Looking At BLACK SABBATH’s “Heaven And Hell” 42 Years Later
A Band In Chaos
After the conclusion of BLACK SABBATH‘s “Never Say Die!” tour, the iconic kings of heavy metal convened in a Los Angeles studio to begin work on their next album.
The eleven-month process that followed has been described by guitarist Tony Iommi as a period that was “highly frustrating and never ending” for the foursome. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne at that time was feeling fed up with the experimentation on BLACK SABBATH’s latest efforts, 1976’s “Technical Ecstasy” and 1978’s “Never Say Die!”, and wanted to return to the group’s pioneering sound of strait up, power chord-driven metal.
In his memoir, guitarist Tony Iommi revealed that he still possesses a recording featuring Ozzy singing an early version of what would become the SABBATH staple “Children Of The Sea”, but with different lyrics.
Exit Ozzy Osbourne
BLACK SABBATH were deep into drugs and alcohol at this point in their careers, however Iommi says Osbourne “was on a totally different level altogether”. Ozzy showed little, if any, interest in the band’s musical ideas and refused to lay down vocals to the music.
Amidst mounting pressure from the record label and frustrations with Osbourne’s lack of input, Iommi made the decision to fire Ozzy in 1979, believing the only options available were to either fire the drug addled singer or break up the band.
“At that time, Ozzy had come to an end”, Iommi said. “We were all doing a lot of drugs, a lot of coke, a lot of everything, and Ozzy was getting drunk so much at the time. We were supposed to be rehearsing and nothing was happening. It was like ‘Rehearse today? No, we’ll do it tomorrow.’ It really got so bad that we didn’t do anything. It just fizzled out.”
After BLACK SABBATH fired Ozzy Osbourne on April 27 1979, they had to find a new singer. And quickly.
Enter Ronnie James Dio
Singer Ronnie James Dio was introduced to Tony Iommi in 1979 by Sharon Arden, who would later go on to marry and manage Ozzy as well as reach reality show stardom. At first, Dio and Iommi discussed forming a new project, rather than a continuation of BLACK SABBATH. The two would meet again, by chance, at The Rainbow on Sunset in Los Angeles later that year. Both men were in similar situations with Dio seeking a new project and Iommi needing a singer. “It must have been fate,” Dio recalled, “because we connected so instantly.”
A new era of SABBATH was upon us.
Ronnie James Dio eventually met up with Tony at his house in Los Angeles for a laid-back, jam session to see how things went. On that first day, the duo completed the song “Children of the Sea”, the track Iommi had abandoned prior to Osbourne’s firing.
“Black Sabbath was a band that was floundering,” Dio recalled. “And, with my inclusion in it, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, cared a lot about each other, and knew that we could do it again – especially under the banner of a band that had been so successful.”
Recording A Masterpiece Amidst Disaster
Recording for the new BLACK SABBATH album began in October 1979 with producer Martin Birch. The album was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida and Tony Iommi recalled that Dio brought a new level of professionalism to the band, which helped them get back on track.
“Ronnie was very serious about Sabbath,” Iommi said. “He came in and he had a lot of input as to what we were doing. He wrote a lot of the lyrics, which were very much down-to-earth – unlike Ozzy’s, which were always up in the air somewhere.”
A Struggling Bill Ward
It was during this time that drummer Bill Ward was also struggling with his own battles, which would eventually lead to his departure from BLACK SABBATH within months.
Even aside from his own personal struggles, Ward wasn’t exactly happy with the direction BLACK SABBATH were moving in creatively. “Heaven and Hell for me wasn’t a turning point,” he recalled. “Heaven and Hell was the beginning of a new band of which I had no idea what band I was in. It was almost like Ron was capable of coming up with lyrics that seemed to fit his idea of how Black Sabbath ought to be, and I sensed a kind of un-realness about the lyrics. My favorite song on Heaven and Hell was a blues song that we did, ‘Lonely Is the Word’ – and that seemed to be real. But things like ‘Lady Evil’, they seemed almost like bandwagon-type lyrics. ‘Lonely Is the Word’, I definitely liked playing that song. And ‘Children of the Sea’ – I did like to play that too. I thought Ronnie was a very good singer.”
The members of BLACK SABBATH also loved playing pranks on Ward, which continued during the recording sessions of “Heaven and Hell”. One rather slow day in the studio saw Tony Iommi pour a solution used by studio technicians to clean the tape heads onto the drummer before lighting the flammable solution on fire. Unaware just how flammable the liquid was, Ward would go on to suffer third degree burns as a result and still sports scars on his legs from the incident to this day.
