Tony Iommi on Black Sabbath’s “lost” era: “It’s a shame, because we made some great music”

As they’re resurrected and finally brought onto streaming services, Tony Iommi looks back on the albums of Black Sabbath’s “lost” era, and how an unknown new frontman gave them a new lease of life...

Tony Iommi on Black Sabbath’s “lost” era: “It’s a shame, because we made some great music”
Nick Ruskell
Pete Cronin, Black Sabbath/IRS Records

"It's definitely an overlooked era," begins Tony Iommi. "There's people who don't even know these albums exist!"

Mad as it seems, so far in this century, a sizeable piece of the Black Sabbath story has been unavailable as new. They're not even on streaming services. This week, with the release of the massive Anno Domini 1989–1995 boxset, and being made available digitally for the first time, "these albums" – 1989's classic Headless Cross, the similarly epic Tyr from 1990, 1994's Cross Purposes and the following year's Forbidden – will see the light of day again.

It's also a chance to appreciate the work of the man behind the mic on these records, Tony Martin. A previously unknown singer from Birmingham, he'd joined Sabbath during the recording of 1987's The Eternal Idol, at a point when Tony Iommi was the last man standing from the original line-up, and not on his first, second, or even third search for a new singer. Tony Martin, it turned out, was a rare find. With an enormous voice that soared higher than even his predecessor's predecessor's predecessor Ronnie James Dio, and a mystical lyrical quality that gave the music a dramatic flair and extra character.

It's no exaggeration to say that The Tony Martin Era – interrupted in the middle by the return of Dio for 1992's Dehumanizer – actually turned out some of the best music ever to bear the Black Sabbath name. Headless Cross' banging title-track for one, the devilish cautionary tale of When Death Calls for another, the mystical metal that makes up Tyr opener Anno Mundi for a third.

It's also no exaggeration to note that they had more influence than is often given credit, most notably in the doom scene. Watain singer Erik Danielsson, meanwhile, has previously enthused to K! that When Death Calls, to him, touches on an almost black metal quality in tone. "That lyric, 'Don't laugh in the face of death, or your tongue will blister and die,' is just perfect."

He's not wrong. And even though Tony Iommi has often voiced displeasure at how Forbidden turned out, largely because of the production, it's only right that it all gets a chance to stand up and be counted alongside everything else from The Greatest Band Ever To Do it.

Here, Tony Iommi looks back on Sabbath's lost era, and the resurrection of some of their best work…

How’s it been revisiting these albums that have been left in the past for so long?
“It's been really good, because over the years I've been asked by a lot of fans – when we were doing shows or whatever – about the Tony Martin era. ‘Why’s it got buried?’ We were touring with either Dio or Ozzy, or recording, or whatever it might be, so we were doing something else, and the focus wasn’t on [this] era. So now, it's great to be able to sit back and say it's finally going to come out. Because it has been a bit frustrating. It was an era that that sort of got lost. And it's a shame because there's some great music on those albums.”

It does feel like a lost era of the band that a lot of people don’t even know exists…
“It really is. We were on IRS records, which is another story, and over the years this stuff got lost. And at the time when they came out originally, it was a difficult time all around in the music scene. So now there's people catching on to it, which is amazing, all these years later. People didn't know of this period, and they’re listening to it for the first time saying, ‘Yeah, we love it.’ I mean, there’s obviously people that don't like it. But that goes with everything, doesn't it (laughs)?”

How did Tony Martin come into the picture?
“Well, my best, oldest friend from school, Albert Chapman – who I’ve known since we were, like, 10 years old – managed one of the bands Tony had. And when it came that we were looking for a singer, Albert says to me, ‘Why don't you try Tony?’ We tried him and it worked out. I really liked his voice. And that was it, really. And there he was, stuck with us for 10 years!”

By the time of Headless Cross, other than you it was a completely new band from the ’70s and early ’80s. What effect did that have on writing?
“Well, I mean, Tony’d got a voice, he could sing all the various eras of Sabbath, so he was a bit of a variation. So when we came to writing albums, it was a new thing again. Cozy Powell [drummer] was on board then, which was great. He was a real ally for me, because he’s from the same era and we we've known each other ever since the very early ’70s, and it was great to have somebody with you who'd been about and was established and had that credibility. And we had Neil Murray [bass] as well, so it all worked out and fitted great.

“For me, on the musical side, I was writing the same as I always did, just with different people. What Tony was doing lyrically and vocally was obviously a different thing, because he didn't want to do what Ozzy had done, and didn't want to do what Dio did, he wanted to create his own thing. So he went off and started doing stuff like he did on Tyr, more Nordic. He wanted to make his own thing and not rely on somebody else's past. And he really pulled it off.”

What were the writing sessions like?
“Cozy Powell would come to stay with me. We'd have a cassette player, and we’d sit down and start playing bits and bobs. We’d have a few drinks, and more drinks, and more drinks. And before you knew it, we were coming up with ideas and putting them on tape. And then we got Tony Martin over and played some stuff to him, and built it up like that. Then we got into a rehearsal room and started playing. It’s the same sort of thing as I do now, really. I’ll come up with riffs and wait to see if somebody goes, ‘Oh, I like that,’ or, ‘I don't like that.’ I like to have other opinions. So it was the same way of working for me, how I’ve always done it.”

