Respecting the Sabbath


© Rolling Stone


The third commandment tells us to keep the Sabbath holy.  Well, I believe in respecting the Sabbath but I’m not talking about the seventh day of the week.  I’m talking about Black Sabbath, the 49-year-old heavy metal band who played their last-ever gig two nights ago.


Fittingly, Black Sabbath’s farewell performance took place at the Genting Arena in Birmingham, the city where it all started for them.  Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and incomparable – many would say incorrigible – singer Ozzy Osbourne grew up in Aston, one of Birmingham’s working-class suburbs.  Prior to forming the band, they did a variety of unglamorous jobs there, including delivering coal, labouring on building sites and working in a sheet metal factory, car plant and abattoir.  Iommi ended his time in the steelworks with an accident that sheared off two of his fingertips and nearly ruined his budding career as a guitarist.  Osbourne, meanwhile, took up housebreaking and got jailed for six weeks.


Butler told the BBC recently, “It wasn’t a great place to be at that time.  We were listening to songs about San Francisco.  The hippies were all peace and love and everything.  There we were in Aston.  Ozzy was in prison from burgling houses, me and Tony were always in fights with somebody… we had quite a rough upbringing.  Our music reflected the way we felt.”


If they felt miserable in Aston and channelled that misery into their music, I can only say the misery was worth it.  The first, eponymously-named song on their first, eponymously-named album in 1970 sets the tone for Black Sabbath’s career of evil.  It’s a gloriously dark and doom-laden affair, opening with rumbles of thunder, the sluicing of rain and the clanging of altar bells.  These give way to a funereal chug of heavy guitars and the eerie high-pitched squalls of Ozzy’s voice (“What is this that stands before me?  / Figure in black which points at me-e-ee?”), which later speed up for a tumultuous but still ominous climax.  I imagine that if any of those peace-and-love hippies whom Butler referred to had gone to a Sabbath gig in 1970 (having ingested some psychedelic substances beforehand) and the gig had opened with this number, they’d have probably fled from the venue screaming in terror with their hands clamped over their ears.


© Vertigo


Iommi and Butler were horror-movie fans and their music had a horror-movie vibe.  Even the band’s name came from a scary film, 1963’s Black Sabbath, directed by the legendary Mario Bava and starring the legendary Boris Karloff.  Also horror-movie-esque is the cover of the first Sabbath album, showing a black-robed lady looming spectrally in the middle of a spooky autumnal landscape – the building in the background is actually Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire.  I find it cool that nobody knows the identity of the woman, presumably a briefly-hired model or actress, who posed for the picture.  Iommi has claimed that, later, she turned up at one Sabbath concert and said hello to the band.  But I like to think she’d never been at the original photo-shoot at all.  Rather, she was a ghost that haunted the watermill – and when the cover-photo was developed, her wraithlike image had somehow imposed itself on it.


Black Sabbath produced another album in 1970, Paranoid, which was choc-a-bloc with groovy tunes – the famous title track, the skull-crushing Iron Man, the nihilistic War Pigs and the sublimely dreamy and trippy Planet Caravan, which has been described as ‘the ultimate coming-down song’.  The following year’s Master of Reality gave us the jaunty but provocative After Forever (“Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope / Do you think he’s a fool?”) and the wonderfully sepulchral Children of the Grave.  Other classic songs included Supernaut, which turned up on the 1972 album Vol. 4; the exhilarating title track of 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which is perhaps my favourite Sabbath song ever; and the similarly exhilarating Symptom of the Universe on 1974’s Sabotage, which suggests (to me, anyway) Sabbath were secret forebears of punk rock.  1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die are less acclaimed and lack a truly killer track, but I’m still partial to them both.


© WWA Records


In 1980 we got Heaven and Hell which – shock! horror! – didn’t have Ozzy Osbourne doing vocals.  The singer had been sacked from the band due to his massive substance abuse and consequent massive unreliability.  While Ozzy maintains that he was no worse a wreck than the other three band-members were at the time, it was surely tough working with a man prone to such misfortunes as snorting a line of ants he’d mistaken for a line of cocaine or being caught by the San Antonio police urinating over the Alamo whilst dressed in a frock.  Making a Black Sabbath album without Ozzy sounds as feasible as filming The Lord of the Rings without Gandalf, but Iommi, Butler and Ward wisely recruited the late, great Ronnie James Dio as a replacement.  Dio gave Black Sabbath a new lease of life.  He made them sound different – his operatic voice a contrast to the wailing alienness of Ozzy’s – but I have no complaints about the resulting album, full of spiffing tracks like Children of the Sea, Neon Knights and Die Young.




