Ozzy Osbourne: To Hell and Back
Ozzy’s impoverished existence may have been difficult, but the truth is that it was pretty much all he could expect, as he and his family lived a typical Birmingham life. His school days, however, were truly nightmarish. He was often tormented by bullies and, suffering from dyslexia, he consistently scored low grades. One of his regular abusers, an older schoolmate, was a guitarist named Anthony—a.k.a. Tony—Iommi, who would, years later, team up with Ozzy to form Black Sabbath. “I used to hate the sight of him,” recalls Iommi. “I couldn’t stand him, and I used to beat him up whenever I saw him. We just didn’t get on at school. He was a little punk.”
Ozzy left school at 15 and bounced from job to job, working for a time at a car-horn factory and in a slaughterhouse. By age 17, however, he was no longer earning an honest day’s pay, having turned to a life of petty crime. Spending a few months in jail—he was caught stealing a television—was enough to make him rethink his career as a larcenist. He emerged from Winson Green prison with the letters “O-Z-Z-Y” tattooed on his knuckles, and a new determination to pursue a career in music.
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In 1966, when Ozzy was 18, the Beatles were at the peak of their fame, and no rock and roll band had a more profound influence on him. Swept away by Beatlemania, Ozzy Osbourne knew what he wanted to do with his life. “The whole hysteria around the Beatles just sucked me in. I felt like it was my way out,” says Ozzy. “I wanted to be a Beatle. I used to fantasize about stuff like one of the Beatles marrying my sister.”
Armed with nothing more than his rather nasal singing voice and a small, 50-watt Vox P.A. system purchased on credit by his father, Ozzy set out to form a band by placing an ad in a local music shop window. “In those days,” he recalls, “if you had a P.A. system you were accepted as a singer whether you could sing or not, because nobody could afford the equipment.”
First to respond to the ad was a local guitar player named Terence “Geezer” Butler. He and Ozzy formed a band called Rare Breed that broke up after two gigs. Soon afterward, two other local Birmingham musicians—Tony Iommi, Osbourne’s old schoolyard antagonist, and drummer Bill Ward—saw Ozzy’s advertisement and headed over to his house at 14 Lodge Road.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually,” says Iommi. “Bill and I were looking for a singer, and we spotted this advert that said, ‘Singer looking for a gig. Call Ozzy at…’ I said to Bill, ‘I know an Ozzy. It can’t possibly be that one.’ So we went to the address listed in the ad, and knocked on the door. Sure enough, Ozzy appeared.
“I said to Bill, ‘Forget it, forget it.’ But Bill wanted to chat with him. We talked, but when we left I said, ‘No way, Bill, I know him.’ Three weeks later, we ended up together anyway. Life moves in mysterious ways.”
With Tony handling all guitar duties, Geezer switched to bass by removing two strings from his guitar. Ozzy named the group the Polka Tulk Blues Band, and the foursome began learning blues covers and writing original material. The band quickly changed its name to Earth and hit the local blues clubs in search of gigs. Earth was a competent band, but no better than the countless other English groups then trying to imitate traditional black American blues. It became clear to Osbourne, Iommi and the rest that local music fans were beginning to have enough of being force-fed mediocre blues and wanted something different.
Earth’s response was to turn up the volume to frightening decibel levels and start playing heavier, more distorted riff-based material. The result: when Earth took the stage at a local pub, audiences had no choice but to take notice.
“It used to drive us mad to think that we were up there working so hard, playing our guts out while all these guys were sitting around and chattering,” says drummer Bill Ward. “So we turned up the volume louder and louder until it was impossible for anyone to have a conversation.”
As their sound developed into a more bruising dirge, the band took on a new, more frightful persona that would further distance themselves from the local blues competition. Lyricist Geezer Butler suddenly turned his attention toward darker subjects, like nuclear war and the supernatural, while Iommi and his trusty Gibson SG produced one chilling detuned mudslide after another. It quickly became obvious to the band that a name change was in order.
As they headed into rehearsal one day, they noticed that the movie house across the street was showing the 1935 Boris Karloff horror classic Black Sabbath. “I asked myself,” remembers Ozzy, “Why is there a line of people with money in their hands, paying to get the shit scared out of them? It’s because people get a thrill out of being around evil.”
While it was true that the band had struggled up to this point, in part due to its lack of direction, it was equally clear that changing its name to Black Sabbath amounted to a very shrewd decision. Though most of England’s record companies evinced no interest in releasing Sabbath’s first album— recorded toward the end of 1969, in eight hours, for a mere 1,500 American dollars—the Vertigo label had the foresight to release it (in February 1970) and was soon reaping the benefits as rock fans throughout the world embraced Sabbath as the perfect antidote to Sixties flower power. “The whole hippie thing was still happening around that time,” says Ozzy, “and for us, that was bullshit. We lived in a dreary, polluted, dismal town in Birmingham, and we were angry about it. And that was reflected in our music.”
No doubt due to the music’s demonic nature and unforgiving heaviness, radio wanted no part of Sabbath, and the critics lambasted them at every turn. Yet their debut album sold well, eventually reaching Number 8 on the U.K. chart and Number 23 in America. For the first time in his life, Ozzy was a success, and money started coming in, if at first slowly. With his first royalty check, he gave his mother 50 pounds, then took the rest and bought a pair of shoes and a bottle of cheap cologne, “because I hated the way I smelled.”
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As Sabbath grew in popularity, the band’s—particularly Ozzy’s—drinking and drug habits worsened. “We had money to burn and booze coming out of our ears,” says Ozzy.
Later Sabbath albums like Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (’71), Vol. 4 (’72) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (’73) broke the band wide open, earning it international superstar status. But there was a steep price to pay for all the fame: the band members adopted wild lifestyles and rampant substance abuse that began to undermine their creative output. Ozzy remembers the atmosphere surrounding the recording of Vol. 4, an album which, save for a few gems like “Snowblind” and “Supernaut,” is widely regarded as a convoluted mess. “When we did that album it was like one big Roman orgy. We’d be in the Jacuzzi all day doing coke, and every now and again we’d get up to do a song.”
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