Black Sabbath: Metal Trailblazers Look Back
Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler recall the rise and fall of the first – and greatest – incarnation of heavy metal’s originators, their cult favorites, megahits and all
It’s rare that a band emerges and, with one inspired release, simultaneously launches and perfects a genre of music. Such is the singular case of Black Sabbath. Their 1970 self-titled debut, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2015, took the heavy blues and hard rock idioms that came before and infused them with anthemic tritone riffs, doom-laden drum tempos, maniacal vocals and diabolical lyrics. Black Sabbath’s pioneering sound would later be christened heavy metal, and in many people’s minds that album still reigns supreme as the best representation of the genre. Many influential bands in their own right have come along and made contributions to heavy music, but all of them—from Judas Priest and Van Halen to Metallica and Soundgarden—hail the supremacy of Black Sabbath.
However, when Black Sabbath was released, the band members—singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward—were just a bunch of working-class kids from England’s industrial north with modest aspirations of playing original music and getting paid enough money to buy fuel to get to their next gig. “We were four kids from Aston in Birmingham that had a fairy-tale dream,” Osbourne says over the phone from his home in Beverly Hills. “With all the rip-offs and everything that went on, we still climbed higher than any of us could have dreamed, and our lives were forever changed.”
Over the eight years the original lineup recorded together, the band released just as many records, each of which further elevated Black Sabbath’s godhead status through songs like “Iron Man,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Paranoid” and “War Pigs.” While Black Sabbath have survived in different permutations up until this day (with Tony Iommi being the only consistent member), the founding lineup disbanded after 1978’s Never Say Die! Osbourne went on to enjoy an almost equally influential solo career, while Iommi and company continued to achieve great success in Sabbath with a string of singers that included Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan and Tony Martin.
Osbourne eventually returned to the Sabbath lineup in the late Nineties for the Ozzfest package tour, but it took until 2013 for them to release a new studio album, 13. Upon its release, the record—which featured all of the original members except Ward, who was absent due to contractual disputes—shot to the top of both the U.S. and U.K. charts and went on to earn the band a Grammy for the lead single, “God Is Dead?” 13’s success was amazing, considering that the last time Ozzy, Geezer and Tony collaborated, Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. But it’s even more astonishing because Iommi was battling lymphoma throughout the process. (The guitarist’s cancer is currently in remission.) Upon the album’s release, Black Sabbath launched a successful world tour, which culminated on July 4th, 2014 with a special day-long festival in London’s Hyde Park, featuring Soundgarden, Faith No More and Motörhead, among others.
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the group’s debut album, Brad Angle looks back at Black Sabbath’s storied career and celebrating 30 classic songs that helped to make the original lineup the most influential heavy metal band of all time. We sat down with Tony and Geezer to discuss the tales behind some of Sabbath’s megahits and cult favorites from those first eight records—from Black Sabbath to Never Say Die!
Black Sabbath recently finished a world tour where you headlined huge stadiums and festivals. That’s a far cry from how you all started out back in Birmingham, hauling your own gear and playing small clubs.
GEEZER BUTLER: Yeah, Tony used to drive us, because he was the only one able to drive. We would drive around in his old Commer van, which didn’t have the floor in the passenger side. [laughs] And there were no seats in the back, so you’d have to sit on the amps.
TONY IOMMI: It was terrible! [laughs] It was an old police van, and the suspension had gone on the front, and there was that big hole in the passenger side. We used to put a piece of carpet over it. We knew, but if anyone got in that didn’t know, they’d go straight through the floor.
BUTLER: We had no roadies. I used to carry the lightest stuff. And Tony would carry the heaviest, because he was the strongest.
IOMMI: But it was great and it molded us together. We worked as a team to get through the situations we were in with that old van breaking down. We’d have to push it. It was a bloody nightmare, because we didn’t have any money to get things done.
BUTLER: We would get paid only enough to buy the petrol.
IOMMI: And sometimes we’d have enough left over to buy some chips [fries] or something. That was about it. But we did it because we liked it, certainly not for the financials. Because we didn’t have anything.
“We had no roadies. I used to carry the lightest stuff. And Tony would carry the heaviest, because he was the strongest.” -Butler
Back in those days, bands often had to cover the popular chart hits to get a gig. Was that your experience as well?
