Q&A With Geezer Butler of Heaven and Hell/Black Sabbath

Why stop at a Heaven and Hell concert preview item like the one in Westword’s September 20 issue when you’ve got a chance to chat with one of the architects of Black Sabbath? That’s what we asked ourselves -- and the conclusion we drew accounts for the following conversation with once-and-future Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, who’s currently touring with H&H, a band that commemorates an early ´80s BS lineup (Butler, guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Vinny Appice and vocalist Ronnie James Dio) that came together after Ozzy Osbourne went solo.

Butler jaws in entertaining fashion on a wide range of subjects: his views about how Heaven and Hell measures up to the original Sabbath crew; his pleasure at letting Dio handle the lyrical duties that typically fell to him; the reasons Bill Ward, the first Sabbath drummer, didn’t participate in H&H; his bass-playing role model; the original response to his use of wah-wah pedals and his approach to de-tuning his chosen instrument; the point at which journalistic hatred for Black Sabbath turned into slavish critical affection; his mixed feelings about the words he wrote for the Sabbath classic “War Pigs”; a little chat about Satanism; and his fondness for Just For Men hair-coloring products.

A touch of gray? To Hell with that:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Most Sabbath fans rank the classic lineup of you, Tony, Bill and Ozzy above all of the ones that followed. But were there others along the way that were just as good as that one?

Geezer Butler: It’s as you say, everyone’s got an opinion. Some people like the Heaven and Hell lineup more, but most people like the original lineup. But I think the stuff that we did in this lineup certainly lived up to the expectations.

WW: What are the biggest attributes of the Heaven and Hell lineup? What does this lineup do particularly well – and maybe better than any of the other lineups?

GB: I think we’re more musical. The playing is probably a higher standard, as far as the music standpoint goes. Technically is what I’m trying to say.

WW: With Ronnie, how does the dynamic change?

GB: When Ronnie came in, he brought a totally different aspect to it. He was a writer himself. He wrote on guitar, so it was easy for him to explain, musically to us, what he wanted us to change to suit his songs. And he writes his own lyrics, which gave me a break, because I wrote all the lyrics for the original Sabbath. So it was totally different, and I could concentrate solely on bass when he came in, instead of juggling bass and the lyrics. I was happy about that.

WW: There was a never a time where you felt bad about sitting on the sidelines lyrically? You were fine with him taking over that part of it?

GB: Oh yeah. I hated writing lyrics in the end. It really got to me. I felt like I was becoming taken for granted. In the first place, Ozzy used to come up with a few things and then we used to work together a lot. But I felt like, toward the end, it was like, Geezer writes the lyrics and that’s it, and I didn’t like that. I felt, if somebody’s got a good idea, they should come up with it, and not leave it up to me all the time. It’s sort of like leaving it to Tony to come up with all the music and nobody helping out – that kind of thing.

WW: So you didn’t feel like someone was stepping on your toes?

GB: Not at all. I was so relieved when Ronnie came and said that he wrote lyrics. It was brilliant for me (laughs).

WW: In terms of the present Heaven and Hell lineup, was Bill ever going to be a part of it? I know that he posted a comment on his website confirming that he wasn’t participating. But were there discussions early on?

GB: Yeah, at first. We thought that Bill would come in. This was when it first got started and when we doing the CD and writing a couple of songs to put on it. We thought about Bill. But then it evolved into a best-of CD with three new studio songs and a tour, and Bill wasn’t really into touring. And we didn’t want Bill to come in and do the album and then have Vinny come in to do the tour. We wanted to keep as little change as possible. So we thought since Vinny has played more on the Heaven and Hell lineup’s albums than Bill did, it would be better for Vinny to come in.

WW: How would you describe the stylistic differences between Bill’s playing and Vinny’s style?

GB: I think Bill’s more swing oriented. He grew up playing jazz. His favorite drummer is Max Roach. Whereas Vinny being younger, his hero was Bonham. So Vinny’s more straight-ahead, Bonham-style drumming and Bill’s more swing and jazz drumming.

WW: That’s something a lot of the original Sabbath fans might not have picked up – that swing aspect. How about with you? What influences on your playing would people be most surprised to hear about?

GB: I used to love Jack Bruce. He’s sort of what I based my playing on. You have to start copying somebody somewhere, and Jack Bruce used to blow me away during the ‘60s. I used to play guitar at the time and I went to see the Cream. And everybody else was watching Eric Clapton, and I was standing there watching Jack Bruce. I was completely awestruck.

WW: Was that an influence on you moving permanently to the bass?

GB: Absolutely. I’d never even considered playing bass before that. I was so blown away with what he could do with the bass. I thought, that’s incredible. I didn’t realize you could do that with a bass. It just influenced me so much that I eventually picked up a bass and started playing.

WW: You brought elements to the bass that a lot of people didn’t associate with it before: the wah-wah pedal and your approach to de-tuning. When you first were trying things like that, did some of your fellow musicians think you’d gone off the deep end? Or did they realize you were onto something?

