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"I've grown a third arm!" exclaims Tony Iommi, laughter bursting through the phone. "I don't know where that's come from."
Of course, the Black Sabbath guitarist hasn't spawned a new limb. But he has recently received the coronavirus vaccine — and he's feeling pretty good about it. "I've had the vaccine a couple weeks ago," he continues, clarifying that he hasn't actually experienced any exciting side effects. "It hasn't affected me at all. It's just normal."
It's February 18th — the day before Iommi's 73rd birthday — when Revolver reaches him at his home in England. And considering the year that we've all had, his spirits are exceedingly high. But Iommi's resilience in the face of calamity is not a new phenomenon. He famously, and successfully, underwent treatment for lymphoma in between recording sessions for Black Sabbath's final album 2013's 13. Though he does admit the current prolonged pandemic is starting to grind on him a bit.
"I'm sick of hearing it on the TV. It's just nonstop coronavirus," he says. "In the U.K. [cases have] been going up and up and now it's going down and down. But you never know, do you … I suppose we've gotta deal with it. But I think it's getting everybody down now. Everybody's getting to the stage that they just want to get back to some kind of normality."
Iommi's new normal for the past year has consisted of spending a ton of time at his home in the Cotswolds, a picturesque rural region south of Birmingham. He's watched his fill of TV ("Oh god, I think I burnt Netflix out!") and has enjoyed rediscovering some classic rock while knocking out his chores. "If I'm cleaning the car or whatever I'll put on various stuff," he says. "And Toto popped up: I never appreciated them so much in the early days, but they've done some great songs. Steve Lukather is a great guitar player."
When inspiration strikes, he's also been writing riffs — some of which he recently contributed to a new song that Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason was putting together for cancer charity.
"I think [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ronnie Wood and Geezer [Butler] may have played on it, as well," says the guitarist. "We had to do it obviously separate because of the COVID thing, but it was a really different track. … It was an interesting project. They [used] old letters from the war that were sent back. Soldiers, that obviously got killed … sent letters and the lyrics are the actual letters. They're fascinating, really. It was very emotional … but I enjoyed doing it."
Iommi has also been having fun revisiting Black Sabbath's first two records with late singer Ronnie James Dio (who died of stomach cancer in 2010): Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), which are being reissued in new deluxe formats by Rhino. The new 2-LP editions of Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules feature newly remastered versions of the original albums plus bonus collections of rare and unreleased live songs from the era.
The story of these pivotal albums is one of considerable metal lore. Birmingham's game-changing heavy-metal inventors fire their lead singer, and arguably most famous member, Ozzy Osbourne. Band recruits a new diminutive fantasy-obsessed frontman with a gargantuan voice: Ronnie James Dio. Dio's ineffable presence completely reinvigorates the band and Black Sabbath beat the odds — twice in a row — with the back-to-back release of two of their most iconic records.
"It's just what we needed, and just what we were looking for really," says Iommi of finding Dio. "We had gone into the doldrums at the end of the day with Ozz. We were all despondent and nothing was really happening. … When Ronnie came in it gave us a purpose again: to work harder and prove ourselves."
Below, Iommi revisits this chaotic — yet pivotal — time for the band, walks us through the comings and goings of singers (and bassists and drummers) and recounts how Dio helped transform one of Black Sabbath's darkest periods into one of its most inspired.
HEAVEN AND HELL WAS THE FIRST BLACK SABBATH ALBUM WITHOUT OZZY. CAN YOU WALK US THROUGH HOW YOU CROSSED PATHS WITH DIO — DID YOU GET ALONG WELL WITH HIM RIGHT AWAY?
TONY IOMMI I met him at a party. I was introduced to him by Sharon Osbourne, actually, who was Sharon Arden at that time. [Arden was the daughter of Black Sabbath's manager Don Arden.] We were at a party and she introduced me to Ronnie. We got on fine, had a good chat. And that was that, really. We talked about maybe doing a project together at some point, a separate project. Little did I know that just down the line he was going to end up in Black Sabbath. [Laughs]
YOU WERE LIVING IN L.A. AT THE TIME. DO YOU RECALL THE FIRST JAM SESSION YOU HAD WITH RONNIE?
I'd put the "Children of the Sea" riff down, [but] we hadn't done a lot of stuff to be honest. At that point it was coming to the end with Ozz really. Ozz wasn't into it too much anymore. It was getting to a bad stage. That's when it came to the split, really.