BUTLER: That’s how we started out, doing lots of blues and even soul stuff like Sam & Dave and [Otis] Redding.
IOMMI: We had to play that stuff to get certain gigs. They would be like, “Well, you do play dance stuff, don’t you?” And we’re looking at each other like, “Suuure.” [laughs]
BUTLER: So we were playing mostly blues and soul covers, and it wasn’t until Tony came back from Jethro Tull that we realized we had to start looking at it like a professional thing and really dedicate ourselves to it rather than just turning up and playing. [In 1968, Iommi briefly left Black Sabbath, who were called Earth at the time, to play guitar in Jethro Tull.] We realized you had to write your own music, and that was the best thing that happened to us.
Were audiences shocked when you started working originals into your set?
BUTLER: I always remember the first time we played the song “Black Sabbath.” It was in a place called Litchfields. We’d played there quite a few times and people just got used to us. People would be sitting at the bar and we’d just be the music in the background. We were like, “Should we do that song we wrote?” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, why not.” So we did it, and everyone in the bar stopped and turned like, “What the fuck is this?” It went down incredibly well. That’s how we knew we were onto the right thing.
The term heavy metal has become synonymous with Black Sabbath, but at the time it wasn’t really part of the vernacular. Do you remember the first time you heard the term applied to your band?
IOMMI: I remember somebody from [UK music publication] Melody Maker or something said, “Oh, you’re playing that heavy metal.” And I said, “Heavy metal? What’s that?” That was the first time I heard it, because up until then we’d always just thought of ourselves as a heavy rock band.
How did you capture your ideas back in those early days? Did you have a recording device, or were you writing stuff out after each practice?
IOMMI: No, we didn’t have any recorders.
BUTLER: We just had to remember everything that we did.
IOMMI: We were just going into a rehearsal room and practicing and practicing and going over everything. We started in the morning and kept playing the bits so we’d remember them. But maybe our memories were better in those days. [laughs] Now it’s all different. We have to record everything because we just wouldn’t remember it. [laughs]
You recorded all of Black Sabbath in just one day at Regent Studios in London. Did you feel pressured at the time?
BUTLER: We had two days to do it, but we didn’t know any better. We just went in there and recorded it like a live gig. We weren’t there for the mix or anything, because we had to be in Denmark or somewhere. So we just got in the van and left.
IOMMI: Yeah, we had to drive south to play a gig. By that point we had a different van. But we still had to push that one too! [laughs]
BUTLER: But at least that one had seats in it.
IOMMI: I think we pushed that van more than we actually drove it. Well, I didn’t push it, because I was driving. We had some bloody fun though.
BUTLER: Well, it wasn’t fun when you’re the one pushing the van, that’s for sure. [laughs]
What were the accommodations like when you were on tour?
BUTLER: In order to make the pay worth it, when we’d go abroad we’d do these two-week spots where we’d play seven 45-minute spots a day. This one place we had to sleep in the same place that we were playing. There was this tiny little bedroom with all these rats running around. So you’d be in this little bed trying to keep your arms in so the rats wouldn’t nibble your fingers.
IOMMI: It was shocking really. Then there was that one place in Germany that was on fire. Or it had been on fire. We’d gone in, and you could still smell the smoke.
BUTLER: Yeah, there was a big hole in the floor where the fire had burned through, and they just put the beds around the hole! [laughs]
IOMMI: It was above this strip club, so you’d see the flashing neon lights all night.
BUTLER: There’d be the strippers going on downstairs and we’re trying to sleep in this big burnt-out room.
An excerpt of an unreleased demo, “The Rebel,” appeared in a documentary a while back. The song has become a point of folklore among Sabbath aficionados. What’s the story behind it?
IOMMI: It wasn’t us that wrote that. It was Norman Haines. This manager we had at the time, Jim Simpson, managed another band called Locomotive, and Norman Haines was their keyboard player.
BUTLER: They were trying to make us commercial. They wanted us to come out with a single. We were playing the record companies our stuff, and it was just so new to them that they didn’t understand it. They were saying it’s not commercial enough and would never get played on the radio. So the manager was getting this guy to write commercial songs for us. We demoed it but hated it and didn’t want to do it.
