Unlike most bands, the story of Black Sabbath is one that has been told too many times, by too many people – and each new attempt to do so usually complicates rather than elucidates the legend. Mick Wall (who has written a number of books on the band’s constituent parts) has written a new book that claims to be “The final word on the only name synonymous with heavy metal,” according to its publishers. A big challenge for what might be the bitchiest band in British music history.
Wall does a brave job in corralling those various stories and personalities into something approaching cohesion. When there are falling outs – and there are lots – he opts to keep both stories and remain on the fence about which is true. But that doesn’t always work – when, exactly, did Ozzy Osbourne leave Black Sabbath for the first time? There’s little agreement, so there’s little discussion. In a story where there are so many interested parties trying to bend the story for their own interests – Sharon Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Bill Ward all being busy PR operators – readers need someone to help guide them through the charming but fragmented stories.
One reason why Wall might be less than willing to pick sides might be his proximity to the band. As well as writing on the joint and several parts of Sabbath, he’s worked for the band and its members in PR, so has experience managing as well as telling those stories. (He’s not afraid to tell you of that fact: Wall appears in the story a fair bit, after Sabbath’s break-up, enough to be unsettling but not to be interesting or Gonzo.) There are too many dogs in the bloody Sabbath fight; having it narrated to you by one of their owners is sometimes discouraging.
(Some of the cast of this story have a tendency to ramble, too, and sometimes Wall is a little unwilling to cut their quotes into something a little more concise. The book could do with him stepping in there, too.)
But what Wall lacks in pickiness he makes up for in the vast quantity of information. Though the strands might conflict, he hears from each interested party, including the often neglected drummer Bill Ward. That is in part because of Ward’s sometimes messy PR strategy, which included Facebook rants about the contract disputes that eventually led to him being left out of this 2013’s reunion tour and album, and is little match for Sharon Osbourne’s colossal management machine.
It is that tour that gives the excuse for this book – scores of which have already been written on the band – to be published now. In that sense it is vital: like few other acts, exactly which Black Sabbath is reforming this time and how many times this has happened before is an important and complicated question. The ugly disputes that have erupted from the band since even before its inception are precisely detailed here, if not always adjudicated with the same meticulousness. Wall is uninterested in taking sides – but in drawing the battle lines, and marking what exactly is at stake, he is rigorous and fastidious. That gives the messy Sabbath story the book it deserves, containing but not clearing up the disputes and fall-outs that are now as much of the band’s legend as the music is.