Hit The Lights: Tony Iommi: I'd Like To Remember 'Black Sabbath' As A Groundbreaking Album

artist: Black Sabbath date: 02/13/2010 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: Tony Iommi: I'd Like To Remember 'Black Sabbath' As A Groundbreaking Album
Forty years is an extremely lengthy time in general, let alone in the world of music, and much has happened since 1970 - bands have lived and bands have died, and many genres have surfaced. One of these genres to have surfaced is the following: heavy metal. Little did four Brummie gentleman know, their 1970 debut studio full length would greatly shape the rock landscape, and according to many, be responsible for giving birth to heavy metal. For four working class boys from Aston, that's quite an achievement, and certainly, it's safe to say that history will remember Black Sabbath. In 1968, The Polka Tulk Blues Band was formed, consisting of: vocalist John Michael ("Ozzy") Osbourne, guitarist Frank Anthony ("Tony") Iommi, bassist Terence Michael Joseph ("Geezer") Butler, and drummer William Thomas ("Bill") Ward. The Aston, Birmingham outfit shortened its name to Polka Tulk, and then revised it to Earth. Jim Simpson, owner of Henry's Blues Club, gave them gigs, and soon became their initial manager. Blues based, Earth did club performances in England, Denmark and Germany. In December 1968, Iommi left briefly to join Jethro Tull, but soon returned to the Earth fold. In 1969, Earth changed its name to what the Birmingham quartet became known as across the world: Black Sabbath. Garnering label interest, Black Sabbath would eventually sign with Vertigo Records. Debut single "Evil Woman", a cover interpretation of a track originally cut by Minneapolis act Crow, was issued as the group's inaugural single during January 1970 on Fontana Records, and was reissued two months later by Vertigo Records. Its B-side was "Wicked World", the first composition the band had penned. Recorded on a budget of four to six hundred pounds over a single day, mixing occurred the next day with Rodger Bain producing and Tom Allom engineering. Amongst the tracks laid down was a rendition of Retaliation's "Warning", including extended soloing from Iommi. Sabbath's eponymously titled debut came out on Friday February 13th, 1970, exactly forty years ago today, February 13th, 2010. As previously mentioned, it arguably helped to spawn what would be later known as heavy metal, and the rest, as they say, is history. On January 14th at 14:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned the office of Tony Iommi's manager to be patched through for an interview to discuss the fortieth anniversary of "Black Sabbath". Battling issues with the sound, Tony Iommi cut off and called back to begin the interview. UG: Hello? Tony Iommi: Hello. Can you hear me any better Tony? Yeah, I can hear you better. Can you hear me? Yeah, I can hear you better now. Anyway... as I was asking, how are you Tony? Oh I'm fine thanks, yes. Busy (laughs). Would it be alright if I began the interview? Oh yeah. Yep.

"We used to play jazzy blues stuff before, a lot of blues songs, and then we got into writing our own tracks."

