First off, to a lot of people, he doesn’t. For better or worse, probably the majority of those in the legions who would attend the original-member reunion Black Sabbath announced in November either don’t know or don’t care about “the drummer.” They’re there to see Ozzy Osbourne sing “Paranoid” and maybe watch Tony Iommi play the “Iron Man” riff. Geezer Butler‘s bass and Bill Ward‘s drumming are secondary concerns.
These casual fans, those who would just show up, probably don’t realize it was Butler who wrote the lyrics Osbourne sang or that the rhythm section played such a huge role in making Black Sabbath‘s earliest records — 1970′s Black Sabbath and Paranoid, 1971′s Master of Reality and 1972′s Vol. 4 — as heavy and groundbreaking and stylistically definitive as they were. And even if they did realize, or even if they heard the band themselves say so — I know Iommi said it flat out in the Classic Albums: Paranoid DVD — they still wouldn’t care.
Outside of the context of the heavy rock underground that still so vehemently flies the flag of and takes influence from those four albums in particular, Black Sabbath is a heavy metal footnote en route to Osbourne‘s solo career and the commercialization of metal that first took place in the ’80s and continues to this day. Black Sabbath is important, but they’re more important because Pantera or Slipknot or Metallica says they are than because Master of Reality was a life-changing event.
Last Thursday, when Bill Ward released his statement that the contract he was offered was “unsignable,” the internet almost immediately blew up with support for his case. My feed on Thee Facebooks — which, though I don’t use it as a measure of overall cultural relevance, at least lets me know what people are talking about — still has posts of pro-Ward propaganda memes like those I’ve included with this post: “Back Stabbath,” “No Bill Ward, No Black Sabbath,” “Bill Sabbath” t-shirts. Sloganeering from people who (I would say rightfully) appreciate Ward‘s contributions to the original lineup. In an era that produced many great British drummers — John Bonham, Carl Palmer, Ian Paice, etc. — Ward‘s work stands out as singularly characteristic. No one before or since sounds quite like him, executes a fill quite the same way or keeps the same kind of swaggering beat that makes “Lord of this World” one of the heaviest songs ever put to tape.
Iommi, Butler and Osbourne released a response to Ward expressing their regret that the drummer had, “declined publicly to participate in our current Black Sabbath plans.” Somewhat predictably, it wasn’t long before Sharon Osbourne was scapegoated as trying to ripoff Ward or pull some shady business deal. It was a quick leap from:
Sometimes I think “Sharon‘s a cunt” is the heavy metaller’s “These colors don’t run.” She’s enacted several truly despicable moves in the past — whether it was pelting Iron Maiden with eggs at Ozzfest or replacing the original drum and bass tracks on the first two Ozzy Osbourne solo records — and I think she often gets blamed for the tarnish to the public perception of Ozzy that came out of his buffoonish portrayal on the reality show The Osbournes, which saw him go quickly from the “Prince of Darkness” to a helpless, hapless oaf in the minds of fans and pop culture at large.
Blaming Sharon Osbourne for shrewd, callous or ethically questionable business decisions undertaken on behalf of her husband — she’s his manager, after all — is convenient, and sometimes, fun. She’s an easy scapegoat, and putting the fault on her saves longtime fans from accepting the reality that Ozzy himself — who’s nothing if not likable — is probably behind or at very least approving of what’s seen as happening completely without his input. Whether she’s a cunt or not, I don’t know. I’ve never met her or spoken to her, and I think a lot of women in business are open to being cast as bitches because of their gender where the same actions would be celebrated by their male counterparts. I’d have a hard time celebrating a dude for having Mike Bordin and Robert Trujillo replace Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake‘s recorded tracks, but I probably wouldn’t call him a cunt for having done it. An asshole, maybe.
So I don’t think it’s so much a question of whether or not Sharon Osbourne is at least occasionally a classless jerk — history bears out that opinion of her as it does of most of us — as it is of how the negative view of her is cast by fans of Black Sabbath and Ozzy. Yoko didn’t break up The Beatles and Sharon isn’t ruining Black Sabbath. I won’t pretend to know the complex personal and professional histories between the members of the band, but last I heard, Iommi owned the band’s name, and as he’s been the only consistent member throughout the band’s many lineup changes over the last four decades, it’s easy to assume he’s the one calling the shots, not Sharon, or even Ozzy.
