Black Sabbath performing in the 80's

Black Sabbath performing in the 80's

In 1978, Black Sabbath was running on fumes. Internal turmoil, exacerbated by years of drug and alcohol abuse, was literally tearing the band apart. Guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward had even tried to replace their iconic frontman, Ozzy Osbourne, with former Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker. Instead, they rallied for one more go-round, 1978’s Never Say Die! [Vertigo], a mixed affair, equally loved and loathed. But dig it or despise it, one thing was certain: the album would be Sabbath’s ’70s swan song with Ozzy. 

A year later, in the immediate aftermath of Never Say Die! tour, during which they were historically upstaged by Van Halen every night, Sabbath rented a house in Beverly Hills. There they started writing and recording what was presumed to be another Ozzy-fronted record, when into their lives walked American singer and former Rainbow frontman, Ronnie James Dio. Ironically, he and Iommi were introduced one night at the infamous Hollywood rockstar hangout, the Rainbow Bar & Grill, by none other than Sharon Arden (later to become Sharon Osbourne), whose father Don was managing Black Sabbath at the time. With Ozzy MIA (presumably on another epic bender), and work on the album at a standstill, Iommi invited Dio up to the house for a jam with the band, which resulted in them writing their first song together, “Children of the Sea.” The match was lit and the confidence to forge ahead into the ’80s with Dio couldn’t have been more prescient.

Geezer performing in Oklahoma, 1980

Geezer performing in Oklahoma, 1980

The pairing of Dio and Black Sabbath yielded two seminal ’80s albums, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, both of which resurrected Black Sabbath’s credibility and also helped, stylistically and sonically, to spearhead the emerging New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a musical movement being forged at the time by younger bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Motörhead. With Dio at the helm, Sabbath was sonically reborn, fired up, and musically geared towards an entirely new, and younger, generation of heavy metal fans. Listening to the recently released, newly remastered, deluxe editions of Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, in both CD and LP formats, it becomes ever more evident that the influence this version of Black Sabbath had on several subsequent subgenres of heavy metal—including power metal and symphonic metal—was quite profound. Songs like “Heaven and Hell,” “Sign of the Southern Cross,” and “Falling Off the Edge of the World” embody a sense of grandeur, both lyrically and musically, that would form the basis of such subgenres of metal.

On the low end, Sabbath perhaps never sounded better. Freed from the burden of writing lyrics for Ozzy, Geezer Butler was able to focus solely on the craft of bass playing, and it shows. Songs like “Die Young,” “Walk Away,” and “Voodoo” display masterful melodicism and counterpoint, majestic grooves, and a distinct tonal center from which all the songs radiate. “It totally freed me up to concentrate on bass,” recalls Butler, of the transition from Ozzy to Dio. “By the time we got to the Never Say Die! album, I really hated writing lyrics. I couldn't stand it, and he [Ozzy] just refused to write any lyrics at that point. It was such a relief to have Ronnie come in, being a good lyricist and all, you know?”

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Butler didn’t get to weigh in on any of the remasters, nor has he listened much to them since that version of the band reformed in 2007 under the moniker Heaven & Hell, releasing The Devil You Know [Rhino] in 2009, and touring until Dio’s untimely death in 2010. He does, however, remember some of the idiosyncrasies of recording the Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules albums. “Heaven and Hell was quite straightforward,” he recalls. “I remember the Mob Rules album took a lot longer to do the bass. On Heaven and Hell I used quite a small stack in the studio, and then Mob Rules, for some reason, I decided to use half my stage set up, and kept blowing up all the mics. I really don't know why I did that, but I tried everything, and it took me about ten days to get a sound, and in the end, I had to go smaller again, and direct.”

The two records do differ slightly in production value. Though both were produced by Martin Birch [the Deep Purple, Iron Maiden producer who passed in August 2020], Heaven and Hell has more of a ’70s aesthetic, while Mob Rules is clearly a product of the ’80s, with a more modern touch. Butler reckons the sonic differences may have to do with the studios where each was recorded. “Heaven and Hell was done in Miami at Criteria [except for ‘Neon Knights,’ which was recorded at Studio Ferber in Paris, France], and Mob Rules was mainly done the Record Plant in Los Angeles,” he explains. But one real difference-maker may reside in how the albums were actually recorded, and in particular when the bass tracks were ultimately cut. “On Heaven and Hell, all the tracks were recorded without my bass,” he reveals. “I left the band [during the Heaven and Hell recording sessions] because I was having personal problems back in England. And so, once I sorted those problems out, I came back, but all the [other] tracks had been done. The bass was [recorded] completely separate, so it had to sound different, because there was no bass while the guitars, vocals, and drums were [being] put down; whereas Mob Rules, it’s the whole band [playing] together.”

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It’s worth noting that, in Butler’s absence during the Heaven and Hell sessions, Sabbath’s keyboardist, the late Geoff Nicholls, filled in on bass, as did late, and former, Elf/Rainbow bassist, and Dio cohort, Craig Gruber. As a matter of fact, Butler credits Nicholls for coming up with the now-iconic bass groove that anchors the verses in the song “Heaven and Hell.” “Geoff came up with that,” he admits. “And I thought that it suited it perfectly, so I kept those bits in, and just changed the choruses and the middle eight bits; but the actual, verse bass line, that was Geoff Nicholls who came up with that.”

