Tony Iommi: “Ronnie James Dio gave us a new lease of life, and it also gave us a challenge”

As Black Sabbath reissue their Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules albums, Tony Iommi looks back at the life of the band in the ’80s, the drama of Ronnie James Dio’s voice and lyrics, and what it was like to record in John Lennon’s house…

Tony Iommi: “Ronnie James Dio gave us a new lease of life, and it also gave us a challenge”
Nick Ruskell

On April 27, 1979, Black Sabbath kicked Ozzy Osbourne out of the band. He’d already actually quit once, and returned soon after, but this time it was for good. Too much booze and drugs (and in relative terms, for this to be a standout problem in late-’70s Sabbath is quite the thing), not enough focus on work, winding up the rest of the band in the studio, Ozzy had become a drag on a band already struggling.

During the making of 1978’s Never Say Die! album, morale was at a low, inspiration was in even shorter supply, and Tony Iommi would be forced to lie to the faces of record company people asking for updates. “Oh yeah, going nicely,” he’d tell them, knowing that in the next room his bandmates were getting busy achieving fuck all.

When it was released, the album struggled, and a U.S. tour saw an obviously knackered band frequently upstaged by their opening act – a young, electrifying California outfit with a devilish circus performer for a frontman and a terrifyingly good guitarist in their ranks: Van Halen. The writing couldn’t have been more on the wall if had come from a can of spray paint.

Less than a year after giving Ozzy his marching orders, on April 25, 1980, Black Sabbath re-emerged with a new singer, former Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio; a new album, Heaven And Hell; and a sharper sound that played to their leather-lunged new man’s dramatic voice and took them to somewhere less bluesy and more fantastical than in the previous decade. Far from being crushed by the rise of newer acts like Van Halen and Iron Maiden (who had released their self-titled debut album 11 days before, the same day that Judas Priest also helped draw a line in the sand for metal’s new age with the unambiguously HM British Steel), Sabbath Mark II had recalibrated and were not only part of the new decade, they were helping to define it.

The success of Heaven And Hell plugged Sabbath properly back in, and its follow-up, 1981’s Mob Rules, continued the upswing. Now given a deluxe reissue treatment, both albums remain masterful. As Tony Iommi himself remembers, “We believed in it, and that’s why it worked, I think. It was different to how it was before, but it sounded great, and we were able to do new things.”

How did the departure of Ozzy and the arrival of Ronnie change the approach? You really seemed to seize the opportunity to do something a bit different and more dramatic…
“Well, I mean, the whole thing was different for us. Because obviously, when Ronnie got involved, the writing became different because of the different sort of way he's approached. And it was a really exciting period for us, because it was a nine-year challenge, because we were doing something new for us, a different thing. It sort of boosted us up. It was a bit of a challenge, but we enjoyed it.”

When you were looking for a new singer, was Ronnie an obvious contender? Or were you looking at the vacant position thinking, ‘Christ, who do we get?’
“To be honest, the way things were in the band at that point was fairly dismal, you know. Things weren’t happening, and Ozzy really wasn’t into it anymore. He was going through a lot of stuff at the time. And we had to either break up or replace him, which we didn't want to do. But it got to that.

“I met Ronnie a party probably a few weeks before that, and it was Sharon [Osbourne, then Arden], who introduced me to Ronnie. I actually talked to him about doing a side-project ourselves, something a bit different with the both of us. And he was into that. And then when Ozzy went, the first person I got in touch with was Ronnie. I said to the other guys, ‘Why don’t we try Ronnie, and see what you think?’ This was when we lived in LA, so we got him over to the rehearsal room in the house. We had this one riff idea that we’d come up with, which was Children Of The Sea, and Ronnie started singing something, and I just thought, ‘That’s great!’ It was just such a different approach.”

You’d been a band for a decade at this point and heavy music had begun to change. Did you see it as an opportunity to recalibrate yourselves?
“Well, yeah, we could expand a bit more because obviously we the way Ronnie approached stuff was different to Ozz. Ozzy was great, but Ronnie was a different singer altogether. We wanted somebody who was different, we didn’t want to bring somebody in who was gonna sound similar to Ozz. So it was good to have somebody totally different, and Ronnie’s voice and the way he approached the songs allowed us to be able to try different things in a different way than what we’d done before. It opened up a lot more variety for us, really.”

It seems like the songs came together quite quickly once you got going with him…
“Yeah, we started getting stuff fairly quick. Because Ronnie had also been a musician himself, we could sit down and he would come up with an idea and you’d go, ‘Oh, I like that.’ And more and more as we worked together, we started getting looser with each other, running sort of in sync on everything. So yeah, it came together pretty quick.”

The last Ozzy album at that point, Never Say Die!, was really quite difficult and trying and it was a bit miserable. Did the change help you rediscover your enthusiasm for what you were doing?
“Absolutely. It gave us a new lease of life. And it also gave us that challenge. Because, obviously Sabbath has been around a while, we knew we could go out and do certain gigs and sell out certain places or whatever. But it was nice, because we had to prove something. You’re trying to bring a different singer into the band, which is very difficult, and he’s got to get accepted, and he's got to prove himself. And we have to sort of prove ourselves that it was working, and that we liked it. And I believed in what we’d got, I really did. I really liked what we what we had with Ronnie at that point.”

