I didn’t really get Black Sabbath until 1998. Until then I had been firmly of the opinion that they were one of those 1970s juggernauts that had rightly been overturned by the roadside bomb that was punk. A band that deserved to be consigned to the scrapheap of bloated albums and even more bloated stars. Then one miserable Saturday evening in Birmingham, after a day of drinking, football, and curry a friend and I were standing outside smoking a fag, looking at the grim Birmingham mist, and I decided to put a Sabbath album on. From the moment it started we both looked at each other and had pretty much the same revelation. We somehow saw the band in a new light, and from that point I have appreciated what an amazing band they were.
Despite this I was really in two minds about going to see Black Sabbath on their current world tour. After all so much has been written about them over the years, about the splits, the bust ups, the drugs and drink, the debauchery that came with being an rock ‘n’ behemoth in the 1970s. And then there’s Ozzy: frequently portrayed as a cartoon character, even after he re-invented himself first as a solo artist, and then as a reality soap character in The Osbournes.
On the other hand Black Sabbath released a run of five absolutely killer albums in the early 1970s, albums that did more than any other band to develop Metal, and with it the many and varied offshoots that that genre has spawned. But not only Metal, because you can hear Black Sabbath in all manner of bands the span a huge range of rock, and even pop (listen, for instance, to N.I.B. and tell me that there was not a pop sensibility in there too).
And this is the issue for me. While the likes the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin flew off with all the plaudits, Black Sabbath remained ignored by the so-called arbiters of taste and this fits with their general biography. They have always been the outsiders, the four grubby Brummy boys looking through the window at the party, but never really being asked to join in. Yet they have survived, they are all still alive, and they are back together (I will talk about Bill Ward in a minute).
So I went back to those first five albums to see why this might be, why I fell for them on that bleak night in the Midlands. Even this did not fully convince me, and I could not help but think that the gig could would be at best disappointing, but more than likely embarrassing. In the end what tipped the balance for me was hearing their new album, 13. This is an album that it mature and honest, and unmistakably Black Sabbath. It is one of a string of albums by ‘mature artists’ that is produced by Rick Rubin, someone who gets the most out of these artists by encouraging them to go back to their own musical beginnings, using this as a lens to reflect on their current lives and the lives they have lived. This worked remarkably well with Johnny Cash and, in my opinion, has happened with Black Sabbath. This is a album that sounds like a band back together and serious about making music. Buying a ticket, I decided, was worth the risk.
So did the risk pay off? You bet it did, from the opening chords or War Pigs, to a stunning encore of Paranoid, Black Sabbath delivered a two hour show of great virtuosity and amazing intensity. A performance that belied not only the ages of the band, but the lives that they have led.
It is at this point that I feel that I should introduce the Elephant in the room: Bill Ward. There is no doubt in my mind that Black Sabbath would not have been the band they were had it not been for Bill (you an say exactly the same about Ringo in the Beatles). Bands as successful as Sabbath need that perfect balance between members, and without Bill’s jazz-style drumming it is very conceivable that they might not have pulled it of.
Having said that, and I know many Sabbath fans will not agree, the other three members made the call to leave Bill out and while you cannot say whether the result is better or not, what I can say is that in Tommy Clufetos, Black Sabbath have a outstanding drummer who really drives their performance (perhaps in a way that a drummer thirty years older could not), and who delivered an absolutely breathtaking solo two-thirds of the way through the set.
This, then, was a gig where you got the feeling that here was a band that was happy to be back together again. That was happy to acknowledge its past (especially through the inclusion of Snowblind), and for whom the phrase ‘here’s one from our new album’ didn’t fill the audience full of dread. Indeed, the tracks from 13, especially End of the Beginning and God is Dead, fitted very well into a set whose highs included War Pigs, Iron Man, Black Sabbath, N.I.B. and Paranoid, together with a slew of albums tracks that would keep the hardcore fans happy.
At the centre of the performance was Ozzy, the natural showman who had the crowd in the palm of his hand from beginning to the end without, should you wish to analyse it, actually doing that much. True, the evidence of his hard-lived life is there for all to see. But he is still there doing it night after night. This is Ozzy, who still comes across as an ordinary bloke despite everything, and this is surely the key to his popularity.
Then there’s Geezer Bulter, the band’s deceptively intelligent lyricist whose bass playing somehow keeps it all together. All great bands operate on the edge of chaos, Geezer stops Sabbath tipping over. His rhythms provide the band with its heft, the way he shadows Iommi’s guitar gave Sabbath it’s unique sound, helping them move away from the pack of also ran blues based rock ‘n’ roll bands.
The real revelation for me though was Tommy Iommi. I had never before appreciated what an amazing guitarist he is. He delivered riff after riff and solo after solo of mesmerising music throughout the set, ranging from delicate and infectious to the full on metal sound that he effectively invented. I longed for him to be on the big screen all the time as I could have watched him work all night. Beyond stunning!
This then was an amazing gig and a brilliant surprise for me. It was a gig that cut away all the crap that that’s been written about the band over the years. A gig that smashed down the walls of preconceptions. A gig that revealed the real Black Sabbath to me. The Black Sabbath that are a seminal rock ‘n’ roll band. The Black Sabbath without whom many of my favourite bands would not sound like they do. The Black Sabbath who are at their most basic a group of talented and honest musicians.
I have no idea when the band will do another tour like this, Ozzy has other irons in the fire, and Tommy has had some serious health problems, but if this was their last hurrah it is one that is worthy of them, a fitting and dignified finale to an amazing journey.
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