x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Newsmaker: Ozzy Osbourne

After a remarkable comeback with his former band Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne is back in the spotlight. Mark McGinness reviews his remarkable life and career.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

"There is something in the air," was how one of the band members described their latest reunion. Black Sabbath, the metal band from the 1970s, have reformed and released an album again, which has gone to No 1 in both the UK and the US charts. In doing so, the album, 13, has broken the record for the longest gap between chart-topping records, at almost 43 years. This is also the first studio album recorded with lead singer Ozzy Osbourne since Never Say Die in 1978. Sixty-four-year-old Osbourne is the woeful face and weedy voice of the band, and one of the most enduring and outrageous figures in the rocky world of hard rock.

He glories in the titles "Prince of Darkness" and the "Godfather of Heavy Metal", and though there is another, softer, more normal aspect to Osbourne than the monster who appears onstage, there is a dark side to him that has nothing to do with the netherworld and everything to do with an ongoing battle with drugs and alcohol.

John Michael Osbourne was born on December 3, 1948 in Birmingham, UK. The fourth of six children, his father, Jack, was a toolmaker. They lived in a two-bedroom house in Aston. His mother worked during the day; his father at night. Ozzy, a name he earned at school, was dyslexic and a dreamer who craved encouragement that never came. He was not good at sport or exams and has never forgotten being met at the school gates by his headmaster and told, "Go home. You're not clean enough."

Music was not then a part of his life, apart from school performances in HMS Pinafore and The Mikado. Then one day he heard The Beatles sing She Loves You, and the life he previously saw as a bag man or gangster suddenly had a focus. His father said of The Beatles: "What are you playing that for? They'll never become anything."

He was convicted and briefly jailed for six weeks for burglary when he broke into a clothes shop. Afterwards, he trained briefly as a plumber and toolmaker and worked on a building site. Other work as a car-horn tuner and as a slaughterhouse worker didn't entirely hint at what was to follow.

Osbourne found music as an escape from life. He formed a band, Rare Breed, with his friend Terence "Geezer" Butler, but found the guitarist was a bully so the two left and placed an advertisement in a local music shop. Tony Iommi, who was at school with Osbourne, and Bill Ward turned up and they formed a band called Earth.

But the clean-cut look and sound of The Beatles was definitely not for them; they preferred a darker, blusey sound, influenced by Led Zeppelin and Cream. They also noticed their audiences preferred not only the darker sound but darker lyrics. Inspired by a dream Butler had, he and Osbourne penned a song more sinister than anything in their repertoire and called it Black Sabbath, after a Boris Karloff horror film. The song was a hit at their live shows, and it was a natural selection for the new name of the band in 1969.

They were signed by Vertigo Records and released their first album, the self-titled Black Sabbath, in 1970. Seven months later they released their second album, Paranoid. With Butler's lyrics, Iommi's riffs, Ward's drumbeats and Osbourne's ghostly voice, they were a hit - despite being panned by critics - and both albums went gold within a year and were to sell 70 million copies. It was not until their fifth album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, appeared in late 1973, that some critics responded favourably.

The group's enthusiasm for touring enhanced their following, and their onstage antics - especially those of Osbourne - earned them a notoriety that has rarely been matched by even the "baddest" of bad-boy bands. This aspect of Black Sabbath does none of them credit and their appeal to the disaffected, rebellious generation in the 1970s marked an ugly time for contemporary culture.

Because of antics such as dismembering a shark carcass in a hotel room, Osbourne has been banned from the US cities of San Antonio, Boston, Baton Rouge, Corpus Christi, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. In two other notorious episodes, Ozzy bit the head off a live dove in a meeting with record executives in Los Angeles and a few months later, on stage in Des Moines, he chewed the head off a bat; he thought it was a rubber toy. He later took the precaution of getting rabies shots.

Much of his behaviour can be attributed to a prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol, the curse of so many rock musicians. This has dogged his entire career and led to the end of his first marriage to Thelma Riley, which produced a son, Louis, and a daughter, Jessica. His increasing habits and frequent absences led to him being sacked by the band in 1978, but he never really stopped performing. In 1980 he produced a solo album, Blizzard of Ozz.

He had been signed as a soloist by the notorious Don Arden of Jet Records, whose formidable daughter, Sharon, was sent to make sure Osbourne would be taken care of - and to protect Arden's investment. Two years later, she would become his wife, on July 4, the US Independence Day (he claimed he chose that date so he would never forget his wedding anniversary). She also assumed the role of his manager.

But that year also brought tragedy, in the worst tradition of rock music. Osbourne's guitarist, the talented Randy Rhoads, his regular tour bus driver Andrew Aycock and the band's costume and make-up stylist, Rachel Youngblood, were killed instantly when the light aircraft they were in crashed. Aycock, the pilot, had been buzzing Osbourne's tour bus as a prank in between gigs when one of the wings clipped the bus and sent the aircraft spiralling into a building, bursting into flames. Osbourne fell into a deep depression, particularly over losing Rhoads, who had become a good friend.

It was Sharon that helped pull him out. That this union has endured is nothing short of remarkable. He has since paid tribute to her as saving his life, though it hasn't been an easy road for either of them. The marriage has survived his ongoing binges of dependency and regular spells in rehabilitation.

He released Bark at the Moon in 1983 and The Ultimate Sin in 1986, but that year his demonic, onstage persona was partly behind a lawsuit filed against him by the parents of depressed teenager who committed suicide while listening to his song Suicide Solution, from Blizzard of Ozz. That case, along with a similar lawsuit filed in 1991, were decided in Osbourne's favour, as the plaintiffs could not prove he was accountable for the deaths.

He would release six more albums up to 1997, including an LP of live, previously unreleased recordings made in 1981 with the guitarist Rhoads, titled Tribute. "I have no regrets," he would later say, "except that I wasn't up to keep Randy from getting on that plane."

Then, in 2002, the surprisingly real life of Ozzy Osbourne was put on public display. The Osbournes, a reality television series featuring Ozzy, Sharon and two of their three children, Jack and Kelly, debuted on MTV. It ran for three years and revealed an alcoholic husband with a shopaholic wife who frequently harangued him as he sought nothing but peace and quiet. It also portrayed a man who cleans up the house and washes the dishes; who loves his wife and adores his children. The so-called Satanist was exposed as a family man.

In fact, it was then that his lighter side began to show, at least to the public. First was the TV programme, then in 2010 he began a column in The Times called Ask Dr Ozzy, where he would take readers' questions and give irreverent answers, which also resulted in a book. It may be no coincidence that he remained relatively clean and sober during this time.

In 2010, he had his genomes mapped by a US genetics firm, which, among other revelations, found he had a feature in his DNA that enabled him to metabolise alcohol more than most people. "I used to drink four bottles of cognac a day," he replied. "I'm not sure I need a Harvard scientist to get to the bottom of that mystery."

In 2007, he released Black Rain as an alternative "to picking up the bottle". Scream appeared in 2010. The following year it was announced that Black Sabbath would reunite for a world tour and a new album. 13 has been described as a return to the heavy riffs and doom-laden vocals of the seminal Paranoid. The Times hailed it as "knuckle-dragging biker rock at its finest".

Ozzy Osbourne is not a figure to emulate or imitate - something he would be the first to agree on - but he has been a survivor and one who is honest enough to share his flaws. If anything, his life can be seen as a cautionary tale. In mid-April, he made an announcement that he had been 44 days sober after eighteen months in "a very dark place". His family remains around him as well as his old band, all now sober. They must all be hoping for, at last, a bright new future for the Prince of Darkness.