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.Â “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, theÂ band released just as many records, each of which further elevatedÂ Black Sabbath’s godhead status through songs like “IronÂ Man,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Paranoid” and “War Pigs.”Â While Black Sabbath have survived in different permutationsÂ up until this day (with Tony Iommi being the only consistentÂ member), the founding lineup disbanded after 1978’s Never SayÂ Die! Osbourne went on to enjoy an almost equally influentialÂ solo career, while Iommi and company continued to achieveÂ great success in Sabbath with a string of singers that includedÂ Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan and Tony Martin.
Osbourne eventually returned to the Sabbath lineup in theÂ late Nineties for the Ozzfest package tour, but it took until 2013Â for them to release a new studio album, 13. Upon its release,Â the record””which featured all of the original members exceptÂ Ward, who was absent due to contractual disputes””shot to theÂ top of both the U.S. and U.K. charts and went on to earn theÂ band a Grammy for the lead single, “God Is Dead?” 13’s successÂ was amazing, considering that the last time Ozzy, Geezer andÂ Tony collaborated, Jimmy Carter was president of the UnitedÂ States. But it’s even more astonishing because Iommi was battlingÂ lymphoma throughout the process. (The guitarist’s cancerÂ is currently in remission.) Upon the album’s release, BlackÂ Sabbath launched a successful world tour, which culminatedÂ on July 4th, 2014 with a special day-long festival in London’sÂ Hyde Park, featuring Soundgarden,Â Faith No More and MotÃ¶rhead,Â among others.
To celebrate the 45th anniversaryÂ of the group’s debut album,Â Brad Angle looks back at BlackÂ Sabbath’s storied career and celebratingÂ 30 classic songs thatÂ helped to make the original lineupÂ the most influential heavy metal band of all time. We satÂ down with Tony and Geezer to discuss the tales behind someÂ of Sabbath’s megahits and cult favorites from those first eightÂ records””from Black Sabbath to Never Say Die!
Black Sabbath recently finished a world tour where you headlinedÂ huge stadiums and festivals. That’s a far cry from howÂ you all started out back in Birmingham, hauling your ownÂ gear and playing small clubs.
GEEZER BUTLER: Yeah, Tony used to drive us, because heÂ was the only one able to drive. We would drive around in hisÂ old Commer van, which didn’t have the floor in the passengerÂ side. [laughs] And there were no seats in the back, so you’dÂ have to sit on the amps.
TONY IOMMI: It was terrible! [laughs] It was an old policeÂ van, and the suspension had gone on the front, and there wasÂ that big hole in the passenger side. We used to put a piece ofÂ carpet over it. We knew, but if anyone got in that didn’t know,Â they’d go straight through the floor.
BUTLER: We had no roadies. I used to carry the lightestÂ stuff. And Tony would carry the heaviest, because he was theÂ strongest.
IOMMI: But it was great and it molded us together. We workedÂ as a team to get through the situations we were in with thatÂ old van breaking down. We’d have to push it. It was a bloodyÂ nightmare, because we didn’tÂ have any money to get thingsÂ done.
BUTLER: We would get paidÂ only enough to buy the petrol.
IOMMI: And sometimesÂ we’d have enough left overÂ to buy some chips [fries] orÂ something. That was aboutÂ it. But we did it because we liked it, certainly not for the financials.Â 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 chartÂ hits to get a gig. Was that your experience as well?
BUTLER: That’s how we started out, doing lots of blues andÂ even soul stuff like Sam & Dave and [Otis] Redding.
IOMMI: We had to play that stuff to get certain gigs. TheyÂ would be like, “Well, you do play dance stuff, don’t you?” AndÂ we’re looking at each other like, “Suuure.” [laughs]
BUTLER: So we were playing mostly blues and soul covers,Â and it wasn’t until Tony came back from Jethro Tull that weÂ realized we had to start looking at it like a professional thingÂ and really dedicate ourselves to it rather than just turning upÂ and playing. [In 1968, Iommi briefly left Black Sabbath, whoÂ were called Earth at the time, to play guitar in Jethro Tull.]Â We realized you had to write your own music, and that wasÂ the best thing that happened to us.
Were audiences shocked when you started working originalsÂ into your set?
