The first Ronnie James Dio era of Black Sabbath — the one that yielded the exceptional Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules — signaled the remarkable rebuilding of a wayward band and one of the finest moments in metal's history concerning a change in singer. With two massive remastered reissues on the horizon, Tony Iommi was gracious enough to speak with us about this pair of timeless releases.
These records are historic for many reasons beyond the impressive comeback that came with them. It was a time of complete reinvention of the Sabbath sound, which in large part was due to the band's willingness to relinquish some control and ease off self-production while linking up with the esteemed Martin Birch, who died in August of last year.
Birch's fingerprints are all over some of the most important records in heavy music, even if Iommi did have to explain to him the typical bass tone used in rock and metal would not suffice when it came to tracking Geezer Butler.
Our conversation also leans heavily on Ronnie James Dio, who was Ozzy Osbourne's opposite in a number of ways, yet at the same time was the ideal suitor for the job as the band embarked in a bold new direction. Their new sound required fans to buy in to it rather than reject it outright because it didn't sound like the Ozzy material.
And then there's the pranks. Oh, the pranks!
Iommi is renowned prankster, always effusing pride in the hijinks he's managed to pull off (lighting Bill Ward on fire…), but we had to know, instead, what the other members of the band had once done to him. But we won't reveal that here — it's best we leave that to metal's creator, which brings us to the top of our interview directly below.
Black Sabbath's 'Heaven and Hell' and 'Mob Rules' reissues come out March 5. Pre-order here.
When was the first time you heard Ronnie James Dio sing?
It was Rainbow — probably the first Rainbow album. I thought it was really good and that Ronnie had a great voice.
Did you ever think that you would get him to sing in your band one day?
Before Ronnie joined, I was getting despondent about things. I was frustrated and wanted to get to work. I met Ronnie at a party, and we talked about doing a project together. So I was on the verge of doing something with him and when Ozzy left, that’s when I said to the other guys, “Why don’t we try Ronnie?” We got him over for a rehearsal and it worked.
Was there any apprehension of letting an American into the group? Or did the Rainbow stint qualify him as British enough?
It did in some ways. [laughs] We’re known as a British band and it did come across as that, but when we heard Ronnie, I thought, “This is the guy.”
We had a lot of barriers to climb over with Ronnie. Everybody knew Ozzy and we never worked with another singer, so bringing somebody else in was a big challenge. To expect the fans to take Ronnie on was a big barrier. Don Arden, who was managing us at the time, was against Ronnie singing for us. He said, “You can’t have a midget singing for Black Sabbath.” I said, “He’s got a great voice, it’s working with what we’re doing,” and that’s why we parted ways with Don.
Fin Costello, Getty Images
In the early stages of Heaven and Hell, Geezer Butler had also left the band to deal with marital issues. The future of the band was uncertain. At what point did you realize this material was indeed for Black Sabbath and not a brand new band?
We just stuck with the Sabbath thing. Bill Ward and myself knew we had to carry on. We liked what we were doing when Ronnie came in it made us work harder because we had to prove something again. The name of the band came up, but I don’t remember much about that period. Obviously we kept the name [laughs].
It was hard for Ronnie to step in somebody’s shoes and front Sabbath, especially someone like Ozzy who was a showman. Ronnie was more of a professional singer and Ozzy was more of an entertainer.
People always talk about the difference in style between the '70s material and the first two albums with Dio, but to me it always felt like a natural progression from occultism into the mysticism Ronnie spoke about. Was there a mentality within Sabbath to keep those types of themes present?
Ronnie had the same attitude as us and didn’t want to have anything too jolly. He wanted to make it meaningful and we wanted to believe in it instead of following a trend.
We were learning from each other — he had to learn the way we work and vice versa. It was trial and error and writing these songs was to see how far we could go. It opened a different way of writing — my playing changed when Ronnie came in. He was used to working with Ritchie Blackmore and dealing with a half hour solo and he encouraged me to play more.
One song where you play around with the arrangement live is “Heaven and Hell” which has an extra verse. Was that part of the original song and left out of the studio version or did that extension develop specifically on the road?
It happened on the road, which was another good thing touring with Ronnie — we would try new things. It was a tight ship but it was loose as far as the music was concerned — you could extend the solo or put a jam bit in, which we did, and it was great. I really found that refreshing.
Black Sabbath, "Heaven and Hell" (Live B-Side)
Something else very special about these two albums is that you worked with producer Martin Birch. What did he bring out of you as a musician that you weren’t aware of before?
