Will Black Sabbath ever reunite?
By Gary Graff
April 5, 2021
Black Sabbath declared “The End” back in February 2017. But we’ve hardly heard the end of Black Sabbath and founding bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler. The British group’s status is iconic, enough so that classic tracks such as “Paranoid,” “Iron Man” and “War Pigs” are heard as much now as they were during the early ‘70s. The group created a heavy rock template for bands from Mötley Crüe to Greta Van Fleet — and to Spinal Tap — making its 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction wholly deserved, if overdue. In 2019, meanwhile, Black Sabbath received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award after winning three other Grammys. This spring the group is remembered via expanded reissues of three key albums — 1972’s Vol. 4, the first album the band produced itself and recorded outside of England, and Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), which marked the arrival of Ronnie James Dio for a short stint, replacing Ozzy Osbourne. To mark the occasion, we interrupted Butler’s family skiing vacation in Utah (he stays away from the slopes himself) to revel a bit in Sabbath’s glorious past…
FBPO: How did you come to be Black Sabbath’s bass player?
Butler: I used to play rhythm guitar and rhythm guitar was going out of style back then. I went to see Cream at the local club; I was mesmerized watching Jack Bruce, ’cause I’d heard of Eric Clapton but I’d never heard of Jack Bruce….and it was fascinating watching Jack Bruce. I said, “That’s what I want to do from now on, play bass!” Then when I got together with Tony (Iommi) and Bill (Ward) and Ozzy. Tony didn’t want a rhythm guitarist in the band. I said, “I’ll switch to bass, then,” and with the encouragement of Tony and Bill, their patience with me, I started learning from there.
FBPO: What were the biggest lessons as you were learning?
Butler: Just staying to what I know, don’t try and do something you can’t do. Keep to what you feel. I think because there was just one guitar and a bass to put the music across, I used to follow a lot of Tony’s riffs, and then when he’d do solos or choruses I’d go off on a tangent to fill in.
FBPO: So what’s your read on why the band and the music has endured as it has?
Butler: I think it’s because Tony’s riffs were absolutely amazing, and I think every guitar player tried to play “Iron Man” or “War Pigs” or “Paranoid.” I’ve had so many people over the years come up to me to say, “The first thing I ever learned on guitar was “Iron Man.” It’s not mind-boggling science or anything, the stuff we were doing. The first three albums were, like, live in the studio. It’s just raw. Because it’s so live-sounding, it doesn’t date. And the subject matter was a lot different to what everyone else was writing. So we had our own integrity kind of thing.
FBPO: And there was a great image and kind of mystery to the group as well, which had some appeal.
Butler: But it wasn’t to do with Satanism or anything like that — in fact, “Black Sabbath,” the first song on the (first) album is a warning against Satanism and getting involved in black magic and that kind of thing, which was a bit of a thing at the end of the ‘60s, early ‘70s in England. I think the name, Black Sabbath, people associated with black magic and all that kind of crap, whereas the lyrics were about the evils of the world — pollution and war and that kind of thing.
FBPO: Looking at the latest reissues, Vol. 4 is a lot of fans’ favorite Black Sabbath album. Where does it fit for you?
Butler: Well, it was different because we didn’t have a producer on that album. We went to Los Angeles, so the weather was a lot better than we were used to in England. And we had a really good time living together, ’cause it was the first time we actually lived together to write and make an album. I think there are things on there that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t all been together like that — like “Changes,” which started because Tony was playing a piano at the house we were staying in and Ozzy came up with the melody and I came up with the lyrics. That wouldn’t have happened any other way.
FBPO: One shudders to imagine what the four of you living together in 1972 must have been like.
Butler: It was mental. Completely mental! We used to have bucketloads of cocaine there, and we had this big bowl in the middle of the table, full of cocaine. One day Ozzy noticed this button below one of the windows. He kept pressing it, “I wonder what this does?” The next thing, the police turned up — it was a panic button. And there was us with this great big bowl of cocaine in the middle. So we dumped all the cocaine down the toilet and ran upstairs to get rid of our own stashes. The coppers went, “What’s the problem?” “Oh, nothing…” “OK, see ya…” And we’d dumped about five grams of cocaine down the bog!
FBPO: Jump ahead eight years — Ozzy’s gone, Dio joins the band. That’s a pretty dramatic time for you.
Butler: Yeah, having to replace Ozzy was a massive task. But the songs were so good, even though Ozzy didn’t like them, and the record company loved it. Tony met (Dio) at a party and invited him over for a jam — nothing to do with Sabbath at that time, just a jam. We tried the songs again with Ronnie and he did an incredible job on them. The manager at the time didn’t want Ronnie in the band — he said he was too little! (laughs) He used to call him “the dwarf” and all this stuff. And we said, “That’s ridiculous. He’s got a great voice, his songwriting’s brilliant, he’s doing great with the band and that’s it. We’re keeping him.”
FBPO: The “Heaven and Hell” bass line is straightforward but one of the more impactful in the Black Sabbath catalog. What’s its story?
Butler: Well, actually, that was the keyboard player, Geoff Nichols, came up with that bass line. I had to go to England to sort out some problems I had back there. While I was away they wrote “Heaven and Hell” and “Die Young.” I came back, listened to them and was blown away with how great the songs were, so I can’t take credit for that bass line.
FBPO: Legend has it that Dio picked up the devil’s horn hand sign, which became his trademark, from you.
Butler: Well, I used to do that (sign) to the audience when we were playing “Black Sabbath,” the song. There’s pictures of me doing it, I know. But I didn’t invent it; It was something Aleister Crowley used to do…So when we went on tour with Ronnie, he was like, “Everybody’s flashing the peace sign at me. But that’s an Ozzy thing. What can I do back to them?” I showed him the (devil’s horn) sign and he did it and it just kind of took off from there, you know?
FBPO: So is it really the end after the last tour, or has the pandemic got you guys thinking about maybe doing it again?
Butler: Nope, definitely not. We went out on top — why ruin it? We’re all old — really old. I don’t think we could last a tour these days. (laughs) Tony has had his cancer; He’s in remission but he doesn’t want to chance going out on the road. God knows what Ozzy’s doing. He was waiting to do his final tour for the past three years. I don’t know if he’ll ever go out on the road again. So no, Sabbath, it’s definitely the end for us.
FBPO: What are you up to now, then? You’ve only put out a couple of singles so far with Deadland Ritual, your band with Steve Stevens, Matt Sorum and Frankie Perez.
Butler: I might be. I’ve got so much stuff written — like 90 different riffs and ideas to go through. But it’s just getting the right time and the right people to do it. If I’m not into it, it’s pointless forcing anything. I’m loving enjoying the time now to see my grandkids and everything these days. It’s a big thing to tear myself away from the family, so we’ll see what happens. I am writing a memoir at the moment. I started out because when my parents died I always wished I’d asked them a lot more things than I knew about. I don’t really know much about my mum and dad, ’cause they were always just there. So I started writing a memoir for my grandkids to read, and that’s been fun going through stuff — old times and growing up in Birmingham and all that. I’m right in the middle of doing that at the moment.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
Black Sabbath’s classic Vol. 4 album is available here: