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How Messy Was Their (Black) Sabbath

Mick Wall’s style is dry, simple and direct to the point of quasi-simplification, but the final result is brilliant and definitely written for a very specific niche.

Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Length: 400 pages
Author: Mick Wall
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-04

Hands in their pockets, the claret stream twists and turns surrounded by chants and the acrid scent of horse urine and beer. If one dared to venture beyond the invisible boundary between bliss and dejection, one would hear the echo of the purplish misery, as if red and claret were two wavelengths too far apart, too incompatible to relate, isolated and impervious to each other’s influence.

The game – the big game – has seen a defeat, and the Brummies have ended up, once again, on the wrong side of the win/lose dichotomy. It makes all the difference, but it doesn’t really matter at the same time, because these two cities – London and Birmingham – know all too well what the hierarchies are, and that they should not be upset. Arsenal and Aston Villa, the capital and the rest, the brains and the arms, the fog and the soot, the pride and the dignity, the winners, the losers. This is an FA Cup final, but it could be anything. Anything that matters.

Black Sabbath, from Aston, a suburb then plagued by poverty and dirt, now by "underdevelopment and pollution", were never the music press’ favourites. Too noisy, too provincial, not savvy enough, though perennially on the verge of imploding, they were inevitably dismissed by London’s media, as “avoidable” on a good day and “risible” on an even better one. Music journalist Mick Wall is probably the right person to explain what went on for years when one of the most influential bands in contemporary music got big mainly by word of mouth and the sheer roar caused by their music.

Having been the band’s PR for a short time, Wall (and his own PR) claims to have written “the final word on the only name synonymous with heavy metal”, and that bit is understandably true, since most of the book’s content has already been included in the myriad of tomes that have seen the light in the (not so) recent past. What’s new here is the accurate depiction of what usually doesn’t matter: an insight of the changing moods within the band; of people setting fire to each other; of singers plunging drummers’ cars into swimming pools; of the day after’s wet trousers; cocaine stashed in cereal boxes and; all-round madness. Wall’s style is dry, simple and direct to the point of quasi-simplification, but the final result is brilliant and definitely written for a very specific niche.

All too aware of the fact that, yes, there are at least a few hundred books on the subject, Wall excels in the meticulous account of the protagonists’ state of mind, their battle with substances of all kinds and annihilation of will. A large portion of the book is devoted to the band’s various solo spin-offs and developments, thus managing to provide a comprehensive picture of a band that has been able to go from underground sensation to the realms of the Spinal Tap and end up being a myth. The many twists a 40-year (and counting) career unavoidably has to offer are wisely administered by Wall in a way which aims at keeping the focus on the main story and objectives.

On the downside, entire clusters of the band’s history are almost entirely overlooked (the Tony Martin albums) or dismissed as nothing worth dedicating more than one page to (the Tony Martin years). The albums that apparently don’t matter are glossed over and minimised to the point that one feels compelled to go and listen to them in order to know what the lack of fuss is all about. In this weird case of what I'll call unaware reverse-marketing, the reader is left wanting for more, thus contradicting the initial manifesto of the book, which promises to be the ultimate study on the band. The risk of caricaturising the band and the people surrounding it is, indeed, always present, but our heroes do nothing to avoid falling into well-defined categories. Therefore the cocaine-obsessed Toni Iommi, perpetually in need of confirming his leadership, Ozzy Osbourne the insecure clown, Bill Ward the butt of all jokes and Geezer Butler’s silent alliance with Iommi are all but desperate characters in search of a realisation, which is always one step ahead of them.

All in all, Black Sabbath provides an in-depth account of what went on behind the scenes in the Black Sabbath camp, and it does nothing to hide the shenanigans of the most obscure years, when the band became a well-known parody and a warning to all bands with less than solid bases, strong personalities and good management. This is obviously a book for fans of the band: people of all ages who might want to indulge in peering into a long-gone rock ‘n’ roll peephole. It is all in the past, it has all been said, it has all been said much better. But few books manage to gather the good, the bad and the unbearably ugly behind the Black Sabbath story the way Wall does. In a comprehensive and clear manner from a serial writer to a dedicated fan base, this book almost does what it says it will.


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