Discovering the ‘Other’ Black Sabbath Singers – Part 2

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Many bands – especially those that have been around for long enough, and Black Sabbath have been around longer than most – have a degree of churn in their line-ups. So who’s up for finding out a bit more about Sabbath’s churn?

Everyone talks about the famous Tony Iommi / Ozzy Osbourne / Geezer Butler / Bill Ward troupe – the ones who kicked it all off, and for the most part ended it as well. It’s been much commented on, including on The Hawk’s blog. So by way of a change we’re going to look at some other famous (or not!!) Sabbath musicians – starting with the singers – PART 2. (Check out Part 1 here).

Worst Ever!

‘I was the worst singer Black Sabbath ever had

That’s’ the self-imposed verdict of rock legend and Black Sabbath singer #3, Ian Gillan, who managed one album and one tour with the band. AND, the verdict he handed down in 1992, by which time, ALL the singers had appeared in the band at least once. So a very self-critical analysis. Not that Gillan was a bad singer, but his voice was clearly something of a departure for Black Sabbath – that was probably the main reason for his short stay, though as we will see here, it wasn’t the only one.

As we already covered on part one of this blog, Ronnie James Dio had successfully replaced Ozzy as the frontman of the band, and contributed heavily to ‘Heaven and Hell’, one of the best Black Sabbath albums ever before it all fell apart over personality clashes and rows over who should be in control of the band’s management and musical direction.

After Dio had left, Sabbath considered various other singers before alighting on Gillan. David Coverdale (Whitesnake), Nicky Moore (Sansom). Even Michael Bolton was rumoured to have auditioned, if you can believe that.

(Though, as unbelievable as it seems now, we should note for the record that Michael Bolton actually started his career as a rock singer, fronting a band called Blackjack. So it’s not like he would have been in Black Sabbath belting out a version of ‘How am I Supposed to Live Without You.’ And Bolton has anyway always denied the rumour that the audition ever happened. But it’s a nice story.)

Deep Purple Connection

Anyway, Sabbath eventually plumped for Gillan, who agreed to take the gig after a night of heavy drinking at a pub in Oxford, as was the convention at the time. (Not going to Oxford – any boozer in any location would have done just as well.)

Maybe they just couldn’t resist keeping the Deep Purple connection alive. Ronnie Dio had made his name in his early career as the singer for Elf, who were a regular opening act for Purple, and then of course followed Richie Blackmore out of the Purple exit door to form Rainbow. So it was only a small additional step to go for Gillan.

Not that the 2 bands have ever have ever been twins exactly. You don’t really listen to classic era Deep Purple and think, ‘Yeah, that sounds like Black Sabbath, they could easily swap singers.’ And as we all know, Deep Purple ain’t heavy metal. But still the two bands have this connection, through their personnel if not their respective music styles.

Another Country Mansion

As with the original Dio hookup, the original intention seemed to be to do a collaboration and make an album, but not use the Black Sabbath name. That was until commercial pressures intervened. Don Arden was back as Sabbath’s manager after dumping them after the Ozzy firing, and both he and the record label wanted the comfort blanket of putting out the subsequent record under the Black Sabbath banner, so that’s what happened.

Anyway, bed having been made and now laid in, Gillan set to work on the album with enthusiasm. The location for writing and recording was The Manor, another of those massive country piles that Sabbath occasionally liked to work in. Gillan made it a home away from home for himself by setting up a massive marquee in the grounds with all the comforts – cooking area, bedroom, you name it.

But from the start, it was a square peg / round hole situation. Gillan’s voice was different, more pure and bluesy than anything Sabbath has tried before. (Though his shriek could compare to the best of them.) His image was different – no head-to-toe leathers and black get up. His writing style was also different. Sabbath had done plenty of doomy and horror-inspired stuff in the past before branching out in more of a fantasy direction under Dio’s influence.


But Gillan didn’t go along with any of that. He used sexual themes, fact-based songs, any influence that immediately struck him. Quite literally at times. The Manor had a go-cart track in its grounds, so one day, Gillan ‘borrowed’ drummer Bill Ward’s car and took it for a joyride round the track, only to crash and total the vehicle. He managed to escape from the wreckage before it burst into flames and was fortunately uninjured. Most people would have walked away shaking their heads in thanks at getting out alive. But for Gillan, it was the perfect trigger and inspiration to write ‘Trashed’, which duly became the album opener.

Mind you, Tony Iommi managed to get into the same spirit of immediacy when it came to writing. He found a small building in the grounds of The Manor near a church and set up a rehearsal space in there, only to attract the ire of the local priests, who complained about the noise. ‘Disturbing the Priest’ was the result.

Newly Sober

Poor Geezer Butler wasn’t into it at all though. He was someone who liked to write poetic lyrics with a theme or story surrounding them – and this wasn’t happening at all. Having also been sidelined as a lyricist in the Dio years, Butler was getting increasingly disillusioned with all things Sabbath, but he put a brave face on it for the time being.

What about Bill Ward? The Hawk hasn’t been able to dig up too much information on what he thought of the new Gillan-inspired writing style, but that was probably because he had enough to worry about getting through each day. Ward was attempting to dry out, and for the most part was sober during the writing and recording process. It lead to some of the more technically accomplished playing by Ward on any Sabbath album.

And he did seem to enjoy working with Gillan, commenting to Southern Cross magazine some way after the event in 1996 that

I saw Ian go into the studio one day,” Ward recalled, “and I was fortunate and honored, actually, to be part of a session. I watched him lay tracks on ‘Keep It Warm’… I felt like Ian was Ian in that song… I watched this incredible transformation of this man that really, I felt, delicately put lyrics together. It made sense. I thought he did an excellent job. And I really dig that song too.

