In early 1979 Ozzy Osbourne’s behaviour became too much for the rest of Black Sabbath, and Tony Iommi in particular, to tolerate and it was clear something would have to give. Over a year had been wasted in drug fuelled alcoholic stupors and little or no new material had been produced. With record company pressure to record a new album increasing Iommi took the decision to fire Osbourne from the band.
At the time, for many a Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne was an unthinkable proposition. When it had been attempted briefly in 1977, with Dave Walker on vocals, reaction to their appearance on the BBC television programme “Look !Hear !” had not been particularly favourable and Osbourne had returned soon after. However, 1979 was a different time altogether and with rock music just about to embark on a new lease of life thanks to NWOBHM Black Sabbath, as one of the pioneers of hard rock music, could not afford to be left toiling in the wake of the younger hungrier bands. On the suggestion of Sharon Arden, daughter of Sabbath manager Don Arden and ironically future wife of Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio who had recently fallen foul of Ritchie Blackmore’s constant need for change and been fired himself from Rainbow was approached with a view to replacing Osbourne.
Dio officially joined the band in June 1979 after a few secret writing sessions with Iommi which took place before Osbourne had been officially fired. At the time Geezer Butler was unsure of whether he wished to remain in the band and briefly departed to be replaced by Craig Gruber, Dio’s old mate from the Elf and Rainbow days. Butler later returned and is pictured on the back of the cover but Gruber has claimed that it is actually him playing on the album although this was denied by Iommi. Geoff Nicholls of Quartz was also brought in to play keyboards and may at one point have handled some bass playing duties in the initial sessions. The use of Martin Birch who had worked on many of the Deep Purple, Rainbow and other Purple family associated albums as producer led to the band briefly being sarcastically referred to as Black Rainbow ! In fact he went straight from this to the “Ready An Willing” album by Whitesnake. Not a bad one-two there Mr Birch !
“Heaven and Hell” was recorded at Criteria in Miami and Studio Forber in Paris with the initial sessions starting on October 1st 1979 and was a complete change of style for a band known for hard riffing and less than melodic vocals.
Dio was about as far removed from Osbourne as you could imagine and there was a great deal of anti Dio feeling from hardcore Sabbath fans at the time. Osbourne had a limited range but Dio had one of operatic stature and as he was happy to sing across the riff and bring in his own vocal melody rather than sing directly to the tune of the song it gave them more scope to experiment with song structure and gave them a more tuneful and melodious sound but without having to sacrifice any of the heaviness.
Opening track ‘Neon Knights’ is a perfect example of this as it comes thundering out of the speakers at a million miles an hour with a typical Iommi riff and Dio’s vocal melody bears no resemblence to it whatsoever. It is as heavy as anything the Osbourne line up came up with but has far more melody and is far more accessible to a mainstream audience. A fact proven by its lofty chart position of 22 in the UK singles chart. All of the tracks on the album are credited as Dio/Iommi/Butler/Ward compositions but in all likelihood all tracks were penned by Dio and Iommi alone. Butler’s entire contribution to the album is open to speculation but ‘Neon Knights’ was the last of the new tracks to be written and by that time Butler was back on board so it is fairly safe to assume that it is Butler playing on the track although whether he really had any input into the composition is doubftul. Drummer Bill Ward, by his own admission, has no recollection of any of the recording sessions due to his substance abuse at the time and I would seriously doubt that he had any input into song composition. The fact that the riffs always came from the prolific Iommi and that the Dio lyrics were obviously ones he had in mind for the next Rainbow album as they bear no resemblance to the usual “Sabbath” type lyrics lead me to believe the decision to declare group composition was a political one rather than an artistic one.
From the final track written and recorded we go straight to the first one ‘Children of the Sea’ which began life at the very first Dio and Iommi writing session in early 1979 before Osbourne had been fired. Starting with an acoustic intro and a slightly falsetto lyric from Dio it soon builds into a classic Sabbath riff and song. The low key choral moaning chant towards the end is classic Sabbath. It quickly became a live favourite and is clearly not just one of the albums highlights but is also one of the best Sabbath ever recorded.
