This interview with Ian Gillan is included in my 2013 book, THE MUSIC OF BLACK SABBATH, available from Amazon now in a new print:
Born Again is perhaps one of the most interesting Sabbath albums to explore for a few reasons, one of course being the presence of the album’s lead singer. With Ronnie James Dio out of the picture, Sabbath needed a new and exciting vocalist to front them. There were a few candidates and likely replacements for Dio (Robert Plant being one, and a young Michael Bolton who sent in an audition tape) but just how many people could have guessed who they would choose?
Ian Gillan was and still is one of rock’s most iconic singers. Fronting Deep Purple through their golden period, his voice could enter whole other realms, dramatic heights never before heard in rock. Take Child in Time for instance, from Purple’s brilliant 1970 In Rock album; when it reaches those ridiculously high screeches, you hear a voice of incredible power that is possibly unrivaled on a technical level to this day. The man is a brilliant vocalist no doubt about it, but was he the right man for Black Sabbath? How would the fans accept him? I asked Ian Gillan himself what he felt fan’s reactions might be to him joining the band.
“I didn’t even know I’d joined the band, let alone think about fans reactions,” he said. “I had a phone call from my manager Phil Banfield the day after a very liquid meeting with Tony and Geezer, a meeting about which I remember nothing apart from the venue…The Bear in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Phil said to me that he thought I should have consulted him before making major career decisions. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me that I had joined Black Sabbath during a meeting with Tony and Geezer. Ah…?! Not that he minded at all and it made sense as I was without a band and Sabbath were without a singer; of course there’s more to it than that but in essence we all signed up for one album and a world tour. It was the longest party I’ve ever been to.”
The album was originally going to be a fresh new project for Iommi and co. but manager Don Arden persuaded them to use the Sabbath name. Recording began in May 1983 at The Manor Studio in Shipton-on-Cherwell, Oxfordshire, with co-production between the band and Robin Black. It’s well reported that the band had a blast while recording the album and some of the adventures even inspired the lyrical content of the songs. Happily, Bill Ward was also back in the band behind the kit, which added another interesting element to the sound.
The album opens with Trashed, a very 80s sounding rocker with a classic Iommi thrashing riff. Gillan instantly makes his presence known with one of his trademark shrieks a few seconds in, and Bill Ward, making a welcome return to the band’s sound, crashes and thumps along solidly. In my view it has a similarity to some of Gillan’s Deep Purple work and almost sounds like something from the Fireball album on acid. The track’s one stand out for me is the brilliant fuzzy solo by Iommi, uncharacteristic of his usual nicely formed style, totally wild and messy. It is also worth noting that considering 1983 was a key year for metal, with the release of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All and the general wide emergence of thrash, it sounds as if Sabbath might be attempting to keep up with the rapid progress of the genre.
“Trashed is my favourite track,” Gillan says. “And it’s based on a true story.” That true story of course involves a pissed Ian Gillan taking Bill’s car and crashing it in a go-cart track near the studio.
Stonehenge is a 2 minute instrumental and could easily have been taken from the soundtrack of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Starting with some unnervingly haunting keyboards from Geoff Nicholls, it develops into an ambient collage of oddity, with dramatic rising cymbals, gusting wind and even a heartbeat pumping away. One pictures the druids circling the ancient stones along to its eeriness.
It leads into the next track on the album, Disturbing the Priest which begins with a great fuzzed out Iommi riff and some hammy cackling laughter from Gillan. Although inspired by amusing consequences (the band were rehearsing near a church and received complaints for noise pollution from the priests), there’s some very sinister sounds circling the listener here. The sliding guitar notes are particularly chilling, and Gillan’s vocal is wonderfully over the top.
The 45 second The Dark is another slightly disturbing short interlude of macabre echoes and indescribable sounds, leading into my personal favourite song from the album, Zero the Hero. Featuring a classic heavy Iommi riff, the song also has some wonderful touches from Nicholls on the keyboards that could have come right from a 1980s sci-fi film. Gillan’s gruff vocals have him at his best on the album and the whole band work excellently together, exploding in unity during the catchy chorus. Surely one of their most underrated songs from the 80s.
