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Black celebration: the holy grail of Black Sabbath

March 14 2009

“It’s been described as the heavy metal holy grail,” says Universal catalogue consultant Steve Hammonds, “and it’s been a labour of love to get it to the point where it could be released.”

It started in 2004 when archivist Rob Caiger discovered a cache of long lost tape boxes in the vaults of publisher Bucks Music in west London. “It turned out to be the original multi-tracks for the first three Black Sabbath albums,” continues Hammonds, “plus a treasure trove of unreleased and different versions.”

Finally, after years of negotiation, that holy grail will realise its potential via a major Universal Music Catalogue marketing campaign that kicks off on March 30 with a three-CD deluxe edition of Sabbath’s ground-breaking 1970 album Paranoid, in the vanguard of a release schedule that also sees the band’s classic albums finally made available in the digital domain.

And none of it would have been possible if not for a freak industrial accident.

“I did sheet metal work in a factory,” remembers Sabbath’s founding guitarist Tony Iommi, “and this cutter came down on my fingers, took the ends of my middle and ring finger off.”

Every doctor Iommi consulted confirmed he would never play guitar again. “I was in deep despair until my factory foreman brought a record to my house and asked me to listen.” The last thing Iommi wanted to hear was music but his foreman insisted. “It was guitar music, and I had to admit it was fantastic but it was almost like he was rubbing it in. Then he told me it was Django Rheinhardt, the fabulous jazz guitarist, who had two fingers badly damaged in a fire and played all his incredible solos using just the other two fingers. That’s what inspired me to carry on and develop my own way of playing.”

Amazingly, because playing was agony, Iommi manufactured his own plastic finger-guards so he could press down the strings. “Before the accident I could play in the normal way, using full chords and everything,” he recalls, “but after the accident I had to play differently. I came up with fatter chords that I could play with less fingers.”

The unintentional result was a whole new style hailed by many as the basis of heavy-metal guitar playing. “What an act of God that was,” reckons Chris Ingham, publisher of Classic Rock and noted Sabbath scholar. “He couldn’t feel the strings on his guitar, so he tuned it down and developed that slightly mechanical phrasing style which resulted in the Sabbath sound from which sprang heavy metal.”

Heavy rock was then in its infancy, so the band’s new sound was not immediately understood. “It was very difficult doing what we did, because it was all soul clubs and blues clubs,” points out Iommi. “We started playing blues, but the first time we threw in a couple of our own songs, Black Sabbath and Wicked World, people came up and said, ‘We really loved those two songs.’ We were well pleased.”

Along with Iommi’s distinctive axemanship, the band had another ace up its sleeve in time-served ex-burglar Ozzy Osbourne, a frontman who would prove to have an uncanny knack for self-promotion. Innovative bassist Geezer Butler was also a strong lyricist whose songs cleverly mirrored the band’s occult-sounding name, while thunder-fisted drummer Bill Ward not only propelled the music but was a showman in his own right. (On their first American tour, Ward energised one lethargic audience by throwing his bass drum at them.)

It was London-based record plugger Tony Hall who, in the wake of a fairly successful Fontana Records debut single, Evil Woman, secured an album deal with Philips’ prog-rock subsidiary Vertigo Records. “We just went in the studio and did it in a day,” says Iommi. “We played our live set and that was it. We actually thought a whole day was quite a long time, then off we went the next day to play for £20 in Switzerland.”

The album achieved a respectable number eight slot in the UK and also made a good showing across the Atlantic, reaching number 23 in the Billboard chart. Sabbath had arrived and a second album was required. “We suddenly had to write a whole album,” laughs Iommi, “so we got stuck in to rehearsals at nine in the morning.”

While the rest of the band was out getting lunch, Iommi had the moment of inspiration that would establish them among the rock greats. “I came up with the riff for Paranoid and when they got back, I couldn’t wait to play it for them. We recorded it there and then, in as long as it took to play it through.”

The upcoming three-CD re-release includes a version of Paranoid with unfamiliar lyrics, and Iommi well-remembers how it came about. “Geezer hadn’t written lyrics yet, so we put the track down and Ozzy just mumbled anything that came into his head, and then did the proper vocals afterwards.”

