Black Sabbath: This Is The End
As they prepare to close the book on a career that has spanned almost 50 years, Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler look back on a legacy that defined heavy music
As the helicopter bearing them south flies high above the sun-baked deserts and mountains of San Bernardino County, four young Englishmen take turns to dip plectrums and penknives into a bag containing an ounce of high-grade cocaine. It’s the afternoon of Saturday, April 6, 1974, and the members of Black Sabbath are preparing, in their own inimitable way, for the biggest gig of their career.
By any measure, the inaugural California Jam was a huge undertaking. A 12-hour rock concert, co-headlined by British giants Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and featuring rising stars the Eagles and Earth, Wind & Fire, the event was to be broadcast across America by ABC Television and aimed to attract the largest-paying audience ever gathered in one place. That just three years on from their debut American gig, a shambolic show at a rundown Staten Island theatre, Black Sabbath were to occupy a slot third from top of the Cal Jam bill, was an indication of both their burgeoning popularity among American rock fans and their growing reputation as one of the must-see live bands of the era.
One might reasonably expect, then, that spirits would have been high in the Sabbath camp on this momentous day, but in reality Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were jetlagged, pissed-off and nervous. Just 48 hours earlier the quartet had been at home with their families in Birmingham, under the impression that their booking agent had removed them from the bill as a dispute between the co-headliners as to who should close the show threatened to derail the entire endeavour. It was only when the promoters informed Sabbath’s management that the quartet’s non-appearance would result in a $250,000 lawsuit that Tony Iommi was hurriedly tasked with waking his disbelieving bandmates in the dead of night to inform them that they needed to be in Los Angeles on the next outgoing flight. Exhausted and under-rehearsed, the quartet were placing their trust in cocaine and adrenaline to get them through the day.
“We’d been touring non-stop for fucking years so we really needed to take a break,” recalls Ozzy. “And because we hadn’t seen one another for a couple of months, we hadn’t rehearsed. I remember we had to do a run-through of our set in a hotel room with the guitars unplugged, without any amplifiers.”
“So then to fly in at the last minute to the biggest venue we’d ever seen was a bit nerve-wracking,” admits Tony Iommi. “I remember being terrified, because it was being broadcast live on TV and radio across the States, and we knew that what we did on that stage was going to be documented and shown for the rest of our lives.”
When their helicopter touched down at the Ontario Motor Speedway track, the musicians saw four black limousines waiting to ferry them to the stage. As a symbol of just how far the quartet had travelled from their working class roots in poverty-stricken Aston, the image was striking.
The band’s nerves were hardly helped by a false start to the show. Such was the overwhelming noise of the welcome Sabbath received from the 200,000-strong crowd upon walking onstage, that Bill Ward’s voice cracked as he attempted to cue in the band for Tomorrow’s Dream, and he had to start the count a second time. But for the hour that followed, Sabbath barely put a foot wrong, wowing those gathered in their masses (and a spellbound audience tuned in across America) with an inspired 12-song set – Sweet Leaf, War Pigs, Supernaut, Iron Man and Paranoid included – which threatened to shift Southern California’s tectonic plates. As the sun began to dip, the crowd rose as one to welcome the band back onstage for an encore of Children Of The Grave: the frustrations of the past few days were forgotten and the four musicians exchanged broad smiles.
“I don’t really remember much about the day because I was coked out of my head,” admits Geezer Butler with a wheezing laugh. “We were all totally out of our skulls. But afterwards you think, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t bad.’ We were a band that was given no chance, told to go and play ‘proper’ music, so days like that felt like we’d beaten all the odds.”
Beating the odds has become a trade-mark that has come to define Black Sabbath’s entire career. Over the better part of five decades, they have defied every critic, every challenge and every disaster that has come their way, carving out a legacy that sees them stand, indisputably, as the single most influential and important heavy metal band in history. And yet, with the September 3 announcement that Sabbath are set to embark upon their farewell tour, fittingly titled The End, in January, the unimaginable is soon to become a reality: Black Sabbath are done.
When Ozzy, Tony and Geezer walked from the stage of the British Summer Time festival in London’s Hyde Park on July 4, 2014 at the end of the final show on a year-long promotional trek in support of 13, the first Sabbath album recorded by the trio since 1978’s Never Say Die, no one actually knew what the future held for Black Sabbath. In their heads, each of the three men harboured thoughts that this might be the end of the band, but none of them wanted to put such thoughts into words. In truth, none of the three had expected that the campaign would have turned out to be such a triumph. A critical and commercial success, 13 had topped the album charts in the UK, US (a first for the band), Germany, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and the tour that followed found Sabbath playing with a power and authority that made a mockery of their veteran status. That the band had pulled this off while guitarist Iommi was battling cancer only sweetened the sense of achievement. So, perhaps understandably, no one wanted to pop the champagne bubbles by asking ‘What now?’
“I think Tony might have said something in the press that the last tour was the final tour, but that was more Tony thinking aloud as he was worried about his cancer, so it was never official,” says Geezer. “It didn’t have that finality: we all thought it might be the end, but none of us said it to one another. So then Sharon [Osbourne] mentioned the possibility of doing one final, farewell tour so that everyone knows this is it, and we were all up for that. Now that we’ve all decided this, we can all walk away happy.”
Given that they’re set to lower the curtain on a musical venture that has occupied much of their adult lives, one might expect that this would be an emotional and difficult time for the trio. But over the course of three separate phone conversations, a different picture emerges. There’s a sense of sadness, for sure, but beyond that, each man exhibits an enormous amount of pride and respect in what their collective efforts have achieved. Given the somewhat turbulent nature of their shared history – the fistfights and fallouts, the swindles and scams, betrayals, broken promises, addiction and adulation – it’s evident that they are genuinely delighted to have the opportunity to close the book on Black Sabbath on their own terms.
And while the prospect of embarking upon a final tour has naturally engendered mixed emotions, its announcement, the trio concede, brings a welcome clarity to a previously uncertain situation.
“It was just time, really,” says Ozzy. “It’s done, we’re done. I can’t complain – we’ve had a great run. I’m just happy we’re ending on a high note, and going out as friends.”
“As much as I wish we could, we just can’t go on forever,” agrees Tony. “It’s going to be strange, and difficult, but you have to stop somewhere. I love being onstage and I love playing with the guys, and it’s not that I want to stop, but the touring is physically tiring for me, and indeed for everybody; I would honestly be worried about getting really ill again.
“But I think the fans deserve another chance to see us, and it’ll be nice to go out and finish it off properly. We couldn’t wish for better fans and hopefully we’ll be leaving them with memories that’ll last a lifetime.”
Rehearsals for Sabbath’s victory lap, a trek promoters promise will “surpass all previous tours with their most mesmerising production ever”, are due to commence in Los Angeles – where Ozzy, Geezer and touring drummer Tommy Clufetos reside – later this month. The End will begin in Omaha, Nebraska, on January 20, with engagements in Australia, New Zealand and Europe (including a return to Donington Park for a Download headline appearance on June 11) set to fill the band’s diary until mid-July. While discussions about a definitive setlist are still ongoing, Ozzy is promising a classics-heavy selection that will “take fans back down memory lane”, and undoubtedly prove emotional for the men onstage, too.
“I’m sure that the closer we get to the end, the more nostalgic we’ll be,” admits Tony. “It’s been quite a trip…”