Were you worried about what people might think of bringing in more new people to the band?
“I mean, it's really difficult to bring new people into Sabbath. And it always has been, because you get the hardened fans that just won't see anything different from the original line-up. And then you get other ones that will accept new things, like when we brought Dio in. But that was different, because he was established, he'd done Rainbow and various other stuff. Now here we were, bringing in Tony Martin, who nobody really knew. So it was very hard, and very hard for the fans to understand it. Because there's a complete new line-up of people that that weren't a part of Sabbath before. So it was hard. It was very hard. But as I say, people have sort of accepted it now.”

What were your expectations, bringing in new people? That’s big shoes to fill…
“Yeah, definitely. When I brought in Tony, I expected too much from him, really, because it's bloody difficult to have to stick somebody in front of a known band like Sabbath. You expect them to be like the other people [in the band] have been: experienced. But of course, he wasn't. He hadn't played in those sized venues. And it must have been petrifying for him, really. But it didn't sink in for me at the time how hard it was for him. I mean, he really did pull things out of the bag, and it's probably good for him to push him, but at the same time, we did throw him in at the deep end. Obviously I get it now, but I didn't at the time think how it must have been petrified standing in front of thousands of people.

“It’s hard to bring in new people and make it work. But in a way it’s quite good. I've never not been in Black Sabbath. I’ve always been in Black Sabbath. And it's just unfortunate that as time went on, people have left or whatever. But it’s sort of good, really, because it made us not rely on thinking, ‘Oh, it's Black Sabbath.’ It made us work again, it gave us a challenge to actually do something with somebody else and make it popular.”

What was the expectation from the label at the time?
“Well, we had two or three labels that wanted to sign me in them days. Obviously I was offered better deals than what IRS had offered me. But the thing that I was concerned about was the interest from the record company, not the money. And [label owner] Miles Copeland said, ‘Look, you know how to write stuff, you do it, that’s your department. You do it and we'll support it.’ And I loved that idea, instead of being with a record company that says, ‘You've got to go more commercial, you've got to do this, you got to do that.’ I didn't want any of that. So IRS, although they weren't big, and their finances weren't as much as the others, that's the one I wanted to go with. I could do what I know how to do. And they supported it.

“But the problem was, IRS weren't big enough. And so when we actually got out on the road, and certainly in America, it was tough, because it didn't have the distribution. People didn't even know we had a record. And it was great in Europe because we had EMI. But with IRS, it was it was difficult, because they were a small label. So, it was hard.”

In the new boxset, you’ve remixed and remastered Forbidden, from 1995, which you’ve often said you weren’t keen on the sound of. What was it like, recording that one?
“None of us were that happy with that, because we didn't like the production on it. And the way it was at that time, it was very hard, because the record company wanted to bring in somebody new to be involved in the production. We got Ice-T from Body Count to sing on one of the tracks [The Illusion Of Power] because the record company wanted us to appeal to a wider audience. I don't know what they were thinking there. But he was great. I met with Ice-T, lovely man, and it was great.

“What came along with that was Ernie-C , who’s in Ice-T’s band, and also their engineer. And so they were picked by the record company to produce our album. Lovely people, but we didn’t know them, and thought that was going to be strange having them produce. One of the difficult parts was when we got in the studio to work with Ernie-C, and he started telling Cozy to play in a more modern style or whatever, and it just didn't go down. Cozy is a renowned, top drummer who's played with you name it, and so this just went down like a lead balloon. He wasn't at all pleased.

“When we got to the sound, when we had the mix and stuff, we weren't happy with that either. And that's not to slag them, because it works great for their own albums, but it just didn't work for Sabbath. Hence that's why I wanting to go in and remix Forbidden. I wanted to try and get the sound more powerful and bring out what was on tape. Obviously Cozy’s passed away, he couldn't be there. Geoff Nicholls [keyboardist] wasn't there. But it was great to be able to relook at this and try and make it sound better. Of course, you can only look at it to a certain extent. You can't change it. You just have to bring out what's there and try and make it sound better. Which is a bit frustrating, because I'd love to apply this solo on that or whatever. And even Tony Martin said to me, ‘Can I change some of the vocal as well?’ No, because this is what it is. But I’m glad we got to remix it.”

How come these albums have been unavailable for so long?
“The record company obviously didn't want to put them out anymore. And as I say, it was with IRS originally. And with IRS at the time, the distribution wasn't very good. So you can imagine when we weren’t together, they just stopped doing them. I don't know the reason, but possibly they weren't selling enough? I don't know. But that's a great thing. Now we can bring it forward and introduce it again, for people who've probably never heard these albums. And I think it's great to be able to get Tony the recognition he deserves, because he was really good [in the band]. And he did get pushed in the back, and I feel sorry that he did. But not now these are coming out.”

Is there any chance of seeing any of this live?
“There's no plan for anything at the moment. I never write things off, but obviously, you're not going to get Cozy, you're not going to get Geoff Nicholls. So it'd be a different thing again. But we probably won't. I mean, I can't see myself going on tour or doing anything at the moment. For me, touring has basically stopped now. I don't want to be doing two years out on tour again. I loved it, but my doctor at the time said, ‘You shouldn't be flying all over the world too much,’ because of my cancer situation. Touring's a great idea until you get about a year into it and then you get tired and you go, ‘Oh my God, this is tough.’ I've done that for 50-odd years, so now it's time to sit back and rest! Well, rest, but not do nothing – I love playing, I'm still writing, still doing lots of stuff. I’m still trying to keep my life entertaining.”

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?