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.

Black Sabbath Live & The Four Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse

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There’s never a better feeling than waking up in the morning with your ears ringing after a great, great concert. I could do without the headache from mixing beer and bourbon but we take the bad with the good in life. I saw Black Sabbath last night at Kansas City’s Sprint Center (pictured above by yours truly) and I can only describe it this way: Black Sabbath rained fire on Kansas City last night. The show took me back to high school… when a concert like this rolled through town it’s all anybody was talking about.

About a month ago, my good pal SB (name concealed to hide the guilty) asked me if I wanted to see Sabbath. The Rock Chick gave me a flat out “no” which I must admit surprised me. I even felt myself vacillate a little bit. When it came to Sabbath I was more of a Dio-era fan than Ozzy-led Sabbath fan, which I know is blasphemy. Sure, I own ‘Paranoid’ on vinyl but that’s only a sliver of their vast output. Luckily, about two years ago, I started purchasing their catalog, album by album. I was inspired by their late career gem, ’13’ which was produced by the intrepid Rick Rubin. That guy can coax the best out of any band/artist he’s working with. Don’t believe me? Just listen to what he did with Mick Jagger on ‘Wandering Spirit’. But when SB asked me if I wanted to check this band out, I had to ask, “Are you sure?” Sabbath isn’t a band that had “hits” in the conventional sense. They were hard core metal. Who could we get to go with us? SB smiled, “don’t worry, I have some friends in Salina who would love to go.”

Around 6 last night SB and I jumped in the Uber (don’t drink and drive kids) and headed down to Kansas City’s famous Drum Room to meet the Salina 4. These guys had driven in that morning from Salina, and from the appearance of things had been drinking since they’d arrived. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but these guys were some of the greatest students of rock and roll I’ve come across. These were some heavy weight rock dudes and I was wondering if I was going to be able to keep up. Within minutes we were discussing the lineup changes in the Scorpions. One of these guys had the temerity to ask me if I liked Thin Lizzy. Who doesn’t like Thin Lizzy? When the subject of my blog came up and the word bourbon was uttered, the next thing I knew I had a tumbler of Four Roses in my hand. If Sabbath wasn’t going to burn KC down the Apocalyptic Four Horsemen of Salina were. I couldn’t help but think, “buckle your seatbelts boys, these cats ain’t takin’ prisoners.”

The warm-up band was a new outfit, Rival Sons, out of California. One of the Four Horsemen assured me that they were “Zeppelin-esque”. He wasn’t lying. Great vocals, very Robert Plant-ish, coupled with some great bluesy rock guitar. I don’t know much about them but I will be perusing their catalog soon. I was surprised but they kept everybody in their seats, something that rarely happens with an opening band.

Finally the lights came down and the power and majesty of Black Sabbath was revealed. They opened with their eponymous song, “Black Sabbath”. Someone, somewhere needs to erect a statue for Tony Iommi. The guy is simply one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever seen live. The solo he played on “War Pigs” would melt the face off even the most ardent rock fan. All night long he filled the hall with loud, thick slabs of metal riffs. I left the show a true believer in Tony Iommi.

The unheralded hero of the night for me was Geezer Butler. I knew he was a good bass player but he shredded last night. His bass guitar was the driving instrument in a number of songs. He plays fucking heavy, heavy bass. His bass solo, before the awesome “N.I.B.” entitled creatively, “Bassically”, was awesome, truly one of the highlights of the show.

I don’t know who the drummer was but he filled in admirably for the MIA Bill Ward. I hate when bands reunite and leave a member or two out (talking to you Eddie Van Halen) but this kid was a great drummer. Ozzy was his usual maniac self, despite putting on a few extra lbs. The way Ozzy lumbers around clapping always calls to mind the actors from “Planet of the Apes”… there something very chimpanzee about his movements. But the Ozzman was in good voice and he did a nice job inciting the crowd with his usual, “Go, fucking, crazy”.

The setlist was pretty amazing as well. It’s as if the band said, fuck the fan expectations, we’re going to play what we want to play. Sure they did “Paranoid”, “War Pigs”, and “Iron Man”, but with a band like Sabbath, after those three well known songs they are literally free to play anything they want. They dug deep into the catalog for “Dirty Women” from ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and it was a true high point in the show, despite having lyrics that could have been written by my pal Matthew when he was 13…but I digress. They played a lot of stuff from their heavily Cream-influenced first album. I was thrilled they played “Into The Void” and “After Forever” from ‘Masters of Reality’ but I was hoping for “Sweet Leaf”… and I think most of the crowd was hoping for that one too, based on the smell of the arena. My only disappointment was the absence of any of the newer material from ’13’, which I’d have loved to hear live… “End of the Beginning” or “God Is Dead?” would have been a great add to the setlist.

After a fantastic version of “Paranoid” SB and I wandered out of the arena, drained. We’d lost the Salina Four Horsemen somewhere in the crazed exodus. Unfortunately SB left his bag of concert t-shirts under his seat, it was just that kinda night. The Sabs giveth, the Sabs taketh away. We were worried about the Salina 4, when I turned to SB and said, “Dude, I know where they are, they’re in the bar at the Drum Room…” And, naturally that’s where we found them with a table full of bourbon. The next thing I knew, I was drinking an Old Fashion. Things were just starting to get out of hand when I realized it was past midnight… as my dad used to say, “Son, nothing good happens after midnight…” Heeding those words, SB and I jumped into another Uber and escaped into the night. I can only surmise what damage the Salina 4 did last night… But I know one thing, and it may sound crazy…. I wanna party with those cowboys again…