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Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

The big three of British hard rock are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. The difference between the first two and the third is simple: Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple have influenced individual bands, whereas Black Sabbath have inspired entire genres. Rock history would probably look very different without them: various trends would have started later, slower or not at all. Or without three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway: in descending order of importance, the guitarist Tony Iommi, the bassist Geezer Butler and the drummer Bill Ward. The vocalist Ozzy Osbourne is more like a mascot, in my opinion. He isn’t a good singer and I’d like to re-run Black Sabbath’s early days with someone else from the Black Country on vox: Sean Harris of Diamond Head.

But Harris was too young for that: all four original members of Black Sabbath were born in 1948 and seemed destined for the same circumscribed lives as their parents and grandparents. Then rock’n’roll came along and gave them a chance to escape boring factory jobs or careers as petty criminals in Birmingham. But with money and fame came drugs, alcohol and the chance to misbehave in much more spectacular ways. Not that they made as much money as they should: they were promoted on their first American tour as “Louder Than Led Zeppelin” (ch. 3, “Bringers of War”, pg. 72), but they definitely weren’t as well-managed. Or as well-received: despite creating much more interesting and innovative music, Black Sabbath didn’t receive the respect or critical attention they deserved until long after Led Zeppelin.

Mick Wall was one of those who gave Led Zeppelin that attention, in When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). He’s also written biographies of Metallica, AC/DC, Guns’n’Roses and Iron Maiden, so he’s well able to give Sabbath the credit (or blame) for their central role in heavy metal. Unfortunately, he’s also fond of rock journalese, hyperbole and mixed metaphors. This book has a nice cover, so it’s a shame about some of the prose:

Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, in particular, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound to delineate their own scorched-earth policy to a music scene even more elaborately formulaic than the heavy rock scene of the early Seventies – and be rewarded with critical garlands, heralding a new genre they called ‘grunge’. In 1971, however, Sabbath and their new, planet-heavy sound were simply dismissed as dimwitted, offensive and beyond redemption. (ch. 4, “Pope on a Rope”, pg. 81)

But that second sentence is okay and a good summary of how Black Sabbath were treated by the rock press. They were a bad joke for decades. Not that they helped themselves, at times: Ozzy says that he didn’t find Spinal Tap funny because it was too close to the real thing. And it was partly inspired by Black Sabbath, who also went on the road with a Stonehenge stage-set. A very big one, with a performing midget. However, Wall doesn’t manage to mine much of the comedy in the Sabbath story. There’s a lot there, both intentional and unintentional, but Tony Iommi’s ghosted autobiography Iron Man (2011) is both funnier and better-written than this book. Iron Man isn’t as detailed or as objective, though: Wall knows how important Black Sabbath are, but he praises them only when they deserve it. They’ve recorded some bad albums too and Wall describes in detail how and why they went astray in the 1980s.

Re-uniting to play Live Aid in 1985 was a one mistake, for example, but I like the commemoratory photo, which is included in the last of the three photo-sections here. It’s one of their unintentionally humorous moments: Ozzy is harking back to his “Homo in a Kimono” get-up on the cover of Sabotage; Geezer is wearing red trousers and pointy red shoes; Tony is in shades and black-leather-with-dangly-bits; and Bill is looking like a rock-goblin, complete with beer belly, bandana and dirty red baseball boots.

I like that in a rock star, but I wouldn’t like to have been anywhere near him on one of his drinking-bouts: I’d prefer not to have read the story of a plumber turning up to Bill’s Parisian hotel-suite in 1980 to clear drains “clogged with his vomit” (ch. 7, “Neon Nights”, pg. 165). And I wouldn’t want to be near Ozzy whether he’s drunk or sober, stoned or straight. He’s entertaining and endearing, but I assume that he’s best appreciated at a distance. He departs Black Sabbath part-way through the book, but Wall stays with him and tells the story of his solo career, including the tragic death of his guitarist Randy Rhoades in a plane-crash. Wall also describes the success of Ozzy’s reality TV show, The Osbournes, and his various returns to the Black Sabbath fold, in between Ronnie Dio, Ian Gillan and the other vocalists whom Tony has recruited down the decades.

They have their stories told too, as do the Sabbath manager Don Arden and his daughter Sharon. Black Sabbath have had a long history, have crossed paths with a lot of other musicians and have influenced even more, from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as Wall notes, to the Melvins and Sunn O))), as Wall doesn’t note. The respect they now enjoy is a fitting tribute to their talent and their originality. This book could have been much funnier and easier-to-read, but it’s a detailed guide to an important band by a journalist who has known them – and even worked for them – since the 1980s. And it’s got an index, which is good. But a discography would have been good too.

