'People’s hair changed'
Interview Marek Steven
Photography Dan Wilton
One of our collaborators Marek Steven is a lifer rocker and guitarist in bands including Invasion and his new heavy metal act Amulet. Knowing that Marek – like all metallers – is a massive fan of Sabbath, ’SUP arranged for a chat to take place with the mighty Bill Ward – drummer for Sabbath – to find out where it all began and maybe where it’s headed.
Black Sabbath are one of the only bands in the world that needs no introduction. This particular interview is a 45 minute chat with perhaps the least appreciated founding member of the band. Bill was in Mythology with Tony Iommi before they formed what would be soon be called Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler in late ’60s Brum.
Bill brought a jazzy free vibe to the songs that would forever stamp his mark on those incredible ’70s albums. And between them the magical four-piece made unbeatable heavy music that will never be bettered. Bill’s input into these classic songs should not be underestimated. He sat back as the most relaxed member of the group but he penned a few killer tunes and sang well on a couple too.
Tony Iommi has (literally and metaphorically) worn the cross for Black Sabbath the longest – he’s kept the band going pretty much permanently across multiple line up changes and decades. But it is arguably Bill who has quietly held the torch for the original four piece line up the most. After Ozzy left the band in 1979 it seemed that Bill never really recovered or was able to accept different line-ups.
Whether this was the case or not, his drinking became a real problem for him and seriously affected his life on and off from that time to the late ’90s. Bill played on the killer first Dio fronted album Heaven and Hell (although says he doesn’t remember it) to various stints with the ’90s MK1 reformation tours both before and after he had a heart attack.
This interview took place long before the recently announced Sabbath reunion album and tour. Bill was warm, quick and very humble to speak too. It was a pretty emotional conversation for me. (And, as requested I did send him a pack of CDs by some of the best sons of Sabbath).
Black Sabbath have determined the course of my life, so it’s mind-blowing to talk to you. I’m really interested in the early days as a band. Your early work is pretty much all that matters when it comes to metal. Were your early influences blues music?
Bill: The influences were blues. In my case there was jazz. Tony also listened to jazz and one of his favourite guitar players was Django Reinhardt. Geezer and Ozzy liked blues and their tastes didn’t go back as far as Tony’s and mine did. As a child I was bought up on big band and swing. We all liked blues music and we all liked music that was somewhat different and we all liked to play loud. That was something that we were aware of, but playing really loud didn’t come till we’d been together for about a year. Within a couple of months of playing together we were already playing aggressively–that was the key to our passion right there.
That must have been around ’68 then. You were slowly dev-eloping an aggressive sound. Do you remember a certain point where you switched to this incredible dynamic that you found for the first album? Was there a key moment where you switched from a heavy blues band to the incredible sound you laid down on the first album?
Bill: I think the most significant happened when we wrote our first song together. It was at Tony’s house, in Park Lane, Aston. We wrote a song called “Wicked World”. It starts off with a very simple jazz feel, but it quickly goes into a ‘baam baam baaaaam bababababaam.’ As soon as those first notes came out, that was like a flat fifth right there, I think. We are all very attracted to dark notes–flat fifths or notes that are very, very powerful–that are often found in opera and Wagner or Beethoven. I know you’re a musician so you’ll know that the strength of a note can really determine the direction of a song.
The second example and probably the most well-known example was when we were rehearsing in Aston Community Centre and we went there one morning and Tony came up with the riff for “Black Sabbath” and we all fell in line. That was a major, major turning point. When we did that we were asking ourselves what the blazes we’d tapped in to. I know I came away feeling very, very secure in my soul. I knew that I’d tapped into something with the three other guys that was just killer. We were still incredibly poor at that point and down on our luck, but that was a real turning point right there.
That is still the ultimate heavy metal track for me. It’s just mind-blowing, the heaviness and power of it. I always say that to people when they ask me what my favorite track is. No one has come close to the first three or four albums you laid down. You obviously had tapped in to something very special, between the four of you. You were very much ahead of your time and you’re still changing people’s lives today.
Bill: Well thank you very much. I really appreciate your feedback and comments about the band. I agree with you. What that song has become, Marek, is our rallying cry. When everything else has turned to crap and we don’t know who we are anymore–and as time goes on and we lose each other a bit–whenever we play that song we look around at each other and we know that is our solidarity.
It must be an amazing feeling and experience to have that. You recorded that first album in 24 hours or something didn’t you? Do you remember that period? It’s such a perfect album.
