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
From '01: The original members of Black Sabbath look back on 30 years of demonic riffing.
" 'N.I.B.' is taking the piss out of the devil," explains Butler, who wrote the song's lyrics. "I can't just compose a straight love song, so it's like, 'Fine! I'll make the devil fall in love!' If you take the Satan out of it, it's just about this guy who falls in love. And he comes up with all the cliches, like he can give you the moon and the stars -- but he actually can! But a lot of people missed the point."
Butler, who grew up "a severe Catholic" and once seriously considered joining the priesthood, has spent the better part of his career trying to clear up the satanic misconceptions about Black Sabbath, but to little avail. "It's the same with the people that go on about Marilyn Manson," he says. "They never want to actually listen to the lyrics -- well, our lyrics, at least. They'd rather take it the wrong way, just because of the name of the band. I've done interviews with Christian papers where, if I'm talking about how much I respect Jesus, they'll say, 'But you can't possibly respect Jesus! You wouldn't be in a rock band if you did!'"
Emboldened by Black Sabbath's unexpected success, Vertigo rushed the band into the studio to record a follow-up. ''A lot of the Paranoid album was written around the time of Black Sabbath," Butler remembers. "Basically, we refined -- well, we didn't even really refine it! We just did the same thing as the first album in two days, live in the studio." Originally titled War Pigs, the album took its final, record company-mandated name from a last-minute inclusion. "We wrote 'Paranoid' as an afterthought, really, because we needed a three-minute filler for the album," Butler says. "Rodger Bain said, 'Just a minute! We need one more song!' Tony came up with the riff; I quickly did the lyrics and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing, and that's how it got done."
A two-minute, fifty-second blast of pure white boy angst, "Paranoid" was so good that even radio couldn't ignore it; the song hit No.4 on the U.K. singles charts and became an FM radio staple in the States. Tighter, slicker and even more apocalyptic than its predecessor, Paranoid is still Black Sabbath's best-selling album of all time, thanks to such immortal anthems as "War Pigs," "Iron Man" and "Electric Funeral." Adhering to the same live-in-the-studio formula was 1971's excellent Master of Reality, the band's third album in 19 months. By this point, Sabbath's schedule was so hectic that none of the band members can recall much about recording tracks like "Sweet Leaf," "Children of the Grave" and "Into the Void."
"I do remember writing 'Sweet Leaf' in the studio," Butler offers. "I'd just come back from Dublin, and they'd had these cigarettes called Sweet Afton, which you could get only in Ireland. We were going, 'What could we write about?' I took out this cigarette packet, and as you open it, it's got on the lid, 'The Sweetest Leaf You Can Buy!' And I was like, 'Ah, Sweet Leaf!'"
After three million-selling Black Sabbath albums, the band was finally awarded sufficient record company funds to allow a more multi-tracked approach to recording. Released in 1972, Vol. 4 was waxed at L.A.'s Record Plant, produced by the band with manager Patrick Meehan (who had replaced Jim Simpson after Black Sabbath took off). The copious amounts of cocaine that assisted them made its presence felt in such stunning new songs as "Snowblind," "Supernaut" and the desolate comedown ballad "Changes."
"Yeah, the cocaine had set in," laughs Butler. "We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio. But it was a good time. We rented a house in Bel-Air and the debauchery up there was just unbelievable. Somehow, out of that came Vol. 4!"
"Yes, Vol. 4 is a great album," Ward adds. "But listening back to it now, I can see a turning point for me, where the alcohol and drugs had stopped being fun."
Ward's bandmates would eventually reach the same substance saturation point, though it would take the others a while longer to do so. "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was our last coke-inspired album," says Butler. "We were still doing coke after that, but it was horrible; it had turned 'round on us by then, and was starting to kill us."
Considered by many to be Sabbath's finest hour, 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (which included such gems as "Spiral Architect," "Killing Yourself to Live" and the jaw-dropping title track) had a difficult birth.
Returning to the scene of Vol. 4, the band found L.A. to be suddenly less conducive to creativity than they'd remembered. "We came back, we rented the same house, same studio," says Iommi. "But we weren't writing anything, because we were partying too much. We finally said, 'This isn't working,' and went back to England very disappointed. It was a bit frightening, actually; I didn't know how to handle a writer's block, because I'd never had one up to that point."
"We almost thought that we were finished as a band," Butler admits. "We rented this castle in Wales to rehearse in. There were loads of weird things going on in that place -- a lot of ghosts -- but it was a good atmosphere for us. Once Tony come out with the initial riff for 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,' we went, 'We're baaaack!'" He laughs. "It got us rolling again, and we stayed in England and made the album."
