Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath - Tony Iommi, T.J. Lammers (2011)
Chapter 4. The school of hard knocks
I went to the Birchfield Road School, a ‘secondary modern school’ as it was called. You went there from about the age of ten onwards, until you were fifteen years old, and then you left. The school was about four miles from our house. There was a bus that went there, but it was often full. And it cost a penny, so I saved that by walking.
I met my oldest friend, Albert, at that school. And Ozzy, who was a year behind us. Albert lived close to Birchfield Road. I regularly went over to his place for lunch and of course he came down to my house occasionally. That was about the extent of my social life in those early years, because I didn’t go out that much. My parents wouldn’t allow it. They were fairly strict and overprotective, and they were convinced I was going to do something wrong if I did go out: ‘Don’t you go bringing any trouble back here!’
So I was stuck in my room most of the time. And to this day it doesn’t bother me to be alone. I like to be with people but it doesn’t bother me if I’m not.
My parents did have some cause for concern. Our shop looked out on three or four ‘terraced houses’ - which means they were all stuck together - across the road, but next to those was a big space full of nothing but rubble. Whether it was a Second World War bomb that had caused that I don’t know; it might just have been a house that had been knocked down, but we called it the ‘bombed buildings’. It was that area where the gangs congregated. You could be walking down the road and get the shit kicked out of you or even stabbed by these gangs. And if you walked a lot, like I did, you were a prime target. So I started exercising, doing weights and stuff, because I wanted to be able to protect myself. I started going to judo and karate and finally I got into boxing. I did it initially because I didn’t want to be picked on, but I really got into it.
At school Albert and me had our own little gang, just the two of us. We had these leather jackets with the words ‘The Commanchies’ written on the back. That was us: The Commanchies. The school tried to stop us wearing those jackets, but I didn’t have any other clothes. Not that I would have wanted to wear it anyway, but my parents simply couldn’t afford to buy me a bloody school uniform. All I had was a pair of jeans and that leather jacket.
With me working out and Albert being a big guy as well, we became cocks of the walk at school. Nobody messed with us, because they knew that we’d beat them up. Even the older kids left us alone. That school was totally functioning on violence. People had been stabbed there and I even carried a knife for a bit. It’s not that I liked violence; it’s just how you lived in those days. At school, if you didn’t get one in first someone would get you. That’s why I ended up fighting all the bloody time.
Where we had the shop there was the Aston gang, and they wanted me to join. I was around twelve or thirteen at the time. I went over to their bombed building site a couple of times, but I just didn’t associate with the gang in the end. A couple of them nicked things from our shop, so it didn’t make sense to hook up with them. I even caught one of these gang members thieving in the shop one day and I ran out to clobber him. He only lived a couple of doors away. He ran into his house and here I was, kicking his front door trying to get in. That’s how you handled these people, with violence. Because you couldn’t talk to them.
The gang could have turned on me, but it wasn’t that bad because I lived in their area. All they were on about anyway was fighting this other gang from another neighbourhood close by. Because of where I lived, this other gang looked on me as belonging to the Aston gang; I wasn’t part of it, but on the other hand I sort of was.
A few years later I had to walk through this other neighbourhood to get to work. I used to pass this one guy who was the leader of this gang. In the morning he’d be normal, but coming back at night, when he had all his mates around him, he’d be a different kettle of fish. The trick was to get through before anybody came out and saw you; it was like the cannonball run. One night I didn’t make it and got the beating of a lifetime. You had either to defend yourself or join them, and I didn’t want to join them.
I thought my thing would be something to do with boxing; I would probably become a bouncer in a club or something. And I used to get these dreams where I’d be on stage looking out at the crowds. I never quite knew what it was; I always thought it might be fighting, doing some contact sport in front of an audience. Of course, eventually I lived it and saw it and I realised, these are those dreams I was having. But it’s playing the guitar!
As I had no interest in school, my grades weren’t particularly good. Whenever they called my parents into school, my mother would come home afterwards and scold me: ‘Oh, it’s disgusting, disgraceful. What have you been up to now?’
I wasn’t too bothered about what the teachers and the headmaster thought of me, but I was concerned about how my parents would react. They hated it if you got in trouble. They would worry about what the neighbours would think. People talked. In the shop it would be: ‘Ooh, have you heard what happened to so-and-so down the road? Ooh, the police were around there at their house the other day …’
It was all gossip. Outside their own road they didn’t know what was going on, but they would know everything about each other. So if your grades were bad, everybody would know about it.
At school they used to separate Albert and me because we were a nuisance. We’d either be flicking something at somebody or talking or whatever, so we were often ejected from class. You’d have to stand outside the classroom until the lessons finished, and if they sent us both out they’d have me stand in one place and Albert somewhere else. If the headmaster came around and saw you, you could get caned. Or you had to stay over late, an hour after school, which seemed like an eternity.
The headmaster either caned you on your hand or he made you bend over and he’d cane you on the backside with a stick or a slipper. One of the teachers even used a big compass. Of course kids put books down their trousers, so they’d check you first. It was called ‘six of the best’, which meant six strokes with this cane. They were nice enough to give you a choice: ‘Where do you want it, on your backside or on your hand?’
The teachers who would administer this punishment had to log it in the black book. Every time you got caught again, they’d look in the book: ‘You were around here only two days ago!’
I don’t remember many of the teachers. Mr Low taught music. I didn’t really learn anything from him, because at school the idea of ‘music’ was playing the recorder. That’s all we had, playing those bloody things. And there was Mr Williams, the maths teacher. Funny I should remember him because it was the one lesson I was never in. I hated maths and I used to get bored shitless, so I’d get sent out. Sometimes I wouldn’t even do anything, I’d walk in and it was straight away: ‘Out!’
Mad, really. But that’s what happened and that’s the way they did it.