Never Say Die

Tony Iommi, living legend. Metal pioneer. Riff machine. Cancer survivor. Solely responsible for keeping the greatest Heavy Metal band of all time, Black Sabbath, alive for 45 years, withstanding decades of changing musical trends and never-ending line-up changes. But is this last bit something we should applaud Iommi for? Looking over Sabbath’s long history and vast body of work, how much of it really lives up to the legacy? Can Black Sabbath even be called a ‘band’ after 1983? Do half of these records even qualify as ‘Black Sabbath’ records?

Let’s start the discussion with something we can all agree on: Those first 6 albums are untouchable. Every one of them should form the core of any self-respecting metalhead’s music collection. They are the reason that the name ‘Black Sabbath’ will be among the few 20th century music artists that will be remembered hundreds of years in the future. Is this not a fact? Is there anyone out there that would argue this?

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We can debate about ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and ‘Never Say Die!’; both are often included when discussing Sabbath’s unquestionable classics, as both feature the band’s original/classic line-up. But there is no consensus of opinion on these 2 albums, and fact that their relative worth is constantly debated means that there is significant doubt about their status in the Sab’s discography.

We may also argue about the Dio era, especially since the line-up that included Vinnie Appice on drums actually dropped Black Sabbath name and began calling themselves ‘Heaven and Hell’ in 2006. Some fans think a name change should have come with the release of the ‘Heaven and Hell’ album in 1979; changing it in 2006 created an interesting conundrum… Is ‘Mob Rules’ a Heaven and Hell album? Is ‘The Devil You Know’ a Black Sabbath album? Shades of grey abound.

Perhaps even more questionable is 1983’s ‘Born Again’, an album that both Iommi and Geezer Butler claim was not originally intended to be released as a Black Sabbath album. So BA carries with it some controversy, but is now seen by most as just as worthy of the Black Sabbath name as the 2 that came before it. However, having arrived at ‘Born Again’, and taking a look back at those unquestionable Original Six, one can see clearly just how far off track we have drifted. That said, I still include ‘Born Again’ in the larger discussion of ‘legit’ Sabbath albums, in fact, for me it is the final album by Black Sabbath proper.

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The post-‘Born Again’ Sabbath story is a fucking circus, with Tony Iommi the Ringmaster. After Gillan and Butler departed, American singer David Donato was hired and demos were recorded, with Bob Ezrin producing. A Black Sabbath album produced by the producer of Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, and all of Alice Cooper’s classic albums would likely have been amazing, regardless of who Iommi had in the line-up at the time. Alas, this all led to …nothing. Donato did an interview with Kerrang! as Sabbath’s new lead vocalist, before he was officially hired… and was promptly fired.

Iommi planned his next project as a solo album, but the suits at Warner Brothers insisted it be released under the Black Sabbath banner. Despite the ploy, we all know better, and the ‘Seventh Star’ album is now widely acknowledged as an Iommi solo record, no matter what’s printed on the sleeve or CD insert. Moreover, all five of the ‘Tony Martin Era’ albums that followed are also Iommi solo albums. Aren’t they? When the musicians who contribute to an album aren’t properly credited; when the recording line-up is different than the touring line-up, and when the list of players in your ‘band’ changes each album/year in an never-ending revolving door of musicians, putting even Rainbow to shame… That’s not a band. So let’s call these records what they are: solo albums.

Another Deep Purple singer, Glenn Hughes sang on ‘Seventh Star’, but was fired 5 dates into the world tour and replaced by the unknown Ray Gillen. That’s Gillen with an ‘E’. Eric Singer and Dave ‘The Beast’ Spitz played drums and bass. That Spitz gets to forever promote himself as a ‘former member of Black Sabbath’ simply because Warners forced the Sabbath name onto the record irks me to no end. And what’s the real difference between ‘Seventh Star’ and the five ‘Black Sabbath’ albums that followed? Not much.

