Black Sabbath only stopped setting Bill Ward on fire after the drummer's furious mum called Tony Iommi a "barmy bastard" and told him to "grow up"

Tony Iommi and Bill Ward
(Image credit: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Tony Iommi hasn't properly set his former Black Sabbath bandmate Bill Ward on fire since 1980, after an over-enthusiastic pyrotechnic prank in a London recording studio left the drummer with third degree burns, and prompted a furious phone call from Ward's enraged mother.

The easy-going, amiable Ward was something of a whipping boy for Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler when the mischievous trio were bored, drunk or high, and was regularly targeted with dangerously stupid pranks. There was, for instance, that time in 1972 when, staying in a Los Angeles mansion while recording Vol. 4 at The Record Plant studio, the trio sprayed the hapless drummer from head-to-toe in gold paint, only realising that this was A Bad Idea when Ward went into convulsions. 

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Iommi admitted: "The ambulance people gave us a right bollocking: 'You idiots! You could have killed him.' They gave him adrenaline and we had to use paint stripper to get it off. He looked like a beetroot by the end."

Clearly learning absolutely nothing from this foolishness, during the same album sessions, Ozzy Osbourne sprayed Ward's penis with blue paint while the drummer was urinating.

"You should have heard the scream, man," Ozzy reflected in his 2009 autobiography I Am Ozzy. "It was priceless. But then, two seconds later, Bill blacks out, falls headfirst over the railing and starts rolling down the hillside.”

Paint-related pranks on pause, for years Sabbath had to make do with setting their drummer on fire, a habit Iommi called the group's "party piece." This came to an end however in 1980 when, during mixing sessions at Town House Studio in London for their first post-Ozzy Osbourne record, the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Heaven And Hell, Iommi's over-enthusiasm for the deed in question left the drummer with horrifying burns. 

To be fair, Iommi could argue that Ward was asking for it, because - technically - he did ask Iommi whether he could expect to be set ablaze, a comment made in the presence of legendary producer Martin Bitch (Deep Purple / Iron Maiden). Iommi recalls making a routine enquiry about the possibility of torching the drummer, only for Ward to brush aside the suggestion, saying, "Not now Tony." Perhaps wary of upsetting Sabbath's Dark Lord, Ward brought the subject up once more later that same evening, telling Iommi, with commendable good manners, "I’m going home now; you still want to set me on fire or what?’”

"I tipped rubbing alcohol over him," Iommi remembered. "Normally it just burned off but this time it soaked into his clothes, so when I lit it he went up like a bomb. He was rolling on the floor, shouting and screaming. I thought it was part of the joke, so I poured more stuff on him. Martin couldn’t believe it. We had to get an ambulance for Bill. He’d got third-degree burns. I felt bloody awful."

The guitarist would feel even worse when he received a phone call from Ward's understandably aggrieved mother.

"His mother called me on the phone and said, ‘You barmy bastard, it’s about time you grew up. Our Bill is going to have his leg off," Iommi recalled in an interview with GuitarWorld. "She exaggerated a bit. Things like that were a regular occurrence with Bill."

Ward walked from Black Sabbath on August 21, 1980, without saying goodbye to Iommi. Under the circumstances, his irritation with the guitarist may have been somewhat understandable, to be fair.

You can read more about Sabbath, specifically the making of the band's classic Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album, in the brand new issue of Classic Rock magazine, which is onsale now.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.