Just when I thought my beleaguered senses had already been inundated with every conceivable variation of the Heavy Metal biography formula, I find my interests genuinely piquéd. Don't get me wrong; even within the throes of my notoriously-misspent childhood and early adulthood, I devoted countless hours to the voracious devouring of autobiographies and 'tell-alls' regarding artists as diverse as David Crosby (Long Time Gone 1988) and Kiss (Kiss And Sell: The Making Of A Supergroup 1997). Even as I aged and my tastes inevitably changed, I continued to find solace amid my well-worn copy of Walk This Way: The Autobiography Of Aerosmith (2003). Needless to say, you can imagine my excitement upon discovering Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe, the newest high-octane literary offerings from former Kerrang! writer and Classic Rock co-founder Mick Wall...
Todd: What made now the right time to release Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe? With your mutual histories dating back to the release of Heaven And Hell (1980), I would have imagined it being released earlier...
Mick: “Because they've become so visible again. It seemed that they've finally reached this plateau where, I don't think anybody will ever know what comes next for Black Sabbath, but I do feel that in a certain way we've reached the end game. The fact that they did that album with (Producer) Rick Rubin and it was so successful, and the original line up making a new album, barring Bill Ward, of course, but essentially going back to that original sound, it just seemed a proper moment to say 'Actually, what is the story here?'. Because as the book goes out of its way to explain early on, I grew up with Black Sabbath, and trust me, they were one of the most reviled bands on the planet. I think it was them and Grand Funk Railroad were just considered what these days we call stoner music, but back then, it was like you had to be out of your mind to even feel what they're doing. They were really derided and yet now everybody always says 'Well, they originated Heavy Metal. They are the Godfathers of Doom, Sludge, Stoner Rock and Thrash Metal. All roads lead back to Black Sabbath'. Neither of those things are true. They were a great band in their hey-day, but they really aren't the Godfathers of anything.”
Todd: Aside from the bulk of your overall experiences with the group, what motivates you to feel so differently about them? To hear someone so closely associated with them make such bold declarations is rather refreshing...
Mick: “I think the people that say it are the ones that weren't there in the '70s. As it explains in the book, Sabbath used to lie around getting stoned while listening to the first Led Zeppelin album. They wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix and they wanted to be like Cream. (Bassist) Geezer Butler worshiped (Cream vocalist/bassist) Jack Bruce. They weren't the first of anything, they were just the latest. Partly because of that outsider status, the music that they conveyed in those days and the whole attitude, I suppose you'd call it these days, that they purveyed was that of the outsider. Even other musicians thought they were idiots. They didn't come from London and they weren't part of the scene. I'm trying to think of what the equivalent would be in America. You used to say Birmingham was a bit like Seattle, very rainy and gloomy, but Seattle's just not like that anymore, and of course it's had loads of amazing bands. It was like they were from the middle of the Midwest, that kind of vibe. They just weren't regarded with any kind of esteem whatsoever when they were making their greatest music. To me, it's kind of laughable that these kids that weren't even born when those albums were coming out, bands that weren't even born when those albums were coming out, now are saying 'Oh, yeah, they invented it.' No, they didn't. They didn't invent anything. ...They just invented themselves, and that was really quite enough.”
Todd: How did you initially become involved with the group? Am I correct in understanding that you were 'assigned' them once you became a publicist? I can only imagine what a trainwreck that experience was for you.
Mick: “I joined a firm called Heavy Publicity, and they had done Sabbath in the past with Ozzy. They'd done them probably in the mid '70's, and then I think they didn't do them on that final album with Ozzy, Never Say Die (1978). I can't remember what the exact story is, but there'd been a gap, and then when they fired Ozzy and they brought (ex-Rainbow vocalist) Ronnie (James) Dio in, they realized that this was going to be a huge PR battle to somehow replace Ozzy, and so they came back to the company, by which time I was working there, and in fact I was now a partner in the firm. They sent me to deal with them. I was twenty-one. The other partners had had previous dealings with them and really didn't like working with them because they were such miserable, grumpy bastards. Also, I think they saw it as a bit of a poison chalice because they'd sacked Ozzy, which really did seem like a bad move at the time, like they'd really committed career suicide. They took the account for the money and so forth, but they sent me, the most junior partner, out to Paris to deal with them. Of course I, at twenty-one, was like 'Hi! Hey! Whoa! Sabbath!' They were like 'Fucking hell. They've sent a fucking kid'. That's how I got involved, through sheer ignorance and innocence. I'd bought their albums as a kid. One of the things that turned me on to really heavy Rock music was a school disco when I was twelve or thirteen, and the DJ played “Paranoid” (from Paranoid, 1970). I just had never heard anything like it in my life. It didn't even sound like music, it sounded like futuristic robots or machines or, forgive the cliché, because it didn't exist in those days, but very metallic, very kind of 'un-music'. It just was very exciting and I had to know more. Cut to eight or nine years later, I was just really excited to be working with these guys. I was just really sad that Ozzy wasn't involved because that would have been great. Having said that, I had met Ozzy the previous summer not long after he'd been fired and he was in such a state. I had found him very hard to handle.”
