How Black Sabbath Were Born Again on ‘Heaven and Hell’
When Black Sabbath arrived at the fateful decision to carry on after replacing original singer Ozzy Osbourne with erstwhile Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio, the resulting new album could have been heaven or it could have been hell. But, as heavy metal fan worth his salt will tell you, Heaven and Hell was the best of both extremes (and we don’t mean purgatory) when it arrived on April 25, 1980.
The greatest irony of it all was that Heaven and Hell didn't even start out as a Black Sabbath record; but rather the first project for proposed new band that, through a combination of record label pressure and the belated involvement of longtime bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, eventually morphed into the second coming of heavy metal’s founding fathers.
At first, when Tony Iommi bumped into Dio at Los Angeles’ Rainbow Bar and Grill and invited him back to the studio for a jam, not even the expedient composition of “Children of the Sea” was taken as an omen for Black Sabbath’s rebirth.
After all, the aforementioned Geezer was so set against continuing without Osbourne (and dealing with a nasty divorce, to boot), that bass playing duties at these sessions were handled by former Quartz guitarist Geoff Nicholls.
It was Nicholls, in fact, who accidentally sparked the proceedings to the next level when he recycled a distinctive, hypnotic bass line from one of his old band’s songs, “Mainline Riders” (a bass line so simple Geezer later admitted he would have never thought to play it that way) for what would become Heaven and Hell’s colossal title track. And despite briefly considering a name change to just plain Sabbath, Geezer’s eventual return and Ward’s availability duly cemented Black Sabbath’s resurrection.
Together, Dio, Iommi, Butler, Ward (and Nicholls, now entrusted with keyboard duties) got serious about demoing and rehearsing their new songs in Los Angeles before moving their operation to Miami’s Criteria Studios (and bunking down at the home of Bee Gee Barry Gibb!). There, they met up with legendary hard rock producer Martin Birch (Deep Purple, Whitesnake, etc.) and got down to the business of conjuring up Heaven and Hell.
Besides the aforementioned title track and “Children of the Sea,” additional highlights spawned included the frenetic “Neon Knights” (Butler’s only major songwriting contribution to the album), the majestic “Die Young” (ignited by Nicholls’ synthesizers) and the doom-laden blues of “Lonely Is the World.” These mighty tunes formed the backbone of Sabbath’s strongest album in half a decade, but not without further support from more straightforward, hard rocking numbers, “Lady Evil,” “Wishing Well” and “Walk Away.”
In their totality, Heaven and Hell’s eight, titanic head-bangers possessed all of the goods needed to vault Black Sabbath right back to the top of their game. They simultaneously attracted a new legion of younger fans with Birch’s modern update of the band’s beloved old template, while temporarily infecting scores of older fans with a strange form of amnesia that left them asking questions like “Ozzy who?”
While Blizzard of Ozz was only starting to take shape in those early months of 1980, there was simply no doubting Heaven and Hell’s immediate success, as the album soared into the U.K. Top 10 and the U.S. Top 30 (both rankings not seen since the Sabotage era). Sabbath’s ninth studio album also raced up to and beyond the gold and then platinum sales benchmarks in the U.S. alone, thus making it the band’s third-place career bestseller, after 1970’s Paranoid and ’71’s Master of Reality.
Unfortunately, just a few months into the band’s subsequent headline tour, Ward bailed out on the band to cope with his worsening substance abuse and the recent death of his parents, opening the door for Vinnie Appice to take over the drums. And though the following year’s Mob Rules would almost replicate Heaven and Hell’s considerable achievements, it would also accelerate the deteriorating relationship between Dio, Iommi and Butler.
Sure enough, the legendary singer would finally embark on his long-mooted solo career in 1983, and Black Sabbath’s career fell once again into disarray; not fully recovering until the group’s mid-‘90s reunion with Osbourne. But not even the rare peaks and frequent valleys they experienced during the intervening years could erase the memory of Heaven and Hell and its astonishing creative achievements. Heavy metal heaven, pure and simple.
And remember these wise words: “The world is full of kings and queens, who blind your eyes and steal your dreams — it’s heaven and hell.”
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