Why Black Sabbath’s Dio Era Forced Tony Iommi to ‘Work Harder': Exclusive Interview
Tony Iommi is making the best of the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, despite running out of things to binge on Netflix. “I think we’ve watched everything,” he tells UCR, laughing. “We usually go out in the morning for a walk. Where we live it’s very hilly, so we walk up the hills for an hour or so and then come back and decide what we’re going to do basically. It’s not much, because you end up sort of on the computer or fiddling about or playing for a bit, and that’s it really.”
The legendary guitarist has also been writing new music and spending time reflecting on his past with Black Sabbath with a recent spate of expanded editions focusing on earlier material. Their fourth album, the 1972 classic Vol. 4, had an exhaustively curated reissue arrive recently. Still to come are deluxe editions of the group’s first two records with Ronnie James Dio, 1980's Heaven and Hell and 1981's Mob Rules, released as individual two-CD and two-LP sets. Both titles will feature live material and additional mixes of songs - some new and others coming to CD for the first time.
At the time of Dio’s entry into Sabbath in 1979, the band was in shambles. Ozzy Osbourne quit while recording Never Say Die! and was replaced by Dave Walker, who also had short stints as the singer in Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown. Writing and rehearsals of new music and even a performance on the BBC took place, but the union was abandoned when Osbourne briefly returned to the fold before being asked to leave again in the spring of 1979.
Issues remained, as drummer Bill Ward battled growing alcohol issues while bassist Geezer Butler's personal problems led to his brief replacement by Geoff Nichols while recording Heaven and Hell. Butler returned and things settled down long enough to complete the new album in Miami while staying at the home of Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Ward left on the subsequent tour, however, and Vinny Appice filled his role behind the kit.
Somehow, Black Sabbath emerged with two classic LPs with Dio out front, before he, too, moved on in 1982. Iommi talks about the difficulties of incorporating Dio and Appice into the band, the care he took of his prosthetic fingertips and how he views all the different lineups of Black Sabbath.
How are you handling the pandemic, and how is life for you right now?
It’s what it is, isn’t it? You have to deal with it. It’s a real pain for everybody, of course, with this pandemic because it stopped virtually everything in its tracks, music-wise – everything – although I’m still doing stuff at home. I’m waiting, actually, to get my engineer here, because there’s a complete lockdown here in England, so you can’t basically have anyone in your house. Once the pandemic eases up, I’ll get him over and do a bit more writing, and that’s really what I want to get down to. But at the moment, I’ve just been doing like everybody else, just biding my time, really.
In the late '70s, Ozzy Osbourne left, and you brought in Dave Walker for a spell, then Ozzy returned to finish Never Say Die! Following the tour to support the album, you realize it’s an untenable situation and you have to move on without him. Had there been any thought given to calling up Dave and saying, “Hey, Ozzy is out, and this time it’s for good. Do you fancy giving it another go?”
No, we didn’t. I think it had come to a stage in our lives, for all of us, where we’d gone as far as we could at the time. Certainly, Ozzy wasn’t in a condition – I think he lost interest in it, really. And there was more drugs and more booze – and that’s for everybody. It just wasn’t Ozzy, but Ozzy was the one it hit most, really. I think Ozzy was the one who wanted to sort of not do it anymore for a bit. When it came to that crunch, you know, it had to be. We were either going to breakup or continue with another singer. So, we decided to continue with another singer.
Listen to Black Sabbath's 'Neon Knights'
Will those studio recordings with Dave Walker, or even the BBC show where you performed “War Pigs” with him, ever see the light of day on a proper Sabbath release?
I never really thought about it, to be honest. I wouldn’t have thought so, because I think if we’d put it on any box sets with Ozzy, it would’ve infringed on Ozzy, and I don’t think that would’ve been fair. The Dave Walker period, there was nothing really recorded; we’d done a TV show and just some rehearsals, and that’s as far as it went. Then Ozzy came back.
