Geezer Butler Opens Up About The End Of Black Sabbath

Getty Image

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

Most bands wish they could go out like this. In 2015, Black Sabbath announced they were calling it a career after almost 50 years together, but not before undertaking one last tour of the world. For a full year, the band played a grand total of 81 gigs, busting out brutal renditions of some of the heaviest music ever recorded, songs like “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “Faeries Wear Boots,” and “War Pigs” to name a few. Fans came out in droves to cheer, and sing, and pay their last respects.

I caught the band at an outdoor amphitheater in the suburbs of Chicago this last summer and can personally attest that their decision to hang it up has nothing to do with not being able to deliver the goods. Sitting about five rows back from Tony Iommi, for about two-hours, my eyes and ears were pummeled as he casually tossed off some of the most mind-melting guitar solos I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness in person. Ozzy Osbourne remained his cackling, boisterous self, while Geezer Butler, the rock of the band, held it down on bass. Sabbath remained Sabbath.

When it came time to pick the location for their final gig, the choice was obvious. It had to be their hometown in Birmingham, UK. With everything on the line, Sabbath came through with a performance for the ages, gifting the crowd with a swan song they won’t likely soon forget. Luckily, they had the foresight to bring a camera crew along with them to that special show and it was captured for posterity as the new concert documentary The End, which comes out this Friday on November 17.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to Geezer Butler about the experience of bringing the band to a glorious end, their shared legacy, and what might lay on the horizon.

Can you walk me through the process of how you guys decided to end Black Sabbath?

Well, Tony got lymphoma while we were doing the 13 album. Then we did the tour for 13 and Tony felt a lot of pressure to do that. He was getting really tired with his cancer treatments and everything. When we finished that tour, Tony said he didn’t think he could do any more tours, so we all got together and decided to make it an official farewell tour. That’s the way it came about.

How was he holding up through that last run? I caught the show in Chicago and I was aware he was ill, but you couldn’t tell from looking at him onstage. He appeared to be the same Tony Iommi.

Yeah, you know we were doing six weeks on the road, then he’d go back to England for six weeks for his treatments, then he’d rest for six weeks, then we’d do another six weeks on the road. He was taking it easy basically and trying not to tire himself out too much.

Knowing this was your last run with Sabbath, what was the feeling like in the air over the last couple of years?

We felt that every night was a special night because people had to go home knowing they’d just seen Sabbath for the very last time. We wanted to do the best show possible every single night. I think subconsciously we put more effort into this tour than other tours.

Was it a given between you guys that you would play the last show in Birmingham?

Yeah. We wanted to finish it where it all started. Playing in our hometown was an obvious choice.

Can you talk about Birmingham? I’ve never been to the UK myself. What sets it apart from other cities around England?

It’s very industrialized. It’s a bit like Detroit. It’s where the car industry started in England. The industrial revolution started there in the 17th century. Birmingham is the center of the world as far as industrial stuff is concerned.

What was it like growing up there?

I was born 1949, and where I was born, where the band was from in Aston in Birmingham had been really badly bombed in World War II. We grew up around a lot of bombed out buildings. Quite a rough place to grow up. We were all working-class families, but you don’t know any different. I had a good childhood. Bit rough, but it was good!

What was it like when you started gigging around there with Sabbath, and even earlier with Ozzy?

Yeah, I was in a band called Rare Breed with Ozzy. We only did a couple of gigs together. We were mainly playing blues. A lot of the bands around that time were either playing blues music or soul music. It was all mainly in pubs. You’d get a few people in, sometimes you wouldn’t get anybody to see ya. It all started from there.

Fast-forwarding several decades, what was the feeling like backstage before that final show?

We didn’t have the chance to see each other because we had all our families and friends there. I didn’t see Ozzy at all. I could hear his family running up and down the hall and stuff. There were about 100 kids there. Birmingham is always a nervous place for us to play because it is our hometown. You can feel the vibe coming off the crowd, willing us to play the best show that we’ve ever played. It’s always a nerve-wracking experience.

What’s going through your mind once you got out in front of the crowd, knowing that this was going to be the last time you play these songs?

For me, it was like, please don’t mess anything up! I was so nervous that it was like a relief once we finished a song and got through it okay. That was what kept going through my head, ‘I hope this is the show that everyone expects at the last Sabbath show.’

When you look back on it, or as you watched the film, what moments stand out the most?

I think all the songs went as planned. There’s no one in particular one that I could point out.

I was pretty stoked for “N.I.B.” myself. How did you put that song together, because, as I’m sure you know, bass solos weren’t all that common in 1970.

We wrote “N.I.B.” when we were doing this six-week stint in this bar in Switzerland. We were doing eight, one-hour spots every day and so to fill the time, we just used to jam for an hour. “N.I.B.” came out of that. The way we would get through a set, Bill [Ward, the band’s original drummer] would do a drum solo for half an hour, so I came up with the idea of doing a bass solo that could last as long as possible. Of course, by the time it came to recording it, I had cut it down a bit.

You mentioned Bill, and I know a lot of Sabbath fans were hoping he’d make it out for at least that final show. Just on a personal level, you guys were the rhythm section that drove that band for so many years. What’s your opinion of him these days and were you hoping that he’d be there?