Ward has said in the past that due to his rampant alcoholism, he has no memory of the time period when “Heaven And Hell” was recorded. With his mounting erratic behavior coupled with the deaths of both his parents, Ward would eventually find it necessary to walk away from BLACK SABBATH midway through the group’s tour in support of the new album. American drummer Vinny Appice was brought in to replace Bill shortly after.
The Early Sessions
In early demo recordings for the original album, songs like “Lady Evil Blues”, “Slap Back”, “Lord She’s Handsome” and an early version of the title track which featured BLACK SABBATH keyboardist Geoff Nicholls on bass due to bassist Geezer Butler dealing with a divorce, were laid to tape. It was during this time that Butler himself would question his future with the band as he had also become disheartened with ongoing haze of drugs and alcohol abuse. Upon Dio’s first joining of BLACK SABBATH, the vocalist also took up bass duties for a short time, having played the instrument in his previous band ELF in the early 1970s. There was even a point when Iommi would reach out to his close friend Frank Zappa for help in finding a bassist. Zappa would offer his bassist at the time for the “Heaven and Hell” sessions but Iommi preferred finding a permanent player. Eventually, Geezer would return to the band with Nicholls staying on as the band’s unofficial keyboardist.
All the songs but one were written before Butler returned with the only BLACK SABBATH track from the album that Geezer actually had a hand in writing was “Neon Knights”, which was the final song recorded.
In the book “Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces”, Ronnie James Dio speaks about how the song “Children Of The Sea” became his welcome to BLACK SABBATH: “I met them at the house that they were using to rehearse in and purely went to say hello and get to know them. I had no thoughts whatsoever of being in the band. As far as I knew, Ozzy was still in the band. During the conversation, Tony asked me if I’d like to see the studio they were doing their things in. He, Geezer and Bill picked up their instruments and started to play [what became] ‘Children of the Sea’ and I liked it very much. Tony asked me if I could do anything with it. I said, ‘Give me a few minutes, I think I can knock something out.’ We pretty well wrote the song that quickly.”
Heaven And Hell
With standout songs like “Children of the Sea”, “Die Young”, “Neon Knights” and the iconic title track, complete with their haunting and atmospheric lyrics by Ronnie James Dio, BLACK SABBATH’s ninth studio album comes off like a haunting, yet beautifully powerful journey into a new world of heavy metal sound.
Upon it’s release on April 25, 1980, the album would go on to achieve platinum status, selling over four million copies worldwide.
In a 2010 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, Iommi had this to say about “Heaven And Hell”: “It was good working with Ronnie. He brought a lot to Sabbath at that time. He had a lot of energy and he was very enthusiastic about everything – which was great for us, because we were all kind of getting fed up with it by then.” When asked if there were any specific songs on the album that stand out to him, Iommi replied: “I think ‘Children of the Sea’ is a great track. It was one of those things that Ronnie came in with an idea for and we just sat down and worked it out. It was quite easy, really.”
The cover art for “Heaven And Hell” is actually a painting done by artist Lynn Curlee called “Smoking Angels”, and was not specifically commissioned for the album cover.
“Heaven And Hell” would go on to be nominated for a Grammy Award for ‘Best Metal Performance’ at the 1981 awards ceremony but ultimately lost to British metal band JUDAS PRIEST and their song “Breaking The Law”.
On May 16th, 2009 – nearly 29 years to the day of its release – BLACK SABBATH’s “Heaven And Hell” was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. The award recognizes recordings that have “quality, longevity and historic importance.” It is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a recording.
In May 2017, “Heaven And Hell: The Definitive Edition” was released. The deluxe box set featured newly remastered audio supervised by Tony Iommi, as well as previously unreleased live and studio recordings.
The reissue also included an extensive booklet with new liner notes from Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke, who spoke to Iommi, Butler and Ronnie James Dio for the project, along with rare photos and archival materials.
Despite extreme difficulties in the form of rampant substance abuse and losing one singer while gaining another, “Heaven And Hell” ended up being, and still remains, one of BLACK SABBATH’s most triumphant releases to date.
Kicking off what would come to be known as the “Dio era” of the band, the “Heaven And Hell” album is a measure of what a great record is made up of.
The music is great. The sounds are heavy. Not “Iron Man” heavy, but “Neon Knights” and “Lady Evil” heavy. The record is unabashed quality in it’s delivery. The band’s sound somehow developed amidst their personal chaos into a soaring work of a pure, unadulterated heavy metal that is revered to this day within the genre.
The songs also sounded great when performed live.
The “Dio Era” of SABBATH had arrived with the release of BLACK SABBATH’s “Heaven And Hell”, ushering in a new sound for the mighty godfathers of heavy metal.