The ’80s proved tumultuous for Black Sabbath. It’s no surprise, considering both Ozzy Osbourne and his replacement, Ronnie James Dio, had walked away in the wake of their respective bouts of ego-driven disillusionment.
As for the rest of the band, drummer Bill Ward had gone, come, and gone again, and after the debacle that was Born Again, so too had Geezer Butler. This left Tony Iommi as Sabbath’s lone purveyor of all things dark and sinister. The problem? The music he was making sounded nothing like Sabbath. Moreover, without any true ties to the band’s history, not too many seemed to care.
While Tony Martin has his merits as a vocalist, and the various drummers and bassists that Iommi brought in to replace Ward and Butler did their duty to the best of their ability, the fans wanted more. And so, in early 1990, Iommi and Butler made amends, lending the Sabbath more credibility amongst the masses.
But there was work to be done still, so Iommi and Butler recruited legendary sticksman Cozy Powell to join them in the studio, and for a while, they kept Martin on vocals. But still, Iommi and Butler knew that if they truly wanted to make an impact, they needed a powerful punch, and as fate would have it, that punch came by way of once-departed, now-returned vocalist Ronnie James Dio.
Dio brought with him another former Sabbath cohort, Vinny Appice, which was a good thing considering Powell had broken his leg. In one fell swoop, Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell/Mob Rules-era band was back together., resulting in Dehumanizer (1992), an album now considered Sabbath’s final “great” record.
Alas, the magic wasn’t to last, with Ozzy-related indifference derailing the reunion with Dio. But just a few years later, and much to the delight of metalheads worldwide, Sabbath’s original four reunited, maintaining an on-again-off-again relationship through the band’s final record, 13, and final performance in 2017.
Save for a brief respite in the mid-90s; Geezer Butler was there for it all. In support of his autobiography, Into the Void: From Birth to Black Sabbath and Beyond, Butler recounts it all, as well as shedding some light on if he plans to take the stage with his old bandmates one last time.
What moved the needle toward reuniting with Ronnie for Dehumanizer?
Butler: I’d come on again around 1990, and originally, it was me, Tony, Tony Martin, and Cozy Powell, but we had some issues with Tony, and Cozy became injured, so we decided to bring Ronnie back in, who brought Vinny Appice along with him. I’d seen Ronnie around at a show or two but really hadn’t talked to him since he left Sabbath. When it was first suggested that we bring him back, I didn’t know if we’d get on well together or not, but it was great. And when we first got on tour for Dehumanizer, we got along so well. Most nights, after the encore, we’d go back to the hotel, sit around the bar, and talk about old times. The whole thing was a happy accident at first.
Where did things begin to take a turn?
Butler: As was the case in the ’80s, it was a massive clash of egos that did us in again with Ronnie. The big thing, though, was Ozzy informed us that he was planning to retire. He asked us all to come to play with him for his “last show,” with a plan of the original Sabbath lineup joining him on stage for an encore. Well, we told Ronnie about this, and he said, “Absolutely not. I’m not playing that show. Why would we do that? Why would you go on with Ozzy when I’m in the band now?” So, it was all ego. But then, Bill called us up and said he would be up for it. So, Ozzy, Tony, Bill, and I were all up for it, and that might have led to us getting back together then. But because Ronnie took it so badly, the whole thing was killed. And then, Ronnie was so bothered by it after the fact that he ended up leaving us before the end of the tour.
Is that what sparked the eventual reunion with Ozzy in the late-90s?
Butler: I think so. Sabbath eventually carried on with Tony Martin, but there was a real commercial nadir happening. And despite what the press has said, the four of us always maintained our friendship outside the band. That was just a good thing because when we did finally get back together, we fell right back into the good parts of our past. I guess it was just the right time. Plus, the money was good, and I didn’t have anything better to do [Laughs].
Why was your creative output with Ozzy so low after the reunion?
Butler: That was always a frustrating thing. We tried to do an album in the early 2000s, but it just felt too forced. I brought in maybe five or six songs, but we couldn’t do a thing with them. The way I saw it was that if we couldn’t come together as a group and make these songs work, then what’s the point? And what we did put together left me saying, “These songs aren’t very good. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to represent the band this way.” It wasn’t fair to put out an album of inferior crap after so many years away, so we didn’t.