Another major difference between the two albums is a change in Butler’s battery mate. Heaven and Hell features Bill Ward on drums, while Mob Rules marks the Sabbath recording debut of Vinny Appice. In describing how the difference between their two playing styles influenced the sound and direction of the band, Butler says, “Bill was jazzier, and more of a percussionist. He added a lot of different kinds of percussion to the songs, whereas Vinny is more of a straightahead drummer—a [John] Bonham kind of style.” The difference is palpable. Appice’s hard rock drumming style paces the band’s performances in a much more modern fashion on Mob Rules.

During this time period, Butler’s image and sound were synonymous with two B.C. Rich Eagle basses. He says it was good to have somebody to work closely with who “got” the sound he was after. “I'd gone to Fender, but they wouldn't change anything on the Precision. So I went to Bernie Rico [B.C. Rich founder], and he knew what I was looking for, and he built me the two basses.”

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Another piece of gear that had a profound influence on Butler’s bass approach at the time, and on the Mob Rules record in particular, was a Yamaha pedalboard. “E5150” is a bubbling cauldron of evil-sounding bass effects that had become an iconic show opener in the ensuing years, whenever Dio fronted the band, and it sets up the “Mob Rules” title track. Butler crafted “E5150” on a Yamaha pedalboard that never went into production. “When we were in Japan, I picked up this prototype Yamaha pedalboard, and I've never seen one ever since,” he recalls. “It had all these different effects, and you could mess about with the wires, sort of like a telephone-exchange thing, and get all these different kinds of sounds.” The same board is used to create the windy, atmospheric bass lines during the verses in the epic, “Sign of the Southern Cross.”

One of the great benefits of the remasters are the live versions of more obscure Dio-era songs, like “Country Girl” and “Slipping Away,” which the band didn’t seem to perform live very often—though they do illuminate a big difference between Ozzy-era, and Dio-era Sabbath. “With Ronnie, you could change the set list every night,” says Butler. “Or, whenever he wanted to, just to freshen things up—you could change the set list. But with Ozzy, he'd always keep whatever we started with—that's what we'd end with. Ronnie was open to changing the song list.”

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Most people probably identify Butler as a finger style bass player, but you can find video of him on YouTube occasionally using a pick, particularly on a tune like “Mob Rules” or the Ozzy-era, “Children of the Grave.” Butler says that if you ever do see him using a pick, it’s out of necessity, not preference. “Occasionally, if I get blisters, I'll use a pick,” he admits. “I used to suffer with blisters on certain tours—that's why I'm using DR Strings now. I've never had blisters with DR Strings for some reason.”

Aside from Sabbath-related activities, Butler recently oversaw the re-release of his three solo records on vinyl. Plastic Planet [1995], Black Science [1997], and Ohmwork [2005] were re-released in October 2020 by BMG, at the behest of the label. “They suggested putting them out on vinyl because it was 25 years since I'd done the first one,” he says. “But a lot of the master tapes, we couldn't find them; the record company that did the first two albums has gone out of business, and they'd lost the tapes, so we had to use the CDs [for remastering and transferring to vinyl].” Though he’d like to have done the remastering the proper way, Butler says there’s “nothing I can do about it,” and that “BMG was satisfied” with the end result, so that’s good enough for him.

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As for Deadland Ritual, the band he started prior to the pandemic, with ex-Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum and Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, Butler admits that it likely won’t get resurrected once life resumes post-pandemic. “We had about 13 or 14 songs written, and we were about to go into the studio when the pandemic came along,” he says. “And now Steve won't leave his house [laughter], and so I think the singer [Franky Perez] is doing something else, and Matt is doing something also.” Butler says they had “some really good stuff” that he “might rescue” and put on a future solo album, about which he offers, “I wouldn't say never,” when it comes to future projects. “A lot of the stuff is in England, and I haven't been able to go to back [to England] since December of 2019 [due to the pandemic]. I've got so many things I've done, but they’re all over there. It's hard work—to find out where to start with them. I'll go through stuff. A lot of it is on DAT tapes, so I’ve got to find a way to play them too [laughter].” –BM

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GEAR

Basses Lakland Geezer Butler Signature Bass

Amp Ashdown HOD 600 Geezer Butler Head of Doom

Strings DR Strings Black Beauties BKB-50 [.50-.70-.90-.110]

Pedals Dunlop Geezer Butler Cry Baby Wah

Black-Sabbath-Heaven-and-Hell-and-Mob-Rules

HEAR HIM ON

Heaven and Hell & Mob Rules (Deluxe Edition Remasters), Black Sabbath (Rhino, 2021)

Plastic Planet, Black Science, Ohmwork (Reissues), Geezer Butler (BMG, 2020)

MORE ONLINE

Check out the official press release for the Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules remasters at Bass MagazineHERE

Photographs by Richard Galbraith