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Black Sabbath’s Farewell Interview

Our final conversation last year with the band who started it all.

Last February, Black Sabbath called it a day, following the hugely successful The End World Tour. As we celebrate all things Sabbath this week, in the run-up to the release of the Birmingham Four’s Supersonic Years vinyl box set of seven-inch singles from their ‘70s era on Friday, we take a look back to when Kerrang!’s Nick Ruskell spoke to them ahead of the final curtain.

“The feeling around the band for those shows was of something ending properly, on their terms,” the writer remembers. “It wasn’t fizzling out, or ending badly, as it had done in the mid-‘90s – they were going out with a massive farewell tour, having made an album that put a genuinely brilliant full-stop at the end of their legacy.”

OZZY ZIG needs gig – has own PA’.

It is 1968. A young guitar player reads these words on a card fastened to the notice board of a Birmingham music shop. He and his drummer friend are on the lookout for new band members after their last group, Mythology, split. The ‘Has own PA’ part of the advert is pleasing to the axeman, but the band-seeker’s name causes him to furrow his brow.

“I know a guy called Ozzy,” Tony Iommi, the guitarist, puzzles to Bill Ward, his drumming friend, thinking of a mischievous young lad from the year below him at school. “But it just can’t be the same guy. I’ve never heard him sing.”

Still, this Ozzy Zig had his own PA.

“We went round to his house and his mum answered the door’,” says Tony Iommi. “I saw him walking up the hallway and I said, ‘Bill, this is the guy from school. I don’t think that’ll work.’ And we went back to my house.”

Had Tony and Bill gone back to the music shop and scouted for another singer, had the guitarist lost interest in music and gone back to factory work, had the wind been blowing in a different direction, had any number of things happened next, the results are unthinkable. You wouldn’t be reading this story in this magazine. Lars Ulrich would have become Wimbledon champion instead of starting Metallica. There wouldn’t have been any heavy metal, any grunge, any… anything.

In this reality, however, where things went correctly, the following week Ozzy Zig and a bassist named Geezer Butler appeared at Tony’s, looking for members for a band of their own. ‘Well, let’s give it a go…’ thought Tony. And just like that, Black Sabbath (well, The Pulka Tulk Blues Band as they were known, then Earth, and <<then>> Black Sabbath) were born.

Forty-nine years later, with nearly half a century of success, drugs, money, huge riffs, splits, victories, frustrations, legends behind them, and a million bands birthed in their wake, we sit at the concluding part of the story. And Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler have nine gigs left to play together; a big, heavy full stop on one of the greatest and best bands that ever existed. Albums like Paranoid, Master Of Reality and Vol4 added something genuinely sinister to the loud blues and rock’n’roll of the time to create something genuinely new that still stands as some of the most innovative, heavy and brilliant music ever written.

Their final show on February 4, in Birmingham, a stone’s throw from the streets of Aston where Ozzy Zig first pinned his card, will be an occasion to rival the retirement of Queen Elizabeth herself (for whom, incidentally, Ozzy and Tony serenaded with their biggest hit, Paranoid, at a concert at Buck House to mark her 80th birthday). And all of it – all of it - Ozzy’s still trying to get his head around.

“All I remember thinking was, ‘Oh this’ll be good for a couple of years’,” he laughs, sat on a sofa in his LA home. “No band goes ‘Oh we’re going to be legendary’. Be careful what you ask for because sometimes it works!”

Black Sabbath live and mucking about in Paris, 1970

If the idea of Black Sabbath lasting “a couple of years” now seems ridiculous, imagine what young John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne would have thought of himself owning a house in Los Angeles. He was never going to Los Angeles. He was probably going to prison. Again. He’d already done porridge for burglary (“I got caught because I used fingerless gloves!” he hoots). School had been a washout; as a dyslexic pupil (then not really given credence by educators), Ozzy had found scholastic success tough, and his rebellious streak had seemingly typecast him early on.

“I wouldn’t wear a school uniform, I fucking hated it,” he recalls. “They didn’t like jeans, so I wore jeans with fuckin’ holes in. My mother would pass me in the street and say out the corner of her mouth, ‘You mess!’”