GB: It wasn’t so much the fellow musicians. It was producers we had problems with. When we got our first record contract, we were trying to get producers, and producers didn’t want to know. They were saying, “That’s not music! You can’t play distorted bass! The bass isn’t made to play distorted!” It was just ridiculous, the prejudices established producers had against us. That’s why in the end with had to go with the producer from the record company. He was just there to do a job, basically.

WW: Speaking of prejudice, during those early years, Sabbath got some of the worst reviews ever. Critics seemed to hate the band – but a number of years later, when Sabbath proved to be so influential, they completely flip-flopped. What was the moment where you first saw that sea change?

GB: I think some of them got an inkling when Frank Zappa did this interview in one of the big English music papers. They were asking him what music he was listening to at the time, and he said, “Black Sabbath.” And at the time, Frank Zappa was really well thought of critically. And I thought he was joking! (Laughs.) But he thought “Supernaut” [from 1972’s Black Sabbath, Vol. 4] was the best riff he’d ever heard. And a lot of critics went, “Well, if Zappa likes Black Sabbath, maybe we should give them another listen.” So that turned some of the people. And when bands like Nirvana and Metallica started citing us as their main influence, that gave us credibility with the critics. But we’ve always had it with the kids anyway. They’ve always loved us. It was sort of a them-against-us attitude that endeared us to the kids anyhow.

WW: Given that you had such great fan support, did it even bother you when critics said, “This is horrible music”?

GB: We’d just laugh at them. We’d met a lot of the critics, and especially in England, they were old fogies at the time who’d grown up in the ‘40s and liked ‘40s kind of music. And in England at the time, everybody had started slagging the Beatles and they were old – they were like 25 years old or something. England’s always had this reputation of building someone up and slagging them to death, like with the sports teams and everything like that. And because we were from Birmingham and not London, there was a critical bias against us anyway. Because Birmingham’s a very unfashionable city in England. And if you came from Liverpool or London, people would look on you much differently. Whereas we came from Birmingham, which was totally unfashionable at the time.

WW: And supposedly unsophisticated, too.

GB: Yeah, totally unsophisticated. They were really pissed up that we’d built up this following without ever being mentioned in the press as well. I think a lot of them felt they weren’t really doing their job properly.

WW: They were bothered that you’d sidestepped them?

GB: Yeah. And a lot of them felt old and out of it because they’d missed it. So their way of getting back at us was to slag us.

WW: And then a few years later, they had to act like they were into you all along.

GB: Yeah. In fact, one of them even wrote the book about us.

WW: Which one was that?

GB: Chris Welch. He slagged us to death in the first place, and then he wrote a book saying how influential we were and all this crap (laughs).

WW: You mentioned writing the lyrics for early Sabbath – and one of the lyrics that seems the freshest, unfortunately, is the one for “War Pigs.” Could you have imagined thirty years ago how topical those lyrics would be even today?

GB: Nope. You’d never think that such a so-called civilized country would make that mistake again.

WW: Would you love to play that song and have it not be so meaningful?

GB: Of course. Absolutely. It’d be nice to just be nostalgic – for people to look back on it to think, “Remember when there used to be war and all that crap.” It’s incredible. Back then, people weren’t even fighting that much about religion, and not religion has become the new Satan.

WW: Other lyrics from that period had a heavy occult theme. Were you really into that in a serious way? Or were you almost writing in character – almost like a screenwriter for a horror film?

GB: There was one song that mentioned the occult, and that was the first song, “Black Sabbath” – and that was a warning against Satanism, which I sort of believed in at the time. I’ve totally grown out of all of that now. A lot of people were into different spiritualisms and different religions because the Beatles had gone to India and they were into Hari Krishna and all that stuff. And up until that, people in England just thought of religion as Christianity. They’d never really given any thought to other religions, and the Beatles opened up this whole new world. That there were other religions – Hinduisms or Buddhists or other kinds of religions, and people were getting into that sort of thing. I was brought up a very strict Catholic and I’d always heard about how terrible Satan is and all this. So I thought, I’ll find out what Satanists say about all this. And I just started reading a few books on Satanism, before I realized that was a load of crap as well.

WW: What are you into these days? Do you have spiritual beliefs?

GB: No, not at all.

WW: So you’ve gotten beyond all of those ideas?

GB: Yeah. You live and you die and that’s it.

WW: That’s a strong contrast. Some people would see that viewpoint as hopeless.

GB: Sometimes I wish I had my Catholicism back, and sometimes I try to get back into it, but I just can’t. I just don’t believe in it anymore, and it’s pointless being a hypocrite and saying you believe something when you don’t.

WW: So is music your biggest belief system these days?

GB: Probably soccer. That’s my religion.

WW: You mention that in the journal on your website. And in one of your most recent entries, you said, “Time to get the old hair dye out again.”

GB: (Laughs until he starts coughing.) Yeah, unfortunately, I’ve got to do that every week now.

WW: Do you have favorite brand?

GB: Just For Men, obviously (laughs). For the beard. For the mustache, I mean.

WW: Maybe we can get an endorsement deal for you.

GB: I was just saying that to Tony. I said, “We should get Just For Men to endorse us for the tour.” Sell Heaven and Hell or Black Sabbath versions of it!

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts