Featured Extract

Taster extracts from Words and Music will be published here and rotated occasionally.

Extract 4: From This One Sacred Hour  

 ‘Heaven and Hell’ – a Sabbath gig and a stroke of luck

When the evening came, it was ice-cold and bible-black, as though Mother Nature herself was aware of the band’s reputation and had deserted us. On the way to the venue, I bought a cheap black and white Sabbath scarf to tie around my wrist: ‘THEY SOLD THEIR SOULS FOR ROCK N ROLL’ said the lettering along the scarf in mock-gothic font. I thought it looked great. We got there as early as we could and started queuing. Since the Saxon gig I had acquired a denim jacket. It was a bit too long as my mother sensibly always bought me clothes with ‘growing space’, but generally I felt much more appropriately attired. My ‘lucky’ bobble hat kept my ears warm. Then, disaster! As the queue started to move I realised that I couldn’t find my ticket anywhere. Perhaps I dropped it when I bought the scarf. Perhaps I’d been pick-pocketed. Wherever it was, it wasn’t about my person. The security men were patient with me.

“Take your time son, check all your pockets,” said one of them. I did, but to no avail.

“This one’s a brave one,” chipped in another, “he’s not even crying!”

“Listen,” I said, in desperation, “I’ve come with a group of girls. You’ve just let them in. I know my ticket number and they will have the numbers either side. And they can vouch for me.”

The bouncers conferred. “OK,” said the one who appeared to be in charge, “we’ll go and find your friends and see what they’ve got to say.”

In we went. When we found the girls they looked genuinely pleased and relieved to see me. Their instinctive responses clearly made a difference. They showed the chief bouncer their tickets and he seemed to be in no doubt that I was genuine. In a show of outstanding reasonableness, for which I’ll be forever grateful, he let me in!

Not only was I lucky that the security staff were so reasonable, but, as it turned out, I was lucky that we’d arrived at the venue so early. As the hall filled up, it was soon obvious that not only was the crowd reaching capacity but that there were still lots of people waiting to get in. I became vaguely aware of a growing sense of unrest, with concerned looking bouncers rushing about the place as though reinforcements had been summoned. Then someone broke in through a skylight and dropped from the ceiling into the crowd beneath. I’d seen the same chap outside and had been struck by his distinctive appearance. Most notably he had what looked like some kind of dead animal tied to his belt. Several minutes later I saw him again, wriggling and kicking, struggling to free himself from the same group of bouncers who just minutes earlier had been so reasonable with me. It took four strong men to subdue him, as they carried him out of the building each holding a different limb (all still attached to his body, I hasten to add). The entourage was escorted by an anxious-looking supervisor on a walkie-talkie. This was the first time I’d experienced the depth of fanaticism that characterised hardcore Black Sabbath fans.  I assumed that, like me, the now becalmed fan had lost his ticket or had it pinched. It was reported later though that an estimated 1,000 ‘extra’ tickets were in circulation. Once the venue had reached (or perhaps surpassed) capacity, and it was clear that there was a problem, a decision was taken to close the doors. It was the only sensible thing that could have been done, but it meant that a substantial number of ticket holders were left outside. The anticipation and excitement of those unlucky enough to have been locked out turned to anger. The skylight intruder was one of those, and he wasn’t the only one to break glass, as some people hurled bricks and stones through the cafeteria window. The trouble was only quelled when the band agreed to play a special set for those left outside and paid for tea and coffee to help keep everyone warm while they waited. I remember seeing a queue of cold, shivering and weary-looking people (including my friend Duncan and his Mum) as I left the gig after the ‘first performance’.

Back inside the venue, with order restored, the gig itself proved to be a stunning experience. This time around I even enjoyed the support band – a northern group called AIIZ, who played a set of powerful yet quite immediate songs including a delightful romp called … er … ‘The Romp’ which invited and gained significant crowd participation. It turned out that they had a live album in the shops at the time called The Witch of Berkeley, which I later purchased as a deleted rarity from the marvellous Spillers Records (“Probably the oldest record shop in the world”). Then, with the doors shut, the lights dimmed and the crowd pumped up, Sabbath took to the stage. The next couple of hours surpassed my wildest expectations. Sabbath were simply superb. With Ronnie James Dio in full pomp, this was a band at its most theatrical and right at the top of its game. They mixed old (Ozzy-era) material and new tracks seamlessly, delivering a crisp and supremely exciting set with freshness and enthusiasm. The music press had reported animosity between new singer, the diminutive RJD, and old singer Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy had claimed that Ronnie would need a bullet proof vest if he got up on stage singing ‘his’ songs, and, indeed, it was reported that many hardcore fans had trouble accepting the former Rainbow front-man as one of their own. Ozzy fans would not have been palliated by Ronnie’s retort that Ozzy “couldn’t carry a tune in a suitcase”. But there was no dissent evident that night at Sophia Gardens. My overriding memory of the concert is of the fervour of those present. I formed the distinct impression that the boy with the dead animal on his belt was not the only one who would have risked life and limb to get in to the gig. This band clearly meant an awful lot to an awful lot of people. Dio sang about kings and queens, blinding our eyes and stealing our dreams. No wildebeest in sight. Fists, peace signs and crosses punched the air rhythmically and en masse. Arms flailed, heads bobbed, and bodies jumped and surged in unison. This went beyond the ‘good time togetherness’ of a Saxon gig. There was something going on here that required further investigation.

I caught the eye of one of the crew, a gorgeous rock ‘n’ roll dream who, I seem to recall, had an Australian accent (though that last bit could just be part of my fantasy). She took pity on my short and slight 13-year-old frame and pulled me up onto the mixing rig with her, giving me a fantastic if slightly uncomfortable vantage point for most of the show. With my scarf tied securely ’round my wrist, I joined in with the air punching. For the whole of the gig, my identity was entirely merged with the band and the rest of the crowd. I was taken over completely by the experience. Musically there were a number of highlights, of which I still have clear memories. For example, the live performance brought home to me the power of a track from Heaven and Hell called ‘Die Young’, a song with a ‘live for today’ theme. I remember a great strobe lighting effect during the quieter passages and the crowd going absolutely wild when the song got heavy again. And the track ‘Black Sabbath’ itself was a revelation. Framed by giant gleaming crosses set diagonally on either side of the drum kit, Iommi’s mighty riff sent dark thrills shooting through me. If Satan was indeed “coming ’round the bend”, then Ronnie Dio was the puppet master, controlling his every move with bolts of electricity drawn from Iommi’s guitar, his charge dancing to the rhythm of Butler’s bass and the beat of Appice’s drums. It was sheer magic!

(Note to reader: the original Sabbath line-up – Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne – features heavily in Chapter 5 God and the Devil.)

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