The world of work wasn’t much better. Ozzy’s mother got her beloved “Mess” a job in a factory, tuning car horns. Again, the arrangement didn’t really suit him.

“I could not conform to a nine-to-five job, no way. I lasted about a month then I told them to go fuck themselves and walked out. My mother went fucking insane! I remember one guy was there for 35 years and they gave him a fucking gold watch. 35 years of my fucking life for a watch? Fuck that.”

The one thing Ozzy did have a constructive enthusiasm for was music. A big fan of The Beatles, he decided that he wanted to have a go at singing, if only for something to do more fun than working. Streets away, fellow Beatles fan Geezer Butler was having similar ideas. With “A guitar that cost me fifty pence, with two strings on it”, he had started a band, Rare Breed, when he was at school. When their singer left, Ozzy appeared at Geezer’s house for an audition.

“My brother answered the door and went, ‘There’s <<something>> here for you,’” laughs Geezer. “He’d turned up to the house with a chimney brush and no shoes!”

“I used to do the craziest things, I’d do nutty things all the time,” hoots Ozzy at the memory. “I’d basically walk around with a tennis shoe on or some crazy shit. I wanted to make people laugh. And I had no money, so I couldn’t have good clothes anyway.”

Rare Breed started gigging, and thoughts turned to going pro. It was not an ambition shared by the others, however, and the band soon split. Which is where Ozzy Zig’s fateful card comes in. But while Tony Iommi had never seen any musical talent from Ozzy before, Geezer was a different story.

“I used to see Geez because my mother and father had a shop in Aston and Geezer used to walk past the shop because he was dating a girl that lived up the road from us,” he recalls. “Bill and I would go and see Rare Breed, and there he was onstage. When we first saw him we thought he was loony. He was pretty wild in them days, the sort of guy that would climb up the walls. If it was the drugs or what I don’t know, but he was pretty wild for sure.”

With the line-up set, the new band hit the blues clubs of Brum. To set themselves apart, Geezer suggested the start making “scary music”, noting that horror movie screenings were always packed. Thus, they changed the name to Black Sabbath after the Boris Karloff monster feature of the same name, and the bassist – a keen reader of horror authors like Dennis Wheatley and HP Lovecraft – began to write dark lyrics whose otherworldly language dealt with real ills of war, drugs and poverty, while Tony’s riffs became increasingly sinister and heavy. The first time they played the song Black Sabbath – with its cautionary, apocalyptic lyrics dealing with an encounter Geezer had with Satan, when the Great Horned One appeared at the end of his bed one night – Sabbs knew they had something.

“We were playing blues clubs where everybody sat on the floor and nodded their head,” recalls Tony. “But when we played Black Sabbath, people were in shock, coming up to us afterwards saying, ‘What <<was>> that!?’”

Sabbath soon picked up a name for themselves, gigging heavily around the UK and Europe, and even scoring themselves a residency at The Star Club, the same seedy bar on Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn where The Beatles had honed their craft. Indeed, so good did Sabbath become that when it became time to record their debut album, it was simply the work of a few hours on the way to a show in Europe.

“We were over [in Europe] for a month or something, and we were phoning back finding out what was going on – in those days, of course, you had to go to a callbox ha ha!” continues Tony. “We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on phonecalls, either, so we’d call back very rarely. And then on the way back we were in shock because we heard the album was in the charts. Blimey! We couldn’t believe it.”

The album went Top 10 in the UK and hit 23 in the U.S. Billboard chart. In a year they’d sold a million copies. For a working class band from a working class city, this was unbelievable.

“Before the first advance I’d never seen anything more than five quid,” remembers Ozzy. “So when they gave me an advance for one hundred and five pounds, I thought I’d won the fucking lottery! The first thing I did was buy myself a pair of shoes because I had no shoes. I’d walk round barefooted all the time. And I’d always like to smell nice so I bought some Brut aftershave. Tacky shit but it’s better than the way I smelled before. In the early days I had one pair of shoes, one pair of socks that I never washed and they stunk, one pair of jeans, no underclothes, a shirt and whatever jacket I could find!”