Spitz was replaced by Bob Daisley after the first sessions for the next album ‘The Eternal Idol’. Daisley also wrote the album’s lyrics, but Ray Gillen quit shortly after recording them. New recruit Tony Martin then recorded new vocal tracks. Bev Bevan and Geezer Butler returned to the band for the tour, but Butler quit after learning that the band were booked to play in South Africa (wtf?), and was replaced by Jo Burt. Then Bevan was out, swiftly replaced by former Clash drummer Terry Chimes…! As I said, fucking circus. ‘The Eternal Idol’ would be the last ‘Black Sabbath’ album for both Warner Brothers and Vertigo, as the labels dropped the ‘band’ after 18 years. It would be the last ‘Black Sabbath’ record released on a major label for 25 years.

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‘Headless Cross’ appeared in 1989 on I.R.S. Records. Chimes was out, Cozy Powell was in. Jo Burton was out, Lawrence Cottle was in, but only for the album; Neil Murray played bass on the tour. Murray stuck around for the next album, ‘TYR’, as did Powell and Martin. The album featured lyrics about Norse mythology; the cover featured Nordic runes that for some strange reason spell out ‘TMR’. Someone didn’t do their homework. Lyrics about Norse mythology? Hey, ‘Born Again’ haters: how you like me now?

in 1992, Geezer, Ronnie Dio and Vinnie Appice were coaxed back into the fold, reuniting the 1982 ‘Mob Rules’ line-up for ‘Dehumanizer’. Thankfully, this record breathed a little life into the tired Sabbath carcass with a pile of strong songs and a successful tour. ‘Dehumanizer’ entered the UK Top Forty and hit #44 in the US. But is this the 16th Black Sabbath album? Or is it the second ‘Heaven and Hell’ album?

Ronnie Dio left again, after refusing to appear with Sabbath as support for Ozzy Osbourne’s two ‘final’ shows in November; Dio called Ozzy a ‘clown’ and quit. This turn of events led to Rob Halford, who had just recently departed Judas Priest, being drafted at the last minute to sing both sets. Everyone involved acknowledges that there was talk of Halford joining the band permanently. How amazing would that have been? Halford fronting Sabbath, looking all Anton LaVey, with a vocal range the band’s previous few singers could only dream of… And he certainly would have nailed it in the lyrics department. But it didn’t happen; surely he was touched by Sharon Osbourne’s Hand of Doom. On the second of those two shows in Costa Mesa, Ward, Butler and Iommi joined Ozzy at the end of his set and played four songs as Black Sabbath. And this led to …absolutely nothing.

Iommi assembled yet another line-up, finally convincing Geezer to stick around and reactivating Tony Martin. Bobby Rondinelli was hired on as drummer. ‘Cross Purposes’ featured cover art blatantly stolen from Scorpions’ ‘Send me an Angel’ single from three years earlier. As the Sabbath circus lurched through 1994, Rondinelli quit and was replaced by Bill Ward for the final five shows of the tour. Immediately after the tour ended, Geezer left again, forming GZR; their debut album contained a song called ‘Giving up the Ghost’, which featured the following lyrics:

“You plagiarized and parodied the magic of our meaning/A legend in your own mind, left all your friends behind/You can’t admit that you’re wrong, the spirit is dead and gone”

Ward also quit. Iommi called Cozy Powell and Neil Murray back, which resulted in a reunion of the ‘TYR’ line-up (yay?). But none could foresee that right around the corner lurked the worst nightmare ever conjured under the name of Black Sabbath… ‘Forbidden’.

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Some context: The mid-’90s were not exactly kind to ‘old school’ metal bands. I’ve written previously about the struggles of bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in this time period, and steering the SS Sabbath through these Grunge-infested waters couldn’t have been easy. The sad truth is, in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, several bands were utilizing the classic Sabbath sound, at times sounding more like Black Sabbath than Iommi’s ‘Black Sabbath’ records did. Corrosion of Conformity, Trouble, Electric Wizard, Cathedral, Candlemass, and others all clearly worshipped at the altar of the Original Six, while Iommi seemed stuck on plodding rehashes of ‘Heaven and Hell’.

