LA Weekly, 7/11/01
by Greg Burk
BLACK SABBATH WAS DIFFERENT. BACK IN 1969, YOU COULD TELL JUST BY LOOKING: THESE WERE SARTORIAL exiles. Bill Ward, the drummer, remembers the impression he and his mates made when they started out. No Kinks-ish Edwardian outfits. No Beatles-esque Cardin suits. No Who-like fringes and jumpers.
"We weren't exactly the neatest band," says Ward. "We were what we were, which is four really poor guys. Ozzy had but one pair of sandals."
Ward is strong, stocky, friendly. When he says ing-words, they usually end with the sharp glottals of working- class Birmingham, England, specifically the suburb Aston, where he and the others were raised. Playink. Waitink.
To get money for drums, Ward worked in a factory. Smoke billowing from stacks outside, rubber smoke obscuring his vision inside. "You had to take black rubber, put it on a mill, cut the rubber off the mill. You had to carry about 100 pounds of rubber, and stuff a machine full of it. I worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night."
The guitarist, Tony Iommi, worked in a factory, too. Arc-welder. He wasn't going to show up for work on his last day, but decided to brave it. That's when he was put to work on an unfamiliar machine and chopped off the tips of two right-hand fingers. Born a southpaw, he plays with self-designed prostheses.
The bassist, Geezer Butler, also worked in a factory, as an accountant, till he got sick of it and drank and doped himself out of the job. People called him Geezer because that's what he called everybody else. Decades have passed; the name remains. "It's appropriate now," he says, "isn't it?"
The singer, Ozzy Osbourne, was a slaughterhouse worker and convicted burglar.
1969. Only hints of impending darkness. Flower power blooming all over the world.
"I didn't know what planet that was coming from, to be honest," says Ward. He and the others were inexperienced with peace and love. Gangs and toil they knew. "Happiness I cannot feel/And love to me is so unreal," Ozzy sang in "Paranoid." An enormous worldwide hit expressing those emotions in 1970 -- well, it said something. It said that the times they were a-changin'.
Black Sabbath made music -- heavy metal, it came to be called, after a line from Steppenwolf's 1968 "Born To Be Wild" -- out of what they knew, felt and wanted. Humans continue to do the same thing. You don't have to be a factory worker to appreciate metal. You don't even have to be poor. You just have to need something loud, powerful and organized on your side. (God knows you won't find it in politics.) Since billions need that at any given time, metal has never gone away, though its visibility has waned periodically, and it has changed its clothes and sounds to fit the times. Today, there is metal music for virtually every fragmentation of taste and attitude, from straight-edge vegan to flaming hatemonger: Check out the glossary of styles included herein, which is only a sampling. There could be something for you.
One could argue exactly when the birth screams of heavy metal first rent the pale empyrean -- with Led Zeppelin, or the MC5, or Cream, or Hendrix, or the Troggs, or Wagner. But it would be hard to argue that Black Sabbath wasn't revolutionary. Or that any other band cast a darker shadow over metalmen to come.
IT WAS FATE. AT LEAST THAT'S HOW IT SEEMS. FOR instance, Iommi and Ward saw an ad for a singer named Ozzy. Couldn't be that Ozzy, the one they always saw around the streets of Aston. But it was that Ozzy. And he sang like nobody before him, not Elvis or Muddy or Little Richard, but some new kind of tortured prophet.
With Ozzy's old bandmate Butler, the four survived a couple of blues-jazz groups to become Black Sabbath. Thanks to a rare twist of historical synchronicity, you can actually hear the moment when the magical transition occurred. On their first album, released Friday, February 13, 1970, the first tune they taped -- composed through jamming, their usual mode -- was "Wicked World," which shuffled and bopped along not unlike any number of boogie beaters then being whacked out by British blues revivalists such as John Mayall and Savoy Brown. Iommi diddled that tune on his beloved Fender Stratocaster and geared up for the next selection. But -- fate again -- the guitar crapped out on him. He reluctantly resorted to his backup, a Gibson SG, which is an entirely different creature. This guitar barfs out a much denser, heavier low end; when you turn it way up (the band was playing louder every day), a single sustained note on the E or A string sounds nightmarish. And a two-note chord on those low strings is simply the voice of Satan. The first recording Iommi used it on was a study in slow agony. It was called "Black Sabbath."
"Bloody hell, this is really different." That's Iommi's impression of how the group responded to the sounds they found arising from their un-premeditating throats and fingers. "We really had a feeling about it. You know, when you get the hair standing up on your arms."