“I passed my test and immediately went out and bought a Rolls Royce,” adds Geezer. “I went to pick my dad up form work in the Rolls and he just wouldn’t accept it, pretended he didn’t know me.”

This was just the beginning, and Sabbath’s star continued to rise at a dizzying rate. Less than a year after their debut, their second album, Paranoid, was released. The title-track was quickly written in the studio to fill up the record, but unexpectedly hit Number One. Sabbath were now <<bona fide>> stars in England, and then came the call: you’re going to America. So Sabbath went, with stars in their eyes, over the pond. And as they hit New York for the first time they thought… ‘Is this it?’

“The first show was in a place called Angano’s Club which was a real dump,” recalls Tony of the 600-cap venue in which Sabbath made their U.S. debut. “We thought ‘Blimey, is this America, is this what they’re like for gigs?’”

But this didn’t last long, and soon Sabbath’s darker, grittier antidote to flower-power grooves had struck a chord with folks who realised the hippie dream of peace and love was nice if you lived in San Francisco with good weather, good dope, and good looking people to shag in the name of free love, but like back home in Birmingham, not so relatable to those on the breadline in New York or Detroit. The venues became huger and huger, despite an initial fear of who these four black-clad long-hairs were, and what they were bringing to town.

“When we first got to America people didn’t know anything about us,” says Tony. “We were kept from doing interviews to build up some kind of mystique. And it did ­- people were frightened of us! So we did get all sorts of people coming to the shows, from witches to any sort of person really. They just knew our first album and the inverted cross [on the inner sleeve]. It sort of opened a can of worms in a lot of places because we upset some people- you don’t know if you’re going to get a version of Ku Klux Klan coming out or something. It was mainly religious freaks who used to be outside the gigs quite a lot, parading around with boards saying ‘These are Satanic’ and all this sort of stuff. It was a bit nerve-wracking really because you just don’t know what to expect.”

As well as this, the band also started to notice just how different this was to the blues clubs back in Birmingham.

“The audience always had loads of dope; you’d go out and get stoned just off the atmosphere,” remembers Geezer. “And the security back then in America was the police, they didn’t have gig security. They didn’t really treat kids with long hair that nicely. They used to beat the hell out of the kids if they tried to get near the stage, which was really weird to us. But the crowds were wild back then.”

Black Sabbath perform Snowblind in 1978

If the crowds were wild, it was nothing compared to the behaviour of the band. Ozzy, already a prankster who “would do anything for a laugh, to get people to like me”, was in his element. And everyone was off their heads. On everything. “We hit the booze like nobody else,” recalls Ozzy, but that was just an aperitif. Dope, acid, Quaaludes, uppers, downers, screamers and laughers were all on the menu. And cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine.

“I fell in love with a painkiller called cocaine,” says Ozzy. “We got through a fucking mountain of that shit. We thought that’s what you do, you get money, you buy expensive clothes, you buy champagne.”

This high life really hit during the making of Vol4 in 1972. The band moved into a mansion in Los Angeles to record. It was the perfect setup. In Birmingham, cocaine was non-existent. In LA

“…We’d get it delivered in massive soap-powder boxes,” hoots Geezer. “It was like something out of Scarface.”

“It was drugs, drugs and drugs, and music, you know? Brilliant - we had a fabulous time,” continues Tony. “We set the gear up at the house in one of the rooms overlooking the hillside, it was really magical. We’d write in the day, and at night be stoned and drinking.”

Times were good. Drugs were fun. Creativity was at an all-time high. Pranks were funny (“We spray-painted Bill Ward gold when he was pissed,” hoots Tony. “He got ill so we called an ambulance. The medics called us fucking idiots!”). And while things were on the up-and-up, it was all good. Vol4 – with its ode to snow, Snowblind, and Geezer’s dedication in the sleeve to “The great COKE Cola company of Los Angeles” – was a creative and commercial smash. But remember when Ozzy said it would be good for a couple of years? He wasn’t the only one thinking it.