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Front cover of Iron Man by Tony Iommi with T.J. LammersIron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, as told to T.J. Lammers (Simon & Schuster, 2011)

To understand why this book rocks, you just have to get back in Black. That is, turn to the index and the entry for

Ward, Bill

[…]

   set on fire, 192-4, 369

Other bands go through blues periods or heroin periods or prog-rock periods. Black Sabbath went through a setting-their-drummer-on-fire period. If Led Zeppelin were rock-gods, then Black Sabbath are rock-goblins. Which is one reason I prefer them to Led Zep. Another reason is their music: it’s much more inventive and much less pretentious, in my opinion. You can’t imagine Led Zep setting their drummer on fire and you can’t imagine them recording a song called “Fairies Wear Boots” either. If Led Zep had never existed, it’s hard to see that rock music would be much different today. If Black Sabbath had never existed, rock music might be a lot different. It might also be a lot better, in some people’s opinion, because Sabbath were central to the creation of heavy metal. But their doomy, tolling sound owes something to chance – the unhappy chance of Iommi losing the tips of his right fingers on his last day at work in a factory in Birmingham. He thought it had ended his nascent career as a guitarist, but he found a way to use home-made “leather thimbles” to protect his reconstructed fingertips. All the same:

I’m limited because even with the thimbles there are certain chords I will never be able to play. Where I used to play a full chord before the accident, I often can’t do them now, so I compensate by making it sound fuller. For instance, I’ll hit the E chord and the E note and put vibrato on it to make it sound bigger, so it’s making up for that full sound that I would be able to play if I still had full use of all the fingers. That’s how I developed a style of playing that suits my physical limitations. It’s an unorthodox style but it works for me. (ch. 6, “Why don’t you just give me the finger?”, pg. 24)

Iommi needed determination and willpower to overcome the accident and both are apparent in the photo-section. He looks, to put it simply, like a hard bastard. “Iron Man” is a good name for this autobiography and it isn’t surprising that Ozzy Osbourne was frightened of him. Iommi has been the engine of Black Sabbath in more ways than one: he writes the riffs and rights the riff-raff and he’s been the only ever-present in the band. I wonder how much his music and his menace are owed to genetics: he was born in Birmingham, but both his parents were of Italian descent and Iommi looks distinct from the native Brits Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, who have lighter hair and milder eyes. Once you’ve seen the photos, the dynamics of the band should come as no surprise:

We also had some bloody laughs there [in Miami during the recording of Technical Ecstasy (1976)], especially when we played jokes on Bill. He would never allow the maids in to clean his room. One day we got a big load of this really horrible, smelly Gorgonzola cheese, and while somebody kept him talking I sneaked into his room and piled it under the bed. [L]ater I came in again and the smell was atrocious. I went: “Phew, Bill, what’s that smell?”

“I don’t know what it is, it must be my clothes.”

Bill is a dirty bugger; he’d pile his filthy clothes in a corner.

“When are you going to clean them?”

“I will, yeah.”

He never sussed out the cheese under the bed. It smelled absolutely vile. He actually started smelling like cheese himself. (ch. 40, “Me on Ecstasy”, pg. 156)

Bill Ward was the butt of the band, as the bassist Jason Newsted was in Metallica. Like Newsted, Ward left the band that made him famous, but unlike Newsted he returned and is still there. He was lucky: he might have left permanently after the final “set the drummer on fire” incident. It put him in hospital and could have killed him, Iommi says in chapter 48, “Ignition”. Or T.J. Lammers, his ghost-writer, says on his behalf, anyway. I was a bit disappointed to see the autobiography was an “As Told To”, but it’s probably for the best, because Iommi admits he had a poor education. And you quickly forget the ghost-writing once you start reading. Lammers doesn’t try to get literary or high-flown and Iommi seems to be chatting in a down-to-earth, Brummie way about his decades in one of the world’s biggest and most influential rock-bands. One of the loudest too. Why is a song on Born Again (1983) called “Disturbing the Priest”? Because they recorded the album in a studio called The Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside and the noise prompted a petition from the neighbours, which was delivered by the local priest. Iommi goes on to explain how the album was heavy metal in more ways than one:

In those days you had to make your own effects. Bill made this particular “tingngng!” sound on “Disturbing the Priest”. He got this by hitting an anvil and then dipping it into a bathtub full of water, so that the “tingngng!” sound slowly changed and faded away. It took us all day to do that, because trying to lower the anvil gradually into the water was a nightmare. It took two people on one end and two more on the other to lower it, with somebody else hitting it. It was so heavy that we couldn’t speak or anything, just sort of nod to each other… All this to create one “tingngng!”, which nowadays you can get from a computer in seconds. (ch. 56, “To The Manor Born”, pg. 224)

