By Adam Waldman
On April 25, 1980, Black Sabbath released their ninth studio album, Heaven And Hell. The bar was set incredibly high for new frontman Ronnie James Dio, but he cleared it (with room to spare) on this classic album that is thought of by many as the best Sabbath album ever.
Peaking at #28 on the Billboard 200 chart, Heaven And Hell was a commercial success both in America and overseas. Although none of the singles charted in the US, “Neon Knights” and “Die Young” both charted in the UK. However, Heaven And Hell isn’t about singles. This is a true album experience that should be listened to in its entirety to fully appreciate.
Heaven And Hell was produced by Martin Birch (known for his work with Deep Purple and Iron Maiden). This was the first time since the band’s 1971 release (Master Of Reality) that Iommi didn’t produce the album himself.
By the late ‘70s, Ozzy Osbourne and the members of Black Sabbath had grown weary of each other. This is particularly true of Tony Iommi, who described the initial recording sessions for what would become Heaven And Hell (with Ozzy) as a “highly frustrating, never-ending process” in his autobiography.
After Sabbath’s tour in support of Never Say Die! (the final album with Ozzy), the entire band spent nearly a full year in Los Angeles working on the follow-up album. It wasn’t just Iommi who was frustrated though. In Ozzy’s biography, he talked about being fed up with the more experimental direction that the band had taken on both Never Say Die! and Technical Ecstasy. He preferred the heavier sound that was the foundation of the band. The parting of ways was inevitable. By Ozzy’s own admission, the band had tired of his “insane behavior.”
If ever there was a Sabbath song that had Dio’s stamp on it, it was “Children Of The Sea.” However, the song’s origins predate RJD’s arrival in the band. Iommi revealed in his memoir that he has an early recording of the song with a different lyric and vocal melody with Ozzy singing.
The arrival of Dio allowed Iommi to spread his wings (so to speak). Whereas Ozzy would basically sing melody lines that mirrored the guitar riffs, Dio’s melody lines were the polar opposite. He preferred to sing across the riffs.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Dio was introduced to Black Sabbath by Sharon Arden (who would later become Sharon Osbourne). The connection between Iommi and Dio was nearly the end of Sabbath, as the two discussed forming a new band, rather than continuing under the legendary moniker.
Timing is everything (as the saying goes). Dio had just left Rainbow when Sabbath was looking for a replacement for Ozzy. Was it a coincidence or Dio’s mystical power that led both men to run into each other at The Rainbow on the Sunset Strip? The darkness at the end of the rainbow for Dio ended up being Black Sabbath.
On their first day working together, Dio and Iommi finished “Children Of The Sea.” Unhappy with Ozzy’s direction in the song, Iommi had previously abandoned it. Although the connection between Dio and Iommi was instantaneous, Sabbath still had issues to work through.
Drummer Bill Ward was dealing with personal issues that eventually led to his departure from the band. Bassist Geezer Butler was also dealing with his share of personal issues, which is why the original demos for the album featured Geoff Nicholls on bass. However, Nicholls wasn’t the only one handling the bass duties.
Many people think of Rainbow as being Dio’s first band, but he was actually in a band called Elf prior to joining Rainbow. Actually, “joining” Rainbow is something of a misnomer. The first Rainbow album features four of the six members of Elf and Ritchie Blackmore. During his time in Elf, Dio played bass at times. After he joined Sabbath, he was handling vocals and bass for a period of time. Eventually, Butler returned to the band, leaving Dio free to handle just the vocals and Nicholls relegated to unofficial keyboard status.
During Butler’s absence, the band also played with bassist Craig Gruber (who was in Elf and Rainbow with Dio). According to Iommi, Sabbath only played briefly with Gruber. However, Gruber’s version of the story is markedly different. He claims to have made a substantial contribution to the writing of the entire album, and that it was him (not Butler) who played on the recordings. Credit was never given to Gruber, but he did reach a financial settlement.
In 2011, Gruber was (somewhat) vindicated when Iommi stated in his autobiography that Gruber did record bass parts for every song on the album. However, Iommi also stated that Butler re-recorded all of the bass parts without ever listening to what Gruber did before his return.
The drama surrounding the rhythm section wasn’t limited to the bass. Because of his alcoholism, Ward has admitted that he has no memory of recording Heaven And Hell. Ward’s alcoholism (which was made worse by the death of both of his parents) was a major factor in him leaving the band. Things got so bad at one point during the Heaven And Hell tour that Ward left in the middle. He was replaced by Vinny Appice (who would join RJD when he formed Dio a few years later).
Despite all of the issues with the personnel and recording of Heaven And Hell, it remains not only one of the best Black Sabbath albums, but arguably, one of the best heavy metal albums of all-time…