In 1978, toward the end of Ozzy Osbourne’s original stint as Black Sabbath’s main madman, the group posed for a promo photo. In it, the singer wore a T-shirt with a funky, homemade logo for something called “Blizzard of Oz.” “When I was in Black Sabbath, I wanted to do a solo album,” the singer recalls now. “I wanted to call the album Blizzard of Oz. … You know, The Wizard of Oz? Stroke it up with cocaine, and it becomes your coke name. So ‘The Wizard of Oz’ became ‘The Blizzard of Oz.’ It works.” He laughs. “When we were young, we were lunatics.”
A year after the Sabbath picture was taken, the band fired Osbourne, claiming his drug and alcohol use had gone too far. He was 31 and destitute. With the encouragement of his future wife Sharon Arden, who helped manage Black Sabbath with her father, Osbourne auditioned and hired a new group of musicians, including the flashy guitar prodigy Randy Rhoads, and set about making what would become a metal classic, his solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz. The singles “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley” were limber and ornate yet still heavy and gothic, and Ozzy sang with a renewed sense of urgency that was lacking on his last couple of Sabbath LPs. When the album came out in the U.K. on September 20th, 1980, it debuted at Number Seven; upon its release in the U.S. the following March, it shot up to Number 21.
Osbourne is recognizing the album’s significance and its 40th anniversary this week by reissuing it digitally with a number of live tracks recorded along the Blizzard of Ozz tour. Additionally, he’s rolling out several other Blizzard-related releases through the anniversary on Sunday, starting with a new animated video for “Crazy Train.”
The memories Osbourne has of the time surrounding Blizzard of Ozz are almost all positive. He’s not even bitter about his departure from Black Sabbath anymore. “I was done with Black Sabbath,” he says. “It needed to me to leave or one of us to go. We were tired of fighting everything and everyone; we were fighting management, record companies, all that side of it. It became depressing for me, and it showed in the music. When you start making music to pay your lawyers’ bills and fucking taxes, you know you’ve got a problem.”
His outlook changed almost immediately after bassist Dana Strum, who later garnered his own fame in the band Slaughter, encouraged Rhoads to audition for Osbourne. Since the early Seventies, the guitarist had been trying to get his band, Quiet Riot, off the ground. Years later, the band would break out with their cover of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” but at the time, fame seemed like a distant hope. They played the same club circuit as Van Halen, and Rhoads had honed his own unique, flamboyant approach to playing guitar, inspired as much by classical music as by the Small Faces or Dave Clark Five (two bands Quiet Riot covered during his tenure). But the band never had much of a chance of making it since the two records it released came out only in Japan.
Rhoads was eight years younger than the singer, but the two hit it off both personally and musically. “I remember when we did ‘Goodbye to Romance,’ he was living in my house,” Osbourne recalls, referring to the Blizzard ballad on which he bid farewell to his Sabbath days. “Randy said to me, ‘What’s that melody you keep walking around with? Is it a song I know?’ I said, ‘No. It’s nothing. It’s a tune I have in my head.’ And he goes, ‘Maybe you should do it in this key.’ That was the first time anyone in my whole career had done that, you know, ‘This would be better if you sang it in this key.’ With Sabbath, they’d just go, ‘OK, you’ve got the riff. You need to put something to it now.'”
With Rhoads on board, Osbourne soon brought in Bob Daisley, who had played bass in Rainbow and ended up also writing most of the lyrics for Blizzard of Ozz, and, after a long auditioning process, drummer Lee Kerslake, who had spent much of the Seventies in Uriah Heep. The four of them clicked instantly. “Before we went to Ridge Farm Studio [about an hour south of London] to record, I remember we were writing in Monmouthshire [Wales],” Osbourne says. “We got Lee Kerslake literally just before we went in the studio, and it was just, like, four guys having a blast with each other. We were all getting fucked up on coke and booze, though Randy wasn’t. Randy never did much drugs. He smoked cigarettes; he didn’t drink much.”