So I'd done a couple a different riffs and "Children of the Sea" was one of them. I spoke to Geezer and [drummer] Bill [Ward], and said, "Why don't we try Ronnie." They obviously knew of Ronnie, but they didn't know him. And because I'd met him I said, "Why don't we give him a call and bring him over, see if he's interested and have a jam with him." So I phoned him up and said, "You fancy coming over? We've got a studio setup here in the garage." We had turned the garage into a rehearsal room when we lived in Bel Air. So that's what we did. We had a play. He just really worked, and the song we started off with was "Children of the Sea" — because that's the only one we had! [Laughs]
I GOTTA ASK, HOW PISSED WERE YOUR POSH BEL AIR NEIGHBORS WHEN THAT "CHILDREN OF THE SEA" RIFF STARTED FLYING AROUND.
[Laughs] No, they didn't complain at all. A bit of a funny thing, but we soundproofed it as much as we could. … We'd also got a little setup in the house with a small amp and Bill had a tiny drum kit in there … So when we decided it was going to work with Ronnie, we got him over and we'd go into the lounge with the small gear and put ideas together. But at that point, Geezer had to leave because he was having his personal problems. [Butler was going through a divorce at the time.] So, he left and it was basically Ronnie, myself and Bill. Just sorta playing around. It worked, Ronnie was playing bass for a bit because he used to play bass as well. So we had a jam and came up with some ideas.
SO OZZY'S GONE AND THEN GEEZER SPLITS — WERE YOU FEELING THE PRESSURE TO KEEP BLACK SABBATH AFLOAT?
Absolutely … I was getting pretty pressured, really. Because I was the one dealing with the record company. [Laughs] They'd call me up and say, "How's it all going?" I'd say, "Great!" Then they'd say, "Well, can you come in and see us?" So I'd go over to Warner Bros. and they'd ask when they could hear some stuff. "Oh, fairly soon." [Laughs] We didn't have anything! So basically, I was lying through me teeth. What could I say, "We haven't done anything." So it got to that bad stage because it just wasn't working. Ozzy wasn't into and he'd disappear for days on end. … When Ronnie came in he gave us a purpose again: to work harder and prove ourselves again. Because it was a big challenge to bring somebody into a name band and replace the singer.
DID RONNIE'S VOCAL APPROACH OPEN UP ANY NEW CREATIVE AVENUES FOR YOU?
Absolutely did, yeah. With Ozz we had a great thing going and the stuff we did I really liked and enjoyed. But when Ronnie came in it was like a lift — we'd gone to another area. It was a different way of writing altogether. … Ronnie was a lot more dramatic and energetic in his singing. Very positive … So it imprinted on what we were writing. The songs took on a different look ,and it pushed us to another level.
REGARDING DIO'S POSITIVITY, THEMATICALLY HE WAS COMING FROM A MUCH DIFFERENT LYRICAL PLACE THAN PREVIOUS SABBATH ALBUMS: MORE OF A FANTASY REALM OF RAINBOWS AND KNIGHTS AND DRAGONS. WERE THERE ANY MOMENTS WHEN YOU WERE LIKE, NAH, THIS IS TOO MUCH?
[Laughs] Yeah there was. That was further down the line. Ronnie for a while used rainbows in a few of the songs. And then it came to a point, I think it was when we were doing [1992's] Dehumanizer, that we had to say, "Look we gotta knock [out] the rainbows. You can't keep singing about rainbows all the time." [Laughs] Ronnie's answer was, "I've always done them. It's part of what I do!" But we said it's too much in Black Sabbath. He was OK — he wasn't happy at first — but realized what we were saying.
HEAVEN AND HELL WAS RECORDED AT MIAMI'S CRITERIA STUDIOS AS WELL AS STUDIO FERBER IN PARIS. BACK IN THE EARLY EIGHTIES SOUTH FLORIDA WAS PRETTY CRAZY RIGHT? LIKE SCARFACE AND COCAINE COWBOYS VIBES?
[Laughs] Well, we were surrounding by everything, which was normal — that's what happened in them days, I supposed. [Laughs] We were in L.A. and we just had to get out. Because we were tied up with Don Arden at the time and we were breaking away from him — and breaking away from all the things that were around L.A. for us. To get to Florida was a good move for us. We stayed at [Bee Gees singer] Barry Gibbs house, which was great because we could set the gear up in one of the rooms and just sort of play away. It was good.