By the time of ‘Forbidden’, Iommi had tired of keeping the Sabbath flag flying single-handedly and was eager to take get a full-on Black Sabbath reunion underway. A return to the original Sabbath line-up had been in the planning stages since Ozzy’s 1992’s Costa Mesa gigs, but Iommi was obligated to deliver one more album to I.R.S. The label knew it would be their last chance to do business with the prestigious Black Sabbath name and were ready to take some chances.

Everyone involved in this debacle should have known better. ‘Rap Sabbath’? Seriously?? The band were summoned to London for a meeting to discuss the direction of the album. Iommi was told that Sabbath needed to regain some street cred, get hip with the times, and other such bullshit. Ernie C., guitarist for Body Count, the infamous ‘metal’ band fronted by hip hop icon Ice-T, was drafted in as producer for ‘Forbidden’. That the record sounds awful is of secondary concern. The real issue here is that the the song that opens the album, ‘The Illusion of Power’, features a rap by Ice-T. Here it is again in all caps: THE SONG THAT OPENS THE ALBUM, ‘THE ILLUSION OF POWER’, FEATURES A RAP BY ICE-T. Even Tony Martin raps/speaks his verses in the song. It’s godawful. And it’s only the first song…

After the Forbidden tour, Iommi was, once again, the last Sab standing. Since recording ‘Born Again’ in 1983, Iommi had burned through 6 drummers, 6 bass players, and 5 singers. The fact is that Ozzy Osbourne, ‘solo artist’, had more changes in his line-up between 1983 and 1995 than Black Sabbath, the ‘band’. Take that, Blackmore! Rather than gather another bunch of hired hands (who was left? Rudy Sarzo? Tommy Aldridge? Oh no, no, please God help me!) he wisely opted to put the Sabbath name on hold and until the inevitable reunion. You know, the reunion that started coming together at the Costa Mesa gigs in 1992; the reunion that, according to Iommi’s book, ‘Iron Man’, was being ‘managed’ by Sharon Osbourne?

Here’s how a snapshot of Sharon’s ‘management strategy’: After the band first reunited for Ozzy’s ‘final shows’, six years passed before the original Black Sabbath met with Rick Rubin to discuss an album and then entered the studio to write new material… but Sharon put everything on hold so she could turn her husband into a clown on TV. Ronnie Dio warned us of the danger! Because making herself a TV star by whoring out her family and presenting Ozzy to the world as a mindless drug-addled idiot was more important than a new Black Sabbath album. So talking, planning and writing was as close as we ever got.

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Today, 17 years later, we’re no closer. In fact, at this point, it may never happen. The Dio-era line-up, reunited as Heaven and Hell, wrote 3 new songs for a comp, then recorded a new album, and toured the world twice, all in just 4 years. Sharon has had 23 years to put a reunion together with all four original members of Black Sabbath. The original Black Sabbath only worked together for 8 of those years, and under Sharon’s ‘management’ were only able to produce one proper tour, a few jaunts as part of Ozzfest, one live album, and one recording of one new song. It’s almost as if she’s been working to prevent a reunion from ever happening. Hmm…

To my mind, the epic Black Sabbath run can be broken into three distinct ‘eras’: the ‘Original Six/Subsequent Six’ era, the ‘Tony Iommi Solo Albums’ era, and the ‘Sharon Osbourne-Controlled, Utterly Fruitless, Nearly-Twenty-Year, So-Called Reunion’ era. That third period is the longest of the three. Thirty years after ‘Never Say Die!’; I’m thinking that, all things considered, maybe it would’ve been OK to say ‘Die’ after all.

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And the Grammy Goes to… HELL!!

Tired of being pissed off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame every year? Need somewhere else to direct your hatred toward what’s left of the music industry? Well then, why not try hatin’ on the Grammys this year?

“The GRAMMYs are the only peer-presented award to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position.”

