Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)
Chapter 12. Down to Earth
‘What do you mean?’ Bill said.
I said: ‘I know him from school. And as far as I know he isn’t a singer.’
I suppose Ozzy was shocked as well. I hadn’t seen him since school, so the only thing he remembered about me was me going around beating people up. Ozzy is a year younger than me, so he was in a class one year below mine. He always hung around with his friend Jimmy Phillips. Albert and me never associated with them at school.
Me and Bill talked to Ozzy for a bit and then we said: ‘Okay then.’
And off we went and basically forgot about it. A few days later Bill came over to our house and Mum made him a sandwich. Suddenly Ozzy and Geezer turned up, looking for a drummer. I said: ‘Bill is a drummer, but we’re going to stick together. But if Bill wants to do it, fine.’
But Bill said: ‘No, no, I want to stick with Tony.’
I said: ‘Why don’t we all have a go? Get a band and see how it goes.’
We got together for a first rehearsal. Ozzy’s friend Jimmy Phillips was there as well, playing the slide guitar, and some guy was honking away on a saxophone. Geezer was a guitar player but he decided to switch to the bass. Trouble was, he didn’t have a bass and neither did he have the money to buy one. He tuned down his Fender Telecaster, trying to play the bass parts that way for that one rehearsal. I thought, oh blimey! To my relief he then went and borrowed a Hofner bass off his old band later. He only had three strings on that, but he only played one string then anyway.
We rehearsed some blues stuff, did a few songs and called ourselves The Polka Tulk Blues Band. Jimmy Phillips and me were going to try and get some gigs. We were in our lounge with the phone on the boxes and I said: ‘Well, Jimmy, you phone this one, this Spotlight Entertainment sounds interesting.’
He phoned up and he went: ‘Can I speak to Mr Spotlight please?’
We started laughing and that was the end of that. Just disastrous. I then called Mythology’s agent Monica Lynton up in Carlisle, saying: ‘We’ve got this band, give us a try.’
She said: ‘Okay, but you’ve got to play some Top 20 stuff, in order to get away with playing some blues.’
Off we went to Carlisle. Near there, in a place called Egremont, we played at the Toe Bar. This big Scottish bloke came up to me and said: ‘Yer singer is crap!’
‘Ah, right. Thanks.’
We must have looked a right bloody bunch: me in my buckskin jacket, Bill in his smelly gear and then there was Ozzy who had shaved his head bald. Geezer wore a long Indian hippie dress. Peace, man, and all that stuff. I thought, that’s weird, a bloke in a dress. What have I let myself in for?
Geezer dated this girl who lived down the road from our shop, so I saw him walking past a lot. I saw him more often when I was in a band that played at this nightclub and Geezer’s band, Rare Breed, played there as well. You’d see him crawling up walls, because he did acid in those days. I thought he was a loon.When we played the Globe Hotel in Carlisle, some idiot came in who had already knocked a couple of policemen out and killed one of their dogs. We were getting the equipment out, Geezer was coming down the stairs in his hippy clothes carrying a couple of guitars and this guy came after him: ‘You-ou-ou-aargh!!’
Geezer went: ‘Huh!’
He let go of the guitars and shouted: ‘Don’t hit me, man, I’m peaceful!!’
And then he ran. It was unbelievable, this completely frantic big bloke running after Geezer and Geezer in his kaftan trying desperately to get away from him. It took a whole gang of policemen to get the bloke down and to jail. Bloody hell: what a great way to start off with a new band!
It didn’t last that long with Jimmy Phillips and this saxophone player. There would be a solo and everybody would be playing it at the same time. It was a right row. These two guys just seemed to do this for a bit of a laugh, and that upset me. I had a little meeting with Bill, Geezer and Ozzy and said: ‘The sax player doesn’t really work and neither does Jimmy Phillips.’
They said: ‘What do you want to do?’
We didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings by firing them, so we told them we were breaking up. After that we didn’t see each other for a couple of days and then we got back together with just the four of us.
Those first gigs were crap. This band was not nearly as good as Mythology, but I said: ‘Give it time, it will be all right.’
I could see there was some potential. It was an odd combination: somebody I knew from school who I didn’t get along with back then; Geezer, who was from another planet; and me and Bill, who were probably from another planet as well. But it all seemed to jell. We rehearsed and rehearsed and did a few gigs and things started working for us.
We dropped the name The Polka Tulk Blues Band and changed it to Earth Blues Band, which quickly turned into Earth. We were doing twelve-bar blues, Ten Years After-type stuff. I just liked anything with guitar. We had blues albums by artists I’d never heard of, but there would be a guitar solo on one of them and we’d go: ‘Ah, we’ll do this track, it’s good, another twelve-bar!’
The guitar work became more jazzy and Bill really liked big band music, so we also went into more jazzy stuff. Ozzy was doing that fine. I used to be on at him a lot, because at first he didn’t know what to do. I was always saying: ‘Go on, talk to the audience, say this, say that.’
And Geezer learned to play the bass very quickly: before you knew it he was playing away. But because we played the blues, we didn’t work a lot. In Birmingham soul was big then, so there were only a couple of places where we could play. For us, Mothers club was probably the best venue in Birmingham. We played it, but I also saw Chicken Shack, Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum and Free there. The Town Hall had a funny sound, but we played that a few times as well. In fact the Volume 4 album’s inside cover has a picture of us performing there. A lot of places we played at were in pubs, where they’d have this big room that they didn’t use, and so they’d rent it out to somebody who’d organise a gig in there. Like Jim Simpson, who rented a room over a pub in the centre of Birmingham and called it Henry’s Blues House. He had it maybe a couple of nights a week, but it became very popular.
