1979 signalled the beginning of three dark and tumultuous years for Birmingham’s Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne had been fired, drummer Bill Ward battled constantly with nearly crippling alcoholism and was eventually let go, and replacement singer Ronnie James Dio embodied an entirely different vocal style and attitude, forcing the band to re-examine its songwriting.
By mid ’79, Black Sabbath were wallowing in a sort of stagnant squalor. Alcoholism and drug use were rampant, and the band’s rehearsal schedule was a stutter-step exhibition in procrastination. Ozzy – he of the trademark voice and on-stage bat-biting theatrics – had ostensibly been let go for lack of creative input, but also because he was an incorrigible drunk.
Enter Ronnie James Dio, former Rainbow lead singer and purported inventor of the now-famous “metal horns” hand gesture. Heaven And Hell would seemingly usher in an era of good feelings for the band. They sounded as good as ever. Hell, they sounded reinvigorated and ready to take the new decade by the horns and wrestle it to the ground in a cloud of blood, sweat, and vibrato. But Heaven And Hell would prove to be a red herring.
Behind the scenes, trouble was brewing. Drummer Bill Ward would be fired only four months after the album’s release – as a result of his constant drunkenness – to be replaced on tour by Vinnie Appice (who was brought in by guitarist Tony Iommi to replace Ward before Ward was even properly fired). “The live show seemed so bare,” Ward would later tell band biographer Stephen Rosen. “Ron was out there doing his thing and I just went ‘It’s gone’. I like Ronnie, but musically, he just wasn’t for me.”
It’s also something of a mystery as to who played bass on Heaven And Hell. Both Geezer Butler (who was absent during much of the writing and rehearsing practice, himself going through a divorce) and Elf bassist Craig Gruber make claims to having played on the album. Ward drummed the entirety but claims to have no memory of the recording process, having seen it all through the hazy fog of a constant hangover.
Even still, the album offers such unrelenting Black Sabbath classics as Neon Knights (sing along, now: “Oh, no! Here it comes again!”), Children Of The Sea, and the sludgy funk-metal of Lady Evil.
If Heaven And Hell was a rebirth for Sabbath, then Mob Rules (the first album to feature Vinnie Appice behind the drums) was its pockmarked adolescence. Mob Rules is as hard-hitting as Heaven And Hell – and in some ways, it rocks harder and louder than its predecessor – but the album’s intentions seem misplaced and mixed up. Upon its release, the album was critically panned. Rolling Stone’s JD Considine gave it one star, writing, “As for the new kid on the block, drummer Vinnie Appice, his thumping is so leaden and uninspired you have to listen twice to notice him.”
But it’s not all Appice’s fault. Sure, his drumming is more straightforward than Ward’s jazzy panache. But by the time Mob Rules came around, the trademark sound of ’80s metal had begun to take shape, and as a result Iommi tapped and flashed his way through licks that were lightning fast (trading speed for substance), while Dio feigned a gruffer Bon Scott influenced growl, accompanied often by thick hairspray harmonies. Add in the urban legend that the cover art houses the hidden message “KILL OZZY” scrawled in gore, and you’ve got the makings for a metal muddle for the ages.
But in retrospect, the album deserves more credit than that. Turn Up The Night, The Sign Of The Southern Cross, and Country Girl are all archetypes of metal as it entered its second proper decade.
During the Mob Rules tour, Black Sabbath – not to be outdone by the unauthorised label release of Live At Last – recorded their first proper live album, Live Evil (a palindrome that begged to be used by someone, sometime). Recorded in Seattle, San Antonio and Dallas, Live Evil captures the spirit of what the band was capable of, re-channelling formerly Ozzy-fronted favourites alongsided the newer Dio repertoire.
If anyone doubted Vinnie Appice’s prowess behind the drum set, a cursory listen to his outstanding solo at the end of War Pigs will alleviate all concerns; it’s quite obvious that he’s a Jon Bonham disciple, and that he’s studied Moby Dick thoroughly. The live versions of Iron Man and Paranoid sound wholly revigourated and impossibly growling, while War Pigs suffers noticeably as Dio tries to capture even a little bit of Ozzy’s manic delivery.
It’s in post-production that Live Evil went off the rails. Crowd noises are nearly non-existent, and as such, the music comes off only as sloppy studio play. When Dio and Appice (the two relative new blokes, who were by now at odds with the band) were accused of sneaking into the studio at night to boost the levels on the vocals and drums respectively, the other shoe dropped. Allegations (themselves alleged; all parties have since denied them) and rumours notwithstanding, Dio and Appice quit the group in October 1982.
In their deluxe editions, Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules both include a second disc of live recordings. The Heaven And Hell recordings come from a decidedly bleary performance in Hartford, Connecticut in 1980, and the Mob Rules live set captures the band at the Hammersmith Odeon in ’82. Live Evil’s deluxe treatment only includes previously edited Dio crowd interactions, which are not really much to speak of, beyond the occasional “All right!” and “Thank you!”
In all cases, the extras certainly provide a glimpse of the band at each respective period, but they’re nonessential and under-produced. The albums speak for themselves without the extra enticement of “deluxe” fluff.
Thirty years later, it’s obvious that Black Sabbath had two options post-Ozzy: give up the ghost or find a new voice. While this period between 1979 and 1982 makes only a scant dent in the modern heavy metal landscape when compared with such Ozzy-fronted classics as Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage, these deluxe editions serve as reminders that Sabbath were instrumental in laying metal’s foundations. Even in their growing pains, and even as they dealt in darkness and perpetual excess, a re-visitation of their darkest period serves as proof that Black Sabbath are well deserving of their place in heavy metal history.
The Deluxe Editions of Black Sabbath’s albums Live Evil, Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules are released through Universal on 5th April 2010.