“The first time we played ‘Black Sabbath,’ everyone in the bar stopped and turned like, ‘What the f**k is this?’ “
Then you actually proved them wrong with “Paranoid,” which became a breakout hit on the pop charts and led to you appearing on the TV show ‘Top of the Pops’. Did you notice a dramatic change in your audiences after that single?
IOMMI: At Top of the Pops we did. [laughs] You couldn’t find an opposite audience from what we were used to playing. They were all screaming girls.
That probably wasn’t so bad.
IOMMI: Well, we weren’t used to seeing that! We were used to playing these blues clubs with all these blokes with big beards sitting around drinking.
BUTLER: It was great at first, but then it got tiresome because all they wanted to hear was “Paranoid.” So we’d start and end our set with it…to please the girls. [laughs] But we were worried if we kept doing that we’d end up like the Bay City Rollers or something. Once your hit single isn’t a hit, then that’s it.
Geezer, you’ve mentioned before that “Fairies Wear Boots,” [from 1970’s Paranoid] was inspired by a confrontation you guys had with skinheads. Being a longhair yourself, did you run into a lot of problems in England back then?
BUTLER: There used to be fighting all the time. I used to be a football fan—well, I still am—and I’d go down to watch the [Aston] Villa [Football Club]. I had long hair at the time. Then this one day, the skinheads, or hooligans, turned on the people with long hair, even though we were fans too. So after that I couldn’t go down there. This other time we did this gig in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare [in North Somerset, England], and we had a fight with all these skinheads. I think that’s where the lyrics for “Fairies Wear Boots” came from.
Do you remember what kicked off the fight?
BUTLER: We didn’t get paid! [laughs] I was the one that used to go collect the check. We’d had this problem where we’d go collect our money and the guy would go, “Oh no, we sent the check in the post [mail].” We were promised that we’d get the money on the night, so I went to the promoter to get it. And he said, “Oh, I already sent it to your manager.” I went outside to the telephone to make a call to the manager and I got surrounded by all these bloody skinheads, going, “Kill him! Kill him!” So I had to time it right so I could throw the phone at them and leg it back into the gig. [laughs] I told Tony, and of course he said, “Come on, let’s go.” And he grabs a microphone stand and we went out for a battle with them. Fucking nuts.
Parental groups and decency nags always bemoan the satanic and occult allusions in Black Sabbath lyrics. But Geezer, you were also writing about current social issues, too, on the track “War Pigs.” Were you following the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement and political unrest going on at the time in the United States?
BUTLER: It was actually being covered more [in the press] in England than in America. They had this program on in England, and it showed all the stuff that wasn’t being told to the American people. Stuff like how the president [Lyndon Johnson]’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had this road-building company. The Americans would go in and bomb all these roads [in Vietnam]. Then her company would go in and rebuild them and get the money. They weren’t saying all that in America. We wrote “War Pigs” because many American bands were frightened to mention anything about the war. So we thought we’d tell it like it is.
In 1971, you released Master of Reality, which saw the band experimenting a bit more with tracks like “Solitude” and the acoustic instrumental “Orchid.” Tony, had you always played acoustic or did you pick it up around that time?
IOMMI: No, I never played acoustic that much at all really. I don’t even remember where we did that track, to be honest. I think the idea on the album was to have a bit of light and shade and relax it from the heavier stuff.
Speaking of heavier stuff, what were you coughing on during that intro to “Sweet Leaf”?
IOMMI: [laughs] I choked me bloody self! It wasn’t intended to happen, and it wasn’t supposed to be on the track. We were in the studio tracking that song, and Ozzy gave me a joint and I nearly choked myself. The tape was on, so of course they wanted to use it to begin the track.
BUTLER: You couldn’t have gotten anything more appropri-ate for a song called “Sweet Leaf.” [laughs]
That’s the truth. But the title “Sweet Leaf” was actually inspired by a different type of smoke, right?
BUTLER: Yeah the name “Sweet Leaf” came from the [Irish brand of] cigarettes called Sweet Afton. I’d just come back from Dublin. Everyone smoked back then, so I’d be offering them all cigarettes. You’d open the top of the package and it said something like, “It’s the sweet leaf.” I thought, Hmmm, That’s a good title.
