By 1979, the writing was on the wall for Black Sabbath. A combination of a poorly-received album and serious drink and drug abuse problems within the band led to an 11-month period of writers block and inertia that saw guitarist Tony Iommi fending off an anxious record company. Having been left with little alternative, Iommi elected to fire singer Ozzy Osbourne and replaced him with formerRainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Known for his powerful voice and lyrical fascination with fantasy themes, Dio's input led to the recording and release of two of Black Sabbath's most fondly remembered albums, 1980's 'Heaven and Hell' and 1981's 'Mob Rules'.
With both albums -- along with 1982's 'Live Evil' -- set to be re-released in deluxe formats, Spinner hooked up with Tony Iommi in London to discuss the split with Ozzy, how Ronnie James Dio rejuvenated the band and the importance of a decent-sized drum kit in the world of heavy metal.
How did you come to work with Ronnie James Dio?
I met him at a party at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in LA and it had got to a point where it wasn't working with Ozzy. I phoned Ronnie up to see if he wanted to come up for a jam and he said, "Yeah" so he came over to the house in LA and we had all the gear set up and went into the studio and that was it!
Black Sabbath sound rejuvenated on 'Heaven and Hell'. Was Ronnie's presence a case of the remaining Sabbath members being on their best behaviour to impress the new boy and deliver the goods?
I think that's true. For us, it was so frustrating for those 11 months where we hadn't done anything it was such a great relief when somebody comes along and these things were working finally. And that's no disrespect to Ozzy; he just wasn't in the right state of mind then.
Ronnie James Dio's lyrics were different from what Black Sabbath had done before. Did you have any editorial input or did you just let him get on with it?
Originally [bassist] Geezer [Butler] did a lot of the lyrics but Geezer said, "You know, I just want to get on play my bass instead of having to write all the lyrics all the time," and here was an ideal opportunity with Ronnie coming in who could write his own lyrics. He gave Geezer a bit of a rest without putting Geezer's nose out of joint.
How did the band dynamic change once Ronnie James Dio came on board?
I actually think it gave us that kick up the arse that we really needed. We were so used to being able to do tours and albums and we'd done all the things we were able to do so suddenly when Ronnie came on board he gave us that challenge again to make us fight.
The year 1980 is viewed as a great one for heavy metal. Where you aware of what the likes of Judas Priest were up to and did you feel the younger generation like Iron Maiden snapping at your heels or did you simply batten down the hatches?
We actually carried on with what we were doing and didn't look at other bands and think, "Oh, we've got to do that," or "We've got to do this." We'd got enough problems of our own without worrying what anybody else is doing.
We changed management, we changed everything when Ronnie came on board so it was a new change all round for us. We were confident with what we'd got. The stuff we were writing we really liked and it was starting [the band all over] again so we had to go out and prove ourselves. We didn't have time to think abut who else was out there.
You had hit single with 'Neon Knights' and the album went Top 10 in the UK. Were you pleased with the reception for 'Heaven & Hell'?
Absolutely. The last two Sabbath albums with Ozzy ['Technical Ecstasy' and 'Never Say Die'] did alright but they didn't set the world on fire so when we did 'Heaven and Hell' and that did better than those we were very pleased. And we were very pleased with the turnout on the tour as well.
What were the circumstances surrounding the sudden departure of drummer Bill Ward?
Bill had a very big problem with alcohol and he just couldn't face it any more; he had to go and get himself sorted out but he left on the day of the bloody gig. He'd just got in this bus and gone! Blimey! He'd been up all night thinking about what he's going to do and after drinking all night, he just left like that! We had to cancel that gig big time because he'd left us in the s--- and we had to postpone things until we found another drummer.
We had some cassettes and Ronnie said, "I've got this one of [drummer] Vinny Appice," and we had a listen and thought, "Yeah, let's try him." So we tried him and he came to the rehearsal and I'm not kidding, but he had this really tiny bass drum. The whole kit was like a kid's kit and I'm like, "F---in' hell!"
I looked at Vinny and thought, "Well, it must just be his practice kit or something" but we decided that he was playing well and we'll carry on with him and a couple of days later we had a gig in Hawaii -- it was a huge festival and we were headlining.
So we went out and I was s---ting myself because I hadn't played with another drummer in years -- I played with Bill long before Sabbath, even -- and I turned round and there was this huge drum riser with this little kit! It looked like a Spinal Tap-type thing! F---n' hell! It looked absolutely ridiculous -- a wall of speakers [on one side of the stage], another wall of speakers and in the middle was this huge drum riser with a tiny kit and it looked absolutely stupid and that put me more into a panic.
Vinnie had also made a note of the songs because he'd only played with us once before but it started raining and all his notes got smudged! It was like one of those, "What's next?" moments! Just unbelievable!
But anyway, we got through the show and I said to Vinnie, "You've got to get a bigger kit; you can't go on like that. It just doesn't look right." His kit is huge now but to this day he blames me [for the size of it]. We say, "Do you really need all those extra drums?" and he goes, "Well, it was your idea!" so I get that thrown back in my face all the time now!
You were riding the crest of a wave in a very short space of time (1980 – 82) and it all seemed to come apart just as quickly. What happened?
The live album ['Live Evil']. We'd worked so much and we'd been everywhere, non-stop work for years and then we recorded the live album and I say that loosely because of instead of being involved with it and listening to the sound in the [mobile recording] truck, it was recorded that quick at these gigs and we were more concerned with the gig than getting involved in the recording side.
When we got the [live recordings] in the studio, they were just bloody awful. It was so badly recorded that we had a big problem with it. We were pretty tired and our nerves were on edge and it just led to a bad feeling in the band.
And then to top it all, the engineer that was working with us was drinking more and more during these sessions and getting more and more pissed. One day, me and Geezer said, "It sounds different from how we left it last night" -- and this was going on for weeks – and the engineer said, "I can't take this any more! Ronnie's been coming in and adjusting everything and then you lot come in and adjust and then he comes in and adjusts it again and I just don't know what to do!"
And we said, "You're kidding?" and we broke up because of that! And of course, it was all hearsay and I don't really believe [what the engineer said] now but we did at the time.
The deluxe re-issues of 'Heaven and Hell,' 'Mob Rules' and 'Live Evil' are out on Monday (April 5).