The Holy Sabbath
Ozzy and Tony talk drugs, the devil and how they invented heavy metal
By Matt Diehl
From Rolling Stone (April 21, 2004)
It is March 31st, and two days later Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne will announce that
daughter Kelly, following the family tradition, is being sent to rehab. But
today, Ozzy is in Los Angeles, happily reunited with guitarist Tony Iommi to
discuss what made Ozzy famous long before MTV: the glory days of Black Sabbath,
the band from Birmingham, England, that put the heavy into heavy metal.
The occasion for this interview is the imminent release of Black Box, a box set
containing the eight classic albums from Sabbath's debut in 1970 to Osbourne's
exit in 1978. (After the interview, Osbourne will suggest that a Sabbath reunion
is also in the cards.) "It's the major part of Sabbath -- all the Ozzy years,"
Iommi says. "It means a great deal." "So many bands come up and say, 'Sabbath is
my biggest influence,' " Osbourne adds. "Being inside, you don't realize what
you're achieving. We were just four local guys who went to school with each
other who just formed a band. We didn't set out to influence the world." Here,
Osbourne and Iommi talk about the heavy-metal thunder that changed music
Black Sabbath 1970
Osbourne: We started off playing jazz and blues. Cream, Fleetwood Mac,
John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Beatles and Jethro Tull were our influences. At
one point, we had a bottleneck-guitar player and a saxophone player.
Iommi: That lasted about five fucking minutes.
Osbourne: We used to rehearse across from this movie theater [in
Birmingham] that would play hokey horror films. One day, Tony comes in and says,
"People pay money to get scared -- why don't we start writing scary music?" Then
we wrote a song called "Black Sabbath." We told our friend Alvin Lee from Ten
Years After that we'd changed our name to Black Sabbath, and he says, "You won't
go very far called that."
Iommi: Being mean and frightening just came naturally. When Ozzy sang, we
made that sort of sound.
Osbourne: We recorded the first album on our way to catch a ferry. The
manager goes, "Just stop off for the day and record them fuckin' songs you've
been playing." It was fucking primitive: Two four-track machines in a studio
smaller than this room! Twelve hours later, we were finished. It was like, "Wow,
I thought recording records would be a lot harder."
Iommi: Within the band we had our own little communication, and people
would read into it.
Osbourne: Everybody thinks "N.I.B." stands for Nativity in Black, but
it's actually named after [drummer Bill Ward's] pointy beard. I was stoned, and
I said to Bill, "You look like a fucking pen nib!" However, just recently I
worked with an arranger who told me about the "devil's interval" -- it's a
musical term for a tonality that at one point in history, like, in
seventeenth-century-fucking-something, was banned for being evil. It turns out a
lot of Sabbath's music is in the devil's interval! We had no idea!
Osbourne: We originally called the album War Pigs, after some black-magic
party we read about in an Aleister Crowley book. That's why the guy on the cover
is wearing a pink suit with a shield and sword: He's dressed like a pig.
Iommi: They wouldn't let us use War Pigs as a title. It was basically
Osbourne: I didn't know about Vietnam. I was a dim bulb when it came to
world events. I was always loaded.
Iommi: We used to play this place in Sweden where hookers would hang out,
owned by a mad doctor who'd always scream, "No drum solo!" at us. We came up
with "War Pigs" just jamming there. We'd start playing something, somebody would
say, "Oh, I like that," and then we'd make it a song.
Osbourne: We'd finished recording already when we wrote "Paranoid." That
song came about when our producer told us to jam for four minutes. I came up
with the vocal line, Tony came up with the riff, and Geezer [Butler, Sabbath
bassist] came up with the lyric. It was done within an hour. If I couldn't
create a great vocal melody, I would just sing along in unison to the riff, like
on "Iron Man." It was the easiest solution -- I wanted to get the fucking thing
Iommi: We first came to the U.S. to promote Paranoid.
Osbourne: It's every British band's dream to play the States. When we got
there finally, we fucked as many groupies as we could. In San Francisco, they
even had a Black Sabbath parade! Coming from Birmingham, England, where the
fuckin' sun never shines, it was magic to us.
Iommi: Our first tour was with Rod Stewart, and we went down better than
him. When he went on, he'd get booed.
Osbourne: There were lots of ego problems. At the second show, the
audience was stoned asleep, so Bill threw his drum kit at the crowd. His parents
came to one of our shows, and Bill's mum had brought a fucking shopping bag. She
goes into the backstage canteen and fills it full of knives, forks and spoons,
all while security is watching her on camera. A guard comes to her and says,
"Madam, I don't think what's in the bag belongs to you."
Iommi: If we made a movie, it'd leave Spinal Tap behind.
Osbourne: "Hand of Doom" was about heroin, but we weren't into smack.
We'd only smoke dope and drink booze -- we didn't think anything of cocaine
until later. Then we had fucking problems.
Master of Reality 1971
Iommi: We said we'd never write another hit single after "Paranoid." We
started attracting the wrong sort of audience, all these screaming kids. And we
were smoking a lot of pot -- it got very out of hand, dancing naked in the
studio. . . .
