The Genius and the Madman
A long time ago, I managed to obtain an umpteenth-generation copy of a live recording of an Ozzy Osbourne concert called Bats Head Soup. A soundboard recording from 11 May 1981 in Cleveland, Ohio that was released on vinyl, the prime reason I wanted to hear it was the presence of one Randy Rhoads, who was killed in a plane crash in 1982, and by 1986, had already attained legendary status among us metal fans. My only chance to hear Rhoads in a live setting, hear the master in action, as it were, the bootleg was a revelatory experience. A year and a half later, I was thrilled to learn of the coming release of Ozzy’s live tribute to Rhoads, comprising of performances from that 1981 tour, including the same Cleveland show, which takes up over half the album. At the time, in my teen naivete, I considered it a masterpiece. In early 2002, Tribute has been remastered on a snazzy new CD release, and listening to it again, it’s not as great as I once considered it. It’s a good live album, don’t get me wrong, and it’s one of the most consistent albums Ozzy has ever put out, but it’s not without its flaws, and those flaws are a bit annoying.
Tribute‘s best points still make it a very enjoyable live album. At the time it was recorded, Ozzy’s band had evolved to Rhoads on guitar, Rudy Sarzo on bass, and drummer Tommy Aldridge, one of the best live drummers in the business. This was a phenomenal, tight live band, and it shows on the album. Sarzo’s deft bass and Aldridge’s powerful drumming provided a rock-solid rhythm section for Rhoads, and it’s Rhoads who steals the show.
Already tagged as a genius in his early twenties, Rhoads, in his very brief recording career, has yet to be equaled in the metal genre, to this day. Nobody, before or since, has been able to match Rhoads’s style, a perfect combination of virtuosity, melody, and economy, best exemplified in his solos. Yeah, he was lightning fast, as was seemingly required of hard rock guitarists at the time, but Rhoads never went overboard. His solos were planned out and performed with the precision of classical music, of which Rhoads was a student, something you can hear for yourself in the bonus treat at the end of the album, a collection of studio out-takes featuring Rhoads recording his acoustic piece “Dee”. He’s amazing to hear on these live recordings; usually, metal bands with only one guitarist, such as System of a Down, sound weak live, compared to their albums, but Rhoads makes the transition from rhythm guitar riffs to solos to rhythm again with astonishing ease.
The tracks on Tribute range from Ozzy’s first two solo albums to several selections from the Black Sabbath catalog, and what a scorching setlist it is. The thundering “I Don’t Know” and “Crazy Train” kick things off, while a fantastic version of “Believer” ups the ante even more. The version of “Flying High Again” on this album is searing, and is played with more gusto than the original version on Diary of a Madman. The Sabbath medley of “Iron Man”, “Children of the Grave”, and “Paranoid” is better than most Sabbath recordings. “Revelation Mother Earth” evolves from a dirge-like song into a blazing exercise in pure, chuggin’ metal, and in true metal fashion, “Steal Away the Night” includes the ubiquitous drum solo. I don’t care how great a drummer Aldridge is, most drum solos are mind-numbingly boring, and this one is no exception. The album reaches its climax during the great “Suicide Solution”, which includes an astonishing extended solo by Rhoads.
This solo, as great as it is, also marks one of the album’s bothersome moments. The version of “Suicide Solution” on Tribute is taken from the Cleveland show I mentioned earlier, but the solo is completely different (experts say it’s from the Montreal show from the same tour), and very sloppily spliced in. I compared both the Tribute version and the one on Bats Head Soup, and the splice is so obvious it’s ridiculous. Had the Cleveland recording been left as it was, you would have heard a segue into the solo by the band that would send chills down your spine. Instead, there’s silence, and Rhoads’s solo just innocuously begins. It may sound like a minor gripe, but once you’ve heard the original, this doctored one just doesn’t make the cut at all.
Another major factor that keeps Tribute from being a classic live album is Ozzy’s re-recorded vocals. As Ozzy did on his 1982 live album Speak of the Devil, all his vocals are doubletracked, so at times it sounds like two Ozzy’s are performing (except for “Goodbye to Romance” and “No Bone Movies”, which were taken from the rare Mr. Crowley). This adds a layer of polish that the album doesn’t need. On the original Cleveland recording, Ozzy’s voice cracks during “Crazy Train”, but it’s real. His overdubbed singing on Tribute comes off as phony.
Unlike the recent atrocious reissues of Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, where both the original bass and drums were replaced with shockingly inferior replacements, Tribute remains as it was, which is ironic, since this is the Ozzy Osbourne album that needed the most fixing. Still, this is a live album that’s nonetheless fun to listen to; it’s not quite a classic Eighties metal live album, placing a distant third behind Judas Priest’s recently remastered Priest. . . Live! and Iron Maiden’s monstrous Live After Death, but perhaps Ozzy’s best release in his long career, flaws and all. It’s worth owning, but just between you and me, if you ever come across a copy of the Bats Head Soup bootleg, give it a listen . . . there’s the real classic.
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