Founding bassist Geezer Butler on 45 years of metal.
Black Sabbath are one of the few acts in the world who can legitimately claim to have invented an entire musical genre. Before Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward converged on London’s Regent Sound Studios one afternoon in late 1969, there was no such thing as heavy metal. Less than 24 hours later the quartet emerged with the acetate of an eponymous debut album which, alongside follow-up Paranoid, would arguably do more to define and inspire one of music’s best-selling genres than any other release.
It wasn’t just music the band contributed to the pantheon of metal – Sabbath led by example, not just living up to but defining the very rock mythology we mock and hold dear in equal parts today. Their reckless behaviour the stuff of legend, and toxic fallouts commonplace, Sabbath have achieved the remarkable feat of getting through more than 20 band members. Only guitarist Iommi has remained constant over the band’s 46-year tenure.
So it was more than remarkable when it was announced, in late 2011, that three of the founding four were reuniting for a new album and tour, significantly the first time Ozzy has recorded with Sabbath since he was fired in the late ’70s. Produced by Rick Ruben, last year’s 13 was a surprise critical and commercial success, while the supporting reunion tour has picked up rave reviews across the globe. As the metal juggernauts stop by in Abu Dhabi for their first and most likely last gig, Rob Garratt picked up the phone and dialled bassist Geezer Butler.
Hello Geezer, whereabouts in the world are we speaking to you from?
I’m in Los Angeles.
We hear you live out in sunny LA, how is it?
Right. Well I’m ringing you up to talk about the show in Abu Dhabi, which I’m guessing isn’t your favourite place in the world right now, after Man City trounced [Aston] Villa 4-0?
Thank you very much for reminding me of that. Are you a supporter?
I’m a Norwich supporter.
Oh, you must really hate Villa then.
Well, football rivalries aside, it’s great to have you coming to the UAE for the first time.
Yeah it’s good after all these years having somewhere new to play, like Abu Dhabi – when you say that to people they don’t expect to hear it. I’m looking forward to it.
It’s been a pretty dynamite tour so far, judging by the reviews.
We started over a year ago now and it’s been incredible, it really has, one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve ever done.
For the fans it’s almost a dream come true to have the three of you back together. Why did it happen now?
It’s a ‘now or never’ kind of thing. We’re all getting really old, and it’s something that me and Tony have been talking about for a really long time – one last tour, one last album. It was sort of a dream to do that, because when we broke up in ‘79 it wasn’t the best of partings back then. We got back to touring [with Ozzy in 1997] to do Ozzfest, and we’ve been doing tours on and off together since then. We thought if we’re going to do one more tour, we don’t want to go out and do the same stuff we’ve been doing for 40 years, or however long it’s been. So we came up with the idea of seeing if we could come up with some new songs, and that’s what led to the album. It just surprised us how many songs we did – we recorded 16 tracks, and everybody loved what we were doing, so it was like the perfect conclusion to Sabbath, really.
Was there a sense of wanting to end the band’s legacy right?
Yeah, because as you probably know Tony got lymphoma, and we thought we’ve got to do this fast, otherwise we’re never going to do it – it was like the Grim Reaper’s calling. Luckily Tony responded well to his treatment and it’s turned out great. The album has been an incredible success we didn’t think would ever happen – we never thought we’d get a number one in America, especially after all these years. It’s turned out great, the whole thing.
There must be a lot of water under the bridge – it’s not long ago Ozzy was suing Tony, right?
Yeah, a few years ago, yeah, yeah, over the name and stuff. I think because we were with [singer] Ronnie James Dio at the time, and Ozzy was... well whoever it was on Ozzy’s side was suing Tony. And I think when Ronnie James Dio died [in 2010] it made everybody realise we’re not going to be here forever – Ronnie’s gone and it’s such a shock to everyone, including Ozzy, and we thought if we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it now. We’re mortal beings.
The reunion is clearly important to the legacy of the band, but what’s the vibe like – are you guys getting on backstage, or it is more a mutual respect for the name which brings you together?
No, it’s fantastic, we’ve all grown up together, [we’re] like brothers. You don’t have to... we don’t go out to dinner with each other and all that stuff, we respect each others’ space. And that’s the way it works with us: we go onstage and the magic seems to happen, and then you come offstage and you don’t see each other until the next gig. It’s good to have that space.
Is there ever a sense that’s someone’s missing, that the touch [founding drummer] Bill [Ward] brought to the music is no longer there?
We started off with Bill Ward this time around and it just didn’t happen.
I hear it was about money?
Well to be blatantly honest he just couldn’t do it anymore. He was thinking that we could take like ten years to do the album, whereas we knew we only had so long to do it and get out on tour, while you’re still good at what you do. Bill was a bit unfit, and ironically in hospital with intestinal problems, so he’d have had to leave the tour anyway if we’d gone out with him.
Are there any hard feelings? Would you have a drink with him?
I love Bill – we all love Bill – it’s a horrible thing he couldn’t complete it. Sabbath is Sabbath, it’s the four of us, we were almost going to call the album 75 Percent at one time [laughs], because that’s what it felt like. Especially when [Rage Against the Machine’s] Brad Wilk came in drumming – that was [producer] Rick Ruben’s idea to bring him in, and we thought if we’re bringing a brand new drummer, why can’t we have Bill? But Rick Rubin said ‘we can’t be in the studio forever waiting for Bill to get it right’.
