Black Sabbath: The Vault by Paul Elliot

Without Black Sabbath, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading this… it’s that simple.

Published by Carltonbooks, (available to order here).

“Written by a leading music journalist and illustrated throughout with rare and previously unpublished photographs, Black Sabbath: The Vault is the ultimate interactive celebration of the iconic rock group. Featuring 20 items of removable facsimile memorabilia, including posters, tickets, flyers and signed photographs, Black Sabbath: The Vault gives the reader a front-row seat (and backstage access as well) to the career of these true legends of rock.

Paul Elliott is one of the UK’s most highly respected music writers and his work regularly appears in MOJO, Classic Rock, Q and Kerrang. He has interviewed Black Sabbath on a number of occasions and this book contains exclusive interview content with the band.”

The Vault is a book with a difference, but we’ll get into that later.

Firstly, the text by Paul Elliot is superb, but the photographs, incredible! For instance, there is a photograph of Bill Ward and Tony Iommi’s pre-Sabbath band Mythology which I have never seen before. It’s worth purchasing the book just to see that alone. There’s also one of Ozzy performing with Sabbath when they were still called Earth (I suggest that’s what Sabbath should call their final album). Some of the ’80s Ozzy photos have to be seen to be believed – that hair-do must have made a fair hole in the ozone layer (a peroxide “Hole In The Sky).

Elliott goes through each Sabbath album. Of their debut Black Sabbath album he writes: “Reviews were mostly bad, America’s Rolling Stone magazine mocked Sabbath’s music and occult imagery describing the album as ‘like Vanilla Fudge playing doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley.’” Music for The Beast? Seems to me they inadvertently gave Sabbath a compliment! But their words matter little; the debut was a big seller, the growing legions of fans loved it, and Sabbath were on a roll!

Now one of things about this book are the various reproductions of posters, tickets, flyers, etc. You never know what you’ll discover next. (It’s like a Black Christmas! No download can do this!) For instance, there is a contract for a Black Sabbath performance for 1970 where the band received the princely sum of £200. You probably could buy three tickets to see Sabbath in concert for that now.

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The book is interspaced with well-written profiles of Ozzy, Dio, Bill Ward, etc. It’s nice that Sabbath’s relations with Dio ended positively with the Devil You Know album. Dio was special. (Where are the new Dios, Iommis and Ozzys, and what does that mean for the future of metal in a world where fans would rather steal bands’ music than buy it?)

My own second favourite Sabbath album is Sabotage, of which Elliott rightly says: “For Sabbath connoisseurs, Sabotage would come to be regarded as the band’s lost classic: the last great album of the original Ozzy era.” And Bill Ward agrees. As he told Classic Rock in 2012, ‘That album was so hard for us to make. But when I listen back to it now… God, its incredible.’

Tony Iommi says of the dire Technical Ecstasy album (well, I feel part of the title was right, it was over-produced, but otherwise had more in common with the Electric Light Orchestra than Black Sabbath): “That was when the decline really started.”

The original line-up came to an end with the Never Say Die album, which has some good songs, but the disintegration of the band is there for all to hear, and Ozzy was sacked.

With Sabbath recruiting Ronnie James Dio, a fine frontman, and more professional and a far better singer than Ozzy, it seemed that Sabbath’s star would ascend and Ozzy’s would descend, but it didn’t turn out that way.

Hooking up with Sharon Arden (Sabbath manager Don Arden’s daughter), first as his manager, then as wife, paid dividends for Ozzy. His first two solo albums set him up for a very successful solo career, one that despite its ups and down (Randy Rhoads’ tragic death for example), is now in its fourth decade.

Sabbath initially were flying high: two superb albums with Dio, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, set the band up for what seemed would be a very successful 1980s. Alas, the band split into two around the time of the mixing of Live Evil. The split boils down, like all failed relationships, to a failure to communicate.

Dio, with Vinnie Appice in tow (interestingly, the younger brother of the previously mentioned Vanilla Fudge’s drummer Carmine Appice, a dead-ringer for Tom Savini), went on to record the now classic Holy Diver album.

Sabbath recruited Ian Gillan and recorded the Born Again album, which Elliott gives little praise to. This I disagree with strongly. Born Again is my favourite Sabbath album, with some of the best music Sabbath have ever recorded, like “Zero The Hero” and “Disturbing The Priest.” For sure, there are the fun aspects like that cover, or the Spinal Tap-inspiring Stonehenge set that was bigger than the real Stonehenge, but in those days metal was good craic! I only wish they’d done more albums with Gillan.

Alas, Gillan returned to the bosom of Deep Purple, and Geezer left Sabbath, leaving Iommi the lonely keeper of the flame. And now the Sabbath soap opera begins in earnest…

Eventually, Iommi decided to do a solo album, Seventh Star, with another former Deep Purple member Glenn Hughes, but this ended up being a Sabbath album! Hughes was sacked shortly after the start of the tour to promote the album and a certain Ray Gillan was recruited to replace Hughes. Now, Seventh Star is, at best, an average ’80s hard rock album; it’s not a Sabbath album and, title track aside, it’s very weak. Bear in mind it was released in 1986, the same year as Megadeth’s Peace Sells, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, and Slayer’s Reign in Blood, and you see just how out of touch with reality Tony Iommi was at the time.

The soap opera continued; the confusingly named Ray Gillen left having recorded an album entitled Eternal Idol with Sabbath. He was replaced by the unknown Tony Martin, and the album re-recorded. The lack of a credible line-up obviously hurts the album, but songs like “Ancient Warrior,” “The Shining” and the title track are actually very good.

The line-up shifted again, ending up with a relatively stable core (by Sabbath standards) of Iommi, Martin (the two Tonys, which sounds kind of Pythonesque, as well as Tap-esque). This line-up would record Headless Cross, which is an excellent album, and well worth a listen to. The next album Tyr continued the good work, but then Dio was recruited back in the fold, as was Geezer – Cozy was out as a horse fell on him (!!!!) – and Vinny Appice was back in. The resulting album Dehumanizer is excellent and the heaviest Sabbath have ever recorded. But, and you knew there would be a but, Dio left as he refused to support Ozzy at a gig (he also realised that Geezer and Iommi were keen on a lucrative reformation of the original line-up). This reformation did not occur, so the hapless Martin was once again recruited (what must this have done to his self-esteem?). The resulting album, Cross Purposes, was very poor and Geezer left again. (By the way, Tony and Geezer, I’d like my money back that I wasted on this dire album.)

There was one final album aptly entitled Forbidden… it should have been! Not only the worst Sabbath album but one of the worst metal albums of all time. The cartoon artwork should have warned of the black joke within and they should have been sued under the trade descriptions act for this debacle (again, I’d like my money back).

Rock bottom had been reached and a lifeline was thrown with a series of reformation tours with Ozzy. An attempt was made to record an album with human beard Rick Rubin “producing,” but nothing came of this. The tours continued until Ozzy resumed his solo career, and Iommi and Butler got back with Dio.

The resulting album, The Devil You Know is splendid, and at the sad loss of RonnieI console myself with it: that the little man with a big voice and bigger heart went out on a high. A hero for all times.

Amazingly, Iommi, Butler, and Ozzy got back together again, though without Bill Ward sadly, for the reasonable 13 album. It has great songs and performances, but the production is poor and for the proposed final album, it would make sense to bring back Bill Ward, and get a different producer.

But what a band! And it doesn’t seem like anything can kill them off, not even Tony’s bravely fought lymphoma.

To conclude, an extraordinary book for an extraordinary band.

Steve Earles

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (http://toendallwarscomic.wordpress.com/writers/).