Ozzy Osbourne: Back to the future with Black Sabbath

With three original members of Black Sabbath gathered in the studio for the first time in 35 years, influential producer Rick Rubin told them he wasn’t interested in making a heavy metal album. Ozzy Osbourne, who had called a reunion release “the most important album of my career,” was flummoxed.

The singer recalls: “I'd go to him, ‘Rick, I don’t really understand what you’re trying to do. We are heavy metal, we're supposed to be the godfathers of heavy metal, so what are you saying?”

What Rubin wanted was to cut through more than 40 years of artistic differences, rotating lead singers, hurt feelings, solo albums, illnesses, celebrity, drugs, booze and reality shows to return Black Sabbath to a time before the term “heavy metal” had even been coined. He asked Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi to go home and listen to their 1970 debut album, “Black Sabbath,” a collection the three had not listened to in “God knows how long,” Osbourne says.

But that’s when he got it: The bluesy rumble found on their first album was an organic mix of youthful influences – Osbourne rattles off Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton – and had an uncharted freedom that Rubin told them was essential to making a proper Black Sabbath album.

“You forget what it was like before you got success,” Osbourne says. “There’s a lot of free spirit, which is what he was looking for, I suppose. It must have been. We did very well, his idea of a Black Sabbath album.”

Black Sabbath is on the road (with veteran Osbourne tour drummer Tommy Clufetos replacing Bill Ward, who quit in a spat over business issues) in support of the new Rubin-produced Black Sabbath release, “13,” stopping at the Cruzan Amphitheatre Wednesday night. (See the review on Thursday at SouthFlorida.com/GoGuide.)

The new album is astonishing on several levels: It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, the first Sabbath album to do so, and tracks such as “Age of Reason” “God is Dead?” and “Live Forever” are muscular enough to stand up to the band’s best songs. And, for all the doddering comedy he provided on his reality TV show, Osbourne, 64, is a nimble and powerful vocal presence on “13.” “Live Forever” is among his best performances ever.

Osbourne says that while it’s hard for him to hit the vocal heights fans expect on some of the classic tunes every night, the songs from “13” were recorded at “comfortable range” with live performances in mind.

Describing a recent show in Auckland, New Zealand, Osbourne says: “The first night they didn’t really respond much to it. The second night they’re all singing the lyrics with me. I’m going, ‘I can’t even remember them that good.’ … We’re all tuned into “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and all of the old classics, but … I’m just glad that people have bought into the new songs.”

In a conference call with reporters before the U.S. leg of the tour began, Osbourne touched on a wide range of subjects:

THE REUNION
“I can’t really remember who called who. I think it originally it was me and Tony doing an album and then we tried various base lines and we tried the instruments out and we tried a whole bunch of people… I don’t know who said, ‘What’s Geezer up to?’ … it just kind of came together by accident and we all started to write stuff and it started to gel. Whereas we tried before and we all sat there and it just wouldn’t -- it was just wouldn’t work, you know?

“But it came together very naturally and it wasn’t too long to where it was like, ‘I like that, that’s pretty cool.’ … You can’t force anything, right? You can just -- you can try and be Black Sabbath, but we all knew that we didn’t want to put an album out called Black Sabbath just for the sake of us guys getting together and doing stuff together. At one point there was even talk like not calling it a Black Sabbath album, but eventually it rolled into itself, really.”

BILL WARD'S ABSENCE
“We would love to have Bill back in the fold, but unfortunately it didn’t work out, and we knew we had to deliver an album because we had kept people waiting for like 35 years. So we all just got on the boat and, unfortunately, Bill had some discrepancy about something or other. But we’d love to have him back and work something out. … I wish him no harm. I still love him a lot. We all do. ... But we felt if we pull the plug on [the reunion]  people would have gone, ‘Oh, it’s never going to happen,’ you know? Because we tried, and we were speaking about it for a long time.

TONY IOMMI'S CANCER
 “Believe me, I know from firsthand with my wife that treatment for cancer is not like doing a line of coke and going to a disco. It knocks the crap out of you, you know? But fair play to Tony, it just came down to the studio.

“The only thing we had to do was make it easier for him to get treatment. In other words, we started off at my studio in Calabasas, but we all moved to his studio in England, and we all stayed in a hotel for a while to accommodate him, and he would come down to the studio every day. I’d go, ‘Tony, you’re sure you’re OK to do this, man, are you ready?’ And he came up with the goods.

“I thought, ‘My God, man, he is Ironman.’ … My hat goes off to him, because I mean, believe me, I don’t know if you ever known anybody who had chemotherapy before, but that really knocks the life out of you, man.”

THE SONG "GOD IS DEAD?"
“The way it came about, I was in a doctor’s office waiting to go in to see a doctor and there was a magazine in front of me, Time magazine or something, with just, “God is Dead?” on the top… I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool’ because, well …  they flew a plane into buildings a few years back in the World Trade Center in the name of their God. There's pedophile priests everywhere, and where is God? I mean, there’s no good comes out of flying planes into buildings and blowing yourself up in the name of God, and I just thought, that’s so right, man. And I gave it to Geezer, and Geezer gave me the lyrics. And at the end of the song it says ‘I don’t believe that God is dead.’ It starts off pretty hopeless, but at the end, I don’t believe that God is dead. So in other words, there’s still hope, you know?”

BLACK SABBATH
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach
Cost: $25-$119
Contact: LiveNation.com, 800-745-3000; box office: 561-795-8883

Get daily updates on South Florida entertainment and things to do at SouthFlorida.com and on Twitter at @BenCrandell.