Black Sabbath are back – kind of (Picture: Chris Walter/Wire Image)
It’s exactly 6 o’clock in the evening when my phone begins to ring. Calling from his home in Seal Beach, California, is Bill Ward. Bill Ward the drummer from Black Sabbath, the most influential heavy metal band of all time.
The purpose of our call is a chat about the reissue of Technical Ecstasy, but what transpires goes much deeper than the Birmingham icons’ 7th studio album. This writer wasn’t born when that record came out, so won’t be much use in recalling the period, I tell him.
‘As we go through it my memory will probably reopen,’ Ward says, laughing.
Most accounts would have one believe that the mid-1970s were a troubled period for Black Sabbath. Gloomier accounts argue that Technical Ecstasy signalled the beginning of the end for the first incarnation of Sabbath’s classic, epoch-making line-up.
Faced with declining album sales, legal problems and failing marriages, the band headed to Miami in the summer of ’76 to begin recording at the famed Criteria Studios. For comparison, 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was written in the supremely gothic (and supposedly haunted) Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire. The sunnier climates of Florida no doubt had an impact on Technical Ecstasy’s tone.
In his 2009 autobiography I Am Ozzy, Ozzy Osbourne wrote that he ‘lost the plot with the booze and the drugs’ during the making of Technical Ecstasy. So much so that he would check himself into the Stafford County Asylum upon the album’s completion. Ward, however, has fonder recollections.
Black Sabbath were, and still are, the most influential heavy metal band of all time, and likely always will be (Picture: Redferns)
‘I certainly wasn’t doing anything naughty. I looked at the record this morning and it brought back a lot of good memories. I have some favourite tracks on this album,’ Ward says. One of which being It’s Alright, a piano-driven ballad that Ward wrote and sang lead vocals on. A song he had written a few years prior and bashfully kept from his bandmates: ‘I was very shy about the whole thing. We were all writing our own music by 1972 and ’73. It’s Alright was written on a keyboard. It was a break to do something like that because I’d been kicking ass on the drums! The very opposite of the sonically explosive life that I was involved in.’
For the band that wrote the genre’s rulebook, Technical Ecstasy was, at times, a departure from the doomy, down-tuned metal that had found them fame and fortune. From ballads She’s Gone and the aforementioned It’s Alright to the funky All Moving Parts (Stand Still) – a song about a cross-dresser who becomes president of the USA – it’s the sound of a band flexing their creative muscles.
But with the explosion of punk, was this Black Sabbath trying to stay relevant in a changing musical landscape? ‘We never made music to fit into anything or to reach a certain audience. Black Sabbath has always been non-compliant,’ Ward says. ‘I admired punk because I came from a violent band as well. Especially in the first four or five years, we were very aggressive when we played live.’
In his own autobiography – 2011’s Iron Man – guitarist Tony Iommi observed that Technical Ecstasy had ‘keyboards on all of the tracks, which was a bit different’ for the band. But even then, the album still hits hard in all the right places. You Won’t Change Me, for one, with its funereal vibes and crushing, sinister riffs – Black Sabbath’s very hallmarks. Meanwhile, the bluesy Dirty Women features some of the most electrifying guitar playing of Iommi’s career. ‘We still made big songs. Our sonic landscape was very panoramic. Tony used big f**king chords. All the things that we had initiated in the first few albums still existed on Technical Ecstasy. The band had not lost any of its vitality,’ Ward says. ‘If you listen to Back Street Kids, Tony’s got this demonic, almost morbid lick that’s passing through. Geezer [Butler, bass] played brilliantly. The bass work there… he’s pushing the crap out of that song.’
‘Black Sabbath has always been non-compliant,’ says Bill Ward (Picture: Christopher Wagner)
Beyond the music, Technical Ecstasy’s artwork has long been a contentious topic. Mainly for its singularity when compared to the rest of the band’s album covers. While Black Sabbath’s previous artwork had been steeped in sombre, horror-themed imagery, this one had a distinctly colourful, voguish quality.
