The band who invented heavy metal are back. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler talk to ShortList’s Tom Ellen about life in the most lunatic group ever
Thou shalt observe the Sabbath”: sound advice, not just for Bible readers who love a lazy Sunday, but also for anyone interested in cartoonish rock‘n’roll excess. Since their formation in Aston, Birmingham, in 1968, Black Sabbath have led the charge in ludicrous backstage (and, indeed, onstage) behaviour, forging the genre now known as heavy metal in the process. Without them, there would be no Metallica, no Nirvana and, probably, no This Is Spinal Tap.
The band’s hard-boozing, bat-biting days are over, but they’ve still got fire in their bellies. With 13, the first Sabbath album to feature Ozzy Osbourne in 35 years, having topped the charts, ShortList sat down with the hellraising singer and bassist Geezer Butler to discuss their guide to everything from religious extremism to stolen baby clothes…
1. Anger as many religions as possible
Ozzy: The first single off the new album is called God Is Dead? – I was in a doctor’s office and there was a magazine in there with that line on the cover. I thought, “Yeah – people flew planes into the World Trade Center because of God, there’s all this f*cking sh*t going on in the world in the name of God.”
Geezer: Ozzy gave me that line, and I wrote the lyrics. I wanted to call the song American Jihad.
O: F*ck that [laughs]. I’m the guy at the front singing it; I would have had a f*cking army after me. “And now we’re gonna play… American Jihad” [makes gun sound, mimes slumping down dead]. I’m not worried about assassination, I just hope that if it happens, the bloke’s a good shot and I don’t feel any pain [laughs]. In the early days [of Black Sabbath], there was a lot of backlash from religious groups. I remember once in Memphis there was knock on my hotel room, and there were all these [Christian] kids outside with candles burning. I beckoned them towards me, and just went: [sings] “Happy birthday to you!” I was sent letters written in blood. In my house I must have 25 f*cking Bibles, each with a marked-up passage that [the sender] wanted me to read.
G: Do you remember that time in America, when you burned a Bible in the hotel sink? They allowed the rest of us in, but they said they “wouldn’t have Mr Osbourne back after that”.
2. Quit drugs and drink. Eventually
G: As you get older, you either become a total alcoholic junkie or you get sensible. I think we’re all a bit sensible now. The worst album we’ve made – Never Say Die! – was the one where we were all the most drugged up and drunk. For the first few albums, we couldn’t really afford drugs and booze.
O: Well, you couldn’t [laughs].
G: We were definitely more concentrated on this new album without all that stuff.
O: In my alcoholic days I used to bury bottles of vodka in the garden and then I could never find them again. There were probably rats running around my f*cking garden pissed off their heads. When I decided to throw in the towel on the drugs and alcohol – which I still battle on a daily basis; sometimes I’ll have a drink, but mostly I can’t – someone said: “Do you think it’ll affect your creativity?”
I thought, “F*ck, maybe all that sh*t was what made me come up with these melodies and lyrics.” I was freaking out. But then we made this album without anything like that. I remember one gig [in the Seventies] when we decided: no more coke. First song, we were playing great and I thought, “Hey, we’re much better without coke.” By the second song, the band was all [slumps, head down onto the table]. I’d go behind the speaker and do a couple of bumps, thinking that nobody could see me.
3. Strip back your sound
G: When [Black Sabbath] started out, there was no such thing as heavy metal; we were just a jazz blues band. So, Rick Rubin [who produced 13] wanted to get back to that stripped-back, live sound of our early albums. He said: “Forget heavy metal, you’re not doing a heavy metal album.”
O: I thought he meant a f*cking acoustic thing. Can you imagine an acoustic Sabbath album? Even with the lyrics, he said to me: “I don’t want you to use the word happy.” I had this one lyric: “I’m a happy, isolated man.” Rick told me: “Change happy to crazy.”
4. Be wary of stage invaders
G: We played Milwaukee in 1980 and, just as the lights went down, someone threw a blinking bottle onstage and it whacked me on the head. I was covered in blood, so the tour manager escorted me off, and when the lights finally went up I wasn’t there. The rest of the band didn’t have a clue where I’d gone [laughs].
O: At one show in Tennessee, this guy jumped onstage with a hooded cloak. I did a bit of head-banging with him and then pushed him to the side. Suddenly, the roadie runs up and whacks him with a mic-stand.
I was like, “What the f*ck are you doing?” Then I saw the bloke had a f*cking dagger in his hand. I went: “Hit the c*nt again! Put the boot in.”
5. Consider a life of crime
O: Back in the Sixties, it was all about, “How can I get out of f*cking Aston?” I tried being a thief, which I wasn’t any good at. I kept getting nicked. I broke into one shop and I had my thumb out of the f*cking gloves. That’s how f*cking clever I was. “Yep, thumbprints, we’ve got him.” I didn’t realise it was the fingerprints they got you on. I stole anything I could sell: baby clothes, old-age pensioners’ stuff. I looked great in a pub with a bag full of babies’ vests: “Anyone want these?” I wasn’t exactly the great train robber; I was a f*cking idiot. I was nicking this TV once, and I got it over the wall, but I fell down and the TV landed on my chest. I couldn’t get the f*cking thing off me. So, I had to lie there until they caught me. I wanted to be on television, but the television was on me [laughs].
6. Approach politicians with caution
O: I was at a charity do a while back, and Tony Blair’s looking over at me. This was when the Middle East thing was going on – we’re sending boys over and they’re coming back in f*cking boxes. He comes up, and I thought he was going to say, “Would you mind going out to play to the troops?” but he said, “I was in a rock band once, but I could never quite get the chords to Iron Man.” Are you f*cking kidding me? Is that all you’ve got to say, you d*ckhead?
G: Didn’t you like him? He loves you.
O: He was a pr*ck. Also, when I did that f*cking Jubilee thing for the Queen, Prince William came up. We’d just played Paranoid, and he said “Why didn’t you play [the song] Black Sabbath?” I’m like, “What?” [Laughs] Lovely bloke. Can you imagine him headbanging at the Royal Jubilee? Prince Harry in Vegas was f*cking great. That’s what you should be doing if you’re royalty. You can get anything you want, so why not? Government approved!
Black Sabbath’s latest album 13 is out now; blacksabbath.com Images: Rex/PA