How Black Was My Sabbath
By Steven Rosen-Originally published here January 7, 2014
“1982 was an important year for Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne had been out of the picture for several years now and replacement Ronnie Dio was coming to the end of his tether. The band was heavily into drugs, bassist Geezer Butler had departed and then returned, and now the group was forced to find yet another singer. Tony Iommi looked back on all of these changes during this conversation, talking honestly and openly about who Black Sabbath was and how they came to do the things they had done. At the very end of this exchange he touches on the subject of Ian Gillan, the former Deep Purple singer who would become the band’s new frontman. Really, by this time, Sabbath, as everyone knew them – a heavy metal band fronted by a madman named Ozzy Osbourne – had long since ended. Here, the guitarist puts it all in focus.
Black Sabbath actually started out as a jazz band?
Yeah, jazz solos and jazzy blues. We were doing a lot of 12-bar blues/jazz. I used to have everybody play in a jazz style. It was a thing that we really enjoyed at that time, doing jazz. It was good because it gave me a lot of practice on playing faster runs jazz-style. And you know, it’s helped a lot really.
Did those jazz chops come in handy when you played with Jethro Tull for a short period? The music Ian Anderson was writing seems like it may have incorporated more of a jazzy feel than what Sabbath was doing.
Well, they up and asked me if I was interested in joining and I said, ‘Yeah.’ It sounded alright. We were doing blues and jazzy sorts of things. They were listening to all these guitar players about 400 guitar players or something. I was only with them for a while; we rehearsed and got everything ready for this show, the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. It just wasn’t right so I left. At first I thought it was great, the band was really good. But I didn’t want to go for a leader in the band which was Ian Anderson. I didn’t really agree with that. I left and Mick Abrahams joined.
Had you already damaged your fingers when you were in Tull?
Yeah, it was years ago. I did welding, electric welding. I did it one day when I had to work on this press, cut the metal and shape the metal before I welded it. Somebody else used to do it but I had to do it this day because he didn’t come into work. I set it up but it was a faulty switch or something and I just pulled them (fingertips) off. It just gripped them and it pulled the others off. So, it presented a problem with my playing. It was really strange because I was due to finish this job on that day. I was going to tour with this professional band and go to Germany to work for four or five months. When this happened, I sort of thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I can’t play with the band now because I’ve done that.’ I was really hurt. I was inspired again by some guy who had brought me a record of Django Reinhardt who only had two fingers. And I thought, ‘Christ, how can athat guy play like that with two fingers?’ And it really helped me because I used to listen to this guy and I used to think, ‘Well, if he could do it with just two fingers, shoot, I could do it.’
I had to start all over again. I have to wear things now to play (these custom plastic fingertip ends similar to thimbles) because it would just slice through me, you know, it’s so tender there, the nerve endings. It’s helped me in a way because I use my little finger a lot.
You’ve long been considered the architect of a certain kind of sound and feel – heavy metal guitar. Did you have in your mind a conscious idea to create a specific tone, something that sounded sinister or dark?
As I mentioned, when we first started, we used to play jazz and blues and we were just sort of like pushed into this. It’s just something that came out that was totally different at that time. We found that we were writing all these sort of doomy songs and the words were really meaningful. We’ve never been able to explain it. We just got in and rehearsed and we came up with something that happened to be ‘Black Sabbath.’ It’s really been a mystical thing.
Without Black Sabbath today, I don’t think music would be the same. I think that’s what Black Sabbath was all about, we presented some sort of music that wasn’t around. I don’t think you have your Soundgardens and Metallicas and various other bands out there. I think of us as being innovators. I couldn’t understand how different it was and we didn’t understand much about it except we liked it. It was an exciting time.
Birmingham, England, the city where Sabbath was from, was really a thriving musical town back then.
Yeah, there was a lot of bands. You’ve got the Moody Blues, Traffic, Led Zeppelin, ELO, and the Move.
Were you actually friends with these other bands? Would you meet and talk about the newest guitar lick you’d just come up with?
Actually the scene wasn’t quite like that then. But I mean, yes, I’ve got lots of friends from them. (Jeff) Beck is still one of my best friends. I still see him. We go out to eat a lot, we’re the best of friends. I still see Planty (Robert Plant) every now and again and when I do see him, we chat. Bonham was one of my friends as well. We spoke about playing and doing stuff together, doing side projects and things.
