Ozzy Osbourne: “It’s Like A Heavyweight Fight Every Night For Me, I Want To Go Out And Knock The Crowd Out”
Say what you like about John Michael ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne, but the man isn’t easily impressed. One might imagine that a party featuring a Britney Spears impersonator, a midget Donald Trump lookalike and guests including Marilyn Manson, members of Metallica and Faith No More, Billy Idol and hip-hop queen Eve would rank pretty highly as a memorable night out. But for Ozzy, his 70th birthday bash, held in Los Angeles on December 6 last year, was merely an “alright night”.
“Can you believe I made it to 70?” he asks. “Miracles will never cease. I remember when I was 20, I thought, ‘I’ll be dead by 40!’ But against all odds I’ve survived.”
Revisiting the party in his mind, Ozzy suddenly pauses and recalls one long-time friend, a fellow expat British rock star, who sadly couldn’t join the celebrations.
“I remember talking to Lemmy after his 70th birthday and he said, ‘Fucking hell, at least I made 70!’” he recalls soberly. “And then he died within days. You never know what lies ahead, do you?”
These words, spoken in mid-January, would sadly prove somewhat prophetic when, on January 30, Ozzy was forced to postpone his entire European tour (including six UK arena dates) which had been scheduled to kick off that evening in Dublin, Ireland. In rude health when he spoke to Kerrang!, the singer later contracted a severe upper-respiratory infection, which doctors warned could develop into pneumonia when the rigours of nightly live performances were coupled with travelling through Europe in harsh winter conditions.
As massively disappointing as the news was for ticket holders, no-one would have been more gutted than Ozzy himself, as the singer was eagerly anticipating his return to the road, having seen in 2019 onstage at the LA Forum, where he dusted off the Ozzfest franchise for a one-off New Year’s Eve spectacular featuring Rob Zombie, Korn’s Jonathan Davis, Marilyn Manson, Body Count, DevilDriver and more. Originally set to climax at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on July 29, all of Ozzy’s No More Tours II dates have now been rescheduled for 2020.
Back in mid-January, health concerns were far from Ozzy’s mind. Speaking from his Hollywood home, the singer was sharp, focused and in good humour, and a pleasure to speak with. Asked then what he was looking forward to most in the year ahead, his answer was refreshingly straightforward, if rendered somewhat ironic by later unforeseen events.
“I just want to have as much fucking fun as possible,” he stated.
Did you start off the year with any resolutions?
“I don’t bother with those. I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke tobacco anymore, I don’t do drugs anymore… what’s left for me to give up?”
Does the prospect of playing in England still feel special to you?
“Abso-fucking-lutely, man. I must confess I’m getting a little sick and tired of being out here [in LA] now, after a while you see through the bullshit. LA isn’t like anywhere else in America, it’s the entertainment capital… not that I really go anywhere much. But I’m lucky to have the opportunity to go backwards and forwards between America and England. Some people never get that chance. I can’t wait to be back.”
When you look back at your childhood in Birmingham, do you remember it as a happy time in your life?
“No. No, I wasn’t a very happy child at all. I had three older sisters and two younger brothers and it was tough for us. I always dreamt of better things. We never went on holidays, we never had a car… we had a bathroom, which was pretty fortunate compared to other families on our street, and I often wonder how my dad afforded that. He was a hard-working guy, and so was my mum. My father used to say, ‘You’ve got to get a job with a trade and a pension, and bring your pay cheque home.’ My kids don’t know what it was like. I’ll say to them, ‘When I was young, if you wanted something, like a bike, you had to get a paper round, or whatever, and save up. You didn’t go to your dad and say, ‘I’d like a new bike’ and have him say, ‘Oh, just charge it to my account.’ It was a different world.”
What did your mum and dad make of your dreams to be a singer?
“They were very supportive, actually. Someone once asked me, ‘What’s the best gift you’ve ever got?’ and I realised that if my father hadn’t taken out a £250 or £300 loan to buy me a Vox 50W PA and a Shure mic, I probably wouldn’t even be talking to you now. My dad used to see me singing along to The Beatles’ records, and he knew I had this dream. But, even so, I never dreamed that at the age of 23 I’d be flying around in aeroplanes and playing in front of 20,000 people a night. If you’d told me in 1969 that I’d be living that life I’d have thought you were joking. The first time I came to America it felt like it was another world.”
In 1970, Paranoid became a Top 10 single for Black Sabbath. Did you enjoy being a pop star for a moment?
“Oh yeah! I mean, none of us set out to be pop stars or rock stars, but it was all an experience. Obviously we hoped we’d be successful, but we didn’t really want to be a regular Top Of The Pops band, we didn’t want to sell out to that point. That was never going to be our world. When Paranoid was in the charts alongside all these awful pop songs, you’d think, ‘How the fuck has this happened?’ We could have chosen to write pop songs, but we wanted to write music with a bit of grit and a bit of substance, rather than (sings) ‘I love you, you love me…’. All we ever wanted was to write music that we liked.”
At that point, did you imagine that making music and being a professional singer would become your job for life?
“I had no idea at all. I mean, before that, I’d no idea that Tony [Iommi] and Bill [Ward] would knock on my door when I placed that ‘Ozzy Zig Needs Gig’ ad in a shop, and I’d no idea that the three of us would end up making music with Geezer [Butler]. I don’t believe in many things, but I do believe in fate, and it was obviously meant to be. But there was certainly no plan involved. We just used to have fun in those days, have a laugh. We were on fucking fire for about five years, before all the business and lawyers and rip-offs dragged us down. I didn’t join a band to become an accountant or a lawyer.”