Conversely, you put together a great record with Ronnie in The Devil You Know. Why?
Butler: Interesting point. You know… I’m not really sure. That lineup always did have a special chemistry, or whatever you want to call it. After we fell out with Ronnie during the Dehumanizer tour, I thought that might have been it. But while at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, we were having a drink at the bar, and Tony said to me, “I’d like to make some new music again. Wouldn’t it be great to do the Ronnie-era songs again? Maybe we should call him up.” We’d been doing the Ozzy stuff since we got back together, but we missed playing the stuff from Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, and Dehumanizer. So, we got in touch with Ronnie, and not surprisingly, he was very unsure. But he flew to England, we did two or three songs, and we were off and running again. Once again, it was everything that we’d been missing with Ozzy from a studio perspective.
Did working with Ronnie bother Ozzy, and do you feel that 13 and the accompanying tour happens at all if Ronnie didn’t pass?
Butler: It’s hard to say. We were in a wonderful creative space with Ronnie, and the tour went great, too. It felt like time had healed the wounds and that, with age, we’d finally found a way to make it work. Ronnie was going to carry on with us, but he was also going to do his own album too. I’m honestly not sure if things would have unfolded the same way. But the door for 13 was definitely opened after the fact. It was at that point that we started to think, “Well, why not try to do another Sabbath album with Ozzy?” And luckily, it all just fell into place.
Do you have any regrets about Bill not being a part of 13 and the final tour that followed?
Butler: Oh, yeah, I definitely do. It was never the same without Bill when it came to Sabbath. It really wasn’t. If we’re gonna be up on stage with Ozzy, not having Bill there feels very weird. But I don’t know what went on there. I went away on holiday to Hawaii during a break we had while we were writing 13, and up until that point, Bill was involved. We were actually writing 13 at his studio. So, I went on my vacation to Hawaii, and when I came back, Bill wasn’t in the band anymore. As to why, I never really got a proper answer.
It was rumored that Bill was asked to perform during the final tour but declined. Is that accurate?
Butler: Yes, it is. We asked him to come along many times. But he wasn’t in the best of health, so we said, “Come along with us, Bill. Do whatever you can do. Don’t strain yourself. We’ll love it, and so will the fans.” But Bill didn’t want to do it. He said, “I’m not having another drummer on tour with me. I’m either doing the whole thing, or I’m not doing it at all.” Bill felt he was healthy enough, but we weren’t sure. We just couldn’t take the risk. We had too much on the line to go out on tour not knowing if Bill was going to collapse or something. So, we got a standing drummer and asked Bill repeatedly to come out and at least do a few songs each night, but he refused the whole way. What can I say? Bill is a proud bloke. All we could do was respect his decision.
Is there a chance the four of you will perform together again?
Butler: Absolutely not.
That’s a resounding no!
Butler: Totally, but for me, that’s it. I’m totally retired, mister [Laughs]. We did the final tour, and I’ve written this book. There’s nothing left for me to do. I’ve left it all behind me. I wish them all the best. I’m at peace with it all.
Looking back on it all, how do you measure the importance of Black Sabbath?
Butler: It wasn’t until later that it hit me. Like I said before, early on, we just wanted to play rock music and keep the thing going. And when things were breaking apart with Ozzy, we were doubting ourselves, and it felt like no one cared at all. But then, in the ’80s, bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica started coming out and telling the press that Black Sabbath was their main influence. To that, we were like, “What? Really?” So, I guess we did something right after all [Laughs]. But for me, at least, it wasn’t until all these other bands started citing Sabbath as this massive influence that it really hit me.
Do you have any regrets?
Butler: When it comes to Black Sabbath, and everything else, there are a million things I wish I could change. But then again, if I were to change one thing, who knows what else might happen in its place? I’m fine with how it all turned out. I’ve always accepted whatever’s destined for me. What other choice did I have anyway?
Feature Photo: Davide Sciaky / Shutterstock.com
Interview By Andrew Daly
An Interview With Geezer Butler Of Black Sabbath article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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