The Dark Lord can’t remember exactly when he first met The Metal God, but it was a long, long time ago. “Blimey, it’s been years,” says Tony Iommi, the man who, as guitarist with Black Sabbath, invented heavy metal virtually single-handedly. “Must have been the late 60s or early 70s.”
Next to him, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford isn’t much use. “Yeah, it was around the time I joined Priest, which was in 1971,” says the man who created the image and the sound of the definitive metal frontman. “Or maybe just after.” He mock-grimaces. “I dunno. I’m trying to forget just how long ago.”
We’ll forgive them the vagueness of memory and simply revel in the fact that these two undisputed icons of heavy metal are sitting inches from one another, directly in front of Hammer, in the annex of a converted abbey just outside Warwick.
It’s an amusingly cosy setting for two men who, between them, have notched up close to a century on the front line. Even more important than that is the fact that without them and their respective bands, Hammer wouldn’t be here at all. And, frankly, neither would you.
It’s no overstatement to say that Iommi was there at the birth of metal. The chords that usher in the eponymous opening track from Sabbath’s self-titled debut album – 48 years young this year – are still the wellspring from which everything that followed has flowed.
Priest are no less important in metal’s evolution. They took Sabbath’s blueprint and reimagined it as an unstoppable juggernaut encased in steel, studs and leather, cranking the drama to near-operatic levels. Everything you love about the genre – the sound, the volume, the atmosphere, the image – can be traced back to Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. Or, more likely, both.
These two visionaries have met many times over the years. They greeted each other on arrival with the kind of warm smiles and warmer hugs you’d expect from people who have known each other for close to half a century. Rob addresses his counterpart as “Tone”. Tony nods sagely as Rob recounts the ups and downs of his own career.
But this is the very first time they’ve sat down to be interviewed and photographed together, and as such it represents a truly historical moment. It’s fitting that it’s happening here in the West Midlands, just a few dozen miles away from Birmingham, the very city where metal’s own Big Bang took place.
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There’s much to talk about, from the highs of the 70s and 80s to the tough times of the 90s, through to the current state of the genre they forged in the white heat of the late 60s. And naturally, there’s a large degree of mutual admiration going on.
“Sabbath’s most important contribution to music is the invention of heavy metal, plain and simple,” says Rob. “Tony was the guy that played the first heavy metal riff. And it all started from there.”
“And Priest have made a tremendous contribution,” adds Tony. “To start from where they did and they’ve gone on and gone on and gone on. And they’ve flown the flag.”
With that said, gentlemen: shall we begin?
Where did you first hear Black Sabbath, Rob?
Rob Halford: “It was before they were even called Black Sabbath, when they were still Earth. I think I might have seen you play at [legendary Birmingham club] Mother’s in Erdington.”
Tony Iommi: “Yeah, we played at Mother’s back then. There were only a couple of places we could play, ’cos nobody knew what our sort of music was. It was all soul bands back then, with saxophones and whatnot.”
What was Birmingham like back in those days?
R: “It was bleak. By six o’clock, it was as dead as a doornail. There was only one club that I remember, which was Barberellas. If you got to play there, you were moving up a notch.”
How much did all that shape what you were doing musically?
T: “Oh, your surroundings and background definitely has an impression. I worked in a factory, and you would hear this machinery all the time. It feeds into your music. And where we lived was very bleak. There were all these gangs and fights and god knows what else. That aggression spills into what you’re doing. If we’d have come from somewhere leafy and green, it would have sounded very different.”
Was one of the reasons you formed a band to escape from all that?
R: “Escapism, trying to see what’s over the wall, is part of what drives you. You’d see other successful bands going to play in London, and it was such a big deal. It was only two hours away, but it was like another planet.”
T: “Coming from Birmingham, trying to break into London was like pulling teeth. They absolutely hated us. We had a gig at this famous club, The Speakeasy, and we died a death, ha ha. They didn’t ask us back.”