When you left Black Sabbath, were you scared that it might be the end of your career?
“Of course I was. There was no challenge anymore with Sabbath at the time, we’d all outgrown each other. But it’s like being married to a woman and falling out of love, and thinking, ‘I no longer want to be with her… but what if I meet someone who’s worse than her?’ It’s a very big decision to just go, ‘Fuck this!’ I actually left, and then went back, and then they fired me, so I thought, ‘Okay, well, I’ve no fucking choice now.’ I remember being in Le Parc Hotel [in Los Angeles], thinking, ‘Well, this is it, I’m fucking done now.’ I went back to England and bought a wine bar with my now ex-wife, but ended up drinking more than I was selling. And then I met up with Sharon [Osbourne – Ozzy’s wife and manager], and the rest is history. Looking back, it was good for them and it was good for me. They needed a new singer and I needed a new band.”
As your manager, Sharon obviously had great faith that you could become a solo star. But did you believe in yourself as much as she believed in you?
“Probably not. But then Randy Rhoads came along and it was a match made in fucking heaven. Randy was phenomenal, a great guy and a wonderful musician and he really helped me as a singer. He’d hear me humming a melody around the house and go, ‘Is that yours?’ and we’d work together to build a song out of it. With Sabbath, it worked the other way. Tony would come up with an amazing riff and I had to put a vocal on top of it, which wasn’t always comfortable for me, because I had to bend to what the band wanted.”
With your own band, did you enjoy being the leader for the first time?
“Yeah, I did. When you’re the singer in Black Sabbath it’s great at first, but when it comes to making decisions, you’re just a part of the band, and too often when it came to deciding things, my word didn’t mean jack shit. But when you’re doing your own thing, you get to choose your band guys, and you get to tell people to fuck off when they’re not working out. I understand now that if you get people in your band just for business reasons, it never works in the end.”
You’ve played with some incredible guitar players in your career, from Randy to Jake E Lee through to Zakk Wylde. What makes a great guitar player in your eyes?
“Someone who can fucking play, for a start! Back in the day, auditions used to drive me fucking mental. The first 50 people who’d show up would only be there because they wanted to meet you, and then maybe if you were lucky you might find someone decent among the next 50. I used to get the guys in my band to make a shortlist, otherwise I’d have to sit through 900 guitar players, and usually all kinds of weirdos. I remember one guy saying to me, ‘I do a great solo standing on my head.’ So I said, ‘I don’t need a fucking acrobat!’”
Speaking of guitar players, have you been in contact with Tony Iommi recently?
“We text each other from time to time. Tony and I might not always see eye to eye on some things, but I can’t take it away from the guy, he’s fucking good on that guitar. What he’s achieved since losing his fingertips [Tony lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident, while working in a factory at the age of 17] is pretty awesome, when you think about it. A lot of guitar players owe him a huge debt of thanks.”
You were quoted last year as saying that you didn’t really enjoy the final Black Sabbath tour. Assuming that was an accurate quote, what didn’t you like about it?
“I didn’t like the fact that [original Sabbath drummer] Bill Ward wasn’t there, for a start. People put that down to me, but it wasn’t me, honestly. We [Sabbath] didn’t have the fucking time to hang around, we had to get going, but I’m sorry it didn’t work out with Bill. Tommy [Clufetos, Ozzy’s drummer, who played with Sabbath on their farewell tour] did great, but the four of us started this, and it should have been the four of us ending it. Those final gigs in Birmingham were bittersweet because you think of how far we came, and how much we did, and it would have been good to have shared that together. Maybe one day there’ll be one last gig, I don’t know.”
Did you find it difficult going back to Sabbath after doing your own thing for so many years?
“Yeah, it was a bit difficult at times, but we’re all older men now, and we got on with it. It’s not ‘Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath’, it’s Black Sabbath, and I’m just one quarter of that. Sometimes it feels like people want me to be less ‘Ozzy’ at times, but I can only be myself.”
Is a new Ozzy Osbourne album a possibility in 2020?
“I’d like to make one, but the truth is that people don’t buy records anymore. I’d like to make one just for the hell of it, and I imagine Zakk would be into the idea too, because he’s a force of nature and a great guitar player, so we’ll see.”
We were lucky enough to see a couple of your shows in North and South America last year, in Mexico and Chile, and we were struck by how obvious it is that you still care deeply about delivering the best possible show every single time you step onstage…
“Well, yeah, of course I still care. I actually still get really nervous about playing, even after 50 years doing this, because if I didn’t, it would mean that I don’t give a shit. It’s like a heavyweight fight every night for me, I want to go out and knock the crowd out, to conquer every time I step onstage. In Mexico I had a chest infection and I sang like a fucking asshole, and I was gutted. I hate doing bad shows, I strive for perfection every night, but that kind of thing happens to me everyone once in a while.”
Despite the pressure you put yourself under, touring is clearly still fun for you…
“It’s still fun, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. None of us are in bars all night anymore, and none of us have women on the side. We’re all family men, and this is what we do. We have breakfast together, we get on a plane, get onstage and try to do the best show we can, every night.”
Ozzy Osbourne returns to the UK in January and February 2020. Get your tickets now.
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