1968 in Aston, England. Four schoolboy friends make music together, trying to emulate the choppy British blues sounds of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers album. The music is loose and awkward with little direction — all hope and heart. But they keep after it because making a life out of music could be their only ticket away from the dismal future of working the factories in this small industrial town. So they keep plugging away, listening and playing and hoping. Eventually Tony’s guitar notes get darker, more ominous, pulling from the sinister side of Beethoven, Basie, Miles, and Wagner, until finally the session is halted with a question that would forever change the lives of those four schoolboys and the world over: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could scare people?”
And so the jazzy blues band Earth became the legendary Black Sabbath, and heavy metal music was born. The career of Black Sabbath would, throughout three decades, mimic the band’s dynamic and fearless sounds as the band endured both triumph and tragedy album after album, tour after tour. Equally mercurial is the musical life of drummer Bill Ward, who has persevered through a lifetime of addiction and distress, relying on his patented sound — part evil basher, part freeform lickster — to keep him on the Hall Of Fame side of life and away from the factories and funeral homes.
Today, Ward is clean and sober and finally mostly content with his life in California. While he still itches for just one more insane world tour with the Sabbath boys, he keeps busy by anguishing over his solo projects and reminiscing about some of those priceless moments he created with his schoolboy friends. He recalls the transitional moment from Earth to Sabbath with broken pieces of a distant memory, his thick British accent contrasting with his soft-spoken and reflective manner.
“Well, in 1968 is when I first recognized that Tony [Iommi] was tending to play darker notes. In Earth, we still continued to play jazz and blues because we were heavily influenced by British blues. The John Mayall Bluesbreakers album was one that we just sat down in ’67 or ’68 and listened to constantly. And me and Tony had been together since we were 16, then we were about 18 when we met up with Ozzie and Geezer, who were blues-based as well. And there were some jazz influences as well. Tony is an exceptionally good jazz player.
“All my life I’ve been attracted to powerful music — anything with dark, powerful, odd notes. So when Tony started playing some of those notes we were all immediately attracted to it. ’Wicked World’ was the very first song we ever wrote and Tony’s riffs were already quite dark, and it was extremely empowering and attracting.”
True creation often occurs under a cloak of naivete and such was the case with Ward and Sabbath. In fact, even as the band accepts its Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction, it’s hard for Ward to grasp just how big this band is. “In the past 15 years, there’s been such an incredible movement of heavy metal music and a lot of credit has been given to what we did as Black Sabbath. So you hear all that and you think, ’Wow, I guess we did do something that was important.’ I mean, I knew that Sabbath was a big band. We were selling a lot of records all over the world, but I certainly wasn’t aware of anything we were accomplishing that would have the lasting effect that it has.
“I just thought we were having a great time. And it really just felt like we were standing in the center of something and couldn’t really see what it was. Tony was writing all these amazing riffs, and I was reacting to them. We were all just reacting to each other. And that was the world we felt. Then we’d go on stage and give it everything we had.”
There’s a photo of Bill Ward from 1971. He’s crouched behind a seemingly miniscule Ludwig kit, crammed into a corner with barely enough room to move his arms. There’s lots of hair and a little sweat, but overall it’s a very simple photo. Then you realize that is the kit he’s playing on the Paranoid sessions, and you immediately doubt your own eyes. It seems impossible that he created those powerful, unabashed drum riffs — although often tunefully jazzy — on such an understated outfit. But he did.
“I wish I knew where that kit was,” Ward laments. “It served its purpose. Those were very faithful drums.”
And he goes on to explain some of the studio process behind the infamous Paranoid album, including that vicious yet sensitive drum sound.
“Well, I played really hard. When we did Paranoid we’d been playing very loud for about three years as we toured Europe. We hadn’t got to the States yet, but that was just around the corner. So we were really slamming. I was just kicking the crap out of everything.
“And technology was at the point in the studio where you could put a couple mikes up and get a really loud sound. So I think that helped. We didn’t use room ambience, which I almost regret because that really brings the drums out in an enormous sound. So we were still close-miking the drums at that point. Whenever I listen to ’Iron Man’ or a couple other tracks on Paranoid, I’m a little disappointed that the drum sound is a little muffled and closed in. But that was our best shot at that moment in time.