Before the world saw him as a mumbling homebody used for
depressing comedic effect on the Osbournes, before Ozzfest changed metal
festivals forever, before everyone got sick of his wife, there was simply the
man, Ozzy Osbourne. Like many, then and now, Ozzy wasn't happy with his
upbringing in Birmingham. They had what we these days refer to as "jack shit,"
and, well, it probably sucked even more than most lives at an early age. The
point is, by 15, he was convinced that he'd make it as a rock star. The big
push came as the Beatles, Ozzy's ultimate inspiration in the world of music, took
the world by storm.
Throughout 71 years, plenty of crazy shit can happen to a person who borders on dull or uninteresting. For a person like Osbourne, 71 years likely feels like three times that amount of time. Back to age 15, though, Ozzy was desperate and mostly unliked in school, but it eventually didn't matter. He found a band with Sabbath bass-guitarist Geezer Butler. When school ended, they linked up with lead-guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward. The table had been set, and whether they knew it or not, they had found the formation that would make one of the two most important hard-rock bands of all time.
That band, Black Sabbath, had it down to a science from essentially their first record, Black Sabbath, in 1970. The self-titled album, and especially its opening track by the same name, brought the blatantly demonic lyrical content that would ultimately lead listeners on a journey to the Black Sabbath.
The drums in those opening moments are the stuff nightmares are made of. If you've ever seen the VVitch, then you know the kind of terror that film portrays. It's very much in line with the imagery conjured during the song. When Osbourne's voice is released, the sense of dread is palpable and forces listeners to face their demons head-on. Most bands on their debut albums are still looking for what will eventually be known as their signature sound. This wasn't the case with Sabbath, or Ozzy as a solo artist.
People will forever compare Sabbath to Zeppelin; it's just going to happen, based on their wide array of influences, but where Sabbath differed was in having more realistic impressions of the world of the underground and bleak existence. For most young creatives, mythical creatures, journeys, and tales of wizardry are sources of entertainment and inspiration. Songs like "The Wizard" and "Fairy Wear Boots" are able to hit with thick precision, while still discussing things with a sense of whimsy often unseen during that period. But as the consciousness around the band began to sway and intensify, they returned in 1970 with the massively successful Paranoid. The songs are still long for the decade, but the instrumentation is better, smoother, and more driving and persistent. It's a more polished Sabbath.
Take a song like "War Pigs": the sirens hovering over the sound system, with doom and gloom imminent and expected. Osbourne's story unfolds like many before and after, with visions of war and its destruction. Still the poor go to war, for injustice in distant lands but not their own. All that so that some guys can get rich. You feel the tension when you hear the words of that warning that you should "wait till judgement day comes."
But still, "War Pigs" doesn't come close to the title track. You can't really talk about Black Sabbath without "Paranoid," so here we go. Even today, it's ridiculously cool and influential. This, to me, is the perfect expression of Osbourne as a performer, and in this track, he's very much the central entertainer. "Occupy my brain" spills out over the driven guitar beats, while Bill Ward's drumming takes the song on the quickly placed road it's supposed to be on. The song just works, in every way it's meant to. It's not a super-long song, but when a track gets the ideas out as well and clear as "Paranoid" does, it doesn't really need to be lengthy. It's a modern heavy-metal masterpiece, and still one of the most influential songs ever.
"Master of Reality" came next, and, as expected, more heavy anthems descended onto the public. This time around, the album embraced what would later become sludge, stoner, or doom metal. The bass lines have that low buzz rumble, with Ozzy's voice soaring during the bombastic "Children of the Grave" and especially "Sweet Leaf," which is the most obvious reference in the band's repertoire to the drug of choice of many Black Sabbath fans.
The albums still came regularly throughout the years, and the majority of them were well received, but by Never Say Die! in 1978, the spark was fizzling. Ozzy wasn't into it, and even if he was, his life was a mess. They were all strung out on drugs. However, after Ozzy's first solo album, I suppose something changed. Iommi, Butler, and Ward decided it was time to move on, so they hired Ronnie James Dio. And with that, Ozzy was out.
