It ended as it began – only bigger. Nearly 50 years after Black Sabbath formed in Birmingham, England, they played the final show of their farewell tour there this past February. During the gig, they revisited many of the colossal blues rockers they wrote in the late Sixties – numbers like "N.I.B.," "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and the crushing dirge that changed everything for them, "Black Sabbath" – but something about seeing them play these songs, bleached in pyro, felt larger than life. This was the band that codified heavy metal, from its foreboding chord changes to its obsession with death, throwing its own funeral. Somehow it felt more like a celebration, even if the band members were holding back their feelings.
"It was very emotional," Ozzy Osbourne tells Rolling Stone, months later, a sense of amazement still in his voice. "Sharon would be like, 'Say something.' I couldn't speak. Because I thought if I start talking I'll end up in fucking tears. That's hardly the Prince of Darkness, being seen crying." He laughs.
"When you're onstage, seeing the audience, and there's people out there crying, it was all sorts of emotions," guitarist Tony Iommi says. "It was really great to see all these people from all over the world, and to see everybody's faces. But it was also emotional, because it's the last time you're going to be seeing these people."
A new concert film and live album, The End, captures every teary moment – as well as every weighty note the band played in Birmingham – along with some extra surprises. After playing "Iron Man," "War Pigs" and "Snowblind" for a final time at the gig, the band regrouped at the nearby Angelic Recording Studio a few days later to play five additional numbers that weren't on the tour set list, including the first original they ever wrote ("Wicked World"), that they filmed and have dubbed "The Angelic Sessions." The project as a whole, which was directed by Dick Carruthers and is different from the filmmaker's recently released The End of the End documentary, presents a final, stunning snapshot of the band. (Disclosure: I wrote liner notes for the release.)
Now that half a year has passed, the band members each have 20/20 hindsight about the experience. Which isn't to say that when they speak with Rolling Stone any of them but Iommi have watched the film ("I fucking hate to see myself on TV," Osbourne says, and bassist Geezer Butler echoes that sentiment); nevertheless, the guitarist, who worked on the film's sound mix, says the experience of the farewell tour was "fantastic," and they're all happy with how it ended. "I'm glad we finished on a high note," Butler concurs. And he adds, drolly, "I'm glad that it's finished now."
The band announced the goodbye trek in 2015. Iommi had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012, preceding the recording of their comeback album 13, and after a demanding tour supporting the record ended, the band reached an impasse: either spend an indefinite amount of time making a follow-up or hit the road. They opted for the latter. "I can't actually do this anymore," Iommi said of the farewell in 2015. "My body won't take it much more." With original drummer Bill Ward out of the picture due to a contract dispute, they regrouped with touring stickman Tommy Clufetos and keyboardist-guitarist Adam Wakeman and brought "The End," as the tour was known, around the world for a little more than a year.
"There's always some kind of anxiety before you go on for most of the shows, certainly when you're in New York, L.A., London or Birmingham," Iommi says. "All of them are important, but we always get a little bit anxious on certain shows. For the final show, we felt really nervous. I know everyone was feeling that way when they were walking down the hallway to go onstage. It's like going to be hung."
To get over his jitters, the guitarist would play for a bit, have a bite, listen to some soft music and take a nap before getting ready to hit the stage. "Tommy would come around at about 8 o'clock, usually on the dot, and say good luck," he says, "and then Ozzy would storm in at some point." Similarly Butler would get some sleep, do some yoga and "go to the bathroom about 10 times," and Osbourne would warm up his voice in his dressing room. The four would do a huddle and hit the stage.
Playing the final gig put Osbourne in what he calls "a real weird place." "I was physically there, but I remember thinking, 'Fucking hell. What a tour this has been,'" he says.
Despite the occasion, the band didn't do anything special together to toast their careers after the final notes of "Paranoid" rung out for what could be the last time. "I'm the only one who drinks," Iommi says. "So the only celebration was after the show; we had some of our friends there. But as a band we didn't get time to talk to each other. We knew we'd planned to get together a couple of days after to do these [recording] sessions, and I'm really glad we did that. I'm glad there was time to talk to each other and say goodbye really."
The sessions were also a chance for the musicians to revisit some old songs they hadn't played in a long time. When they originally picked the set list for the final tour, each band member made his own list and sent it to the others. The first cut was about 30 songs, and they pared it down from there. "There's certain songs that you can never drop," Butler says. "We tried dropping 'Iron Man' once, and people were going mental about it, so we had to put it back in."
"You can only do what Ozzy can do," Iommi says, "because a lot of the old songs were really high, so doing those is impossible. There's no point in putting down 'Symptom of the Universe' and 'Hole in the Sky.'"
"I have to get my balls in a vice to do them songs," Osbourne says with a laugh. "My range hasn't gotten any higher over the years. Some songs are too low, some are too high. When I listen to a song like 'Hole in the Sky,' I go, 'What the fuck was I thinking?'" The band ended up playing a few of its greatest riffs without Osbourne at the Birmingham show, captured in the film, including "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "Megalomania."
So while the majority of The End's track list contains songs from the group's first four LPs, including a hearty six-song helping of Paranoid in addition to Technical Ecstasy's Iommi showcase "Dirty Women," the band attempted some of the other material at the Angelic session. Among the selections were the bluesy Osbourne harmonica showcase "The Wizard," the marijuana ode "Sweet Leaf" and a brilliant rendition of the piano-and-synthesizer ballad "Changes." "I thought if we did these after the Birmingham show, Ozzy wouldn't be panicking about losing his voice," Iommi says.