You ended up in Miami in 1979 with Ronnie James Dio to work on what would become Heaven and Hell, and you’re staying in Barry Gibb’s house. Disco was huge, and earlier that year Kiss put out “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and have great success with it. Was there any part of you that thought, “Hmmm ... maybe we should throw a drum machine on that and get Geoff to lay down a funky bass line?”
[Laughs.] No. Never!
That might have been a good one to pull on Geezer Butler. “Welcome back – we’ve decided to do a disco album!”
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, we’d already done that one, actually. We’d done one of those pranks on a few people, to be honest.
Were you worried that people might not take to a Black Sabbath with Dio singing?
When Ronnie came in, it was something very different. We didn’t want to bring in somebody that sounded like Ozzy, because everybody’d be going, “Oh, that sounds like Ozzy.” The idea was to bring in somebody who was completely different and get on with it. We were really confident with what we were writing, and we really liked it. If it hadn’t have done well, it wouldn’t have mattered because we enjoyed what we did – and that’s what it’s always been about for us. You have to enjoy it and love what you’re playing. I sort of enjoyed the slightly different direction it gave us, certainly with Ronnie’s voice and his approach. It made me think differently [about playing]. … It was exciting and a challenge, really.
How difficult was it for you as a musician to adjust to way Ronnie sang, or was it a natural adjustment to make?
It sort of fell into place. As a challenge, I enjoyed doing it - it made me think and work harder at it. Of course, hearing Ronnie’s voice with the things I was playing encouraged me to go somewhere else, different than where I probably would’ve done with Ozz. Also, Ronnie getting involved as well. He’d say, “What about this part there?” or “I like that bit” or “Can you try a different chord there?” It was just trial and error. It was like a new chapter in our lives. It was good.
Watch Heaven and Hell Perform 'The Mob Rules'
While you were touring for Heaven and Hell, you received word that your good friend John Bonham had passed away. In your book, you said as hard as it hit you, people who knew him couldn’t really see it going any other way. Was it a wake-up call for you to sort of slow down a bit?
I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for all of us to make us really think about things. We all had different vices, really. Bill was struggling with his alcohol. You’ve got Ozzy with his alcohol and drugs, and then I got into the drugs – not so much the alcohol. But I think it made us all think at some point, definitely.
Did it affect any of your other relationships, whether it was to a degree where you couldn’t have a friendship or even work with them anymore?
Well, that did happen with us with Bill a bit later on, once we’d got Ronnie and we were [touring Heaven and Hell] at a show in Denver – and Bill just left. He’d just got in his bus and gone. It really shocked me because I’d known Bill long before the others, really. I played with Bill for two or three years before we ever got together with Ozz and Geez. It was a hell of a shock. Again, Bill had gotten to a point to where he was drinking too much, and he wasn’t happy anymore, and for him the idea was to run away from it. We thought he might come back, and eventually, of course, he did [for 1983’s Born Again], but then he went again. He started drinking again, so it was very difficult.
When Vinny joined Black Sabbath, did you see that as a truer representation of how you envisioned the band moving forward musically with Ronnie?
Bringing Vinnie in was another complete shock for me and I was absolutely petrified. I must be honest: I hadn’t played with another drummer for many, many years. Bill knew everything I did and we followed each other, really down to the T, but bringing somebody like Vinny in was a different style drummer. We auditioned him in L.A., and two or three days later we were playing a festival in bloody Hawaii. And Vinny was confident. He said, “I’ll be all right. I’ve made notes of all the songs, and where we’ll do this and do that,” but I wasn’t confident.
On the day of the gig, I remember I’m pacing up and down and Ronnie’s going, “Don’t worry! Stop worrying. It’ll be all right. It’ll be okay,” trying to calm me down. [Laughs.] We walk onstage, and there’s this tiny kit on Bill’s huge drum riser, which looked ridiculous – it looked like a toy kit – which was Vinny’s, of course. And I thought, “You’re never gonna be able to hear it!” Fair dues, Vinny really did pull it off, and he’d done a great job. The only thing was, it started raining and Vinny’s got all his notes and they all smudged. It was like, “Oh, no! What next, for God’s sake!” [Laughs.] But we managed to do it, and Vinny really did to a good job. And from then on, he got the hang of how we worked.