Heading off Side 2 is the fast rocker Digital Bitch, with a screeching Tony solo opening the song. Gillan gives it some “Speed Freakish” welly and Geezer’s bass grunts and growls in the background gloriously. The song’s chorus, although daft, is a delight and like much of the album, it’s so camp it sounds a little tongue in cheek, which of course makes it a very enjoyable listen. No wonder the album and its accompanying tour inspired moments from 1984s classic rock spoof This is Spinal Tap (Stonehenge anyone?).
The title track begins with Geezer and Iommi riffing together through wah-wah pedals, with added glossy, elaborate Ward drum fills. Gillan is on very 80s cheese metal form throughout, but also illustrates his brilliant range. The longest cut on the record, for me it’s also the least enjoyable. Hot Line could be vintage Van Halen, with a storming backbeat and meaty Iommi riff driving it along. Geezer chugs away on the bass reliably and although he is lower in the mix than he was in the Ozzy years, his presence is still felt. Gillan is excellent once again, while Tony’s solo is as good as anything he has ever done. A fan of both Sabbath and Purple can surely only enjoy hearing Iommi and Gillan ripping it up together in the same song. Keep It Warm is the album’s closer, another rocker complete with sing-along anthemic chorus and chugging Iommi riff. When the track fades out, you can’t help but feel the album you have just listened to was definitely an enjoyable ride, even if it bears little resemblance to classic Sabbath.
When I first heard the album when I was a kid, I absolutely hated it. I hated the cover (so did everyone else, press and band included, especially Gillan who reportedly vomited when he first saw it), I hated the glossy 80s sound of it, especially the echoing smashing snare drum and I thought Gillan’s screeching vocals were no match for Ozzy’s distinct tones. Nearly 20 years on since I first heard it, I think I get it now. You need to sever yourself from what we all see as typical Sabbath material, and accept that things do move on. The album is a product of its time, but it’s also really fun. Iommi’s guitar playing throughout is exceptional and hearing Gillan with the band is a joy. One can definitely hear the fun that was had during the making of it.
What does Ian remember about making the album?
“A bit like the first meeting – not much; I lived in a tent and got blown up…that was fun.” Asked about how he looked back on the album, Gillan said: “With great affection; I loved working with Tony, Geezer and Bill and the chemistry was evident from day one. I think the material was great and even got to love the cover when it came out.”
The album was a chart success when it came out, getting into the UK Top 5 and into the Top 40 in the US. Although it received some negative reviews at the time, Born Again has aged surprisingly well and has now gained new fandom down the years. At the time however, it wasn’t viewed so positively, especially by some of the band.
“When we first put that line-up together,” Iommi said, looking back on Born Again. “It was only on paper done purely by lawyers. Ian is a great singer, but he’s from a completely different background and it was difficult for him to come in and sing Sabbath material. To be honest, I didn’t like some of the songs on that album and the production was awful. We never had time to test the pressings after it was recorded, and something happened to it by the time it got released.”
After the album was released, Sabbath set out on the road for a worldwide tour. Hating the idea of heading out all over the globe, especially after recovering from his heavy drink problem, Bill Ward quit again and was replaced by ELO drummer Bev Bevan. The tour took in several key performances, such as their headline slot at the 83 Reading Festival.
Thankfully for some, Gillan didn’t stick around for much longer. After the Born Again tour he returned to Deep Purple for a reunion and Bev Bevan also left too. For a year or so, Sabbath floundered around, firstly trying a new singer and even attempting to get Bill Ward back on board. Although Born Again was a fun album, it can hardly be called classic Sabbath material. The music was occasionally good fun but the lyrical content sounded like it was trying too hard to be “satanic” and evil, whereas their best work, i.e. with Geezer-penned lyrics, had much more substance to it. By the mid 1980s, there seemed to be no definite direction and Sabbath had lost that signature sound that had defined them throughout the 1970s.