Bill: I think we had about three days of studio time, but our circumstances were quite good. The band was very well rehearsed. We were already veterans of touring as that line up. We’d probably been playing together and touring for about two years. We’d been all over Europe, so we were a very tight unit by the time we went in to record that first album. The people around us told us they’d sorted us out making a record. We were used to things turning upside down and disappearing, but this actually came through and we actually did make a record. We went into the studio and did a set up. We put some mics up. We’d never been in a studio as Black Sabbath. I think the credit has to go, not only to the band, but the producers Tom Allen and Rodger Bain who really pulled it together. I think Geezer, in his eloquence, spoke the best of it when he said: ‘We came into the studio, then we walked out of the back door after a couple of days and just went back on the road.’ When I look back on that, and being a producer myself nowadays I just think we were madmen. To go into a studio and try to record this very raw and live stuff. Today that would be construed as a nightmare, but back then it was the real deal. It’s amazing in a production sense and the timing sense and the way we went about it, to come out with that album actually boggles me a bit. I’m still quite amazed.
You did a lot of touring back then. I heard the shows could be quite violent. Is that true?
Bill: The audiences were very rowdy. Only a couple of years before–and I’ll use Cream, who are a great band, as an example–the audiences for them were still very subdued. They were mainly listening and then would stand up and applaud. If you look at a Cream audience back then, there would be a couple of people getting their rocks off, but for the most part there would be a crowd intelligently listening to Cream, and rightly so. But by the time we were performing as Black Sabbath, the audiences were changing. Even the audiences that listened to Jimi Hendrix and major rock groups of the day had begun to change. Even our early audiences were very polite. It felt like playing in our living room. I remember the audiences changing in front of me. I remember that distinctly. The way they wore their clothes became different. We got a lot of leather jackets with studs. People’s hair changed. The whole look was just a sublime move. I think that was from a lot encouragement from us, and of course Ozzy. He wasn’t prepared to go into a room where people sat and applauded at the right place. We played loud and really aggressively. Ozzy refused to go on unless everybody got up. That’s where all the profanity with the audience started too. It was another turning point. I’d never seen another band do it. It was a crossover point. It was where the fire started. People got up and danced in such a restricted space. I think that’s why everybody started head banging, because there wasn’t enough room. It was just fucking unbelievable to watch. Everybody just rocked from their torsos upwards. It was nothing to do with the feet. It spread like wildfire all over England and Europe. Everybody was just rocking out, but in a completely different way than they had to Hendrix and Cream and our contemporaries of the day. It was quite the sight to see.
I don’t think anyone can argue that Sabbath were the band. You opened the doors for so many people and nobody can beat those albums you put out. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, metal kind of lost itself a bit, and I’m hoping it’s coming back now. People are looking back and understanding what you guys were all about. Did you feel that too? It must have been a huge loss when Ozzy left the band and it was a tragedy for metal. I don’t think metal really recovered from it. I’m not totally sure what I’m asking here, but how do you feel about heavy metal generally and the fractioning of the band in the late ‘70s?
Bill: I could understand why Oz was asked to leave, however it’s always been regrettable as far as I’m concerned. But I’m just one person in a four-person band. Behind the scenes and out of the public eye, there have been a lot of conversations and healing going on. There’s been time to make up–make amends and put your best foot forward. I was with Oz last week where he was picking up an award. That shows that we’re still a band, we’re still bandmates and still friends. I’ve tried to maintain friendships with all the guys. Just a couple of weeks ago I was chatting to Geezer and I haven’t spoken to Tony for a little while, but our conversations continue, we’re all still pretty open minded to each other. We’re all doing our own projects, but we’re not cut off from each other in any way. Also the reunion that we started about 10 years ago went very, very well. We’ve toured the world since 1999 as the original band. It was absolutely great. I loved it. I’d always hoped that the band could remain together and if anyone wanted to make their own albums or just take a break for a couple of years then they could, but that didn’t really happen with Black Sabbath. Oz was asked to leave. And what he’s gone on to do is phenomenal. He’s huge in the US and across the world. He’s a huge recording artist as well as the TV show and a couple of movies. He’s done incredibly well. All of us have done really well. We’re all really involved in music still. In fact that’s why I’m a bit groggy today. I was in the studio until really late last night finishing some mixes of some stuff I’m going to put out. Did I actually answer your question there?
Yeah, you did. Everything happens for a reason, and you’ve got those eight albums, which for some people are like a religious experience to listen to. Maybe you wouldn’t have surpassed them if Ozzy had stayed. Were you aware of any bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s that were following the concepts that you had in the early days? People like Saint Vitus and Trouble or Sleep?