Todd: How were you initially introduced to him? Was it in a personal rather than a professional setting? The stories of his post-Sabbath excesses are quite literally the stuff legends are made of. That had to have been odd...
Mick: “It was at a stag party for Jimmy Bain. He'd been the bassist in Rainbow, now he was in (the Brian Robertson-led) Wild Horses and of course, cut to a few years later, him and Dio would hook up in Dio. Jimmy was having this stag party in London at a rehearsal studio and there were loads of famous musicians there. Then Ozzy barged through the doors. I remember him pushing into the Production office where they were chopping out all these lines of coke and he just pushed everyone aside and he was going 'Who's the fucking Rock star here, then? Fuck off, get out the way' and went in and essentially snorted all the coke. No one would argue with him because in that room at that moment, he was the biggest Rock star, but he was also damaged because he'd just been fired by Sabbath. ...What do you say to the guy who's just been fired from Black Sabbath? 'Oh, how's it going?' 'So, what are your plans?' Or, do you say 'Oh, I'm really sorry to hear that your career is over'? We just went 'Ozzy's great'. It was weird. I was sad not to have been there when they were in their prime, but at the same time, having met him a few months before I worked with Sabbath, I was glad I didn't have to deal with it.”
Todd: Once the group added Dio to the line-up, did the overall atmosphere change for the better? I would have thought adding a dynamic new frontman and then quickly recording a hit record really would have helped that...
Mick: “Oh my God, no. Nothing ever made that band happy. At this point, I'd worked with Dire Straits, Journey, REO Speedwagon, The Damned, Thin Lizzy and a lot of other great bands that were not so well known like Hawkwind and Motörhead. All of them had crazy characters and all of them had weird trips. I was the late '70's, so it was all happening. I thought I'd seen it all or I'd seen most of it. Then I started working with Sabbath and I'd never seen anything like it. Ronnie was brilliant when he was on. When he was on or you brought journalists along, he was Mr. Entertainer. He was amazing, full of energy and would always go the extra mile and give the longest interviews. He'd even take them out for dinner afterwards, but then the minute the door closed behind them and you're left alone with him, suddenly he would droop and he would be like... Let's just say the tiredness would come out. I also think he was fucked up because he'd had such a raw deal in Rainbow. That really fucked him up. Now he felt, and I think quite rightly to a great extent, that he was the rejuvenating factor in Black Sabbath. He had co-written the Heaven And Hell album with (guitarist) Tony Iommi and he'd turned Sabbath into something else. He was also in his mind a much better singer than Ozzy, which I don't think anyone can argue with. I think Ozzy is a great vocalist. He's a great Rock vocalist, but in terms of actually singing, Dio was clearly leagues ahead. He had this 'fucked-up-ness' where he knew he was good and he knew he was important, but no one else knew how good he was or how important he was. No one knew it more than him, so he had this complex about it a little bit. It would come out. He'd overcompensate. It meant that when he wanted something done, he 'Wanted it done now!'. He had this weird intensity going on. Iommi was still way out on the outer fringes of the universe on coke. He was just permanently gone. These were the years when he would have the black curtains in the room and the 'cocaine on ice', as we used to put it. (Drummer) Bill Ward was the most fucked up person I'd ever met at that point. He made Ozzy seem like a fairy princess. Bill was fucked up. The book tells the story of the first time I met Bill properly. I'd been in Paris for a few days staying at the George V Hotel while trying to get a new photo session done. I'd brought some journalists with me to interview them. At the time, they were finishing up the Mix of the Heaven And Hell album and Bill just wouldn't come out of his room. He'd come out for a little bit and was way too crazy, so they'd hide him again. I'm now leaving on a seven a.m. flight and at two a.m., I get woken up with a phone call saying 'Bill wants to see you now' I'm like 'I'm in bed' and they're like 'Now'. So I make my way to Bill's suite and as I'm arriving, the hotel plumber is leaving. He's leaving because Bill has been vomiting so heavily he's bunged up every toilet, every sink and every bath and shower in his suite, so they've had to send the plumber at two in the morning to try and fix it. ...Bill's in a suite at the George V that is like bigger than a luxury apartment and the plumber is leaving because Bill has been vomiting. I go in and he's wearing a robe and nothing underneath. I go 'Hi, Bill. So what do you want to talk about?' and he goes 'I want to play you the new fucking album!' and I went 'That's great, that's great'. And then he said 'Only there's no fucking vocals on it yet!' and I went 'That's great. I'd love to hear that right now with you'. I'm sitting there with this lunatic with his robe falling open, I'm trying not to look and he's playing me the album, but there's no vocals on it. As each track ends, he's like 'What do you fucking think of that then, eh? Fucking hell, eh?' and I'm going 'That's great. It really rocks'. What are you going to say? 