Because the stages were so small, we all kind of grouped together. Ozzy hovered in front of me somewhere, but later, when we got to the bigger stages, he stood to the left in front of my stack and I moved to the middle of the stage. Don’t ask me why, I never knew. It seemed weird, but I liked it: centre stage was the best spot to hear how everything sounded. It stayed that way until we broke up. Ozzy only went to the middle when we got back together many years later, in the nineties.
The first thing the band bought was a huge Commer van with blacked-out windows. It was a wreck, an ex-police van that had a great big hole in the floor on the passenger side. I once used the van to pick up this girl. We had put a carpet over the hole, trying to do it up a bit. She came out all dolled up, stockings on, climbed in the van, and went straight through the floor. The metal ripped her stockings and cut her leg. So that was the end of that romance.
Mum helped us get the deposit for it. We decked it out and put a couch in the back. We’d drive up to Carlisle in this thing, which was unbelievable. The van broke down constantly. It was shit but the roads were shit as well back then. To go to Carlisle or London seemed like never-ending journeys.
As I was the only one who had a licence and we couldn’t afford a chauffeur, I was the one driving it. I’d pick everybody up to get to rehearsals and gigs, but because it was all down to me I’d get absolutely shattered, so we’re all lucky to have survived that, really. They’d all be asleep in the back and I’d be slapping my face trying to stay conscious. The worst thing was, when I opened the window to keep awake, they’d go: ‘Oy, it’s cold in the back!’
Driving home one night when everybody was asleep, I found this road that was identical to the one Ozzy lived in. I thought it would be great fun to drop him off there! It was four or five o’clock in the morning, Ozzy was asleep and I said: ‘All right, Oz, you’re home!’
He got out of the van and I shouted: ‘See you tomorrow, ta ra!’
I pulled away, looked in my rear-view mirror and saw Ozzy trying to get into the wrong house. By the time he realised it wasn’t his, we were gone. And he had to walk a mile or so to get to his own house. The next night I picked him up again and he went: ‘You dropped me off at the wrong road yesterday!’
I said: ‘Oh, did I? Oh my God, I thought that was your road!’
‘No, no, it was the wrong road.’
Later that night, on our way home, he fell asleep again in the back and I stopped at the same wrong street.
‘All right, Oz, you’re home!’
He got out, we drove off, same again. He fell for that umpteen times.
Mum helping out buying the van was one side of the coin; the other side was her moaning: ‘A bloody nuisance you are. You ought to get a bloody proper job!’
But she did a lot for us and she looked after everybody. She’d always offer sandwiches or something else to eat, so the band loved her. And both Dad and Mum liked all the guys in the band. They took a particular shine to Ozzy. Dad thought he was funny, and he was right: Ozzy was a very funny guy.
Ozzy’s dad also helped out. Ozzy did have his own PA, but we needed a bigger one, so his dad signed a thing called a pay bond. This meant he guaranteed payment and Ozzy could borrow the money to buy it. He bought a Triumph amp and two cabinets. And we had a Vox PA. In those days you didn’t have a sound man twiddling the knobs in the middle of the hall; all the sound came from your own gear on stage so you’d start and you’d turn the volume up and then everybody would start screaming: ‘Turn it down!’
We’d get complaints because we were always too loud. Always. If you were standing in front of your own cabinet you couldn’t hear anybody else any more, so you’d move over to hear what else was going on. You could never really hear the vocals, even though Ozzy turned up his amp so loud it would start whistling.
We played at Henry’s Blues House a lot, where we quickly developed a draw. Jim Simpson, the guy who ran that place, took an interest in us. He was a jazz guy, a trumpet player, and we played jazzy blues. He liked that, so he approached us for management. We didn’t have anybody else, he had his Blues House where we could play, so we thought, if we don’t sign with him we won’t have the gig.
Jim Simpson started managing us around the end of 1968, beginning of ’69. So here we were, in possession of PAs, a huge wreck of a Commer van, a set list filled with jazzy twelve-bar blues and a manager. All dressed down and no particular place to go but up.
The first thing Jim Simpson did was put us on the Big Bear Folly, a UK tour with four bands playing, and the night always ended in a jam with everybody back on stage. In January 1969 we played the Marquee club, but we didn’t go down very well with John Gee, the manager of the place. The guy was into big bands and, when Bill claimed he was also into jazz, John Gee played him some of that music and said: ‘Who’s this then, who is this?’
Bill gave him a totally wrong name and John Gee really got the hump.
Ozzy had a pyjama top on and a tap around his neck. John didn’t like that either. He probably thought we were really scruffy. Well, we were. We didn’t have the money to look good. Ozzy actually used to walk around in bare feet. Geezer was the fashion guru who’d get the latest trend. He had these lime-green trousers. They were his only pair and he washed them all the time and wore them over and over again. One day he dried them by the heater and one of the legs caught fire. Because he loved this pair of trousers so much, his mum sewed another leg on and from then on he walked around with one green leg and one black leg. Mad!
Bill actually won an award for the worst dressed rock star once, ‘The Scruffiest Rock Star Out There’ or something like that. He was really proud of it as well. And there was me in my buckskin jacket. What with the clothes and lots of hair, we certainly looked heavy. We all grew handlebar moustaches and Bill grew a beard as well. There was no conscious thought behind that. If you’re in a band you develop a similar look.
‘Oh, your hair has got a little longer, looks good, leave it like that.’
The downside of it was that we didn’t have any women coming to the gigs. Scruffy long hair, only blokes sitting there …
Come to think of it, you did see some. But they looked like blokes!