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Original members included Terry "Geezer" Butler (born July 17, 1949, in Birmingham, England; left group 1985, rejoined 1991), bass; Tony Iommi (born February 19, 1948, in Birmingham), guitar, keyboards; John "Ozzy" Osbourne (born December 3, 1948, in Birmingham), vocals; and Bill Ward (born May 5, 1948, in Birmingham; left group 1981), drums. Later members include Vinnie Appice (born in New York, NY; bandmember 1981-1982, 1991--), drums; Bev Bevan (bandmember 1982-1987), percussion; Bob Daisley (bandmember 1987), bass; Ronnie James Dio (born in Cortland, NY; bandmember 1979-1983, 1991--), vocals; Ian Gillan (bandmember 1983-1984), vocals; Glenn Hughes (bandmember 1986-1987), vocals; Tony Martin (bandmember 1989-90), vocals; Geoff Nicholls (bandmember 1986-1990), keyboards; Eric Singer (bandmember 1986-1990), drums; and Dave Spitz (bandmember 1986-90), bass. Addresses: Record company-- Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694; 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019-6979.

Much of the credit--or blame, depending on your outlook--for both the sound and sensibility of contemporary heavy metal and "grunge" rock may be laid at the feet of the English group Black Sabbath. The sonic barrage they pioneered, consisting of Tony Iommi's riff-driven, bluesy guitar and a pounding rhythm best exemplified by bassist "Geezer" Butler and drummer Bill Ward, would form the model for a generation of hard rock bands. Meanwhile, the anguish and rage expressed in Sabbath classics like "Paranoid" and "War Pigs" gave voice to the confused aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture clash and has been a clear influence on the songwriting of later metal bands. By the release of its 1992 album Dehumanizer, Black Sabbath had marked nearly a quarter century of recording, touring, and personnel changes.

The quartet--Iommi, Butler, Ward, and singer John "Ozzy" Osbourne--originated in Birmingham, England, in 1967; at first they called themselves Earth and played fairly conventional music in various nightspots. "People were boozing and talking and drowning us out," Iommi told Melody Maker in a 1976 interview. "We were playing our nice little jazzy/blues numbers and no one was taking a blind bit of notice. So we turned up the volume and blasted them with it." The group soon discovered they weren't the only group called Earth, so in 1969 the foursome chose the moniker Black Sabbath after a song they'd written.

Black Sabbath was signed to Vertigo Records in England and to Warner Bros. in the U.S. They released their self-titled debut LP on Friday the 13th of February, 1970. The title track, with its rain-and-thunder sound effects and punishing guitar riff, became an instant standard. Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, however, was singularly unimpressed with the debut; his response in Rolling Stone set the tone for the group's early critical reception: "stiff recitations of [blues-rock supergroup] Cream cliches that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence." Despite such reviews, the album sold phenomenally well, as would many subsequent Sabbath outings.

Not surprisingly, given their name, Black Sabbath found it necessary to defend themselves from charges of Satanism. By 1971 they were loudly protesting to Melody Maker that they were, in fact, "anti-black magic." Osbourne took it upon himself in 1973 to defend the group against the charge that they played "downer" music. "We just play music," he insisted to Melody Maker. Yet drummer Ward had told Rolling Stone two years earlier, "Most people live on a permanent down, but just aren't aware of it. We're trying to express it for people." In any case, the band's appeal to a disaffected, young, mostly male audience was undeniably due in part to the mystique and danger of its name and perhaps undeserved reputation. "The black magic thing did help us in the beginning," Iommi told Rolling Stone in 1971. Nonetheless, Melody Maker' s Chris Charlesworth insisted that "Black Sabbath are pretty ordinary Midlands boys who love their mums, dads and wives, drink only moderately, and carry out their lives as members of a successful rock group with almost humdrum attitudes."

The group's second LP, Paranoid, was originally slated to be titled War Pigs. The single "Paranoid," however, was such a huge success--it went to Number Four on the rock charts and was by far the group's biggest single--that the album was named after it. The single appeared in late 1970, the album in 1971. It remains one of the group's most influential records, featuring the songs "War Pigs" and "Iron Man," which stand beside "Paranoid" as Sabbath anthems. Late in 1971 the group released Master of Reality, which included the hit "Sweet Leaf." Even Bangs changed his tune, writing with guarded approval in Rolling Stone, "Rock & roll has always been noise, and Black Sabbath have boiled that noise to its resinous essence."