“We didn’t think we’d last out the ‘70s, let alone until 2016,” shrugs Geezer. “We thought we’d do this while we can and then go back to live in Aston when it’s all over. Back then bands didn’t last. The Beatles had split up after 10 years, there was nobody that had longevity back then. We thought by 1975 it’d be all over and we’d go back to living our working class lives.”

After the high, the comedown started, almost exactly when the bassist predicted. Though a huge album, 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath saw Tony Iommi hit by writer’s block, while ‘75’s SABotage was a reference to the band’s frustration at being, in Ozzy’s words, “fucking ripped off” by their first manager, something they discovered when they noticed the amount of money they had was not proportional to the millions of records and tickets the band were selling. The drink and drug intake, coupled with a sense of malaise and that the wheels were starting to fall off, eventually brought things to a head during the miserable process of making of the original four’s final album, Never Say Die!.

“Ozzy wasn’t into it, we were getting too out of it. I’d go to the record company and they’d ask how the album was coming along, and I’d say ‘Oh, really good.’ But fucking hell, we hadn’t done anything!,” Tony remembers. “Ozzy wasn’t into it any more, he was asleep on the couch or disappeared for a few days, it was basically all the drugs, you know. I mean, we were all doing drugs, but he was doing a lot more than us at the time.”

Sabbath were faced with a choice: break up or replace Ozzy. They plumped for the latter.

“I don’t blame them for firing me because I was drunk and stoned all the fucking time,” sighs Ozzy. “My brain for the melodies wasn’t working. And they’d get pissed off with me because I was drinking myself unconscious every day. At the end of the day, I lost interest in Black Sabbath because we started off fighting the various ripoff managers and record company people, but at the end of the day we were getting pissed off with each other. I was fed up with being down in the dumps, being in a band which is such a great fucking band.”

While his ex-bandmates continued with a new singer in the form of the silver-throated Ronnie James Dio, not to mention a new manager, for 1980’s wildly successful Heaven And Hell, Ozzy’s fortunes did not look so good. Given $95,000 as a redundancy, he set up in an LA hotel, curtains drawn, to order in booze, drugs, pizza and women for one final blow out. The intervention of Sharon Arden, daughter of Sabbath’s one-time manager Don Arden, to get Ozzy started with a solo career got him out of the hotel room and into a recording studio, but it wasn’t just the Double-O’s future wife spurring him on by then.

“When you get fired from a band like Black Sabbath like I did, you have a big resentment toward them because you started it with them,” he recalls today. “You also think, well, what is so wrong with me? I read an interview with them ages after I’d departed and it said ‘Ozzy wasn’t into it’ and the truth of the matter is I wasn’t into it any more. But at the same time, when you leave you don’t want it to carry on where you left off, you want it to die.”

Not that Geezer and Tony thought the same. In fact, with things better for Sabbs than they had been in years, they were glad to see their friend doing so well.

“It was great to know that we could both do well separately,” says Tony. “We’ve had our ups and downs but at the end of the day, it was like a family. I still talked to Ozzy, once he got himself together he was doing his own thing, we’d be talking. It was hard, it was difficult because I didn’t want to be in competition as such, I didn’t want to start that slanging match.”

“It’s just fuckin- it’s what spurs you on, your fear of being a loser,” sighs Ozzy, reflectively. “The ego part of it goes ‘I can’t let them fuckers get better than me’. You’ve got to keep going. With success comes ego and with ego comes a lot of bad shit, you know? Ego, drugs and women have destroyed more bands than a fucking war, you know?”

Black Sabbath live at Ozzfest 1998

Post-Sabbath, Ozzy became a solo superstar, while Sabbath’s name – after the initial post-Ozzy purple patch – slowly began to lose weight. A revolving line-up from album to album didn’t help, and while 1988’s Headless Cross remains a genuine classic, Sabbath couldn’t hold a candle to Ozzy’s success.