Rick Ruben is a huge talent in his own right. What did he bring to the party for the recording of 13?
It’s incredible – it’s just like having a fifth member. Tony came out with tonnes and tonnes of riffs, we picked out what we liked, about 40 riffs that Tony had that we thought were worth doing. And then Rick came in and narrowed that down to 14 songs, and it’s just like having someone who sees you from the outside after all these years. He didn’t want us to come out with a typical heavy metal album. He said ‘when you started there was no such thing as heavy metal, so forget what’s come after you, and go back to what you were before that, before Metallica and all those bands, and just do what you did back then, that experience, play live in the studio as if you were onstage in a little club,’ and that’s what we did.
Is it true he sat you all down and made you listen to the first album [1970’s Black Sabbath]?
He did, yeah – he sat us down and said ‘listen to this’, and we were giggling through it, how bleak it sounded to us now, and he said ‘that’s Sabbath, that’s what people want, less is more’.
How did it feel to hear the album again after all that time?
Erm, it was great. The separation on it was incredible, it was so clear, there were no overdubs pottering it up. And that’s what we fell victim to, because the longer we were together the more time we had to spend in the studio, and you put on too many overdubs and things when there’s no need for it, you bury the whole feeling of the song over all the technical stuff. So [this time] we went back to just the basics.
It’s true that those first two Sabbath albums more or less invented an entire genre – a lot of people might say you have a lot to answer for – how does that feel as a legacy?
You don’t think of it at the time – we loved [Led] Zeppelin and Cream and [Jimi] Hendrix at the time, so we were sort of getting on their bandwagon, and it wasn’t until a lot later that people were saying ‘you’re totally different to them’. We didn’t really know what we’d got.
There must be a lot of bands you’ve inspired who you might think have lost the plot a little bit – do you feel responsible for the beast you’ve spawned?
Yeah, now you get these ultra death metal bands who have absolutely nothing in common with [us] – I’m not saying we didn’t influence them, like The Beatles influenced us, not musically but in the whole attitude – and even though the new metal bands don’t sound anything like us, I know what they mean when they say that we influenced them.
Metal seems totally immune to trend – it will never be ‘in’, but will always retain a loyal following – why do you think the genre is so durable?
Because it’s great live. There are a million bands that sound the same to me, but you see them live and you get it. I think it’s one of the few genres of music left which is better live than on the albums.
So it will never die?
Hopefully not. Hopefully...
Aside from being renowned as one of the most influential bassists ever, as Sabbath’s lyricist you’ve also penned some of the best known rock and metal lyrics known to man. Some of them are pretty dark... where do you get that from? Where do you channel that kind of energy? What’s going on in your head?
[Laughs] Because we were brought up in a bleak area of Birmingham, you’re depressed when you’re born. I was brought up strictly Catholic, so religion was a massive part of my life, so I drew on that a lot. And fantasy – I used to read a lot of HG Wells and stuff like that just to get away from the reality of things. But the reality never went away so you’re kind of stuck in a bad part of Birmingham – it came from that. I like the darker side of life.
Some of those lyrics are so extreme, do you ever look back and think that was too dark, or that was a bit silly?
Yeah some of them are silly, some of them are very silly, but others could have been written last week and still mean something. Everybody’s going on about global warming, and that’s what ‘Children of the Grave’ was back in 1971.
You’re in the very unique position of essentially putting words in Ozzy’s mouth – did he ever veto any of your lyrics?
You have to do it syllable by syllable – [Ozzy] always comes up with the melody, and he’ll come up with one really good line that gives you an idea of what to write about. And then you’ve got to match it syllable by syllable to exactly what he sings, he’ll never change his vocal melody. So if he comes to a two-syllable word and you write a three-syllable word, you have to scrap the whole thing. He just won’t sing it. So it’s hard, but you sort of get used to it.
Speaking of Ozzy, there’s one thing that’s changed our perception of him hugely over the past decade. What went through your head the first time you saw The Osbournes?
I thought it was hilarious. The first series was great, but after that I wouldn’t watch it.
Weren’t you worried about the impact it could have on Sabbath’s reputation?
I thought it made him look a bit daft, but then he’s always been daft, that’s Ozzy. A lot of people thought he was putting it on, but that’s him. The later series’ he was putting it on, but the first series that was the bloke I’ve grown up with.
Speaking of onscreen portrayals – how did you react the first time you saw Spinal Tap?
I thought it was hilarious – my favourite film ever.
So looking back on 45 years of rock ’n’ roll, do you have any regrets?
You can’t have any regrets because that’s your life. You’re lucky to be alive anyway, and whatever life gives you, that’s your life. So no, I don’t have any regrets.
Does that include the three times you’ve quit Sabbath?
Yeah – you always know when to go and when to stay. That’s what’s good about doing this – it could be the last tour ever but it’s going out on a high note. It could be the last album ever, and it’s great to go out on a high.
Assuming Tony’s health holds up, any chance the band will ring in 50 years [in 2018]?
50 years? Well Tony is probably healthier than everybody else now, after all the stuff they’ve done to him. He’s really done well, he’s definitely in remission now, and we’ve still got four tracks leftover from the album, so maybe we’ll fill in the other four or five tracks and put out another album. If it’s right. We wouldn’t do it just for the sake of it, or the money or whatever. But yeah, maybe.
Black Sabbath perform at du Arena, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi on Thursday May 29. Tickets, priced from Dhs295, from thinkflash.ae