Overall, Osbourne remembers the joy he felt surrounding Blizzard of Ozz, mostly because he felt free to do something different. “In any band I’ve ever been in, it’s always the early years where you have the most fun,” he says. “It’s when you get success and the money comes in, everybody goes fucking mad: ‘I wrote this. You wrote that. I set that up.'” With Blizzard, the sessions were lighthearted, and Osbourne liked being in charge. “I was the captain of my own ship, and it was fun,” he says. “I didn’t have to think, ‘He won’t like that if I do this.’ I just did what I wanted. And when I was getting out of order, Sharon would be the one to tell me.”
The ear candy hidden throughout the album shows just how free Ozzy and his band felt: the way “I Don’t Know” starts with the sound of a gong played in reverse; the Beatles-esque echo of the words “up-up-up” at the end of “No Bone Movies”; the lewd slang Osbourne shouted during the solo of “Suicide Solution” that lawyers would later misinterpret as a call for people to kill themselves (a lawsuit alleging the track inspired one fan’s death was thrown out of court); the rattle that introduces “Crazy Train”; and the inexplicable word “egg,” spoken by someone who sounds like a deranged Munchkin, during that song’s fadeout. “I can’t remember the guy’s name, but some guy went, ‘It was an egg,'” Osbourne remembers. “It was something like, ‘Just speak on the mic.’ ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘Bacon, eggs.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘It was an eeeggg.’ And I just turned the fucking volume up. It was just free and good fun.”
Coming off a stint with a high-profile band, Osbourne says he felt less pressure. “After doing it once in Black Sabbath, the thing is, that album could have been shit and, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,'” he says.
The band set out on its first tour dates in early September, when they played a couple of warmup gigs under the name “The Law” in the north of England before playing a proper “Ozzy Osbourne” gig at Glasgow’s Apollo Theatre. “I was nervous because it was Scotland,” he says bluntly. “If you go over well in Scotland, you’ve got a good band. They tend to fucking let you know if they don’t like it.”
But bootleg audio of the show demonstrates that his and his bandmates’ nerves worked in their favor. The ominous sounds of classical composer Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” introduce the concert, until the crowd takes over with a soccer chant of “Ozzy,” clap-clap-clap “Ozzy,” clap-clap-clap, and he comes out and hollers at them. The group kicks into “I Don’t Know,” and Osbourne sounds like a man reborn, bellowing, “I want to see your fucking hands, come on,” between the verses. Later, when they play “Crazy Train,” Rhoads starts the tune with an impromptu, jaw-dropping guitar solo that flows seamlessly into the song’s locomotive-chugging intro riff.
“Oh, my Lord, it was just incredible,” remembers Sharon of the night. “I had only seen them in rehearsals and the two gigs they did in clubs before, but to see them in a great, old theater and all of Ozzy’s fans there, it was just a very exciting, magical time.”
Blizzard of Ozz turned out to be such a hit that just a few months later, Osbourne’s label sent the group back to the studio to make a follow-up album. Diary of a Madman, released in the fall of ’81, kept the pace of Blizzard of Ozz, but the arrangements for tracks like “Over the Mountain,” “Diary of a Madman,” and “Flying High Again” were more intricate. The band had found its groove, and the album charted higher in the U.S. than Blizzard.
It would be the last time, however, that Rhoads would cut an album with Osbourne. Tragedy struck when the guitarist died in a freak plane accident while on an off date of the Diary tour in March 1982. Osbourne has never gotten over that day, and he still holds Rhoads in the highest regard. “Randy was a phenomenal guitar player,” he says. But he pushed forward and continued the Diary tour first with the help of guitarist Bernie Tormé and, later, Night Ranger’s Brad Gillis. It was a difficult period for the singer, as his appearance on Late Night With David Letterman just a few days after Rhoads’ death shows, but Osbourne mustered all he could to continue.
The music that Osbourne wrote with Rhoads in just a couple of years set the stage for one of rock’s great comeback stories, including several multiplatinum albums and success on reality television. The legacies of both Rhoads and the Blizzard album have echoed throughout Osbourne’s music career. Half of the record’s songs have become set-list staples for Osbourne in the decades since it came out. These days, Osbourne looks back fondly on the earliest days of his solo career, when he and his band were making Blizzard and he felt like he was ready to take on the world again.
“We had a blast,” Osbourne says. “It was a long time ago now though. That was a fast 40 years. I’ve never seen 40 years go by so quick.”