BUTLER: I always remember the first time we played theÂ song “Black Sabbath.” It was in a place called Litchfields. We’dÂ played there quite a few times and people just got used to us.Â People would be sitting at the bar and we’d just be the musicÂ in the background. We were like, “Should we do that song weÂ wrote?” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, why not.” So we did it, andÂ everyone in the bar stopped and turned like, “What the fuckÂ is this?” It went down incredibly well. That’s how we knew weÂ were onto the right thing.
The term heavy metal has become synonymous with BlackÂ Sabbath, but at the time it wasn’t really part of the vernacular.Â Do you remember the first time you heard the term applied toÂ your band?
IOMMI: I remember somebody from [UK music publication]Â Melody Maker or something said, “Oh, you’re playing that heavyÂ metal.” And I said, “Heavy metal? What’s that?” That was theÂ first time I heard it, because up until then we’d always justÂ thought of ourselves as a heavy rock band.
How did you capture your ideas back in those early days? DidÂ you have a recording device, or were you writing stuff out afterÂ 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 practicingÂ and practicing and going over everything. We started in theÂ morning and kept playing the bits so we’d remember them. ButÂ maybe our memories were better in those days. [laughs] NowÂ it’s all different. We have to record everything because we justÂ wouldn’t remember it. [laughs]
You recorded all of Black Sabbath in just one day at RegentÂ Studios in London. Did you feel pressured at the time?
BUTLER: We had two days to do it, but we didn’t know anyÂ better. We just went in there and recorded it like a live gig. WeÂ weren’t there for the mix or anything, because we had to beÂ 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 pointÂ we had a different van. But we still had to push that one too!Â [laughs]
BUTLER: But at least that one had seats in it.
IOMMI: I think we pushed that van more than we actuallyÂ drove it. Well, I didn’t push it, because I was driving. We hadÂ some bloody fun though.
BUTLER: Well, it wasn’t fun when you’re the one pushing theÂ 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 goÂ abroad we’d do these two-week spots where we’d play sevenÂ 45-minute spots a day. This one place we had to sleep in theÂ same place that we were playing. There was this tiny little bedroomÂ with all these rats running around. So you’d be in thisÂ little bed trying to keep your arms in so the rats wouldn’t nibbleÂ your fingers.
IOMMI: It was shocking really. Then there was that one placeÂ in Germany that was on fire. Or it had been on fire. We’d goneÂ in, and you could still smell the smoke.
BUTLER: Yeah, there was a big hole in the floor where the fireÂ had burned through, and they just put the beds around theÂ hole! [laughs]
IOMMI: It was above this stripÂ club, so you’d see the flashingÂ neon lights all night.
BUTLER: There’d be the strippersÂ going on downstairs andÂ we’re trying to sleep in this bigÂ burnt-out room.
An excerpt of an unreleasedÂ demo, “The Rebel,” appearedÂ in a documentary a while back. The song has become a pointÂ of folklore among Sabbath aficionados. What’s the story behindÂ it?
IOMMI: It wasn’t us that wrote that. It was Norman Haines.Â This manager we had at the time, Jim Simpson, managed anotherÂ band called Locomotive, and Norman Haines was theirÂ keyboard player.
BUTLER: They were trying to make us commercial. They wantedÂ us to come out with a single. We were playing the record companiesÂ our stuff, and it was just so new to them that they didn’tÂ understand it. They were saying it’s not commercial enough andÂ would never get played on the radio. So the manager was gettingÂ this guy to write commercial songs for us. We demoed itÂ 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,” whichÂ became a breakout hit on the pop charts and led to you appearingÂ on the TV show ”˜Top of the Pops’. Did you notice a dramaticÂ change in your audiences after that single?
IOMMI: At Top of the Pops we did. [laughs] You couldn’t findÂ an opposite audience from what we were used to playing. TheyÂ were all screaming girls.
That probably wasn’t so bad.
IOMMI: Well, we weren’t used to seeing that! We were used toÂ playing these blues clubs with all these blokes with big beardsÂ sitting around drinking.
BUTLER: It was great at first, but then it got tiresome becauseÂ all they wanted to hear was “Paranoid.” So we’d start and endÂ our set with it”¦to please the girls. [laughs] But we were worriedÂ if we kept doing that we’d end up like the Bay City RollersÂ or something. Once your hit single isn’t a hit, then that’s it.
Geezer, you’ve mentioned before that “Fairies Wear Boots,”Â [from 1970’s Paranoid] was inspired by a confrontation youÂ guys had with skinheads. Being a longhair yourself, did you runÂ into a lot of problems in England back then?
