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From the Archive: Original Members of Black Sabbath Look Back on 30-Plus Years of Demonic Riffing in 2001

From the Archive: Original Members of Black Sabbath Look Back on 30-Plus Years of Demonic Riffing in 2001

Here's an interview with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward of Black Sabbath from the July 2001 issue of Guitar World. To see the complete cover of the Black Sabbath issue, and all the GW covers from 2001, click here.

Check out the Guitar World DVD, How to Play the Best of Black Sabbath, available now at the Guitar World Online Store.

In 1969, a long-haired band arrived out of nowhere, brandishing a heavy sound and dark vibe that was completely at odds with the "get back to the garden" idealism of the Woodstock generation.

The band's jazz-influenced drummer was almost physically incapable of playing a straight 4/4 beat, and the guitarist had lost the tips of two fret-hand digits in a freak industrial accident.

The bassist had swapped his childhood desire to become a Catholic priest for his teenage dream of becoming the next Jack Bruce, while the singer was a reformed petty criminal with a banshee wail and a propensity for drunkenly removing his trousers onstage. Their debut album opened with an anguished cry of "What is this that stands before me?" Many first-time Black Sabbath listeners undoubtedly asked themselves the same question.

Thirty-odd years down the road, Black Sabbath is still one of the most unlikely success stories in the history of rock and roll. Despite overwhelmingly negative reviews, minimal radio airplay and near-constant harassment by right-wing religious groups, the original Black Sabbath lineup of drummer Bill Ward, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and singer Ozzy Osbourne went on to sell millions of records.

With their ominous riffs, fuzzed-out bass lines, earth-shuddering rhythms and desolate lyrical worldview, albums like Paranoid, Master of Reality and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath charted the course for the next three decades of heavy metal-influencing a fair number of punk and grunge bands along the way -- before the original partnership finally splintered in 1979.

The tale doesn't end there, of course. Since the early Eighties, Osbourne has parlayed his "godfather of metal" image (as well as a knack for finding talented young guitarists) into tremendous solo success. Meanwhile, Iommi has soldiered on with Black Sabbath, presiding over a revolving cast that's included such august figures as Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Vinny Appice, Cozy Powell, Glenn Hughes, Eric Singer and even former Electric Light Orchestra skinsman Bev Bevan.

Geezer has returned to the Sabbath fold on several occasions, and he, Ward and Iommi have all released compelling albums of their own. But in the 20 years since Osbourne was booted out of the band, the music of the "classic" Black Sabbath lineup has grown in stature to almost mythic proportions; tickets to the group's 1998-99 reunion tour were harder to get than a seat on the space shuttle. For contemporary artists like Rob Zombie, Henry Rollins and Monster Magnet -- as well as millions of hard rockers around the globe -- nothing beats the primal power of early Black Sabbath.

The Sabs themselves agree. "I don't want to make it sound like I'm being rude to any of the other lineups or musicians," says Ward, "but there's something with Tony and Ozzy and Geezer that's just pure magic. I couldn't work with any other lineup, to be honest with you. This, to me, is like a phenomenon."

"No other band in the world could touch us when we were on,” Osbourne boasted in an interview for the Last Supper DVD, which documented Black Sabbath's historic 1997 reunion shows in their hometown of Birmingham, England -- the same shows that formed the basis for 1998's live Reunion CD. "We could give these young punks a run for their money, any time."

They'll get their chance to prove it once again at this summer's Ozzfest, where Ozzy and his mates will headline the main stage over the more youthful likes of Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, Papa Roach, Linkin Park and Crazy Town. Also slated for this summer is the theatrical release of We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, a feature-length Ozzfest documentary by filmmaker Penelope Spheeris (Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World) that will include performances by Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, Fear Factory and several other bands. In other words, summer 2001 is quickly shaping up to be the Summer of Sabbath: never before has their influence been more pervasive, or their presence more welcome.

"It's nice that, 30-odd years on, what we were doing turned out to be right," laughs Iommi. "Especially after everyone said, 'Oh, they'll never make it!'"

To say that Black Sabbath was once grotesquely unfashionable is to say that Michael Jackson seems a bit odd: it's a severe understatement of the case. "The critics hated us from day one," Butler remembers. "We actually stopped doing press at one point," adds Iommi, "because we'd get slagged either way, and it wasn't worth it." Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau panned the band's debut album as "the worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter," while the usually insightful Frank Zappa once described Sabbath as “the epitome of heavy metal sickness." But even before the Platinum records and the sold-out world tours, Black Sabbath was a lightning rod for negative reaction. "They even used to take the piss out of our accents in England," Butler says. "They slagged us off because we weren't from London or Liverpool or Manchester."

Rather than hail from one of England's three hip music centers, the four original members of Black Sabbath had the relative misfortune to grow up in Aston, a grimy industrial suburb of Birmingham. Though Birmingham did produce a few excellent Sixties bands of note, including the Move and the Moody Blues, working-class Brummies demanded covers of Motown hits and blues classics from their club bands; original compositions were simply not welcome. "You pretty much ruled the roost if you played soul," says Iommi. "When we first started playing blues, it was very difficult to get a gig, because there weren't that many places to play."

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