Gary James' Interview With Tony Iommi of
They were hated by rock critics, and ignored by radio. Still, they managed to sell millions of records, and ruled the 1970's. For fans and musicians alike, the term "heavy metal" can be defined in two words: "Black Sabbath."
"Cross Purposes" is Black Sabbath's latest release. (1994) The group sounds as good as ever.
As the group begins their world tour, we talked with Black Sabbath's guitarist, Mr. Tony Iommi.
Q - Tony, how long has it been since the group put something out?
A - The last one we put out was with Dio. That was a couple of years ago.
Q - What have you been doing since then?
A - Well, we toured on that album. We toured the states, about 18 months ago. Since that time I got together with Geezer (Butler - Sabbath bassist) and we started writing an album with Tony Martin as well. Then we started auditioning drummers, and then I started designing my own amplifier and guitar as well. So, it's been pretty busy really.
Q - You're coming out with your own line of guitars and amplifiers?
A - Yeah.
Q - Who's gonna distribute that?
A - The amplifiers are done by a company in England called Laney's, whom I originally started out with on the first albums we did. They started off much the same way as us 25 years ago. We were like the first ones to use their amps then. We used to use them on tours. I thought it was a good idea to get together with them and re-develop a more up-to-date amplifier of what I know that I need now. Through the years of working with different amps, I knew exactly what I wanted. So, I got together with their technicians and I think we've come up with a really good amplifier.
Q - Who's putting out the guitar?
A - It's a company in England called Patrick Aggie. I went through the factory. It's a relatively new company. It's only been going about two years, but they make some good instruments. I was quite impressed with the way they work and the quality of workmanship that comes from them. So I went to London and we started working on this guitar.
Q - How did this present line-up of Sabbath come together, auditions or referral?
A - It's both really. It can work both ways. Whatever way it is, you have to try them. You might get the best possible person from one line-up and not right from another. With Bobby, he's really a good player. We auditioned a lot of drummers in England, some very well-known drummers as well. But, they just weren't right for what we wanted. Bobby sort of fitted the bill perfectly.
Q - I think most people know the name "Black Sabbath," and know many of your hit songs. But as a guitar player, you really haven't received much recognition. Why do you suppose that is?
A - Probably because I've been more a part of the band then an actual individual. As you say that now, it's funny because there's a lot more people in the last couple of years that have said much more about me. I'm not blowing my own trumpet here, but yeah, it's spoken about a lot more. But I don't care. I don't mind. If I'd actually done a Tony Iommi album, which I was intending on doing, then maybe more people would know me as that.
Q - You had an accident early on that took the tops of two fingers off on your left hand. You now wear caps on those two fingers. Do you think that has helped define your style of playing?
A - It's quite possible. I'm sure it has 'cause I had to develop a different technique. I made the caps myself as well, the original ones. At that time I couldn't get anyone to make me anything. They just didn't want to know, so I made them myself. I developed the technique 'cause I had to play certain chords to something.
Q - You played the Star Club in Germany when you were starting off. The Beatles played there. They played eight hours a night, six-seven days a week. What was your schedule like?
A - We did the same actually.
Q - What kind of music were you doing?
A - We were doing blues. Then we started doing the early sort of Sabbath stuff, before it was recorded really. We'd sort of jam. We'd do all sorts of stuff. We actually did build up a good following there at the Star Club.
Q - As a matter of fact, according to Chris Welch, the author of Black Sabbath, you played there five times and set a house attendance record. Are you familiar with that book?
A - Yeah. It's a bit one-sided actually.
Q - Did you play eight hours a night?
A - We used to play seven spots a night, which is a lot of time. It was 45 minutes each spot, then you have a quarter of an hour break. It's a lot of work.
Q - You shared the bill with The Doors in Montreux, Switzerland. Did you meet Jim Morrison?
A - You know, I can't remember. We've met 99.9 percent of the people in this business now, the old people and I just don't remember. I was probably too stoned to remember anyway, in those days.
Q - You and a friend also started a booking agency and were representing Judas Priest. Do you still have that agency?
