“OZZY, OZZY, OZZY, OZZY, OZZY, OZZY, OZZY!” Even before the crack of doom opens and the four horsemen clop out, the atmosphere is boiling oil on Gas Mark Six. Make no mistake, tonight is heavy history. From the pubs, kitchens, biker clubs, skate-punk parks and parent-teacher associations, the faithful have clumped forth. They’ve buffed up their dandruff, ironed the tassles on their leathers and they are ready to lick the crucifix-shaped lollipop of awe. Yes, after 18 years asunder, the Sabs – the black hole at the foot of metal’s Big Bang are back with Ozzy Osbourne and it should be awful, bloody awful.
Black Sabbath formed in 1968 in Birmingham and went on to have two profound effects on British culture. They invented heavy metal and caused 70 per cent of all pet bats to be named Ozzy. But 30 years later, after two decades of slurping in the booze’n’fishnet trough of rock piggery, and one drying out, what’s the likelihood of them transcending panto? “Witches gather at black maaaasses/Bodies burning in red aaaaashes!” The Oz does not really need to bellow the words to the ‘War Pigs’ opener. The crowd are ahead of him, soccer-chanting along, each of them adopting the victory signed arms-aloft position. The weirdly magical thing is, however, that they neither look nor play like your dad at Halloween. They’re a bit portly. But Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Geezer Butler (Bernard’s dad, not) and Oz are dressed down, the show is free of extra musos or pomp and there’s a kind of clean, pure power to their pummelling of the b(l)ack catalogue.
The post-’60s Al Crowley gibberish coiled in the midst of songs like ‘Spiral Architect’, ‘Into The Void’ and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ echoes with as much daftness as ever, but given their stripped-to-the-bone, blunderbuss-grooved execution, the Sabs sound weirdly contemporary. Like some evil zombie hip-hop band masterminded by Rick Rubin and Ken Russell, they throw down the mighty riffs with a fierceness that suggests Spaghetti Junction was in fact constructed purely out of the roots running between Metallica, Run DMC, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Ash and yer very own Sabs. Even the whimsical hammer blow of oldies like ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ have a turbo-blues sexiness to them, patently absent from metal in its big hair and speed-muso days and still hard to find now outside of a Prodigy gig.
There’s just one thing that stops it being a kind of Steve Reich for the terraces primal art experience. And the thing is Ozzy. “I want everybody to get their lighters out!” screams Oz. His hair is splattered on his face. His eyeliner drools with delight. And his deportment is that of a hyperactive toddler in an invisible bunny suit. For someone whose head used to revolve every time the sun went behind a cloud, he’s a bizarrely cuddly 49-year-old.
Yesterday, on his birthday, the NEC sang him ‘Happy Birthday’. Tonight they just let the victory signs fly and allow Ozzy to conduct them through some top sing-along-a Satanism choruses. Having proved that the Devil really did have the best riffs, and that a bunch of old gits can still kick it definitively, the Sabs then charge towards the massed tennis rackets of doom’n’insanity via a gonzo end-piece ‘Paranoid’ and line up for a tearjerking display of tattooed luvvy hugging. Yes, hugging. Never before in the heavy history of rock has there been such a meeting of ineffable, slicing blackness and sentimental pink. There was not a dry eye in the dungeon. It was excellent, bloody excellent.