So says NARAS, or the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. A noble sentiment. It all made sense until 1989. This is the year that NARAS added the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental category for the 31st Annual Grammy Awards.

The Grammys’ entire Heavy Metal history is cringe-worthy. When NARAS finally decided to stop ignoring an entire genre of music (one that had moved hundreds of millions of records throughout it’s history) and recognize the existence of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, Metal Nation was initially pleased. But when faced with the daunting task of actually listening to Heavy Metal, the Academy gave the first award to the only nominated record they could actually get through: Jethro Tull’s ‘Crest Of A Knave’. After this debacle, which was viewed by the rest of the music world as a major embarrassment, the Academy should have just called it quits and left HR & HM alone. But NARAS needed to correct its mistake, and awarded 1990’s Metal Grammy to Metallica for their cover of Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’. Metallica would have won no matter what they released that year. And thus began Grammy’s 25-year love affair with Metallica, who won the third year as well. It’s a great strategy: Stick with the band that has the word ‘Metal’ in it’s name. It’s like awarding the Grammy for Best Blues Performance to Blue Oyster Cult every other year.

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NARAS couldn’t even get the category right. After the ’89 debacle, the Grammy committee split the category in two, creating a separate category for Hard Rock Performance in 1990. There! All Fixed! Then, in 2012, the category was re-combined again into a single category, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. Okay then. And, just in case you needed more evidence of the Academy’s total and utter ineptitude when it comes to these genres, the category was split again in 2014. Ya know what? We’re good. Just leave us alone.

A cursory glance at the list of nominees and winners in this category is a depressing slog through the last 25 years of mainstream metal. Godsmack, Korn, Mudvayne, White Zombie, Cradle of Filth… Nine Inch Nails? I grant that it’s a lot harder to recognize “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence” in these genres today than it was twenty five years ago. There have been occasions where the Academy has gotten it right; nods for Motorhead’s ‘1916’ and Faith No More’s ‘Angel Dust’ album spring to mind. Machine Head’s ‘The Aesthetics of Hate’, nominated in 2008, was certainly the best metal song I heard that year. Of course, none of these songs actually won, and these nominations are still the exceptions that prove the rule: 99.999% of the time, the Academy gets it wrong.

And how does NARAS address the 30 year period in the genre’s history that came before these categories were created? With their unfortunately-named ‘Hall of Fame’ award. This award is intended to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance“. Led Zeppelin’s debut has been awarded a HoF Grammy, as has ‘IV’; the individual songs ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ have also received HoF Grammys. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and ‘We Will Rock You/We are the Champions’ singles have also been recognized. But that’s it. A nice gesture, but it it’s too little, too late, as it doesn’t exactly address the previous 30 years of Metal in any substantive way. Seriously, how can any Hard Rock band be awarded a Grammy when Rush didn’t win one for ‘Moving Pictures’? None of Black Sabbath’s supremely important first six albums won them a Grammy, but the ‘God is Dead?’, the single pulled from the tired rehash of the ’13’ album, did. Deep Purple (‘Machine Head’! ‘Made in Japan’! ‘Perfect Strangers’!) doesn’t have any Grammys, yet Slipknot has one…

To further illustrate how useless this award is, I’d like to point out that several live songs and cover versions have been nominated over the years. ‘Live’? Really? Don’t we all know by now that anything that claims to have been ‘recorded live’ is probably as bogus as Milli Vanilli (Grammy Winners, 1990!)? C’mon… Furthermore, does anyone truly believe that a ‘live’ version of Ozzy’s “I Don’t Want to Change the World” was the best Metal Performance of 1994? Out of every single performance recorded during that year? Mr. O. has such an extensive history of – ahem – “assistance” in the vocal department, both live and in the studio, that awarding a Grammy to this clown for a vocal performance is like awarding an Olympic medal for Freestyle Steroid Use. His Ozz-ness won again for his um, absolutely spectacular vocal performance of ‘Iron Man’ from Black Sabbath’s live ‘Reunion’ album in 2000. They should have given him 3 gramophone statues for that performance, because if you listen closely, you’ll hear 3 Ozzys singing on that track.

