The news that Ozzy Osbourne has again reunited with Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward as Black Sabbath is one of the biggest metal stories of the year. Bigger than Slipknot’s return to the stage minus the late Paul Gray, bigger than Dream Theater’s chart smash without Mike Portnoy – heck, even bigger than Metallica and Lou Reed’s Lulu collaboration. The metal pioneers are at work on an album of new material with megaproducer Rick Rubin, and are already booking dates in 2012.
But this is not the first time Iommi, Butler, Osbourne and Ward have patched up their differences to share the stage together, and Sabbath’s various reunions, break-ups and re-reunions make for a pretty interesting story. In fact, Ozzy actually quit the band in 1977 after the album Technical Ecstasy and had begun working with a new band featuring ex-Dirty Tricks members John Frazer-Binnie, Terry Horbury and Andy Bierne. The new band were three days away from going into the studio to record an album when Ozzy got cold feet and decided he wanted to go back to Sabbath. The problem was, Sabbath had already hired a new singer, Dave Walker, and they’d begun working on new songs, too. They even performed “Junior’s Eyes” on the TV show Look Hear in 1978 (listen to it below). But the lads patched things up with Ozzy and recorded 1978’s Never Say Die before ultimately parting ways during the drawn-out writing sessions for the planned follow-up.
It was six years before Iommi, Butler, Osbourne and Ward would play together again. This first reunion of Ozzy and Sabbath occurred during the Live Aid concert at the JFK Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1985. Introduced by comedian Chevy Chase and performing a short set consisting of “Children of the Grave,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” it was obvious at even a quick glance at the footage that this show took place during the height of the glitzy ’80s. Sabbath were never more studded and bedazzled. The Live Aid telecast made the sacrilegious error of spelling Ozzy’s name “Ozzie.” Although well received, it wasn’t Sabbath’s finest hour, musically.
The next time Sabbath shared the stage was much more triumphant, and the presentation was much more in keeping with the Sabbath legacy, compared to the overly coiffed look of 1985. Iommi, Butler, Osbourne and Ward joined forces for the encore of the last show of Ozzy’s No More Tours tour, immortalized in the form of the Live & Loud album and concert movie. The Iommi/Butler/Appice/Dio lineup of Sabbath was actually supposed to be the support band, touring as they were on the back of the Dehumanizer album. But, Ronnie James Dio, uncomfortable with the arrangement, balked at the idea, so Judas Priest’s Rob Halford sang for Sabbath on the last two gigs of the tour.
Sabbath joined Ozzy for a short set on the final night of the tour, November 15, 1992, playing “Black Sabbath,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid.” Check out the performance of “Black Sabbath” below (warning: Ozzy’s introduction is uncensored).
At the time, these were publicly claimed to be Ozzy’s retirement shows, although there were rumors that Sabbath were ready to launch into a full reunion until talks broke down. It wasn’t too long before Ozzy started writing with Steve Vai. One track, “My Little Man,” eventually made it onto his Ozzmosis album, and another was reborn as the instrumental “Dyin’ Day” from Vai’s 1996 album Fire Garden. Meanwhile, Sabbath went back to working with Tony Martin, who had been their vocalist prior to Dio’s return, but Butler left and joined Ozzy for Ozzmosis.
Ward wasn’t able to participate fully in the late ’90s reunion due to health concerns – the drum seat was mostly occupied by Faith No More’s Mike Bordin instead, as well as Godsmack’s Shannon Larkin and Vinnie Appice – but Ward was around for the filming of the shows immortalized on the 1999 The Last Supper DVD, and he played drums on “Psycho Man,” one of two new songs recorded by the reunited band for the 1997 live album Reunion (the other song, “Selling My Soul,” is reported to have been recorded with programmed drums). Produced by Bob Marlette, the new songs took the original Sabbath into the future without ignoring the past. “Psycho Man,” with its moody verses, doomy choruses and faster final third, recalled the dynamics of the song “Black Sabbath,” but the delivery took on hues of both post-Sabbath Ozzy and post-Ozzy Sabbath, too. The version of “Iron Man” from Reunion won Sabbath a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 2000. A full album was considered, and sessions began with Rick Rubin producing, but Ozzy had to fulfil a commitment for another solo album, and the sessions came to an end.
More shows followed in the naughties with Ward in better health – both Ozzfest and headlining their own shows – but the last time Sabbath shared the stage to make music was to play at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So that brings us to today. Sabbath are back, they’re working on new music and soon will be rocking stages again worldwide. But the aforementioned non-Ozzy Sabbath reunions deserve a little extra attention. The Mob Rules era lineup – Iommi, Butler, Appice and Dio – broke up in 1982, reunited in 1991 for the brilliant Dehumanizer album, broke up, then got back together in 2006, first as Black Sabbath for a Dio-era best-of and then as a fully fledged new band, Heaven & Hell. And the lineup from 1990’s Tyr – Iommi, vocalist Tony Martin (who spoke with Gibson in July 2011), bass player Neil Murray, drummer Cozy Powell and keyboard player Geoff Nicholls – also got back together for 1995’s Forbidden.
Martin also was involved in one of Sabbath’s more surprising reunions. In 1994, on tour for the album Cross Purposes, Bill Ward rejoined the band in place of a departed Bobby Rondinelli. Ward only played a handful of shows in South America with the band, but footage from the tour finds Sabbath in fine form indeed. It’s a brief and often-overlooked but great-sounding period in the band's history.