The following year, Sabbath headed to Los Angeles’ Record Plant Studios to track ‘Vol. 4’, on which you broke new ground with “Changes.” It’s a piano ballad, and the lyrics are quite touching, which makes it a very unusual track for Sabbath.
IOMMI: It was a sad track as well. We were staying in this house and there was a ballroom with a piano in it. It was back in the days of doing a bit of blow and staying up late. And I just started playing and coming up with this idea. We had a Mellotron and Geez started to play the orchestrations. It fit well and came about pretty quickly, considering we’d never done anything like that before.
I know you played accordion when you were younger. Did that lead you to the piano?
IOMMI: Actually, I’d never played the piano before that.
BUTLER: That’s what was amazing. I’d never heard him play the piano before. And he just sat there and came out with so much feeling. You could almost see the feeling coming off of him while he was playing. That’s really how I came up with the lyrics to “Changes.”
IOMMI: I remember when we were recording that track, [Yes keyboardist] Rick Wakeman came down to the studio. I was really embarrassed, because I’d never really played the piano, and there he is sitting in the control room.
Back in the Seventies, cocaine use didn’t have as much stigma attached to it as it does nowadays. Did being stationed in L.A. for the recording of ‘Vol. 4’ influence the amount of chemicals you were experimenting with?
BUTLER: Cocaine, definitely. You couldn’t really get it in England back then.
IOMMI: I actually never tried it until quite late. I was the last one to try it. I think that was at Madison Square Garden. I told one of the crew I was really tired, and he was like, “Why don’t you try a little bit.” And so I did, and I went onstage and convinced myself that, This is it! [laughs]
You returned to Los Angeles in 1973 to track Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. But you eventually halted work and moved the production back to England. Do you remember what prevented you from replicating the creative environment of ‘Vol. 4’?
IOMMI: We tried to create the same thing, but it didn’t happen. We stayed in the same house, but everything else was different. The studio was changed.
BUTLER: Stevie Wonder had bought out part of the studio and put in a large synthesizer installation [for work on his album Innervisions]. It took over the whole studio! You can do all that on your laptop now, but back then it took up a whole bloody room.
IOMMI: That was just the first thing. We couldn’t use the studio, but suddenly we also couldn’t think of anything to write. It was really peculiar.
BUTLER: I think we all went through it and doubted ourselves back then. I don’t know if it was the drugs or what, but I remember saying to Tony, “Do you think I’m any good as a bass player?” [laughs] I honestly thought I was crap! I’d completely lost confidence for some reason. It was like, What’s next?
IOMMI: It was a funny stage, because we’d never gone through something like that. So we went back to England and had a bit of a break and then tried it again. We booked Clearwell Castle [in Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire] to try and get some vibe. We went there and had the gear set up in the dungeons of the castle. And that’s where it started back up again.
BUTLER: I remember when he came up with the riff for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” We were all sitting around waiting for him to come up with something. He comes out with this “dada da-da-da” riff, and we all sat up surprised, like, “That’s it!” Once he came up with that riff, all the confidence came, and we just flowed from there.
The Sabbath Bloody Sabbath tracks “A National Acrobat” and “Spiral Architect” explore some far-out, origins-oflife lyrical topics. Geezer, on a personal level, what were you getting into that led you to those heavy concepts?
BUTLER: I was still doing coke. [laughs] I used to drive from London, and I’d do a few grams on the way. This one time I got back just as the sun was rising and I sat on my lawn going, This is incredible! I thought about God and DNA. The DNA spiral thing had just been discovered [by scientists]. So with “Spiral Architect” it’s just about humanity and spirituality.
IOMMI: That was incredible. He did come up with some great stuff. Geez also came up with the main guitar riff for “A National Acrobat,” too.
BUTLER: The lyrics for that are about the sperm that never make it to the egg. I was thinking about what would have happened to that life if it had made it to the egg.
IOMMI: He got deep! [laughs]
BUTLER: [laughs] Drugs will do that.
Speaking of drugs, it’s well documented that musicians in the Sixties experimented with LSD to enhance their creativity. Was that chemical ever a part of your process?
BUTLER: Yep. [laughs]
IOMMI: [laughs] When I first met him he was doing LSD! We both used to play in this nightclub, one of these late, all-nighter-type things. Geezer was in his band, and me and Bill were in a different band. We saw this guy trying to claw up the wall, and it was Geezer!
