Black Sabbath calls it a day: Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Co play final show

Karan Pradhan

Feb,06 2017 14:37 26 IST

Is this the end of the beginning?
Or the beginning of the end?
Losing control or are you winning?
Is your life real or just pretend?

- End of the Beginning from the album 13 (2013)

From the evidence of the video above that was livestreamed on Facebook during Black Sabbath's 'final show' in the band's hometown of Birmingham, UK, it would certainly appear to be the end of the end. But then, we've heard that sort of thing before. The band has gone its separate ways only to reunite later on numerous occasions in the past. Frontman Ozzy Osbourne had called it quits in 1992 after his 'No More Tours' tour with his solo lineup, only to return to action three years later. And elsewhere on the rock/metal landscape, several bands have returned to action after calling it quits 'for real this time', not least among which are KISS, Nine Inch Nails and Mötley Crüe.

So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I will tread deeper into this piece marking the 'end' of Black Sabbath. That said, if it is indeed the end, then this piece is extremely timely.

On Saturday, 4 February, 2017 — a date that will probably attain great significance in the world of rock 'n' roll trivia and pub quizzes — Ozzy, bassist 'Geezer' Butler (no one calls him 'Terence'; no one), guitarist Tony Iommi and sessions/live drummer and keyboardist Tommy Clufetos and Adam Wakeman respectively played the last-ever Black Sabbath show at Birmingham's Genting Arena. One thing that will remain regrettable is the fact that the band and founding drummer and all-round drumming legend Bill Ward were unable to reconcile their differences — widely believed to be about compensation — and reunite the original members for one final bow. That said, as someone who has steadfastly maintained that the sum is always greater than the parts, the inability to reconcile with Bill only took a bit of sheen off what by all accounts was a humdinger of a farewell show. Whether or not the band was still as relevant and vital in 2017 or even the 21st Century for that matter, is open to debate. However, that debate can be held at another time.

Right now, it's time to appreciate the legacy of a band that has been active for 43 of the 49 years since its inception — 2006 to 2011 saw its members take a hiatus — and turn into one of the biggest names in the world of rock/metal music. And before we take a trip down memory lane, it's worth setting the right mood. An assumption being made at this point is that you're familiar with the likes of Iron ManParanoidSabbath Bloody SabbathWar Pigs, Snowblind, NIBFairies Wear Boots and Sweet Leaf. (If you aren't serious, questions must be asked about whether you really should be reading this article in the first place). Nevertheless, here is, to me, a compilation of the finest slices of Black Sabbath's music.  

 

Back in 1969 and after playing shows under a series of fairly poor monikers, it was Boris Karloff's film Black Sabbath that inspired Messrs Iommi, Ward, Butler and Osbourne to adopt it as the name of the band. The rationale was apparently a combination of the fact that the name suited the occult themes with which the band was dabbling and that if people paid to get scared by films, they would likely do the same for music — as observed by Geezer. And little did they know at the time that those two words would go on to adorn millions of albums, t-shirts and body parts worldwide.

Arriving at the end of the of decade of free love, the band's eponymous debut record (released this very week 47 years ago) was as dark and gloomy and end to the era of flower power as you could have hoped for. And sporting such genre-defining tracks as NIB, The Wizard and of course, the title track featuring its iconic use of the Devil's Interval, the band had issued its loud and indeed frightening mission statement. Over four years, the band put out five astonishing albums that dabbled with a variety of subject matter — Gandalf the wizard, the work of HP Lovecraft, depression, war-mongering, drugs, more drugs and of course, the Devil — and in the process, established a few indisputable facts.

First, Tony Iommi was a factory of riffs, who didn't let a horrific injury end a fledgling career. Instead, he turned it to his advantage and started a trend of using downtuned guitars and lighter gauge strings — something that would be emulated no less than a million times in the following years.

Second, there were very few drummers in the world who pounded the proverbial skins as hard as Bill Ward did and sported the massive sound he did.

Third, it's safe to say the world had never chanced upon a frontman like Ozzy Osbourne before — in equal parts, entertaining, engrossing, intriguing, amusing and competent with a penchant for self-destruction.

Fourth, the lyrical genius and musical understanding of Geezer Butler not only propelled him up the charts of the world's best bassist-lyricists, it also helped redefined all notions of what a bass guitar could be — driving a song forward rather than just going along like a passenger.

