The Complete History of Black Sabbath by Joel McIver is a handsome hardbound volume chock full of great photos. The cover design with the purple foil-stamped cover and the cool band illustrations on the dust jacket all display a high-quality presentation. It is without a doubt a coffee table showpiece and the best-looking thing to look at in the crapper. But AllMusicBooks wants a review, not a product description. How about we review the actual “history” part of this well assembled tome.
Black Sabbath has several well-worn anecdotes that, for fans, are almost tedious. No history of the band ever written fails to establish the setting in the post-war rubble of Birmingham, Ozzy’s impoverished youth and Iommi’s fateful finger accident, then squeaking Geezer Butler and Bill Ward in here and there during the band’s genesis. So much has been written about these guys that to expect any major revelations would be foolish. Unfortunately while getting through the bands formative years as quickly as possible, this book establishes a bone-dry textbook tone from the start.
In rock bios, Joel McIver is as much a brand name as Sabbath. His knowledge of the topic is indisputable, but his writing here swings from prescient to predictable. Was he hired to lend his name to the package? Write the text so it could be trimmed to fit the page count? My theory is the book is a victim of hatchet editing, and I feared that as the bands history got more complex, the narrative would get more simple-minded. Fortunately for all Black Sabbath bios, how they handle the last couple of albums by the original line-up is an easy test to weed out the weaklings. As I suspected, the book dedicates only short paragraphs to 1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 78’s Never Say Die, cribbing worn-out 'band falling apart' clichés, and condemning them as a disappointment to fans “devoid of classic riffage,” I disagree entirely with the analysis. The writing here seems lazy, not the work of a curious mind. Instead he poaches a few record reviews of the day and then dismisses the entire work. Attention Joel McIver: Black Sabbath fans love these two albums. They are dense, complicated and brilliantly flawed records, full of essential Sabbath riffs, sinister synths and desolate vocals. Yes, the band members confess it was a career low point, but that does not mean these LPs are not important. In the chaos, they tried to fill the imagined creative void with desperately ambitious production flourishes. The psychic decay of the period places these records in a strange alternate universe and makes them endlessly interesting to die-hard fans. No one claims they rank with the first 6 releases, but when I get tired of hearing "Iron Man," a song like "Air Dance" off Never Say Die always captivates. I’m sure the author knows that most rock critics take intellectual short cuts. They rarely review an album for what it is, they compare it to the previous release or the most commercially successful record in the bands catalog, or they hold it up to the latest trends. 70s rock rags were littered with critics out to prove their own relevance by trashing great records from established artists. I submit every Led Zeppelin record review in Rolling Stone as evidence. Why do that here? I guarantee 9 out of 10 people who buy a big, hard-bound book about Black Sabbath love those records, and this book missed the opportunity to reconsider these albums and dig deeper into why they matter.
So, in the spirit of following a formula, let’s stick to this one and jump to the next litmus test for authenticating a Sabbath book: the post-Dio years. Surprisingly, this book includes a few lines on the infamous show in Worcester where vocalist Glenn Hughes was so wasted he was unable to perform. I was in attendance and can add a detail the book does not cover. Iommi took to the stage alone, cycling endlessly through solo riff after riff, while attempts to revive the singer for a shambolic encore were being made behind the scenes. Glenn Hughes' five nights on tour with Black Sabbath was a rock ’n roll train wreck of epic proportions. Worcester was the final straw. He was fired that night. But the fact any mention of the incident made these pages at all is welcome and impressive. How did this nugget get by the editors?
My hopes were soon dashed in the Tony Martin years. Records like The Eternal Idol and Headless Cross are given little squibs not worth a generic Heavy Metal buying guide. This is supposed to be the complete history! Tony Martin was Sabbath's second longest serving lead singer. It’s probably personal taste, but to me, the downward spiral of a great band is as interesting as their rise to fame. Here we have a touring unit that once played in front of 400,000 people at the Cal Jam ’74, now soldiering through the 80s in small half-filled venues, struggling to maintain an independent label deal. While the guy they kicked out is enjoying mammoth success. The Eternal Idol is a fine record that contains some great Tony Iommi riffs and songs written by Ozzy alum Bob Daisley and Badland’s singer Ray Gillen who left before it was released. I know it cannot get equal time, but I dislike that this period is relegated to footnote status. The book does not even dedicate enough space to dig in to what is weak about some of these records. The follow up to Idol, Headless Cross, was actually a minor commercial success for IRS records in Europe, but the lyrics sound like an unfunny parody of Black Sabbath. Iommi could still toss off metal riffs worthy of the brand, but this is Tony Martin’s debut as lyricist and it shows. Where Butler used occult imagery for drug references and anti-war messages, and Dio cast a spell over you with the authority of his vocals, Tony Martin lyrics sound like a bad Dungeons and Dragons module.
The timing of publication is perfect. The band is wrapping up it’s farewell tour and this book concludes with pages on the final records “13” and “The End” tour with great photos. The text here could have been where the book really made its real mark – a chance to contribute new insight into the Sabbath legend. But it never betrays its generic approach. It does refer to Rick Rubin as “veteran console-tweaker” which is the perfect backhanded compliment. I won’t deny Rubin has assisted many classic acts in finding their original muse, but then he, or whoever does the actual “console tweaking,” damn near ruins everything with volume and compression. But lets not shit on Rick Rubin, he didn’t write this thing.
Face it, I’m spoiled by Martin Popoff’s exceptional and quirky Doom Let Loose which revels in the kind of substance you can only get from someone who has immersed themselves in the music and seen them perform several times. This book simply offers no depth or passion in either its criticism or praise. It’s the difference between detached, carefully-edited research and writing about a band that is in your blood. So “research” provides a nice segue to what is extremely good about this book. The photography and how it is presented is excellent. I mention this toward the end of my review not to toss the author a bone — he is way better than this book, is quite successful and will do just fine without my endorsement. I am sincerely closing with what might be the most important thing of all, and where this book nails it.
So, let’s finish the frame job. I opened by mentioning the abundance of Sabbath bios and all the well-worn anecdotes. Perhaps the real misleading thing with this book is the title — “Complete History” — and the actual point of the text is not an in-depth history at all. If you consider the text more as a timeline, with some fantastic photos, and you take those regurgitated record overviews with a grain of salt, the grade goes from a D to a B. Oh, and here I will throw the book a bone. I’m happy to report that because it is more “A Cursory History” than a complete one, we are spared an excess of the excesses. Yes the drink and drugs are part of their story, and avoiding it would be equally annoying. Thankfully we are not given a drug overdose; the bands turmoil and inner demons are treated with the same emotional detachment as the assessment of their music. So there you have it. Black Sabbath is a band I probably know more about than a grown man should. I am bound to have mixed feelings about something so obviously prepared for the mass market. Here’s what I think. If you are an über-fan you already know the minutiae and it’s been well-covered elsewhere, if your are a casual fan you don’t care and just want the broad strokes. This book makes a solid attempt to satisfy both consumers in a well-assembled package that unearths some genuine photographic treasures and threads them together with some easily digestible facts, recollections and analysis. -Kevin Toler