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Master of Reality
Geezer Butler (far left) with his Black Sabbath bandmates (L–R) Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne. Wikicommons

Master of Reality

“Things were bleak, they really were. Yet nobody was singing about that side of life, which is why we thought we should.”

· 7 min read

A review of Into the Void: From Birth to Black Sabbath and Beyond by Geezer Butler, 288 pages, Dey Street Books (June 2023)

In the state of Utah today, there lives a 74-year-old British-Irish expatriate, a husband, father, and grandfather, dedicated football supporter, Ian Rankin reader, and committed vegan. Despite his quiet near-anonymity, this man was profoundly influential in shaping the spirit of our age as a musician, familiar to many followers yet likely unknown to a wider public. Terence “Geezer” Butler has now come forward with his own account of that legacy in his autobiography Into the Void: From Birth to Black Sabbath and Beyond, published in hardback last year and due in paperback this summer.

With their original fans maturing into middle age and senior citizenship, rock stars’ memoirs have found a big market. Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Steven Tyler, and Keith Richards have all authored bestselling accounts of their lives and careers. Other notable offerings include books by Pete Townshend, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Rush’s Geddy Lee, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, and all four members of Kiss. Inevitably, there is a certain repetitiveness to these stories: humble origins in postwar Britain or North America; early discoveries of music's transformative power and the liberating promise of rock ’n’ roll; stumbling, serendipitous entries into show business; unexpected fame, wealth, and professional pressures; personal struggles with drugs and/or alcohol; and finally the long, grateful perspectives of surviving an adventurous life and remembrances of the casualties suffered along the way. Into the Void contains all these elements, to be sure, but Butler’s body of musical work makes his reflections particularly valuable. He may not be a celebrity like Bono or Steven Tyler, but this is the man whose scribbled verses, when sung over a now canonic selection of greatest hits, inform several generations’ outlook on politics, society, and philosophy.

As bassist and primary lyricist for Black Sabbath—the pioneering hard-rock quartet he formed in 1969 with fellow Birmingham lads Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne—Butler’s primary themes of occultism, anger, and alienation have reverberated far beyond their own musical subcategory. The sheer breadth of Black Sabbath’s influence—on artists from Nirvana and Metallica to Lady Gaga—is enough to make Butler one of rock’s most important wordsmiths. Today, Sabbath songs regularly rumble out of film and television soundtracks, playlists, classic rock radio, and countless private collections, all bearing Butler’s darkly humanist messages: the apocalyptic pacifism of ‘War Pigs,’ ‘Electric Funeral,’ and ‘Children of the Grave’; the despair of ‘Paranoid,’ ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ and ‘Changes’; the terrifying drug visions of ‘Snowblind,’ ‘Hand of Doom,’ ‘Fairies Wear Boots,’ and ‘Sweet Leaf’; the technological dystopias of ‘Wicked World’ and ‘Iron Man.’ Whether you're a fan of Black Sabbath or rock ’n’ roll generally, you’ll have to admit that the foursome’s gothic visions have colored the sensibilities of millions of listeners and non-listeners alike. “I was a kid with a mad ambition and made it happen,” Butler writes. “I was in a band that sold tens of millions of records and inspired others to do the same.”

The four original members of Black Sabbath grew up in the Aston district of Birmingham, England, where the Industrial Revolution began and where, by the time of the group’s beginnings in the late 1960s, it was noticeably sputtering to a halt. The smokestacks and dole queues of the Midlands would provide the source material for an entire musical genre. “Aston was a very working-class area, mainly comprised of Victorian terraced and back-to-back houses,” Butler recalls. “Life was probably more Dickensian than modern times.” The strict Catholicism of his upbringing also played a part: “I wasn't supposed to believe in ghosts, and I certainly wasn’t supposed to be interested in the occult. But I’d been hearing about Satan for years—the nuns and priests didn’t stop going on about him!”

Despite dabbling in the utopian ethos of the era, the youthful Butler and his mates instinctively understood its limitations: “By 1969, reality had dawned, and all that hippy stuff was far behind me. ... The world seemed to be in an even worse state than before the hippies turned up, preaching peace and love. And in Black Sabbath, we wanted to reflect the dark side of life—war, poverty, famine and pollution—the stuff everyone else was avoiding because it wasn’t deemed commercial.” Did they ever. Legions of later heavy metal, death metal, black metal, speed metal, doom metal, and stoner metal bands prove their choice of subject matter was more appealing than anyone during flower power’s heyday would have foreseen.

