Tony Iommi and Eddie Van Halen had a famously close relationship – the Black Sabbath legend recently told Guitar World, following Eddie's passing, “I've got two really great friends in the music business – Brian May is one and Eddie Van Halen was the other.”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some rocky moments between the electric guitar icons, especially in the very beginning. In an interview for the Eddie Van Halen book Eruption, author Paul Brannigan talked to both Iommi and Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler about tensions on their 1978 tour in support of Never Say Die!, for which Van Halen opened some shows.
At the time, Sabbath were experiencing their fair share of inter-band turmoil – Ozzy Osbourne would exit the group soon after – and Van Halen, who had just released their groundbreaking debut, were on the rise. The result was that the young California rockers often stole the show, a fact that did not go down well with the Sabbath camp.
“I didn’t know very much about Van Halen at all,” Iommi told Brannigan. “But when I first heard them it was like, ‘Bloody hell!’ They were so energetic, such great players, and they had good songs. We were just like, ‘Wow, blimey, these are really good!’ ”
Iommi went on to say that he felt Van Halen also picked up more than a few pointers from the headliners. “They watched us almost every night from the side of the stage," he continued, “and obviously they’d pick things up from us, seeing what worked, and what got the crowd going.
"But it was just a bit awkward when we’d come onstage and it felt like we were just doing what they were doing. One night I said to Eddie, ‘Hey, Eddie, are you gonna play a couple of tracks off our new album tomorrow?’ ”
Butler concurred. “Van Halen went down incredibly well,” he told Brannigan. “The only thing that pissed me off was that at the beginning of the tour they seemed like a really raw band, but as the tour went on, they were sorta ripping us off.
“Eddie’s guitar solos were getting longer, David Lee Roth was copying everything that Ozzy would do, and the bass player [Michael Anthony] even started using a wah pedal, at a time when I was the only bass player that had ever used a wah pedal. By the time we went onstage, people were like, ‘Oh, I’ve already seen all this.’ It was like we were our own tribute act.”
The result? Iommi had to issue Eddie “fair warning” that his band was getting out of line.
“They were all really good blokes,” Butler said, “so we weren’t really that bothered about it. But Tony had to have a few words with Eddie, in a ‘behave yourself’ kind of way.”
All that said, Eddie and Tony had massive respect for one another as guitarists (Van Halen would cover the Sabs in their club days), and managed to hit off on that tour.
“Eddie had obviously listened to other guitarists growing up, but he’d come up with his own thing and he was just a fabulous guitar player,” Iommi said.
“Most nights he’d come around to my room or I’d go to his room and we’d do a bit of coke and talk all night. He became a really good friend and I really respected him as a player. I’m really glad we had them with us, because it led me to make a friend for life.”
For more with Eddie and Tony, check out Guitar World’s 2010 joint cover story with the two guitar greats.