After reading Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick Wall, I am convinced that they were the sole inspiration for the classic film This is Spinal Tap (1984). If so, then Rob Reiner and company were too kind to the boys from Birmingham. The unvarnished story of Black Sabbath is a rough one, and only someone with real access could tell it. Enter author and long-time rock journalist Mick Wall. He knows where the bodies are buried, and does not hold back. I have been a Black Sabbath fan for decades, and have read quite a few books about them. Nothing comes close to this one however. For my money, Symptom of the Universe is the definitive Black Sabbath book.
John “Ozzy” Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) formed Black Sabbath some 45 years ago. The general consensus is that they got what they wanted too soon, and basically lost it all in a sea of drugs and inflated egos. Things got so bad that they made Osbourne the fall guy and sacked him in 1979 after the disastrous Never Say Die tour.
Part of what makes the story so intriguing is what followed, which were two remarkable rebirths. With Ronnie James Dio on board, Sabbath recorded one of the greatest metal albums of all time, Heaven and Hell (1980). Almost simultaneously, Osbourne found his guitar playing and songwriting partner Randy Rhoads. Blizzard of Ozz (1980) was his solo debut, and it too is considered one of the greatest metal records of all time. It was an amazing coda to a tale that was thought to be completely over. Yet after Mob Rules (1982) Dio left Sabbath for his own solo career, and Rhoads was killed in an airplane accident that year as well.
While those broad strokes are essentially correct, there has been so much left unsaid that even a long-time fan such as myself was shocked by some of the revelations. The most glaring omission has been the role of Tony Iommi through it all. If there is a villain here, it has to be Iommi. He was a bully, and when cocaine robbed him of his creative muse, he blamed his bandmates. Osbourne was the first casualty, but Ward and Butler would soon be gone as well.
Wall opens with some details about the lads’ lives in “Brummy,” the nickname of the factory town of Birmingham, England. All four worked in various bands before coming together as Earth. As the story goes, they saw a movie marquee advertising an old Boris Karloff movie titled Black Sabbath, and they began writing music to fit the concept.
Their timing was impeccable, and early albums such as Black Sabbath (1970), Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (1971), and Volume 4 (1972) took the rock world by storm. The older “respectable” rock critics hated them, which made the kids love them all the more. As the author explains though, the members of Black Sabbath barely had a chance to enjoy this unprecedented turn of events. The four friends were immediately set against each other by manager Don Arden. His old-school “gangster-manager” technique was to keep them from forming close bonds with each other, so he kept them bickering and drowning in dope for years.
The story of the post-Mob Rules Black Sabbath has never really been told before, and it is an absurd soap opera. Iommi’s autocratic tendencies, coupled with his enormous cocaine habit, practically destroyed the Black Sabbath brand. Albums such as The Eternal Idol (1987) and Tyr (1990) were mediocre at best, although by that point nobody was even listening anymore.
Osbourne’s solo story is told in parallel and provides a striking contrast to that of Black Sabbath. He hit the ground running with Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of A Madman (1981). Even with the tragic death of Randy Rhoads in 1982, Osbourne was one of the biggest metal stars of that spandex decade. He became a household name in 2002 thanks to the early reality program The Osbournes, and was even invited to the Bush White House. Sharon kept him fresh, bringing in hot new acts to open concerts, and even created his very own rock festival, Ozzfest.
Taking a page from her father’s book, Sharon eventually wrested control of the Black Sabbath name from Iommi, although one wonders if the original four members will ever perform together again. For the 2013 reunion album 13, only Osbourne, Iommi, and Butler were present. Absent drummer Ward was replaced with Brad Wilk.
Wall loves to dish, and we get tons of great stuff. There is plenty with the band of course, but it is the fights between Don Arden and his daughter Sharon that really make things entertaining. She is very intelligent, as well as being street-smart. Her crusade to lift Ozzy out of his pity pot and on top of the world was a personal one, and nobody else could have done it. She also believes that revenge is a dish best served cold. When Perry Farrell was first putting Lollapallooza together, he laughed at her when she mentioned Ozzy as a possible headliner. Farrell told her that her husband was not cool enough for the gig. When Lollapallooza ran out of steam and was looking to pare down to a single weekend festival, Farrell offered the headline slot to Osbourne, which was gleefully declined.
In our digital age, it is nice to see that really good rock and roll biographies are still being published. Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick Wall is one of them. He has done the best job of uncovering the Black Sabbath story, along with the solo ride of Osbourne. It is a fascinating tale, very well written, and definitely the best Black Sabbath book I have read.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1250051347]