Bill: In the ‘80s and for part of the ‘90s were really, really tough on me. That’s when my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction started. So for the most part I wasn’t really aware of any of the UK bands then. My nephew used to let me know which bands to look out for. I didn’t make any trips to England for a long time. It took me a few years to work out what was going on with me, and what it actually meant to be an addict. For me the lifesaver came in the form of Ozzy’s records. There was also a couple of songs that Tony did that I really liked. The saving grace for me was Metallica. I knew them from the beginning. Metallica for me was the life-saving force that came in and rescued all the bands that were flailing at the time. When I heard The Black Album (1991), I sat down and I played it and played it and played it. It was like listening to Sgt. Pepper’s (1967), which forever changed my life. I thought, ‘My god. Now we’re into something solid.’ Metallica really hit the spot with me. My biggest break into today came when I started listening to the gothic bands, and some grunge and bands that were a little bit rough around the edges. Today I think we’re in the most marvellous place with heavy metal. I’m just immersed in the amazement of the progress that has been made. Some of the guys and I had a bit of a tough time with the new bands, but there’s a lot of us older musicians who really love the new bands–it’s a bit like watching the grandkids. I hope I don’t sound big-headed, but I can tell what tree they originally came from. I actually get that same religious feeling you mentioned earlier when I hear some of these new bands. They’re doing amazing things. It takes me back to where we were in 1966.
I’d agree that Metallica definitely picked up your baton in 1983 and they and Black Sabbath are easily the best metal bands ever for me. It feels to me there are lots of good new bands who understand what you were about back in the ‘70s, and I think that the next decade is going to be really exciting for metal. I guess Geezer wrote a lot of your lyrics, but you had this power and intensity. Where did you pick that up from?
Bill: Part of it came from our predecessors. There were great bands in the ‘60s. A lot of bands were referencing flower power and peace. I want to make it clear that I’m not being negative about that whole movement, but we were from Aston and there wasn’t much of a hippie era going on there. At least 50 percent of our day was spent looking at the guy across the street to see if he was going to run over and kick you in the head. That was our reality. It was not someone running across the street to give us a flower. I think there was a lot of valuable things in the hippie–or counter-culture. But some of the ideals fell short. It was a great time in the ‘60s.
I guess things also got a bit darker in the ‘70s. You were just reflecting what was going on then.
Bill: Well, you’re right. That was a large part of it. When we went to play in Berlin in 1969, there was a wall up. That was a reality. The Russian forces in and around Berlin outnumbered the Allied forces 35 to one, with tanks. The Iron Curtain was a two-hour flight from London. We were reflecting on our times in Aston, and Aston back then was dog rough. We were talking about our reality.
There still is a sense of counter culture in there though– “Sweet Leaf” and “Children Of The Grave” and other anti-war songs.
Bill: Well, we were pissed off, you know? “Sweet Leaf” is a very aggressive song when we do it live. “Sweet Leaf” and “Iron Man” were the rallying points for all the young men coming back from Vietnam. And when I think about it– to be quite honest with you, Marek–I start to cry because life is precious and I can still see the audiences when we played those songs. All the vets were up the front, so all we could see were the vets. When those songs came on, they were trying to get out of their wheelchairs. They came to hear those songs. We’d give them our all. They were men that didn’t want to go to war. They were pushed into it and nobody thanked them when they came back.
Do you have any advice for any bands that are just starting out?
Bill: The first thing that any musician needs to have is self-honesty. That will take over when the musician is in 15 feet of snow in the middle of an ice storm in upstate New York and really wants to go home and have some of mum’s soup. You have to be honest about the music that you’re representing, because if you’re not, the music won’t hold you, the fame won’t hold you, whatever you want out of the fame won’t hold you safe in that upheaval. The storm could represent anything–being sick on the road or whatever. If you’ve got the passion for yourself and your bandmates then you may last the course.
Thanks so much for this interview. It’s been fantastic for me to talk to you. And thank you for the music that you’ve created. It’s still having a huge impact on generation after generation. Have a fantastic weekend. Thanks so much, Bill.
Bill: Before you go, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I hope I get to meet you. I’d really love for you to send me some CDs of your band. I would love to hear where you’re coming from, especially after hearing who your influences are for God’s sake! I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Please stay in touch. Give me a call whenever you like. We can connect up. Take care of yourself and stay strong. You mean a lot. You guys out there mean an awful lot.