- 13 Feb 20
50 years ago today, Black Sabbath released their classic debut album, Black Sabbath. To celebrate, we're revisiting our 2012 interview with guitarist Tony Iommi.
The mayhem of a Black Sabbath tour. Picture the scene: it’s somewhere in the Midwestern United States, a little after 4am. Following various shenanigans, the band are sleeping soundly in their hotel rooms. Well, most of the band.
“Ozzy was in the corridor letting off fireworks, all the guests were screaming and running about, smoke was everywhere and the sprinkler system started,” laughs Tony. “He was arrested and taken away. I remember getting a call from the police saying, ‘You better get down here and bail him out’. We said: ‘You keep him tonight. We’ll bail him out tomorrow. We’ve got to get some bloody rest!’”
Thirty-two years since Ozzy’s official departure in 1979, it seems Iommi et al are sufficiently rested. The recent highly-anticipated reformation announcement will see them play a slew of festivals and stadium shows in 2012 and release their first album of original material with Osbourne since 1978’s Never Say Die.
Over the years the Ozzy line-up has had a couple of dalliances, a reunion in 1997 that spawned a live album and a legendary Live Aid appearance.
Relaxing in his hotel suite in Birmingham, Tony Iommi remembers the charity concert extravaganza for other reasons than the reunion performance (shortly after this interview the guitarist was diagnosed with cancer).
“We were in the rehearsal room and started playing and then the doors opened and these two girls came in,” he recalls in his soft Brummie tones. “I said to one of the crew, ‘You better get rid of them, we don’t want people coming in’. I didn’t realise one of them was Madonna! She had dark hair and I had never known her to have dark hair! It was supposed to be a closed session. It was very embarrassing, we basically told her to leave. I felt like such a fool!”
Iommi did encounter Madge again in later years when he and bassist Geezer Butler attended a party in New York.
“It was a really strange party, we walked down the red carpet and into this room and it was like walking into another world,” he says. “There were half-naked people painted gold walking around and all these weird costumes, it was like we’d walked into a freakshow. We stuck out like two sore thumbs because we had clothes on! Geezer said, ‘Will we leave?’ And I said, ‘We can’t leave, we’ve just come down the red carpet!!’ Then she came in dressed like an Egyptian queen with all these slaves in chains. It was a very interesting party but we didn’t stay very long!”
Since their formation in the late ‘60s, Black Sabbath have shaped the course of modern rock and some say created the heavy metal genre. This claim has its roots in Tony Iommi’s distinctive guitar sound, which is the result of an industrial accident in which he lost the tips of two fingers causing him to reinvent his playing style.
Following Ozzy’s departure, the band drafted in a range of different singers, most famously Ian Gillen of Deep Purple fame and the late Ronnie James Dio. Still deeply influential and lauded by successive generations of rock musicians, the much-rumoured reunion tour will net the band an estimated £100 million. But unless an Irish date is announced, fans here will have to travel to the UK or the Continent to see the band.
Iommi recalls the group’s first Irish show in Dalymount Park in 1983 on a bill that featured Twisted Sister and Motörhead.
“I remember it well,” he smiles. “We flew in on a private jet. That was the second show we had done with the Stonehenge stage set. After the show, we went to a pub to have some Guinness and we had such a great time. We were absolutely gone before we knew it. I’d never been to Ireland and it was the first time I’d ever had proper Guinness!”
“We went back to the plane and when we took off Geezer decided he wanted to go to the toilet but there was no toilets so he did it in a bag!” laughs Tony. “He tied it up and when we came through customs in Birmingham – drunk of course – they asked us if we had anything to declare. Geezer held the bag up and said, ‘Yeah, that!’”
The Stonehenge stage show, famously parodied in This Is Spinal Tap, included a performance by a dwarf. Quite a famous one, as it happens.
“Yes, we had a dwarf,” nods Tony. “Ozzy had one too at the same time but our one was better, he was a famous dwarf. He had been in Star Wars, he was an ewok!”
Unfortunately the Dalymount show was the band’s only visit to these shores, but the Irish
ties could have been much stronger if Tony had taken Phil Lynott up on an offer he made him in a US bar.
“I saw Phil in Los Angeles not long before he died,” explains Tony. “I was looking for a singer at the time. We were at this club and he was at another table. He came over smiling and said, ‘I could be your singer, you could really be Black Sabbath then!’ (Laughs) So we sat down for a while and had a good old chat. That was the last time I ever saw him.”
Over the years, the band went through a dizzying number of auditions to fill the frequently empty lead singer slot. One interesting tape submitted was from a young buck by the name of Michael Bolton.
“It was okay actually, just not what we were looking for!” says Tony. “He wasn’t known at all then. He did three tracks, he was quite good. But he did alright in the end, didn’t he?”
Ronnie James Dio was undoubtedly the second most famous Sabbath vocalist. In 2006, he fronted Heaven And Hell with the other band members (ostensibly Black Sabbath but not called so for legal reasons). The group were in fact due to play with Iron Maiden in Ireland in 2010, but the vocalist died in May of that year.
“It was devastating and I still haven’t got over it,” says Tony. “Over the years we got so close, the last time we got back together we had such a great time, we were such good friends. We had even talked about doing another album.”
Interestingly, it was Sharon Osbourne who initially suggested Tony team up with Ronnie after Ozzy’s departure from Black Sabbath.
“Yes, that’s right,” he nods. “At the time it wasn’t for a Sabbath thing, because I was so disillusioned with the band I wanted to do another project.” But the creative union with Ronnie proved so successful, it wasn’t long before he became a vocalist with the new Black Sabbath.
Tony also released his first solo album Iommi in 2000 on Sharon’s label Divine Records. Was she a tough businesswoman?
“Er… yes, you could say that!!!”
The long-player saw Tony collaborate with a glittering array of rock talent including Brian May, Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins, Billy Corgan and of course Ozzy Osbourne. Which musician impressed Iommi most?
“Dave Grohl was brilliant,” he says. “He’s a really talented guy and so enthusiastic. It was a good eye-opener for me to work with so many different people. In fact I didn’t know some of them! Lots of singers were suggested at first and I didn’t have a clue who some of them were! When they mentioned Eminem I had no idea who he was!”
Another collaboration which Iommi speaks enthusiastically about is that with friend and fellow Birmingham resident Jasper Carrot, with whom he has played with on several occasions over the years.
“He’s a big name here!” laughs Tony. “I’ve known him for many years, I met him 25 years ago through Bev Bevan (ELO). Funnily enough I’ve just written something with him and he’s coming around to do vocals tomorrow, it’s for a new TV show he’s doing. The song is called ‘The Old Farts’!”
In addition to the impending reunion and tour, Iommi has several other irons in the fire.
“I’ve signed up to score three movies,” he says. “It’s with the guy who did all the Chainsaw Massacre films, but these will be more serious horror. I’m probably more busy now than I’ve been for years and I’m meant to be slowing down at this age!”
Revisit Black Sabbath below: