BLACK SABBATH's Geezer Butler Talks DIO Era - "I Was So Pissed Off Writing Lyrics Towards The End Of The OZZY Era"
March 29, 2021, a year ago
When drummer Bill Ward was chosen to fire Ozzy Osbourne on April 27th, 1979, Black Sabbath were at a crossroads. It was a ten-year rollercoaster ride that formed the roots and the branches of heavy metal with eight iconic albums. So as Ward, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler pondered their options, people were wary of the big boots that needed to be filled. Black Sabbath considered just calling it a day, as Butler tells BraveWords. And there were rumours that their label (Vertigo) didn’t want to support a Black Sabbath album with Ozzy Osbourne on it. Those boots would ultimately be filled by former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, and the band forged ahead with producer Martin Birch for the first time, which made sense since he had turned the knobs for Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Rising and Long Live Rock 'n' Roll, all featuring Dio on the mic. And what came next was truly magical. Few bands in history have switched singers which resulted in a major career boost. AC/DC did it with Brian Johnson and Back In Black. Van Halen got their first number one album in the United States when Sammy Hagar joined the fold for 5150.
Black Sabbath would unveil the fruits of their labour on April 25th, 1980 when the veil was lifted off of Heaven And Hell and the heavy music world was taken aback by Sabbath’s new sound. And then Mob Rules would appear the following year. Two home runs. And we all know where history took a turn.
With his COVID protection taken care of, legendary Back Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler has been telling tales about an era quite dear to metal fans. Let’s let Geezer fill in the blanks, as we celebrate the recently-released Deluxe Editions of both albums.
“Well, I’ve had both injections now,” Geezer confirms about the shot. “I’m glad that we’ve (he and his wife Gloria) done it, but we’d have had to anyways, if you want to travel anywhere these days. It will be here forever now.”
BraveWords: Have you held these reissues yet in your hand?
Butler: “No, I haven’t.”
BraveWords: Are you a fan of all this repackaging of previous material?
Butler: “I suppose it pays back some royalties.”
BraveWords: For a young metalhead, both of these records are life-changing moments in time.
Butler: “I’m glad to hear that, great. I was listening to Mob Rules and forgot how great some of the songs on that are.”
BraveWords: I lean towards that album a little bit more than Heaven And Hell. Can you tell me about what it was like to change singers? You went from being this highly influential band, then you came back with two masterpieces that just took you to another level.
Butler: “Yeah, well I think it helped having Ronnie come in. Ronnie was so enthusiastic, and he could play instruments which Ozzy couldn’t play, so it was easy to communicate with him, and for him to communicate musically with us. That enthusiasm gives us all a kick up the bum.”
BraveWords: Aside from the Ozzy firing drama, you had some personal issues you were taking care of?
Butler: “Yeah, I was there for the first three-four songs, “Children Of The Sea” and stuff like that. Then I had to go back to England to sort out some private problems. The good part about it, when I came back to the band, I heard the songs “Heaven And Hell” and “Die Young” that had been written while I was away, and I was absolutely blown away.”
BraveWords: What was it like coming back into a situation where, for most of your career you had been leading lyrically, and then you come back to songs that you didn’t actually write?
Butler: “Well, I was so pissed off writing lyrics towards the end of the Ozzy era. I was trying to put some lyrics across, but Ozzy couldn’t understand where I was coming from so I sort of said, ‘that’s it, I’m done writing lyrics for the band.’ It was great for me that Ronnie came in and took over the lyric writing, it let me concentrate on bass playing.”
BraveWords: No disrespect to Ozzy, but it sounds like when Dio arrived, the band was a cohesive unit and working well together. How would you describe the difference between working with Ozzy and Ronnie?
Butler: “I think we all needed new blood in the band, and some enthusiasm. Everybody in the band was thinking we were getting to the end, because we’d been going on for ten years. We just needed something different in our lives. I was thinking of just quitting at one point. The band just wasn’t the same band as when we started out. So it was either we split up or have some new life come into it - and that’s what Ronnie brought.”