Do you remember the first time you saw Jimmy Page play?
It was probably in the Yardbirds, I think. I didn’t know that much of him and then I saw Bonham in town one day, going to the city. Bonham and Planty together and they said, ‘Oh, we formed this new band’ and I said, ‘Alright.’ And they said, ‘Led Zeppelin and we got Jimmy Page’ and I was like, ‘Alright, great.’ They said they were going to be touring and all sorts of things. Next thing you know, they’re way up there.
And now talk about the first time you met Ozzy.
It was in school ‘cause he was in the same school as me. It was at Birchfield Road School which is in Birmingham. Ozzy was in there, a couple years younger than me, well, a year younger than me. He was in a different class and we didn’t much get on at school. I was probably a bit of a bully somewhat. Bill Ward and myself were looking for a singer and an advert in a shop said, ‘Ozzy Zig requires gig.’ I knew an Ozzy so we went around to see him and he opened the door and it was Ozzy. And I insisted, ‘Bill, forget it.’ I as in a band with Bill called The Rest and then there was a band called Mythology. And then a few days later, Ozzy and Geezer came to my house looking for a drummer and I said, ‘Well, I have Bill Ward.’ And we got together just doing old 12-bar stuff and Geezer never played bass before, he was a guitar player. He didn’t even have a bass, he was playing on this Telecaster. And then he borrowed a bass off a friend with three strings on it. And then he went off and swapped his guitar for a bass and then we went off from there.
When does the name Polka Tulk arrive in this chronology?
Polka Tulk was the first name our management at the time came up with and then we changed to Earth. Then we found out there’s another band called Earth and they were a pop band. We got mis-booked for them when somebody booked them. We turned up to play and were like little scruffy things and these guys were there with these bowties. And the guys says, ‘Oh, I like your new single’ and I went ‘Oh, great’ because we hadn’t got a single at that time! To keep a long story short, we played and died a death. They hated us.
After that we started writing our own stuff and it was after I came back from Jethro Tull as a matter of fact. Tull taught me a lot that you’ve got to work for it and rehearse. I was sort of put in the spot as leader and I got the band work because of me. What I learned from Ian was the attitude, getting it done, being there on time. They even used one of my riffs in “Nothing Is Easy.”
When did you actually start writing music that would later be recognized as Sabbath music?
The first thing was ‘Wicked World’ and it’s funny, it just sort of came. I never sort of sat down and worked it out or anything. You get into rehearsal and they (other bandmembers) looked at me to come up with something.
Was Ozzy a part of that creative musical process?
No, Ozzy never wrote any music. He couldn’t. ‘Who Are You’ (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath) was the only one I think Ozzy done. He came up with the melodies.
And the lyrics?
No. He done some lyrics but Geezer did most of the lyrics. Ozzy just did the melodies, yeah.
Can you describe your experience with the first album?
We made that record in two days and it seemed like a long time. We played live and Ozzy was singing at the same time on some of them (live tracks). We just put him in a separate booth and off we went. We never even had a second run on most of the stuff ‘cause they said, ‘That’s it, that’ll do, that’s fine, next song.’ I’ll never forget when we come to do ‘Warning,’ ‘cause it’s a long song, I did that guitar solo stuff in that. And we thought we were going to have to redo this. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t like what I played, any chance of doing it again?’ And they said, ‘Well, okay, we’ll try it again, one more go of it. If you don’t get it this time, we’ll have to use that (first) one.’
After you recorded the Black Sabbath album, did you find there were more gigs being offered and more money?
We couldn’t work in England so our main gigs were in Europe. We played the Star Club in Hamburg and we broke The Beatles record.
Was the band involved in drugs and drinking at this time or did that come a bit later?
It was around. When we started touring, we tried acid. Uppers and downers and all sorts of things; Quaaludes. And then it got to the stage where you come up with ideas and forgot them because you were just so out of it. But the band was fine. I think Ozzy was always a little bit worried (while on tour) because he’d go onstage and he didn’t know what to do, what to say. I’d be getting on him, ‘Say something; organize a raffle or whatever.’
Jumping ahead a bit, what was it like by the time you recorded the Master of Reality record?
