As Black Sabbath prepare for a show in Birmingham, guitar legend Tony Iommi talks to Paul Cole about his new album, battling against cancer and the legal wrangles with Ozzy Osbourne.
HE is the godfather of heavy metal, the man who put black into Sabbath and now Tony Iommi is preparing for a big Brummie homecoming that no one ever thought would happen.
Years of legal wrangling between Iommi and wild man of rock Ozzy Osbourne over the Black Sabbath name plunged any hope of a band reunion into severe doubt.
But now the 65-year-old is back in the studio with Ozzy on vocals for the first time in 35 years, recording a new album which also features original Brummie bassist Geezer Butler, now 63, and American drummer Brad Wilk, a babe in arms at just 44.
Wilk, best-known for his work with rock supergroups Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, was hired when Birmingham’s Bill Ward chose not to rejoin the band in a row about contract issues.
The band are hitting the road on a trek that will take them to Australasia, North America and Europe.
Iommi, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, is excited about the new album and a big Brummie homecoming.
His features are animated as he talks about his newfound enthusiasm, and his lust for life – lots of it.
“The recording and rehearsals have been going very well indeed. There’s a really good feeling about it all,” says Iommi, who flew out to LA from his home in Lapworth, Warwickshire, to record the album.
“We’re very pleased with the new album. But after all the work in the studio it will be good to get out and do some shows.”
Titled simply 13, and due for release in June, the album is a return to the Sabbath the fans love best.
It’s full of bruising guitar rock riffs, including three songs which each clock in at more than seven minutes long. A glance at the titles confirms that we’re back in familiar surroundings – End Of The Beginning, God Is Dead and Epic.
“I have to admit that it’s not what I expected,” says Iommi. “I could never have imagined that it would turn out so well, but it has.
“I think it sits comfortably with our first three albums – Black Sabbath, Paranoid and Master Of Reality – and I think it’s an album you’ll like.
“We wanted it to sound like the way we played in our early days, back to basics, and we recorded pretty much all of it almost live as a band.
“We didn’t want to go through the usual trip of recording the drums, the guitars and the vocals separately. So we played together.
“We’d also written more songs than we ever have for previous recording sessions. There are 16 tracks in total, and all of them will appear in some form or other of the album when it is released. There will be different versions, including a deluxe edition.”
But how is Sabbath founder Iommi getting on with Ozzy now? Especially as the strong-willed rockers are spending so much time cooped up in the studio.
Back in November 1977, while in rehearsal for Never Say Die, and just days before entering the studio, Ozzy announced he was quitting the band that put Birmingham on the map.
“The last Sabbath albums were just very depressing for me”, he later said. “I was doing it for the sake of what we could get out of the record company, just to get fat on beer and put a record out.”
They’ve had their differences over the years, the wild man of rock and the inventor of heavy metal. For a long time it seemed they only talked through lawyers. There were wrangles surrounding Iommi’s continued use of the Black Sabbath name, eventually leading to the band being renamed Heaven And Hell, after the title of one of Sabbath’s iconic albums.
But Iommi says that he never doubted he would one day be recording with Ozzy again.
“The truth is that Ozzy and I have never really fallen out personally,” he says. “When there have been issues, it has been purely business. Even when there has been a problem we’ve carried on talking. There’s never been a bad vibe.
“Ozzy was the one who kept on at me to go to the doctors because he was concerned about me, and he has been very supportive since I was diagnosed. In fact, all the guys in the band have been great.
“Even now, when we arrive at the studio they ask how I’m feeling, if I’m up to it, making sure that I’m OK.”
It was early last year that Iommi’s world was turned upside down.
He was diagnosed with lymphoma after bandmate Ozzy pestered him to get a pain his groin checked out. The guitarist thought it might be a recurrence of a prostate problem, and was stunned when he learned he had cancer.
In an interview last November he admitted that he lay awake at night, wondering how long he had left to live.
