None more Black: The Sabbath has risen again
Ozzy Osbourne is back in the black – Black Sabbath that is. “We all decided that if we were going to do this, this is our last chance, cos we’re all into our 60s now, and we couldn’t do it in another five years, we’d be f**king 70, and then we’d be dead.”
Lock up your fruit bats – the Prince of F***ing Darkness is back, and he’s ready to repossess your soul. Ozzy Osbourne, the man who once bit the head off a bat onstage (though, to be fair, he didn’t realise at the time it was a real bat), and who also bit the head off a dove in his record label’s office (he knew that one was real) is back in Black – Black Sabbath, that is.
At the Beatle-y old age of 64, when most self-respecting old devils would be packing away the pentagram and picking up their (incu)bus pass, Ozzy Osbourne has decided to get back together with his old Black Sabbath bandmates Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler to record a new album and go on tour. Move over Satan, the boys are back in Hell.
On January 13th, 2013, Black Sabbath announced the release of their new album, 13. Probably while standing under a ladder with shards of broken mirror at their feet. They’re not superstitious – after all, they’ve built a career around tempting fate. Guitarist Tony Iommi pioneered the use of the flatted fifth or “devil’s interval” that gives Sabbath their signature doomy sound. Ozzy and bassist Geezer Butler co-wrote dark, disturbed lyrics that were cheerfully influenced by the occult and all things satanic.
But in all the 45 years Black Sabbath have existed in one form or another, the only apparent curse on their heads is that they’re doomed to play their sludgy metal sound for successive generations of rabidly devoted fans. Forty-five years after the band formed in Birmingham, and 35 years after their last studio album with Ozzy, rock fans’ appetite for such classic metal tracks as Paranoid, Iron Man and War Pigs has not abated. One suspects that, long after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, the band will be regularly exhumed to play further reunion gigs. Like mummies from the tomb, only with black bandages.
The slightly slurred voice coming down the phone from Los Angeles is unmistakeable. If you’ve watched even one episode of the hit MTV series The Osbournes, then you’d know that Brummie splutter a mile off. During our interview, I half expect Ozzy to pause and deliver his trademark catchcall, “Shaaarrronnn!!”.
We’re chatting over the phone because our face-to-face in London was cancelled when Ozzy had to fly home to LA after his daughter, Kelly, suffered a seizure on the set of her new entertainment TV show. She’s OK now, says Ozzy. This comes on top of his son Jack’s diagnosis with MS, his wife Sharon’s battle with cancer, and a fire in January at his Los Angeles home in which he received minor burns. What curse?
In recent months, the satanic rumour mill has been buzzing with gossip about Ozzy’s marital problems – he and Sharon (she of X Factor and Simon Cowell-handbagging notoriety) are said to be on the brink of divorce, and were reported to be living in separate mansions. Last month, Ozzy took to his Facebook page to make a confession: “For the last year and a half I have been drinking and taking drugs. I was in a very dark place and was an a**hole to the people I love most, my family. However, I am happy to say that I am now 44 days sober. Just to set the record straight, Sharon and I are not divorcing. I’m just trying to be a better person.”
Eagle-eyed fans may have noticed that Ozzy’s topple from the wagon loosely coincided with the reconvening of Black Sabbath – it looks like he may have reawakened some long-dormant demons. In Black Sabbath’s glory days in the 1970s, all four members were famously off their heads, but it was Ozzy who ventured that little bit further into the dark side. Eventually, in 1980, the other three pots fired the kettle for being just that bit blacker. Following Ozzy’s departure, Sabbath carried on with Tony Iommi at the helm, and a string of top-notch singers taking their turn at the mic, including Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan from Deep Purple.
Meanwhile, Ozzy, still out of it on drink and drugs, and now managed by his girlfriend, Sharon Arden, launched a solo career which, lo and behold, went stratospheric. Within a couple of years, he was bigger than Sabbath, a fixture on MTV, a bogeyman for parents of impressionable teenagers, and a mentor for young metal bands via his Ozzfest outdoor rock extravaganzas.