'I don't fucking know, Bill, there's no vocals on it. It all sounds the same to me. Let me go to bed, please?' Then, cut to a month or so later, they're rehearsing in London for the tour and I brought some journalists down. Halfway through the rehearsal, the video for the first single 'Neon Knights' arrives. They've recorded the video and now here comes the cut for them all to look at for the first time and give their opinion. They show the video and it's okay by 1980's standards. It's just a band playing a song. It's good. It ends and they're all going 'Yeah, not bad, not bad' and Bill just stands up and he goes 'Fucking beautiful! Fucking beautiful!'. He starts just saying this and saying this. As he's saying it, he starts smashing the place up and throwing chairs and they're all just looking at him. I'm sitting there with two journalists and I'm going 'Ha, ha, ha. Bill, he's crazy' and he's going 'Fucking beautiful!' Then he storms out and Ronnie goes 'Well, I guess he liked the video'. It was like that. When we started to tour, every fucking night after the show, or say two out of every three nights after the show, I'd be summoned to the dressing room where Bill wanted me to make an immediate statement to the press. This is 1980. There's no social media and there's no mobile phones. There's not even a fax machine. You're all using old land lines or call boxes. He'd make me sit there with no computer, so I'm writing it in hand on a pad, and say 'I want you to put this out right now to all available sources: When I broke my drum stick during 'War Pigs', they may have missed a bar, but I quickly retrieved my spare set'. I'd be going 'Jesus Christ'. There was always something like this. Then I'd write it all down and he'd go 'You got it? You got it? Read it back to me' and I'd read it back. Then, as I got to the dressing room door, because it became such a routine, the tour manager Paul would look at me and go 'You've got another press release, haven't you?' and I'd go 'Yep' and he'd go 'Do you want to give it to me?' and I'd go 'Yep'. I'd give it to Paul and he'd scrunch it up in his hand and just throw it in the wastepaper basket. No, it wasn't a happy camp. It was fucking hard work. I always used to tell the story about how after working with Black Sabbath, I had actually quit the business to become a dishwasher in a burger restaurant, which is all true.”
Todd: As a publicist, how difficult was it for you to put a positive spin on the group's overall sense of negativity? I would imagine there were a variety of different distractionary tactics you are your colleagues used.
Mick: “It was really hard. And I mean really hard. You just have to laugh it off. In those days, Todd, drugs were everywhere. If we were lining up heavy publicity where we're going to be doing conveyor belt interviews all afternoon, it was perfectly normal for us to have cocaine, weed, whiskey and wine or whatever and that would be for the journalists as well as the bands. It was permanently weird and crazy, so we just tried to bury it underneath all of that. We'd just give the journalists another line and a joint, laugh and then try to turn the subject round to Thin Lizzy or one of our other bands that were a hell of a lot more fun. It was like the elephant in the room. We would all pretend it wasn't ghastly and awful and that actually it was quite good fun. As such, Black Sabbath became the first band to take me to America. I arrived in New York in October, 1980. They were doing two nights at Madison Square Garden. I had a suite at the George V Hotel. At the time, Elizabeth Taylor and Mick Jagger were staying there and Jack Jones was singing in the lobby. I don't know if you remember Jack Jones. ...They gave me my own limo and they gave me like two thousand dollars and told me to spend it on keeping the journalists 'the fuck away from us', which is what I did. It was a hell of a ride, it really was, but I was way too young and I found it monumentally difficult to handle, so I quit. I got a job working in a burger restaurant. I only lasted a few months before I got back into writing, and then within a couple of years, Dio's career had begun and Ronnie and I got back in touch and we did a lot of work together. Ozzy with Sharon, we also did a lot of work together and eventually Sabbath, after several incarnations. I think I wrote their official press biography for their Born Again (1983) album that they did with (Deep Purple vocalist) Ian Gillan. That again was just one weird story. Then I worked with Ronnie again in the '90s. I worked with Ozzy and Sharon right up until just a few years ago. It really was a long journey. I also think, to be honest with you, if I'd tried to tell this story ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do it justice and there wouldn't be this rounded ending which is 'Well, they did this album and it went to number one'. That gives it a great sign-off, if you like. Of course, it's typical Sabbath, so there's loads of rough edges like Bill not being involved, Tony's got cancer and Ozzy makes the lion's share of the money these days and the others have to share the crumbs. There's always these rough edges, but nevertheless, as a writer, I was ready to try and tell that story in terms that weren't necessarily 'this was a great album' or 'that was a bad album'. That's all in there, but really what I'm trying to say is this is an incredible story that spans decades and these four crazy individuals who have somehow partly through their talent and partly through the hell of it, have somehow survived. ...I think (late comedian) Bill Hicks used to make a gag about when the nuclear bomb goes off. ...He used to do this gag about when a nuclear bomb goes off, the only things that will survive are the bugs and Keith Richards. I think you can add to that and say that the only things that will survive are the bugs, Keith Richards, and Black Sabbath. They'll be going 'Did you hear a big fucking bang?', 'I think so' and 'Are we on stage, then?'. You can just imagine all of it, can't you?”