“I was gutted,” he says. “I went home thinking ‘Christ, that’s it, I’ve had it!’
“Cancer meant death to me. I started writing myself off. I would lie awake at night, thinking about selling this, getting rid of that, and preparing everything: who should speak at my funeral and where I’d want to be buried.
“But I also kept thinking ‘I’m not ready to go yet. I’ve got too much to do, and I like being here’.”
And here he most certainly still is, thanks to treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull.
“Please give all the people at Parkway a good plug,” he says. “They’ve been so good to me. I couldn’t be doing this without them.
“I have to have an antibody administered by drip every six weeks or so to keep the lymphoma in check. It sort of coats the cancer cells, stops it from going anywhere else. I have to come back home no matter where I might be in the world.
“The tour dates are arranged so that I can always get back for treatment. It’s the only way I can manage my illness and keep on the road. I’d love to play more shows than we’re doing but my health has to be sorted out first.
“The infusions I have are part of the chemotherapy regime. It’s relatively new treatment and they don’t know what all the side-effects might be yet but I wanted to try it.
“After each session I feel sick and tired, and that lasts for a week or so. I’m finding that it takes around 10 days to fully recover from each round of treatment, but if that’s what it takes, I have to accept it.
“In myself I’m feeling OK now. When I first found that I had the illness, it was a dark time and I was a bit spaced out. Since we’ve been in rehearsals and recording sessions, I’ve felt pretty good – great even.
“I think that the album and tour have given me something immediate to get my teeth into, something to accomplish.
“It’s not a case of taking your mind off the lymphoma – you want to be strong about it but there’s this little doubt in your mind that keeps nagging: what if this pops back – but it is something to get excited about.”
He has, he says, been told there will be around a one-in-three chance of the cancer returning, but also that it is unlikely to be the death of him. Medics say that the condition is manageable with treatment.
“I enjoy where I’m at now, I really do,” he says. “It’s a good place. I’ve got a good home life and a good family, great friends and support. And I’m fortunate because I’m still able to go out and play music.”
That’s what will bring him home again in time for Christmas. The latest set of Sabbath tour dates, announced last week, includes a huge homecoming at Birmingham’s LG Arena on December 20.
“To be finishing off our European tour dates in Birmingham just before Christmas is great,” he says. “It’s our hometown, and there’s no place quite like your hometown. No place quite like Birmingham.
“It was at the Academy that we played our first reunion gig and the welcome we got was incredible. Just what the doctor ordered. Now we’re playing at the NEC. That’s a lot more people, and we can’t wait for that.
“It’ll be all our Christmasses come together.”
The guitarist has also revealed he plans to make an album with Queen guitarist Brian May.
“When I was first ill, Brian May came to visit me at my house,” he explains. “I played him some of my stuff, rock riffs that I’d never quite got round to developing, or decided not to use. He said I ought to do something with them.
“It’s early days yet, and all my attention in on Sabbath for the foreseeable future, but we may well find some way of working together on them, and making them available in some shape or form.
“One of the ideas we had is that we could make the riffs available, get fans to use them in songs of their own, and see what they come up with. That way they’d effectively be recording with Brian and myself.”
Iommi has also expressed his desire to another music legend – Tom Jones.
“He has a fantastic voice and stage presence, even now,” he says.
“I’ve met him several times over the years, and I went to meet him backstage last time he performed in Birmingham.
“We got to chatting, and I checked my watch because it was getting closer and closer to his stage time.
“‘I’d better be going now,’ I reluctantly told him – we’d had a great conversation about music.”
“No way, stick around!” he said, and we carried on talking. He’s a really nice guy and it’s good to see him on The Voice as a judge.”
* Black Sabbath’s 13, released on the Vertigo label, with whom the band launched their career, is due in shops and to download on June 10. They play Birmingham LG Arena on December 20. For tickets call 0844 338 8000 or visit www.lgarena.co.uk