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Black Sabbath interview: Tony Iommi

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Black Sabbath 2012 Courtesy Photo

Black Sabbath is back! Left to right: Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi (interview) are headed to Tampa. COURTESY PHOTO

There are tales of musicians being excommunicated from the Church, or worse, for playing the interval. Dubbed diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music"), the diminished fifth has been known to be the sound of Satan since at least the 1700s. Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi brilliantly implements diabolus in musica in the main riff of the song probably most responsible for spawning heavy metal.

Iommi played his evil composition to band mates Geezer Butler (bass) and Ozzy Osbourne (vocals). Lyrics were inspired by the works of supernatural author Dennis Wheatley and a Boris Karloff film called “Black Sabbath.” The song opens Black Sabbath’s debut album of the same name and altered the course of popular music upon its release in 1970.

Tony Iommi 2007

Tony Iommi arrives at the Third Annual Classic Rock Roll of Honor at The Landmark Hotel, in London Monday Nov. 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Nathan Strange)

“I came up with the riff and then Ozzy started singing a type of melody and then Geezer wrote the lyrics to the melody,” Iommi says during a recent phone interview. “It’s the same on ‘13,’ and Ozzy wrote some lyrics as well once we established the melody line. But it always starts with the riff.”

Until this year, Black Sabbath had not released a studio album since 1995 and none with Osbourne since 1978. But support for the band, especially the lineup featuring the three founding members responsible for the most important contributions, apparently never faded. In June, Black Sabbath scored its first ever U.S. No. 1 with “13.”

The album sold 155,000 copies in its debut week, 100,000 more units than the No. 2 album on the Billboard chart. The album, praised by critics for capturing the classic Sabbath sound, also topped the charts in the U.K., Denmark, Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland. It features Brad Wilk, of Rage Against the Machine, on drums.

“It’s just been fantastic,” Iommi says. “It’s really been this great bit of a whirlwind with the whole thing sort of happening all over world. But to see it go number one in America after all these years is just amazing.”

Work on the album started in 2001. But then founding drummer Bill Ward dropped out of recording and the group’s upcoming tour, which visits MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa Monday, because of contract disputes. Osbourne had a solo record to complete and numerous other distractions. More problematic, Iommi was diagnosed in early 2012 with lymphoma.

“There were things coming up, obviously my health problem, and Bill Ward was in, and then out,” Iommi says. “It had its ups and down but we finally have done it.”
Rick Rubin, who has helmed hit recordings by everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay-Z to Metallica, produced “13.” In the making-of-the-album documentary, Rubin says he’s a lifelong fan of Black Sabbath and had originally met with the band 15 years ago in an attempt to produce their next recording.

Black Sabbath discography: Ozzy Osbourne era

“I feel like it’s timeless,” Rubin says of the finished product. “I think it could be old and it could be in the future because it’s a pure sound. It sounds natural. It just sounds like Black Sabbath.”

Asked to describe working with Rubin, Iommi lets out a polite laugh.

“Different,” Iommi says. “I think it worked out good in the end but at first we were not sure what it would be like. We had just heard things from other people, other artists. You never know but at the end of the day I thought it worked really well. He worked differently than we expected but the end results are really good.”

Black Sabbath, which last toured with Osbourne in 2005 and were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame the following year, launched its world tour in support of “13” with an April show in New Zealand. The North American tour begins Thursday in Houston. In addition to Tampa on Monday, Black Sabbath’s other Florida date is Wednesday at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach. Iommi chuckles again when asked about the difference between touring today with Black Sabbath versus in the 1970s.

“Oh God, it’s totally different, very different, I think everybody’s attitude is great, everybody wants to do it, you don’t have pressure like in the ‘70s,” he says. “We don’t have to prove anything but to ourselves and enjoy what we do. In the ‘70s, there was a lot of pressure and of course all the drugs and God knows what else over the years. But we’re all fine now and just really enjoy doing what we do.”

tony ozzy black sabbath 1985

Ozzy Osbourne, left, and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath perform during the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, Pa., July 13, 1985. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

Before Black Sabbath started filling stadiums and inhaling copious amounts of cocaine in the 1970s, its members were four kids growing up in the bleak industrial city of Birmingham, England. Iommi was just starting to excel at playing blues-based guitar when a factory accident sliced off the tips of two of his fingers. A doctor told him his guitar days were done.

