It wasn’t until Black Sabbath started work on their ninth album, Heaven and Hell, in 1979 that bassist Geezer Butler was able to get an objective perspective on his band’s capabilities. The group had recently split with founding vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and begun working in earnest with a new vocalist, Ronnie James Dio. But Butler soon realized he couldn’t stay committed to the band at that time. “I had loads of problems with my divorce, and I had to go back to England,” he recalls. “I told the guys, ‘It’s not the music or anything like that — I’m still into it — but I’ve just got to go and sort myself out.'” He got his life back in order in just a few months and decided he wanted back in, so he rejoined the band in Los Angeles and listened in awe to a handful of songs his bandmates had worked up with Dio.
“I heard ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Die Young,’ and I thought they were absolutely incredible,” he says now. “So just hearing them for the first time as an outsider would hear them, I was just blown away with them. I thought they were great.”
New reissues of Heaven and Hell and its 1981 follow-up, Mob Rules, offer fresh perspectives on a turning point in the band’s career. With Dio behind the mic, the musicians explored dramatic new sonic territories on sprawling epics about “kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams” (“Heaven and Hell”) and charging anthems that railed against the existential evil lurking in twilight (“Turn Up the Night”). They sounded reborn.
The reissues’ bonus material shows how the tracks evolved into stunning shows of force onstage; the jaw-dropping, previously unreleased rendition of “Heaven and Hell” premiering here, which was recorded at a 1982 Portland, Oregon, concert on the Mob Rules tour, lasts nearly 10 minutes. Dio coaches the audience on how to sing along with the chorus and the band builds the song instrument by instrument into a monolith of sound that culminates with Tony Iommi’s explosive guitar solo. “That song was never the same twice,” Butler muses. In addition to the Portland show, the reissues include all of the original single versions and B sides, more live recordings, and a remix of “The Mob Rules.” (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for both reissues.)
Here, the bassist and guitarist reflect on how they started over at a crucial time in the band’s career and how Dio helped them find a new outlook on their music.
How familiar were you with Ronnie James Dio before you worked with him?
Tony Iommi: I’d heard Ronnie when Ritchie [Blackmore] put out the first Rainbow album [after he left Deep Purple]. Obviously, you’d say, “I wonder what Ritchie’s band’s like.” I liked the album, and of course, I loved Ronnie’s voice, not thinking for a minute we’d ever end up together. He’s always had a real strong, powerful voice.
Geezer Butler: I didn’t know anything about him. I’d heard only a couple of Rainbow songs. When he started working with us, he was so enthusiastic, compared with the way Ozzy was at the time. He was incredible. He really brought life back to band.
How far along with writing were you when Ronnie came into the band?
Iommi: We rented a house in Bel-Air originally to write an album with Ozz, and of course that didn’t happen because it just wasn’t working. I came up with a few riffs. He sang a vocal on “Children of the Sea,” but that was the only full version we had of something from us. He wasn’t into it anymore. He was ready to leave anyway, I think. I used to have to go to the record company, and they’d say, “How’s the album coming?” “Great, great.” We hadn’t done anything. When Ronnie came in, we just wanted a fresh start.
How did drummer Bill Ward come to be the one who asked Ozzy to leave?
Iommi: He kind of took it upon himself. He didn’t tell any of us he was doing it. The three of us were going to talk to Ozzy together, and Bill decided to do it by himself.
Butler: Bill likes to be the business one in the band. In fact, before Ozzy, he told me that I was fired. When I was back in England, he came round to the house one day. He says, “We’ve had a meeting with the rest of the guys, and you’re fired.” “Oh, thanks.” And then he left. I asked Tony and Ozzy about it, and they said they didn’t know what I was on about. So I think Bill definitely liked to be the businessperson in the band, so he took it upon himself to tell Ozzy.
Were you upset he did that?
Iommi: No, because it had to be done anyway.
Butler: I couldn’t do it because I was crying my head off, saying, “Oh, no. We can’t let him go.”
