Black Sabbath reach the end of the road, mostly intact
The British heavy metal stalwarts are making one last world tour while they still have the stamina to put on a show befitting their punishingly loud and thunderous back catalogue
The way Ozzy Osbourne put it, his wife, Sharon, might have the final say on whether Black Sabbath really are calling it quits after finishing their 2016 tour, which the band has firmly named The End.
“[We’re] not going to come back together in three years when we all run out of cash,” the heavy metal godfather insists, then ponders the distinct possibility of actually going broke: “[I] certainly will if my wife won’t stop shopping.”
Osbourne is joking, of course. But the most obvious question surrounding this tour gets a straight answer: is this really “the end” for arguably the most legendary and vital band in heavy metal?
“It’s definitely the end,” says founding member Geezer Butler. “We’re all getting up there in age, and while we’re still at the top of our profession, both musically and aesthetically, we wanted to go out on the top and we feel that this is the right time to do it.”
On the 2016 tour, which moves from North America to Australia and New Zealand next month, then on to Europe in June and July before the final concerts in the US in September, Osbourne is being joined by two of the other three original Sabbath members, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Butler.
Osbourne adds: “I think it’s run its course. Black Sabbath [has] been up and down. And it’s good that we’ve come back together at the end, more or less, to finish on a high note.”
Of course, the band aren’t entirely put back together. Which brings us to the second most obvious question surrounding the tour: why isn’t original drummer Bill Ward performing on it?
The influential, co-founding band member has been an outcast from the group since 2013, when the other three members recorded the first Ozzy-helmed Black Sabbath studio album in 35 years, 13, with Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk filling in. On this tour, Ward’s shoes are being filled by Tommy Clufetos, who drummed on Osbourne’s most recent solo tours.
When the Ward question comes up, Butler passes the buck to Osbourne: “That’s Ozzy’s specialty,” he says.
Osbourne, in turn, dodges the query. “Next question, please,” he says, then adds: “Anytime I say anything more about Bill Ward, I get another 5,000 complaints.”
In previous interviews, Osbourne has alleged that Ward can no longer endure the physical demands of drumming for an entire Black Sabbath concert. However, Ward has strongly contested those claims and instead says that Sharon Osbourne, who is also Ozzy’s long-time manager, presented the drummer with an “unsignable” contract that did not give him a fair share of the band’s income.
The closest Osbourne comes to addressing the matter further is some modest hype for Clufetos: “He’s doing a good job of filling in. Everybody seems to like him.”
The squabble with Ward is just the latest in a long history of infighting within Black Sabbath, who formed in 1968 amid grim economic times in the band’s industrial hometown of Birmingham, England.
As Osbourne recalls of the band’s origins: “It was really ugly. People back then were writing about peace stuff and hippies and all that stuff, [but] it was false and ugly. They’re all living on a fantasy. So we decided a different approach and the reality of what is going down in this world.”
Things later got ugly between Osbourne and his bandmates. They fired him for erratic, drunken behaviour in 1978, eight years after the group broke out with the title track of their second album, Paranoid, and another of metal’s most iconic tracks, Iron Man.
Ward also came and went in the ’80s while the band enlisted a rotating cast of singers, including Rainbow’s Ronnie James Dio and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
All four original Sabbath members finally came back together – and to great response – in 1997, when they recorded the live album Reunion. A few more tours followed, but then the band were sidelined in 2012 when Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Osbourne is more forthcoming when asked about his other original bandmate’s health.
“As far as we know, he’s doing great,” he says. “I went to have dinner with him about two or three weeks ago, and he sounds great. He looks great. He’s ready to go.”
Things turn more sombre when Ozzy opens up about another musical friend, Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, whose funeral he attended last December.
“We had a long-term friendship,” Osbourne says, pointing back to one of his first solo tours in 1980 with Motörhead as an opening act. “He did a lot of shows with me. And he lived the lifestyle to the end, you know. I went down to South America with him last year, and that was crazy, but he looked very weak and frail.
“On the day he died, Sharon and I were just going out to see him and see how he was doing. And we’re just getting in the car, we had a phone call saying he’s gone, and it was like, ‘Wow!’ I lost a dear friend there. When you look at him, you wouldn’t think that he’s got a sensible brain, but he was very well read. He was a very clever guy and was a really good mate of mine. I won’t forget Lemmy Kilmister.”
Both Kilmister’s and David Bowie’s deaths come up as Osbourne and Butler further discuss calling it quits. In short, they want to say goodbye while they are still physically able to pull off a strong show.
“I realised on the 13 tour that we couldn’t do it for much longer,” Butler says. “So the natural thing to do is to all agree on one last tour, which we often would feel the same way.”
Osbourne adds: “Up to this time, we all got control of everything, you know, because of our wild lifestyle. I’m glad we survived these times; that we’re all still alive.”
They repeatedly brought up the idea of “ending on a high note”, which mainly referred to the 13 album. The final Sabbath studio record – for which super-producer Rick Rubin lovingly returned the band to the sound they had in their heyday – wound up being the band’s only album to top the US charts and their first Grammy winner.
Four unreleased tracks from the sessions with Rubin and live versions of four of the 13 tracks will be for sale as a mini-LP at shows on this farewell tour.
Despite all the new material, Osbourne says: “We decided not to do so many new songs after the last album, because what people really wanted is the old classics. It takes them back down memory lane.”
In this case, it seems the singer is fine with living in the past.
“Black Sabbath has been through the mill over the years. To come back and be friends with my buddies who I started up with all those years ago, it’s a closure for me.
“I’m glad we ended up having more or less whatever has gone on between us over the years. We’ve got rid of all that. And we are friends again. So it’s good that, at the end of my days on this planet, I can say, ‘Well, we ended OK,’ you know.”
Three of them, anyway.
Tribune News Service