Despite having played their final concert in 2017, Black Sabbath are offering fans some new treats this year. Among the goodies are expanded reissues of the first two Sabbath albums that featured the late Ronnie James Dio on vocals — 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules.
By the end of the ’70s, it would have been understandable to write Sabbath off – as their last two releases with Ozzy Osbourne (1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die!) marked a creative and commercial drop-off from their iconic first six albums. Ozzy was ousted from the group in 1979 as a result of his alcohol and drug abuse, but the remaining members – guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward – found the perfect replacement in Ronnie James Dio, who had just recently exited Rainbow (after three classic albums, including 1976’s landmark Rising).
The union paid off right away — resulting in two all-time metal classics, the aforementioned Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, and returning Sabbath to commercial success. Vinny Appice replaced Ward for Mob Rules, but both Dio and Appice exited in 1982, with Sabbath continuing on in various lineups. The pair returned for 1992’s Dehumanizer, and again in 2006, under the band name of Heaven & Hell, prior to Dio’s passing in 2010.
In addition to the Dio-era reissues, Sabbath recently released a deluxe edition of their Ozzy-era classic Vol. 4, while 2021 also marks the 50th anniversary of their legendary third album, Master of Reality.
We caught up with the legendary Tony Iommi to discuss all of the various Sabbath reissues, and to get the latest on his recording plans. The heavy metal godfather, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012, also gave us an update on his health.
The remastered and expanded editions of Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules arrive March 5th, and contain bonus live performances. They are available for pre-order here and here, respectively. Read our interview with Tony Iommi below.
On the Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules reissues
I’ve been really looking forward to these [reissues] coming out. Because we’ve done all the early years – the Ozzy years – and it’s nice and refreshing to have the Dio stuff coming out now. And I really do like to listen to those albums. Martin [Birch, producer] was really helpful. We worked well with Martin.
At first, before we had Martin, we hadn’t used a producer for a while – within Sabbath. But it was so refreshing to bring somebody in who could take the reins, and you didn’t have to be in control. You could have somebody else do it. It just relieved the pressure a lot. He was very helpful. And he didn’t come in from the writing side of it – he came in from the production site. Which was good. It was a little bit trial and error with both of us, because he wasn’t that familiar, in particular, with Geezer’s bass sound, because Martin had been used to working with bass players who had probably more of a cleaner sound. And Geezer has a particular style of playing. It was a big part of the Sabbath sound what he had. So, I had to explain to Martin, “You need to get Geezer’s sound the way we used to have it, and not try to clean it up. It has to be raunchy – like the guitar. They have to blend together.” So that was sort of one of the steps where we had to come together on. But he was very good on all the other stuff. I really like those albums.
If we talk about Heaven and Hell, for instance, that was a real iconic album for me, because it was a big change for us coming from the Ozzy period into the Dio years. It was a lot slicker – the music. We were a lot tighter and a lot more variation on the album. I do like that album and Mob Rules, of course.
On whether Black Sabbath regained their musical “focus” on the first two Dio-era albums
After Ozzy’s departure, we had to do something. It sort of made us get down to it and say, “Y’know, we’ve got to prove ourselves again and do something. And work hard at it.” And it was great with Ronnie involved, because Ronnie came in with a lot of enthusiasm, and we sort of hit it off straight away. It really worked. He was a great person to sit down and write with, as well. We could swap ideas, and it was very productive, I thought.
On adjusting the way Black Sabbath approached songwriting with Dio as their singer as opposed to Ozzy
We adjusted in the way that Ronnie would sing more on chords. He hadn’t sung on riffs, as such, that much. So, it was a learning curve for both, really. It made me play differently, and it made him sing in a different way, as well. One particular song, when we were writing, “Die Young”, I put a part in the middle that drops down to a quieter section. And Ronnie went, “Oh, you can’t do that.” And I said, “You can! This is what Sabbath is about – we change tempos, we drop down into different parts.” And he went, “Oh.” And he liked the idea after we’d done it. And it worked for him and it worked for us. Again, it was a learning curve.
On his familiarity with Ronnie’s previous work with Rainbow before he joined Sabbath
I had heard the first Rainbow album [1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow], because you’d always be interested in what was about at that time. And straight away, I liked it. I thought, “He’s got a great voice.” I never thought for one minute that we’d end up in the same band together. But he had such a superb voice. Top notch.
