"He was the band, really. We were all a part of the band, but he was the most irreplaceable one out of all of us."
—Ozzy Osbourne laying well-deserved praise on guitar god/God, Tony Iommi during episode #33 of Rick Rubin's Broken Record podcast (2020).
There is perhaps no other lineup in heavy metal history greater than the original configuration of Black Sabbath. When the worlds of Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward collided, the impact kicked musical convention in the face, welcoming in February of 1970 what most consider to be the birth of heavy metal itself with the release of their eponymous masterpiece, Black Sabbath. Were there other bands around the world at the same time making Sabbath-y sounds? Sure. But there was not, and never will be anything quite like Black Sabbath. This is a quantifiable fact which remains true some 52-years after the unholy tetrad of metal came to be in 1969. So for someone, or in this case, not just anyone but Ozzy himself to classify Iommi's role in Sabbath as "irreplaceable" is a pretty heavy statement.
When it comes to the relationship between the OG Sabbath members, even though they were no longer performing together, they would continue to intersect musically during the 1990s, including when Iommi, Butler, and Ozzy got together to play Sabbath jams at Ozzfest in 1997. Of course, fans went full-metal mental and in December, the timekeeping beast that is Bill Ward would join his former bandmates, recording two live shows in their native Birmingham. Things were looking like they were going full-speed ahead with Sabbath once more until Bill Ward suffered a heart attack, only to re-join the band in 1999 because, as it turns out, Bill Ward is also a bit of an Iron Man. The members would take a break, which brings us to Tony Iommi's first solo album, Iommi, for which he would once again engage the services of Ozzy and Bill Ward. And that's just the beginning of the long guest list on Iommi, released 21 years ago on this day, October 17th, 2000. Congratulations, Iommi! You are now able to legally buy a pint in any pub in the world.
Of course, Iommi is no stranger to jamming with high-profile musicians. In 1994 he and the late Eddie Van Halen (who credited Iommi with "taking rock and roll and turning it into heavy metal"), got together at Ed's request, and unsuccessfully tried to record music for the Black Sabbath album Cross Purposes. Rap icon/Body Count vocalist Ice-T (who sampled Sabbath in 1987 on "Rhyme Pays"), got together with Iommi and Sabbath by adding his signature vocals to "The Illusion of Power," found on 1995's Forbidden. But not everybody that wanted to play with Iommi made the cut and, in the case of a song Iommi recorded with Kid Rock for Iommi, perhaps that's for the best. The same kind of goes for Missouri-born, Detroit-based rapper Eminem, who allegedly asked to be a part of Iommi – a request Iommi passed on.
There are so many collaborators on Iommi it might make you think the record itself is maybe a little disjointed, but it isn't. The idea of Billy Idol gloomily crooning alongside Iommi's doomy riffs about "not wanting to live forever," his desire to "wake the dead" (on the last track on Iommi, "Into the Night"), might make your head explode a little at first. But you can be assured, the metal marriage of Idol and Iommi is pretty much flawless. As is Iommi from start to finish. It met – if not exceeded – fans' expectations of Iommi's first solo outing, after being in the business for the majority of his life. In getting back to the diversity of his cohorts on Iommi, he really went all out and chose a somewhat varied group of performers. As with Billy Idol, some may come as a surprise, some perhaps not. For the most part, and to the delight of Sabbath fans, Iommi is a very Sabbath-friendly record with a different vocal performance on every song, competing with the Riff Lord himself. When it comes to Iommi, he is in top form, making it nearly impossible for his many metal collaborators to sound anything but right in step with his instantly identifiable sound. Here's a bit from Iommi on the experience of assembling his musical army for the release:
“We had a list of other people who came. It was good fun, it was good to do, I wanted something a bit different from what I’ve done. Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) was good to work with, it’s nice to work with other people and see how they worked as well."