What do you remember about people’s reactions when they first heard Sabbath with Ronnie at the front?
“It was pretty positive. We had to work really hard to promote that album, which was good, I think, because it made us work. It wasn’t just something where you go, ‘Oh, that’s going to do alright.’ We had to prove it and prove that the band was good and could do it live. It was a lot of ups and downs, but eventually we pulled through. We were always proud of that album, and we believed in it. If we hadn't believed in it, we wouldn't have done it. It was one of those things where we knew it was right at that time.”

Did you feel like you needed to step up, and prove you were still relevant after being around 10 years? There were new young bands coming through and changing things the way you had done at the start of the ’70s…
“I think within ourselves there was pressure, but we weren’t competing with anybody else. These bands like Van Halen and Judas Priest had come around, and that was great. It’s a totally different sort of music in some ways. The way we would write and the way we’d approach things was different to a lot of the other bands that were around.”

It must have helped with the change that as a lyricist, Ronnie had a really dramatic flair that brought in his own thing to the band…
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the thing with Ronnie or any singer is, if they write their own lyrics, they have certain words they can pronounce better, and they put them in and they emphasise those. So, like you say, he had this dramatic thing to his lyrics, and he’d put the right word at the right point in a line where he’d belt it out and it’d have the most impact. It was really good for Geezer [Butler, bass] as well, because he’d always had to be involved in doing the lyrics. So it was it was an opportunity for him to concentrate more on the bass, which he wanted to do.”

What were the first gigs with Ronnie like?
“God, it’s hard to remember now. We did this tour, The Black And Blue tour, which was us and Blue Öyster Cult, because of the manager we had at that time, and that’s how we introduced Ronnie to the fans, and eventually people come around to accept him. But yeah, as I say, it’s a challenge, because you’re gonna go out there and obviously you’re gonna get people shouting for Ozzy. And we did get that, and people are bound to do that, because they’re seeing the band for the first time with somebody else and it must be odd. But Ronnie just took notice, and then eventually we pulled the crowd round.”

When it came to making Mob Rules, did you feel a bit more confident, because Ronnie had been accepted and Heaven And Hell had been a success?
“Yeah, we got onto a roll there because we were touring and everything else. So when we come to do Mob Rules, obviously Ronnie wasn’t the new guy anymore. And at that point, we had a different drummer because Bill [Ward] had left after Heaven And Hell. We’d been working with Vinny Appice for a while on tour, and we’d all got used to how we all play. So when it came to writing Mob Rules, we were all used to each other, and we would just do the same thing: jam and come up with a riff and then work it into a song.

“The first one we did for that album was The Mob Rules. We went to John Lennon’s house – he’d got a studio there. We set the gear up, jammed, and I’d come up with this riff, and then Ronnie started singing. The idea for that was that it was for the soundtrack of a movie, the Heavy Metal film, the cartoon. That worked really well, but when we actually came to record the album, Martin Birch [producer] didn’t want to use that version. He wanted to do it so it’s all in context with each other. Well, that was his excuse.”

What was John Lennon’s house like?
“You know the video for Imagine, where he’s sat at the white piano and all that? It was all the same. Nothing had been touched. It was all the same. It was nice. It was quite funny, because you’d open a cupboard, and they’d just be full of gold discs.”

That album’s got Sign Of The Southern Cross on it, which is one of the grandest things Sabbath ever did. What do you remember about making that?
“As usual, I just came up with a riff and everybody liked it. And I had this idea to do a guitar thing which sounded like a violin. I managed to get something that sounded good from the guitar, which was hard in those days. Now you can just press a button and you’d probably get something that sounds just right, but I had to play around with different things to do it. Having a producer really helped as well, Martin Birch, because in the past, I've always had to be involved in it. It was nice to be able to have somebody there who, when I’d play a solo, would go, ‘Yeah, that’s the one,’ or, ‘Oh, no, do another one.’”

Was he quite creative in the producer’s chair as well?
“A bit, yeah. I gave him a bit of input, to be fair, because he wasn't familiar with Geezer’s bass sound, which was more overdriven. When we started playing he’d go, ‘The bass is sort distorted,’ and I’d have to say, ‘Yeah but that’s what makes our sound.’ He got the idea. What was good for me was that he’d done a few albums that had been successful, but he didn't push stuff on you. He’d get out of you what he could, he’d entice you to do more if he knew you could get it better.”

Looking back on those records, what is that stands out the most to you about that time?
“For Heaven And Hell, we went to Florida to record that, and we stayed at Barry Gibb’s house, from the Bee Gees. We’d rehearse there as well. I remember he had a bar, and we set the gear up, and it was a great vibe. We wrote a lot of stuff there.”

Did Barry Gibb have a similar thing to John Lennon with the gold discs?
“No, he had drugs in different jars on the fireplace! We looked in this jug and there was all this hash in there. Those were the days…”

And finally, how did you feel when Ronnie left after Mob Rules?
“Hmm. I can’t remember back to that time, what we actually thought, but we were disappointed that he was going. We thought he was going to go off and do an album himself, you know? Which, of course, was what did happen. It was a bit disappointing that he left, but these things happen. And eventually, of course, we ended up back together again – twice!”

The reissues of Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules are out now via BMG

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