Dio sang on the next album for Black Sabbath, 1981’s Mob Rules, and returned to sing on 1992’s Dehumanizer; but they were the only Sabbath albums for a long time that were any good.  During the 1980s and 1990s Iommi was the sole founding member who stuck with the band and a succession of jobbing musicians contributed to the records.  Singers included Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes, two alumni of Sabbath’s more mainstream 1970s rivals Deep Purple.  Meanwhile, the band seemed to get through drummers at a rate worthy of Spinal Tap, with the ELO’s Bev Bevan, the Clash’s Terry Chimes and the ubiquitous Cozy Powell banging the skins at various times.  To be honest, the band’s output during this period – 1983’s Born Again, 1986’s Seventh Star, 1987’s The Eternal Idol, 1989’s Headless Cross, 1990’s Tyr, 1994’s Cross Purposes, 1995’s Forbidden – is pretty rubbish.


Happily, the original line-up had reconciled by the late 1990s and they’ve played together sporadically since then, at least when other work commitments (like Ozzy’s solo career), illness (Iommi was diagnosed as having lymphoma in 2012) and feuding (Bill Ward fell out with everyone else and quit in 2012) didn’t get in the way.  In 2013 they even managed to produce a new album, 13, which while not quite up to their former standards got some positive reviews and produced a decently apocalyptic single, God is Dead?  Filling in for Ward on the drums was Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine.  For Wilk, I imagine getting this job must have been a dream come true.


Well, it seems they’ve finally called it a day.   Maybe that’s just as well in Ozzy’s case, since the old boy’s 67 now and surely needs to take it easy after a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, excess and idiocy.  (At Christmas, after the news that George Michael and Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt had died within the space of 24 hours, a friend said to me worriedly, “At this rate Ozzy’s not going to make it to the Bells.”)


They deserve to enjoy their retirement for their legacy is huge.  Their weighty fingerprints are all over musical movements like grunge and hardcore punk.  And they’re clearly major influences on such metallic sub-genres as black metal, doom metal, goth metal, power metal, sludge metal, speed metal and stoner metal.  Indeed, they’re responsible for producing more metal than the Brummie steelworks where the young Tony Iommi lost his fingertips and almost lost his future in music.




This week’s favourite song of all time




Great news!  I’ve found a brand new Favourite Song of All Time.  For this week anyway.


Actually, I find a brand new Favourite Song of All Time practically every week of my life.  In the past this title of Favourite Song of All Time has been held by everything from Jubilee Street by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Duality by Slipknot, from The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash to Bikini Girls with Machine Guns by the Cramps, from Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy to Touch Too Much by AC/DC, from Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada to John Carpenter’s theme for Assault on Precinct 13.  (All right, those last two are ‘tunes’ rather than ‘songs’.)  A very long time ago, when I was very young, I remember the title being held by such epics as Benny Hill’s Ernie (“And he drove the fastest milk-cart in the west”) and David Bowie’s The Laughing Gnome (“Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”)  See?  Poor David Bowie is dead now but I still can’t shut up about The Laughing Gnome.


I discovered this week’s Favourite Song of All Time when recently I visited a second-hand CD, vinyl and DVD fair held near where my family live in Scotland.  While I scoured a rack of old rock-and-pop CDs, a sudden and inexplicable impulse compelled me to fork over four pounds for a compilation called The Very Best of Rainbow.


Rainbow were formed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore after he quit the seminal heavy metal band Deep Purple in the mid-1970s.  Actually, lots of people were quitting Deep Purple and starting new groups in those days.  Another was former Purple vocalist David Coverdale, who formed the band Whitesnake.  I became aware of Blackmore and Coverdale’s post-Purple projects when I noticed at school how the heavy metal kids had split into two antagonistic factions, those who had the Rainbow logo stitched onto the backs of their denim jackets and were always slagging off Whitesnake, and those with the Whitesnake logo on their jackets who were always slagging off Rainbow.  It resembled a head-banging version of the rivalry that broke out in the Soviet Union between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin was incapacitated.


There was actually a third musical splinter from Deep Purple – the band Gillan, run by Ian Gillan, who’d been the Purple vocalist prior to Coverdale.  However, the one thing that seemed to unite the Rainbow and Whitesnake factions at my school was the belief that Gillan’s outfit were a pile of old bollocks.


Rainbow found fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they reached the UK singles top ten with rocked-up power ballads like Since You Been Gone and I Surrender, the former with vocals by Australian Graham Bonnet and the latter sung by Bonnet’s replacement, American Joe Lynn Turner.  These songs gave me the impression that, for a supposed heavy metal band, Rainbow were a bit lame and soppy.  This was an era, after all, when Mötorhead were blowing the roofs off teenage parties and giving parents ear-bleed with Ace of Spades.  However, a listen to The Very Best of Rainbow has reminded me that in the years before Bonnet and Turner, the band had a very different type of vocalist: Ronnie James Dio.