BUTLER: There used to be fighting all the time. I used to beÂ a football fan””well, I still am””and I’d go down to watch theÂ [Aston] Villa [Football Club]. I had long hair at the time. ThenÂ this one day, the skinheads, or hooligans, turned on the peopleÂ with long hair, even though we were fans too. So after thatÂ I couldn’t go down there. This other time we did this gig in theÂ seaside town of Weston-super-Mare [in North Somerset, England],Â and we had a fight with all these skinheads. I think that’sÂ 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 usedÂ to go collect the check. We’d had this problem where we’d go collectÂ our money and the guy would go, “Oh no, we sent the checkÂ in the post [mail].” We were promised that we’d get the moneyÂ on the night, so I went to the promoter to get it. And he said,Â “Oh, I already sent it to your manager.” I went outside to the telephoneÂ to make a call to the manager and I got surrounded by allÂ these bloody skinheads, going, “Kill him! Kill him!” So I had toÂ time it right so I could throwÂ the phone at them and leg itÂ back into the gig. [laughs]Â I told Tony, and of course heÂ said, “Come on, let’s go.” AndÂ he grabs a microphone standÂ and we went out for a battleÂ with them. Fucking nuts.
Parental groups and decencyÂ nags always bemoan the satanic and occult allusions in BlackÂ Sabbath lyrics. But Geezer, you were also writing about currentÂ social issues, too, on the track “War Pigs.” Were you followingÂ the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement and political unrestÂ going on at the time in the United States?
BUTLER: It was actually being covered more [in the press]Â in England than in America. They had this program on inÂ England, and it showed all the stuff that wasn’t being told toÂ the American people. Stuff like how the president [LyndonÂ Johnson]’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had this road-buildingÂ company. The Americans would go in and bomb all these roadsÂ [in Vietnam]. Then her company would go in and rebuild themÂ and get the money. They weren’t saying all that in America. WeÂ wrote “War Pigs” because many American bands were frightenedÂ to mention anything about the war. So we thought we’dÂ tell it like it is.
In 1971, you released Master of Reality, which saw the bandÂ experimenting a bit more with tracks like “Solitude” and theÂ acoustic instrumental “Orchid.” Tony, had you always playedÂ acoustic or did you pick it up around that time?
IOMMI: No, I never played acoustic that much at all really. IÂ don’t even remember where we did that track, to be honest. IÂ think the idea on the album was to have a bit of light and shadeÂ and relax it from the heavier stuff.
Speaking of heavier stuff, what were you coughing on duringÂ that intro to “Sweet Leaf”?
IOMMI: [laughs] I choked me bloody self! It wasn’t intendedÂ to happen, and it wasn’t supposed to be on the track. We wereÂ in the studio tracking that song, and Ozzy gave me a joint and IÂ nearly choked myself. The tape was on, so of course they wantedÂ 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 inspiredÂ by a different type of smoke, right?
BUTLER: Yeah the name “Sweet Leaf” came from the [IrishÂ brand of] cigarettes called Sweet Afton. I’d just come backÂ from Dublin. Everyone smoked back then, so I’d be offeringÂ them all cigarettes. You’d open the top of the package and itÂ said something like, “It’s the sweet leaf.” I thought, Hmmm,Â That’s a good title.
The following year, Sabbath headed to Los Angeles’ RecordÂ Plant Studios to track ”˜Vol. 4’, on which you broke new groundÂ with “Changes.” It’s a piano ballad, and the lyrics are quiteÂ touching, which makes it a very unusual track for Sabbath.
IOMMI: It was a sad track as well. We were staying in this houseÂ and there was a ballroom with a piano in it. It was back in theÂ days of doing a bit of blow and staying up late. And I just startedÂ playing and coming up with this idea. We had a MellotronÂ and Geez started to play the orchestrations. It fit well and cameÂ about pretty quickly, considering we’d never done anything likeÂ that before.
I know you played accordionÂ when you were younger.Â Did that lead you to theÂ piano?
IOMMI: Actually, I’d neverÂ played the piano beforeÂ that.
BUTLER: That’s what wasÂ amazing. I’d never heardÂ him play the piano before.Â And he just sat there andÂ came out with so much feeling.Â You could almost seeÂ the feeling coming off ofÂ him while he was playing.Â That’s really how I came upÂ with the lyrics to “Changes.”