R: “In those early days, we were both really fucking loud. We were turning up the volume. And volume used to scare people. When Sabbath and Priest first went to America, the volume we were using compared to everybody else was immense. There was always a little bit of fear and intimidation about the volume and size of heavy metal music. It was great, wasn’t it?”
T: “Ha ha ha! Except when you get to our age and you’re deaf.”
What was the worst gig you played back then?
R: “We played anywhere you could put a plug in the wall. This one pub, the stage was literally three feet from the bar. There were these two guys having a pint, and we were all crammed up in this tiny corner. Glenn [Tipton, Priest guitarist] turns his guitar on and goes [makes strumming motion], ‘Pling’. The barman went, ‘That’s it, you’re not playing, here’s your fiver, now hoppit.’ We got paid without even playing a note.”
T: “We had to go to Europe to break it. We played in Hamburg and Switzerland, doing seven 45-minute spots every day. And there would be two people in – one of them was a hooker and the other a nutcase. We lasted about a day before the owners came up and said, ‘Stop that bloody racket!’”
R: “But those are great memories. At the time it’s shit, but when you look back, it’s some of the best times of your lives. You’re a bunch of guys having a great time, playing your music.”
Was there a point where you thought, ‘Right lads, we’ve done it – we’re famous’?
T: “For us, it was when the Paranoid single came out and we were on Top Of The Pops. Nobody would play you on the radio. And journalists didn’t like us. We were hated. [Radio 1 DJ] Tony Blackburn hated the sight of us and he had to announce us on Top Of The Pops. It must have killed him.”
R: “I remember the day the postman delivered a copy of Priest’s first ever album, Rocka Rolla. The record label would only give us one album each. I was still living with my mum and dad back then, and I remember signing for the package and taking it up to my bedroom and going, ‘This is it! It’s all gonna happen!’ Ha ha ha! Little did I realise that there would be another 10 years’ slog before it got to a really important place.”
Rob, Sabbath had a few years’ headstart on Priest – they were already famous by the time you released your first album in 1974. What influence did they have on you?
R: “It was just the success they were having, that was the inspiration: ‘Oh god, they’re playing in the States!’ When your mates are doing something like that, it’s like, ‘Maybe we might get lucky and go over there too.’ Can you remember the first time you went over to America, Tone?”
T: “Yeah. We played at a club in New York called Ungano’s. We were all thinking, ‘Brilliant, it’s America, we’ve made it!’ And we turned up at this place and it was half the size of this room. Then we plugged in the gear and it blew up, ’cos we didn’t realise the voltage was different. It was, like, ‘Fucking hell, is this it?’ Mind you, we supported Rod Stewart the next night and we went down better than he did… which he wasn’t very amused about.”
What was Priest’s first American gig like, Rob?
R: “It was in Columbus, Ohio, and we brought the ceiling down. It was a low ceiling, and the volume was so strong that it was shaking and the ceiling tiles were coming down. People were covering their ears. What a great night out.”
Punk started to emerge in the mid-70s. Did you see those bands as ‘The Enemy’ at first?
R: “The metal scene was really getting established around that time, and there was this thing of, ‘We’ve all got to look after each other and support each other, because this could possibly be a threat.’ Then we saw them and heard them and thought, ‘Hang on, this isn’t going to last.’ I mean, Sid Vicious couldn’t even play a note.”
Throughout the early 70s, Black Sabbath broke the ground for Priest and every other metal band that followed. Sabbath’s first six albums – from their self-titled debut through to 1975’s Sabotage – remains one of metal’s all-time hot streaks.
But by the end of that decade, their star was beginning to fade. A combination of exhaustion, ego and chemical excess conspired to knock them off their lofty pedestal. By contrast, Judas Priest were just beginning to enter their own golden period. Between 1977’s Sin After Sin album and 1982’s Screaming For Vengeance, they became one of the biggest bands in rock, inspiring everything from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal to the nascent thrash scene. It was a classic case of the torch being handed on, even if Black Sabbath themselves were far from done.