BraveWords: I find it interesting, and maybe you can confirm this - when Warner Bros. heard that Black Sabbath were going to continue without Ozzy, apparently they pulled a lot of things - like there was no studio funding. What was the uproar like about Black Sabbath coming back without Ozzy singing on it?
Butler: “We couldn’t think like that. We just had to go on with it. The manager at the time, Don Arden, he really didn’t want Ronnie in the band, he didn’t think he was a suitable frontman after Ozzy, so we had to battle with Don Arden, to insist that Ronnie was the right guy to replace Ozzy. We realized that that was the way to go, we didn’t really care what anybody else thought. We just wanted to go ahead and get songs written.”
BraveWords: Well, it’s not like this was your first rodeo, right? You came in, you heard the material, you were probably dumbfounded realizing this was an incredible next step for Black Sabbath, and you went with it.
Butler: “Absolutely, yeah. Well, I think Don Arden sort of said, ‘If you’re going to go with Ronnie, then see ya!’, and I was fine with that because I didn’t particularly want Don Arden managing us anyway. It was like a whole new beginning for the band.”
BraveWords: I find it interesting that you guys hooked up with Martin Birch. Were you a friend of his? Was he actually a fan of Black Sabbath?
Butler: “He worked with Ronnie before in Rainbow. He was just the perfect person that we needed in the band. We desperately needed a producer. I thought he was the absolute perfect person to come in and do Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules. I mean just listening to it now, his production is incredible.”
BraveWords: And were you familiar with his resume?
Butler: “I’d never heard of him before.”
BraveWords: So he must have walked in and looked at you guys and said, ‘I’m in front of heavy rock royalty.’
Butler: “No, there wasn’t anything like that, there were no egos thrown around or anything like that. We could laugh, he had the same kind of humour as us, and we just took it from there. He had some great ideas and he was great to work with.”
(Note: Many thanks to artist Lynn Curlee for giving us permission to showcase the original artwork above for Heaven And Hell and the photo that inspired him to paint it. For more information visit Curleeart.com or his Instagram “which contains contains more than 500 images, basically my entire life work, including most of my gallery paintings and all of my book illustrations,” he tells BraveWords.)
BraveWords: The Heaven And Hell album cover; I was looking at artist Lynn Curlee’s inspiration. I’m sure you’ve seen the original photograph that he drew the Smoking Angels from. Was there any controversy around that artwork when it came out? It’s sort of a fun poke at religion.
Butler: “When I first saw it I thought it really summed up the title of the album, Heaven And Hell. They were just naughty angels, it wasn’t overtly anti-religious or anything like that. It was a fun way to portray the title.”
BraveWords: When you listen to this record from start to finish, and I don’t know how often you do, what tracks really stick out? What bass lines? There are so many great, classic songs on this. Whenever I’m on a vacation and my feet are in the sand and the waves are hitting me, I’m playing “Children Of The Sea” in my head.
Butler: “Yeah, that’s a great song. I was listening to the Mob Rules album and I thought the song “Sign Of The Southern Cross” and “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” are two of the best Black Sabbath songs ever.”
BraveWords: “Sign Of The Southern Cross” is a heavier cousin to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven”. But Mob Rules was such a dark return. It’s interesting, because Judas Priest were really hitting their strude and Iron Maiden were making waves, and this was a bit of a precursor to speed metal and thrash. Why did it end up being so heavy handed? Why was it darker than Heaven And Hell?
Butler: “I think it was because we’d established the lineup and people had accepted Ronnie. When we recorded Mob Rules we were more confident. We also didn’t want to repeat Heaven And Hell. We just took it as it came.”
BraveWords: The timeline is quite interesting because the movie Heavy Metal came out in August 1981, so fans heard a piece of the new record before the actual release in November, although it’s a different version than the one that came out on the album. So what were the conversations like around that? Who was it from the Heavy Metal franchise that said, ‘Black Sabbath, we need you on this classic cartoon.’