“I was very lucky,” says Ozzy. “Fucking Mick Jagger tried to do it on his own, and he never did anything. I was very fortunate, you know.”
But though he sold more records and filled bigger stadiums than his old band, it was Black Sabbath who had the greater influence on subsequent generations of young metalheads.
“I remember it was a year or two after my departure from Sabbath, people would come to me and ask me questions about the band, and I didn’t realise we had such a huge underground following within the industry. Like, other bands were very influenced by the early works. There was a box-set, The Ozzy Osbourne Years, and it just took on its own steam. And I thought people were just taking the piss for the longest time, y’know. I remember Metallica, before they were the success they were, they were out on tour with me and they were playing Black Sabbath songs, and I honestly believed they were taking the piss, and someone said, no, no, no, their biggest influence is Black Sabbath. When I was doing the Ozzfests, and bands would come up to me and say, ‘you guys were gods to us’, I thought, ‘wow. The following that we had’.”
The idea of reforming the original line-up was always lurking in the shadows, but the fates seemed to be working to keep the four horsemen of the apocalypse apart. Maybe there is a Sabbath curse, after all. Soon after they reconvened, Tony Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma, which put a very different slant on the recording sessions for 13.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know how the guy, after chemotherapy and treatment, still had the ability to do what he fucking did. There may be something to this black magic shit after all!
“Every time we try to do something, something happens to someone. The drummer got a heart attack when we tried to do something a few years ago. I mean, we all decided, if we’re all going to do an album together, this is the last chance we’re going to get. Unfortunately it didn’t work out with Bill Ward, but we did the album.”
Ah, yes, did we mention that original drummer Bill Ward isn’t part of the reunion? Not long after joining his old bandmates at the press conference to announce their reunion, Ward pulled out of the deal, citing contractual issues. In a recent interview, however, Ozzy is said to have claimed the actual reason for Ward not participating is that the other three felt the drummer was no longer up to the herculean task of touring relentlessly and playing two-and-a-half-hour sets nightly.
“What can I say? It just didn’t work out. I mean , I’m not gonna slag Bill, cos I love him, but it just didn’t work out, y’know. There’s only a different drummer on this album, and the drumming is pretty similar to what Bill Ward would have played anyway.”
So what we have is three-quarters of the original Black Sabbath line-up, a lot older but still apparently match-fit, with Ward’s vacant drumstool filled by the thundering drums of Brad Wilk from Rage Against The Machine. You got a problem with that, then address your complaints to the man downstairs.
“We all decided that if we were going to do this, this is our last chance, cos we’re all into our 60s now, and we couldn’t do it in another five years, we’d be fucking 70, and then we’d be dead, you know? I said to the others, now is the time to do the album, and do a tour. Otherwise we’ll never get a fucking thing done. It’s a pity that Bill had to . . . that it didn’t work out with Bill. I love the guy, and I’m not going to start slagging Bill Ward, he’s a very, very dear friend of mine, like family.”
Ward, however, seems to have been airbrushed out of the family photo album. A recent promo video on the making of 13 features archive shots of the band with a blank space where the drummer used to be, suggesting that – contrary to historical record – Sabbath were always a threesome. It’s as if Ward has been eerily magicked away by a malevolent force.
When the Ozzy-Tony-Geezer trio convened in Los Angeles to record the album, producer and vibemaster Rick Rubin sat them down and made them listen to their eponymous debut album, released in 1970. The idea, said Rubin, was bring the band back to their origins, when they were starting out on their, if you will, Ozyssey, and get them to recreate that vibe. For Ozzy, it was like being asked to sing into a toilet roll when he had the latest AKG mics at his disposal.
“I didn’t get it,” says Ozzy. “Cos it was like giving someone a steam engine when they’ve got like rockets, and saying, this is what you’re gonna go to the moon on. I didn’t get that part of it, because the first black Sabbath album was really a live album without the audience. We just turned up at the studio, plugged in and started playing. We were done in like 12 hours.”