Osbourne: Geezer wrote a song about it, "Sweet Leaf." That's Tony
coughing at the beginning of the song.
Iommi: I was outside recording an acoustic thing, and Ozzy brought me a
joint. I had a puff and nearly choked myself, and they were taping it!
Osbourne: Geezer wondered if it was a bit too heavy when he wrote, "Would
you like to see the pope on the end of a rope?" in "After Forever"; Geezer's
Catholic, you know. You remember that guy from New York, Son of Sam, who was
killing all the chicks? When they got into his apartment, he supposedly had the
lyrics to "After Forever" written on his wall. I thought, "Fuck me, are we going
Iommi: John Bonham, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones came down to the
studio and jammed with us when we were finishing the album. We were friends with
John Bonham -- he was "local" -- but Bill would never let Bonham play his drums.
He was afraid he'd break them. That time we let him, and he did! There's
probably a tape of it somewhere.
Osbourne: We had left our manager at that point, and Led Zeppelin wanted
to manage us. We didn't want that. We thought it would be . . . degrading to be
managed by another band.
Black Sabbath Vol. 4 1972
Osbourne: We were originally going to call this album Snowblind because
we'd discovered that magic white powder, but the record company said, "No way."
We did so much fucking coke making it.
Iommi: We came to L.A. to record, and we stayed at a house in Bel Air. At
the end of the day, it was all dope, booze, drugs, fucking chicks. Oh, dear, we
had some fun in that house.
Osbourne: One day, I'd just done a line and was feeling really hot. I
pressed this button on the wall thinking it was the air conditioner -- instead,
it alerted the police! All these cop cars show up, so I go into the toilet with
all the drugs, trying to do them all before they came in!
One night me and Bill were fucking drunk and taking a piss together. I see this
aerosol can and squirt his dick with it. He starts screaming and falls down. I
look at the can and it says, WARNING: DO NOT SPRAY ON SKIN - HIGHLY TOXIC. I
poisoned Bill through his dick!
Iommi: We sprayed Bill gold once. He was pissed drunk, so we painted and
lacquered him. We never realized we could've killed him.
Osbourne: The coke was good when it was working. We used to sniff and jam
for days, recording everything on big spools of tape. But it was the beginning
of the end. Cocaine was the cancer of the band.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath 1973
Osbourne: It was "tour, write, record," over and over. Black Sabbath had
become a . . .job.
Iommi: So we rented a castle in Wales, which, yes, was supposedly
haunted. Bill saw this ghost jump out the window in his room, so he started
taking this big dagger to bed with him. He said if he saw the ghost, he was
going to stab it. As if you can stab a ghost!
Osbourne: I was the ghost!
Iommi: We set up our gear in the dungeons, and it was a great vibe for
coming up with ideas. When we wrote Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, all these riffs
started coming out. We started using synthesizers, too -- musically, we went to
Osbourne: That, to me, was the pinnacle of Black Sabbath. I also
discovered, as a singer, the best person to harmonize with is yourself --
there's no one that sounds more like you than you.
Iommi: We almost lost Ozzy. We had a room with a big fireplace. Ozzy had a big
fire going but had fallen asleep when a piece of coal tumbled onto the carpet.
We forced our way in, and the room was ablaze!
Osbourne: I'd set my foot on fire. We were so hellbent on frightening
each other, we frightened ourselves! We then made a collective decision to
fucking stop this coke thing -- it was destroying us. So I started sniffing it
behind the amps, where they couldn't see me.
Osbourne: We didn't stay true to our roots. On Sabotage, we tried to be
"un-Sabbath" -- anything but evil and satanic.
Iommi: We had loads of management and legal problems. We were recording
the album at night. During the day we were in court.
Osbourne: I must be a dim bulb: I didn't understand one fucking thing
they were discussing in court. We were no longer four kids from Aston,
Birmingham, having fun -- we were working to pay our lawyers. We toured Japan to
pay legal fees.
Technical Ecstasy 1976
Osbourne: I was fucked up all the time, more concerned about my next bag
of powder than performing. It was very sad. We wrote "Rock and Roll Doctor"
about a real person, Dr. Max, who's dead now.
Iommi: Dr. Max was Elvis Presley's old dentist who'd give us Demerol. He
went from Elvis to Black Sabbath -- good change, innit?
Osbourne: We'd go see Dr. Max at seven in the evening. He'd put us in the
chair, shoot us up, put on the Rolling Stones and then fuck off.
Iommi: He'd come back at 5 a.m., wake you up and say, "I'm ready to do
Never Say Die! 1978
Iommi: Never Say Die! was written under difficult circumstances.
Everything had to be done too quickly: Ozzy returned, but we only had a few days
left to record. We'd gone to Toronto to escape British taxes. We had no new
songs, so we hired a freezing-cold cinema where we'd write a song during the
day, then record it at night.
Osbourne: The legal stuff was over. But the early days when we had
nothing to lose were still the most fun. We weren't interested in being on TV,
we didn't hang out with celebrities. I've played with some great players since,
but there's not a fucking band in the world that plays like Sabbath. When we did
a reunion tour, I thought, "What the fuck have I been doing?" Nobody plays it
like the original.
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