During the creation of 1975’s Sabotage, you were entangled in a bunch of legal hassles and lawsuits with a former manager. At the time did you feel the studio was a good outlet to release frustrations, or was the whole process a slog?
BUTLER: Everything we ever did was getting our frustrations and feelings out. That’s why it was never forced. Whatever you felt would come out in the music.
IOMMI: We did go through some funny stages when we were going through the management stuff. We’d be in court during the day and then in the studio at night. It was pretty weird.
BUTLER: Which is why we called the record Sabotage.
You left England the following year to record Technical Ecstasy at Criteria Studios in Miami. It’s been reported that the Eagles were recording Hotel California in an adjacent studio and their sessions had to be stopped because you guys were so loud. Was Don Henley pounding on the wall yelling, “Keep it down!”?
IOMMI: Well, if he did that we wouldn’t have even heard him! [laughs] But yeah, they were next door doing an acoustic thing, and they had to pack up because we were too loud and the sound was leaking through the wall. But we used to see them in the studio, along with that Spanish singer Julio Iglesias.
BUTLER: You know, we used to go in and get all [the Eagles’] cocaine that they’d left behind? [laughs]
IOMMI: He’s not kidding, either. We knew where it was. You’d undo this thing on the control desk and get to it underneath. But it had all dropped down the sides of the desk.
BUTLER: And we used to get in there with our straws and pick it all up!
One of the more enduring tracks from Technical Ecstasy is “Dirty Women.” Geezer, I have to ask, who were these dirty women?
BUTLER: [laughs] Well, we were recording at Criteria, and to get there you had to go through a really seedy part of Miami. You’d see all these dirty old men wearing long coats, standing next to the prostitutes. Even the bar next to the studio was a strip club. So if you wanted a drink you’d go in there, and there’d be a tart, completely nude. So I’d be sitting there thinking, What can I write about? [laughs] So that song was about prostitution, and all the dirty old men.
IOMMI: Which are us now! [everyone laughs]
Never Say Die!  was the last album you released with Ozzy until 2013’s ‘13’. Despite the tumultuous circumstances of that time—Ozzy leaving the band, returning to record and then eventually being fired—you guys still managed to achieve some mainstream success with the title track.
IOMMI: It was really a difficult album for us. Ozzy left, and when he came back we had a couple songs [written with Osbourne’s temporary replacement, Dave Walker], but he wouldn’t sing them. Or he felt uncomfortable singing them because someone else sang them. So we ended up doing “Swinging the Chain” with Bill singing, and the sax instrumental “Breakout.” It wasn’t meant to be an instrumental, but it became one because we had no one to sing on it.
BUTLER: Ozzy had given up by then.
IOMMI: But yeah, because of “Never Say Die,” we were back on Top of the Pops.
That’s when you crossed paths with Bob Marley, right?
BUTLER: Yeah, I went in and had a joint with him. It was me, Bob Marley and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy.
IOMMI: I think he thought Bill [Ward] was taking the piss, because Bill had his hair in braids like Bob Marley [laughs]
I know the recording experience left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. But looking back now, do you see any of those tracks in a more favorable light?
IOMMI: It wasn’t that we didn’t like those tracks; it was just a really difficult period. Normally, we’d write the song, rehearse and get used to it, but here we were, writing and recording it in one day. So you can’t observe it properly. We didn’t have that luxury. And it was fucking freezing rehearsing in that cinema.
BUTLER: I got an ear infection because the cold had got in my ear. So everything in the studio sounded like it was underwater to me.
IOMMI: But I can listen to those tracks now, where maybe back then I couldn’t relate to them as well. Like “Air Dance.”
BUTLER: Oh yeah, “Air Dance” was great. And I like “Junior’s Eyes” and “Johnny Blade.”
Now, against all odds, 30 years later you’ve reunited with Ozzy, released a hit album and completed a successful world tour. What keeps you going? Do you feel like you have anything more to prove?
IOMMI: We’ve had sold-out crowds everywhere. It’s just been brilliant. It’s tiring, but it’s been great…I happened to say in an interview that [the Hyde Park show in July 2014] was our last gig, meaning it was the last gig of the tour. All of the sudden it came out in the press that it was our last gig ever. I don’t see why we wouldn’t do something more.