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Blizzard of Ozz

With The Osbournes' Fame Flying High Again, Rhino Repackages Black Sabbath's Early Years as the Original Crazy Train

By Jon Fine | Posted 12/4/2002

The thing is, Ozzy Osbourne wasn't even the No. 2 guy in Black Sabbath. It was always guitarist Tony Iommi's band; he wrote the riffs and ran the show, and bassist Geezer Butler did the lyrics. But the MTV show isn't The Iommis, Tony is a shittier interview than Ozzy, and he's had worse management of late to boot. Besides, everyone loves a clown. I mean, Ozzy now gets invites from the fucking Queen of England, and he's free to play to type for the rest of his life. In the liner notes of Symptom of the Universe, a cash-in retrospective box set of Sabbath's Ozzy years, which ended almost 25 years ago, he's there in the first paragraph insisting he thought Spinal Tap was a documentary: "When they got lost on the way to the stage--that happened to me a thousand times!"

Ozzy's extraordinarily oddball third act as Caring, if Befuddled, Sitcom Dad, at least, looks likely to temper Sabbath's rep as a band of bad-ass Satan-mongers (this, despite the explicitly pro-God tilt of songs like "After Forever" and "Lord of This World") with with a fact that's been apparent to devotees for many years: Sabbath, in its day, was as goofy as Scooby-Doo. Think of the live takes of "Snowblind" where Ozzy screams the word "COCAINE!" at the end of every verse. (Thanks for clearing that up, Ozzy. We thought the song was about skiing.) Think of the ballads on their mid-'70s albums suffused with string sections so transparently fake you can practically hear them opening up the tin cans the violin store packaged 'em in. Listen back on any of their stoned, glorious, and utterly wrongheaded stabs at synth rock and disco. (And while you're at it, curse the compilers of this collection for not including "Who Are You," a lumbering one-riff synthed-out disaster from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath broken up by an absolutely pointless quasi-classical interlude--in other words, total genius, and the secret soundtrack to every terrible sci-fi movie you saw as a teenager while tripping at 3 a.m.) Gaze in awe at any one of the 45 photos in Symptom's liner notes--like the opening spread, in which the shirtless band members appear to be doing some kind of gypsy line dance while superimposed over an ordinary shot of a living room. Ask yourself: Would Led Zeppelin, Sabbath's only real competition for the King of '70s Rock title, do any of this? Answer: Not bloody likely.

Sabbath is still great because of, not despite, any and all of this. With this band, you get a steak dinner of riffs--and the box of Twinkies for dessert. As Seth Sanders wrote in the Chicago Reader, Sabbath was all those things because the band members really were that confused--a point Symptom testifies to in spades.

The only new thing Symptom brings to the party is the formerly U.K.-only cover of "Evil Woman," a bizarre one-off penned by biker rockers Crow, most notable for being an addendum to the sub-sub-genre of Wronged Man Unjustly Blamed for a Pregnancy ("you want me to claim that child you bore/ well, you know that it must he not be," etc.). Die-hards can quibble over track selection, and I will: The cheery, life-is-good coda to 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, "Spiral Architect," is mysteriously absent, and I don't understand why anyone vaguely interested in Sabbath would omit, say, any of the songs on Vol. 4. But whatever. Symptom provides a neat narrative to the band's arc. I wouldn't want to be without any of Sabbath's first six albums--Black Sabbath through Sabotage--but Symptom presents ample evidence that the band bumbled around before finding its muse.

"Black Sabbath" the song is sort of a sentimental favorite, but, really, the main riff is corny as hell, the galloping part is a bad Dungeons & Dragons bit, and Ozzy's "Oh Nooooo!" unintentionally presaged the entire career of Mr. Bill. On the album of the same name and the follow-up, 1971's Paranoid, Tony had yet to detune his guitar to C-sharp from standard E, meaning the sonics lack the signature mud factor that make Sabbath's later work so satisfying. To these ears, Sabbath's arrival was first hinted at with the luscious, lugubrious grind that opens Paranoid's "War Pigs," further emerges on 1971's Master of Reality, and bursts in full flower on 1972's Vol. 4.

Coincidentally, according to the band members themselves, it was around then that their drug intake became truly stupendous. In the liner notes to 1998's live Reunion album, Butler estimated Vol. 4 cost around $65,000 grand to make, "and we'd spent about $75,000 on coke." Hence the legend on the album: "We wish to thank the great COKE-Cola company of Los Angeles." But burnout came slow, and the complete immersion in sound and madness on Vol. 4's "Supernaut" popped up several more times on the subsequent Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (the title track) and Sabotage ("Hole in the Sky" and "Symptom of the Universe"). Though the end of it is sometimes maligned, the cycle of Vol. 4 through Sabotage is the Sabbath worth knowing and loving: the fabulously misguided notions, production thick as day-old oatmeal, half-brain-dead acoustic interludes like "Laguna Sunrise" (after God knows how many days awake, from the sounds of it) and "Fluff," and Ozzy hitting high notes like a coked-up Chipmunk. Which is essentially what he was.

Sabbath fell of a cliff after that. The last four songs on Symptom, have "burnout phase" written all over them, with nary a decent riff among 'em. The stuff from 1978's Never Say Die! finds Sabbath plying a toughened-up faceless arena rock. The end of the original Sabbath was so embarrassing that people argued whether or not the lineup with Ronnie James Dio, who replaced Ozzy for two albums starting with 1980's Heaven and Hell, outdid the original lineup. Ozzy may now present himself plaintively to stoner son Jack as a case history of what comes from drug abuse, but the real warning is in how badly Sabbath had fallen apart by the time Technical Ecstasy rolled around. The problem for Sitcom Ozzy is that his kid likely knows all damn too well how great the preceding albums were, and how fucked up Dad and company were for them. In other words: Ozzy may do the Caring, if Befuddled, Dad thing now, but his Bad Example Dad from years past still trumps it. Thank Satan, as Sabbath would say--excuse me, that would be Thank God.

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More from Jon Fine

Fame and Fortune is a Stupid Game (2/19/2003)
Regrouped After 20 Years, the Only Horrible Truth About Mission of Burma Today is That There's Still Nothing Wrong With It

Blizzard of Ozz (12/4/2002)
With The Osbournes' Fame Flying High Again, Rhino Repackages Black Sabbath's Early Years as the Original Crazy Train

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