Soon thereafter the band's relentless international touring schedule began to take its toll; but even as the members of the group announced their intention to tour less, their popularity continued to increase. 1972 saw the release of Volume 4, an ambitious excursion that brought more converts into the Sabbath fold. The LP included the gospel-tinged ballad "Changes," in which Osbourne's melancholy vocals were accompanied by strings and piano, and the kinetic rocker "Supernaut." Next came 1973's Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath. By that time, Rolling Stone' s response had become downright respectful. Reviewer Gordon Fletcher called the record "an extraordinarily gripping affair" and dubbed the group "a true Seventies band"--a compliment at the time. More sonically varied than most of the band's previous efforts, the LP included such embellishment as orchestral arrangements. Years later, in a retrospective of musical "guilty pleasures," Ken Richardson of High Fidelity called the record "a fierce, multidimensional revival that holds up well." For Richardson, however, Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath was the group's last important recording.

In the early 1970s Black Sabbath became involved in a squabble with their management and found themselves on a couple of different British labels--World Wide Artists and NEMS--though they would return to Vertigo in 1976. The group had resumed its intensive touring schedule after a hiatus and released a new album, Sabotage, in 1975. Sabbath touted the record in a Rolling Stone interview as a return "to basic roots." Even so, the group recorded a choir for part of the album and took keyboardist Jezz Woodruff on tour; Iommi, too, played some keyboards on the record. "Sabotage is not only Black Sabbath's best record since Paranoid," opined Billy Altman in his Rolling Stone review, "it might be their best ever." Melody Maker found that with their 1976 follow-up, Technical Ecstasy, the group could "break the mould and still provide fresh exciting music." That year also saw the release of the two-record retrospective We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'N' Roll, which featured many of Sabbath's most popular songs.

Ozzy Osbourne gradually became set on a solo career, and in 1978 he recorded his last studio album with Black Sabbath, Never Say Die. "It would be churlish not to wish Sabbath good health and congratulations on their tenth anniversary of splattering brains upon living room walls," acknowledged Melody Maker' s Colin Irwin in his review of the record, though he had difficulty with the group's "one-dimensional music" and "pretensions." In any event, Osbourne departed and the group eventually settled on American vocalist Ronnie James Dio, late of the groups Rainbow and his own Dio. "We met up with Ronnie at a party in L.A. and invited him down for a blow [audition]," Iommi told Melody Maker. "We hadn't really looked at other vocalists and when we heard his voice we all liked the way he put things across. We got along almost immediately, so it was logical to work with him." Ward also left the band, but in 1980 the re-tooled Sabbath, with new drummer Vinnie Appice, put out the successful album Heaven and Hell. That year also saw the release of Live at Last, a live album featuring Osbourne; Melody Maker condemned it as a "totally inept retrospective."

In 1981 the group released Mob Rules. Rolling Stone' s J. D. Considine opined: "After 1980's harder and faster Heaven and Hell, there was reason to believe that singer Ronnie James Dio might pull Black Sabbath off the heavy-metal scrapheap. Didn't happen. Mob Rules finds the band as dull-witted and flatulent as ever." As if that comment weren't enough, trouble erupted between Dio and his bandmates in 1982, during the mixing of the album Live Evil. In January of 1983 Iommi told Melody Maker that he and Butler had split with Dio and Appice, and that the two--without a band--had signed a new deal with old management associate Don Arden. Live Evil was released that year to reasonably positive reviews; it fared superbly with heavy metal fans, containing a mixture of Ozzy-era Sabbath classics and some of the strongest material recorded by Dio. In April Ian Gillan, former lead singer for Deep Purple, joined the group, and Ward once again took up his drumsticks. The re-formed Sabbath released the album Born Again that year, but soon Gillan, too, departed. Even Butler left to do solo work in 1985.

The band, as Iommi admitted in a 1992 Guitar School interview, "went off on a tangent" after Gillan left, with a dizzying series of personnel shuffles and some very poorly received records. The 1986 album Seventh Star was intended as an Iommi solo record--the cover read "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi"--and vanished quickly. Melody Maker called it "a revolting, incestuous amalgam of everything Iommi has picked up along the way and a stark, grating reminder of all he has lost." 1987's The Eternal Idol featured a variety of new players, including singer Tony Martin, bassists Dave Spitz and Bob Daisley, percussionist Bev Bevan--Ward's temporary replacement after his first departure--and drummer Eric Singer. Also in 1987, Sabbath and fellow hard rock veterans Status Quo were criticized by the anti-Apartheid movement for appearing at South Africa's racially exclusive Sun City. The group's downward spiral continued with the 1989 I.R.S. Records release Headless Cross. "It's sad to report," wrote Simon Price of Melody Maker, "but Black Sabbath have switched their guitars to unleaded." His ultimate conclusion: "This is paganism in a condom. Don't waste your money."

