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'Greatest metal guitarist' tells all

Tony Iommi on Sabbath's 'Black Box' and early years

By Pete Burn

Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath in the beginning: Bill Ward, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne.

"Black Sabbath" (1970)

"Paranoid" (1970)

"Master of Reality" (1971)

"Volume 4" (1972)

"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (1974)

"Sabotage" (1975)

"Technical Ecstasy" (1976)

"Never Say Die" (1978)

Tony Iommi
Ozzy Osbourne

(CNN) -- The dark stars of Black Sabbath can probably claim to have exerted a more powerful gravitational pull on their particular corner of rock's universe than any of their peers.

So, if you buy the argument that the band authored heavy metal's bible -- stay with me, here -- the eight albums now collected on "Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath" (Rhino) are its Old Testament.

Hammered out by the band's original lineup in eight years beginning in 1970, this industrial strength brew prompted a generation of fans to recalibrate the riff-o-meter -- and spawned countless copyists.

The niftily packaged octet of titles, plus a bonus DVD, capture the metal monster created by guitarist Tony Iommi, singer Ozzy Osbourne, drummer Bill Ward and bassist Terry "Geezer" Butler. It's a potent mix of blue-collar bluster and explicitly occult references that still sounds more like a cathedral collapsing than a rock band. The effect sometimes is plain silly and always superbly unsubtle.

But it was an amazingly influential sound -- though, according to Iommi (recently named the greatest heavy metal guitarist of all time by Guitar World magazine), that didn't seem at all likely at the time.

Iommi talked to CNN in a recent phone interview.

Q: Did you have any idea how influential the band was going to be when you were making the eight albums collected on "Black Box"?

TONY IOMMI: Not a clue. No. We just ... we knew it was something new when we first started playing the songs -- they sounded different from anything anyone else was doing at that time. But we never had any idea where we were going with it. We sort of played [the songs] the way we did because we liked the way we sounded. We enjoyed it. ...

When we first got together we were playing sort of bluesy jazzy stuff and it just seemed to evolve into this ... sound.

It seemed to come together more after I left the band to join Jethro Tull. I told the other [Sabbath] guys Tull were interested in me ... and they said "why don't you have a go" and I thought, Oh, that's great, they're trying to get rid of me. I went to London and it was an audition. I thought, sod this ... I'm going home. But they said hang about ... and I got the job.

I told the other guys and I felt really bad about it. After a few days of rehearsals, I didn't feel comfortable, and told [Tull's] Ian Anderson ... but they asked me to stay to do the Rolling Stones movie "Rock 'n' Roll Circus" and I did. So that's how that happened.

After coming back from them, I'd learned the way [Tull] worked. It was like "Right, we rehearse at 9 in the morning," and we'd never heard of 9 in the morning.

Q: So you think the Tull experience gave you some ideas about discipline?

IOMMI: Absolutely, that's what I saw, the discipline of it ... but not quite so brutal. With Tull it was a bit of a work situation. I wanted it to be, you know, all friends.

Q: With 30 years of experience, would you do anything differently?

IOMMI: I'm sure I would ... but nothing springs to mind. Everything bad that happened, happened for a reason ... to teach us not to do [that] again.


Q: Henry Rollins has said he thinks that the environment in Birmingham [England] explains Black Sabbath, the blue-collar feel that informed the music. Do you think that's true, or was it just that the sound reflected your own personalities?

IOMMI: I think it's quite right. It's a big part of where we come from. ... It was either being in a gang or being in a band. I was rough. To be in a band ... I think a lot of the aggression came out in that ... instead of going out and beating the other gang up, you know.

Q: You did it with a sense of humor, but some of the lyrics are violent, explicitly pretty frightening.

IOMMI: Yes. That's Geezer's fault, that is.

Q: So now you bring that up -- why is he called Terry "Geezer" Butler?

IOMMI: That goes back to when we started. He used to call everybody a geezer -- he was always pointing at people and saying this geezer or that geezer. ... It just stuck. I won't tell you what we called Bill.

Q: I guess for most people, what defines the early Black Sabbath sound is your guitar and Ozzy Osbourne's vocals. Over 30 years, you have some ups and downs. How are things now ... do you and Ozzy still speak?

IOMMI: Oh yes. We get on fine. But we've had our ups and downs. Actually, we had them at school -- 'cause he went to the same school as me. We went to Birchfield Road School and he was a year younger than me. And I couldn't stand him. He used to mix with these other kids and he was a real pain ... Every time you saw him you used to give him clip 'round the ear. It was ironic how we ended up in the same band.

Q: A year's a long time at school. He'd be looking up to you at that stage, right?

IOMMI: Well, he should have been, that's why we used to clip him. But me and Bill were in a band and we were looking for a singer. We saw an advert in the music shop: "Ozzy Zig Requires Gig." And I said to Bill, I know an "Ozzy" but it can't be him ... he can't sing.

Ozzy Osbourne, along with his wife Sharon and two of their three children, have become TV stars thanks to MTV's "The Osbournes."

Sure enough, we went round the bloody house and his mom comes to the door and says "John, it's for you" ... and he comes to the door and I looked at Bill and said, "Forget it, it's that bloody kid from school." ... So we said we're just looking for a singer and then we just legged it. A few days later Ozzy came to my house with Geezer looking for a drummer ... it was just really strange how it all happened.

We all got together ... and started playing. And what a noise it was. I didn't even know what Geezer was playing. He'd got a regular Telecaster, trying to play bass on it. I thought, what are we doing here? We had a sax player as well ... and we had a slide guitar player and it just sounded horrible. But we persevered.

Q: Ozzy has become a mainstream celebrity, mainly because of the success of "The Osbournes." Do you think he doesn't get the credit he deserves as a singer because of ... his antics?

IOMMI: Absolutely. He doesn't. And it's worse now because of the show. I don't know how he does it. He's had people living in his house for four years. It's funny though ... finally people are seeing what we have for 35 years. Now they know what we've been moaning about.

Q: You must be proud of this set. If someone wanted to know what the early days of Black Sabbath were all about, are you happy that this does the job? Is this the one they should go out and get?

IOMMI: I think they should buy my car. No really, without a doubt. This is it. For those years. If you want to hear what Black Sabbath was about with Ozzy ... this is it.

Rhino Records is a unit of Time Warner, as is CNN.

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