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

Chapter 66. Headless but happy

After eighteen years our deal with Vertigo in England and Europe ended, and the one in America with Warner Bros as well. It’s horrible to be dropped, but that’s the way it goes I suppose. Soon after, I met Miles Copeland who owned I.R.S. Records. He came to my house and said: ‘You know how to write albums, you know what people want. You do it and I’m fine with it.’

I thought that was great, so we went ahead and signed with I.R.S.

Most of 1988 I was busy sorting out a lot of rubbish from my past. When Phil, Ernest and Ralph got involved there was a mountain of shit to go through. It seemed like we were in never-ending meetings about everything, trying to clear the path before we could start afresh. Of course there were stumbling blocks along the way.

There was a guy who lived near me, a wrestler, who wanted to put a charity thing on to raise money for Children In Need. He asked me: ‘Could we put a gig on?’

I said: ‘Yes, we can play there, but I don’t want it announced as a Black Sabbath thing.’

It was just a one-off with me, Geoff playing bass, Tony Martin and Terry Chimes, but it got blown out of all proportion. The gig was on 29 May 1988 in the Top Spot Club in Oldbury, one of those working men’s clubs where they have a comedian, a juggler and all that sort of stuff. And here it was: ‘Top of the bill tonight: Black Sabbath!’

I just wanted to help raise some money for kids. It was all done as a kind gesture but it became a bloody thorn in the side. We got lots of flack for it, with people going: ‘Look at Black Sabbath playing a little club like that.’ To make things even worse, apparently the bloke made money out of it and kept most of it.

By that time we had already made steps to put the band back together again and regain some credibility. I met with Phil Banfield, we talked about drummers and Cozy Powell’s name came up. He had played with Jeff Beck, Rainbow and Whitesnake and I had been threatening to work with him for years but it never happened. Me and Cozy met and he was on board. That was a great start; it gave us the credibility we were looking for.

Cozy was really helpful. He stayed for two or three weeks at my house and we’d sit in a room, get a bottle of wine and off we’d go. I had all these ideas, Cozy would tap along and come up with ideas as well. We had the tape player going and just jammed around. If nothing came up we’d chuck it and go for the next one. Maybe we’d go for a walk, come back and have another go. It really worked well. We’d get Tony Martin over and then get into a rehearsal room and try it with everybody. We felt inspired. We were coming up with stuff and we were really pleased with it.

Around that time I heard again from Gloria Butler that Geezer might want to come back. I was telling Cozy about that and he was going: ‘What’s happening? Is he going to do it or not?’

‘I don’t know. Gloria said he will.’

But the return of Geezer never happened. We recorded our next album, Headless Cross, with this session guy called Larry Cottle. He was a jazz player and a bloody good one at that. We had him on the video of Headless Cross, but he didn’t look like the sort of guy to be in a rock band. We weren’t even sure he’d be the sort of person who would go on tours, because he was used to doing Ronnie Scott’s and little jazz clubs like that. But he was such a good bass player. He’d come to the studio and say: ‘What sort of thing do you want? What about this? Or that?’

And he’d play all these different kinds of things.

‘Yeah! That’s it!’

He did a great job and that was it. He played everything on Headless Cross and left after the recording.

We recorded the album from August through to November in the Woodcray Studios, a little farm place in Berkshire, not far from London. They had a studio there and two or three bedrooms. Cozy would come on his motorbike and then go home, because he lived not that far from there. Me and Cozy produced the album ourselves. Of course, I couldn’t tell Cozy what his drums sound should be. He knew what he wanted and before we started recording he’d test his drums for however long it took to get them right. And then I’d do the guitar and all the rest of it.

We were really determined to make a good album. We were excited because we were playing together and we brought out the best in each other.

Tony Martin wrote the lyrics to all the songs. Headless Cross is a little village in the vicinity of Birmingham and Tony made it famous. We did a video for the title track at a place called Battle Abbey in Battle, near Hastings, in Sussex. It was the exact spot where William the Conqueror had defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings about a thousand years ago.

Working in this dilapidated old abbey was all right during the day, but they didn’t start the actual filming until something like midnight. They wanted to capture the light coming back up in the morning out of these ruins while we were playing there. By that time it was hellishly cold and we were frozen stiff. Cozy was drinking brandy just to keep warm, but he got pissed as a parrot. He nearly fell off his drum stool. I had a big red nose and couldn’t feel my hands. We did catch the morning light, but we caught flu as well.

I got Brian May to play the solo on ‘When Death Calls’. He came down a lot when we were recording, sat in the studio and talked away. And I said: ‘Do you want to . . . play on the album?’

‘Ah, can I?’

‘Yeah!’

‘What do you want me to play?’

So I’d get a track out.

‘Play on that?’

‘Yeah, okay!’

He just improvised, because he’d only heard it for the first time right then and there. I left him in the studio for an hour and came back: ‘How are you getting on?’

It was great; he was really good. We’ve played together many times because we enjoy it so much. We’ve even talked about making an album together. One day.

On ‘Nightwing’ we used Tony Martin’s guide vocals, because he never sang it quite the same after that. He tried it a couple of times, but we went: ‘No, we’ll keep the original because it’s got that feel to it!’

Things like that also happened a lot with my guitar parts. I’d just play it a certain way and that was it. You try it again, and then you try to get too precise. So I’ve kept guitar parts that were on the original demo for the track. The same with solos. That’s why I always try and do the solos in the first few takes, because otherwise it gets too robotic. I prefer to do a solo instinctively, to just go and play. When I record a track in the studio I’ll usually play six solos in a row. Then I’ll ask myself, is it getting better or worse? Usually they get worse as I go on. If I don’t capture it in so many tries, I’ll leave it for a while. It’s better to try again later, with a fresh outlook on things.

I play solos off the cuff. I’m not good at sitting down and working the solos out, so when I play different tries for a solo, they vary a lot. I can never play them exactly the same. That was really embarrassing when I did one of the first instructional videos. They said: ‘We want to play ‘Neon Knights’, ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Heaven And Hell’. Can you play the solos to them?’

‘Well, I’ll play a solo.’

So I did and then they said: ‘Can you play it slow now?’

I went: ‘Oh, fuck. I don’t know what I played!’

Brian May can play his stuff note for note, but I can’t. I just played the solo that went with the thing, similar but not quite the same. And it certainly was impossible for me to play it slowly so that people could learn it. I started thinking about it then: what do I play? How did I play that? And once I started thinking about it, forget it. So when you watch that video, you’ll see that I played it different on the slow version. I can remember riffs until they come out of my ears. I remember riffs from years ago that I haven’t even recorded. But when it comes to playing a solo note for note, and trying to play that version slow, forget about it.

Headless Cross was released in April 1989. It did much better than The Eternal Idol, but we were very unhappy about the way I.R.S. promoted it in the States. Off we went to America to do a tour and, as you do, we went round the record shops and there wasn’t a fucking album in sight. There wasn’t even a poster up, nothing. Cozy blew his top: ‘What the fuck’s going on, there’s no advertising, there are no albums in the shops!’

In Europe the way they worked that album was fantastic. In fact, Headless Cross did better there than the original Sabbath albums with the old line-ups had done. We went: ‘Bloody hell, finally!’

So it’s safe to say that it wasn’t down to the quality of the music that it didn’t do all that well in America.