Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)
Introduction. The Sound of Heavy Metal
It was 1965, I was seventeen years old, and it was my very last day on the job. I’d done all sorts of things since leaving school at fifteen. I worked as a plumber for three or four days. Then I packed that in. I worked as a treadmiller, making rings with a screw that you put around rubber pipes to close them up, but that cut up my hands. I got a job in a music shop, because I was a guitarist and played in local bands, but they accused me of stealing. I didn’t do it, but to hell with them: they had me cleaning the storeroom all day anyway. I was working as a welder at a sheet-metal factory when I got my big break: my new band, The Birds & The Bees, were booked for a tour of Europe. I hadn’t actually played live with The Birds & The Bees, mind you; I’d just auditioned after my previous band, The Rockin’ Chevrolets, had hoofed out their rhythm guitarist and subsequently broken up. The Rockin’ Chevrolets had been my first break. We wore matching red lamé suits and played old rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. We were popular around my hometown of Birmingham, and played regular gigs. I even got my first serious girlfriend out of that band, Margareth Meredith, the sister of the original guitarist.
The Rockin’ Chevrolets were fun, but playing in Europe with The Birds & The Bees, that was a real professional turn. So I went home for lunch on Friday, my last day as a welder, and said to my mum: ‘I’m not going back. I’m finished with that job.’
But she insisted: ‘Iommis don’t quit. You want to go back and finish the day off, finish it proper!’
So I did. I went back to work. There was a lady next to me on the line who bent pieces of metal on a machine, then sent the pieces down to me to weld together. That was my job. But the woman didn’t come in that day, so they put me on her machine. It was a big guillotine press with a wobbly foot pedal. You’d pull a sheet of metal in and put your foot on the pedal and, bang, a giant industrial press would slam down and bend the metal.
I’d never used the thing before, but things went all right until I lost concentration for a moment, maybe dreaming about being on stage in Europe and, bang, the press slammed straight down on my right hand. I pulled my hand back as a reflex and the bloody press pulled the ends off my two middle fingers. I looked down and the bones were sticking out. Then I just saw blood going everywhere.
They took me to hospital, sat me down, put my hand in a bag and forgot about me. I thought I’d bleed to death. When someone thoughtfully brought my fingertips to hospital (in a matchbox) the doctors tried to graft them back on. But it was too late: they’d turned black. So instead they took skin from one of my arms and grafted it on to the tips of my wounded fingers. They fiddled around a bit more to try to ensure the skin graft would take, and that was it: rock ’n’ roll history was made.
Or that’s what some people say, anyway. They credit the loss of my fingers with the deeper, down-tuned sound of Black Sabbath, which in turn became the template for most of the heavy music created since. I admit, it hurt like hell to play guitar straight on the bones of my severed fingers, and I had to reinvent my style of playing to accommodate the pain. In the process, Black Sabbath started to sound like no band before it – or since, really. But creating heavy metal because of my fingers? Well, that’s too bloody much.
After all, there’s a lot more to the story than that.