SO YOU'RE DOWN THERE CUTTING "CHILDREN OF THE SEA" — AT WHAT POINT DID YOU THINK WE'VE GOT TO GET SOME MONKS ON THIS RECORD?
[Laughs] Oh god. … The idea, for me, I think it came out wrong when I said it, thinking of monks like chanting. I didn't particularly mean get a real monk. [Laughs] But that's what they were looking for, a real monk. And they came up with one as well! [Laughs] Which is funny … so it went a bit pear shaped. But we had one monk show up.
[LAUGHS] THEY FOUND YOU A MIAMI MONK.
[Laughs] Yes one Miami monk, and they said he could overdub. [Laughs]
THE NEW HEAVEN AND HELL REISSUE INCLUDES A LIVE VERSION OF "CHILDREN OF THE SEA," AMONG OTHERS. DO ANY PARTICULAR MEMORIES STAND OUT FOR YOU FROM THAT FIRST TOUR WITH RONNIE? I IMAGINE IT WASN'T THE EASIEST THING FOR HIM TO STEP IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE FULL OF OZZY FANS.
We threw Ronnie in the deep end with Sabbath. I must say he stood up against it — he was really tough. We said, you're gonna get people not liking it, or hating it or spitting at you or whatever. He was like, "I don't care!" We went onstage and you got people still shouting Ozzy … but Ronnie stuck with it and just carried on. Eventually everybody come around. But it was a brave thing he'd done. We threw him right in there, and we had to do "War Pigs" and "Black Sabbath" and whatever, but he'd done them in his own way. Which was really good. He knew he was going to come up against it, but that's what we did. We battled through it and it really worked.
YEAH, I MEAN, WHEN DIO STARTED TO SING ONSTAGE HIS TALENT WAS UNDENIABLE.
Oh yeah, at rehearsals, as soon as he opened his mouth … It was like, bloody hell! You just couldn't believe that was coming out of that little body. He was amazing. I loved the approach he'd do with his vocals, the melody, really forceful.
LOOKING BACK, DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE RIFF OFF HEAVEN AND HELL?
Listening to that album again, I really like all the stuff. It's really hard to pick a favorite riff, because they've got their own characters: "Die Young" was a really good one, "Neon Knights" and "Heaven and Hell," of course, "Lonely Is the World" … I can tell you my least favorites: They would be "Walk Away" and "Wishing Well." They would be the weakest ones in my mind, but all the others were really good.
IN AUGUST 1980 BILL WARD ABRUPTLY QUIT IN THE MIDDLE OF SABBATH'S TOUR WITH BLUE ÖYSTER CULT. DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HE WAS PLANNING TO LEAVE? WERE YOU AWARE THAT HIS ALCOHOL PROBLEMS HAD GOTTEN THAT BAD?
No. What happened was we were due to play, I think it was Denver, it was a big gig. About an hour before we went on I heard one of the crew say, "Bill's just got on his bus and gone." I went, "What? You're kidding." They said, "No seriously, he's gone." And that was it. He never said anything to us, he just left. He got to such a state that he just walked out on it all. He turned his back on the lot of it and just went. Of course, we couldn't believe it. It was a terrible, shock. Because before Black Sabbath I'd played with Bill in other two band. Bill knew exactly how I'd play and I knew exactly how he'd play. We worked as a sort of team. For me I was absolutely devastated when Bill went. Obviously we had to cancel the show and once we got over the shock, we had to try and find somebody to come along and play. It happened to be Vinny Appice.
AS MUCH AS RONNIE GOT THROWN INTO THE FIRE, IT MUST'VE BEEN PRETTY HOT FOR VINNY DROPPING IN MID TOUR.
Oh yeah. [Laughs] When Vinny first come with us, we tried him out in Los Angeles. We went through the set and Vinny wrote down his drum parts for the different songs, because we had a gig coming up a few days after that in Hawaii, an open-air show. I was petrified, I was. I remember pacing the dressing room and Ronnie going, "It's alright, Everything's alright, don't worry." I was like, "I don't know, I haven't been onstage without Bill for many years."
