Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler may consider the latest batch of album reissues something “to just keep the name going, I suppose.” But they certainly bring back some memories for the group’s co-founder, bassist and primary lyricist.
The iconic heavy rock troupe recently released deluxe editions of three of its titles — 1972’s Vol. 4, the first album the band produced itself and recorded outside of England, and Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), which marked the arrival of Ronnie James Dio for a short stint replacing Ozzy Osbourne. All contain bonus studio outtakes and live tracks, and Butler says he’s particularly enjoyed re-immersing in Mob Rules.
But the most striking memory may come from the Vol. 4 session, with the quartet decamped to Los Angeles and all living together in the same house.
“It was mental. Completely mental!” Butler tells Billboard with a laugh. “We used to have bucketloads of cocaine there, and we had this big bowl in the middle of the table, full of cocaine. One day Ozzy noticed this button below one of the windows; He kept pressing it, ‘I wonder what this does?’ The next thing, the police turned up — it was a panic button. And there was us with this great big bowl of cocaine in the middle. So we dumped all the cocaine down the toilet and ran upstairs to get rid of our own stashes. The coppers went, ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘Oh, nothing…’ ‘OK, see ya…’ And we’d dumped about five grams of cocaine down the bog!”
Butler says he has fond memories of all three albums and recalls Heaven and Hell as a particularly “challenging” period for the band, with Osbourne departing and Dio — who first met guitarist Tony Iommi at a party — coming in. During the Heaven and Hell tour, meanwhile, Vinny Appice replaced original drummer Bill Ward. “The manager at the time didn’t want Ronnie in the band — he said he was too little!” Butler remembers with a laugh. “He used to call him ‘the dwarf’ and all this stuff. And we said, ‘That’s ridiculous. He’s got a great voice, his songwriting’s brilliant, he’s doing great with the band and that’s it. We’re keeping him.’”
Butler adds that both Dio and Appice “brought massive enthusiasm back to the band. We were on our last legs kind of thing, after Ozzy went. We were almost thinking about breaking up. But Ronnie brought incredible enthusiasm with him; He could play guitar and bass and put over his ideas instrumentally as well as vocally. He was brilliant to write with, too…Vinnie was the same way. Ronnie knew him and asked him to come down and rehearse with us, and he fitted in straight away, so we carried on.”
Black Sabbath is no longer carrying on, of course. Osbourne, Iommi and Butler shepherded the band through its The End tour during 2016-17, culminating with a pair of hometown shows in Birmingham, England that spawned a live album and video. These days Butler is making new music at his leisure and writing a memoir, and he promises Black Sabbath is a thing of the past.
“We went out on top — why ruin it?” he explains. “We’re all old — really old. I don’t think we could last a tour these days. [laughs] Tony has had his cancer; He’s in remission but he doesn’t want to chance going out on the road. God knows what Ozzy’s doing; He was waiting to do his final tour for the past three years. I don’t know if he’ll ever go out on the road again. So no, Sabbath, it’s definitely the end for us.”