How were the 80s for you both?
R: “[1980’s] British Steel was the first album where people outside of our own country really started noticing Priest. I’m not saying America is the only place that’s worth breaking, but if you got played on the radio there it was a big part of building success.”
T: “The 80s was a big change for us. Ozzy went and we had Ronnie Dio come in. But it pushed us, it made us work harder. And even then we had a lot of people against us. Don Arden [Sabbath’s notorious manager and father of Sharon Osbourne] said, ‘You can’t have that, a midget singing for Black Sabbath!’ We had a lot of building up to do.”
The two albums Sabbath made with Dio reinvigorated the band, and Priest were getting bigger and bigger. What do you remember about those days?
R: “Ha ha ha! Well, for me, not a lot. I was down the Rainbow every night, coke up the nose.”
T: “Same as me.”
R: “I read Tony’s book and he went there, too. It’s a combination of peer pressure and the insidious nature of drugs and booze. You get to the point where it suddenly controls your life. I used to go onstage out of my skull.”
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Rob, you cleaned up…
T: “Ha ha ha! I notice you said, ‘Rob, you cleaned up.’”
R: “I had to. Something dramatic has to happen, like it did with me. I ended up a better person, which I think made me a better musician. I went back to the early days of getting the joy from playing music without the chemical haze.”
Even without the drugs, both bands had their tough times during the 80s…
R: “I think we lost our way a little bit, musically. We got caught up in a lot of the things that were going on around us. For Priest, it was the Turbo album, which became the black sheep of the family. These days, people listen to it and go, ‘That ain’t a bad tune.’ But at the time it was, ‘Is that metal enough?’ But you’ve got to take risks. And for me, the 80s for Priest was a lot of that – a lot of adventure and experimentation.”
T: “It was tough for us, too. But I never thought of giving up. That’s why I’m the only one who has always been there. Everybody else came back at some point or other. Ozzy came back, Ronnie came back, Geezer came back.”
Rob, you were heading in the opposite direction. You left Priest in 1992 and didn’t come back for another 11 years…
R: “Well, I’m in the same company as a lot of other singers – Bruce left Maiden, David Lee Roth left Van Halen. It’s Lead Singer’s Disease. But sometimes you have to step away from something to realise how great that place is. Whatever I did in my solo activities was really important, because it brought me back to the place I was always destined to be – the singer for Judas Priest.”
Their two worlds truly collided in 1992, when Black Sabbath opened for Ozzy Osbourne at two gigs in Cosa Mesa, California during his supposed retirement tour. A combination of ego clashes and politics saw Ronnie James Dio, who had returned to Sabbath after a decade away, refusing to play, leaving them in a very deep hole. Enter their old friend Rob Halford, who stepped in as frontman for a pair of landmark performances…
How did the Cosa Mesa shows come about?
R: “Someone told me that Tony wanted to speak to me, so he called me in Phoenix and basically explained what was going on. I just said, ‘I’m in!’”
T: “It was great, he was so good. He just jumped in and killed it.”
R: “We had one little practice in Phoenix, in a tiny rehearsal room. We ran through everything once, and the show was the next day. We had no time to think. It’s just that British thing: ‘Get on with it. It’s gonna happen, just do it.’”
Was it ever on the cards that you’d join Sabbath full time, Rob?
R: “I don’t think it was. I was just thrilled to get the call. I’ve always said that Priest is my first band, but right after that it’s Black Sabbath. It’s always been that way, it always will. It was magical. I watch it occasionally on YouTube and I can’t believe I was there. It doesn’t look like me.”
T: “It was definitely you.”
The 90s was a tough decade for metal as a whole. What did it feel like being on the inside?
