Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Well before he became a befuddled, cuddly, idiotic reality TV star and living cartoon, Ozzy Osbourne really was the Prince of Darkness. Fronting Black Sabbath, the heaviest of heavy bands with really no precedent in sound or style, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward, and Ozzy created one of the most influential bodies of work with the group's first eight albums (and in particular the first four).

While they gave birth to thousands of six-string hopefuls who dutifully learned at least the opening chords to "Iron Man," "Paranoid," "War Pigs" and "Sweet Leaf," Sabbath — along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple — primarily set the stage for an entirely new genre that itself would grow dozens of branches: heavy metal.

Classic rock and metal journalist Joel McIver (Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica) does a fine job of chronicling not only Black Sabbath's history and the various members' personalities but also gives detailed and subjective comments on pretty much everything the band recorded in his new book, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. The most interesting chapters are the early ones, which detail how the four lads from the tough, working-class English city of Birmingham were hugely driven to avoid at all costs boring, lifelong factory jobs in the industrial city. It's easy to find parallels with Detroit bands across the pond, where making a career in music was not seen as something to do for fun but essential to break out of an otherwise mind-numbing existence. A gold record after a year of work, after all, sounds much better than a gold watch after 50.

That Iommi subsequently lost portions of several fingers on his fret-playing hand his very last day on the assembly line adds a sort of Twilight Zone twist. However, his drive to adapt the instrument to his abilities is what McIver credits with "inventing" Sabbath's distinctive and powerfully lumbering guitar sound. McIver is clearly pro-Ozzy, and indeed large chunks of the book detail Osbourne's solo career and recordings, almost to the point that it results in something of a dual biography (though he does not shy away from the Wizard's own distractions and demons). While the band did boast a revolving door of lead singers — nine in all, several of whom returned for second and third stints — he favors Ozzy as the one and only "true" Sabbath frontman. But his analysis definitely gives short shrift to Ronnie James Dio, even leading to a sort of ax-grinding in that regard, though Dio's best moments matched and even sometimes surpassed his predecessor.

Whether we ever see another Black Sabbath record from any lineup version remains unknown, but the band's musical legacy and influence are clearly among the most important in rock history. And no amount of footage featuring Ozzy cleaning up dog shit in his mansion can erase that.

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Bob Ruggiero