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A Missing Ingredient in Sabbath’s Creative Stew

How imperfect musicians can produce perfect music.

On 11/11/11, the most metal day of the century, the four original members of Black Sabbath announced that they were reuniting to record their first new studio album together since 1978. The metal gods smiled and metal fans rejoiced. Sadly, though, we learned in February 2012 that drummer Bill Ward was backing out of the reunion. As his reason, Ward said that he had been presented with an “unsignable contract.” The implication was that he would not be paid fairly. This is a very sad state of affairs for four aging rockers who grew up poor on the mean streets of Birmingham England. They have made more money than they could ever have dreamed of as alienated young men. From a fan’s perspective, the financial rewards the new album and tour will yield are inconsequential when considered against the loss of a true reunion of Iommi, Butler, Ward, and Osbourne.

With the hope fading fast that Ward and his Brummie brothers will come to terms before the album is complete, let’s take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of creativity. Poets often compose in solitude, but rock bands rarely do. And this is certainly the case for Black Sabbath. Guitarist Tony Iommi is widely acknowledged as the chief riff writer and musical innovator in the band, but bassist Geezer Butler developed a signature sound of his own and even more importantly wrote most of the lyrics for the classic albums. Ozzy Osbourne usually gets little credit on the musical end of things, as he is often seen as mostly a showman or even a clown. But Osbourne came up with the vocal melodies and some of the lyrics, including the lyrics to the band’s eponymous classic, “Black Sabbath.” And Bill Ward, the drummer, what about him? He actually did write some lyrics, but his most important contribution was a unique percussive sound.

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Ward was influenced by jazz and swing, giving his drumming an improvisational feel; he doesn’t so much keep time as create an atmosphere. As Ward explained his playing in For the Record: Black Sabbath, an Oral History:

"If Tony would play a riff, I was able to support that riff completely. I don’t play time as a drummer and I don’t play notes. I play orchestration. I’ve always played orchestration, that’s how I play. So when I listened to Tony’s riffs, I’m not hearing a riff. I’m hearing an entire piece. So I accompany that piece, and if it needs simplicity, or if it needs something else to go with it, I try to accommodate the action of the riff. I know what it means. I can see the anger in the riff. So that’s how it was—intuitive writing between us."

In fact Ward’s timing is a little off on some songs. Consider, for example, the staccato verse riffs in “War Pigs” where Ward is off just a little, adding to the feel of the song. Or consider Ward’s drumming on the song “Black Sabbath,” which James Bondarchuk describes in the following way in his chapter in the book Black Sabbath and Philosophy:

"Pay attention to how Ward reacts to the interplay created by the tritone melody and Ozzy’s sinister delivery. A light touch of the cymbal keeps the beat, but the drum fills are sparse, brooding, building sonic tension by straying just a bit off time, hanging back until a slow but emphatic roll brings them to the foreground. It is one of the most ominous pieces of drumming ever recorded, yet it never sounds overly assertive or self-indulgent, and most people wouldn’t even notice it unless it were to go missing. Ward’s preternatural feel gives the song a dimension—a heaviness, both musical and emotional—without which it wouldn’t be nearly as dark and powerful."

Like Osbourne’s unorthodox singing, Ward’s unorthodox drumming added to Sabbath’s sound. Osbourne, without the benefit of musical training, did not sing from the diaphragm, giving him a strained vocal delivery. Butler’s original instrument was the guitar; he picked up the bass when it became clear that there was room for only one guitar player in a band with Tony Iommi. In fact, Butler played the bass like a guitar, developing his own unique sound. And of course Tony Iommi’s missing fingertips on his fretting hand are legendary. Fans may debate whether the down-tuning of Iommi’s guitar was primarily an accommodation for the makeshift fingertips he constructed, but the tips certainly had an influence on his style.

What should become clear from this picture is that Black Sabbath were a highly imperfect group of musicians. Yet, as we know, what they produced was close to musical perfection. In fact, they have often remarked that when the four of them were composing music together it was as if there was a mystical fifth member present. This should come as no surprise. In matters of creativity, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Think of it as a stew with ingredients that are not exciting on their own but that come together to produce a taste that is uniquely pleasing.

Famed producer Rick Rubin has asked Black Sabbath to listen to their earliest records in order to recapture the frame of mind they were in when they composed their classics. This approach has worked well for Rubin in recording with other bands, but something crucial is missing for Black Sabbath. His name is Bill Ward. It would be impossible for Iommi, Butler, and Osbourne to re-create their frame of mind from the early 70’s without including their brother Bill Ward. And while we know that Tony will come up with killer riffs, and Osbourne will deliver moving vocal interpretations of Butler’s poetic lyrics, we also know that something will be missing: the atmospheric, jazz-inflected drumming of Bill Ward. Tommy Clufetos, who will probably be playing drums, will do a fine job. But a crucial ingredient will be missing. We will dip into the cauldron, taste the stew, and be left wondering, what if …?

William Irwin is the editor of the book Black Sabbath and Philosophy: Mastering Reality (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

William Irwin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania.

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