Well before he became a befuddled, cuddly, idiotic reality TV star and living cartoon, Ozzy Osbourne really was the Prince of Darkness. Fronting Black Sabbath, the heaviest of heavy bands with really no precedent in sound or style, he, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward created one of the most influential bodies of work with the group’s first eight albums (and in particular the first four).
And while they gave birth to thousands of six-string hopefuls who dutifully learned at least the opening chords to “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “War Pigs” and “Sweet Leaf,” Sabbath – along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple – primarily set the stage for a entirely new genre that itself would grow dozens of branches, heavy metal.
Classic rock and metal journalist McIver (Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica) does a fine job chronicling not only Black Sabbath’s history and the various members’ personalities, but also gives detailed and subjective comments on pretty much everything the band recorded.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters are the early ones, which detail how the four lads from the tough, working-class English city of Birmingham were hugely driven to avoid at all costs boring, lifelong factory jobs in the industrial city. It’s easy to find parallels with Detroit bands across the pond, where making a career in music was not seen as something to do for fun, but essential to break out of an otherwise mind-numbing existence. A gold record after a year of work, after all, sounds much better than a gold watch after 50.
That Iommi subsequently lost portions of several fingers on his fret-playing hand his very last day on the assembly line adds a sort of Twilight Zone twist. However, his drive to adapt the instrument to his abilities is what McIver credits with “inventing” Sabbath’s distinctive and powerfully lumbering guitar sound. It was about as far way from flower power and hippie love vibes as any music could get.
The book is also filled with interesting trivia. For instance, the song “NIB” was a jokey reference to the pointy scruff of a beard on Ward’s chin. Only later did the band’s record company and DJ’s promote the theory that it stood for the much more Sabbath-sounding “Nativity in Black.”
Also amusing are the stories of how the band’s evil and Satanism-tinged lyrics and record cover imagery were more of a marketing calling card than reflective of any individual member’s dance with the devil, but still of course led to widespread protests (and publicity) for much of the band’s career. So when a coven of witches appears outside the band’s hotel on an early tour, it’s all Butler can do to not to laugh when he threatens to “cast a spell” against the group, sending them scurrying back to their broomsticks.
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McIver is clearly most pro-Ozzy, and indeed large chunks of the book detail Osbourne’s solo career and recordings, almost to the point that it results in something of a dual biography (though he does not shy away from the Wizard’s own distractions and demons). And while the band did boast a revolving door of lead singers – nine in all, several of whom returned for second and third stints – he favors Ozzy as the one and only “true” Sabbath frontman.
But his analysis definitely gives short shrift and even leads to a sort of axe-grinding in regards to Ronnie James Dio, whose best moments matched and even sometimes surpassed his predecessor. After all, Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules were better discs than any latter-day Osbourne effort. Glenn Hughes was likewise a formidable frontman, though his short tenure with the band (which at times was simply Iommi and hired guns) ultimately hurt his legacy.
The book takes the band’s story almost to the present day, though it was completed before last year’s Mob Rules lineup recording/tour as “Heaven and Hell.” They were thusly named so as not to incur the wrath of the iron-fisted Sharon Osbourne, who clearly has plans for the original lineup to return in some form. But whether or not we ever see another Black Sabbath record from any lineup version, the band’s musical legacy and influence is clearly among the most important in rock history. And no amount of footage featuring Ozzy cleaning up dog shit in his mansion can erase that. - Bob Ruggiero
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by Joel McIver, Omnibus, 400 pp., $24.95