The name Black Sabbath, appropriated from a 1964 Italian Boris Karloff movie, reflected Iommi's desire to cut against the prevailing pop grain. Sabbaths were somewhat on his mind anyway; the guitarist, of Italian descent, was raised in Catholicism, the most idolatrous and superstitious of post-tribal religions. So indeed was Butler, and much more strictly -- the bassist, who also wrote most of Sabbath's lyrics, even had an eye on the priesthood for a while. But he stopped going to confession at 16, he says, "when I started having something to confess." The words to "Black Sabbath" refer to Butler's experience of seeing a ghost, and the combination of dark themes and dark music was enough to persuade most listeners and non-listeners that this was a gang of raving, drooling Satanists. Anyone who actually paid attention, though, knew that Sabbath's beelzeblab, like that of many subsequent metal bands, was touchingly moralistic ("War Pigs"), and when Ozzy/Geezer occasionally stepped into Lucifer's hooves, it was only to make a point about frail humanity's corruption: "The soul I took from you was not even missed." The supposedly pro-drug "Snowblind" was hardly an endorsement: "The sun no longer sets me free/I feel the snowflakes freezing me." Only "Sweet Leaf," Sabbath's love song to marijuana, was an unconditional reveille for illegal activity. And it was no "Cop Killer."
Another factor that drove mother hens to hide their chicks from Black Sabbath was a certain Ozzy Osbourne. One look into the eyes of Ozzy (who's shied from interviews this year because he's working on a solo album, Sabbath songs and Ozzfest simultaneously), and you know it's not an act; the man is just not all there. Surely the most awkward front man in all of rock, he rushes around the stage like an autistic toddler, clapping his hands Joan Rivers style (though in puffier periods he's looked more like Totie Fields) and exhorting fans to "Go crazy!" These words carry weight thanks to verifiable legends of Ozzy pissing on the Alamo and snorting lines of ants -- he makes insanity seem like so much fun. But onstage may be the only place where he gets his jollies.
Asked how the madman's doing, Iommi dodges a bit. "I think the best thing for Ozzy is to have him working, have him out there. He gets bored if he's at home for too long, or even when we're in rehearsals. He's too fidgety. His concentration level just doesn't hold more than half a minute."
Before the Ozzfest tour on which it's currently headlining, the band encamped several times to hash out material for a new studio album, which would be the first with the original lineup since 1978, when Ozzy was kicked out for being, uh, crazy; he went on to a wildly successful solo career after coming under the wardenship of Sharon Arden, the daughter of a show-biz manager, who became his wife and the mother of his three children. The four Sab auteurs have grown quite pally since reuniting to tour in 1997; they're writing songs the old-fashioned way, by jamming; and the three instrumentalists are cautiously jazzed about the several that have resulted. ä
BUT EXACTLY WHAT DO THESE GUYS MEAN TO ANYbody in the cold light of the year 2001? Sure, there's a huge demand for their services, but that's just supply and demand. It's historical curiosity, even nostalgia. The more interesting slant on their return is what it tells you about the nature of different musical approaches. When the Monkees reunited, no one expected any more than a revival of pleasant memories and the comforting confirmation that icons get old, just like audiences. Black Sabbath, once again, is different. No one's surprised when jazz artists get better with age, because they're all about improvisation, not repetition. Their music can reflect a lifetime of experience, as well as the spark of the moment. So. Black Sabbath. Jazz. Different worlds?
As youths, Butler, Iommi and Ward all listened to jazz. And they played in jazz bands. "The whole Sabbath thing is improvisation -- all the good songs, anyway," says Butler. Iommi liked Joe Pass' guitar playing. Ward analyzed every drum lick of Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich. Not that the Sabs swung, exactly. These were industrial Brits, not hepcats. The early Black Sabbath stuff, while strong, is often stiff. But they grew. They went from one place to another, and now they can call on everything they've learned.
Asked if there's a recording he considers exemplary of his own best, Ward doesn't pick a "classic." He fingers "Into the Void," not the 1971 take but the version on Reunion, which finds the band bearing down for a tough but appreciative hometown crowd in December 1997.
The song contains a triad of Iommi's best riffs, beginning with a dirgy killer, and shifts through three different gears. Butler's double-time bass is the tightrope everything hangs on. Ozzy rapid-fires the apocalyptic lyrics. The guitar solos are melodic and coherent, echoing Ozzy's focused pain -- Iommi indulges in one hackneyed lick, but it's a brief exception for one of rock's most compositional improvisers. And Ward hangs behind everything, making the music open up like a gigantic rose, accenting the same riff four different ways or highlighting a vocal line with a subtle cymbal touch. What you hear is ego-less: four men making one sound.
"Invisible stuff" is what Ward says he likes to play. "My lowest priority is to keep time. I don't hear time, I don't hear chords. What I hear is a sound. I hear a picture. And that's what I play to, listening very carefully. I'm listening in color, if you like. I've never played a show the same twice, ever. The only reason is" -- he laughs -- "because I don't know how to." It's the kind of thing a jazz drummer would say.
Ward remembers the music of his youth. Accordions, bagpipes, flutes. The Boys' Brigade.
"The Boys' Brigade was a semimilitary boys' club, where everyone had the old military side drum, the bass drum and a flute. A drum-and-pipe band. And it had all these flags, you know. You could hear them coming down the streets, 25, 30 pieces. As a child I used to see that white rope, and the gold and silver on the drums. It was absolutely brilliant."
Butler references Irish music as an influence. Iommi, in addition to guitar, has been known to tackle harp, sitar, sax and violin. Forever trying new sounds, tinkering with instruments. "I was the sort that always would have to get something and take it to bits," he says.
