Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)

Chapter 16. Black Sabbath records Black Sabbath

When we played at Henry’s Blues House we had music business people coming to see us. We went to London to play at the Speakeasy once for that reason as well; Chrysalis came down to check us out, but the place was empty and the gig was dismal. It was all to try and get a deal. We got turned down, but that wasn’t the end of the world. You’ve got to stick to what you believe in, just carry on and don’t change because you think that’s what people want. That’s how something new comes up. Doing what everybody else is doing is the easy way out; you’ve got to do your own thing.

Tony Hall came to Henry’s Blues House, liked what we were doing and wanted to sign us. He had been quite a well-known DJ originally and he now ran Tony Hall Enterprises, whatever that meant. We signed with that company, which in turn signed us to the Fontana label. I’m sure they did very well out of that deal. We only saw him on a few occasions afterwards. He turned up once at Top of the Pops, but I haven’t seen him since. Another figure from those early days was David Platz, who signed us to Essex Music. It was a crap deal but I’ve been told they all were back then. Anyway, he certainly made a few bob off us. On very rare occasions, we’d go and see him. Strange, he had a button that he’d push that opened a door to a secret room behind his desk. He managed to survive a long time. Probably thanks to that room. After getting a proper record company, it was time to record our first album. We received £100 each for our efforts, which to us was a lot of money, but of course we would gladly have done it for free. Having an album out there would mean that people could hear us. We recorded a couple of demos in the autumn of 1969, ‘The Rebel’ and ‘Song For Jim’. ‘The Rebel’ was a song that Norman Haines from Jim Simpson’s band had written, and Jim wanted us to do it. And I can’t even remember how ‘Song For Jim’ goes, but we named it after him as a bit of a joke. We first auditioned for Gus Dudgeon, already a well-known producer at the time, at the Trident Studios in London. We didn’t see eye to eye with him at all and he turned us down.

A couple of days later we had a gig in Workington and that’s where Ozzy announced our name change to the audience. It wasn’t a big deal, we didn’t have a celebration or anything; we just changed the name to Black Sabbath. And our first Black Sabbath gig was on 30 August 1969, but as far as I’m concerned the band has been together since 1968. I always forget about the fact that we were first called Earth; to me the four of us getting together is the only thing of importance.

By that time we already played ‘The Wizard’, ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘N.I.B.’ and ‘Warning’, basically the songs of what would become our first album. We didn’t want to play other people’s stuff any more. A twelve-bar blues in the middle of all our new songs just didn’t sound right any more anyway, because our own stuff was so different. Nevertheless, we did record ‘Evil Woman’, a cover of an American hit by The Crows. Jim Simpson wanted us to do that because he said: ‘We need something commercial.’

We reluctantly agreed to it, but things were changing our way already, because during that same session we also recorded our own song ‘The Wizard’. Simpson used these demos to get disc jockey John Peel interested in us. In November we played his show Top Gear, performing ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘N.I.B.’, ‘Behind The Wall Of Sleep’ and ‘Sleeping Village’. We were on national radio. Things started to move, things were happening!

We didn’t choose to record with producer Rodger Bain, he was chosen for us. We met up with him beforehand and we liked him; he seemed like a nice enough guy. He was as green as we were, and he hadn’t done much before. He was in his early twenties, just like us, maybe a bit older. Being the producer, Rodger was overseeing the whole thing. He was good to have around, but we didn’t really get a lot of advice from him. He maybe suggested a couple of things, but the songs were already fairly structured and sorted.

Our roadie, Luke, drove our gear to the Regent Sound studio off Tottenham Court Road in London on 16 October 1969, and put up the amps. The studio wasn’t much bigger than a small living room and we’re all in there playing away, with partitions between us and Bill. Ozzy was singing in a little booth at the same time as the band played. Everything was performed just like a live band. It was the most important thing we had ever done, so we were all pretty well on the case.

I had never been in a studio before and didn’t know anything about recording and where to put microphones or anything. By the same token, I think it must have been hard for Rodger Bain and engineer Tom Allom to come in and work with us just like that. Two guys who had never travelled with us, did not know what we were like, did not know what we sounded like, but came in and suddenly were adding their thing to it. The biggest problem we’ve always had is explaining to the people who recorded us how we have our sound set up. My guitar and Geezer’s bass have to very much agree with each other, to make the wall of sound. All of them just see a bass as a bass, dumm-dum-dumm, clean and neat. But Geezer’s sound is more crunchy, more raw, and he sustains stuff and he bends notes the same as the guitar, to make it fatter. Some of them would try to get him to take the distortion away, and it would be like tum-tum-tum.

‘Fucking leave it! It’s a part of our sound!’

It took a lot of convincing for people to understand that. They’d always separate the sounds as well. They’d hear the guitar on its own and go: ‘Oh, it’s so distorted!’

‘I know! But play it all together as a band and see what it sounds like!’