Butler: “I think it came through management at the time, Sandy Pearlman management. We were into doing the Heaven And Hell tour, and his offer came through to me to write a song for the Heavy Metal soundtrack. He got a script and some drawings of the part that they wanted the music for, and I think after the gig in London on the Heaven And Hell tour we went to John Lennon’s pad and he had a studio there and we just came up with Mob Rules the film version. It almost wrote itself.”
BraveWords: And then finally the album appeared and the sophomore curse was over. What was the feeling when you had a successful record without Ozzy and now you were coming back with another classic album, also without Ozzy. It’s almost like Ozzy didn’t exist right now.
Butler: “Well, Ozzy was doing his own thing and was ultra successful as well. Everybody was happy.”
BraveWords: I’m really curious about “E5150”, the instrumental after “Sign Of The Southern Cross” that crashes into “The Mob Rules”. What was the thinking to do that kind of song. It was like computer before there were computers.
Butler: “That was mainly bass pedals for the main part of that song.”
BraveWords: How did you dream that up?
Butler: “God made me do it. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things where you’re just messing about in the studio and people are like ‘that sounds good, do more of that’. So you do it, then Tony would add his parts to it, and Ronnie added a bit, and Geoff Nicholls put a bit of keyboard on it, and that was it.”
BraveWords: Sonically, the difference between Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules really has a lot to do with you. It’s a really bass-driven record, it’s bottom heavy. After that instrumental kicks in, “The Mob Rules” kicks in, and I walk away every time with two black eyes.
Butler: “I think a lot of it is owing to the fact that we had a proper producer. All five of us didn’t have to sit there while everyone was doing their parts. You could go in on your own with the producer and just work on sounds without having to bore everybody else to death. It was much more relaxing in the studio.”
BraveWords: Did Ozzy ever talk to you about those records? You were with Ozzy a lot more than Tony. Was he paying attention and were you paying attention to his career?
Butler: “Well, you couldn’t help but hear about Ozzy’s career, and all the bat-biting stuff. Especially when Randy Rhoads got killed in the plane crash, it was all over the news. I’ll always remember, I think we were in Idaho listening to the radio and a newsflash came on saying, ‘Ozzy Osbourne’s plane has crashed’, and we all said, ‘What?!!’, but he wasn’t on the plane. You couldn’t help hearing about Ozzy.”
BraveWords: What was the first thing you thought of when you first heard “Crazy Train”? It was the first thing we heard from Ozzy as a solo act.
Butler: “I was really glad that Ozzy got himself together and was doing stuff that he wanted to do.”
BraveWords: Sabbath went on a number of different tangents and then Ozzy took off. It was really interesting when Speak Of The Devil came out at the same time as Live Evil; was it a friendly battle? Were you guys on speaking terms?
Butler: “I wasn’t that interested in what Ozzy was doing. I was glad that he was doing well, but I wasn’t listening to every record he was putting out. I had my own life to live, and my own band to write music for, so no, I didn’t pay that much attention.”
BraveWords: Did Ozzy ever give you any critique on the Dio stuff? Did he ever say they were great records?
Butler: “We never spoke about it.”
BraveWords: Was that Sharon talking or him?
Butler: [laughs]. “Him.”
BraveWords: Were you paying attention to Dio after he left?
Butler: “One of the reasons it started to go sour was that Ronnie negotiated a solo deal with Warner Brothers while the success of Mob Rules was happening, so that sort of soured the whole thing. Then we just plowed on with (Deep Purple’s) Ian Gillan after that.”
BraveWords: After two successful albums, why do you think Ronnie would spoil the band’s next level of success?
Butler: “If you are going to get offered a good record contract, you aren’t going to turn it down are you? I think Ronnie started thinking because of him, Sabbath were viable again. So towards the end of the Mob Rules period, Ronnie thought because of him, Sabbath was doing well again. He thought he was important enough to go solo. He didn’t need the rest of us.”
BraveWords: The old tale is that you, Ian and Tony Iommi got pissed up at the pub and woke up in the morning with a new incarnation of Sabbath! What were you drinking?!
Butler: “We all went to a pub in Oxford and got smashed out of our heads! I suppose sometime during the night, we talked about working together and the next day we had found out that Ian Gillan had joined Sabbath.”