Black Sabbath has a popular image as a dumb-ass riff band. From the beginning, critics thought they were Cro-Magnons. Listen to their albums, though, and you'll find experiments littered everywhere: a folkish solo-guitar piece, a jazzy improvisation, a weepy ballad. Play some of the guitar riffs acoustically, and you won't have heavy metal, you'll have a Highland fling. It's a lesson not many modern metal bands have cared to learn: Without lightness, there is no heaviness.
BUT MODERN METALHEADS HAVE GROWN UP IN A much darker world. It's a secondhand, thirdhand, thousandth-hand world, where they don't hear somebody playing an accordion at their neighborhood pub with the whole family in attendance, where there are no music halls and Boys' Brigades, where there is no music education in the schools. Nearly all the music they hear is screened, mediated, marketed and prerecorded (even when it's nominally "live"). This means they have no physical musical roots, only random-access knowledge.
Modern media permeation means other things, too. It means people are conscious from a very early age that they're perceived as consumers, targets, marks. And it means that there can be no innocence, no naiveté. Where we once only suspected corruption and hypocrisy beneath the bland faces and idealistic words, now we're hit in the face with it every hour of every day.
So nobody should be too surprised that the most-used noun in modern metal lyrics is lies, or that band names have gone from Black Sabbath to Megadeth to Slayer to Carcass to Cannibal Corpse to Killingfield. People feel like victims at best, cadavers at worst, and it makes them want to be killers instead. Since those are the options.
It's been enlightening to watch the progress. In 1956, Elvis' crotch was shocking. In 1964, the Beatles' hair was shocking. 1968: the Rolling Stones' drug busts. 1969: Jim Morrison waving his weenie. 1970: Black Sabbath invoking Satanic powers. 1971: Alice Cooper hanging himself onstage. 1976: the Sex Pistols spitting on the audience. 1984: WASP chain-sawing women. 1992: Madonna showing her chest in her Sex book. 1994: Marilyn Manson razoring his chest onstage. This year, watching Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim and company cavort as child prostitutes in a video hyping the film Moulin Rouge, one is tempted, in view of the precedents, to see a sophisticated metaphor. When, of course, it's just child prostitution.
Jaded media watchers tend to call this a sequence of entertainment: shock trumping shock. Strange how few perceive it as art: human beings feeling worse and worse, and trying to express that condition. Naturally, it's grown more and more difficult for metal bands to communicate how bad they feel. The way it's progressed is a kind of reverse game of hangman, in which the music starts with all its limbs, and one by one cuts them off.
Even before Black Sabbath, metal started with an emphasis on virtuosity and looks, with bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. This attitude reached a crescendo here in L.A. in the '80s, when every band had to have a hot guitarist and a lot of well-cultivated hair.
The first limb to go was the hair: Not only had punk knocked it out of fashion, it was just too expensive for proles to maintain. Then the guitar melodies were jettisoned; the early speed-metal version of Metallica was one of those groups more interested in complex start-and-stop rhythms than in soaring improvisations. (The band later sold out, some say, to old-fashioned boogie, but maybe success just made them too happy to be hardcore.) Under the influence of punk and hip-hop, singers went from singing to yelling to rapping to croaking. Drummers went from 20-minute solos on dozens of drums and cymbals to 240 machinelike beats per minute on a single kick drum. Realizing that metal has hit a wall, many bands -- such as Nothingface and Skrape -- try to be as heavy and offensive as they can while adding humanist touches of melody and lyric. A realization is creeping in: First you reflect the evils of your times. Then, maybe, one option is to transcend them.
Every shade of variation between the extremes is represented in the younger bands that now ply the metal trade, from retro virtuosians like Symphony X to croak-and-sloggers like Six Feet Under. And nothing ever goes away: Over the last few years, most every veteran metal band that ever had a hit, from UFO to Skid Row to Tool, has toured in some configuration and made a new CD. Audiences grow older, but they never stop needing the power.
Right up through Rage Against the Machine, Los Angeles bands have always played a role. Back in the '60s, the Music Machine was one of the first to drop-tune its guitars. WASP, Motley Crue and Ratt are among the legion of major bands that coagulated here. Iggy and Ozzy bottomed out here. Ozzy has lived here for over 20 years. Iommi lived here for three. Ward lives down the coast, in Seal Beach, and takes his children and their friends to Disneyland all the time. He kiddingly imagines that he puts the fear of God into the Happyplace guardians: "Here they come, Wardie and his mob." They punish him by making him line up for hours in the hot sun.
His problems don't sound so bad. But however contented one may become, the kingdom of darkness is never far away, and never an unfit topic for a song. Ward had a heart attack three years ago; the guys from Black Sabbath gathered around and cheered him up. He's gained some perspective. He knows he'll never have to work in a factory again. The men of Sabbath have all traveled a long way from "Paranoid," which is, after all, a suicide note: "I tell you to enjoy life/I wish I could but it's too late."
Butler, who wrote those lines 30 years ago, has some advice today for those who can see only black in their future.
"Enjoy life," he says. "Before it's too late."