“One of the greatest things I have in my heart is that Black Sabbath were not a band created by some business mogul in London, like a fucking ditz,” the pioneering heavy-metal group’s excitable frontman Ozzy Osbourne tells Rolling Stone emphatically. “It was, ‘I know a singer, I know a guitar player.’ We all came from a three-mile radius and got together and we had a go. And here we are, fucking nearly 50 years up the road, and we’re still relevant today.”
As the group winds down the first leg of its farewell tour – dubbed “The End,” full stop – the band members haven’t lost sight of how they started. In a previous Rolling Stone interview this year, the singer looked back on Sabbath’s U.S. tour and remembered thinking, “This will be fun for a few years, then it’s back to the fucking factory.” That might have been the case had Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward not slugged it out for a couple of years before the 1970 release of their self-titled debut.
Black Sabbath formed in 1968 in Birmingham, England, a city Iommi has since called “depressing,” after a short-lived jazzy, blues-rock band called Mythology broke up, making the guitarist and Ward free agents. After answering a music shop’s oddly worded ad – “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” – the guitarist and drummer met two musicians from another local group, Rare Breed: Osbourne and then-guitarist Butler.
“Rare Breed was just … we were a bit loony,” Butler says. “It was psychedelic stuff. We all used to go on with painted faces and do this stupid psychedelic show. We never used to get asked back to anywhere that we played, so I think we were probably really crap. But Rare Breed were really the only band that was doing that around Birmingham. Everybody else was doing soul and pop music, and we’d started doing the more bluesy stuff and copying bands like Art and Tomorrow.”
When the Rare Breed members met Mythology’s survivors, it turned out that “Ozzy Zig’s” three-mile radius was smaller than he’d even expected then. “I realized I went to school with Tony,” Osbourne says. Butler remembers the initial meeting as being casual. “We just got to talking one day about forming a band and that’s how it started,” he says.
Originally, the group called itself the Polka Tulk Blues Band, named after the cheap brand of talcum powder Ozzy’s mother used. The lineup at the onset included two other members, Iommi’s pal Alan Clark on saxophone and Osbourne’s friend Jimmy Phillips on bottleneck slide guitar – and because there were two guitarists, Butler switched to bass – but it didn’t last long.
Within a couple of months of touring in the north of the United Kingdom, both of the additional members were out of the band. Iommi thought Phillips messed around too much in rehearsal and that if they had a sax player they ought to have a full brass section also, so they were both asked to leave. Then there was the name. “It’s crap,” Osbourne remembers Iommi telling him, in his book I Am Ozzy. “Every time I hear it, all I can picture is you, with your trousers ’round your ankles, taking a fucking dump.” So in September 1968, drummer Ward suggested another name: Earth.