Black Sabbath

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Black Sabbath

November 29, 1969. That’s the day music changed forever. That’s when Black Sabbath appeared on John Peel’s Top Gear radio program, performing ‘NIB’, ‘Behind The Wall of Sleep’ and the ominous, devilish song that started it all, ‘Black Sabbath’. In the 47 years since, Black Sabbath has done it all: blockbuster tours, epoch-defining albums, rejuvenating line-up changes, reunions and rebirths.

When Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler reconvened for 2013’s 13 album, it looked like Sabbath wanted to prove one last time that they could still write compelling, important material. The subsequent tour (which included a live DVD that was recorded in Melbourne) was notable for the power of its performances and the ease with which new tracks like ‘God Is Dead?’ and ‘End Of The Beginning’ integrated with original-era classics like ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Snow Blind’. Now, with Iommi in treatment for lymphoma (he’s generally keeping on top of the disease but treatment and recovery makes touring an exhausting proposition), Sabbath has decided to call time on their days as a touring entity.

The appropriately named The End tour rolls into Australia this month, and available exclusively at shows is a CD, also titled The End, which is a must-have for fans.

“When we recorded the 13 album we recorded 16 tracks – 16 songs,” Iommi says. “[Producer] Rick Rubin put eight on the album and then we had some bonus tracks that went out with the album as well, but we had these other songs left over. I thought we were going to add some other songs to those to make another album. But we all decided at the end of the day to not do it, and to tour. So we had these tracks and we thought we should put them out. It’s mad to just leave them. So we had the idea to sell them at the shows to do something different.”

The four new tracks were combined with four songs recorded during the 13 world tour.

“We did do that but of course it’s always difficult playing so many new songs because people really want to hear the old songs, but they want to hear new songs too. You’d be playing three or four hours if you played everything everyone wanted you to play. For this show we mainly do stuff that people want to hear.”

On drums again for the final tour is Tommy Clufetos (original drummer Bill Ward refused to play over a contract dispute). It’s a tough gig for any drummer, but Tommy won over the doubtful, and even earned a standing ovation after his drum solo on the night this writer them play on their last tour.

“It’s difficult for a drummer to do a solo and hold peoples’ attention but I must say, Tommy is such an exceptional player. I’m amazed every night. I’m backstage in my dressing room tent and I hear him and he never ceases to amaze me.”

There isn’t a rock or metal guitarist alive who isn’t influenced by Iommi, whether they know it or not. He pioneered not just a style of playing but also a whole library of techniques to use in the studio: for instance, his method of having two separate guitar solos playing off each other at once, as heard on ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Killing Yourself  To Live’.

“I suppose that was an accident, really,” Iommi says. “I just liked the idea of having two guitars at the same time playing slightly different things. And so we kept it but it was a bit of a fluke. We’d do the track and I’d play the solo and then try another solo and we’d happen to play them back at the same time and think ‘Ooh, that’s a good effect.’ I always like to experiment and try different things.”

Iommi’s current live guitar collection includes instruments by Gibson and JayDee.

“I’ve also got a new Epiphone out at the moment,” he says. “It’s getting some fabulous, fabulous reviews. I’m really pleased with it. I haven’t used it on stage yet because it still needs a bit of ne-tuning. By the time we left England, I didn’t have time to get anybody to work on it. But I’m using the JayDees and Gibsons.”

Iommi’s SGs feature his signature Gibson humbuckers, high-powered units which combine Alnico II and Ceramic magnets for a focused-yet-gritty tone.

“We worked on those quite a long time ago,” Iommi says. “It did take quite a bit of time to get them right. I stayed in Nashville for a couple of weeks, going in to the factory every day and working with the guys on them. They’d wind one and I’d try it, say ‘no, no,’ try another one and so on. Then I’d go on the road and test them.”

Iommi has been a longtime Laney amplifier user, with a current signature model.

“They started roughly the same time we did, really, so we started off with Laney, and built them up. I’ve gone away from Laney and come back, gone away again and come back… at one point Laney stopped doing tube amps and started doing transistor stuff and that’s when I stopped. And then eventually Lyndon Laney came to me and said ‘I’d love to build some tube amps again.’ So we started doing them. I’ve got a set on the road with me now of ‘new old amps’, if you know what I mean. I’ve got an original Laney, which was very difficult to get a hold of, and we’ve rebuilt the thing – I had a guy do it – and then Laney copied them from the original design. At that point nobody at Laney had seen them because they were too young! So it was exciting for them. I’ve got them on the road at the moment and I’m testing them. It’s right back to basics, the regular amp, no preamps and nothing like that, just the straight amp like I used to have it in the early days, and then I use a little treble booster like I did in the early days, to drive the input.”

It’s a good point, along with inventing the musical vocabulary of metal, Sabbath and especially Iommi also invented the sonic presentation; there was no rulebook for how metal was supposed to sound back then.

“That’s right, you had to do everything,” Iommi says. “You just couldn’t buy the things that exist today, so you had to make your own sound with the way you used it, and you had to make the amp adjust to you. Today, you can go out and buy all these things with different sounds, and some of them are really good, but I still like the sound from the actual tubes as opposed to a gadget making the sound.”

So what’s next for Tony Iommi? First there’s the possibility of recording some bonus tracks with another Sabbath vocalist, Tony Martin (who recorded five albums with the band).

“After this Sabbath tour I’m not going to be doing tours again,” Iommi says. “I might do occasional shows but I’m not going to be going on tour like this again. If I were I’d be doing it with these guys! But that’s the plan, to basically retire from touring. I’d still like to record, but touring for me is… I get very tired.”

“I’ve got, honestly, hundreds and thousands of riffs and songs that I just never got round to using, really,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to have the time to sift through the stuff and see what I’d like to use. But what I tend to do is not go back on stuff; I tend to start writing new stuff, so it accumulates more that way!”

Written by Peter Hodgson

When & Where: Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne – April 19

Photo Credit: Ross Halfin