So in honor of Iommi turning 21, let's roll through some of the backstories concerning Iommi and listen to some of the heavy cuts from the record featuring Phil Anselmo, Iommi's long-time friend, Brian May of Queen, Dave Grohl, and the late Peter Steele of Type O Negative. Since the word heavy has come up several times already (as it should when discussing Tony Iommi), let's start with Phil Anselmo.
Phil Anselmo/Matt Cameron: "Time is Mine"
Phil Anselmo co-wrote and recorded three tracks for Iommi, but only one made the final cut, "Time is Mine." According to Anselmo, a huge fan of Sabbath composed three songs for Iommi in the three days. One of the songs that didn't make it on Iommi was allegedly titled "The Day That Never Comes," which preceded Metallica's jam of the same name (and lead single) found on their 2008 album Death Magnetic. The other song penned and sung by Anselmo that didn't make the cut was "Inversion of the Saviours." But, as Phil has said in the past, the songs, which made their way to the Internet, are often titled incorrectly. Pantera and Anselmo have a long history when it comes to covering songs from Sabbath's catalog, including a very laid-back version of "Planet Caravan" which was released as the second single off of 1994's Far Beyond Driven. It was also slated to be a part of the Sabbath compilation Nativity in Black II but was blocked by record company disputes. Instead, Pantera's cover of "Electric Funeral" took its place. When reflecting on Pantera's cover of "Planet Caravan" Anselmo muses about Dimebag Darrell's masterful "interpretation" of Iommi's sound, calling Pantera's cover "one of his favorite songs of all time." Anselmo has also praised Tony Iommi, referring to him affectionately as one of the "most genuinely awesome sweethearts in the music business." Drummer Matt Cameron, who has played in some of Seattle's greatest bands (Temple of the Dog, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, and Pearl Jam) provides the heartbeat for "Time is Mine."
'Time is Mine.'
Peter Steele (Type O Negative): "Just Say No To Love"
First of all, when Peter Steele's contribution to Iommi, "Just Say No To Love" starts in, it sounds like a decadent goth anthem. Until of course Iommi kicks things into gear, and Steele's glorious baritone pounds along with him. And, like the Billy Idol's closer (where he encourages listeners to "suck his dick,") it has a little fun, lyrically, with Steele complaining about a dead girlfriend who dumped him for Tony Iommi. Which, with all due respect to Steele, seems fair. Also, if there is in fact a story behind that lyric, someone needs to spill the details. Like Pantera, Type O Negative has covered Sabbath in the past, such as when they put their own spin on Sab's 1970's single "Black Sabbath" for the first Nativity in Black compilation. Later in 1996, Steele and Type O reworked "Black Sabbath" to be sung from Satan's perspective. How positively evil. Their sexy version of "Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath (From the Satanic Perspective)", can be found on the B-side for the single "My Girlfriend's Girlfriend." Were Steele and Type O big fans of Black Sabbath? Yep. And they credit Sabbath (along with the Beatles) as their two primary inspirations/influences. On a site that appears to still be maintained by Steel's family, Peter Steele Rocks, there is a post describing Steele's experience meeting one of his idols, his love of Sabbath, and how he came up with the idea for "Just Say No To Love":
"I felt like a big kid. To be writing music with him (Iommi), I was awestruck. I was stuttering. I've loved Sabbath since I was 15. I like that slow, heavy sound. Grinding, churning stuff. Ozzy (Osbourne) sounded like the ultimate outcast and I didn't fit in too well in high school with the nerds, the jocks, or the cool jeans."
Even though I've never personally heard the expression "cool jeans" used in relation to anything but actual cool jeans, it's pretty clear what Peter was talking about here, and there are more than a lot of us that get it. As far as the events that led Steele to pen "Just Say No To Love," they are pretty simple and understandable. According to Peter Steele Rocks, Peter was so nervous about meeting Iommi in the studio he headed to the bathroom to "compose" himself. While in the stall he spied the classic anti-drug slogan "Just Say No To Drugs," and with Steele's strength as a songwriter became track eight on Iommi.
