2. Black Sabbath, Never Say Die! (1978)
Maybe Ozzy really did sell his soul to the devil. How else to explain his solo albums getting more love—even amongst old school Black Sabbath fans—than the last album he made with his first band? It is genuinely inexplicable, and more than a little exasperating. There is no need to diminish the moments of excellence contained in those first two solo albums, which briefly brought Randy Rhoads the mass audience he deserved and should have had for many more years. However, it has to be said and without the slightest bit of hesitation: nothing Ozzy did after 1980 can hold a candle to anything he did with Sabbath, and none of those solo albums (even the first two) belong in the same conversation as Never Say Die! which is not only a near masterpiece, but boasts some of the band’s best playing and Ozzy’s all-time best singing.
Who cares that Ozzy was a miserable mess during the recording, or that he left (or was fired) after its release? Who cares that the album did not have any big hits (though it could—and should—have), and who cares whether or not any of the actual band members rate this as highly as the others? On any objective and rational level, the songwriting is for the most part heads and shoulders above the previous effort, Technical Ecstasy (which, while having some outstanding tracks, is the closest Sabbath every came to mediocrity in the ‘70s). It is, in many ways, easy to compare Never Say Die! with the soon-to-be-discussed In Through the Out Door: both albums represent the last recordings by the original band, and each one is largely dismissed not only by the majority of the critical establishment, but more importantly, the fans themselves. In the case of both records, some of the band’s best work appears and it is because it is a departure from the “classic sound” of earlier albums that less adventurous, not to mention less astute, ears can’t hear the myriad glories contained in each.
Taking it on a song-by-song basis, it’s not even necessary to bring in the last couple of songs: the brass-heavy “Break Out” (which is nothing if not an interesting departure) and the album-closer “Swinging The Chain” (which features robust, if unfamiliar vocals from drummer Bill Ward—a curiosity that many folks can’t get behind). I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy, and possibly brilliant gambit to carry on as a trio and have Ward sing for Ozzy instead of recruiting outside services (no hatred here for Ronnie James Dio, but anyone who compares anything the band did with him with anything the band did with Ozzy is kidding themselves).
What I’ve never been able to reconcile is the general indifference and/or disdain with which this album is met. It can’t be the musicianship, which is not only up to par, but as good as anything the band did. In fact, the production is a marked improvement over most of their work, and the listener can fully (and finally!) appreciate the intricacies and delights of Geezer Butler’s bass playing. Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of that decade: on every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But the real head-scratcher is why this album is not worshipped (by Sabbath fans, but also by everyone) as one of the all-time great guitar workouts. Tony Iommi is second only to Jimmy Page in terms of the sheer quantity—and quality—of riffs and melodies, and his playing, the fast, the furious, the subtle, the sweet, inspired a literal generation of imitators. On every single song here he unleashes solos that are blistering but logical; sizzling but soulful. Even Ozzy, as truculent or burnt crisp as he may have been, managed (or was prodded) to deliver some of his most affecting vocal work.
The title track should have been an anthem; of course it’s more than a little ironic that the resolve and exultation it depicts turned out to be the swan song of a band about to splinter. The keyboard flourishes on both the adrenalized “Johnny Blade” and the almost elegant “Air Dance” (this features Ozzy and Iommi as good as they ever were) may alienate fans (though those same stylings were evident on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath not to mention Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy). How could anyone argue with the scorched earth celebration that is “Shock Wave”? What could anyone possibly find underwhelming about “Junior’s Eyes”, from Geezer’s funky fingerwork on the extended intro to the multi-tracked layers of guitar sounds to the way the song builds to a shrieking climax (Iommi!) and then, instead of fading out, doubles down? And finally, how can anyone be unmoved by the crowded pub singalong of “Hard Road”? This last song, which showcases every member of the band lending their voice, is a tour de force of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code to Sabbath’s last great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past/And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”