But the influence of the original Black Sabbath never waned. Ever since they started, bands who followed – from Iron Maiden to Nirvana to Biffy Clyro to Slipknot to Green Day to Architects - have owed Sabbath a debt. Not that Ozzy, despite his words about ego above, a consistently humble fellow, has always understood quite how important his band are.

“In my solo career I had Metallica opening up for me,” he laughs. ”I walked past their dressing room

I heard Black Sabbath playing and I said to my assistant, ‘Are these guys taking the piss? What’s the fucking deal?’ and he went, ‘Don’t you know?’ ‘Know what?’ ‘They fuckin’ think you guys were gods,’ I go ‘Fuck off’. I couldn’t understand, but nobody would tell us until years later and every band would come up to me and say ‘If it wasn’t for you and Black Sabbath we wouldn’t be here today.’ I had no idea, none of us did.”

But in their absence, Sabbath’s legend grew. And in 1997, when the original members reunited for the first time (bar a 10-minute appearance at Live Aid in 1985), into a world that had seen punk, grunge, nu-metal, thrash, black metal and whatever The Prodigy were doing come along since the last time they’d played a gig, Sabbath, the originals, returned as kings. When that reunion ended, the Dio-era line-up returned as Heaven And Hell. But in 2011 when it was announced that Sabbs would be not only playing again, but doing a new album, 13, it was something else. Sabbath weren’t just back, they were more back than they were last time.

And now that it’s coming to The End, in nine gigs’ time, it’s a more favourable full-stop to the story of the greatest band in the history of metal than it could have been if we were simply left with 1995’s Forbidden – an album even Tony Iommi says “Should have been forbidden” in his Iron Man autobiography – as their final mark on the world. With each of the members now well into their sixties, and with Tony, though in remission of the cancer he valiantly fought and beat during the making of 13, everyone agrees it feels like a good, if sad, place to stop on their own terms, and bring the curtain down in Birmingham where it all began. Yes, it would be nice to have Bill Ward, but as Ozzy, Tony and Geezer all say separately, it didn’t work out.

“Managers do their thing - it didn’t work out for whatever and I’m sad about that,” says Ozzy. “I don’t want to go down that road of talking about Bill Ward because he’ll write something online. I wish him well, I miss him terribly, and he’s really nice, but talk to the managers.”

Bill or no Bill, on the morning of February 5, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler will all wake up no longer as members of Black Sabbath. For Ozzy and Geezer, it’s not for the first time. But for Tony, the man who started the band, who Ozzy calls “the leader”, who drove to the early shows because he was the only one who could drive, who kept the band going constantly, this empty diary is new ground.

“I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like,” he sighs. “It’s been almost 50 years, I’ve lived with this for all that time so it’s going to be strange to not think ‘Hang on, in a month’s time we’re on tour’. It’s almost like you don’t want to think about it because it’s been such an eventful time together thinking that it’s certainly the last big tour we’re doing. You have to draw the line at some point, and we’re at that age bracket now where you can’t go on forever. It is sad, we’ve got some great fans and I hope we don’t lose them, I want to keep everybody there, we’re not going to fade away. For me it’s the touring aspect that’s too stressful now, even though you couldn’t travel in a better way. But I can do a lot of other things now. It’s not like in the past, where you’ve had to okay a tour for nine months. Now I’m a lot more free to do things. It’s exciting in that respect, and I’m certainly not going to stop, I want to keep playing.”

“When it’s all over it’s going to be… it’s hard to say at this point,” shrugs Geezer. “If we were playing really badly it’d be a horrible way to go out- you’d have bad feelings for the rest of your life! It’s going to be good to look back on it with fond memories rather than thinking we could have played better or whatever.”

“People are asking me how much it costs to stay in England because they want to come over for the final show!” grins Ozzy. “I just hope everything runs okay, there’s no breakdowns or whatever. I just want to come out, celebrate the fact that we’re finishing- Sabbath was the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.”

And celebrate we must. Because without Black Sabbath, none of what we hold dear would be here now. Let’s give the gods the send-off they deserve. Ozzy Zig, you landed yourself a hell of a gig.

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