By Alan Sculley
Black Sabbath formed in 1968 in Birmingham, England, and was originally a blues rock group known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band then became Earth before settling on their current moniker. Often cited as pioneers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath incorporated horror-inspired lyrics in its songs addressing political corruption, social instability and the horrors of war. Over the years, the band has had numerous lineup changes with guitarist Tony Iommi being the only constant. With 70 million albums sold world wide, the band has reunited (sans drummer Bill Ward) for one final tour.
The announcement that Black Sabbath would open 2016 with the initial dates on its final tour immediately triggered the question that usually greets news of farewell tours: Will this really be the last roundup for the genre-defining heavy-metal band?
If singer Ozzy Osbourne’s and bassist Geezer Butler’s responses during a January interview are any indication, there’s no wiggle room when it comes to calling this tour final.
“No,” Osbourne replied succinctly to a query about whether the band might change its mind about future activity.
“It’s definitely the end,” Butler chimed in, reinforcing Osbourne’s response.
In a sense, the success of Black Sabbath’s 2013 comeback album, 13, and the tour that followed it solidified the thinking between Osbourne, Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi that there was nothing left to accomplish.
“13 was our first No. 1 (album) ever in the United States,” Osbourne, 67, said. “And we wanted to end it on a high note.”
“We just all decided that we wanted to do one last tour,” Butler, 66, elaborated. “And we’re all getting up there in age, and while we’re still at the top of our profession, both musically and aesthetically, we wanted to go out on the top and we feel that this is the right time to do it.”
Considering the ups and downs that characterized much of the four-plus decades of Black Sabbath, it’s understandable the group has decided to quit while the quitting is good.
With 13, Osbourne, Iommi and Butler did what many undoubtedly thought would be mission impossible at this advanced stage of the original trio’s career – they made new music that lived up to the standard set by Black Sabbath’s original run of 1970s albums, which included such landmark releases as Paranoid, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage.
With their thick, thundering riffs, bombastic beats and often dark or topical lyrical themes, the first half-dozen albums created the template for the entire heavy-metal genre and featured many of the cornerstone songs that still populate the band’s live shows, such as “Paranoid,” “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”
But by the time of Black Sabbath’s seventh album, 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, inter-band tensions, drug use and burnout had taken a toll and the music was suffering. Osbourne even left the band after rehearsals for the next album Never Say Die! only to return to Black Sabbath several months later and complete the recording of that 1978 album. But after touring for Never Say Die!, Osbourne quit for real, leaving Iommi, Butler and drummer Bill Ward to pick up the pieces.
Osbourne went on to what became a highly-successful solo career that has included 11 studio albums, seven of which went platinum or better in the states, and a high-profile reality TV series, The Osbournes.
Black Sabbath, meanwhile, pressed on with Iommi recruiting a succession of singers (including Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillian) and drummers (most notably Ward and Vinny Appice) and bassists (Butler did a few stints) over the next two decades and releasing a steady stream of albums of varying quality and popularity among metal fans.
As the years went on, rumors of a reunion of the original Sabbath lineup surfaced periodically before Osbourne in 1997 reunited with Iommi and Butler for that summer’s Ozzfest tour. Ward then came on board for more shows in December of that year.
The band also attempted to record new material following those shows and again in 2001, but the sessions did not come to fruition. Two more reunions followed, for the 2004 and 2005 Ozzfest tours, before the four original band members in November 2011 announced plans to do a new album and tour behind that release.
But Ward dropped out of the project in February 2012, leaving Osbourne, Iommi (who at the time was battling lymphoma but is doing well now) and Butler to carry on with Rage Against The Machine’s Brad Wilk filling the drummer slot in making 13.
Osbourne declined to discuss what went wrong with Ward and why he has since refused to rejoin Sabbath.
“I don’t want to talk about it actually. Next question, please,” Osbourne said of Ward.
If relations with Ward appear strained, Osbourne said making 13 and having a successful tour to support the album was rewarding and helped set the stage for the group to do its final tour and leave Black Sabbath in a good place.
“I mean, Black Sabbath has been through the mill over the years,” the singer said. “To come back and be friends with my buddies who I started up with all those years ago, it’s a closure for me to have a chapter of my life which I can say, ‘well, we came, we saw, we had a good time, and now it’s over.’
“I’m glad we ended up having more or less whatever has gone on between us over the years, we’ve gotten rid of all that,” he said. “And we are friends again. So it’s, I mean, it’s good that at the end of my days on this planet, I can say, ‘Well we ended okay,’ you know.”
Before the final tour was announced, there had been talk of attempting a follow-up album to 13. Those plans were abandoned, but the group will have a new release to sell at shows on the final tour.
Called The End, the CD includes four studio tracks – “Season of the Dead,” “Cry All Night,” “Take Me Home” and “Isolated Man” – that were left off of the 13 album and live versions of four songs from 13 – “God is Dead,” “Under the Sun,” “End of the Beginning” and “Age of Reason.”
The extra studio tracks were a product of changing plans for the 13 album.
“We went into the studio with an idea of 13 songs, which is why the album is called 13,” Butler explained. “But then, when we were in the studio, we wrote another three songs; we just brought it up to 16 songs. And then we left off to regroup and to pick which songs would go on the album, and to give it some light and shade. So we picked the eight songs that went on the 13 album. And we still have these – we did a few (additional) songs on the limited-edition versions of the album. And then we had the four left over. And so what we’ve decided to do is a gig-only CD.”
No new material has been written since the 13 sessions, according to Osbourne and Butler, so The End CD includes the only remaining songs in the vault from the final Black Sabbath reunion.
Osbourne said the band essentially is planning a greatest hits/fan favorites’ show on the final tour.
“We decided not to do so many new songs (off of ) the last album 13 because what people really wanted is the old classics,” Osbourne said. “It takes them back down memory lane for them, I suppose.”
Butler said he isn’t sure what he’ll do after Black Sabbath calls it a day.
Osbourne, though, has some plans.
“I’m going to be doing another solo tour,” he said. “I don’t know what sort of situations are coming up. But I don’t want to do extensive touring. I can’t do it anymore, a year out on the road. So, I’m done. I’ll do gigs. I’ll do watered-down tours and things. But I’m going to still be actively involved in music to a certain degree, I hope.”