Back in Black

Ozzy, Tony Geezer, and Bill—four for the road

Exploding from the British industrial murk of late-’60s Birmingham, Black Sabbath almost single-handedly created the genre known as heavy metal. The band became infamous for its ultraheavy riffs, as well as for lyrical themes more akin to Rosemary’s Baby than to the flower power of the day. But a decade later, substance abuse, infighting, and management problems had taken their toll. The original lineup—singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward—finally split in 1978.

Black Sabbath

KeyArena, Tuesday, January 12

Time heals all wounds, though. The original members regrouped in 1997, and have now released a long-awaited live album, appropriately titled Reunion (Virgin). New Year’s Eve saw the kickoff of a massive world tour that hits Seattle this week.

The band that penned such drug anthems as “Sweet Leaf” and “Snowblind” promises that this tour will be a cleaner affair than its famed ’70s outings. Iommi claims he can’t remember many anecdotes from those heady times, anyway: “Back then it was all booze, coke, and smoke. But we didn’t take notes or anything, because it was just the way we lived every day.”

“It was everything-goes in the ’70s,” agrees Butler, chuckling. “There was no AIDS, or anything like that. Whatever I could get, I’d do back then. We sometimes ask ourselves how we survived.

“But, the turning point for me,” he continues, “was getting married and having kids. You have to either knock it on the head, or kill yourself with it. We saw so many of our friends getting burned out—they were just the shells of the people we once knew. With us, it started affecting the music, and how we felt about each other. That’s why the original band split.”

After the breakup, singer Osbourne went on to an extremely successful solo career, despite struggles with addiction and the tragic death of his guitarist, Randy Rhoads. Sabbath also pushed on, finding renewed success with singer Ronnie James Dio. But a clash of egos led to Dio’s resignation in ’82, leaving the band in a Spinal Tap scenario with revolving-door vocalists. Disillusioned, Butler and Ward left to concentrate on sobering up. Iommi remained to carry the Sabbath name alone.

Fans speculated whether the original group would ever be heard again. Bitter press jabs by the former bandmates made a reunion seem unlikely. But finally, after years of rumors, Osbourne, Iommi, and Butler hit the road in the summer of ’97, as part of the Ozzfest Tour. Something still wasn’t quite right, however.

“It was just the three original members, and Mike Borden [from Faith No More] on drums,” says Butler. “Even though it was good, and musically it went down well, it just felt like something was missing. We didn’t actually realize how important Bill really had been to the overall feel of Sabbath. No other drummer has got that, and it’s never really complete without him—or any of us, really.”

“With all of us coming from the same town, we all relate so much to each other,” adds Iommi. “It’s always been a thing with this band. When somebody’s new, there’s a weird feeling. With this lineup it’s like old friends getting together.”

Religious demonstrators still occasionally picket Black Sabbath concerts. Butler insists, however, that the band members were never the Satan worshipers people loved to tag them as. “The whole Satanic thing was misinterpreted,” he says. “To us it was a bit of a joke, right from the beginning. But a lot of people heard the name of the band, plus lyrics like ‘Satan’s coming ’round the bend,’ and figured we were all personally into Satan. If they’d really listened, they’d have found we were against all that stuff.”

Still, easy listening this was not. Exactly what was the message in songs like “Children of the Grave”?

“We were trying to say that the real Satan was here on earth, alive and well, in the shape of most politicians,” Butler explains. “When we started, it seemed England was about to be dragged into the Vietnam War. Of course, we were all front runners for conscription—working class, out of a job, into the army, and dead next week. We were just saying Satan was something right here. Not in some place you go after you die.”

The political landscape may have changed a bit since the ’70s, but Butler claims that Black Sabbath now has more clarity than it ever had. “In the past, we lost a lot of confidence,” he says. “We were slagged to death in the press, and the record company lost interest in us—even though we were selling out every gig, 20,000 people a night. Now we’ve got all the confidence in the world—and it shows in the music.”

But why has this reunion been so long coming? “We just got fed up with always saying no,” Butler says matter-of-factly. “Obviously there’s a demand there, otherwise we wouldn’t even be dreaming of doing this. We wouldn’t flog a dead horse. But the demand has become overwhelming.”