So anyway I walk onstage and there's this drum riser of Bill's, with this tiny kit on top of it! It looked just ridiculous. I was like, bloody hell. Bill's kit was like 10 times the size of Vinny's. [Laughs] I thought you're never going to hear with us, because we had a wall of speakers. But we got on, and you could hear him — but the problem was it started raining. Vinny got all his notes written down on paper and his bloody notes started running. It was a bit of a panic. But he done a great job, Vinny. We went from there and he only got better … and he realized he needed a bigger kit. [Laughs]
DID SURVIVING THE LINEUP CHANGES AND TOUR CHAOS GIVE YOU MORE CONFIDENCE WHEN YOU EVENTUALLY BEGAN WORKING ON HEAVEN AND HELL'S FOLLOW-UP, MOB RULES?
Yeah it was a different thing altogether then, because we'd been playing together. We were used to each other's playing and we could relax and get on to writing. The first song we came up with was "The Mob Rules." We did that in England at John Lennon's house. We used his studio, and his equipment as well because we didn't bring ours. We just used what was there. I used a [Vox] AC30 there, and Geezer used the bass amp that was there. We did end up recording it again for the album. Martin Birch, we had him as the producer again, didn't record the first one — we did it with John Lennon's engineer — and he wanted it all to sound in the same vein. The one we did at John Lennon's I thought was more raw sounding, I liked it. [The initial version of "The Mob Rules" was used in the soundtrack to the 1981 film Heavy Metal]
THIS WAS NOT LONG AFTER JOHN LENNON'S DEATH. WAS IT WEIRD SPENDING TIME AROUND HIS PERSONAL STUFF?
It was so weird. I don't know if you remember the video with the white room with the piano? Well all that was the same and we were in that room rehearsing. Then we went into the studio which was in the back … and finally recorded "Mob Rules" there. I think we recorded the drums in the hallway of the house because it was a nice ambience. It was really freaky; you go into their room and on the side of the bed it's got "Yoko" and "John" written on plaques on each side of the bed.
WHAT WAS THE SCENE LIKE WHEN YOU EVENTUALLY MET UP WITH MARTIN BIRCH IN L.A. TO RECORD MOB RULES? THERE'S STORIES ABOUT HOW DRUGS WERE FLOWING PRETTY FREELY BACK THEN…
No, it weren't like everyone was doing tons of drugs. But yeah, we were doing them on and off. Even Martin was doing them as well. … I don't know if it got to the point of "too much" — whatever too much was. [Laughs] But we were fairly sensible when it came to recording. Once we'd actually finished the sessions we might have done a bit, but it didn't get over the top too much.
THE SONG ARRANGEMENTS ON BOTH HEAVEN AND HELL AND MOB RULES WERE REALLY NEXT LEVEL FOR SABBATH, I'M THINKING OF TRACKS LIKE "FALLING OFF THE EDGE OF THE WORLD." HOW MUCH OF A ROLE DID RONNIE PLAY IN THESE STRUCTURES?
I used to play the beginning of the "Falling Off the Edge of the World" part, and Ronnie did this nice sort of melody and then into this aggressive riff. So yeah, it was the idea of light and shade. And I wanted to bring that in more. Certainly, with the way Ronnie would sing: he'd do the nice sort of voice and the aggressive voice. And it worked. So we got into the flow of writing stuff like that, like "The Sign of the Southern Cross" and stuff like that.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE DIO PERFORMANCE?
Oh god, there are so many amazing performances to pick one would be… He just got so much feeling in his voice. He put everything into it: "Turn Up the Night," "Voodoo," "The Sign of the Southern Cross." I mean, really great vocals. No, I couldn't actually pick one. If there's one we didn't agree with it's "Country Girl." We started playing this riff and he started singing this thing about a country girl, and we're like, "Eh?" [Laughs] We didn't like that one at the time, and said to him, "It's a bit weird thing to sing about, a country girl, for a heavy-metal song." We did have a dispute about that but everything else he'd done was amazing.
DO YOU RECALL THE LAST TIME YOU SPOKE WITH DIO?
I talked to him just before he passed away. He was in hospital and he used to … we stayed in touch a lot. He'd send me texts, which I've still got. I've kept them. We became really close that last time we got together [for 2009's The Devil You Know, billed as Heaven & Hell]. We were really a band and really close and there was no big-headedness or anything. … That's the sad thing about it because we would've gone on and done another album and another tour with that lineup, it was really working great.