[7 November 2011]
A few years back, a rock ‘n’ roll band was assembled from a group of successful writers: Stephen King, Dave Barry, Barbara Kingsolver and so forth. They called themselves The Rock-Bottom Remainders and played a few gigs for charity—the American Library Association, I believe. Kingsolver writes entertainingly about the experience in her essay “Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess”, which can be found in her collection High Tide in Tucson. She reports that at one point, Barry quips to the enthusiastic audience: “We play music the way Metallica writes books.”
He could have said: the way Tony Iommi writes them. In all fairness to the Black Sabbath founder and guitarist, no one really expects stellar flights of prose from the guy who, more or less, invented heavy metal. Because really, that’s what Iommi did—he pulled pop music out of its rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie rockabilly roots, and dragged it kicking and screaming (and downtuned half a step) into the cold, gloomy basement of minor-chord, riff-laden doom. And thank God for that! Without Iommi, there would be no “Iron Man”, no “Sweet Leaf” or “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” or “Mob Rules”.
Of course, there would also, perhaps, be no pop-metal or hair metal, no Poison or Cinderella or Whitesnake. Looked at that way, Iommi has plenty to answer for.
Nah, just kidding. Iommi gets a free pass because Sabbath is cool, period, the end.
Ozzy squealed and Dio emoted before emo had a name, but Iommi was the grungy, six-stringed, eight-fingered master behind it all. No doubt he’s got a fascinating story to tell, one loaded with insights as to Sabbath’s pioneering influence, the process of putting together an album in the studio, maybe even some nuggets concerning the genesis of individual songs. At the very least, surely he’ll have something to say about Sabbath’s carefully crafted image over the years—the calculated blasphemies, the burning crosses onstage, the record sleeves rife with iconic images, the song titles thick with imagery of paganism and heresy. Right?
Ah—sorry. If that’s what you’re looking for, this book will disappoint.
Look, Tony’s a great guy. He’s had a fascinating life and has tons of stories to tell, many of which involve booze, broads and TVs flying out the window. Collaborator TJ Lammers does a fine job of transcribing Iommi’s memories—they sure sound like the pair pulled a couple of pints, switched on the tape recorder and let Iommi ramble on—and the book’s 90 chapters trip right along at a good pace. That’s the problem right there, in fact: if anything, things move a little too fast.
Take, for example, Iommi’s recollection of the opening riff of “Black Sabbath”, the first song on the first album by the band, and the tune that would fire the opening salvo of heavy metal. It’s not too much to say that these opening chords heralded the invention of an entire heretofore undiscovered genre of music. Iommi says, “I just came up with this riff for ‘Black Sabbath.’ I played ‘dom-dom-dommm.’ And it was like: that’s it!”
There’s not much more discussion, although Iommi does go on to add, “Only later did I learn that I had used what they called the Devil’s interval, a chord progression that was so dark that in the Middle Ages playing it was forbidden by the Church.” None of the other songs on that first album get so much as a mention, apart from “The Wizard”.
This is typical of the book. Most chapters range from two to four pages, and the recording of an whole album takes place within a chapter, so very little space is given over to discussing where the songs come from. Talking about the sessions for Master of Reality, Iommi mentions the unorthodox tuning used by the band: “We tuned down three semitones. It was part of an experiment: tuning down for a bigger, heavier sound.” That’s about as much insight as you’ll get, along with such nuggets as: ” ‘Into the Void’ had this initial riff that changes tempos in the song. I like that. I like something with interesting parts in it.”
Iommi seems more interested in documenting the numerous changes in band personnel and various shenanigans on tour and in the studio. He dismisses the band’s occult reputation as a product of the record company’s marketing strategy and claims the band knew nothing about it, which seems tough to credit. But any consideration of the band’s worldview or philosophy is imemdiately eclipsed by recollections of Spinal Tap-like missteps while on tour.
And oh yes, everybody was drunk, or stoned, or both, just about all the time.
It sure sounds like a party that went on for, oh, 40 years or so, and it sure sounds like it was a good time (apart from the hospitalizations, arrests and bad trips, of course). Iron Man is likely to be the definitive insider’s account of Black Sabbath, coming as it does from the man who lived and breathed the band for descades. It’s a shame that it doesn’t go a little deeper, then.