People couldn’t grasp that we were a band that sounded good together, no matter how an individual player sounded. Rodger Bain understood it to a point, which is why those early albums we did with him have a very plugged-in sound. It was basically a case of what you see is what you get: we just walked in, plugged in and played; thank you and good night. And that was it, there wasn’t much fiddling around with the sounds we had. The drums as well, they were just mic’d up and off we went, giving it that real, honest sound. And that was the sound that took off.

Everything was done very quickly. We thought, bloody hell, we’ve got a whole day to record these tracks, great, that’s fucking brilliant! Later I heard Led Zeppelin spent a week recording their first album, but they were more experienced than us. They had Jimmy Page who had recorded with The Yardbirds and God knows who else before that. He had been in and out of studios, but we certainly hadn’t, so we didn’t have a clue.

We did a track called ‘Warning’, with a long guitar solo. Because it was such a long song you had to capture it in one take, or else we’d run out of time. After the first one, Rodger said: ‘Okay, that’s it.’

‘Well, I wanted to try something else . . .’

‘That’s it!’

‘Can we do it just once more? I think I can get it better.’

Eventually Rodger said: ‘Okay, we’ll do another one.’

So we had another crack at it and that was it: take it or leave it.

That whole album was done exactly like that: play like you play at a gig. You play it once, you don’t have ten goes at it. As we played it in the studio then, ‘Warning’ was fifteen minutes or something ridiculous. Rodger and the engineer edited it down to about ten minutes. They cut a big section and plucked out a couple of smaller pieces in places I wouldn’t have edited. I was upset because I felt it originally had a more natural flow, but you have to have a certain length for a vinyl album and maybe a fifteen-minute piece was too much.

The funny thing is, after we put a song like that down on record it became the version we would play from then onwards. It gets accepted like that. So forty years later we’re still reproducing on stage what we happened to do in the studio on that particular day. When we recorded ‘Electric Funeral’, for instance, Bill would play it differently every bloody time. He didn’t know how many times to come in, and in certain parts he plays three instead of four and we kept the three. And to this day we still play it that way.

A lot of people think ‘N.I.B.’ stands for Nativity In Black, whatever that means. It’s a typically American thing; they always have to go: ‘Oh, it’s gotta be something satanic!’

We called Bill ‘Smelly’ and we also called him ‘Nib’, because with his beard his face looked like a pen nib. It just sounded humorous to us and when it came to the title of the track we said: ‘What shall we call it?’

‘Uh . . . Nib?’

It was just a joke.

I loved my white Fender Stratocaster, because I’d worked on it so much. I had it in bits and put it all back together again, I potted the pickups, filed the frets down on it and basically did everything to try and make it easier for me to play on. One fateful day I bought a Gibson SG as a backup guitar. Two guitars: it was getting a bit flash, really! In the studio, right after recording the first track of the day, ‘Wicked World’, the bloody pickup went on the Fender. I thought, oh God, I’m going to have to use the SG, which I never really played! I recorded the album with it and that was it, I just stuck to it. I actually swapped the Strat for a saxophone. I can’t believe I did that now. That was a classic guitar and it really had a different sound from the regular Strats because of all the work I did to it. Years later, Geezer saw it in the window of a second-hand shop and went back to buy it for me. But it had been sold and I’ve never seen it again.

It was a right-handed Gibson SG that I played upside down. Then I met this guy who said: ‘I’ve got a friend who is right-handed, and he plays a left-handed guitar upside down.’

I said: ‘You’re kidding!’

I met this guy, we swapped guitars and we were both happy. The Gibson SG had single-coil pickups which, because I used a treble booster, caused a horrendous racket: ‘Shghghghghghghggg!!!’

I then potted and encased the pickups and later on I put in different ones altogether. I was fiddling about with the guitar again, doing the stuff I had done to the Strat. That SG was very dear to me, but I don’t have it any more. It’s been put out to pasture at the Hard Rock Café. But the deal is, if I ever want it back, I can get it back.

We didn’t have the time to get involved with the final mix of the album, because we were off to tour Europe. There really wasn’t a lot to mix anyway; it was recorded on just four tracks, it didn’t have hundreds of drums on it or overdubs, so it was really very basic. Rodger Bain and Tom Allom did add the bells and the thunder and lightning at the beginning of Black Sabbath. One of them got some sound-effect tapes and said: ‘What about putting these on it?’

We went: ‘Oh yeah, that’s great!’

Because it is, it really sets the mood for that track.

We didn’t have anything to do with the cover art. The photo was taken at the Mapledurham Watermill. We weren’t there when it was taken, but we did meet the girl featured in the picture. She came to a gig once and introduced herself. I thought it was a good cover, really different. But inside the gatefold sleeve you have the inverted cross, which opened all sorts of cans of worms for us. We were suddenly satanic then.

But most of the excitement we felt at the time had nothing to do with that. We were just happy to have an album.