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Sunday Old School: Black Sabbath History Month Part 2 - Rise of the Neon Knights

Photo of Black Sabbath

Band Photo: Black Sabbath (?)

As so many of our readers are aware, in the United States, the month of February is Black History Month. It’s also the time when we devote the Sunday Old School column to Black Metal history. What many of our readers might not know however, is that Black History Month is also held in the United Kingdom, albeit on a far less noticed scale. Since it doesn’t make sense to dedicate two months of the year to one genre, Metal Underground and Sunday Old School in particular, will focus on a different history, that of arguably the first, and many would say best, heavy metal band of all time. Welcome to Black Sabbath History Month!

Following the firing of their lead singer Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath’s future was cast in to a shadow as dark as their music. That was until their manager Don Arden’s daughter Sharon, now known of course as Sharon Osbourne, suggested that they bring in Rainbow’s former vocalist, an American by the name of Ronnie James Dio. Dio not only brought a new voice to the fold, but also a new attitude, helping the band become more driven than they had been in years. Though Geezer Butler at one point left the group, he returned in time to record their first album with their new frontman.

Though there was something of an uncomfortable feeling amongst some fans about Black Sabbath releasing an album without Ozzy, many but the most hardcore fans of the former singer could complain about Dio’s Sabbath debut, "Heaven and Hell." The album’s title track easily ranks up there with the best of Black Sabbath songs, as well as featuring other top class songs such as "Neon Knights" and "Die Young." It also garnered some of the best reviews of the band’s career and sold very well, reaching the top ten in the United Kingdom and number twenty eight in the U.S.A. They promoted the record by teaming up with Blue Oyster Cult, though their initial run would be their only one to feature Bill Ward on drums, who departed four months after the record’s release, citing health concerns and a feeling that the band wasn’t the same without Ozzy.

Ward was replaced by another American named Vinny Appice, the brother of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus skinsman, Carmine. He joined the band for the rest of the Heaven and Hell tour before they returned to the studio to record a new album, which was released in October 1981 under the title, "Mob Rules." As is often the case with Black Sabbath, the title track was another stormer and remains one of the most popular songs Dio ever recorded with the band, if not his whole career. It sold relatively well but was not as keenly received by critics as the preceding album.

A live album entitled, "Live Evil" was next on the agenda for the band, but sadly proved to be a cause of bitterness during the mixing of the record. Dio was accused of sneaking into the studio to fiddle with his vocal tracks and was also unhappy with pictures of himself planned for the packaging. The falling out was so severe that the singer quit the band in November 1982, bringing Appice with him to form a new, eponymous band. "Live Evil" was eventually released the next year, but to add insult to injury, was overshadowed by Ozzy Osbourne’s first live effort, "Speak of the Devil," which was mostly comprised of Black Sabbath songs.

Nobody knew if Black Sabbath would continue after this unpleasantness, including Geezer and Iommi, who began seeking a vocalist for a new project, eventually going with another beloved hard rock frontman, Ian Gillan, known best for his work with their friendly rivals, Deep Purple. Though the project was initially set to be called something different, the label insisted the group continue the Black Sabbath name and as if to add credibility to this, Bill Ward was brought back into the fold. This new incarnation recorded the eleventh Sabbath album, "Born Again," which was released in August 1983.

What could have been another resounding success turned out to be a huge disappointment for not just the critics but the band too, with Gillan in particular feeling out of place and later saying that he was never the right man for Black Sabbath. He was also extremely critical of the album’s cover, a sentiment shared by almost everyone with working eyeballs and his lyrics, often humourous in nature, were considered ill fitting for the gloomy vibe. Bill Ward would also quit the band once more before touring could commence, leading them to hire former Electric Light Orchestra member, Bev Bevan and they soon hit the road with Diamond Head.

Touring for the album proved just as much of a disaster as the record’s response, not least in part to a now infamous incident where a life size replica of Stonehenge was created, inspired by a song on the album named after the monument. Of course, being so large, it was also impossible to fit into any arena the band were booked into and the situation was parodied in the movie, This is Spinal Tap. Another moment of horror, which also seeped into … Spinal Tap somewhat, was when a dwarf, hired as part of the poorly received stage show without the band’s knowledge to dress as the demon baby from the album’s cover, fell about thirty five feet after miming to a tape of a screaming baby. He was supposed to land on a pile of mattresses, though he wasn’t aware that they had been taken away and so even after the intro tape stopped, the sounds of screaming was still filling the venue.

All this proved to be a disaster and Gillan was only too glad to rejoin his old bandmates when Deep Purple reunited, leaving Black Sabbath in the lurch once again. Surely no band could survive losing not one, but three legendary singers?

Missed the first part of the series? You can check it out by clicking the link below.

Black Sabbath History Month Part 1

Black Sabbath - "Die Young"

Black Sabbath - "Neon Knights"

Black Sabbath - "Heaven & Hell"

Black Sabbath - "The Mob Rules"

Black Sabbath - "Sign of the Southern Cross"

Black Sabbath - "Trashed"

Black Sabbath - "Zero the Hero"

Black Sabbath - "Smoke on the Water"

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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