Exploding from the industrial murk of late-'60s Birmingham, England, Black Sabbath almost single-handedly created the genre known as heavy metal. The band became infamous for its ultraheavy riffs, as well as for themes more akin to Rosemary's Baby than to the reigning flower power of the day. But a decade later, substance abuse, band infighting and management problems had taken their toll.
The original lineup--singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward--finally split in 1978. Time--and the promise of considerable money--heals all wounds, though. The band members regrouped in 1997, and recently released a live album--appropriately titled Reunion.
New Year's Eve will also see the kickoff of a massive Black Sabbath world tour at Bank One Ballpark, with an endless parade of redoubtable opening acts like Pantera, Slayer, Megadeth and Soulfly.
"Everyone's going to be pissed out of their heads," laughs Iommi. "We'll be the only ones who are bloody sober, drinking extra-strong tea."
Sobriety and moderation are not things often associated with Black Sabbath. This was the band, after all, that penned seemingly pro-drug songs such as "Sweet Leaf" and "Snowblind." Iommi claims he can't remember many anecdotes from those heady times.
"During the recording of [1972's] Volume 4, for instance, it was all booze, coke and smoke," he recalls. "But we didn't take notes or anything, because it was just the way we lived every day."
"It was everything goes in the '70s," agrees Butler, chuckling. "There was no AIDS, or anything like that. Whatever I could get, I'd do back then. We sometimes ask ourselves how we survived.
"But the turning point for me," Butler continues, "was getting married and having kids. You have to either knock it on the head, or kill yourself with it. We saw so many of our friends getting burned out--they were just the shells of the people we once knew. With us, it started affecting the music, and how we felt about each other. That's why the original band split."
After Osbourne was sacked by the band at the end of the '70s, he went on to a surprisingly successful solo career, despite some very public struggles with addiction and the death of virtuoso guitarist Randy Rhoads. Sabbath also pushed on, finding renewed success with Yber-cheese front man Ronnie James Dio. But a clash of egos led to Dio's resignation in '82, leaving the band in a Spinal Tap scenario of revolving-door vocalists. Disillusioned, Butler and Ward left to concentrate on sobering up. Iommi remained to carry the Sabbath name alone.
It seemed unlikely that the original band would ever be heard from again. Bitter press jabs among the former band members made a reunion seem unlikely. But finally, after years of rumors, Osbourne, Iommi and Butler hit the road in the summer of '97, as part of the OzzFest Tour. Something still wasn't quite right, however.
"It was just the three original members, and Mike Borden [from Faith No More] on drums," says Butler. "Even though it was good, and musically it went down well, it just felt like something was missing. We didn't actually realize how important Bill really had been to the overall feel of Sabbath. No other drummer has got that, and it's never really complete without him--or any of us, really."
"With all of us coming from the same town, we all relate so much to each other," adds Iommi. "It's always been a thing with this band. When somebody's new, there's a weird feeling. With this lineup, it's like old friends getting together."
Butler claims the band now has more clarity than it ever had. "We'd lost a lot of confidence by the end of the '70s," he says. "We were slagged to death in the press, and the record company lost interest in us--even though we were selling out every gig, 20,000 people a night. Now we've got all the confidence in the world, and it shows in the music, and in each other."
Reunion was recorded over two nights in Sabbath's hometown of Birmingham, and documents the band's first real show in nearly 20 years. "It was nice to do our hometown, where it all started," says Iommi. "We've done a complete circle, right back to the beginning."
The two-disc set retains the bludgeoning heaviness that exorcised the demons of millions of '70s suburban males, and sounds surprisingly tight for a band that's accumulated two decades of rust. Though two new tracks are tacked on the end, Iommi is hesitant to divulge any plans for a full-fledged studio album.
"We take everything in stages now," he says. "Otherwise, you get held down to it too much, and we don't want to be under any pressure. We're long in the tooth, so we can take our time. We're all doing solo things as well, which makes it great when you come back to the Sabbath stuff."
Sabbath's legendary reputation is in stark contrast to the absolute lack of respect with which the band was treated by most critics in the '70s. The Sabbath myth grew only because musicians, such as Osbourne's '80s touring mates Metallica, professed a love for the band's dark early material. Even a group as cynical of dinosaur-rock cliches as Nirvana admitted to a fondness for Sabbath. More recently, the ultrapoppy Cardigans have cited the British heavy-rock titans as a major influence.
"The Cardigans do the best Sabbath covers," says Iommi, referring to the Swedish group's versions of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "Iron Man." "It's good because they treat the songs totally different to how you'd imagine."
According to Butler, the indifference of the press actually contributed to the longevity of Sabbath's music. "We've never been played to death on radio, or on MTV every five minutes. So, we've always kept this kind of underground following and feeling among people. Since a lot of bands pick up on us, I guess we've sort of kept the street-cred thing, if that's still a term."
But with all this obvious reverence, why has it taken so long for a reunion? "We just got fed up with always saying no," Butler says matter-of-factly. "Obviously, there's a demand there, otherwise we wouldn't even be dreaming of doing this. We wouldn't flog a dead horse. But the demand has become overwhelming now."
"Neither of us thought it was going to happen," adds Iommi. "It would come up, but it always went away again. So it's great to be actually out there doing what we do best."
Musically, Sabbath were never ones to follow the beaten path. They were the first to tune their instruments down to bowel-shuddering pitches, and also pioneered the use of obscene amplification levels. "We've always experimented and gone against the grain," says Iommi. "People have said, 'This is how you have to tune,' or 'This is the proper way to play a chord,' but our sound developed out of not following trends. Even the writing wasn't trendy--it wasn't verse/chorus/verse. We always had different timings coming in. I remember when Dio first came into the lineup, and that's when we noticed just how different we were. He'd say, 'You can't do that--where's the chorus?' We'd look around and ask, 'What's a chorus?'"
Religious picketers still occasionally show up at Black Sabbath concerts. Butler insists, however, that the band members were never the Satan worshipers people loved to tag them as being.
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"The whole Satanic thing was misinterpreted," he says. "To us it was a bit of a joke, right from the beginning. But a lot of people heard the name of the band, plus lyrics like 'Satan's coming 'round the bend,' and figured we were all personally into Satan. If they'd really listened, they'd have found we were against all that stuff."
Still, easy listening this was not. Exactly what was the message to be found in a song like "Children of the Grave"?
"We were trying to say that the real Satan was here on Earth, alive and well, in the shape of most politicians," Butler explains. "When we started, it seemed England was about to be dragged into the Vietnam War. Of course, we were all front-runners for conscription--working class, out of a job, into the army and dead next week. We were just saying Satan was something right here. Not in some place you go after you die."
Black Sabbath is scheduled to perform on Thursday, December 31, at Bank One Ballpark, with Pantera, Megadeth, Slayer, and Soulfly. Call 462-6000 for showtime.