How Black Was Our Sabbath lacks firsthand accounts of the metal masters’ early days

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 9, 2004

By Steve Newton

How Black Was Our Sabbath

By Graham Wright and David Tangye. Sidgwick & Jackson, 237 pp, $34.95, hardcover.

The subtitle of this new book on British heavy-metal legends Black Sabbath is An Unauthorized View From the Crew, as it was penned by Dave Tangye (assistant to vocalist Ozzy Osbourne) and Graham Wright (assistant to drummer Bill Ward). That’s all well and good–I’d rather read the story of a famed rock band as told by regular guys who were right there in the trenches, lugging the equipment around and driving the van, than hear it from some hotshot manager or record-company weasel. But the biggest drawback with this book is in the timing. Wright didn’t take the job as Ward’s drum technician until after Sabbath released its last great album, Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, in 1973; Tangye became Ozzy’s right-hand man after that disc’s ’75 follow-up, Sabatage. Since there are no firsthand accounts by the authors of the pioneering riff-masters’ early days, you have to take some of those stories with a grain of salt.

And a triple shot of tequila!

Man, 30 years before he became a doddering reality-TV star, Ozzy Osbourne was quite the booze-fuelled maniac. According to How Black, the Ozzman had a regular habit of dropping his drawers to moon lesbians and nuns alike. And in the mid-’70s, while living at “Atrocity Cottage”–his four-bedroom farmhouse in the Staffordshire countryside–he would keep an arsenal of weapons and go on drunken chicken-slaughtering binges. What’s more disturbing than the thought of a pissed-up Ozzy running rampant with a loaded shotgun? Now there’s something for an upcoming episode of The Osbournes.

But even with Ozzy’s occasional forays into fowl-blasting, things were relatively sane for the original Osbournes, circa 1975, which included his wife Thelma and their kids Elliot, Jessica, and Louis. “The Osbournes were often amazingly normal,” says the book. “Ozzy was a happy, capable father, and Thelma was a loving wife and mother who enjoyed her home and the various household routines that kept everything running smoothly.” In other words, she was the exact opposite of Ozzy’s current wife, Sharon, who doesn’t seem like the type to be content folding endless baskets of laundry. (Sharon Osbourne only gets mentioned near the end of the book, when she comes on the scene as the daughter of Jet Records boss Don Arden, who helped launch Ozzy’s successful solo career in the early ’80s.)

The most interesting tidbits about Black Sabbath that Wright and Tangye bring up involve the group’s formation. Tony Iommi, the unequivocal leader of the band, used to beat Ozzy up in grade school, but when they formed the blues group Earth in ’68, all was forgiven–although the singer did get Iommi back for the previous cruelties, in his own special way. On a 1972 tour of the States, during a flight from Illinois to Mississippi, Osbourne conned the pilot of a private jet into letting him take the controls. Big mistake. Ozzy tried his best to turn the aircraft over in a 360-degree roll. “The pilot quickly regained control of the aircraft, but there was champagne everywhere. Tony Iommi was particularly annoyed with Ozzy, since his drink had spilt over the crotch of his trousers and left an embarrassing stain.”

Although the band early on had saddled itself with dark and demonic associations through songs like “Black Sabbath” and “N.I.B.”, the members were not actually interested in devil worship or the black arts. But they still had to deal with people’s assumptions that they were inherently evil. At one point Osbourne and his bandmates declined an offer by a satanic organization to play Stonehenge in Wiltshire, and were then informed that they had been cursed. The group also decided to cancel its first U.S. tour in 1970, fearing it would result in a backlash from Americans still reeling from the murderous work of members of the Charles Manson family.

There is very little about Black Sabbath’s actual music in How Black, not that it ever really begged analysis. It was just the heaviest thing around at the time and has been hugely influential ever since. Hardcore Sab fans can find the ideal background music for Wright and Tangye’s behind-the-scenes recollections in Black Box, a new boxed-set that boasts remasters of every Ozzy-era Sabbath album. The deluxe, nine-disc package is gonna cost ya, though, and I’m not just talkin’ about your soul.

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