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20 Years Ago: The First Ozzfest Kicks Off in Virginia

Ozzfest
Ozzfest

Touring music festivals were all the rage in the ’90s, with Lollapalooza catering to the alternative market and the Warped Tour luring in punk-rock kids.

No one had considered the metal crowd, though, until Ozzy Osbourne was shunned by Lollapalooza organizers, which gave wife Sharon the inspiration to start a festival for those who preferred their music to come with a generous side of headbanging. On May 24, 1997, the first of 22 Ozzfest shows kicked off at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va.

According to her 2005 autobiography, Sharon Osbourne called the William Morris Agency, which represented Lollapalooza, and was turned down after asking about getting Ozzy on the bill. “They laughed at the idea,” she told The Guardian. “They all thought Ozzy was so uncool. So I thought, ‘Right, I’ll organize my own f—ing festival.'”

A two-date test run for Ozzfest took place in late October 1996 in  Arizona and California, and it was a huge success. That’s when the idea of a full tour was hatched. “Our strategy was to take all the undesirables, all the bands that couldn’t find an outlet anywhere else, and put them together, give them an audience,” Ozzy wrote in his autobiography I Am Ozzy.

There would be two stages; one for the headliners and a second one for the smaller and up-and-coming bands like Coal Chamber, Neurosis and Drain STH. The main-stage big guns for that initial run were Pantera, Type O Negative, Fear Factory, Machine Head and Powerman 5000. Marilyn Manson joined the tour a couple weeks. And, of course, Ozzy himself was on all dates.

One additional surprise came in the form of a reunited Black Sabbath, who were slotted at the top of the bill. The group had last gotten together for a show at the end of Osbourne’s No More Tours trek in 1992, but nothing more came of it. At the encouragement of Sharon, the band buried the hatchet once and for all.

“At first, it wasn’t the full original lineup,” Ozzy recalled. “It was just me, [guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler], with Mike Bordin from Faith No More standing in on drums for [Bill Ward]. I honestly don’t know why we couldn’t get Bill to play those first few shows. But I was told he’d had a lot of health issues.” Ward finally joined the band in its hometown of Birmingham in December 1997 for two shows that were recorded for the 1998 live album, Reunion.

The inaugural Ozzfest wasn’t without some bumps along the way. A minor riot broke out in Columbus, Ohio, when Osbourne lost his voice and couldn’t perform, and officials in New Jersey unsuccessfully petitioned to prevent Manson from playing at a Meadowlands date. Overall though, Ozzfest was a major triumph, hitting the road with different lineups for the next decade before falling victim to the U.S. recession.

Incidentally, the same year Ozzfest debuted was Lollapalooza’s last until a 2003 revival that was a bust. It’s since become a Chicago-only festival, one that Black Sabbath headlined in 2012 in their only North American appearance that year.

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