Tony Iommi, whose bone crunching power riffs have been a staple of the sound and energy of the legendary English group Black Sabbath, celebrates his 65th birthday today!
Almost no other guitarist in the history of the instrument was more innovative in perfecting that “power riff,” the easy yet extremely omnipotent guitar chord which sets a tone and pitch of a song, albeit a hard rock one. Iommi was like a power riff factory, churning them out in rapid, breathtaking succession on every Black Sabbath record since the band’s debut release in 1969. From the very first song on that album, the self-titled track in which Iommi’s riff thunders in like an equestrian out of control, a jouster with a lance coming right out of the speaker grill, it set the style for the entire Sabbath sound which would follow for decades.
Although the band is rightly attributed to all the members for its overall success, especially the wild, whirlybird in black frontman Ozzy Osbourne, Iommi was a perfect counterpoint to the intense vocal posturing of Osbourne, adding color, shade, and dark light to Ozzy’s vocal harbingering of doom. Alongside the original lineup of Geezer Butler on bass and Bill Ward on drums, which sounded like he used an hydraulic press to play them, Black Sabbath became and remains the absolute standard of spine crushing, headbanging heavy metal and hard rock.
Iommi had a distinctive style as well, no doubt helped by the fact that he had lost the tips of two of his fingers in a factory accident when he was young, which forced him to detune his guitar in some respect, to alleviate the tension on his fingers due to the accident. Every release by the original band contained archetypical riffs by Iommi, housed in songs like “War Pigs,” “Electric Funeral,” “NIB,” “Iron Man,” “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Into the Void,” “Supernaut,” “A National Acrobat,” “Symptom of the Universe,” “After Forever,” “Cornucopia,” “Sabbra Cadabra,” “Megalomania,” “Junior’s Eyes,” and scores of others. The Platinum standard that the original Sabbath albums had, from Black Sabbath to the final album with the original lineup, Never Say Die, never wavered on Iommi’s end, in terms of his musicality. He attacked the guitar with speed, complexity, reverence and irony, and it thrust him into the reputation of one of the genre’s greats.
The band had enjoyed (abused?) excess however (especially Osbourne), and the no-nonsense Iommi had first patiently absorbed all the off-stage antics and turned a blind eye to them, until finally the problem could no longer be ignored and he fired Osbourne in 1979, ending an era indeed. Replacing him with Ronnie James Dio, the band suddenly found itself in an entirely different kind of vein, as Dio brought with him a higher octave singing range and a style rooted more in light mythology than the doomy, cynical, end of the world that Osbourne was most associated with and sang about on the bands early records (although most of the lyrics had been penned by bass player Butler). The band was still successful with Dio at the microphonic helm, and foraged ahead with a few albums before left the band and went on his own. From there, various personnel changes occurred, and men like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian and Rainbow’s Joe Lynn Turner went through the Sabbath revolving door of front men, scores of drummers and bass players followed suit on the musical lazy susan as well, with only Iommi remaining as the only original member of Black Sabbath to never leave the group. The results of all these changes created a slight identity crisis within the band, and while they never were able to attain the kind of success during the halcyon days of the 1970s with Ozzy, Sabbath faithful still bought tickets and still attended shows the band played everywhere around the world. The band had also reunited with Dio in the mid 2000s, and was still touring when Dio succumbed to stomach cancer in May of 2010.
The original Sabbath lineup had also reunited for a spell in the mid 1990s, sporting a few tours and a live album called Reunion which was greeted with some success. Bill Ward however left the group again soon after. Currently, the original line up of Black Sabbath remains three-quarters complete (Ozzy, Geezer, and Tony; Ward not participating due to some management and financial issues within the group). With Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk supplying the steamroller backbeat that is expected from any incarnation of the band, they are currently in the process of recording a new album, to be released this June, the bands first with Ozzy on vocals since his firing from the group after Never Say Die. Produced by Rick Rubin, the highly anticipated album is hoped by all involved and Sabbath’s fan base to stand alongside the great Sabbath releases, and above all, show that the aging men still can stand toe-to-toe in the musical ring with some of heavy metal/hard rock’s all-time greats still, regardless of the deficiencies the passage of time can forcibly put upon them.
Iommi is also a survivor; an attack of Lymphoma in early 2012 was successfully treated in January of 2013, and he moves forward, knowing his responsibility as a musician and a key member of the band, and what he needs to supply to it and its fans. He also penned an autobiography recently, entitled Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell With Black Sabbath, in which he waxes about his life with Black Sabbath on stage, off-stage and beyond the stage.
Now at 65, like a veteran in the musical trenches, Tony Iommi remains a guitarist who seemingly never lost his touch, stayed true to his styles and ideals, never deviated from his sonic norms, and took quick money by sacrificing his craft and artistic vision as other musicians of his era and genre have done and some continue to do, always tried to helm Black Sabbath as best as he could for loyal and faithful fans who have stood by the band in its hardest, most trying, directionless times, and now, with the upcoming Black Sabbath release, appears to have come out of all of it still on top of his musical plateaus. It makes him remain, one of the most successful, honorable, influential and creative guitarists of a Bronze Age of music when the genre sported untold sonic horizons and directions. Happy Birthday Tony.