‘Lady Evil’ starts with a bouncy almost funky riff and with its subject matter vaguely reminds of ‘Startstruck’ from Dio’s Rainbow days. In fact it could almost be ‘Starstruck’ revisited and along with the album closer is the most Rainbow like offering here. Probably explains why it is one of my favourites too. Iommi throws in a great dual paced solo and I’m surprised it didn’t see a worldwide 7″ release. There was an edited version which has since been issued on the remastered version of the album but as far as I’m aware this didn’t see mainstream release in the larger territories.
The first half of the album ends with the title track, a track which has since become a staple of rock radio stations the world over and is as recognisable as any rock song ever written. Iommi came up with the initial riff and tune during the aborted final sessions with Osbourne and there were suggestions that a version, obviously with different lyrics and a very different vocal melody was recorded. However if this happened they were destroyed and apparently no copy exists. It starts with a typical Iommi riff and it is not difficult to imagine Osbourne singing with over it. However, when Dio starts to sing the song gets a new lease of life and it is taken to a completely different place than the original line up would have managed. Iommi’s slower bluesy solo at the midway point is amongst his best before he also throws in a couple of shorter faster ones during the track including a particularly nice fast one towards the end before he ends the song with a gentle acoustic outro. In fact the song is the perfect vehicle for extended solo’s and improvisation and it was not unusual for it to be extended over the twelve minute mark in a live setting. It has been suggested that the distinctive bass line was written by keyboard player Geoff Nicholls as it bears some similarity to the Quartz track ‘Mainline Riders’.
The second half of the album is not quite on the same level as the first and starts with the pleasant but pretty ordinary ‘Wishing Well’. As with ‘Lady Evil’ this track has a strong Rainbow feel.
‘Die Young’ starts with a slow atmospheric guitar solo which was extended considerably during live performances before launching into a fast paced stomp. Then the middle section of the song sees it drop down to a soft acoustic ballad pace and Dio delivers a soft falsetto vocal before the song thunders back to full power again. Iommi’s solo towards the end of the song is particularly fast and the light and shade of the soft and heavy parts give the track its majesty. Craig Gruber has claimed that he brought the initial idea of the song and the tune to the table but this has never been confirmed by any of the other members and no writing credit was ever given to him.
‘Walk Away’ is another pleasant enough song without ever really getting out of the ordinary and along with ‘Wishing Well’ would count as the low point of the album. Having said that though they are both still pretty decent tunes.
Throughout the whole album you are reminded more of Dio’s Rainbow albums than the previous Black Sabbath ones and final track ‘Lonely Is The Word’ is maybe the biggest culprit. An extended bluesey tune with a typical Dio vocal similar to many on his Rainbow albums accentuates this point, as does the use of the strings during Iommi’s closing solo. It is still a great song though and a great end to a classic album.
When the first Black Sabbath album not to feature Ozzy Osbourne was unleashed on the world in April 1980 initially it met with a mixed response. Fans of Dio era Rainbow loved it and took it to their hearts more than the current Rainbow album of the time “Down To Earth” which featured Graham Bonnett on vocals. Bonnett was often heckled at Rainbow gigs by fans calling for Dio. For many of them this is the Rainbow album that never was and is a natural progression from “Long Live Rock n Roll”. That of course is a little ludicrous as the music on the album was composed by Iommi who is a far different guitarist and composer to Ritchie Blackmore. Lyrically and vocal melody wise though you have to accept that they had a point. For some die hard Ozzy Osbourne fans a sense of loyalty to him made it difficult for them to accept Dio at first but the diminutive singer’s charisma and respect for the back catalogue soon helped him to win them over.
A new era for Black Sabbath was born with a devils horn salute, the first of three purple tinted vocalists was now at the mike and the future looked very bright indeed.
“Heaven and Hell” is a classic rock album from a classic golden time of British rock music. Whether you think of it as a Black Sabbath album or as an album by a different band going under that name is up to you. But not to listen to it and accept it for the classic album it is regardless of line up would just be plain stupid.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM July 2011