Paranoid, both the album and single, transformed Sabbath into a global sensation, and the band knew exactly how to play the superstar role to the hilt. Keith Altham, who later became their publicist, remembers how, even during his first encounter with the band, at Brighton Dome in 1972, their flair for self-promotion was unmistakable. “Geezer Butler came off stage in a white chamois leather suit with a zip down the front. It was drenched in sweat, so in the dressing room, he opened up a trunk, pulled out another absolutely identical suit and put it on. Ozzy saw me watching this and said, ’E loiks to be recognoised when ’e leaves the stage door.’”

Deprived of their charismatic frontman when Ozzy and the band parted company in 1978, Black Sabbath never faltered and, under Iommi’s leadership, began a new era with Ronnie James Dio upfront and centre. Meanwhile Ozzy went from strength to strength on Epic Records under the guidance of his new manager, Sharon Osbourne.

Another happy accident kept Ozzy in the spotlight when audience member Mark Neal tossed an unconscious bat onto the stage during a concert in Veterans’ Auditorium, Des Moines, Iowa. “I thought it was one of those rubber toy things,” explained Ozzy, “but as soon as I crunched its head I realised, ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’”

Altham, now a successful PR man, looked after Ozzy’s 1983 album Bark At The Moon. “Sharon was obviously the person to deal with. Right from the start she was the boss of what was going on. Ozzy was just having fun, but I could see he was a superstar in the making.”

By 1986, Roland Hyams of Work Hard PR was working with Ozzy and found him as irrepressible as ever. “I turned up at their place in the south of France and, of course, there’s a swimming pool. I asked, ‘How deep is it?’ Big mistake. Bang! He pushes me straight in. Everything – my passport, my wallet – it was all sodden, and that set the tone for the rest of the visit.”

Sabbath, meanwhile, were proving they too remained a force to be reckoned with, and 1992’s Dehumanizer is widely seen as one of their heaviest albums ever.

Ozzy and Sharon founded the Ozzfest in 1996, and the original quartet reformed in 1997 to record the live album Reunion for Epic. “Sharon was the driving force behind getting Sabbath back together,” recalls Sony senior marketing manager catalogue Neil Martin. “I’ll never forget seeing them headline Donington. As Sabbath came on, the sun went down, so you had this fantastic sunset as they went into War Pigs in front of 90,000 people and I’m right there onstage beside them. I still curse myself for not having my camera.”

The new Millennium brought a veritable blizzard of Ozzness with the single Iron Man winning Sabbath their first Grammy in 2000, The Osbournes MTV series debuting in 2002, Ozzy and Kelly’s number one duet with the Sabbath classic Changes in 2003 and Tony Iommi’s formation of Heaven & Hell in 2005.

Tony Cooke of Scream Promotions worked on Changes and recalls, “Ozzy was a complete diamond to work with. When Chris Moyles moved to Radio One’s breakfast show he said the one artist he really wanted to interview was Ozzy. So Ozzy bought him a clock to make sure he’d wake up in the morning and Chris still mentions that on air.”

Hugh Gilmour, long-time sleeve designer for Black Sabbath, has been closely involved in the process of cataloguing the material on the rediscovered tapes. “It was a revelation to hear familiar songs, such as Children Of The Grave, Paranoid and Planet Caravan, sung with completely different lyrics,” he says. Gilmour goes on to single out the discovery of their debut single Evil Woman with an added horn section and flute accompaniment along with Lord Of This World plus Master Of Reality with previously unheard piano and slide guitar parts.

“We’re delighted to be able to reactivate the Black Sabbath catalogue in such a positive way,” says Universal Music Catalogue marketing director Silvia Montello. “The previously unreleased rarities, access to the original tapes for remastering and the long-awaited digital availability of all those classic albums through iTunes, Amazon, Nokia and elsewhere makes this a very special project.”

Aside from the schedule of deluxe versions, plans also include boxed sets, one of which will be a complete Seventies replica CD edition.

With a new Heaven & Hell album due in April and Universal’s Black Sabbath campaign moving into high gear, 2009 looks set to be the new millennium’s mightiest metal year to date.

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9 March, 2009

 

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