Oh yeah. I honestly don’t know what happened with Bill. One minute he was in the band, I went to Hawaii for holiday, and the next thing Bill wasn’t in the band anymore. But he’s got to be one of the greatest drummers in rock. I love the way he’s just a unique style. There’s only one Bill Ward. He’s a great bloke to know. He doesn’t bear any grudges toward us. He’s the same Bill Ward I’ve grown up with.

I know that there was talk after 13 came out that you were going to go back into the studio with Rick Rubin again and work up another project. What happened with that and are there any plans to record again?

We were either going to do the follow-up album to 13 or do the farewell tour. Because 13 took like, three years to write and record, we didn’t think we’d be able to do another album and then a tour after that. So we decided to do the farewell tour first and then see what happens. I don’t think there’s going to be any more Sabbath stuff.

Putting Sabbath aside, do you think you might work with Tony or Ozzy on some things down the line?

I’m not really sure. Ozzy is concentrating on his solo stuff now. I’m not sure what Tony is doing. I’m not in any particular hurry to do anything musically in the next year or so. I can’t see anything like that happening.

Sabbath aren’t typically pegged as a political band, but there are a few larger statements in your catalog that stand out, with “War Pigs” being chief among them. I’m curious to know what your take is on the current political climate what with Brexit and the larger rise nationalism around the world.

Well, I think Brexit is a big mistake. I think it’s going to cost Britain billions or trillions to come out of Europe. I just can’t see the point of pulling out after it’s been so successful. It’s just going to create a lot of problems. As far as the other thing, well Donald Trump speaks for himself. I think this is the lowest politics have ever gotten in America. It’s so corrupt. The guy is so far away from what the normal people think, it’s unbelievable. To think Trump’s in charge or pressing the nuclear buttons is enough to make you stay awake at night.

I was hoping to go through some of the Sabbath catalog with you and get a little bit more background on some of the standout songs. My personal favorite would have to be “Symptom Of The Universe,” which you elected to not play on the final tour.

Well, the reason we didn’t play it on the last tour is because Ozzy couldn’t sing it [Laughs]. It’s too high for him! I think when we did it in the studio he was doing it like, verse by verse rather than singing the whole thing. After the third album we got into the thing of taking our time and overdubbing stuff. A lot of the vocals were overdubbed line by line or whatever and when it came time to do it live, he couldn’t reach the notes. That’s one of my favorite songs, but that’s the truth. Tony came up with the riff, as usual, and… I can’t really remember what the lyrics are about. I think it’s about love.

I’ve heard Tony describe “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” as the riff that saved Black Sabbath. Does that assessment hold water to you?

Absolutely. What had happened was we had done Vol. 4 out in LA and overdid it a bit on the old coke, then we came back to England. It had been such a great vibe when we did Vol. 4, then when it came time to do Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, we went back out to LA and tried to re-capture the vibe, but it just wasn’t working. The studio that we recorded Vol. 4 had been turned into a synthesizer studio.

Then, we were all really tired, because it had been non-stop touring, and non-stop recording and we hadn’t had any time off in three years. We were all getting on each other’s nerves and thought, ‘Well, this must be the end of the band.’ We couldn’t really think of any riffs or anything, so we all came back to England and had time off from each other. I think it was a month or six weeks away and then we thought, ‘Well, let’s give it one last try and if it works out great, and if it doesn’t, then the band splits up.’ So we all got together and the first thing that happened was Tony came out with the riff for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and we all went, ‘Yes! The band’s back!’ That gave us all the encouragement we needed, and the rest is history.

What’s your favorite bass riff that you’ve created in your career?

Oh, maybe “Hand Of Doom?”

Why did it feel important to end the final show with the song “Paranoid?”

If people have heard of Black Sabbath, then that’s the one. Either that or “Iron Man.” It’s kind of our signature tune. It just felt appropriate that that’d be the last song that people hear from us.

For all intents and purposes, Black Sabbath is done. What do you hope that people get when they watch The End Of The End? What do you want people to remember about Black Sabbath?

That we defied the critics. We weren’t given a chance when we started. We got really really badly hammered by the press in England. It took us seven or eight auditions for various management companies and record companies for anyone to even take notice of us. I think to see the band that’s lasted for nearly 50 years it sort of gives people a message of “stick with it.” Whatever you believe in, stick with it.

Bootleg Bin

In 1992, Ozzy Osbourne was fed-up with touring. Following the release of his solo album No More Tears, he announced his retirement from the road with one last blow-out run dubbed No More Tours. “That was it,” Ozzy wrote in his autobiography. “I’d been on the road for twenty-five years… I was like a mouse on a wheel: album, tour, album, tour, album, tour, album, tour. I mean, I’d buy all these houses, and I’d never f*cking live in them.”

For the final performance at the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa, California on November 15, 1992, Ozzy decided to bring the curtain down with something special. To open the show, he enlisted his old band Black Sabbath. The only problem was that the group’s frontman Dio, the man who replaced Ozzy in Sabbath, quit before this two-night stand. Apparently, he didn’t want to be shown up by Ozzy. In his stead, Rob Halford from Judas Priest stepped in, and the show went off without a hitch.

Of course, a short while after this gig, Ozzy changed his mind and resumed a steady touring schedule. “I got bored,” he remembered. “I started to think about the bills for the renovation, and the cost of the staff at the management company, and how all the money to keep the whole machine up and running was now coming out of my savings. Then I thought, How can I retire at the age of forty-six?” In 1996, he did the unthinkable and reunited once again with Sabbath.