BraveWords: Were you happy with that realization?
Butler: “I was until we went on tour. I didn’t think it worked live. I thought the album was good, but somehow the mix was badly done. I thought the songs were good, but the mix wasn’t very good on the album. And on tour, I didn’t think Ian Gillan really fitted Sabbath.”
BraveWords: It’s one of those beautiful things if you’re a really true die-hard heavy metal fan, an absolute classic. I was at Wacken when Heaven And Hell reunited. Wendy connected with me to put Heaven And Hell on the cover of BW&BK (#102) magazine. How was it reuniting? Going back to “Children Of The Sea”, I was in a sea of one hundred thousand people watching you guys perform and it was magic. It’s one of my greatest heavy metal memories.
BraveWords: Were you fond of the idea of doing another record with Ronnie after Heaven And Hell?
Butler: “Yeah, I mean when we did the Heaven And Hell group, we put out The Devil You Know and we really enjoyed that. I was really involved with the writing, as well. It was really enjoyable, we did all the demos at Ronnie’s house and it was a really relaxed atmosphere, and everyone was working. I remember after that tour Ronnie was going to do another Dio tour and then we were going to do another Heaven And Hell LP, but then fate took its turn.”
BraveWords: When was the last time you saw Ronnie alive? What did you say to him?
Butler: “I was there when he died. I was in hospital every day with him, sitting by his bed. The doctors threw us out around midnight, and I went home and went to bed. When I woke up I found out that he had died during the night. I was there with him right until the end.”
BraveWords: My deepest condolences, that’s tragic. The whole metal world continues to cry. And we continue to lose people all the time.
Butler: “I know, I was just thinking that. I was just listening to the Mob Rules album today, Martin Birch is gone, Geoff Nicholls is gone, and Ronnie’s gone.”
BraveWords: Well the thing that’s not gone is the music. It will live with us forever and that’s what you’ve done. You’ve had a huge presence in the world. Do you ever reflect on what you’ve done to musicians, to people? But you are also obviously a major influence to culture.
Butler: “It’s fantastic, really. When we first started out we thought we’d last a couple of years and then get a proper job. It’s just been incredible. Incredible life.”
BraveWords: Speaking of overcoming the sophomore curse of Mob Rules. Let’s go back to the second Black Sabbath album which you probably didn’t think you were going to make.
BraveWords: Yeah, you got one album out and it was probably the greatest moment of your life at the time.
Butler: “Absolutely, yeah, because we had something to show for it. You can take the record out and show your mom and dad, and your friends, and everybody else. It was the be all and end all for us, we didn’t even think about the money or anything like that.”
BraveWords: You came to the realization that you wrote something that people actually want to listen to, so you had to do a second one.
Butler: “The first album was done practically live in the studio. I think it was done over two days. We weren’t allowed in on the mixing or anything like that, we just went in, plugged in, played, and left.”
BraveWords: So what do you think about bands like Def Leppard who are taking years to make a record?
Butler: “Good for them. Everyone’s got their own different way. In the end Sabbath was taking six months to do Technical Ecstacy and things like that. It’s whatever sparks you at the time.”
BraveWords: What does the future hold? How are you spending your days?
Butler: “I’ve just put out vinyls of the three solo albums, BMG wanted to do that, so I let them put that out on vinyl. And I’m currently working on my memoirs. That’s why I’m holed up in the mountains of Utah doing that.”
BraveWords: I have a very strange connection with Burton because I love that record. When you did the Ozzmosis signing at HMV, Burton was working at RED and he was signing copies of the first Fear Factory record and sending them to my store, so we’ve had a friendship for a long time. Do you talk to him very often?
Butler: “I haven’t spoken to him for years.”
BraveWords: And what’s your communication these days with Ozzy, Tony, and Bill?
Butler: “I haven’t seen Ozzy since Sabbath finished. Tony I’ll email a few times a year. The last time I saw Bill was when he got the lifetime Grammy and that was it.”
(Mob Rules-era band photo by Mark Weiss)