Bill Ward

Unfortunately, Ward fell off the wagon spectacularly towards the end of the recording process – a tour was looming large, as it always was after an album release, but Ward couldn’t cope with the idea of returning to the road. He relapsed and had to go back to rehab.

Born Again

So, new singer, but plenty of fun and games, as with most Black Sabbath albums. And amidst all the shenanigans, the finished album, entitled ‘Born Again’ was completed and released in September 1983. Did elation follow? Not really. Upon hearing the playback, the band were horrified by the poor, muffled sound quality, as though someone had covered all the microphones with pillows. Nobody had noticed a couple of blown tweeters in the studio, and the mixing process somehow made things worse. But by the time they heard it, the release was in train, Sabbath had started their tour, and it was too late to change anything. According to Gillan, he was in his car upon hearing it for the first time and threw the offending tape out of the window in disgust. Enough said.

So not really their fault, you could say. Accidents happen. Less forgivable was their decision to approve the album cover – a sort of ‘Demon Baby’ in garish red against a stark blue background. Gillan and Ward both hated it, and it was roundly condemned / ridiculed by press and fans alike. For example, in 1992, Kerrang magazine rated it as #2 in their top 10 worst metal album covers of all time. (It was pipped to the #1 slot by The Scorpions’ ‘Lovedrive’.)

The Hawk could have pulled in any number of negative quotes about that artwork, but you get the picture. Seems Tony Iommi was the only person in the world who liked it, but these things ain’t democratic, so we’re stuck with it for all time now. (See, this is why having a second strong voice in the band like Ronnie Dio was probably a good thing, for the decision making process, if not for Iommi’s ego.)

So, badly fitting singer. Terrible sound. Terrible cover. Yet for all that, the album performed surprisingly well. Not with the critics, who generally hated it, but look, Sabbath had a love / hate relationship with critics from day 1, so at least they were used to getting panned.

Surprise Success

But the fans liked it, and it sold well. The critically embarrassing ‘Zero The Hero’ has been particularly inspirational in some quarters – death metallers Cannibal Corpse covered the track on their seminal release ‘Hammer Smashed Face’, and it’s even said to be an inspiration for the Guns N Roses classic ‘Paradise City.’ Even Ozzy thought it was quite good – according to him it was their best album since he’d left.

Stonehenge Tour

What about the tour? It’s most famous for its wacky production design, where Sabbath ordered a replica of Stonehenge to adorn the stage set. But when they came, the replica stones were massive – not quite life size, but not the far off – to the point where they couldn’t even fit into many of the venues. And even where they did fit in, they dominated the stage to the point that there was barely enough room for the band.

It was an open goal for satirists, and sure enough, the writers of ‘This is Spinal Tap’ did not let us down.

More Fun and Games

Other tour highlights included a dwarf who would come on stage at the start of the show impersonating the demon baby from the album cover, and mimic the sound of the crying baby blaring over the speakers on the intro soundtrack. Even the band though that to be in questionable taste, but it was Don Arden’s idea, and he insisted.

Ian Gillan, as the new singer was having trouble remembering the lyrics to some of the back catalogue of Sabbath numbers he’d have to sing, so had some lyric sheets printed out and laminated. The idea was that he’d use the sheets as cue cards, and turn the pages with his feet as the show progressed so nobody would notice. The plan failed because Sabbath used so much dry ice and smoke as part of the set that everything was illegible. Hilarity ensued. Unlike Ronnie Dio, who threw himself into the Sabbath back catalogue with gusto and confidence, Gillan always felt a little uncomfortable singing the old Ozzy songs given their stark differences in style, so maybe this was a bit of a sub-conscious mental block. Who knows?

But anyway, Sabbath did throw in a cover of the Deep Purple classic ‘Smoke on the Water’ as an encore, almost as a favour to make Gillan feel more at home. And so the Sabbath / Purple connection was cemented still further.

Separate Ways

All in all, everyone seems to have mostly had a great time during the Ian Gillan years as Black Sabbath singer, short though they were. Plenty of fond memories were generated. But the general level of chaos surrounding everything – the writing, recording, release and tour – meant that things were unsustainable. Sure enough, at the conclusion of the tour, pretty well everyone went their separate ways.

Deep Purple were reforming, so Gillan left to join up with them – a much more natural fit for him anyway. Bill Ward had left the group for his rehab stint, and his replacement, Bev Bevan departed at the end of the tour. Gillan had complained at one point that he and Bevan were starting to feel like nothing more than hired help by Tony Iommi, and there’s certainly a sense of Deja Vue of the Ronnie James Dio clashes coming in here.

Perhaps more importantly, the whole experience had proved to be the last straw for founding bassist Geezer Butler. Sick of his perceived ill-treatment and sidelining, he walked, and wouldn’t be seen on another Black Sabbath studio album for almost 10 years.

So there you have it. Ronnie Dio had lasted 2 albums and 2 tours before his exit, and Ian Gillan only one of each. But at least it’s all there for the record, even if the production is a little off. Stay tuned for the next episode of ‘The Other Black Sabbath Singers’ on The Hawk’s blog (can’t believe we’ve still only covered 2). Part 3 will feature some of the unknowns before moving on to Tony Martin, who managed a whopping 5 studio albums over 2 Sabbath stints in the late 80s and 90s.

And in the meantime, we’ll play out with the Sabbath version of ‘Zero The Hero.’

So, Black Sabbath and (Deep Purple’s) Ian Gillan. Always a match made in hell? Or are you one of the fans who loves ‘Born Again and can’t get enough of it? Who does the best ‘Zero the Hero’ – Sabbath or Cannibal Corpse? Share your memories in the comments below.

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