Tony Iommi says that Frank Zappa always liked his “Supernaut” riff



By Steve Newton

It’s somewhat ironic that Black Sabbath‘s 1978 album was titled Never Say Die, because that disc actually signalled the end of the group’s original lineup. After eight albums with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, the metal pioneers gave him the boot, replacing him with Ronnie James Dio. Looking back, Sabbath founder and guitarist Tony Iommi couldn’t think of anything else he might have done.

“We’d got to a point with Ozzy that we weren’t goin’ any further,” he recalls, on the line from L.A. (hours before a lunch date with Osbourne). “There was too many drugs and too much drink around-and that’s not just him, that was all of us. I mean we were all going downhill. We were actually here in Los Angeles, we had a house here and we all lived together, and we were trying to write an album, and it just wasn’t coming together. So something had to give, and at that time, it was Ozzy.”

Dio was fresh from winning hordes of ’70s-rock fans with his four-year stint in Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. With the small-bodied but big-voiced singer at the fore, Black Sabbath became a sleeker, more energized hard-rock beast, and proved it with the 1980 album Heaven and Hell.

That’s the same moniker the post-Ozzy lineup-Dio, Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Vinny Appice (who replaced Bill Ward in ’81)-is currently touring under. According to Iommi, the quartet is only performing material from its three Dio-era Sabbath albums (Heaven and Hell, 1981’s Mob Rules, and 1992’s Dehumanizer). The touring plans unfolded after the lineup re-formed to record three new tracks for an upcoming Rhino compilation, Black Sabbath: The Dio Years.

“I hadn’t seen Ronnie for years,” says Iommi, “and we got a great relationship going. He came over to England, and we worked at my house putting the ideas for the tracks together. And then of course after the tracks came the idea of touring, ’cause we all felt comfortable, so one thing led to another, really.”

Regardless of who’s been the singer-frontman in Black Sabbath, Iommi always cut an impressive figure on-stage. The sight of the swarthy, mustached guitarist, crucifix around his neck, standing tall and still while his nimble digits-two of them fitted with prosthetic caps that allow him to play after a nasty industrial accident-churn out brutal, detuned riffs on his Gibson SG, is an iconic metal image. The SG is as synonymous with Iommi as it is with AC/DC’s Angus Young. But it wasn’t always that way.

“When we first started Sabbath I had a Strat,” he recalls. “In fact, when we recorded the first album, I went in with my Strat. I’d just done one song with it, ‘Wicked World’, and the pickup went. We only had one day in the studio, and I had an SG as a spare, so I had to use that, and ever since then I just stuck to the SG.”

The recently installed band name Heaven and Hell isn’t widely known, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of old-school rock fans from snapping up tickets for the reunion tour, which includes a sold-out Radio City Music Hall gig in New York City on March 30. So why do people get so giddy about the prospect of ’70s-rock acts reuniting, whether it be the Eagles, the Sex Pistols, or the Police? Is it all about nostalgia, or was music just better back then?

“It could be both, really,” Iommi suggests. “I actually think when you created music back then it was really because you loved what you did, and you created something of a first, you know. In those days you didn’t have all this gadgetry to get this sound and that sound, and amplifiers to do this and that. You made that sound; you had to work with it and make something happen.

“It’s all different now,” he continues. “When we used to play and really struggle, we had a dirty old van that we used to travel around and sleep in as well. I’m not saying people don’t go through that now, but I think there’s a lot of bands out there that come into the business and suddenly want a tour bus and want to be on a big tour. They expect to be stars overnight.”

Apart from the nonexistent work ethic he sees in some of today’s groups, one aspect of the current metal realm Iommi doesn’t cotton to is the fad of extreme vocals, where so-called singers scream their throats raw trying to imitate the sound of recently castrated demons. “I like to hear a singer,” he points out, “not all that [makes unintelligible howling noise]. Call me old-fashioned. I like a good musical band and a good singer.”

Good riffs help, too, and Iommi has been skillfully conjuring them for more than four decades. His most recognizable licks may be the ones from “Paranoid”, “Iron Man”, and “Sweat Leaf”, but the lesser-known “Supernaut” has its devotees as well.

“You know who did like that?” offers Iommi, “Frank Zappa. That was one of his favourite tracks. He always said, ‘Aw, I love that riff.’ In fact, I used to play it for him when he’d come down, you know. So I’ll try and throw it in a solo for you.”

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

Tony Iommi sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On whether Black Sabbath invented heavy metal: “So they say. Nobody was playing the sort of stuff we played when we started.”

On whether he listens to heavy metal in his spare time: “I’d be lying if I said yes. But to me, I don’t know what heavy metal is-I’ve always classed ourselves as heavy rock. But I listen to anything that’s good.”

On the stigma that Black Sabbath are Satanists: “It’s a thing that’s stuck for many, many years. And even to this day, when we play in certain places, a church group will complain.”

On earning the title of ultimate hard-rock riffmaster: “I suppose I started comin’ up with a lot of stuff that a lot of bands have copied or been influenced by. I’m very proud of it, but I didn’t put that brand on myself. It’s for people to say if I’ve earned it or not.”

On whether he’s ever watched his old singer’s reality-TV show, The Osbournes: “I’ve seen it for 35 years. In person.”

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