IOMMI: I remember when we were recording that track, [YesÂ keyboardist] Rick Wakeman came down to the studio. I wasÂ really embarrassed, because I’d never really played the piano,Â and there he is sitting in the control room.
Back in the Seventies, cocaine use didn’t have as much stigmaÂ attached to it as it does nowadays. Did being stationed in L.A.Â for the recording of ”˜Vol. 4’ influence the amount of chemicalsÂ you were experimenting with?
BUTLER: Cocaine, definitely. You couldn’t really get it in EnglandÂ back then.
IOMMI: I actually never tried it until quite late. I was the lastÂ one to try it. I think that was at Madison Square Garden. I toldÂ one of the crew I was really tired, and he was like, “Why don’tÂ you try a little bit.” And so I did, and I went onstage and convincedÂ myself that, This is it! [laughs]
You returned to Los Angeles in 1973 to track Sabbath BloodyÂ Sabbath. But you eventually halted work and moved the productionÂ back to England. Do you remember what prevented youÂ from replicating the creative environment of ”˜Vol. 4’?
IOMMI: We tried to create the same thing, but it didn’t happen.Â We stayed in the same house, but everything else was different.Â The studio was changed.
BUTLER: Stevie Wonder had bought out part of the studio andÂ put in a large synthesizer installation [for work on his album Innervisions].Â It took over the whole studio! You can do all that onÂ 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,Â but suddenly we also couldn’t think of anything to write.Â It was really peculiar.
BUTLER: I think we all went through it and doubted ourselvesÂ back then. I don’t know if it was the drugs or what, but I rememberÂ saying to Tony, “Do you think I’m any good as a bass player?”Â [laughs] I honestly thought I was crap! I’d completely lostÂ confidence for some reason. It was like, What’s next?
IOMMI: It was a funny stage, because we’d never gone throughÂ something like that. So we went back to England and had a bitÂ of a break and then tried it again. We booked Clearwell CastleÂ [in Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire] to try and get some vibe.Â We went there and had the gear set up in the dungeons of theÂ castle. And that’s where it started back up again.
BUTLER: I remember when he came up with the riff for “SabbathÂ Bloody Sabbath.” We were all sitting around waiting forÂ him to come up with something. He comes out with this “dadaÂ da-da-da” riff, and we all sat up surprised, like, “That’s it!”Â Once he came up with that riff, all the confidenceÂ came, and we just flowed from there.
The Sabbath Bloody Sabbath tracks “A NationalÂ Acrobat” and “Spiral Architect” exploreÂ some far-out, origins-oflifeÂ lyrical topics. Geezer,Â on a personal level,Â what were you gettingÂ into that led you to thoseÂ heavy concepts?
BUTLER: I was stillÂ doing coke. [laughs] IÂ used to drive from London,Â and I’d do a fewÂ grams on the way. ThisÂ one time I got back justÂ as the sun was risingÂ and I sat on my lawnÂ going, This is incredible!Â I thought about God and DNA. The DNA spiral thing had justÂ been discovered [by scientists]. So with “Spiral Architect” it’sÂ just about humanity and spirituality.
IOMMI: That was incredible. He did come up with some greatÂ stuff. Geez also came up with the main guitar riff for “A NationalÂ Acrobat,” too.
BUTLER: The lyrics for that are about the sperm that neverÂ make it to the egg. I was thinking about what would have happenedÂ 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 theÂ Sixties experimented with LSD to enhance their creativity.Â Was that chemical ever a part of your process?
BUTLER: Yep. [laughs]
IOMMI: [laughs] When I first met him he was doing LSD! WeÂ both used to play in this nightclub, one of these late, all-nighter-type things. Geezer was in his band, and me and Bill wereÂ in a different band. We saw this guy trying to claw up the wall,Â and it was Geezer!
During the creation of 1975’s Sabotage, you were entangled inÂ a bunch of legal hassles and lawsuits with a former manager.Â At the time did you feel the studio was a good outlet to releaseÂ frustrations, or was the whole process a slog?
BUTLER: Everything we ever did wasÂ getting our frustrations and feelingsÂ out. That’s why it was never forced.Â Whatever you felt would come out inÂ the music.