Black Sabbath formed in 1968 as The Polka Tulk Blues Band. From there, how did the group develop its sound and live performance? I think the sound came from the guitar I suppose really, but initially the riffs... We used to play jazzy blues stuff before, a lot of blues songs, and then we got into writing our own tracks. The first one was "Wicked World", and the second one was "Black Sabbath", and as soon as those two were done we realized we got our sound: it was the Black Sabbath sound. Was Black Sabbath's early live shows important in developing the group's sound? I don't know. I think the sound came as soon as we started getting into writing our own songs. Your initial riffs led the way to what sound you wanted. You made reference to "Wicked World". Was that track inspired by The Doors? The Doors? Yeah. No (laughs). One of "Wicked World"'s riffs sounds exactly like the main riff to "Wild Child" (from 1969's 'The Soft Parade'). Oh right. It certainly wouldn't have been The Doors, because I didn't like The Doors. How did "Wicked World" come about then? From just jamming, really, like a lot of them did. We went into a rehearsal room, and I would come up with a riff, and then everybody would join in. Very briefly, you were a part of Jethro Tull. How did that come about? We played a gig together, and we were supporting them. It was the night Mick Abrahams handed his notice in, and said he was leaving. They asked me if I would be interested in joining, so I said to all the rest of the guys "I've been asked if I'd be interested in joining them". They said "You should go for it", so that's what happened. I went for it, played with them by auditioning with hundreds of other guitarists, and got the job. Why did you leave Jethro Tull after just one commitment? I didn't feel quite as comfortable as I did. It just felt a little strange because when I joined them, I met with the manager and the manager was saying how lucky I was to be in the band. I said "Well, I'm not lucky. I'm here because I was asked to play, and you liked it". I just felt a little bit like I wanted to make it myself, instead of being given it. How did Black Sabbath come to meet Jim Simpson, its first manager? We played at a club in Birmingham called Henry's Blues House - it was a pub, and he used to run it. We used to play for him, and he was interested in managing us really. He saw some potential in us, and we were looking for somebody to help, and needed someone to get us gigs really. He was the one who started doing that for us. Looking back, what was he like as a manager? At the time, he was ok, and at the time, we didn't know any different really. He got us some work, and he helped us in the early days, so he was ok. Following that, how did Black Sabbath come to sign a record contract with Vertigo Records? Originally, we did some more auditions for record companies where they'd come to see us play, whether it be at Henry's Blues House or wherever. We did a couple of gigs in London for them to come and have a look, and some of them really didn't like us, and some of them did. That's really what happened. Tony Hall Enterprises were interested in signing us; he basically signed us, and we released our first album with him. According to the liner notes for the debut album's 1996 Castle Communications reissue, it was recorded on a six hundred pound budget I believe? It was, yeah. Adjusted for inflation, how much would that roughly be in 2010? Umm... God knows. I dunno. It'd be a fair whack, but it wasn't six hundred pounds. It was actually four hundred pounds I think, but at the time, it was just a very tiny studio. We only had a day to record it. And the record label funded recording? Yeah. What are your memories of those recording sessions? You said the album was recorded over one day, though the 1996 reissue liner notes say the album was recorded over two days with mixing happening on the last day? It was over two days, but the mixing was the next day and we weren't there then. We were there for the first day for recording; we just went, set our gear up, and played as we would play in a rehearsal. They miked it, taped it, and that was it really. It happened relatively quick, and then we left to go on tour in Switzerland. Do you wish it had been that easy later on in Black Sabbath's career? To be able to just record an album in a day, and have it over and done with? (Laughs) Yeah. I don't think it quite happens like that. With this last album we did (2009's 'The Devil You Know'), funnily enough, with the Heaven & Hell lineup, we tried to approach it the same way and have everything ready for when we go in to record. We then just laid it down, and that was very quick. We did that very quick, but we certainly didn't do it in a day. Were there any negative aspects to recording all of the debut album's tracks in a day? At the time, we didn't know any different. It was just like going to do a show for us; we just basically played our set, and left. Yes, I suppose there would've been negative points. You'd like to maybe try things again, but we didn't have the time. That was it. I think the only one I had the chance to play twice was "Warning"; I wanted to play another solo, and Rodger went "Oh well, we'll do it once more". That was it. It was all done very, very quick (laughs).

"Your initial riffs led the way to what sound you wanted."