On the differences between Ronnie and Ozzy as performers onstage
Ozzy was more of a “showman,” I’d say really. Ozzy would jump about and sing. But Ronnie was different in that way – he was more a “perfectionist.” He liked to be more concentrating on his singing than what he did [physically], really. So, they were both very different, and it worked both ways. Ozzy was great at what he did and great with the band, and then Ronnie came along and he made his thing with Black Sabbath – he became accepted for what he did.
On coming up with the riff to the song “Heaven and Hell”
When we were in Los Angeles, we rented a house, first of all, with Ozzy. And then when it went all pear-shaped, Ozzy left and we had the gear set up in one of the lounges of the house. And we had little tape machines, small amplifiers, and a small drum kit – so it wouldn’t be too loud, because of the neighbors. I think we were just jamming around, and Ronnie … at that point, when we came up with “Heaven and Hell,” Geezer wasn’t with us. Geezer had to leave for a while, while he had some personal problems. We didn’t want to bring a bass player in to join the band, so Ronnie played bass for a bit, and then I brought a friend in from Birmingham, just to stand in, to play anything, really – guitar, bass, whatever.
So, that’s how we came up with that riff. It’s just the initial [sings the repetitive bass part when the vocals first start], then I put a riff to it, and it took form from there – we built it up like we built everything else up. Literally, we came up with that riff, and then it goes into the other riffs. But we left a lot of gaps, so Ronnie could sing. It all depends what you put next to what they’re going to sing. And what Ronnie was singing went great, so I knew where to go for the next part of it.
On Sabbath’s confidence following up Heaven and Hell with Mob Rules
The band was playing quite hot then – at that point. We went through some drawbacks, of course – like when Bill left, and we brought Vinny. We went into John Lennon’s house [Tittenhurst Park], and he had a studio there and we used his engineer and his equipment. We just plugged into the equipment that was there. And the idea was to go there to write this particular song for the movie, Heavy Metal. So, we wanted an uptempo one, and it came out quick – I just started playing this riff and everybody joined in. And before you knew it we had the[the title track for Mob Rules].
On 2021 being the 50th anniversary of Master of Reality, and what that album meant to Sabbath’s career
I think all the albums meant a lot of Sabbath’s career. Master of Reality, we went into a different stage – we tuned down for that album for some of the tracks. It was a good album – I liked the album. I liked the songs on it. I don’t know what it meant for our career, because at that point – after Paranoid – we were out touring a lot and working a lot. A few of those tracks became classics for different people. “Into the Void” was one of Eddie Van Halen’s favorites – he always referred to that. He loved that song.
On the new Vol. 4 reissue, and whether he tuned down even lower for that album
No, it wasn’t tuned down any lower than anything [previous], really. That album was great fun to make – that’s probably one of the most fun times we’ve had. We had rented a house in Bel Air – off John du Pont, the paint product man. And it was fabulous – it had a ballroom in there and everything. And we had such a fantastic time – we set the gear up there, in one of the rooms, and we just wrote that album. It was really magical.
On his current musical projects
I’d like to be working on things more than what I am at the moment. All I’m down to at the minute is just sort of playing riffs at home, basically – and jotting them down. I’m waiting for the time … because in England now, we’re on a complete lockdown. Once they lift the lockdown, I can get my engineer here – because it’s set up in his way that he works everything, and I just play — which I like. I don’t like getting involved with the other side of it now. When it was the old tapes … but now, it’s gone to computers and I can’t keep up with the gadgetry these days. And my engineer can. So, when the lockdown lifts and he can come over here and can work in my house, I’m going to start putting things down again and then decide what I’m going to do – if I’m going to have a singer on it or if it’s going to be for a movie track. I don’t know.
But it’s great now – I’m in a position where I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to tour. I can do it at my own leisure – which I really enjoy. I love playing and I’ve got so much stuff to put out – I just want to get it done.
On how he is doing health-wise
Hopefully, OK. Funny enough, I had a blood test yesterday, and I also had my [COVID] virus vaccine jab yesterday, as well. I always have myself checked over regularly and try to keep on top of anything that might pop up. Of course, at my age, things pop up. But I feel fine and everything seems to be – touch wood – going alright at the moment.