Back in Black (Sabbath): On the comeback trail with Ozzy Osbourne and crew

Black Sabbath have pulled off one of rock music’s great comebacks – against all odds

Black Sabbath are no strangers to the surreal, but the way this year has unfolded has taken even them by surprise. In June, they released comeback album 13, their first collection of new material in 18 years. It topped the charts in 50 countries: a feat all the more extraordinary for the album’s difficult gestation period.

In January 2012, shortly after the reunion of Black Sabbath’s original line-up, Tony Iommi announced he had been diagnosed with cancer. The following month, drummer Bill Ward exited the band after a “contractual dispute”, the precise nature of which remains unclear. And then, in April of this year, singer Ozzy Osbourne was moved to publicly apologise to his wife and family on Facebook for an 18-month downward spiral of drinking, drugs and “being an asshole”.

Against these considerable odds, the album has been an unqualified success, critically as well as commercially. Helmed by uber-producer Rick Rubin, who steered Sabbath back to heavy-blues basics, 13 is a surprise return to vintage form: dark and raw but melodic and accessible too. It was their first British No 1 for 43 years and their first American No 1 ever. “It’s been phenomenal,” beams Osbourne from behind his trademark purple round shades: “Too much for me to grasp.”

Sipping tea and festooned with bling, Osbourne does not seem to be finding it especially difficult to grasp things. He is much more switched-on than a photographer friend found him to be a few years ago, when he turned up for a shoot to find the Prince of Darkness lost and disoriented in his own house. Today, sitting in a suite in London’s appropriately gothic St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Osbourne and Iommi are relaxed and in fine, sweary fettle. They are in London to attend the Classic Rock Awards (at which they will win three gongs, including one for Album of the Year).

Soon, they are reminiscing about wilder times on previous tours: anecdotes begin “I was fucking drunk at eight o’clock in the morning” (Osbourne) and “Remember the rubber chicken at Heathrow?” (Iommi). (It was spring-loaded in a container opened by a customs official.) Rock’n’roll chaos has not been completely consigned to the history books, however. “They sent the sniffer dogs on last month when we flew from Colombia to Mexico on a private jet,” says Iommi. “Every bag was searched, then they sent the dogs on.” “And I’m going, oh god, I hope I still haven’t got those four grams of blow on here,” jokes Osbourne. At least I think he’s joking.

They tell me it has been “refreshing” to play new material alongside Sabbath staples such as “Paranoid”, “War Pigs” and “Iron Man”. “I kept my vocal pitching [on the album] down to a level that I can sing live,” says Osbourne. “You can do so much trickery in the studio, but when you go on stage it’s impossible to reproduce every night. It’s a mistake I’ve made a lot in the past.”

One of the new songs, “Dear Father”, is a vitriolic attack on the Catholic church over the paedophile-priests scandal. How does a band that started out by cultivating a “Satanic” image feel about religion more generally? “You don’t have to go to church to believe in God,” says Osbourne. “I don’t like organised religions – they’re so fucking corrupt.” But it’s hard for him to be serious about anything for long: when I ask if he is a spiritual man he replies, “I used to be a very spiritual man”. Pause. “It’s called whisky.” So, not any more, then? “No,” he says. “It’s pop now. But at least I remember going home, and I don’t wake up in a jail cell with divorce papers landing on my lap.”

This is delivered as another joke, but we all know it isn’t, because his wife, Sharon (inset left, with Ozzy), revealed in her autobiography in September that she had demanded a divorce after discovering he had relapsed into drugs and alcohol last year. Osbourne says they have made up – “Things are much better now. The family are all great” – and talks uxoriously about her “flying backwards and forwards from Los Angeles to London every week to do the  X Factor. I don’t know how the woman does it.”

And what of their former drummer Ward? Why hasn’t he rejoined Osbourne, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler to complete the classic Sabbath line-up? At first, they blame it on “fucking haggling” over contracts, which they claim not fully to grasp because “we’ve all got managers” and “we don’t know what the deals are”. But then Osbourne says: “It would have been great to have Bill. We all love him. But drumming is very physically demanding and I was afraid he wouldn’t have been able to keep up with us.” Iommi adds that he exchanged emails with Ward only the other day and that Ward was “in and out of hospital” with diverticulitis, a digestive disorder. “Is he OK?” asks Ozzy anxiously. “I hope he’s OK ….”

Iommi, as his iron handshake testifies, is in robust health again. I do not raise the subject of his treatment for lymphoma directly with him, for fear of appearing glib, and he accepts my compliment that he is looking well without further comment. However, speaking on the phone the following day, Butler raises the subject and says that “we all thought he was on his way out at one point. He’d lost tons of weight and his hair was gone. I think the album took his mind off all the radiation and chemo. And then, as we were recording, he seemed to bloom.”

Butler believes that Iommi was the main difference between this album and Sabbath’s last (aborted) attempt in 2001, which yielded only six songs that were “just not good enough”. “I didn’t think we’d ever do an album together after that,” Butler says. “Which is why we took so long. But this time Tony had got his own studio at home, and he had all these incredible riffs. The hardest part is to take an average riff and form it into a song. As soon as we heard these riffs, we knew Tony was back on form. We knew straight away it was going to work.”

Will 13 be their last album? It ends with the sound of thunder and a tolling bell, which is how their very first LP began, though this was Rick Rubin’s idea. “We’re very pleased with the album,” Iommi equivocates. “Though if it does turn out to be our last, then it’s a great way to go.”

Black Sabbath’s UK arena tour begins next week. A new DVD, ‘Live… Gathered in their Masses’, is out now

Showing their metal: Five legends of hard rock where are they now?

KISS

The glamrock titans, as famed for their face paint as their music, have just completed an arena tour of North America. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are now part owners of an American Football team (Los Angeles Kiss). Their last album, Monster, was in 2011, but in October they became nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Aerosmith

They’ve been through dramas in recent years including a now resolved feud between frontman Steven Tyler and lead guitarist Joe Perry, and Tyler breaking his shoulder in a stage fall. However the band seem to have put their troubles behind them and have confirmed a European tour next summer. Music From Another Dimension was their last album release  in 2012.

Deep Purple

The group had various fallings-out and line-up changes but are on relatively stable form these days. Their 2013 release Now What?!  was met with a generally warm reception from critics, and they are booked for European tour dates extending to early 2014.

Led Zeppelin

Since the band’s last live performances at the O2 in 2007, the surviving members have been busy, with Robert Plant touring and releasing an album with country singer Alison Krauss, and guitarist Jimmy Page remastering the Zeppelin back catalogue for special release. Rumours that they would embark on a full reunion tour were scotched by Page’s manager in  2009.

Van Halen

Have had two reunions, first with new vocalist Sammy Hagar from 2003-2005, then with original frontman David Lee Roth in 2006. This classic line-up is still in action, though they have been quiet of late: with only a handful of 2013 gigs, they have released no new material since 2009’s A Different Kind of Truth.

Connor Cazalet-Smith

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map