Tony Iommi on Heaven and Hell and how Frank Zappa always loved 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.”


To hear the full audio of my 1984 and 2007 interviews with Tony Iommi subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1995
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come

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