Where that puts Ward‘s position in this whole thing, I don’t know. The perception when Heaven and Hell got going and Ward wasn’t involved was that the conflict was between he and vocalist Ronnie James Dio, but maybe that was only part of the story, or none of it at all. It seems like every time Black Sabbath picks up in one incarnation or another, Ward is a question. He initially left the Dio-fronted lineup of the band after 1980′s Heaven and Hell album, came back for 1983′s Born Again, left again, rejoined with the original lineup in 1997, then left citing health reasons, and intermittently took part in touring after that. When I saw them on Ozzfest in 2005, I remember thinking to myself that I should appreciate Ward‘s performance particularly, since I didn’t know when I’d see him play drums again.
Which I suppose brings us around to the original question at the top of this post: Why Bill Ward matters. Black Sabbath has a long history without him, and it’s not like he was writing the riffs or the lyrics or singing on the songs. Tommy Clufetos from Ozzy‘s solo band can play those parts convincingly — as could any number of other drummers, so if you’re going to say one particular lineup of Black Sabbath is definitive and the rest aren’t, well, there are a lot of people out there collecting royalties on Sabbath records they played on who’d probably argue the point.
Bill Ward matters in the songwriting. When Black Sabbath took the stage for their press conference/announcement last November, they established the premise of a new album with Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and Ward. Together with producer Rick Rubin and apparent fan ambassador Henry Rollins (who elected him to that role remains a mystery, but he keeps showing up in it), they discussed what a new Black Sabbath album with the original lineup would be, what it would sound like and how it would come together. They said, in effect, “We are a group of musicians who have come together to create something that is definitively Black Sabbath.”
If Black Sabbath is going to be defined then as the original lineup — and I’d gladly argue that was the tone of the press conference — then without Bill Ward‘s contributions to the songs in writing his own drum parts, the character of the band changes. It’s not the reunion they said it would be, but instead a new incarnation of the band that happens to be fronted by Osbourne and have Butler on bass. Those passionate about the idea of regrouping the original Sabbath are right to feel betrayed: Without Bill Ward in the songwriting process, they invariably won’t be getting the product they were promised.
And in that, Ward is not blameless. If he felt his contract untenable, he shouldn’t have taken the stage with the band in November and said he was on board for the reunion. However much you like these people or think they’re not out to screw you over — and however much they might not actually be — that’s just bad business, and a band that makes as much money as Black Sabbath does on a reunion tour is unavoidably a business. It’s naive to think otherwise.
Best case scenario for a new Black Sabbath album was that the original lineup put out a record that was a decent answer to Heaven and Hell‘s The Devil You Know, that wasn’t a complete AutoTuned embarrassment that sullied the already-tried legacy of the band’s highest creative peaks. But even so, the proposition was special because it was the four of them doing it. When I interviewed Eric Wagner in December, he discussed his relationship with his former bandmates in Trouble and said, ” Those four guys are the only ones who know what it was like to do what we did… I can talk to them and they know exactly what I mean and what it felt like and what we went through.”
No doubt in my mind that Tommy Clufetos is a capable drummer. He wouldn’t have been in Osbourne‘s band if he wasn’t. But in terms of the bond between the original members of Black Sabbath — everything they’ve seen and done together, how they’ve triumphed and fallen apart and hated each other and been best friends — no one else can stand in for Bill Ward. That’s why Bill Ward matters.
But not only that. Bill Ward matters to the fans. I’m not talking about the people above who show up on a Friday night because it’s something to do. I’m talking about those of us who, to one degree or another, live by this music. Ozzy Osbourne is a famous person; untouchable. Tony Iommi is a god; thoroughly unapproachable. Geezer Butler — bless his genius heart — is the (endearing) model for doom-dude awkwardness. Of the original four, Bill Ward is the one I believe most when he says he loves Black Sabbath‘s fans. Whether he actually does or not is a secondary concern at best — he engages the followers of Black Sabbath in a way and on a level that the other founding members simply do not.
For a band whose influence has had the cross-generational reach that Sabbath‘s has had, that’s an important function to play. Without Bill Ward, the fans to whom the band really matters can’t fool ourselves into thinking they’re doing it for any reason other than the money, and even if they worked everything out at this point and Ward rejoined the songwriting process and they picked up right where they left off before going to the UK to work on account of Iommi‘s lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, some of “the magic” is already gone.
That wouldn’t be the case if Bill Ward didn’t matter.
Iommi, Osbourne, Butler, Ward. Don’t promise Oreos if you’re bringing Chips Ahoy.
Tags: Birmingham, Black Sabbath, Gods, UK