Before Martin, we were doing it ourselves and it’s a tremendous pressure to do the production side as well as play. It was nice to rely on him, and I was able to relax more. He pushed me, too. If I was doing a solo, I usually get five takes before I start getting worse, but he always pushed me to play a better on.
Martin was not used to working with a band like us the way our sound was. Martin was so used to having bass players with a [standard] bass sound, and I had to tell him that Geezer’s tone is a lot more raunchy and we need to get more distortion on it. He relied on our opinions.
There was originally a demo with Ozzy singing on what became “Children of the Sea.” Is there any consideration for eventually releasing that?
I don’t know, I never really thought about it. I still have the tapes of all that. They were rehearsal tapes that weren’t properly recorded from when we jammed at the house and he sang a melody over it.
That was really the only one we did with Ozzy at that time, which was the problem and why it came to the end of Sabbath with Ozzy. We were working in Los Angeles, and I used to have to talk to the record company all the time. They would tell me to come in and give them an update, but I didn’t have an update. [laughs] I was trying to fluff it, thinking next time I’d go in I’d have something to play them. But Ozzy just wasn’t into it anymore, and we had to either break up or bring somebody else in.
The first Dio era was capped off with the Live Evil live album. What I love about this is hearing Ronnie sing some of the Ozzy songs. Do you have any particular favorites there?
I thought he handled them well. He did his version of “Black Sabbath,” which I liked. It’s so hard to bring somebody in to do these songs and it’s a terrible job for them trying to get the fans to accept that.
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath" — Live With Ronnie James Dio
You’ve always been one for pranks, whether it’s lighting Bill Ward on fire, tricking Martin Birch with a voodoo doll, or playing into Ronnie’s fear of snakes. What was one of the most memorable pranks somebody played on you?
One of the pranks with Ronnie, Vinny [Appice] and Geezer was when we were working in Wales. I had just bought a brand new Range Rover, and they all came out to take a look. I came back inside to have a cup of tea or coffee, and Ronnie and Vinny later came in and said, “Tony, you’ve got oil under your car. It’s all dripping out.” I went rushing out and went, “Oh no!” It turned out they bought a big can of oil and poured it under the car! [laughs]
Geezer had a few bad ones. He had a Bentley convertible and a Jensen car. He had this guy who worked for him that cleaned them and this guy decided to start the Bentley up and instead knocked it into gear and it flew back, hit the Jensen out of the way and the Bentley went over this hill and the car was smashed to bits. The guy had to go to the hospital.
Geezer had some bad luck with cars. Both of them were write-offs.
Ronnie always had this impressive knack for words and to make people think deeply about certain concepts. Are there any of his lyrics in particular that still hold a personal meaning to you?
When you listen to Ronnie’s lyrics, they’re very good and in a different way. Geezer’s lyrics were brilliant, but Ronnie had a different perspective.
One I wasn’t mad about was “Country Girl” [laughs] I didn’t particularly take to that one. It was a bit out on a limb. Even Geezer said, “Country girl?” [laughs]
Going back a bit before Dio entered and to the last tour with Ozzy with Van Halen opening… We lost an incredible person recently — Eddie Van Halen. Do you remember the first time you heard “Eruption?”
We probably heard their first album before we went on tour with them. What a brilliant player and it was a sad loss. He was a really close friend. I have to really close guitar player friends in this business — Brian May and Eddie Van Halen. It was a big loss for me because we were always in contact. As soon as I heard him onstage I knew they were going to be successful.
The last time we played in Los Angeles, they all came to the gig — Eddie and Alex and their wives and Wolfie. It was great to see them. Wolfie has had to take a lot on his shoulders, but he’s handling it well.
Vinny Appice recently mentioned that twice Rob Halford wanted to be a part of the band — first after filling in for Ronnie in the ‘90s and later after Ronnie passed as a continuation of the Heaven & Hell band. Is there any consideration for this collaboration?
Rob must have mentioned it to Vinny at one particular time. It won’t happen now, but I’m writing stuff. What I’m going to use I don’t know yet — there’s no rush to do anything at the moment. I want to do an album of some sort whether its riffs or having a singer on it or for movies or whatever. I’m open for most things at the moment.
Thanks to Tony Iommi for the interview. Head here to learn more about the 'Heaven and Hell' and 'Mob Rules' remastered reissues, and to purchase your copies. Follow Black Sabbath on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.