The toughest kid on the block

by Vicente Mateu

Our heavy legends series kicks off with rock's man in black, a man whose singular sound can be traced back to an unlucky accident he had as a teenager when, quite literally, he was working with heavy metal. With the tips of two of the fingers to his right hand amputated, Tony Iommi tuned down his guitar strings to relieve the pain and by doing so gave rock the dark fire it was waiting for, creating a whole new genre and a new way of understanding popular music towards the end of the 20th Century. Heavy metal may have been born of many fathers, but it only had one 'Godfather'.  

Anthony Frank Iommi
(Birmingham, 1948) has, therefore, an unmistakable guitar style that is the fruit of a chance accident, a style that has made its mark on thousands of guitarists and will continue to do so as long as 'The Iron Man' has his black Gibson SG by his side. Undoubtedly, another twist of fate was having another key figure both for his future career and the world of music beside him at Birchfield Road School as a child – none other than John Michael Osbourne, aka Ozzy.

His fingers aside, what also gave such singular power to Iommi's way of playing was the fact that he was well known in his hometown for being a tough guy. Skipping past the over-referenced example of the late, great jazzman, Django Reinhardt, also a fine musician despite a mangled fretting hand, to many the obvious solution for Iommi would have been to flip his guitar over to his other side and use his left hand for fretting. From the explanations given years later, it can be deduced that it never actually occurred to him, although he assured that back then, the 17-year-old saw the learning curve far too steep to contemplate and the youngster was in too much of a hurry. Looking back in 2008, Iommi admitted that maybe changing hands would have been the best thing to do. "If I knew what I know now I probably would have switched", he reflected.

With or without fingers, the 19-year-old Hank Marvin fan had one thing very clear: there was no way he would be going back to the factory. His mind made up, he took off to Germany to tour with one of his first bands, the Rockin' Chevrolets. The year was 1965 and things really started to get going for the young guitarist. Moving on to play in The Rest, then fleetingly in Mythology, Iommi formed the Polka Tulk Blues Band and finally Earth, where Tony and Ozzy met up with two other childhood friends, bassist Terry Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. This line-up was to be the founding foursome of Black Sabbath.

The band might very well not have existed at all. Ian Anderson came extremely close to changing Jethro Tull's destiny and that of Iommi, who in 1968 became the band's guitarist in a short-lived trial period replacing Mick Abrahams. The Brummie guitarist looked rather forlorn and out of place miming in playback next to the gifted flautist on a BBC television programme and took no time in moving back to his old friends in Earth. Shortly after, the group was legally obliged to change its name, as it turned out that another 'Earth' already existed. The newly-born Black Sabbath soon started to make a name for themselves and Tull, at the end of the day, was at that point nothing more than another promising young rock group in the British musical scene.

We will never know how Iommi's version of the Aqualung riff would have sounded, but he has said several times himself that his fleeting visit with Abrahams and company taught him that success is the fruit of diligence and discipline. In time, his commanding personality and rock-solid perseverance infused this same work ethic in the other band members and Black Sabbath soon showed that they meant business. Well, as much business as could be had in a time when drugs and alcohol would often put a stop to rehearsals almost as soon as they had began. In all probability, Anderson had also shown him how to run the band as a company, and deal with his band mates like employees.

Even if Iommi wasn't the owner of the brand and its royalties, over time it has become patently clear that he has always been the hight priest of Black Sabbath, even when called Heaven & Hell or WhoCares. The decade with Ozzy gave way to years with the recently-deceased Ronnie James Dio and then a short stint with Deep Purple's ex-frontman, Ian Gillan. After Gillan came Tony Martin. But it really didn't matter who the man at the mic was. The new voice was always as good as the previous and the band's legend prevailed throughout.

's career can be roughly divided into two parts. Paranoid and Mob Rules are the opening and closing brackets to his first fifteen years, an era of great creativity made all the more magical by Ozzy and then Dio. The remaining 35 have been marked by highs and lows, bust-ups and reunions, happy times and tragedy – right up until 2015 with the return of what is very nearly the original line-up and a promised last Black Sabbath tour. This second era started in 1986, after the release of what many see as Iommi's first solo album, the bizarrely named Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi, Seventh Star, clearly reflecting the tensions that the band were going through at the time.

The first fifteen years served to found and foster heavy metal as music for the masses. The band's second era saw Sabbath more as a vehicle for Iommi's musical prowess, 35 years in which time and time again he would come up with the goods just when many were predicting the band's demise. Such doomsayers were forgetting that behind the devilish mask of a man that was rumoured to practice black magic in his home basement, was hidden a grafter, a man at work who never found the time to release an album in his own name until the year 2000.

Maybe his success really does have something to do with a pact with the Devil. Against all odds, the 21st Century kicked off with Sabbath winning a Grammy with Iron Man. Yet another award for Iommi’s trophy cabinet. Ozzy and Geezer Butler were back by his side and there seemed enough musical mojo between them to consider living a second youth and going out with a bang, perhaps recording a few more records and heading off on yet another of their world tours.

These last few years may not have been as successful as he would have liked, forever limited by Ozzy’s frenetic personal agenda and then stopped dead with the loss of Dio, but Iommi has managed to keep things going. Incapable of taking a break, when he has had to hold up for a while he has taken advantage of these time-outs to get involved in various different ventures and charity projects, WhoCares being one of them.

is on the point of adding another chapter to the great tome that is the Sabbath legend. Nearing seventy, he embarked last year on another world tour together with Ozzy, Geezer Butler and drummer Tommy Clufetos. Bill Ward, as always, wanted to renegotiate his contract and seemingly also demanded that the singer take back some comments made to the press that have offended… the usual superstar (and super ego) carry-ons.

The guitarist has announced that this next adventure will be their last. "We've been doing this for getting on for 50 years now. It's about time we draw the line, don't you think? It's been great but it's time to stop now” assured Iommi when talking to the Birmingham Mail. His doctors are confident that they have his cancer under control, but he has had enough. "I can't actually do this anymore. My body won't take it much more.” Maybe, maybe not – but his guitar certainly can.

(Images: ©CordonPress)