With the twentieth anniversary of Saint Elvis Aron Presley’s death upon us, Terry “Geezer” Butler finds it prudent to reflect on the fact that the King wasn’t always regarded as prime material for deification.
“When I was growing up in the ’50s, I was told that Elvis Presley was the devil,” Butler recalls. “An’ I was told that his music was the devil’s music. So it was almost a sin for me to listen to Elvis, even though I used to just absolutely love him. I dunno, I guess rock n’ roll has always been classified as the devil’s music, no matter who’s singin’ it. It’s just one of those things: if your children are into it, then it must be bad.”
As the founding bassist and lyricist of Black Sabbath, Butler knows of what he speaks when it comes to horror-stricken parents blaming their children’s (seemingly) aberrant or asocial behavior on rock n’ roll. During their ’70s heyday, Butler and his Sabbath bandmates (vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward) routinely enraged critics and parents alike as their thunderously heavy proto-metal damaged at least the ears, if not the souls, of a generation of head- banging, lighter-waving youth.
The classic Sabbath line-up was sundered in 1978 when Osbourne left the band for a solo career; Butler continued on with the band until 1984, but not without some pangs. “I had regrets when we carried on after Ozzy left, ’cause at first after he left, I left with him,” Butler explains. “But then Tony kept after me to come back, saying the band needed me, so I went back. And I actually liked ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Mob Rules’ [the two early ’80s Sabbath albums cut with Ronnie James Dio on vocals]; I thought those were good albums and that we still really had a lot to offer then.
“But after that, I just thought it got to be kind of a sacrilege to go out and call a band ‘Black Sabbath’ when there were only one or two original members left. I mean, we did an album with [singer] Ian Gillan that was not supposed to be Black Sabbath album, but the record company insisted that it be credited that way when it came out. So I just lost the faith and left. I didn’t believe in the Sabbath thing anymore.”
While Iommi continued to use the Black Sabbath moniker with a devolving cast of sidemen through the late ’80s and early ’90s, a surprisingly large number of influential bands began citing Sabbath’s original incarnation as the seminal inspiration behind their modern metal music. No one was more surprised at this particular turn of events than the members of Black Sabbath themselves.
“You can ask any of us,” Butler insists. “We were the last band on the planet that any of us would have thought could have any influence on people. The press hated us. We were constantly put down, constantly gettin’ written off as nonentities. We didn’t think we were worth anything. I mean, we were selling out 20,000-seat arenas and everything, but our management was rippin’ us off, so we had no sense of just how many people our records were reaching at the time. And I think that was one of the major reasons that Ozzy split: because he had just totally lost confidence in himself.
“So we were all just amazed when bands like Anthrax and Metallica started saying in interviews in the late ’80s that Sabbath were their greatest influence,” Butler continues. “Because before that no one would even admit to owning a Black Sabbath album, much less being influenced by us, ’cause we were really the uncoolest band on earth at one point! I mean, we were happy at the start just to be able to record our first couple of albums, so we could show everybody that we could do it even though they said we were useless and that we’d never get anywhere. But then after the first two records sold god-knows- how-many millions, well . . . the rest is history.”
A big chunk of that history hinged on hysteria engendered in the American press over the significance of the band’s name and the content of Butler’s mystical, cryptic lyrics. Were they really Satanists? “Well, let’s just say that the whole Satanism thing was a big surprise for us when we came to America,” answers Butler. “The people in England, they just don’t care about that stuff; it’s hard to shock people in that regard in England. Of course, if we’d been puttin’ cats an’ dogs down, then we would have shocked some English people, but with Satan, you just get laughed at.”
“So it didn’t have anything to do with us all being Satanists or anything like that. There was a film that I’d seen in 1966 called Black Sabbath an’ I always loved saying that name, so when we had to change the band’s name [they were originally called Earth, and lost the moniker to another band with dibs on the name], we just decided to go with that one.
“And, y’know, there’s only two songs that even mention Satan or Lucifer on the first album: the song ‘Black Sabbath’ is a warning against people gettin’ into Satanism and ‘N.I.B.’ is a tongue in cheek thing about how Lucifer would feel about everything if he fell in love with someone, which I thought was a reasonably humorous thing to write about. But, of course, people in America just picked up on the words ‘Satan’ and ‘Lucifer’, didn’t listen to any of the other lyrics and condemned us. Which is sad, because some of my other Black Sabbath lyrics–‘After Forever’, as an example–are as religious as anything you’ll ever read.”
Butler spent a fair amount of time expanding his lyrical portfolio in the years after he left Sabbath, leading him to finally convene his own band to provide an outlet for his growing backlog of material. The first version of this band, known as g//z/r, released a 1995 album called Plastic Planet, featuring Fear Factory’s Burton C. Bell on vocals. Bell’s dual band commitments, however, kept g//z/r/ from becoming the touring concern that Butler desired, so the bassist hit the road as part of Ozzy Osbourne’s band instead–before reconfiguring his own ensemble under the name Geezer, with newcomer Clark Brown handling the singing chores. (Geezer will play the QE2 Sunday and Monday night with Life of Agony and Dogma)
Just as Butler was putting the finishing touches on his band’s second album, Black Science, that which had been long deemed unthinkable occurred. “I was at home in England, not doing anything,” recalls Butler. “And Ozzy called me up and said he’d been working with Tony and they were getting on really well together and they were talking about getting Sabbath back together again for the Ozz-fest [a package metal tour with Osbourne as headliner] and they asked me if I wanted to do it. And as I wasn’t doing anything else, I just said ‘Yeh’.
“Now, we’ve tried to get the band together before and a hundred lawyers and accountants and managers always come out of the woodwork and that always messes it up. So this time we just said ‘Let’s have a meeting in Los Angeles and if we get on with each other, have a rehearsal and see if it’s still there between us.’ So we had a week’s rehearsal and it sounded great, like we’d never left each other, so we just went out and did it.” (There was a caveat on that “we”, however, as Bill Ward did not participate in the reunion. Mike Bordin of Faith No More served as Sabbath skin-man on the Ozz-fest, although Butler hopes Ward may be able to participate during another Sabbath tour tentatively scheduled for next year).
Did the opportunity to play before a new generation of Sabbath fans provide Butler with any additional insights on why Sabbath has remained so persistently influential thirty years after their founding? “I think it’s probably just the attitude that comes out of our music,” he concludes. “There’s no compromise, we’ve never gotten onto any trends or anything. And our songs are pretty basic, too, so they’re just a good starting point for a lot of musicians to pick up and learn. I mean, you don’t have to go to music college to learn ‘Paranoid’ or anything. So I think it’s the combination of those two things: attitude and simplicity.”
Not to mention, of course, the American press’ willingness to provide every Satan du jour with all the free publicity their hearts could ever desire: from Elvis to Sabbath, from Vicious to Marilyn, rock n’ roll without end, amen, amen.