How did everyone you were working with take to having Ronnie in the group?
Iommi: [Manager] Don Arden was looking after us at that point. He wasn’t interested in having Ronnie. He wanted Ozzy. And I said to Don, “Ozzy’s not into it anymore. He doesn’t want to do it anymore. He’s sort of burnt out.” And Don’s going, “I’ll get him back. Don’t worry about that.” I said, “No, you can’t just make somebody do it.” Don’s attitude was, “We’ll make him do it,” and Ozzy … he just needed that break.
Once you started working with Ronnie, how did you know you wanted to continue as Black Sabbath and not with a new name?
Butler: Warner Brothers had already paid for the house [we were staying in] and rehearsals, and everything like that. And it was basically, “It’s got to be a Sabbath album.” They’d put the money in; they’d built this name up. “You’re not going to start from scratch.” So we just went along with it.
After you decided to carry on, how did you find your focus?
Iommi: We decided we had to move from L.A. We were too much in the middle of it all, and we just wanted to get away, and get on with what we’re doing, so that’s when we went to Miami. We went to Barry Gibb’s house, and we just stayed there for however long it was.
Why do you think it worked out so well?
Butler: I think definitely it probably wouldn’t have worked with anybody apart from Ronnie because of how enthusiastic he was and how he got into the music straight away. And his voice is incredible anyway.
Black Sabbath’s initial period with Ronnie lasted only a few years. He and drummer Vinny Appice left the group in 1982 to start Dio. Why did things go wrong?
Butler: Our old manager, Patrick Meehan, had put out Live at Last [in 1980] with the original lineup. It was recorded four or five years earlier. We turned it down at the time. We said, “It’s terrible.” So when Live at Last came out, we were really pissed off, because it was right at the time when the band with Ronnie was hitting its peak, and he had been accepted, and then he puts out a live album of the original lineup, just to throw a spanner in the works. That’s why we decided to do Live Evil [a live album with Dio on vocals], to do something that we were in charge of, and it turned out to be a disaster.
Why was that?
Butler: By the time we came to mix it, me and Tony would go in in the daytime and fix bits, and make sure everything was working. And then apparently Ronnie would go in after that and change it to what he thought it was going to sound like. And me and Tony go in the next day and go, “What the hell’s going on? It didn’t sound anything like it did yesterday.” And the engineer eventually said that Ronnie kept coming in and changing everything. And we asked Ronnie about it. He denied it. But that was the last straw in the band. We’d gone our separate ways anyway by then. It was, like, me and Tony against Ronnie and Vinny. Things started souring.
Why had things started to sour?
Butler: Well, Ronnie was saying that it was because of him that we revived Sabbath, and that he wanted equal share in past royalties. And it just pissed us off. There were just a lot of arguments about it. And Ronnie says, “OK, I’m going to do a solo album.” And that was it. It didn’t seem he was into it anymore.
Obviously, you worked out your differences, because you reunited with him in 1990 and again in 2006 for the Heaven and Hell band.
Butler: Well the Heaven and Hell, Devil You Know album, that was great. We’d all grown up by then, and all had our successes on our own. We’d put all that behind us.
What was your relationship like with Ronnie in his later years?
Butler: We used to argue like husband and wife. We would really go at it. And it’s hard to find people like that that you can really, really slag, and then the next day go and have a drink with them. It’s like being back in my family again, like the Irish family. Ronnie was totally outspoken. You always knew where you were with him, that’s for sure. And that we used to argue and stuff, and then make up and be best friends. And we were best friends when he passed away. I still go to his grave every year.
What strikes you when you think back on Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules now?
Butler: I think they’re really good. I really do think most of them have stood up to what’s coming out even now.
Iommi: I really was proud of those first two albums, certainly when we’d done Heaven and Hell. It was a new thing for us — and a daring thing, in some ways — to change your singer. It’s easy to fall by the wayside, and we didn’t because we believed in what we were doing. So those albums mean a lot to me.