So you want to remind the guys in Black Sabbath that it’s taken three long decades to score an ounce of respect from the rock establishment?
Don’t bother. They know it. Big time. And to be honest, they’ll tell you quite graciously, they really don’t care.
With the reunited Sabbath topping off Ozzfest ‘97 - the touring metal extravaganza founded by singer Ozzy Osbourne - it is an affirmation of sorts for the long-scorned hard rock pioneers.
Along with band mates Geezer Butler (bass) and Tony Iommi (guitar), Osbourne has taken his share of lumps since the band broke onto the American rock scene in 1970. With Iommi’s thick, foreboding riffs, Butler’s sludgy blues lines and a cartoonish blend of sci-fi themes and witchcraft imagery, the music was everything that made critics cringe and gave parents the creeps.
Even at the Warner Brothers label, where the group sold millions of albums, Sabbath was like “a second fiddle,” according to Butler. Label execs avoided the band’s gigs, Butler says, and the group “just lived from one album to the next.”
But for many teenage rock fans - the younger siblings of the hippie set - the British group’s loud, lumbering output was the real deal. Such proto-metal tunes as “Iron Man,” “War Pigs” and “Children of the Grave” served as a now-classic soundtrack for the suburban world of muscle cars, black T-shirts and felt posters.
With the possible exception of Rush, no band has gotten so little ink while wielding so large an influence on modern rock musicians. The Black Sabbath sound - a fat, plodding bottom with a high-voltage top - is a basic element in the sonic makeup of such mega-bands as Metallica, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
And the fans still line up.
“Our people are still out there waiting for us, and that speaks for itself,” says Osbourne, who will perform an hourlong solo set before taking the stage with Sabbath. “Not everybody who buys a record goes out and buys a rock ‘n’ roll history book. The proof is in the fact that we’re still in demand. It’s been generation after generation.”
Osbourne may sound testy, but he doesn’t have to get defensive: Just look at last year’s concert grosses, where Osbourne clocked in with the 10th-biggest tour of the year, just a hair behind Alanis Morissette and Hootie & the Blowfish.
Getting together with his former Sabbath mates wasn’t so cut-and-dried. Despite pleas from fans - and a one-time gig at Live Aid in 1985 - Osbourne had long resisted the urge to sing again with the band he left in 1978. He had quit after a fierce fight with Iommi, who kept Black Sabbath alive - if not always vital - with a revolving door of musicians over the years.
Geezer Butler got his phone call in March. Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife and manager, had big news: Ozzy and Iommi had patched things up and wanted to take Black Sabbath on the road.
“It was an automatic decision for me,” says Butler. “I realized if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it. Time’s getting on, and the interest from fans isn’t going to be there forever.”
Rehearsals kicked off in April minus drummer Bill Ward, who opted out of the reunion and who will be replaced onstage by Faith No More’s Mike Bordin. The band immediately clicked into a familiar groove.
“It was like I’d never left,” says Osbourne. “I’ve played some of those Sabbath songs with my own bands since I left Sabbath, but there’s no one - but no one - that can play them like this band.”
Early Ozzfest shows have found the band performing a nine-song lineup made up mostly of Sabbath standards, songs like “Paranoid,” “Black Sabbath” and “Fairies Wear Boots.” And although band members won’t call it an exercise in nostalgia, Butler concedes that they actively set out to recapture the old sound.
“It’s almost like a retro thing,” says Butler, who sifted through old LPs to teach himself his original bass lines, which had mutated onstage over the years. “Rather than having a ‘90s feel, we’ve gone right back to the ‘60s and ‘70s feel of the songs.”
Osbourne says he’s still too disillusioned with the music business to promise he’ll work with Sabbath beyond this summer tour. This tour, after all, is still called “Ozzfest.” After two decades of off-and-on bickering, Osbourne is keeping tight checks on his emotions with his old friends and musical partners.
But future plans aside, Osbourne is sure of one thing: Put a fast cap right now on all that talk about metal’s death.
“The only time you can say that is when you go to an Ozzy Osbourne concert set for 18,000 people and there’s four people in the audience. That’s when you can honestly say it’s over,” he says.