“Well, we really feel exactly like we did. If we haven’t seen each other for 12 years, it feels exactly like it did 12 years ago. It’s quite phenomenal, aside from the fact we’ve mellowed and learned how to deal with each other, and how not to let this happen, and if it does happen how to make sure it’s a nice parting of ways.
“And I’m not trying to predestine anything here, but let’s face it, it’s happened a couple of other times, it could happen again. We were very cautious about this one because we knew what the pitfalls were, and we knew how to avoid those particular pitfalls. I forgot what I was saying…”
Ronnie James Dio takes a breath at the end of a breathless sentence that comes at the end of a breathless week. Seven days ago he and his partners in Heaven And Hell were yet to sign a record deal for their third album together, The Devil You Know. Come this sunny Friday evening, not only is the contract with Roadrunner Records complete, but also preview copies are in the hands of journalists, the record will be out within the month, and he and Tony Iommi are on the line to Classic Rock in support of it, Dio from his home in California and Iommi from his in the West Midlands.
Both are so happy with the record, which has spun off the back of a long tour, that they seem unwilling to jinx the union by failing to acknowledge the fragilities of their shared and fractured past.
The story of the second-most famous and successful line-up of Black Sabbath has an arc that is almost as dramatic as the original. Together from 1979, when Dio replaced Ozzy, until 1982, when Dio and drummer Vinny Appice quit during the mixing of the Live Evil album, and then again in 1992 for an album, Dehumanizer, that was racked with creative tension and a tour that ended when Dio refused to open for Ozzy Osbourne, these boys have history.
“We were apart a long time and we’ve had ups and downs,” says Iommi. “We’re all very temperamental in our different ways. You’ll get upset and suddenly say something. But we’ve learned to live with that. Someone will go off in a huff and we’ll take no notice. In the early days we didn’t, we’d bite back and things would go up in the air. We know now they don’t mean anything by it. On the road we have a good laugh. I think we’ve got a good friendship going. We love what we do and we like to make the best out of what we can.”
The mellowing of their personal relationships has had no discernible impact on their creative one, however: The Devil You Know is a monster, filled with fat and bloody riffs and Dio’s ineffable roar. They acknowledge, wryly, that they’ve defied both years and history in making something this vivid and strong.
“I really did enjoy it, just the idea of us getting back together,” says Iommi. “I was coming up with so much stuff; I’ve got enough for another couple of albums. This time has been an absolute pleasure.” “We felt really guilty,” agrees Dio. “I thought: ‘Should this take us longer? Shouldn’t this be more difficult?’. It’s that knowledge of who you are and what you’ll do and what you won’t do. I don’t even think we threw anything away, because everything that we had written, individually and together, was exactly what we expected it to be and what we wanted it to be. We do have our craft down pretty well.”
They may still have to dance around each other slightly, but a deep respect for each other’s abilities underpins the weight of any egos that may surface.
“He does everything against the book,” Iommi says of his singer’s idiosyncrasies. “He doesn’t warm up before he goes on, he drinks before he goes on, everything you wouldn’t expect. You’d think: ‘Oh, he must warm up for hours’. I’ve never heard him warm up. He walks straight on and sings, and this voice comes out. You think: ‘Bloody hell!’. He’s got this great consistency, night after night.”
“He is so prolific it’s scary,” Dio says of Iommi. “And it makes all of our lives easy. If a riff doesn’t work, it’s: ‘That doesn’t quite work, Tone’, and all he says is: ‘Okay. Well what about this one?’. He sometimes doesn’t know how good they are.”
A full 30 years on from first working together, Iommi also acknowledges Dio’s toughness – the character he showed in replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Sabbath and reviving the band itself .
“The people who would have come for the job would have tried to sound like Ozzy,” Iommi says. “But it was always a totally different sound with Ronnie. At the time when we did it, we felt something: this is the way we need to go; this is what we need to be doing. We had a lot of things against us in that first period, and for Ronnie it must have been hell, because he had to go on stage in place of Ozzy. It was bloody hard for him, people just wouldn’t accept him at first. And he really handled it well.”
“It never really bothered me,” Dio shrugs. “I just got the finger for a while, which is never pleasant, but that went away. We were lucky, because we did an album called Heaven And Hell. That made all the difference in the world. It was our own and it worked. Without that we probably would have died a death. It would almost have been a tribute band.”
Heaven And Hell was a landmark album released in one of heavy metal’s landmark years: it came out alongside Back In Black, Ace Of Spades, British Steel and Blizzard Of Ozz in 1980. Rather than call this current reunion Black Sabbath, Iommi proposed the name Heaven And Hell in recognition of its impact.
“It really is Black Sabbath, but it isn’t,” Iommi says. “It just feels like a fresh thing. All the comments from before: ‘Oh, they’re going on the name…’. Well we’re not now. Nobody can say we’re cashing in on the name. By saying Heaven And Hell, we’re saying you’re getting all the stuff from Heaven And Hell onwards. We wanted to play all the Dio catalogue.”
“I think it was Tony’s idea,” says Dio. ‘And it was a brilliant one. It took a lot of the burden off Geezer and Tony, and probably Vinny and I also.”
It also meant that, for the first time since 1970, Tony Iommi went on stage and didn’t play Paranoid. “I’ve actually kept all the stuff from the first show – the first posters – because it just seemed to me: ‘Fuck, I’m going on stage and I’m not playing Paranoid’, he says. ‘In 40 years of playing Paranoid, I’m now not playing it. It really was odd. Odd but good.”
He chuckles happily at the thought. Both Iommi and Dio are too bruised and too wily to make big promises about their future, but their present glows with contentment. They appear to have succeeded all over again, the old devils.
This was published in Classic Rock issue 142.