A - No, not now. It folded up many years ago. It was myself and the guy from Ten Years After (Ric Lee). Alvin (Lee) wanted to get involved for awhile, but we didn't have enough time to stay with the agency, 'cause we were both out working on tours. When you're away you can't see what goes on. We built up a few acts there. I supplied equipment and Ric gave them stuff.
Q - Let's go back to that Chris Welch book on Sabbath. He quotes you as saying, "We were never really into Black Magic, but we were the first of the really committed, loud and heavy bands." So where did this Black Magic stuff come from?
A - Wherever Chris Welch has got his things from, it's not all correct. He's picked certain things up from different interviews, or picked things up from different people. He's not got a direct quote from me. That book was done unofficially from us quite honestly. Yes, we had an interest in Black Magic in the early days. We had an interest as much as you'd have in going to see a new film. But, as far as anything any further, practicing it onstage, no we didn't.
Q - Geezer told the press in 1977 that "We're all alcoholics," and Ozzy said, "We've all had nervous breakdowns. Is that true?
A - It probably was right, yeah.
Q - Your ex-manager, Jim Simpson said that you came from a better family than the other guys in Sabbath, and that your family supported you and bought you new guitars when you wanted them. Is that true?
A - Well, that's actually b.s. Jim Simpson and myself didn't get along. My family was the same as everybody else's. Maybe they signed for a guitar for me, which is the same as Ozzy's folks signed for a sound system for him. We certainly weren't from a good area that's for sure.
Q - You were from Birmingham, England?
A - Yeah, and it was very rough. Where we lived was probably equivalent to the Bronx.
Q - Because you did not get along with Jim Simpson, would that be why he said you were a very limited guitar player and musically speaking, not that good a guitar player?
A - I didn't get on with him, no. I didn't like Jim Simpson very much. You see, I don't think anybody else liked him either, it was just me that would tell him (laughs). I was the spokesman.
Q - Ozzy once criticized you for trying to make the band more sophisticated by bringing in string players on a session. Do you remember that session?
A - Yeah, I do. I think what Black Sabbath was all about was expanding. We just didn't stay in one bag. Ozzy realizes that now of course. He's done it himself now. I also brought in the complete London Choir on one as well, for one instrumental tune I'd done. That's what we were about. We were about expanding and trying things. Everybody liked it in the end, so none of the others were complaining. They thought it was a great idea. I mean, I just didn't do it on my own power. I said to everybody, 'What about this?' and they'd say, 'Oh yeah, let's try it.'
Q - What kind of places are you performing in these days?
A - All sorts of places, quite honestly.
Q - Three thousand seaters?
A - Yeah, it's about three to five, six thousand.
Q - Do you ever play clubs?
A - As a matter of fact, the first two venues that were not on the list were clubs. It was really good. I liked it. I had a really good time. It was no stress and pressure. It really was enjoyable.
Q - Of course, you've been doing it so long, you've got it down.
A - Well, hopefully, but you can still learn a lot more. I've enjoyed doing those. Some of those big places you can play at, it becomes more difficult, in some cases, because you can't see half the people you're playing to. The first two clubs were probably about 1,500 to 2,000 I suppose, but they were really good. You can't fool yourself in this day and age. We couldn't go into a 20,000 seater over here. It's stupid, the way things are at the moment. There's not many who can do that sort of thing. I actually enjoy playing onstage. If there's 3,000 or 20,000, as long as it's not 3,000 in a 20,000 seater. Then, it looks horrible. If you're playing a 3,000 seat place, it's a great atmosphere. You can actually bloody talk to people as well. (laughs)
Q - Where is this current tour of your taking you?
A - We do about another four weeks here in the states and then we go straight to Japan.
Q - I bet you've got a good market in Japan.
A - Yeah. Japan is good for us. Very good. Then, from Japan we come back to England. Then from England we do a real extensive tour of Europe. We doing, I think, about 20 dates in Germany alone. We're extremely popular in Europe.
Q - You're a busy guy.
A - Well yes, you could say that. For the next few months I'll certainly be busy. Then after that, who knows? We might come back to do some summer dates or another album. You just don't know.