So the anvil was a handful, but Iommi doesn’t describe any other sweaty activities. He keeps things clean: chapter 24 describes fishing “out of the window” at the Edgewater Hotel made famous in Hammer of the Gods (1985), but no groupies are introduced to fish in unusual ways. Elsewhere he talks about drugs a fair bit, but there’s more about the music and the menacing. I’d include the jokes and pranks under that last heading. This is the funniest rock bio I’ve ever read, but I’m sure it was less funny to be on the receiving end of Iommi’s alpha-male domineering. Setting Bill Ward on fire or abandoning him, blind drunk, on a boating-lake or park-bench was on the simpler, more spontaneous side, but he also convinced Martin Birch, the superstitious producer of Heaven and Hell (1980), that he was being jinxed with a voodoo doll:

I loved it. I really lived on it. I was looking forward to going in the next day, just to wind him up some more. Martin changed from being this confident chap to being a nervous wreck, going: “What’s happening, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

I got the doll out again and he said: “You’re sticking pins in it! It’s me, isn’t it? That’s me!”

[…] Fantastic, it was a real gem and it lasted the entire recording session. We never told him. He’ll read this book and go: “The bastard!” (ch. 47, “Heaven and Hell”, pg. 190)

In the next chapter Iommi is nearly barbecuing Bill Ward, but a few chapters later, he’s having to rescue someone else from dangerous jokes. On the Born Again tour, whose Stonehenge stage-set inspired a famous scene in Spinal Tap (1984), Sabbath’s then manager Don Arden decided to re-create the “Devil Baby” on the album’s cover. So he hired a “midget in a rubber outfit” to leap off the Stonehenge columns and flash his eyes at the audience before the show started:

The midget was a bit of a pop star, because he’d been one of the little bears in Star Wars. Ozzy at the time also took a midget out on the road; I think he called him Ronnie. I don’t know who had the first one, really. It became a thing. Midgets were in demand. But we had the famous midget because ours was in Star Wars. (ch. 57, “Size Matters”, pg. 233)

But the crew didn’t like the midget’s references to his fame and started to play tricks on him:

We finally decided it was best for all parties concerned if he left, especially after the crew decided to put the lights out on him at the very moment he jumped from the columns onto the drum riser. He went: “Aaaaaah!”

Splat!

He caught the edge of the drum riser and nearly broke his neck. Meanwhile, we were backstage waiting to come on and it just blew the show. We said: “That’s it, he’s gone!”

They would have killed him if we hadn’t fired him. (Ibid., pg. 233)

You don’t get midgets in Hammer of the Gods, to the best of my recollection. It’s another reason to prefer Hammer of the Goblins: this book is better-written and there’s much more humour in the Sabbath story. If it sometimes has a dangerous edge, that makes it like life. Also like life is Sabbath’s music: some is good and some is risible. Their album covers run the gamut too: Black Sabbath (1970) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) are good, Paranoid (1970) and Sabotage (1975) are risible. But Paranoid contains some of their best music and is named after their most famous song. This was actually a filler for the album after the producer Rodger Bain said to Iommi: “We don’t have enough. Can you come up with another song? Just a short one?” (ch. 18, “Getting Paranoid”, pg. 73)

Covers of four Black Sabbath albums

Two good, two bad — click for larger image

The others “popped out for lunch”, Iommi came up with a riff, then Geezer came up with the lyrics, though Iommi says that he and Osbourne probably didn’t know what “paranoid” meant at the time: “Ozzy and me went to the same lousy school, where we certainly wouldn’t be around words like that” (pg. 74). This uncharacteristically short and fast song brought them their greatest success, including an appearance on Top of the Pops. You can expect the unexpected with Black Sabbath. Also unexpected is that they’re all still around, despite the drugs and the dangerous jokes. Friends of Iommi’s, like John Bonham, Ronnie Dio and Cozy Powell, are no longer around, but he reminisces about them here and about his still-living friends and admirers. For example, he wins tributes on the back cover from Brian May, Eddie Van Halen and James Hetfield. I think the tributes are well-deserved. Iommi’s success is based on inventing music and inspiring metal, not igniting musicians or employing midgets. It’s the latter that make this book so entertaining and memorable, but no-one would want to read it if it hadn’t been for the music:

I thought “Zero the Hero” [off Born Again] was a good track and apparently I’m not the only one who likes it. When I heard “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses I thought, fucking hell, that sounds like one of ours! Somebody also suggested that the Beastie Boys might have borrowed the riff for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” from our song “Hot Line”… I have a habit of keeping my riffs; I’ve got thousands of them. You know a riff is good when you play it and it gets to you. You just feel a good riff… I found that while I’m still able to keep writing them, I usually don’t go back to the old ones, so I’m only getting more and more. Maybe I should sell riffs! (ch. 56, “To the Manor Born”, pg. 224)

But that is what he has been doing throughout his career: selling riffs and shaping rock. He’s earnt his star on Birmingham’s “Walk of Fame” and deserves the respect he’s paid by everyone from Henry Rollins to Lemmy out of Motörhead. And even if you don’t like his rock’n’roll, you may still find yourself rocking with laughter at his stories.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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