(Laughs) How did Rodger Bain come to produce 'Black Sabbath'? Rodger Bain was picked by the record company. I think it was his first project as well, that he was the new boy, and they wanted to give him us. We got on. What did he contribute to the album's recording? Well, I suppose he had more knowledge of what was going on than we did because we didn't know anything about the studio in them days. We had never been in a studio as far as... We'd been in demo studios, but we'd never actually been in a proper studio to record an album, so he obviously had more knowledge than us, and he knew things that we didn't. He was helpful, he was alright. He was good at the time. Were there certain recording techniques he used to capture Black Sabbath's sound? From what I can remember about it, it was very simplistic; a mike was stuck in front of the guitar cabinet, and then just the drums got miked up. That was it. I don't remember anything exotic. So very no frills then? We used a couple of effects on the album, but again, the guy that we had engineering at the time was Tom Allom. He was very good, so he helped a lot as well. He knew how to mike everything. You mentioned effects being used on the group's debut album, and one particular effect is the rain at the start of "Black Sabbath". What inspired the group to use that rain effect at the start of that specific track? With the actual sound of the track, it seemed like it'd be good to have that on the beginning of it, so Rodger and Tom Allom did that. Was that stock audio, or did Rodger and Tom Allom record it themselves? No. I think they must've found some tape in the library, and used that. I don't think we were there when they actually did that. I'm not sure. As I said, we did our part and basically, we left. Two covers were recorded for Black Sabbath's debut album as well. Why did the group choose those two tracks in particular? Retaliation's "Warning" and Crow's "Evil Woman"? "Evil Woman" was something chosen possibly by Jim Simpson, I think. I'm not sure; it may be him or Tony Hall who suggested we do it. Was "Warning" one of your choices? Yeah. "Warning" we liked; we used to like that track, and we used to play that. "Warning" shows a lot of your bluesier side. Yeah, well.. We had the song, and then I added the solo. It was just an off the wall jam, really. It was actually quite long when we recorded it, but Rodger cut the solo down because it got a bit long. It was probably about fifteen minutes long the solo, and so he edited it down a bit. Is the reel containing the fifteen minute, original version of "Warning" in a vault somewhere? It could well be, so perhaps I may find it. We didn't see those early tapes. It's a good point, actually. I might find out. Are there any plans to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Black Sabbath's debut album being released? No. We haven't made any plans at all. It would be nice to actually do a couple of shows for it, but whether we will or not I don't know. Everybody seems fairly wrapped up in everything else, and also coming up is our thirtieth anniversary with (Ronnie James) Dio as well. For 'Heaven and Hell', yeah. Yeah (laughs). So there are no tracks in the vault that Black Sabbath can pull out which were recorded during sessions for the group's debut? I think we just wrote enough for the album, but there might be outtakes from the record. Otherwise, I don't know. Would it be ok if we spoke about how some of the tracks on Black Sabbath's debut came to fruition? Yeah, though we've not got much time. I've only got twenty minutes down. Yeah, I know that. We have four minutes left I believe. Ok (laughs). Umm... I can't remember exactly how they came about. As I said, the first two were "Wicked World" and "Black Sabbath". What happened usually was they waited for me to come up with a riff, so I'd come up with a riff at a rehearsal room usually, and then we'd jam on it and build the song up from there. That's really how we done most of those; we'd just go to rehearsal, and keep playing them. Again of course, there were no tape machines to tape, so we had to remember the parts - we'd have to keep playing them so we'd remember them. Is that how "The Wizard" also came about? Yeah. That's how they all came about; mainly, I'd play something, and then we'd build the thing up. We'd just jam around first; I'd come up with something, and everyone would go "I like that". Then we'd develop it into a song, building it up from there. Most of it came out of just jamming, really - just playing anything until something comes up that somebody liked. When people say Black Sabbath's debut album spawned heavy metal, how do you feel? It doesn't bother me now. I think we're classed as a heavy metal band. I always, in the early days, called ourselves heavy rock. I never knew the term "heavy metal" until later, but some people have got to put a stamp on it somewhere along the line I suppose. But that's basically what we're called now (laughs).

""Warning" we liked; we used to like that track, and we used to play that."

Is that something you're proud of then? Well, yeah. I'm certainly proud of what we did, and whatever they wanna call it, they can call it. Obviously, you now have forty year's worth of hindsight. How would you like Black Sabbath's debut album to be remembered? For what it was, really. Our debut was a really groundbreaking album I think when it came out, and was a breakthrough in this type of music. Nobody was doing this stuff then, so I think it was a real breakthrough, and obviously, many years later it showed with the bands that started to follow. It was difficult to break ground then though. It was very difficult to get our music through then because it was so different, but I'd like to remember that album as a groundbreaking album (laughs). Thanks for the interview Tony. Thank you very much. And give my best wishes to Ronnie as well. I will give your best wishes to him. We're all looking forward to seeing Heaven and Hell back out on the road, and so on - all the best with that Tony. Thank you very much mate. Bye. Bye. All the best. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010
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