IOMMI: We did go through some funnyÂ stages when we were going through theÂ management stuff. We’d be in courtÂ during the day and then in the studio at night. It was prettyÂ weird.
BUTLER: Which is why we called the record Sabotage.
You left England the following year to record TechnicalÂ Ecstasy at Criteria Studios in Miami. It’s been reported thatÂ the Eagles were recording Hotel California in an adjacentÂ studio and their sessions had to be stopped because you guysÂ were so loud. Was Don Henley pounding on the wall yelling,Â “Keep it down!”?
IOMMI: Well, if he did that we wouldn’t have even heard him!Â [laughs] But yeah, they were next door doing an acoustic thing,Â and they had to pack up because we were too loud and the soundÂ was leaking through the wall. But we used to see them in theÂ studio, along with that Spanish singer Julio Iglesias.
BUTLER: You know, we used to go in and get all [the Eagles’]Â cocaine that they’d left behind? [laughs]
IOMMI: He’s not kidding, either. We knew where it was. You’dÂ undo this thing on the control desk and get to it underneath.Â But it had all dropped down the sides of the desk.
BUTLER: And we used to get in there with our straws andÂ pick it all up!
One of the more enduring tracks from Technical Ecstasy isÂ “Dirty Women.” Geezer, I have to ask, who were these dirtyÂ women?
BUTLER: [laughs] Well, we were recording at Criteria, andÂ to get there you had to go through a really seedy part of Miami.Â You’d see all these dirty old men wearing long coats, standingÂ next to the prostitutes. Even the bar next to the studio was a stripÂ club. So if you wanted a drink you’d go in there, and there’d beÂ a tart, completely nude. So I’d be sitting there thinking, WhatÂ can I write about? [laughs] So that song was about prostitution,Â and all the dirty old men.
IOMMI: Which are us now! [everyoneÂ laughs]
Never Say Die!  was the lastÂ album you released with Ozzy untilÂ 2013’s ”˜13’. Despite the tumultuousÂ circumstances of that time””OzzyÂ leaving the band, returning to recordÂ and then eventually being fired””youÂ guys still managed to achieve someÂ mainstream success with the titleÂ track.
IOMMI: It was really a difficult albumÂ for us. Ozzy left, and when he cameÂ back we had a couple songs [writtenÂ with Osbourne’s temporary replacement,Â Dave Walker], but he wouldn’tÂ sing them. Or he felt uncomfortableÂ singing them because someone elseÂ sang them. So we ended up doingÂ “Swinging the Chain” with Bill singing,Â and the sax instrumental “Breakout.”Â It wasn’t meant to be an instrumental,Â but it becameÂ one because we had noÂ one to sing on it.
BUTLER: Ozzy hadÂ given up by then.
IOMMI: But yeah, becauseÂ of “Never SayÂ Die,” we were back onÂ 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,Â Bob Marley and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy.
IOMMI: I think he thought Bill [Ward] was taking the piss,Â because Bill had his hair in braids like Bob Marley [laughs]
I know the recording experience left a bad taste in everyone’sÂ mouth. But looking back now, do you see any of those tracks inÂ a more favorable light?
IOMMI: It wasn’t that we didn’t like those tracks; it was just aÂ really difficult period. Normally, we’d write the song, rehearseÂ and get used to it, but here we were, writing and recording itÂ in one day. So you can’t observe it properly. We didn’t have thatÂ luxury. And it was fucking freezing rehearsing in that cinema.
BUTLER: I got an ear infection because the cold had got inÂ my ear. So everything in the studio sounded like it was underwaterÂ to me.
IOMMI: But I can listen to those tracks now, where maybe backÂ then I couldn’t relate to them as well. Like “Air Dance.”
BUTLER: Oh yeah, “Air Dance” was great. And I like “Junior’sÂ Eyes” and “Johnny Blade.”
Now, against all odds, 30 years later you’ve reunited with Ozzy,Â released a hit album and completed a successful world tour.Â What keeps you going? Do you feel like you have anythingÂ more to prove?
IOMMI: We’ve had sold-out crowds everywhere. It’s just beenÂ brilliant. It’s tiring, but it’s been great”¦I happened to say in anÂ interview that [the Hyde Park show in July 2014] was our lastÂ gig, meaning it was the last gig of the tour. All of the sudden itÂ came out in the press that it was our last gig ever. I don’t see whyÂ we wouldn’t do something more.