“I couldn’t accept that and it made me really know that's what I wanted to do, whatever it takes and even with people saying I couldn’t overcome that hurdle,” Iommi says. “That’s what I tended to do from that day, not give up. I also think (the accident) made me come up with my style of playing.”

From 1970 to 1975, Black Sabbath released six heavy metal masterpieces. “Black Sabbath” is the most influential heavy metal album of all time, opening with the haunting, black-rain-falling title track and never letting up with classic cuts like “The Wizard” and “N.I.B.”

Probably Black Sabbath’s best and most popular album, “Paranoid,” also released in 1970, includes the hit title track, the killer protest song “War Pigs” and “Iron Man,” which features one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time.

“I liked it,” Iommi says with an almost embarrassed laugh when asked about his reaction to creating the mighty sonic force. “I liked the feel of it. It always has to be that way with a song. I have to get that initial kick or I won’t use it. I have thousands of riffs we haven't used.”

“Master of Reality,” perhaps the first stoner metal album, followed in 1971. It includes the pro-marijuana masterstroke “Sweet Leaf” and the chilling “Children of the Grave.” “Black Sabbath Vol. 4” (1972) features the band’s first ballad, the Iommi piano beauty “Changes.”

“I had never even played piano before, just accordion, at age 10,” Iommi recalls. “It just happened that the house we stayed at when we were recording ‘Volume 4’ had this ballroom with a piano and I’d sit in there late at night and start learning to play and it was the first thing I came up with.”

“Volume 4” also contains ultra-hard, fast and heavy rockers like the cocaine-ode “Snowblind” and “Supernaut.” The latter led to a jam session, long though to just be a rock ‘n’ roll myth, with Led Zeppelin.

Black Sabbath_1970s_trio

Black Sabbath circa 1970 / COURTESY PHOTO

“Yeah, we did,” Iommi says of the two rock titans playing together. “We knew John Bonham and (Robert) Plant from playing around the same time and they came down with their band to the studio to see us when we were recording and they totally disrupted the session so we just jammed. I remember Bonham yelling, ‘Let’s play Supernaut!’”

Iommi added, “I would see Bonham a lot and got to hear a lot of the early Zeppelin stuff before it was recorded.”

Black Sabbath continued its winning streak with “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (1973) and “Sabotage” (1975) but by the time “Technical Ecstasy” came out in 1976, the pressure to produce and the substance abuse were wearing down the band. However, the album still contains some bright spots, most notably “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” and “Dirty Women.” But 1978’s “Never Say Die!” is pretty much all filler except for the title track.

Black Sabbath toured behind the album before Iommi and the other band members decided to fire Osbourne, whose cocaine and alcohol intake were reaching life-threatening levels.

“I’ve always thought we'd work together again," Iommi recalls. “I never doubted at some point we’d work together again. We’ve always stayed in touch, all of us, whether we’re in the same band or not, we stay in touch. I’ve known Ozzy 50 years; going back to school days. That's a helluva long time.”

Osbourne would go on to become a solo star while Iommi maintained Black Sabbath with numerous singers. The original Black Sabbath lineup performed at Live Aid in 1985. Twelve years later, Iommi, Butler and Osbourne officially reunited to co-headline the Ozzfest tour and, joined by Ward, released the hit live album “Reunion.”
An exciting collection of fan favorites, the album earned the group its only Grammy Award -- Best Metal Performance “Iron Man.” Osbourne speaks at length about his admiration for Iommi’s playing, and ability to create fresh material, in the documentary “13.”

“Through all our feuds and fights and arguments and falling outs, I’ve always said one thing,” Osbourne says. ”That is there is no other player on the face of the earth that can beat Tony Iommi for riffs. He’s the king of riffs.”

BLACK SABBATH WITH OPENING ACT ANDREW W.K., 7:30 p.m. Monday (July 29); MidFlorida Amphitheatre, 4802 U.S. Hwy. 301, Tampa; $40-$143.50; (800) 745-3000; livenation.com

Wade_Tatangelo_by_Mike_Lang_HT_06212013 Wade Tatangelo has been an entertainment reporter, columnist and reviewer for more than a decade at publications nationwide. He is a Hershey, Pa., native who grew up in Tampa and graduated from the University of South Florida. Wade joined the Herald-Tribune in 2013. He can be reached by email or call (941) 361-4955.
Last modified: July 25, 2013
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