Black Sabbath - The End
Leeds First Direct Arena - 26/01/17
What to expect, after 49 years of excess, drugs and alcohol? Black Sabbath are a band I've waited too long to see, missing out on previous tours. It really was now or never for this lifelong fan of the band, as they retire in two gigs time. But it's always such a risk going to see the old rockers. Page and Plant? Still got it. Jethro Tull? Great instrumental work, but Ian Anderson can't sing a note any more. Peter Green? A sad empty shell, almost unrecognisable from the bitter genius who wrote 'The Green Manalishi'.
So myself, and 13,500 other fans of this famous old band made our way to the Leeds Arena in relaxed mood. I didn't need Sabbath to be brilliant, I just needed them to be there. They owed me nothing, I just wanted to say thanks.
Having paid too much for a t-shirt, we ascended the stairs to our seats. As the standing had sold out in about 3 seconds, we had decent seats instead, far back, but central. The arena is steeply raked, vertiginous, broad, without feature, other than a control room high up the wall on the right, where if we were playing Doom, would certainly be the location for the red keycard.
The support act were Rival Sons. Solid rockers, singer with 'a fine set of pipes on him' as my buddy put it. "We are Rival Sons and we play Rock and Roll!" they said, more than once. I remember the keyboard player's beard more than the songs themselves, but it was a fun 40 minutes. It must be tough playing to so many people who haven't come to see you. I'd see them again, with a bit more research next time.
Finally, Sabbath hit the stage. Kicking off with their title track, the doom laden riff that kick started a whole genre, filling the space with a finality that shook the seats. This is a band that eschew all treble, leaving that space clear for Ozzy. I tried to imagine what people made of this sound in 1970, when the crunching riffs and downtuned guitars were a completely new musical idea. Sure, this was coming. Technology was improving, and new sounds were possible. The footage of Cream's remarkable 1968 farewell gig at the Albert Hall, whilst badly edited and filmed, is still a clear and astonishing moment in musical history. Sabbath simply took it so far it was 10 years before other bands caught on properly.
As for the performance, Tony Iommi just gets better with age. The greatest riffmaster of the genre adding superb detailed solos that would have been beyond him at one time. Geezer Buttler, equally detailed, solid throughout, and animalistic drummer Tommy Clufetos thumping away theatrically at the back on a drum riser so high it looked more like an island built to give humanity some hope when the ice caps melt and the sea levels rise. He had a giant gong he never used. That's rock and roll.
And then there's Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy Fucking Osbourne. Medical miracle, without doubt the least musical person ever to have topped the 100 million album sales mark. He couldn't sing in 1970, and he's really up against it now. Holding the mike stand for support, reading the words off a teleprompter, to give him his due he hits all the high notes, even if he passes through some unconventional territory on the way. When solos arrive, he shambles across the stage like a derelict hunchbacked dumpling and exhorts the crowd to clap and jump by waving completely out of time and trying not to fall over. Everyone does as he says though, he's Ozzy, how can we not? At one point he announces he's off for a piss, and walks off the stage.
His song introductions are limited to going up to Iommi, saying 'What the fuck's the next one?', receiving the answer, lumbering back to the mike, and telling us what the next one is. It's wonderful. Occasionally he says 'Cuckoo' and we all say 'Cuckoo' right back.
To be fair, during 'Hand of Doom', Ozzy sings "What you gonna do? Time's caught up with you", and the big screen zooms right in on his aged and pockmarked face, staring right out at us, and there's a moment of clarity. He knows he's a shambling old man and he doesn't care. It's the most meaningful moment of the show.
This is a band who were extraordinarily controversial in the 1970s, whose use of religious, and particularly satanic iconography made them utter hate figures. They achieved staggering record sales on the back of exactly zero radio play and critical loathing. Seen as genuinely dangerous figures, it's now comical, the same songs and iconography come over as just playful and a laugh. The audience is a wide range of ages, with everything from 70 year old couples who were there at the start to teenagers who owe their whole genre to this band. From most dangerous band in the world to fun for the whole family, on the same material. We've come a long way in 50 years.
What strikes me musically is just how heavy it is. There are not many bands, to this day, who can match Iommi when it comes to out and out heavy riffage. Not only did he invent it, he's still king. Prosthetic finger tips and all, it was a towering performance. Some of the barnstormers, like 'Into the Void' are slowed down in the verses to give Ozzy half a chance of fitting the words in, a device that only deepens the heaviness. It's oppressive, and the sound quality is good enough to give it a totality that overwhelms you.
After nearly two action packed hours, with video backdrops of walls of eyes, fields of burning maggots, and crosses made from skulls, Ozzy says this is the last one unless we ask for an encore. Which we do. The original metal band duly leave us with a thrash through Paranoid, not slowing it for Ozzy, who does his best, and we leave into the night, past the hoards of knock off T-shirt sellers who follow the tour like the herring girls used to follow the trawlers, and into the cold Leeds night.
We'll never see them again.