Artist Lookback: Black Sabbath, 1980-1981, The Superb Dio Era

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A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about Ozzy Osbourne’s albums with Randy Rhoads. It was one of Ozzy’s greatest eras. I think, in the interest of “equal time,” that it’s only fair to take a look at what his old band mates were up to while Ozzy was launching his solo career. Fed up with Ozzy’s erratic addict behavior and diminishing album sales, Tony Iommi and the gang decided it was time to make a change. Ozzy was sacked. The choice for replacement was none other than former Elf and Rainbow lead singer Ronnie James Dio. It was an inspired choice.

Other than a brief flirtation with the ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ album when my mom’s friend brought her children’s records over for me to tape on cassette, I really didn’t know anything about pre-Dio Sabbath. That LP frankly, scared me at the time. I had to wonder what was going on at my mom’s friend’s house. Sure, I knew the song “Paranoid” but I’m not even sure I connected that with Ozzy. I was into bluesier rock like The Stones, ZZTop, Foghat, not heavy metal. Looking back, one has to wonder why Dio would quit Rainbow, who seemed to be on the upswing, and join Sabbath who were sinking under the weight of their own addictions and commercial failures. Coming off two absolute clunkers, “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die,” Sabbath was in need of a shot in the arm. “Never Say Die” seems like a joke now, considering they blew up the band by firing Ozzy right after that LP.

I remember the first time I heard the first “single” if you an call it that, from ‘H&H,’ “Neon Nights” on KY102, the local radio station in Kansas City. With it’s galloping pace and heavy guitar, and that voice, who was that singing I wondered, it was the type of tune you’d put on before riding into battle. Perhaps I’d been wrong and there were non-blues-based music out there I needed to check out. This was my inauguration into heavy metal. Oh, and I was hooked!

The two 80’s albums Sabbath did with Ronnie James Dio are absolutely essential to not only heavy metal fans, but fans of rock and roll of any stripe. While it was only a brief period lasting a little over 2 years and only two albums, it was one of Sabbath’s most fruitful periods. Let’s look at both LPs.

‘Heaven And Hell’ (1980)

When I saw the album cover of ‘Heaven and Hell’, with the group of angels smoking cigarettes and gambling, I thought, “Oh, yes, I’m in the right place.” This was going to be a special listening event. I went downstairs to use my parents considerably better and more powerful stereo. I put the headphones in the jack and dropped the needle. Unfortunately, my parents stereo had a knob that had to be turned to “auxiliary output” before it would divert the music to the headphones, so while I thought I was privately enjoying “Neon Nights” it was actually blasting out of the speakers overhead sending my mother into a gasping, screaming fit of rage as she ran from the kitchen all the way to the living room to throw her body on the stereo. In her defense, I had it turned up to “11.” Sorry, mom.

Side one of the original vinyl LP of ‘Heaven And Hell’ is as good as any in the Sabbath pantheon. Not only does it kick off with “Neon Nights,” but side one had “Lady Evil,” just a great, spooky tune with a furious bass line and the title track, “Heaven And Hell.” “Heaven And Hell” ranks amongst the greatest tracks of all time. “Children of the Sea” rounds out side one and is another stand-out tune. For me the key track on side two is “Die Young” a hard rocking basher that could be argued was the template for Dio’s whole career. There’s a quiet bridge in the middle of “Die Young” with an acoustic guitar and Dio singing that’ll stop your heart. “Wishing Well” is another great, heavy track on side 2. They end with two very strong tracks, “Walk Away” swings and “Lonely Is The Word” is an epic Sabbath tune. This album is a must have. There isn’t a bad note from start to finish. This album equals anything Ozzy was doing on ‘Blizzard of Oz’ at the time. This was a lot heavier than anything Ozzy was doing, certainly. Bringing in Dio completely rejuvenated the creative process in Sabbath. In short, this tour de force is a triumph.

‘Mob Rules’ (1981)

The follow up to ‘Heaven And Hell,’ ‘Mob Rules’ came out so quickly afterward I didn’t even realize it had come out. Actually the follow up to ‘Heaven’ was a quick and dirty live LP where Dio sang a number of Ozzy-Sabbath tunes. They probably did that to piss Ozzy off, which I’m sure it did. My future college roommate Matthew and I were driving up to Kansas State to check out the campus one weekend when he slid a cassette tape of ‘Mob Rules’ into his super-powered, Subaru stereo. Sabbath was back with another great album. I went to the vinyl store Sunday afternoon right after we got back home to buy the album, post haste. Once again, the album art was terrific. When my mom saw this album, for the first time ever, she started to question what I was doing up in my room with the headphones on. I could see it in her eyes, “was my son in a Satanic cult?” No mom, I’m just a metal fan.

‘Mob Rules’ kicks off with “Turn Up The Night” which almost feels funky. Is there such a thing as disco metal? Geezer Butler’s bass almost makes you want to dance. The epic “Sign Of The Southern Cross” is the centerpiece of side one of this album. It leads into an atmospheric instrumental “E5150” that bleeds into the fast and hard title track, “Mob Rules.” “When you listen to fools, the mob rules…” was something I would quote to my parents when they’d take me to church, which may have been the proof my mother needed that I was indeed in a Satanic cult. Side two starts with “Country Girl” which is an OK tune, but not my favorite. I’ll admit I like they were branching out on subject matter. Side 2 immediately picks up with “Slipping Away,” the fantastic “Falling Off The Edge Of the World,” (which has my all time favorite Sabbath quote, “I’ve seen some visions of Hell that are horribly strange”) and finally the dramatic “Over And Over” to end things. This is top shelf heavy metal and while perhaps not as mind altering as ‘Heaven And Hell’ it’s certainly still a stunning album. I would label ‘Mob Rules’ as another must-have, essential LP for any rock and roll fan.

Sadly, as quickly as it had begun, and as fruitful as it proved to be, the Dio Era in Sabbath ended. There was a sudden announcement that Dio had left for a solo career (which was great on its own) and that former Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan had joined Black Sabbath. In my mind Sabbath didn’t really do anything I liked again until ’13’ the Rick Rubin-produced reunion album with Ozzy. They even reunited with Dio briefly in 1992 for the lackluster LP ‘Dehumanizer.’ Alas, the magic was gone. When you find lightning in a bottle folks, hold on tight.

I recommend immediate purchase of both these records. If you can find them on vinyl, all the better. Turn that stereo up to 11 and Rawk! Oh, and make sure you have that “auxiliary output” thing taken care of… we wouldn’t want to scare mom again.

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