Admittedly, 13 took a little more than 12 hours to make, but the Sabbath faithful should be very happy with the results. It sounds like classic Sabbath – Iommi’s masterful metal riffs (with lots of flatted fifths), Butler’s boiling-lava bass and Ozzy’s wicked warble all working in unison to recreate the signature Sabbath sound. OK, if you were more Zep than Sab, this won’t convert you to the cause, but those diehard fans who were disappointed when Sabbath started dabbling in synths and non-Satanic lyrics will be delighted to know that the guitar-heavy new songs stay firmly on the black end of the spectrum.
“Rick wouldn’t let me sing the word ‘happy’ or ‘glad’ – it had to be dark,” recalls Ozzy. “There was one song called Isolated Man – it’s kind of autobiographical, cos I don’t go out much anymore, I kind of stay in my room, you know. One of the verses goes, ‘I’m a happy isolated man’, and he goes, you can’t sing ‘happy’, you have to sing something like ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’.”
Other songs on the album include God is Dead (“It’s not really about God being dead – it’s about all these religious wars and whatever going on”), The End of the Beginning (“A satanic bluesy jam thing”), Methademic (“That’s about methamphetamine”) and the very tender-sounding Dear Father (“No, no, no – it’s about paedophile priests”).
The band have been on tour in Australia and New Zealand, and recently played the first-ever Ozzfest in Japan. Next month, they embark on a 20-date trek around the US, so plainly Ozzy’s feeling well up to the task.
“I’m never off the stage. When I’m not singing with Sabbath, I’m on stage with my own band. I haven’t exactly been sitting on my arse for the past 30 years.
“I don’t feel any different than when I was 55, or 45. I mean, it’s only a number. Your body will start to tell you when to slow down. But I get up most mornings and I go into the gym. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t womanise, I just do my thing, y’know.
“It’s a miracle that I have survived this long. I mean, Gary Moore died there last year. I was fucking shocked. Cos Gary wasn’t a big party animal. He used to drink beer a bit, but nothing like what I fucking used to do!
“I’ve been doing it solo for the past 30 years on my own, so the only problem with stepping back is that it’s not my band, you know. I’m the singer with a band called Black Sabbath. But putting that hat back on is kind of difficult, because 30 years is a long time to be your own boss. I had to just go, OK, I’m not going to complain about anything, because throughout Black Sabbath’s career, we could never all agree on one thing, you know. So step back, cos otherwise it’s just going to be another disaster.”
He’s not just saying that – just prior to shaking hands and agreeing to share stage and studio again, Ozzy and Iommi had been in court, battling over ownership of the Black Sabbath name. Forgive and forget? Let bygones be bygones? Lucifer would be turning in his cavern.
“Listen, we can sit and bicker and fucking moan, but as I said earlier on, if we want to get the album done, forget the differences, get on with it. Shake hands and do it. Because otherwise we’re never gonna get the fucking album out, we’re never gonna do the tour. You gotta forget your differences. Of course I was pissed off getting fired from the band I helped create. Course I was upset. It was like a divorce – you can either be really miserable and fucking not want to be in the same room as your ex-wife. Or you can just get on with your life. You can’t have it all your own way. It gave me a determination when I got fired to get successful. And I was very lucky.
“ Y’know, I should be dead.”
yyy 13 is out now on Vertigo
BAT’S HEAD SOUP: THE MYTHS AND MADNESS OF KING OZZY
It’s true - he bit off the head of a bat thrown onstage during a concert in Des Moines, Iowa, but insists he thought it was a rubber toy.
The doves were meant to be released during a record label meeting in LA to impress executives, but Ozzy figured they’d be more impressed if he chewed one of their heads off (the doves, not the execs).
His famous OZZY tattoo on his left hand was a DIY job, done with sewing needle and pencil when he was a teenager.
Ozzy didn’t actually pee on the Alamo in Texas while wearing his wife Sharon’s dress; he peed on a nearby monument to those who died at the Alamo.
ANT AND DECADENCE
On tour with Mötley Crüe in 1984, a debate over who was the craziest mother***** was settled when Ozzy snorted up a line of ants.
In his autobiography, Iron Man, Tony Iommi recalls an incident when Ozzy decided to redecorate the band’s hotel room using a dead, dismembered