But if the making of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath felt like pulling teeth, it was a veritable cakewalk compared to the sessions for 1975's Sabotage. The album nearly sank in a sea of lawsuits, and the litigious atmosphere was reflected in angry tracks like "The Writ," "Megalomania" and "Hole in the Sky." "We were in the studio for nearly 12 months," Butler remembers. "Around the time of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, we'd found out that we were being ripped off by our management and our record company. So, much of the time, when we weren't onstage or in the studio, we were in lawyers' offices trying to get out of all our contracts. We were literally in the studio, trying to record, and we'd be signing all these affidavits and everything. That's why we called it Sabotage -- because we felt that the whole process was just being totally sabotaged by all these people ripping us off."
Exhausted by various legal battles, not to mention years of touring and a steady intake of chemicals, Black Sabbath repaired to Miami for the making of Technical Ecstacy. The sessions proved extremely relaxing for everyone except Iommi, who was left to oversee the production while the others sunned themselves on the beach. Perhaps the least-loved effort of the original Sabbath lineup, the album saw the band trying to stretch its sound in several different directions, none of them exceptionally successful. "Rock 'N' Roll Doctor" sounded like a bad Kiss imitation, while Ward even took the lead vocals for "It's All Right," a sub-par Paul McCartney-style pop ballad.
"That was the 'beginning of the end' album, that one,'' laughs Butler. "We were managing ourselves because we couldn't trust anybody. Everybody was trying to rip us off, including the lawyers that we'd hired to get us out of our legal mess. It was really just getting to us around then, and we didn't know what we were doing. And obviously, the music was suffering; you could just feel the whole thing falling apart."
In fact, things would disintegrate completely before the four musicians reconvened to cut Never Say Die, their final studio album together. Osbourne left the band to deal with his father's death, and Butler also left for a short time. A Black Sabbath consisting of Iommi, Butler, Ward and former Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker actually performed live on BBC-TV in January 1978, before Osbourne decided to give the band another go.
"Never Say Die, now, that was a pain,'' remembers Iommi. "We were going through a funny period. Ozzy left, we'd got another singer, wrote some songs with that other singer, and then Ozzy came back just a few days before we were leaving to go into the studio to record the album. But he wouldn't sing any of the songs that we had written, so we had to write a complete other album, really. I booked a studio in Toronto, and we had to find some place to rehearse. So we had this cinema that we'd go into at 10 o'clock in the morning, and it was freezing cold; it was in the heart of the winter there, really awful. We'd be there, trying to write a track that day to record that night."
The band still got up to its usual mischief during the sessions -- at one point, Iommi accidentally set Ward on fire, sending him to the hospital with third-degree burns on his arms and legs -- but it was obvious to most of the participants that the thrill was finally gone.
"Never Say Die was a patch-up kind of an album,'' Butler admits. "We came back together not really willingly, but because we couldn't think of anything else to do!" he says, laughing. "People didn't realize that it was sort of tongue-in-cheek, the Never Say Die thing. Because we knew that was it; we just knew that it was never going to happen again. We did this 10th anniversary tour with Van Halen in 1978, and everybody's going, 'Here's to another 10 years!' And I'm going, [rolls eyes] 'Yeah, sure!'"
In fact, the band did attempt to make one more record in L.A., but Osbourne simply wasn't up to the task. "I was stoned all the time, and so I didn't really appreciate what was going on around me," he recounted in 1998. "I was into sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the rock and roll was paying for my sex and drugs. I should be dead. We all should be fucking dead. We were fucking abusing motherfuckers, man!"
"We were working on what turned out to be the Heaven and Hell album [Sabbath's first of two studio albums with Ronnie James Dio], and it just really wasn't happening," remembers Iommi. "I don't think any of us were in a good state at the time, but he was probably the worst. It just wasn't working at the time with Ozzy, and we just had to make a decision."
The decision to fire Ozzy left the singer feeling, by his own admission, "very pissed off and bitter"; meanwhile, his bandmates struggled (largely unsuccessfully) to fill the artistic and emotional void he left behind. Beset by mental illness brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse, Ward left and rejoined the band several times in the early Eighties, finally bailing for good in 1984 along with Butler, who would return in the mid Nineties. Iommi's decision to continue touring and recording under the Black Sabbath name caused some friction with his former bandmates, though the guitarist has always staunchly defended his actions.
And yet, despite the angry words, the lawsuits, the solo careers, the all-too-brief reunions (like Live Aid in 1985), the health problems (Ward suffered a heart attack in 1999) and all the other frustrating events of the past 20 years, the legacy of the original Sabbath lineup still endures. "I think it's timeless; it's ageless," says Ward of the music. ''And the subject matter stands as true today as it did 30 years ago."
Now, with friendships rekindled, old wounds patched and hurt feelings finally salved, rumors of a new Black Sabbath studio album have started to fly. For their part, the Sabs remain noncommittal, perhaps understandably so. "We've been writing a few things, and we're just going to see how it goes," Butler explains. "The one thing we don't want to do at this time is record an album just for the sake of getting a large advance from the record company. I mean, we've got a big reputation to follow. We don't want to kill it by putting out a bad album."
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