Cult Heroes No. 50: Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath? Cult heroes? You gotta be kidding. Everyone, but everyone, knows and admires the Sabs, right? Well, yes, they do. Indubitably. But perhaps not this particular incarnation of the band…
Words: Geoff Barton
The world of music has thrown up some mighty strange partnerships over the years. But none more strange – not to say disastrous – as the combination of Ian Gillan and Black Sabbath.
It was a marriage made in hell. (Which, when you think about it, was highly appropriate given the Sabs’ devil-horned heritage.)
When late vocalist Ronnie James Dio bowed out of Sabbath, blaming disputes over the 1982 (or 1983, depending on where you lived) Live Evil effort, Tony Iommi and co. typically found themselves in a fix. Memories of Dave Walker (the ungainly Brummie they brought in to replace Ozzy Osbourne for a few months in 1977) began to resurface. The Sabs were not only without a singer, they were embroiled in a war of words with le petit Ronald, who accused his old bandmates of tampering with the sound of Live Evil by muting his vocals and cranking up their own instruments instead. Sabbath retorted by saying that Dio had been spotted sneaking into the studio at the dead of night and doing the exact opposite. It was all getting rather silly.
(Incidentally, when the warring parties kiss and made up, and reconvened to form Heaven And Hell, the above shenanigans were neatly denied/forgotten.)
It got sillier still when Ian Gillan split his own band, Gillan, on the pretext of joining up with a reunion of the Mk II line-up of his former group, Deep Purple. When that reformation was put on ice for a year or so, Gillan found himself at a loose end. Then the ‘Dio-quits-Sabs’ news broke and, even though Purple and Sabbath had been fierce rivals in the past, Ian began to contemplate a rather unusual career move…
Gillan met up with guitarist Iommi and bass player Geezer Butler in a pub in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Gillan had had a car crash on the way to the meeting (“I arrived in an L-shaped vehicle,” he once recalled) and the trio proceeded to get royally pissed. The next day the singer received a phone call from his personal manager to tell him that he had agreed to become Sabbath’s new frontman. Gillan was as bemused as he was hung over. He had no idea what his manager was talking about. But, dammit, he decided to join the Sabs anyway…
The sole album Gillan recorded with Sabbath, 1983′s Born Again, is generally regarded as the nadir of the band’s career. To this day, rumours persist that it wasn’t supposed to be a Sabs record at all, but rather some sort of supergroup offering. However, like the Seventh Star solo album that Tony Iommi cut with Glenn Hughes, the Black Sabbath name eventually prevailed.
Born Again was memorably described as ‘abominable’ in a past issue of Classic Rock. Furthermore, when the Sabs featured in Classic Rock’s series of Buyer’s Guides we advised you to avoid Born Again at all costs. ‘It’s like an uninspired version of Purple doing a spooky karaoke parody of Sabbath,’ we warned.
But is Born Again really that bad? Sticking a copy of the re-released album into the office CD machine the other day in anticipation of a bloody good laugh, we were surprised to find that it’s got whole host of redeeming qualities. It ain’t as bad as it’s painted – even though its cover, designed by Steve ‘Krusher’ Joule in five minutes after a drunken lunch, most definitely is!
Gillian’s ingrained rock’n’roll sensibilities and Sabbath’s traditional lumbering approach are certainly a volatile mix. (“The guy’s [Gillan’s] voice is just too distinctively un-Sabbath,” Ronnie James Dio once complained.) But apart from some laughable demonic cackling in Disturbing The Priest and some trite lyricism (Digital Bitch, would you believe, is about a temptress whose daddy made his fortune from computers) Born Again had the Classic Rock office rocking quite alarmingly the other day.
Perhaps the crisp fidelity offered by CD over vinyl has benefited the album, we dunno, but we do recall Born Again sounding very flat and boring when it was originally released.
But honestly, there’s plenty to enjoy here: Gillan puts in a consummate vocal performance, full of tonsil-grating howls and banshee wails; guitarist Iommi offers an atypically shrill solo on Trashed, a tale of race-track inebriation; the Close Encounters-style cosmic twittering on the instrumental The Dark leads dramatically into Zero The Hero; the gruff riff to …Hero is strangely reminiscent of Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City; the aforementioned Digital Bitch is full of Ted Nugent-style rolling thunder…
And so it goes on. Classic Rock certainly found more to enjoy on Born Again than when we played The Eternal Idol, the first of the Sabs’ records to feature singer Tony ‘Cat’ Martin. And a drab, soulless, Dio-by-numbers effort it is, too…
There’s no escaping the fact that Born Again is viewed by the majority of fans as a dismal failure, even though the album reached No. 4 in the UK chart – the band’s highest position since Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, with Ozzy on vocals, in 1973.
But the cause of the Gillan-led Sabs wasn’t helped by an appearance at the August 1983 Reading Festival: in front of a polystyrene mock-up of Stonehenge that didn’t even fit on to the stage, the band’s set climaxed with a version of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. Inexplicable, but true. Plus Gillan’s book of lyric prompts was frequently obscured by billowing dry ice. Still, thankfully, a mooted version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Evil Woman (ELO drummer Bev Bevan having replaced Bill Ward in the Sabs line-up by this time) failed to materialise.
In November 1984 this writer found Ian Gillan back in Deep Purple. The delayed reunion of the Mk II line-up of the band had finally taken place, and Ian was palpably relieved. But the memories of his short time in Sabbath still lingered uncomfortably:
“When you’re a nobody and you haven’t achieved anything, then any career gaffes you might make don’t really matter. I went through five or six bands before I joined Deep Purple and all the failures I had were anonymous failures; nobody knew about them except a handful of people in a few local towns. Failures happen,” Gillan said frankly.
Initially, Gillan thought the Born Again album “was brilliant. Absolutely f**king sensational… until it was mixed, when it was totally destroyed. I went away for a holiday after we’d finished recording it, and I was well pleased. I thought, I’ll leave the guys to it now, they’ve been around for years, they know what they’re doing. But as soon as I went away – as I understand it, anyway – all these outside influences started creeping in.
“When I came back off holiday I found they’d sent me a bundle of 20 Born Again albums. I looked at the cover and puked. I put the LP on the turntable and was disgusted by it. It was just garbage. In a rage, I smashed all of the 20 albums to pieces.”
After all that, it was no surprise to hear Gillan say later: “Heavy metal drives me bonkers. It makes me vomit.”
Pass the sick bag. But please, just this once, don’t mistake it for the sleeve to Born Again.