'Just Say No To Love.'
Dave Grohl/Brian May: "Goodbye Lament"
As "Goodbye Lament" starts to slip into our ears, it seems to take a much different musical direction than one might expect. A distinctly industrial trajectory that might have been conceived by Trent Reznor. There's even a video for the song, slightly borrowing from Reznor's infamous music video playbook, featuring footage from Blair Witch II: Book of Shadows, as the song is a part of the soundtrack that may or may not be official. In the case of "Goodbye Lament," we have Dave Grohl keeping time and providing the vocals, with both Brian May and Iommi sharing guitar duties. So does Dave Grohl have a favorite Black Sabbath album? Yes, according to Tony Iommi that album is Sabbath's second with Ronnie James Dio, Mob Rules (1981).
Ozzy Osbourne/Bill Ward: "Who's Fooling Who"
You can't write anything about Iommi without talking about the first song Ozzy and Bill Ward wrote with Iommi since 1978. According to my calculator that's 22 human years, but you'd never know, as "Who's Fooling Who" is a quintessential Sabbath jam, from the first strike of the doomy church bell to Ozzy's droning vocals accompanied once again by Iommi, with Ward keeping the heart of Sabbath beating for all six-plus minutes. And since we're talking about Tony Iommi, his solo (starting at 3:07) for "Who's Fooling Who" would stop a speeding freight train on its tracks, as does his solo at the jam's combustible conclusion. The song also serves to partly prelude what would be coming from Black Sabbath, with the release of 13 (2013), the band's first studio album in eighteen years. Not-so-fun fact! Ozzy notoriously confessed to a major lapse in his sobriety during the recording of 13, though most fans seem to agree his performance on 13 was pretty great. Some have even gone so far as to credit Ozzy's fall off the wagon as a reason 13 was such a success. Coincidentally, Ozzy was also very not sober in 2000, so there's that to mull over. Lastly, on bass is Laurence Cottle, a long-time collaborator of Iommi and Sabbath. Cottle's bass can also be heard on several other Iommi tracks, including “Time is Mine.”
Billy Corgan/Kenny Aronoff: "Black Oblivion"
First off, horns up for Billy Corgan for having the balls to write an eight-plus minute sludgy, slow-burn jam for Tony Iommi. Unlike the rest of the guest vocalists on Iommi, Corgan wrote the song without the help of all-star producer/songwriter Bob Marlette, who co-wrote all of the other songs on the album. In addition to providing the vocals for "Black Oblivion," Corgan played bass and guitar opposite Iommi who, by Billy's own admission, is the one artist he has "ripped off more" than anyone else. Here's Corgan recalling his first exposure to Black Sabbath thanks to his metal-loving Uncle:
“The first thing I ever hear from Black Sabbath is fucking ‘Sweet Leaf.' There’s that guitar, which I’m still trying to get, right? And then here comes the Ozzy voice, the doubled fucking Ozzy voice. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is the greatest thing I’ve ever fucking heard in my life. And I’m eight.”
If Corgan's story about discovering Sabbath at eight sounds familiar, it should, because there's a lot of us out there with a similar one and we’re all better for it. Joining Iommi and Corgan behind the drum kit we have legendary session player Kenny Arnoff–a man who has worked with everyone, including The Rolling Stones. Arnoff's work on "Black Oblivion" is as heart-pounding as it is seamless. As far as Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins go, they too have performed live covers of Black Sabbath jams in the past.
After 21 years it’s safe to say Iommi has aged very well, much like the guitar god. If you happen to have a copy of Iommi in your collection, consider yourself very lucky as CDs of the album, depending on condition, can sell for as much as $75. Most fans would also agree it’s high time for this gem to get a proper reissue. If it has been a while since you gave Iommi a spin, give it another listen. Loudly.