During the autumn of 1998, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing iconoclastic heavy metal godz Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath’s guiding lights (above front cover shot from original Aquarian article). This was a few years before Ozzy gained exposure on his hit MTV Reality Show. After nearly two decades apart, the original Black Sabbath re-formed for an electrifying live Reunion in Birmingham, the English city where ghoulish shock rock frontman Ozzy Osbourne teamed up with respected guitarist, Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward to form the band Earth.
By 1969, they had taken on the demonic moniker with which they would become decadent metal mavens. As Black Sabbath, Ozzy sang of “witches at black masses,” bringing horror and the occult to a liberated audience rebelling against manipulative adult authoritarianism.
After their self-titled debut opened the floodgates, Sabbath hit an early peak with Paranoid, a nightmarish journey dealing with personal frustrations, war, and hellish terror. Masters Of Reality solidified their reputation as mad-minded gatekeepers of hell. And the underrated Volume 4 offered the post-teen reflection, “Changes,” an unlikely sensitive ballad featuring piano and string-like synthesizers.
Dropping some of the doom ‘n gloom for more dramatic arrangements, Sabbath’s next four studio albums broke no new ground, though Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is arguably the quartet’s finest achievement. Personal differences and internal conflicts tore the original Sabbath to shreds in ’79.
Now they’re back to show current metal mongers how it’s done. Besides confirmed classics such as “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” and “Children Of The Grave,” Reunion includes the new studio tracks “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.”
I spoke to Ozzy and Tony at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel one sunny afternoon in October ’98.
Tony, what were you doing for the past decade?
Tony: Sleeping (laughter) Actually, I was carrying on playing around with a different version of Black Sabbath that was quite a lot different.
What made you get back with Ozzy?
Tony: We’d been talking about it off and on for years and decided this was the right time to do it. Ozzy and Sharon (Osbourne, his wife) called me up, and asked if we fancied doing a show together. We all thought it was a good idea. We just started playing.
Ozzy: It was a test run playing 55 minutes and it worked. Over the years I’ve had loads of people ask me if Sabbath would ever get back together again and reconcile their differences. It finally happened. It was the actual first time we did a live set together since 1979.
Ozzy, your voice hasn’t lost any of its demonic appeal after all these years.
Ozzy: Sometimes my voice gives out. I hadn’t been out on the road for a while before the Birmingham show.
Black Sabbath was originally called Earth in the late ’60s. What was the impetus that got the band started back then?
Ozzy: I used to go to the same school as Tony. We didn’t hang out together, but I knew him and his guitar playing. He had a band called Mythology. I had a band called Rare Breed. When Geezer and I left Rare Breed and Tony’s band broke up, he needed a singer and bass player and we needed a guitarist and drummer. So Geezer switched from rhythm guitar to bass. We started rehearsing anywhere we could and it just worked out. It wasn’t like we auditioned. We were four local guys who lived in a one-mile radius – literally within walking distance. In England, you could live next door to someone and not know anything about them your whole life. Whereas in the U.S., people think nothing of traveling 700 miles to see relatives. But sometimes the greatest thing is sitting right in front of you and you don’t have to travel around the world. It was a classic case of local boys do good. When we made the first Black Sabbath album, we were just happy to get a chance to be heard. When the LP hit the charts, I was in shock. I remember in the Elbow Room club someone told me the album hit the charts and was number 17. I said, ‘you got to be joking me.’ I couldn’t sleep that night. Then I went out and got Melody Maker and went straight to the chart page, and there it was. It stayed in the Top 20 for a year-and-a-half. We hadn’t even played in the States yet. Then it took off in the States. A lot of bands from England come to the States and they have to do the circuit. Some get a break and some don’t. We came to the States straightaway, as if they were waiting for us. We played small venues. But the beauty of those days was you had to play live. There were no tricks or emulators or tape loops. What you heard was what the band actually sounded like. There were some good bands around then, if I remember right.
Which bands did you enjoy listening to in the early ’70s?
Ozzy: I liked Humble Pie and Mahogany Rush. There was more of a camaraderie back then. In those days, you’d have a festival with different forms of music. There’d be the Allman Brothers, Sabbath, the Eagles, Joan Baez, Jethro Tull and Ten Years After on the same bill. If you only liked one of those bands, you stayed until they played and left. I’d like to go back to those days, but unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. (Editors note: Ozzfest happily negated Ozzy’s view of modern rock festivals)
How did Ozzfest come about?
Ozzy: My wife, Sharon, realized there was no airplay for those kinds of bands anymore. It’s governed by the media. They make up their minds what’s in style. I mean, what happened to ’80s metal bands? Motley Crue, Poison and Ratt are all gone now.
But radio recently accepted Korn and, to a lesser extent, Monster Magnet. Won’t that revitalize the hard rock scene?
Ozzy: But the thing is – I don’t dislike Korn, but they use a lot of electronics and art-fed studio instruments making manufactured sounds. I hear all the time how Tony’s guitar playing influenced them. I’m always amazed how his work stands up to Clapton’s, Jimmy Page’s, and Jeff Beck’s. I just saw Page play. I was in fucking shock. I had never seen him play before. He seemed so sloppy live. But sounded great in the studio.
Black Sabbath have a remarkably unique style. How did you achieve it?
Tony: The four of us were so in tune with what we wanted to achieve. It’s hard for ’90s bands to be truly original because so many roads have already been paved. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there were so many diverse bands that were completely different. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, T. Rex and David Bowie all had a sound that was completely their own. That’s why we’re coming back now. No band could do exactly what Sabbath does. If someone did it better, we wouldn’t be here.
Paranoid touched on many timely subjects: Viet Nam, disillusionment, and isolation.
Ozzy: Actually,the album as gonna be titled “War Pigs” (one of its best tracks). It has the war pig featured on the cover. But once we were done with all the other tracks, we came across a riff and wrote “Paranoid” in five minutes. It ended up being one of our most popular songs and ended up being the album title.
Some of your material focused on demonic possession and devil worship.
Ozzy: Some of it did. Some were about more important topics. Like, could you have a wonderful world when people around you are dying from war and poverty? All I have to say is the songs are about whatever you want them to be about. I’ve listened to other people’s songs and drawn my own conclusions. Then I’d read about what the songs were supposed to be about and I’d be completely off base.
Were some of your songs inspired by the working class neighborhood you came from?
Ozzy: See, you could be living in sunny California, but war struck England first hand. When I was a kid, we’d go to the bombed building sites and play. There were bombed buildings during World War II. They’re still finding bombs in there. We were born after the war. At school, we’d have to salute and come to attention. It was strict discipline. Here in America, you’ve never faced the damages of war on your soil. Otherwise, there’d be a different attitude towards it.
How has your philosophical view changed over the years?
Ozzy: Right now I feel it’s my duty to make people happy by doing my music and pleasing my family. I feel more secure. And I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.
Tell me something about the two new tracks: “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.”
Ozzy: Tony did the music first for “Psycho Man.” Then I wrote the lyrics pretty much on the spot. Usually, whatever I’m writing about reflects how I’m feeling at that specific moment. So it came together fast.
Tony: I thought “Selling My Soul” had a very “Paranoid/ Iron Man”-related sound. I felt I laid down some decent riffs on that one. It’s heavy and fans will hopefully find it represents Sabbath well.