Designed by Hipgnosis – a former London art group that created iconic album covers for many household names, such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Genesis – it depicted a pair of robots engaging one another (we’ll say). Or as Ozzy Osbourne once said, ‘two robots having sex while they’re going up a f**king escalator.’ Ward is a bit more pragmatic on the subject: ‘Geezer liked it a lot, but even today looking at it, I have mixed feelings. I don’t mean any disrespect to Hipgnosis. I’ve seen a lot of their artwork and it’s incredible. But it’s one of those where even when I’m in me coffin I’ll be looking at it thinking “I’m not so sure about this!”’
So where does Technical Ecstasy rank among those first eight Black Sabbath albums? That game-changing, eight-year run that started with the band’s eponymous debut in 1970 and ended with Never Say Die! (and Ozzy’s subsequent dismissal) in 1978. ‘Well, I think it stands up and shows that we were open-minded and progressive. But you can tell it’s the same band. We didn’t jettison our loudness,’ Ward says. ‘Those chords on You Won’t Change Me are huge. Gypsy is huge. As far as the drums go, I tried to focus on what worked musically for those parts.’
Ward is equally assured about the affection he has for his former bandmates: ‘Ozzy and I were the guys that pissed about a lot. We went through a lot together, but I had a close relationship with Tony and Geezer as well. I was close with all the guys.’ After a series of brief reunions of the band’s original line-up between 1985 and 2005, Black Sabbath came together once more in 2011 to announce that they were recording a new album with a world tour to follow in 2012. That went ahead, with 13 – the 19th Black Sabbath album overall – released in 2013. But Ward did not participate.
Black Sabbath reunited in 2011, a year before Ward (left) pulled out of the comeback (Picture: Getty Images)
A decade has passed but the exact reasons why remain unclear. In February 2012, Ward decided to end his involvement in the band’s high-profile reunion. He released a statement pointing to an ‘unreasonable contract’, expressing his wish for something ‘that reflects some dignity and respect toward [him] as an original member of the band’. After three years of strained relations that played out bitterly in the press, Osbourne eventually responded with an open letter on his own website. In it, he referred to Ward’s health problems and suggested that Ward ‘knew [he] wasn’t capable of doing the album and a 16-month tour’.
Ward claimed that the ordeal had ‘f**king killed the friendship’, and in February 2017 Black Sabbath officially retired with a pair of hometown shows at the NEC Arena. Tommy Clufetos played drums on the band’s farewell tour.
Their relationship now? ‘I’m in contact with the guys. I talked to Ozzy two nights ago. A lot of things have crossed between us and there’s new boundaries that I’ve had to build, but I don’t think any less of them. I’ve been working with Tony since 1964 when I was 16 years old. They’re my brothers and I love them.’ Speaking today, it’s obvious that any ill feelings Ward might have harboured have long gone.
But is the book closed on Black Sabbath? ‘As far as I’m concerned, the book’s never closed with Sabbath! I’m writing like a demon, I’m living life.’ In recent years, both Osbourne and Iommi have shown interest in one more reunion. This time at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. A final hometown hurrah for the legendary Brummies.
Ward doesn’t rule it out, but at the age of 73, he’s more enthusiastic about studio work: ‘My biggest contention has been ‘let’s make another album’. Nothing live necessarily, because I’m looking at what I can realistically do. The way I play the drums, it’s becoming tougher as I get older. I haven’t spoken to the guys about it, but I have talked to a couple of people in management about the possibility of making a recording. Which I can do safely, even with Covid around. I can lay track at my studio in Los Angeles. I’m very open-minded about doing something like that.’ Never say never.
Technical Ecstasy: Super Deluxe Edition, is available now
Casting his mind over Black Sabbath’s near 50-year career, it’s fitting that Ward’s greatest source of pride is the eureka moment that started it all: ‘The critical turning point was at Aston Community Centre when Tony played three notes.’ Those three notes being Iommi’s famously unsettling tritone – or the devil’s interval – that forms the basis of the song Black Sabbath. Arguably the exact moment when rock ‘n’ roll contorted itself into something much darker and indefinable, changing the course of history.
‘We were so young and naïve, but he played those three notes and we all immediately joined in with our parts,’ Ward recalls. ‘I knew we had something. I didn’t know what it was, but I had the courage of an 18-year-old man to take it all the way. And so did everyone else.
‘We were completely broke and so hungry, but we had that song and walking away that day I felt like I was 10 feet tall. Moments like that I’m very proud of.’
Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy: Super Deluxe Edition is out now on BMG