At first, when we used to talk with each other, and we’re all used to the same accents, Vinny couldn’t understand what we were saying. He used to say to Ronnie, “What’d they say?” [Laughs.] And Ronnie would explain to him. It was all a learning curve for all of us and, of course, by the time we got on tour, Vinny was playing really great.
On these new deluxe editions of Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, there are live tracks from the era and different mixes of songs. Why not also include the kind of outtakes and demos that have been included on the expanded versions of the Ozzy albums?
‘Cause we got the songs right in the first place. [Laughs.] That’s probably it, I don’t know. It just happens that some of them we haven’t got many outtakes of stuff and various things go missing and – I don’t know, really.
Sometimes it can be a bit of overload, like on the just released Vol. 4 deluxe edition, there are seven versions of “Wheels of Confusion.”
Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. [Laughs.] Some people really love to hear them. I mean, I wouldn’t like to hear seven versions of the same bloody song, to be honest, but some people do. Some people are fanatical about it, and I think if you’ve got them there and people want to hear them, then [the record company] puts them on.
Watch Heaven and Hell's Video for 'Bible Black'
You did four records with Ronnie. These two are the best known, but how would you personally rank them among that batch?
Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, I loved those albums and I was more sort of stuck in with those. But as we’ve gone on, and we did Dehumanizer years later, and I liked that album. The Devil You Know I really love that. … Obviously, you don’t play your own albums every five minutes, but I played The Devil You Know probably a month ago and I sat there, and I really enjoyed it. Looking back now, at how good that band was with Dio, it was such a tight band in my opinion, and I really enjoy listening to those albums.
Most people view Ronnie and Ozzy as being the two singers of Black Sabbath, but it never devolved into the back and forth that AC/DC or Van Halen fans do with debating on who was the better frontman. Had you done more records with Dio all through the '80s, do you think there would’ve been a deeper divide among fans?
I really couldn’t answer that. … For me, I don’t compare them because they’ve both, in their own right, got their own thing. Ozzy was a great entertainer, a great singer on the early stuff. His voice went perfectly with all the early albums we’d done. Then with Ronnie, a great singer, not so much a great entertainer like Ozzy, but he's got the voice and put it over in a different way. So I think they’re both excellent, but just in their own ways. I wouldn’t say one is better at anything.
When you look at the different iterations of Sabbath, do you look at it as totally different entities or see them as something with a similar musical thread weaving through it that just happened to have different singers at times?
I think it’s just a continuation. It’s something that’s gone on, and it’s so weird with the whole history of Sabbath. People have come and gone so many times. Like Ozzy’s gone, and then he’s come back. Dio was with us, he went and came back, and Tony Martin, with us and come back – and then we end up back with Ozzy at the end. [Laughs.] It’s been a real in-and-out job. It’s all part of the Sabbath history, I suppose. I think it’s all the thread that goes through.
Speaking of Van Halen, I’m not sure if you read the book that came out a few years ago by their manager, but he had a story from when Black Sabbath were on tour with them in 1978. You left your prosthetic fingertips at the previous venue and had to call the band to grab them for you before the next gig. Did that happen a lot in the old days, leaving your prosthetic fingers behind?
No, it never used to really to happen. I was really – oof – really careful of them. But yes, I quite possibly did do that. I don’t know how that would’ve happened, and I don’t really remember it, to tell you the truth, because generally they were so precious to me. They’d be like gold dust. I didn’t have lots of them. I mean, I had a couple of pairs.
You’ve been asked about Eddie [Van Halen] quite a bit since his death, but did you follow Van Halen as a band after that initial tour?
I don’t know if we followed them closely as a band. I mean, obviously I’d hear their stuff on the radio, but without having them on our tour, I would never have gotten to know Eddie for as long as I did. We lost contact for a bit, and then we got back together. He had my number and I had his number, and off we went again. To me, it was more his friendship than anything. He was such a great friend to me and really just a very nice person.
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