Sabbath's offspring have taken over. Iommi is reportedly linked with ex-Runaways guitarist, now solo artist, Lita Ford, with whom Ozzy will later duet on "Close My Eyes Forever." The original Sabbath agrees to appear at Live Aid, but not much more of significance is associated with the band's name for at least the next decade. Both Geezer and Ward eventually release solo albums, and Geezer frequently turns up in Ozzy's band.
Ozzy remains a figurehead of the new metal movement centred in L.A. and as such becomes a frequent target of the American right-wing Moral Majority. A lawsuit filed against him by a California couple charging that the song "Suicide Solution" inspired their son to take his own life is thrown out. It's clear to everyone else that Ozzy's image is becoming more cartoonish, illustrated most obviously by his appearance in the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Pt. 2: The Metal Years, where he is shown in a hilariously dishevelled state trying to make breakfast while conducting an interview.
Ozzy manages to survive the grunge wave clean and sober and more popular than ever bands like Soundgarden and Faith No More openly pay tributes rumours of a Sabbath reunion run rampant. But with Ozzy now in a position to call the shots, the plug is pulled at the last minute. He instead releases No More Tears and embarks on what he dubs his "farewell tour." At the final show, Black Sabbath (again fronted by Dio, touring in support of Dehumanizer) is invited to appear on the bill. Dio insists he will never open for Ozzy, and the band recruits Judas Priest's Rob Halford to fill in at the last minute. At the show, Ozzy fronts Sabbath for a brief, unrehearsed set, a decidedly lacklustre farewell. Iommi returns to playing small venues around the world with his various mock-Sabbaths.
1997 to 1999
Ozzy's "retirement" lasts until 1995's Ozzmosis, whereupon he embraces his fans once again through a summer metal touring festival he calls Ozzfest. By 1997, plans fall into place to have Sabbath appear on the Ozzfest tour (Faith No More's Mike Bordin subs for Ward), which leads to a full-fledged reunion tour (with Ward back in) to kick off in December with gigs at the Birmingham Arena. "The second night was one of the most amazing things I've ever been part of in my life," Ozzy tells Kerrang. "There are maybe 20 shows I'll take to the grave with me, and that was one of them." A live album drawn from the shows, Reunion, is released with two new studio tracks, but plans for an expected full-length studio album following the world tour are scrapped.
2000 to 2002
Sabbath takes one more turn on the Ozzfest tour in 2001, but no plans to continue touring or to record are forthcoming. "We're in a different state of mind," Iommi tells Kerrang. "We've grown up. We've seen a lot over the years. Everybody is still alive, that's the most important thing. I'm certainly glad I'm still alive." Iommi puts together a solo album with many acolytes from the metal world chipping in, while in a typically bizarre move, Ozzy re-releases his first two albums with the bass and drums redone by his current rhythm section. Perhaps recalling his appearance in The Metal Years, MTV cashes in on the reality TV craze with The Osbournes, a weekly show that follows the day-to-day events of Ozzy and his family, putting his by turns outrageous and sensitive persona on full display (Ozzy and Sharon's oldest daughter Aimee decides not to participate). The show immediately breaks ratings records and Ozzy suddenly becomes one of the most beloved public figures in America, unleashing a stream of merchandising. Out of this comes Past Lives, a double album drawn from well-known Sabbath bootlegs from the 70s, as well as the DVD The Black Sabbath Story collecting most of the band's classic visual moments. Yet, despite all this reverence, Ozzy still refuses to allow Sabbath to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until, he says, the fans are allowed to vote them in.
With additional research by Marshall Ward.