Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock Bio #11: Black Sabbath

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

When four friends formed the Polka Tulk Blues Band in the late '60s in Birmingham, England, little did anyone know those blues would soon turn black—Polka Tulk morphed into Earth, and in 1969 Earth became Black Sabbath, the fathers of heavy metal.

Teenage friends Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Terry "Geezer" Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) weren't making much headway with their brand of jazz-blues fusion, so Iommi cranked up the guitar solos and Osbourne let loose his inner banshee, spouting lyrics about black magic. Suddenly the band's self-titled debut album was climbing the UK charts in early 1970, and Sabbath was being mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Paranoid topped the charts later that year, the title track became a hit single, and "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" earned their places as concert staples.

Black Sabbath could do no wrong over the next three years, solidifying their reputation as masters of metal in the UK and the States with Master of Reality (1971), Black Sabbath Vol. 4 (1972), and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), whose title track became another concert staple.

The band's sixth album, Sabotage, stalled on the U.S. charts in '75, leading the band to question its musical direction: Iommi wanted to experiment, but Osbourne thought they should stick with what worked. Technical Ecstasy (1976) favored some of Iommi's new ideas, such as the addition of keyboards, and in late '77 Osbourne quit the band. He returned just a few months later, but after one more album, 1978's Never Say Die!, he left for a successful solo career.

Black Sabbath replaced Osbourne with Rainbow's former frontman, Ronnie James Dio, whose initial effort with the band, 1980's Heaven and Hell, met with approval from fans, selling over a million copies. Ward then left the band for health reasons and was replaced with Vinny Appice. The new drummer's first Sabbath album was 1981's Mob Rules, but it was also his last (for the time being, anyway)—he departed with Dio after the lead singer fell out with Iommi and Butler over the final mix of Live Evil (1982).

The band then went through many rounds of musical chairs. Ward replaced his replacement, and ex-Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan became Sabbath's new vocalist long enough to record and tour behind 1983's Born Again. Butler quit, and Ward quit a second time, but the original lineup did reunite for Live Aid in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985. By the late '80s groups like Iron Maiden and Metallica were the new reigning metal gods; with only Iommi remaining from the original quartet, Black Sabbath appeared to be on life support.

Against all odds, a move from longtime label Warner Bros. to I.R.S. Records in 1989 reignited the band's spirit, with new lead singer Tony Martin and drummer Cozy Powell adding raw power to the title track of Headless Cross, among other cuts. Tyr followed in 1990, and though Iommi reassembled this lineup for 1995's Forbidden, in between he brought back Butler, Dio, and Appice for Dehumanizer (1992).

Finally, in December of '97 the original lineup reunited for two concerts in their native Birmingham; the results were captured on the live album Reunion (1998). The band toured through the end of the millennium, and in 2007 the Iommi-Butler-Dio-Appice lineup of Black Sabbath toured under the name Heaven & Hell to promote the Rhino Records compilation The Dio Years, featuring three new songs from that lineup. In 2009 Heaven & Hell released their debut album, The Devil You Know.

Whatever the configuration, Black Sabbath continues to keep heads banging with 40 years of classic metal. Never say die, indeed.

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