Dio, at five feet, four inches tall, wasn’t the biggest physical presence in heavy metal.  But he had a big voice – an Italian-American, he was heavily influenced by opera, especially by the 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.  He also had a big vision, for he was into all things medieval and particularly into Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy.  No wonder that he was fronting a band called Elf when he hooked up with Blackmore.  And his obsessions inform the highlight of his collaboration with Blackmore: the stomping anthem Stargazer, originally found on the 1976 Rainbow album, Rising.  When I listened to Stargazer the other day, I immediately thought: “Wow!  That’s my favourite song of all time!”


Stargazer begins with a madcap cacophony of drums courtesy of Rainbow’s then drummer, the late Cozy Powell.  (By the time of his death in 1998 Powell seemed to have belonged to every heavy metal band that’d ever existed, including Whitesnake, the Michael Schenker Group, Black Sabbath and Yngwie Malmsteen.  For a while he was even in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who renamed themselves Emerson, Lake and Powell during his tenure.)  Then we get into the song proper: an unstoppably slugging riff and Dio hollering ominously about a wizard who glides ‘lighter than air.’  When the song rises towards the first of many crescendos, so the hairs rise too on the back of your neck as Dio wails: “Oh, I see his fa-a-ace!”


So what’s going on?  As the song progresses, it transpires that a powerful wizard – one of the Saruman rather than the Gandalf variety – has enslaved an army of people and set them to work constructing an impossibly-high tower, as in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  But his purpose is not to reach heaven.  When the thing is finished, he intends to jump off the top of it and fly.  I like how Dio gives the tale a proletarian tone by telling it from the point of view of one of the wizard’s slaves.  Thus the chorus goes: “In the heat and the rain / With whips and chains / Just to see him fly / So many die! / We build a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone / Just to see him fly / Don’t know why!”


Right on, Ronnie.  Up the workers!


Much of the music is splendid, flavoured with a delicious Middle Eastern sound that accords with lyrics like “Hot wind moving fast across the desert.”  Supposedly, Blackmore used an unidentified Turkish instrument during the recording and I assume it contributes a lot to Stargazer.


© Polydor Records


Incidentally, if the song sounds heavy even by the standards of 1970s heavy metal, it’s because you’re not just listening to Rainbow.  For the recording, Blackmore managed to recruit the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, so you can hear them clunking around in there too.  Yes, if you’re going to go over the top, you might as well do so in style.


Also going over the top, two-thirds of the way through, is the wizard, who climbs the completed tower in preparation for flying.  And guess what happens next?  “No sound as he falls instead of rising / Time standing still, now there’s blood on the sand”.  With the vainglorious wizard reduced to a sticky red smear back on terra firma, the slave-narrator finds himself unexpectedly free.  The song ends with Dio singing, “I’m coming home, coming home, I’m coming home!”


The song isn’t perfect.  Around the five-minute stage, Blackmore’s guitar doodlings reach barely-acceptable levels of wankiness.  But overall, those eight minutes and 26 seconds of Stargazer are a great deal of fun.  Its crunching riffage would, for instance, sound brilliant played in a cheesy giant monster movie, during a scene where two Godzilla-type behemoths slug it out in the middle of a city and flatten everything around them.  Actually, Guillermo Del Toro could do worse than buy the rights to Stargazer when he finally gets around to filming Pacific Rim II.


Rainbow initially folded in 1984, but returned for four years in the 1990s with Scotsman Doogie White as their fourth vocalist.  And I’ve heard that during the summer of 2016 the band has been playing concerts again, though apart from Blackmore the line-up is a completely new one.


Meanwhile, Ronnie James Dio formed his own band, Dio, in 1982.  He also managed, over the years, to be a member of Black Sabbath – his albums with them, Heaven and Hell (1980), Mob Rules (1981) and Dehumanizer (1992), are the only Sabbath ones without Ozzy Osbourne on vocals that are worth listening to.  An endearing and witty character who clearly didn’t take himself too seriously – check out his cameo appearance in the Jack Black comedy Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (2006) or his interview in the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey – he sadly died from stomach cancer in 2010.


By the way, it’s said that Dio invented the ‘devil’s horns’ salute that’s ubiquitous at heavy metal concerts today.  He allegedly got the idea for it from a superstitious Italian grandmother who’d raise her index finger and little finger as a way of warding off the evil eye.  If this is true, then heavy metal fans owe a lot not just to Dio, but also to Dio’s granny.