The Gibson Interview: Black Sabbath’s Tony Martin
Ask a progressive metal guitarist who the singer in their dream band might be and chances are good that Tony Martin’s name will be around the top of the list. His five albums with Black Sabbath – Eternal Idol, Headless Cross, TYR, Cross Purposes and Forbidden – constitute a rich body of work populated by complex lyrical themes and flawless vocals. Listen to the song “Anno Mundi (The Vision)” from TYR and you’ll hear it all – imagery, technique and delivery. Martin’s solo album, Scream, is also a metal must-have, demonstrating his multi-instrumental talents alongside his vocal prowess. (The album also features the essential track “Raising Hell” with late, great drummer Cozy Powell.)
Martin was actually Black Sabbath’s second-longest-serving singer. His first tenure with the band, from Eternal Idol (1987) through to TYR (1990), came after a pair of Sabbath albums with Deep Purple alumni Ian Gillan (Born Again) and Glenn Hughes (Seventh Star, which was supposed to be a Tony Iommi solo album until the label intervened).
Martin helped restore some cohesion to the band after that confusing period. Although he and Black Sabbath parted ways to make way for Ronnie James Dio on 1992’s Dehumanizer, that lineup didn’t last, so Martin returned for Cross Purposes (1994) and Forbidden (1995). Eventually Martin and his Forbidden-era bandmates were ousted when Tony Iommi reunited with Sabbath’s original members, but the albums Headless Cross and Cross Purposes are true standouts among the Black Sabbath catalog.
The multi-talented Martin recently spoke to Gibson.com.
How do you write your lyrics? Some of your themes and phrases are so evocative that I’d imagine you do a lot of research and reading.
I do study lyrics a lot. Sometimes I can get stuck on one line for weeks. Other times it will flow like water. I never know… but I do know that it has to have a beginning, middle and end story that flows. If it doesn’t have that, I have to either work it to death until I have the exact line, or I never listen to it ever again! I am always inspired by the music and the words “tell me” if it’s gonna fit.
Is there any particular Black Sabbath album that you feel encapsulates your legacy with the band?
Not only one; most of them. I think Cross Purposes was the best quality one but Headless Cross and TYR were the most researched. The others were cool though.
What are your proudest individual Black Sabbath lyrical and vocal moments? Cross Purposes in particular is an album that I find myself listening to for the lyrics just as much as for the songs and performances.
Yeah. I can see why you may pick up on that one. I was gettin’ a bit more real with lyrics instead of historical. But I actually invented some words and to this day only one person has found them and questioned me about them. I challenge anyone to find them, but everyone sings them. It’s those things that I find really interesting.
Whenever I listen to Headless Cross I can imagine it as a rock opera, like the Queen We Will Rock You musical or something. Is that something you’d ever consider working on?
Absolutely! I am talking to an old band called Black Widow about such an idea!
How did you feel about your work on Forbidden?
Well Forbidden is… I want to say crap, but it’s actually not. The songs worked really well in rehearsals, and then things started to get political, and I got wind of an Ozzy reunion – not from Sabbath directly, of course. But before that came, there was a meeting at the Sabbath offices in London to which we were summoned to discuss the possibility of doing a Run-D.M.C. type of album. I thought it wouldn’t work, and voiced that. Cozy Powell thought it wouldn’t work. I was never sure that most of the others were convinced, but we were kinda steered into a “Rap Sabbath” album. Then I was told that Ice-T was gonna be doing it and they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me if he was doing the whole thing or just one track... and I still didn’t know the answer to that when I was in the studio singing the tracks. They said they were gonna take it and see what Ice-T wanted to do. So it has a distinct ill feeling about it. The album eventually didn’t really work, although some fans love it. And it was the penultimate album to my being removed from the band, the last album to be released being Sabbath Stones, a compilation album, which kept my name in the band to span 10 years and six albums.
How is your new project with Andy LaRocque (King Diamond) and Magnus Rosen (Hammerfall) going? What’s it sound like? Will you tour?
Well, we are all doing individual projects and other things right now. We are talking often about how we progress but until we have finished our current projects we can’t really get it on the road. The plan is to release the music in a controlled way that will be different to the normal record label release. We have two songs written that sound very unique and we are excited about those. It’s very accessible dark rock.
How did you develop your multi-instrumentalism? Did you have formal training or is it more organic for you?
Well I started playing things when I was five years old. I had my first guitar when I was seven, which I still own! It’s an acoustic guitar that is completely warped and the action is about half an inch! But I got sounds out of it and I kept exploring with other things – electronic projects and taking things apart and rebuilding them. The most famous of my musical explorations was harmonizing with my mother’s Hoover! I learned a lot about note interaction just by using the constant drone note from the vacuum. Also I had an AKAI 1721 reel-to-reel machine and I wanted to multi-track record stuff. I figured out that if I unsoldered the wires off the erase head, I could get it to record over a previous take. It of course faded the more times I recorded over it, but it was another step in exploring stuff. It hasn’t stopped to this day. I still explore with samples and sounds and electronic stuff. Guitars are my main instrument. If I want to write, I always pick up the guitar first. My original first pride was a Gibson 335 semi, which I am gutted to say I sold for £2 sterling when I was 14. Clearly had no idea what I was holding! And I also destroyed a Reslo ribbon microphone – a genuine 1940s-ish one – in the interest of exploring the inner workings… I don’t think I want to reveal anything else or I might slash my wrists!
You played the majority of instruments on Scream. Will we get to hear more material like this?
I am sure I will be exploring other forms of presenting my music. I tend to get inspired by what is at hand at the time. If it happens to be a stick and a cowbell, so be it. It never has been a stick and a cowbell, but you get my point!
Photo courtesy of Tony Martin