Todd: Did the release of Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe ultimately lead to a falling out with the group? While it certainly paints a very vivid portrait of the group, it also showcases a much less glamorous side.
Mick: “No. Not at all. I spoke to them all, not this Christmas but the Christmas before. The book came out here in the UK at the end of 2013 and when they came and did some dates here, I hooked up with all of them. I did a great interview with all three of them separately and I went to a show. I've had falling outs with Sharon over the years. ...You haven't got a career unless you've had a few falling outs with Sharon. She's crazy, mega-crazy. At the same time, I've had far more good times with her than bad. She's definitely one of the most interesting and funny people I've ever met. ...I ghosted the memoir of her father (notorious manager Don Arden) at her request. This was back in 2003 and 2004. That's another story that I share with Sharon and another adventure. I could write a book about the book I did with Don. Sharon's brother David always used to say 'Sharon is Don in a skirt' and I tell you what, that is it in a nutshell, because he was hilarious. I loved hanging out with him. He was the scariest motherfucker I ever met because he really did use guns, break legs and hang people from windows. But he also used to have me just crying with laughter because he was so very funny. And that's what she is like, too”
Todd: When Guns N' Roses released 'Get In The Ring' in 1991, how did the allegations that you'd made up lies affect you? ('start shit by printin' lies instead of the things we said'). That must have been so very hard to handle.
Mick: “At the time, I'd been tipped off. I knew something was coming. The only bit that rubbed it in for me was that I had just left Kerrang! to work in management and I was trying to make a smooth transition. I didn't want to come out and make a big announcement because I wanted to get the focus on the band I was just signing to EMI. Then this album comes (Use Your Illusion 1991) out and everybody assumed that it was connected to me not working for Kerrang! anymore, which it wasn't. That took years of explaining. On the positive side, the book I did on them at the time was a huge best-seller all over the world and the fact that you're asking me about it now, twenty-four years later, gives you some idea of the impact it's had. ...I was doing an interview with a guy from Wired and he said to me 'Do you still have the original interview?', which I do. I have the original interview with Axl, I have the follow-up face-to-face and I have the follow-up phone call where I read him parts of the story and say 'Look, it sounds really heavy, with all this stuff about you wanting to kill (Mötley Crüe frontman) Vince Neil' and he goes 'I stand by every fucking word'. Then, as soon as the story came out, he made it look like I made it up, like I told lies. Like you'd ever have to make stuff up about Guns N' Roses in those days. This is a guy that gave me a gold record for G N' R Lies (1988). I was their trusted go-to guy. It upset me that he would accuse me of telling lies because that totally was not my trip. I truly didn't need to. You don't need to when you're working with people like Axl Rose and Ozzy Osbourne. This guy said to me 'Well, would you put it online?' That had never crossed my mind. Since then, I've been thinking 'Hmm'. I don't know quite what to do with it because I'm an older guy now and so is Axl, so I don't necessarily want to make him look a bigger fool than he himself look already. On the other hand, because it keeps coming up, I'm tempted to say 'Listen, here is the interview, here is the follow-up phone call. You may all listen and make up your own minds' and see what happens, but I haven't felt that there's been a great time to do that yet. Maybe one day I'll suddenly go 'You know what? Let's do that. That'd be great'. I think if I have any message for Axl Rose, it really would be 'Dude, we're now in our fifties. It's time to put the toys away. Let's be cool dudes about the whole thing. Let's chill the fuck out and talk and laugh and be glad we're alive'. I'm not in any hurry to make him look bad, but if I wanted to, I could put these things online and you'd get real insight into who he truly was nearly twenty-five years ago.”
Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre: The Biography Of The Doors (2014)
Lou Reed: The Life (2013)
Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe (2013)
Enter Night – Metallica: The Biography (2010)
Appetite For Destruction: Legendary Encounters With Mick Wall (2010)
When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin (2008)
Mr Big: Ozzy, Sharon And My Life As The Godfather Of Rock (2004)
All Night Long: The True Story Of Jon Bon Jovi (1995)
Guns N’ Roses: The Most Dangerous Band In The World (1991)
Diary Of A Madman: The Official Biography Of Ozzy Osbourne (1986)
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