Dry ice, severed fingers and the Oz

One passive-aggressive bandleader, three depressives, one of them manic - Black Sabbath rocked and partied harder than anyone else, and the legends swirling round them are legion. Steve Jelbert wishes a new study of their mayhem and music had lightened up a little
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A few years ago I took my ex to see the recently reformed original line-up of Black Sabbath at London's relatively tiny Astoria. They were excellent, their ancient standards defiantly untouched by musical fashions. Guitarist Tony Iommi resembled an art school lecturer who might offer extra-curricular instruction to his more attractive charges. Ozzy Osbourne shambled around the stage in sweatpants, hurling buckets of water into the crowd in a display that owed more to Tiswas (another great Brummie invention) than Satanic ritual. I was surprised to discover that my old old lady had always carried a torch for the Oz, something unmentioned in six years' cohabitation.

Sabbath have inspired some sharp writing over the years, all the way back to Lester Bangs' famous defence of their early records (and supposedly lumpen followers) on the grounds that the lyrical bluntness of songs such as "War Pigs" or "Sweet Leaf" was proof of their absolute sincerity. Hence they deserved to be taken as seriously as, say, Dylan (also, they rocked harder).

Grammar schoolboys they were not, unlike so many of their contemporaries, but so Brummie they once rhymed the words "Christ" and "voiced". The quartet - three insecure depressives, one of them manic, and a passive-aggressive bandleader - became the very definition of Rock Stars, young working-class men made good who now owned the Big House in the village and propped up the bar in the local when not touring distant climes. (I was surprised to discover that saturnine drummer Bill Ward's favoured off-duty hostelry was in the same gloomy community where my mother grew up - no wonder he became a hopeless alcoholic.)

Only the crappy Celeb strip in Private Eye persists with this old trope, but the original Sabs, all four of them still alive, talk like men who've endured a lifetime of indulgence. So it was never going to be easy for Joel McIvor to make sense of their utterances for Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath (Omnibus £19.95). His inability to generate coherent quotes from his interviews with the protagonists (Ozzy's offerings are gathered from the several million words he's spouted in the past 35 years) mean that either his subjects have actually became more addled over the years or he hasn't asked the right questions. Both are equally possible.

Even their sound was an accident, inspired by an industrial accident. When Iommi lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand at work, he detuned his guitar three semitones, reducing the tension in the strings and sparing his sensitive fingertips. The ominous tone that resulted made Sabbath heavier than their merely heavy contemporaries. Bassist Terry "Geezer" Butler read the most and penned unambiguous lyrics and Ozzy howled them, his voice as distinctive as it was flawed. They became hugely popular, especially in the US, at one point second only to the more artful Led Zeppelin.

Absurdity became the commonplace. On one tour, their management, confusing metres and feet, commissioned a replica Stonehenge so huge it wouldn't fit through the loading doors of most of the venues, let alone reach the stage. This is Spinal Tap's own 'Henge (apparently coincidental) was at the opposite extreme (as befits a low-budget comedy) but both stage props featured dwarves. Later, Ward would spend a year in bed, possibly for tax avoidance reasons.

If only there were more such anecdotes, but you'll find no mention here of Ozzy's life as a country squire at "Atrocity Cottage" where he kept and shot at chickens, or the bizarre circumstances that led Andy Gray, then centre forward of Aston Villa FC and Scotland, to spend a fortnight in Los Angeles as Geezer's guest even as the original line-up crumbled. Did Ward really turn up at the airport for a US tour carrying two pieces of hand luggage, both of them flagons of cider, as I was once told? You won't find the truth here.

Even that old nugget about how clouds of dry ice silenced latter-day singer Ian Gillan's by obscuring his cunningly hidden lyric sheets is told as if reporting a technical error. The crucial Ozzy years, the basis of Sabbath's enduring reputation, take up less than a third of the book. Instead we're treated to a detailed reappraisal of the inessential years, as Iommi kept the name alive with line-ups of ageing men in silly clothes and released albums no one remembers. Whole chapters cover impenetrable personal disputes.

There are lists too: lists of cities visited on tours none present can recall; lists of bands that shared the billing at festivals where Sabbath appeared; even lists of the already forgotten acts that joined the lucrative "Ozzfest" tours put together by Ozzy's fearsome, impressive spouse/manager Sharon. Jack Osbourne's addictions are covered in more detail than his father's exploits. The nearest thing to humour in a book dominated by Osbourne, a national comic treasure, is the running joke of Bill Ward's solo album Beyond Aston, still incomplete after 15 years.

Black Sabbath really are deserving of a proper collection of the best writing about them. Even now they exert enough fascination to inspire recent titles such as the delightfully nostalgic How Black Was My Sabbath, penned by a pair of former roadies, to Paul Wilkinson's Rat Salad, a serious attempt to deconstruct their songs in the style of Ian MacDonald's reappraisal of the Beatles. But none of this brutally dull and unrevealing tome will find its way in.

THE ESSENTIAL ALBUMS

Black Sabbath's reputation as pioneers rests with their original line-up. What later became "heavy metal" was once known just as "heavy music", because it wasn't straightforward, and anything that wasn't straightforward - be it an eviction notice or a rise in the price of rolling papers - was deemed to be "heavy".

Recorded in two days (twice the studio time the Beatles had for their debut), 1970's 'Black Sabbath' features touches of the bluesy sludge that dominated the era. 'Paranoid', released only seven months later, has all the hits - "War Pigs", "Paranoid" itself and "Iron Man" (who suspected them of taking cues from Ted Hughes?). On 1971's 'Master of Reality', "Sweet Leaf" put the case for marijuana. By 1972' s 'Vol 4', Sabbath had discovered LA's cocaine delivery services. The songs "Snowblind" and the fantastic "Supernaut" still resonate. 1973's 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' was pretty great too, but the band are audibly competing with The Who and Led Zep. SJ

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