For the singer, doing these songs was a special treat. "When we decided to do some jamming for the DVD thing, I gave it my fucking all," he says. "I did three songs without stopping and I'm like, 'Fucking hell.' It's really cool."
"We didn't rehearse anything for the sessions," Butler says. "We were all sort of coming down from the whole Birmingham thing, and we wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I think we work best that way. The first four albums were done straight off the cuff."
The bassist says he vied for the group to do "Sweet Leaf" originally for the tour but it didn't make the cut. "I always wanted to do that, since I think it's one of the best Sabbath songs," he says. "And we hadn't really done 'Wicked World' since we wrote it in this old derelict pub in Birmingham not long after Tony came back from his thing with Jethro Tull. We only ever played 'Changes' once onstage, at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972, but when we did it the Mellotron was all out of tune and it sounded like the biggest disaster ever."
Revisiting "Changes" in particular proved to be nerve-racking for the bassist. When the band recorded the song for the group's 1972 LP Vol. 4, Iommi had just split with his girlfriend at the time and was feeling down. He was playing the piano part, Osbourne started singing along, and Butler wrote song lyrics; then the bassist pulled out a Mellotron and played some chords underneath it. At Angelic, Butler says he was surprised the band was intending to do it. "Someone said, 'Let's do "Changes,"' and I said, 'Who's going to play the Mellotron?'" he recalls. "They said, 'You, since you played it on the record.' I still made mistakes on it – it's not exactly the same as the record – but I nearly got through it. We did only one take."
When the sessions were done, though, the band members didn't know how to leave off with one another. For a little over a year, when they'd bid each other farewell, they'd be looking forward to the next leg of the tour. "It was so weird saying goodbye after the sessions," Iommi says. "Nobody really knew what to say to each other. It was a bit embarrassing really. I think we just sort of said, 'All right, I'm going.'"
The guitarist says the three band members have been in touch via email and text since then ("Geezer doesn't like being on the phone," he says, "and Ozzy lasts about three second on the phone") but that they have each been busy with their individual projects. He likes the idea of doing a one-off gig with the other band members at some point – "but who knows," he says. He hasn't been working on anything of his own, since he's been so busy with preparing The End, and that he's "sort of open for anything, really."
Since the final show, Butler has moved houses, "so I've been bloody unpacking crap for the last six months," and he isn't in a rush to release any new solo music. Despite this, he says he has "about 120 riffs written down and I've just got to pick a guitarist and sort through them." He says he too would love to do a one-off Sabbath gig if the right opportunity came up. "If it were up to me, we'd still be touring now," he says. "It was because Tony's illness that we limited it to 81 dates. I would have gone on forever, if I was allowed to. If a one-off worked out, I'd be on board. Otherwise I'm happy to let things lie."
Osbourne, however, is plotting his own solo farewell tour. "They've retired, but I haven't," he says. "It's like I'm jumping off one boat onto another." That said, he hasn't decided yet if he'll make another solo album. "I've written a couple of songs, but I go, 'Do I want to go through with it?'" he says. "You don't sell that many records anymore. Nobody does." (He does report, however that he's enjoyed reuniting with guitarist Zakk Wylde, whom he compares to a "whirling dervish – he's so fucking fast.")
When the three of them look back on Sabbath's career, though, they do so with little regrets. "When I think of all the things we've done, whether good or bad, I think there's a reason for everything," Iommi says. "I think if you change anything, it wouldn't be what it is today. There's things you regret, like the legal stuff, and the drugs and everything, but without that we might not be what we are today."
"You can't regret anything, because we all live great lives," Butler says. "If we had been millionaires in 1971, we would have probably killed ourselves; we would have probably bought a million dollars' worth of heroin. So you have to think of it like that. The drugs were what they were. They helped us. It was like four blokes going to the pub, but instead of going to the pub and having a good laugh, we were in a big mansion having a laugh with a lot of dope and groupies. The only regrets I have would be financially in the early Seventies; I would have gotten a lawyer and an accountant. But that's fate."
"What I was really proud of was we were four guys from a place called Aston, Birmingham, and it opened the doors to the best fucking gig that anyone could ever have," Osbourne says. "And to boot, sitting here nearly 50 years later, we're looked at as one of the icons of our time. I have a problem getting my head around that. It sometimes seems like my time with Sabbath was longer than my time on my own. As I get older, time gets faster for some reason. The saddest thing was it didn't work out with Bill Ward. I would have loved that, but hey, it's done now."
That finality is something that's still registering with some of the band members. Iommi says he feels as though he's still on tour since he's been working on the concert film. And despite focusing on his solo career again, Osbourne says he's still parsing the feeling he got being back in his hometown. "I could remember sitting in a van going to London from Birmingham with the rest of the guys, and then after 49 years, back in Birmingham, with the band," he says. "What a fucking journey, man."
Butler says it took him about a month after he got home for it to sink in that the band had played a final show. "You think it's never going to come and suddenly it's there, and you've finished," he says. "It's just too much to take in at the time. During the gig, you're just thinking about if you're going to make a mistake or that your amps will blow up or something, and it's hard to realize it's going to be the last day of the gig. It wasn't until I got home, when all the hype was over, that I thought, 'Oh, yeah, that's it. That's the end.'"