We took a little longer on that; we had a few problems. We started shifting studios; we had about two or three different studios in London. And Bill had a particular problem with ‘Lord Of This World’ and we went to Olympic Studios. We came here to Los Angeles for the Volume IV album and it worked really well. We had everything: wine, women, drugs, everything. We were living in Bel Air (very expensive and elite part of Los Angeles) which was pretty good. All this happened more or less straight after the first album. The band was playing a lot of the world and everybody knew Black Sabbath by the time Paranoid came out.
Our first thing to do when we had money was to buy houses and start getting other things. Nothing seemed to mean anything anymore ‘cause you could get it so easy. I think that started settling in after the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album. We came over to Los Angeles to do Sabbath Bloody Sabbath after the Volume IV album which we really enjoyed. But it wasn’t working the same, the ideas weren’t coming. Everybody was sort of sitting there waiting for me to come up with something. And if I didn’t come up with anything, then nobody would do anything. We ended up going back to England and it was like I was to blame, I think, because I couldn’t come up with anything. So we took a break and decided to go into a hired castle in Wales, an old castle. We rehearsed in the dungeons there and it was really creepy but it had some atmosphere and it sort of conjured up something. Stuff started coming out again and I think one of the first songs that came out was ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.’ And they did have a ghost; Ozzy and myself saw something one day. We saw this guy coming down the steps, dressed in black, and he just went into this door and I said, ‘Who’s that?’
And what about the albums that followed: Sabotage and We Sold Our Souls For Rock and Roll?
We went back to England for Sabotage; we went into Morgan Studios. The reason it was called Sabotage was because we had so many problems on that album. We were breaking up with our management and we were getting sued by this person and that person. But everybody put their part in. while we were working something out musically, Ozzy couldn’t do anything so he would just to out and play pinball.
And then we went to Criteria in Florida for the next album. It was great fun. And then for Never Say Die that was when the problems started setting in deeply. Ozzy left the band, he wanted to leave. We brought in Dave Walker who was with Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac. We brought him in and he sang and then Ozzy wanted to come back. It was very difficult for me.
Right after you did Never Say Die was when you went on the tour where Van Halen opened for Black Sabbath?
Yes. They were relatively new then; it was their first world tour. They came with us for eight months and I thought they were very good, excellent. He’s a great player. After that tour, we came here to L.A. and stayed for eleven months. We had a house again in Bel Air and we all decided to live together and do another album which just didn’t happen. It was a time when we were going through a lot of drugs and nothing was happening. Ozzy couldn’t seem to think of any ideas at the time and we were presenting some ideas to him but he just sort of came in and he got really frustrated.
Let’s bring to a close this conversation with what finally happened with the band at this time?
The record company was pushing us for tracks and they were asking to hear some tracks. We had come to a decision of either we’re going to just break up or Bill and Geezer said to me that if we don’t do something, they’re going to leave anyway. We came to the decision to talk to Ozzy and give him an ultimatum: If you don’t do something, we’ll bring in another vocalist. And that’s what we did. We brought in (Ronnie) Dio and had a go with him. And it was funny, Ozzy’s present wife had suggested Dio as a matter of fact. At that time, I think Ozzy had come to an end; I think he just sort of had to sort himself out a bit. We were all doing a lot of drugs, a lot of coke, a lot of everything, and I think Ozzy was getting drunk so much at that time.
Then when we brought Dio in, he came in with a different attitude and started singing to some of the riffs we’d got and we thought, ‘Oh, great, these riffs are alive.’ We wrote Heaven and Hell and it worked out really well. We went to Miami and wrote some new songs; I think we wrote ‘To Die Young’ there. And we went into Criteria and recorded it. Geezer had some problems, nobody really knew this, and Geezer left for a while (before this) because he had personal problems. Geezer came back and played on it.
They (Ozzy and Ronnie) were totally different. Ozzy was a good showman, still is. We knew Ozzy and accepted him for what he was and he knew us and accepted us. When Dio came in, it was a lot more of a different attitude; it was more professional because he came in with a different voice and he came with a different musical approach. He would sing sort of across the riff whereas Ozzy would probably follow the riff particularly in (a song like) ‘Iron Man.’
After that, we toured and toured. It was a challenge again; we had to prove ourselves (because) we were going out with a new singer. Then we did Mob Rules but not before Bill Ward left because he had problems with Ronnie. And we brought in Vinnie Appice. And then things started deteriorating with Ronnie because he probably wanted more say in things. And then Geezer would get upset about him.”