By that time, however, Ozzy had some miracle laid upon him when he became entangled with Sharon. Through her brilliance, she—much like her father, the concert promoter in the industry—was able to see that all wasn't lost. Ozzy was, sure, but every great artist needs a muse, and for Ozzy, it was Sharon. And Sharon was much more than a muse; she had skill. That's why it's called the music business. You need the talent up front but the management skillset behind the scenes. Now, most businessmen don't really gel with the rock-n-roll, heavy-metal, drug-and-booze lifestyle, but sadly, they keep the business end going. So of course, it didn't matter to Ozzy to be known as the guy who terrified the f*** out of all the execs and "normal" people working said jobs. It was just part of that world
As an aside, during that time, Osbourne wasn't as much of a sure thing as he is now, in respect to his solo career. I think that's pretty common, when a known entertainer leaves his or her main gig to go solo. Some end up doing well, like Ozzy or Timberlake or Tina Turner. Some don't make it as successfully, and we forget their names. Feel free to insert whichever failed solo artists you think of first here: ______.
Either way, Sharon, along with Ozzy's vision and desire for something new and his own, found someone else to help lead the ship. Randy Rhodes gave the act exactly what it needed. With his artistry and lightning fingers, alongside Ozzy's animalistic high wail and to-the-point lyrics, they were destined for arenas.
With his solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz, Osbourne brought evidence that he didn't need the others in Sabbath to make a great heavy-metal record. Sure, it wasn't quite as legendary, but songs such as "Mr Crowley" played well to the heavy-metal fan base, while tracks like "Suicide Solution" provoked the ire of the always buzzkilly religious right and close-minded suburbanites. However, none of that mattered in a significantly negative way. If anything, it brought more fans in who may have just wanted to piss their parents off. Ozzy was the first to benefit from that style of controversy, but he set the stage for artists like Kiss, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and countless others to be able to pander to a young crowd looking for art that would piss off good old Mom and Dad.
With a now-flourishing solo career, the legend of Ozzy as a partier began to grow to even more absurd heights. During this era, the stories of snorting ants with Motley Crue, eating the bat's head, the pissing of the Alamo, etc., became as big a part of his persona as his actual band. In other words, by this point, the tour and shows had begun to suffer and take a backseat to the theatrics of the day. Many shows didn't happen because of Osbourne's swan dive into substance abuse, but the tour ended up being memorable for another, super f'ed-up reason.
On March 19, 1982, just a few days after I had entered the universe, a helicopter crash shook the Osbournes and much of their company to its core. Most notably, Master of Guitar Randy Rhodes was killed, due to the negligence of the pilot. The tour's costume designer also died in the crash. The loss was incalculable, both for the band and for Ozzy, who felt as though he had lost his best friend. Regardless, the show had to go on. The years following saw many more albums, with varying degrees of success. Bark at the Moon is maybe his best offering as a solo artist, at least in my eyes, but going back over his life, there are many records I don't ever recall hearing about. It wasn't until 1991 when I remember knowing who Osbourne was. No More Tears was the album, and songs like "No More Tears" had the ominous yet modern approach that fit his style at the time, but the real hit of the album was, without a doubt, "Mama I'm Coming Home." It's emotional and raw, introspective and heartbreaking, all in one. It's a major reason for his renewed success during the early 90s, but by the end of the decade, he'd be known for something else entirely.
Sure, The Osbournes happened in the early 2000s, but that's not what I was referencing. It was obviously a huge success for the family to expose themselves and profit, but in a musical sense, it wasn't really doing anything for Ozzy himself. Instead, this is where Ozzfest comes into the picture. Frustrated during the late 90s at the now-tepid response to Ozzy's solo career, Sharon found herself in a tough spot as a manager. Osbourne was old news, and it was becoming much more difficult to get him on major bills or tours.
Shunned by Lollapalooza, Osbourne—this time Sharon—hatched an idea to organize something that would perfectly accommodate the type of crowds her husband was used to performing for. Thus, Ozzfest was born, and for over two decades, the tour and various iterations have been going strong. In the five years I was regularly attending the fest, I witnessed countless throngs of metalheads rocking and moshing in sweltering summer heat. It felt like home and a place we could all be welcome. The bands featured also pushed the mark of what a successful festival could be. Seeing bands like Meshuggah, Pantera, Slayer, and many others I would've never heard about otherwise made it worth the travel, the heat, and everything else involved. Times change, though, and Ozzfest has all but faded, along with the idea of traveling summer festivals. Now it's just stand-alone multi-day festivals, but Ozzfest will always be part of the reason those traveling circuses of summer were so special to so many.
These days, Ozzy could be doing better, but that's a sign of age and wear and tear. Numerous reports over the last year have spoken to his decreasing quality of life, but for me and millions of others, he will always be the guy who urged us to destroy institutions through courageous ideas, who thumbed his nose at the establishment, and finally, a man who will always be known as the Prince of Darkness. Thanks for reading.
For more music-related articles, visit Landon's page at TDMXT.com/blog