Fifth, and possibly most important of all, Sabbath had invented heavy metal and would go on to father a host of sub-genres within the field.

Original members of Black Sabbath announce their reunion during a news conference in 2011. This reunion would be short-lived. Reuters

Original members of Black Sabbath announce their reunion during a news conference in 2011. This reunion would be short-lived. Reuters

The 1970s saw Black Sabbath put out, arguably, its most fantastic body of work and become a global force. Unfortunately, the band's growing success brought with it a growing list of temptations and Ozzy wholeheartedly embraced the category marked 'drugs and alcohol', culminating in his dismissal in 1979. He was replaced by the pint-sized but irrepressible and effervescent Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio.

Technically and musically, Ronnie was far better trained and heaps more gifted than Ozzy. And this showed starkly on the albums Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, where more complex vocal parts coupled with a knack of singing across the melody than with the melody (as Ozzy did) infused a new element into the Sabbath sound. And while support for the band had split into the Ozzy and Ronnie camps, Black Sabbath's stock continued to rise globally, with various tours completed and festivals headlined across the world. In fact, trading in an indisciplined frontman for a thoroughly disciplined one appeared to have done the trick, until Ronnie departed and a string of frontmen followed.

At one point, Tony was the only founding member left, with Geezer and Bill having left for one reason or another.

Not entirely unexpectedly, the revolving door of musicians yielded mixed results in terms of style as well as quality of output. And by the time the band released its final record of the 20th Century — 1995's universally-panned Forbidden, Black Sabbath's time appeared to be over. In the rest of the world, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), thrash metal, doom metal and black metal among others had changed the face of music and the latest offspring, nu metal was all set to dominate the globe (albeit for a few years). The spine-chilling intonation of "What is this that stands before me?" felt like eons ago.

But, two short years later, the founder members had buried their respective hatchets and were back on the road and headlining the main stage on Ozzy's own travelling circus — the Ozzfest.

By this point, Sabbath had largely been reduced to a nostalgia act, not unlike several of the band's contemporaries. Sure, they put on fantastic live shows, but somewhere deep inside, the feeling that you would never hear a new Black Sabbath track was unshakable. And when the band went on hiatus in 2006, it seemed those fears had been confirmed. Ozzy was still having a great time playing arenas across the world with his solo lineup and the rest of the band was either taking some time off or working on side-projects.

Fastforward to 2011, when the date '11/11/11' began popping up all over social media.

Apparently, the members of Black Sabbath had a major announcement to make on this palindromic and all-sorts-of-Nelson date. The band was being put back together and would embark on a string of live shows starting with a headlining slot at the UK's Download Festival. And then came the even better news: The band would be putting out 13, its first studio album since 1995, and the first to feature the original lineup since 1978's Never Say Die!

I feared the album would either contain rehashed tracks that had been left off older albums or contain a hodgepodge of covers and remasters. Imagine my surprise when that album was finally released in 2013 and featured nothing of the sort. Sporting 11 tracks (I got my hands on the deluxe edition) that showcased a band seemingly at the top of its game, busting out tracks that sounded as epic in feel as anything released in its first decade, but distinctly modern without letting the trappings of modern-day music (like autotuning, sampling and such-like) cheapen them. I would go so far as to say God is Dead? and Pariah are nearly as good as anything on the debut record.

Despite marvelling at the show put on by the band (sans Bill) at Download and at the quality of 13, it felt the end was near. In fact, the album opener End of the Beginning to which I had alluded indicated as much. And then the band kicked off its 'The End' tour that culminated in Saturday's show in Birmingham.

So what sort of legacy does Black Sabbath leave behind?

Alongside the band's complete lack of pretension, the truth is that it's impossible to sum it all up in one piece, and a proper response to that question will probably require the space afforded by a thick book. And even a book will be more likely to focus on in-fighting and controversy*. Possibly more entertaining than said book — and a lot more accurate — will be to listen to bands ranging from Metallica and Megadeth, past the likes of Sepultura, Fear Factory and Machine Head, all the way to bands like Lamb of God, Kreator and even Cannibal Corpse for a tiny glimpse of the legacy Black Sabbath leaves behind. It's safe to say none of those bands or their cohorts would be around were it not for Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill.

*It's time we all moved on from that damn bat and its decapitation.