In 1990 Black Sabbath put out the concept album Tyr. The Wilson Library Bulletin described the release as "a thematic saga about the son of [Norse god] Odin. It's all very grandiose, with lyrics singing the glories of 'Valhalla' [the great hall in Norse mythology where the souls of heroes slain in battle are received] or establishing the fearful presence of the title character, 'The Law Maker.' Guitarist and band founder Tony Iommi's martial music is well echoed by lyricist Tony Martin's strident vocals. Tyr is a suitable accompaniment to catching the latest news from the war front."

Despite this lapse into what many critics would call self-parody, Black Sabbath found the 1990s a kinder, more appreciative decade, thanks in part to the ascendancy of new, alternative and grunge metal bands. As bassist Ben Shepherd of the well-regarded Seattle band Soundgarden told Spin, "We've taken everything we know from Black Sabbath." Supergroups like Metallica expressed similar indebtedness. Sabbath was finally acknowledged for their influence on a generation of rockers, and this acknowledgment may have fueled Iommi's decision to reunite with Butler, Appice, and Dio for a new album and tour. "Geezer met Ronnie in the States at one of his shows and got up and played with him," Iommi told the Detroit Free Press. "They spoke after the show, had a few drinks and a few more drinks, and they started talking about putting this lineup of the band back together." At first, Iommi wanted to recruit drummer Cozy Powell, who'd played on several Sabbath albums in the 1980s, but Powell and Dio didn't hit it off and when an injury sidelined the drummer, the group hired Appice.

In 1992 the foursome released Dehumanizer on Warner's Reprise label. Pulse! called it "the best thing the band's done in years," while Seattle's Rocket admitted, "Dio has once again taught the old farts how to rock." A Reprise press kit quoted Butler on the songwriting process: "All the songs have come from rehearsals or jams. There are more tempo changes and intricate things than we have ever done before. It goes from riff to riff on this album." Dehumanizer focused on some serious issues, as Dio noted in an interview with Circus: "We didn't want to be dinosaurs that did an album about witches and devils. There's plenty to be angry about out there--the fact that we have what might be the worst government America's ever had, the education problem, the lack of attention to the AIDS crisis. We had plenty to be angry about and that is reflected throughout Dehumanizer." The group wrote the song "Time Machine" for the soundtrack of the megahit film Wayne's World, which amply reflected the continuing relevance of Sabbath to the teen rock sensibility. Of one of the group's live performances, Paul Gallotta of Circus noted, "The band handled the set with an air of professionalism sorely lacking in a lot of younger bands."

With its 1992 tour Sabbath celebrated twenty-five years in the music business. "It's nice, I suppose," Iommi told the Detroit Free Press. "But I've just kind of gone along with it all these years. I don't really think, 'Oh, it's been 25 years. How wonderful!'" When asked by Guitar School' s Jeff Kitts if he had ever considered retirement, the guitarist replied, "Oh, no--I could never do that. I'll be fighting it out until the end. The problems we had over the last few years were very frustrating--but not enough to make me give up."

Far from throwing in the towel, in November of 1992 Iommi and company reunited with erstwhile vocalist Ozzy Osbourne for the last date of Osbourne's so-called farewell tour. Although Sabbath had performed with Osbourne at 1985's Live Aid extravaganza, this evening's show featured original drummer Bill Ward. Dio was conspicuously absent, reportedly not wanting to be involved in the reunion rigmarole. As a warm-up to Osbourne's appearance the band played a few numbers with headbanger idol Rob Halford, who had recently split with his bandmates in Judas Priest. Osbourne's arrival at first seemed anticlimactic. Quoted Daily Variety' s Troy J. Augusto: "When Osbourne finally trudged out at 8 p.m., he looked like he needed, very badly, to retire. But the man is a living legend and deserves to be treated as such. So what if he used a teleprompter, or that his stage conversation was limited to his usual soundbites of 'I love you all!' and 'go (expletive) crazy!' Or that his stage presence is made up of incessant pacing and leap-frog jumps? He's Ozzy!" Apparently Osbourne's romp with his former cohorts hit the spot; in March of 1993 it was announced that he would rejoin Black Sabbath for a new record and tour.

by Simon Glickman

Black Sabbath's Career

Group formed in Birmingham, England, 1967; originally named Earth; signed by Vertigo Records (U.K.), Warner Bros. Records (U.S.), and released debut LP, Black Sabbath, 1970.

Black Sabbath's Awards

Gold records for Black Sabbath, 1970; Paranoid and Master of Reality, both 1971; Volume 4, 1972; Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, 1973; Sabotage, 1975; and Technical Ecstasy and We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'N' Roll, both 1976.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Black Sabbath Lyrics

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