T: “It was tough for a while. It went through a funny patch. A lot of people fell by the wayside. A lot of people started backing out and going in different directions musically. But that’s where you’ve got to believe in what you do, and follow it through. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth and get through it. That’s what we did. At the end of the day you come out the other side.”
R: “I remember the day I heard Man In The Box on the radio. I was driving round Phoenix, and the DJ goes, ‘This is this new band, Alice In Chains from Seattle.’ I thought, ‘Ooh, that sounds interesting.’ Then I heard something from this band called Pearl Jam, then something from this band called Nirvana. Then I thought, ‘Oh god, here we go again.’”
How difficult did things get in the 90s?
R: “It was like the punk thing all over again. Everybody was going, ‘Metal’s over, it’s done.’ You couldn’t get any interviews, you couldn’t get on the radio. In America, the programme directors at radio stations were told by the owners, ‘Don’t play metal any more.’”
T: “They’ve tried to destroy metal so many times and it still comes back.”
R: “That’s totally the truth. But you can’t kill metal. It just makes you stronger, doesn’t it, Tone? It makes you more determined.”
Was there a point where you noticed the pendulum beginning to swing back?
T: “For us, we’ve just carried on. Obviously, with bands citing you as an influence, people will always listen. And it starts again. I don’t think in our lives, metal has ever gone away. The amount of people that have tried to write it off is unbelievable. It was all, ‘It’s had it now’, and it never has – it’s always been there.”
Is it possible for a band starting out today to have the impact Sabbath and Priest had?
R: “It depends what you measure success by. How do you define it? Is success a platinum album? Is success selling out Madison Square Garden? Popularity or records sold? I don’t know. But to me, that doesn’t matter. Metal will always be there. There’ll always be a new band coming along. There’s probably a bunch in the UK that I don’t even know about. Same in Germany or Japan or South America. That’s the thrill – the fact it’s always there.”
Is the metal scene healthy in 2018?
R: “Definitely. There’s always a new generation out there. But the cool thing, watching this over the decades, is that people always go back to the source, to the roots of heavy metal – to Black Sabbath, to Judas Priest.”
Are you at a point where you feel like you’re ready to hand over the baton to that new generation and step back from the frontline? Or do you still have plenty of years left in you?
T: “I bloody hope we’ve got plenty of years left!”
R: “Definitely. You can’t turn it off. There’s always another riff, there’s always another song to make. The joy about where we’re at in our lives is that even though we’ve achieved so much, there’s still stuff to do. There’s no end in sight.”
Black Sabbath called it a day in 2017. What are you up to at the moment, Tony?
T: “I’m not writing at the moment, but I will be. I moved house, and I’ve only just got set up again. It’s great to have a break – you come back fresh.”
Any plans to collaborate with someone not a million miles from here?
T: [Beckoning to Rob] “What, him? We’ve talked about it for ages. When the time’s right it would be nice to write a track or two, or whatever. I’d like to do that. It’s nice to work with people that you respect and like.”
Outside the window, the light is dimming and the temperature is plunging. Rob is heading back to his house in the West Midlands. In a few days, he’ll meet up with the other members of Priest to begin rehearsals for the tour in support of their new, 18th album, Firepower. Tony’s heading back to his own place, where he’ll start thinking about dusting down the amps and getting back into the ring. There are farewell hugs and selfies. “Are you on Instagram, Tone?” asks the Metal God, to the Dark Lord’s mild bemusement.
Earlier, Rob had pondered the imprint that Priest and Sabbath have left over the past 50 years. For him, the people who made this music – and continue to make it – are important. But there’s something else to it, something less tangible.
“Your band becomes bigger than you,” says Rob. “The Black Sabbath name is gigantic. Tony’s always been there, admittedly, but it becomes something bigger than that. It’s the same with Priest. You’re almost like the caretaker of it.”
The men who created heavy metal will eventually be gone. But Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, and the thing they will leave behind: they’re immortal.
Published in Metal Hammer #307