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If a band is nominated (or win) for a cover version, what does that say about how NARAS regards their original music? Anthrax (once called ‘the highest-paid cover band in history’ by Kerrang! magazine) was nominated 2 years in a row for cover versions, and their ‘Attack of the Killer B’s’ album, filled with covers, joke tunes, live songs, and other worthless junk, was nominated in1992. Motorhead have been nominated twice for covers of Metallica songs (!!!), one of which actually won in ’05. I’m gratified that Motorhead can call themselves ‘Grammy Winners’, but isn’t this just another way the Academy gets to kiss Metallica’s ass? Nominate Motorhead’s ‘Inferno’ album from the same year of GTFO. And If Megadeth’s throwaway cover of Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’, tossed off on a soundtrack album, was the HM genre’s ‘artistic achievement’ of the year in 1996, then I’ll eat my studded writst bands.

(Fun Grammy Fact: Metallica and Megadeth, 2 bands forever linked by a dysfunctional family history, are both Grammy record-holders: While Metallica holds the record for most Metal Grammys won (6, including an award for the awful ‘St. Anger’ album), Megadeth holds the distinction of garnering the most Metal Grammy nominations (9) without ever winning one. I’m betting that fact doesn’t bother Dave Mustaine ONE. SINGLE. BIT.)

The travesty continues into 2015, with two Ronnie Dio-related covers nominated for this year’s Grammys: Anthrax’s cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Neon Knights’ and unfunny joke Tenacious D’s cover of Dio’s ‘The Last in Line’; I can just imagine RJD spinning in his grave (33 1/3 revolutions per minute, no doubt) as I write. That a by-the-numbers cover of this classic song is nominated for a Grammy Award, while the original version remains unrecognized for its “qualitative or historical significance” is an excellent illustration of the ludicrous nature of this entire enterprise. And if comedy rock duo Tenacious D wins the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for covering a song by the legendary Ronnie James Dio, after a decades of goofing on Ronnie and metal in general, I swear to God I seal up my ear holes with Gorilla Glue and never listen to music again.

STOP THE MADNESS. NARAS shouldn’t be giving awards to genres and styles of music it clearly does not understand. They’ve demonstrated time and again that they do not ‘get’ Heavy Metal. I’d love to see Scott Ian or Lemmy get up there this year and outright refuse it, and publicly denounce the entire farce. Grammys? We don’t need no stinkin’ Grammys! But then again, we wouldn’t actually get to see that, as the awards for HM/HR are awarded off-camera every year. So much for ‘legitimacy’. And remember when the Academy failed to include Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman in their ‘In Memoriam’ segment in 2014? That’s two-time Grammy winner Jeff Hanneman?? I got your ‘legitimacy’, right here.

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Still the red-headed step-child. And that’s okay. Hard Rock and Heavy Metal have always existed –nay, thrived– outside the boundaries of legitimacy, propriety, critical validation and mainstream acceptance. Let’s keep it that way. Besides, raising the likes of Rob Zombie and Marylin Manson into the esteemed company of Miles Davis, Ennio Morricone, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, etc. is absolutely ludicrous. There are a handful of Hard Rock/Metal records since 1990 that would sit well in that kind of company*; but Jack Black parodying one of the all time greats sure ain’t one.

*Slayer – ‘Reign In Blood’

Raging Slab – ‘Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert’,

Opeth – ‘Watershed’, ‘Blackwater Park’, ‘Ghost Reveries’

Enslaved – ‘Below the Lights’ and ‘Monumension’

Deep Purple – ‘Now What?!’

High On Fire – ‘Blessed Black Wings’

Mastodon – ‘Leviathan’

Corrosion of Conformity – ‘In the Arms of God’

Megadeth – ‘Rust in Peace’

Pantera – ‘Vulgar Display of Power’