Into the Void candidly acknowledges the Spinal Tap qualities unavoidable in the Black Sabbath legend, and Butler’s anecdotes offer an extensive sample of sex-drugs-and-rock ’n’ roll clichés: “Things got so bad that Ozzy had to barter one of his microphones for a big lump of hash”; “All the walls in our flat were painted black and covered in inverted crucifixes made from aluminum foil. ... Oh, I almost forgot, there was a big picture of Satan”; “Then there was the time Tony and Ozzy sprayed Bill from head to toe in gold and blue paint, before sealing it with lacquer”; “A girl called Carol, who was a pal of Bill’s new girlfriend Misty, had a massive house down there, and when she offered me and Ozzy something called psilocybin, we of course accepted”; “If that wasn’t odd enough, suddenly a load of naked girls marched in and did handstands against the wall, before Zappa wandered over and gave them champagne enemas”; “Me, Bill, and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy shared a great big spliff with Bob Marley in his dressing room—it was the size of a bugle and almost took our heads off”; “Tony stopped setting Bill on fire after that”; “In retaliation, Gillan got drunk out of his brains, stole Bill’s car, took it for a spin around the go-kart track and wrecked it”; “Melinda was very good-looking, so Tony asked her to marry him in LA, while off his head on quaaludes and cocaine”; “We flew to our Helsinki gig on flight HEL 666, believe it or not”; “It was like nothing I’d ever smelled before, and I’d spend years on the road with Bill Ward”; “The advent of social media and smartphones means you can’t get away with anything anymore, let alone crapping in a German elevator in front of a coachload of American tourists.” Whatever your verdict on Black Sabbath as artists, Butler’s self-deprecating survey of self-indulgence is perversely mesmerizing. 

But underneath the substance-riddled inanity is a sobering portrait of the entertainment business’s ugliest imperatives, whereby 20-year-old provincials were thrown on an international treadmill of creating and performing until they and the revenue stream were fully exhausted and the suits moved on to the next big thing. Like many young musicians of their time, Geezer Butler and Black Sabbath were catapulted to stardom and enduring veneration early in their trajectory—the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 and completed a lucrative farewell tour in 2017—but they were left nearly penniless and forgotten when their first rush of success subsided.

The continued productivity of numerous geriatric rockers like the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and the Who suggest not just popular demand but also financial calculation. Working performers are at last earning back the money they originally blew through or were cheated out of during their creative prime. “The odds of four working-class lads coming together in a rough place like Aston, writing very heavy songs about their gritty reality and making it in the music industry are slim to none,” is how Butler evaluates the possibility of an equivalent achievement today. “They wouldn't look ‘right,’ they wouldn’t sound ‘current’ and they’d be too much of a risk for major record companies. ... The first two decades of Sabbath was one long party, and no one seemed to care what we got up to, however crazy. ... Any other band would have given up years earlier, if what was thrown at us was thrown at them.”

Butler’s chronicle also underscores the longstanding disconnect between rock’s consumers and rock’s gatekeepers. That didn’t seem to matter much when relegated to music shops and concert halls, but it may have foretold a similar disconnect that would arise in street protests and voting booths. “While we think of music critics as being at the cutting edge, back then, they were very set in their ways and out of touch,” he writes. “The more they slagged us, the more our fans hated them for it and wanted to buy our records. That’s why Sabbath must be the most successful bunch of outsiders in music history—for years the bete noire of music critics, but wildly popular with people who really counted.” Sound familiar?

Black Sabbath were initially hated by journalists, reviewers, and other cognoscenti—hated by everyone, indeed, except audiences. The ensemble’s loyal constituency—and that of competing acts like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple—encapsulated the nascent populism developing across an entire demographic. Mostly male, disproportionately blue-collar, and almost wholly white, enjoying the music of Black Sabbath gave them a first experience of having their preferences scorned by elites, though not the last. Yesterday's leather-jacketed longhair, fighting against The System, is today's truck blockader or Brexiteer. By the end of his book, Butler himself cagily acknowledges, “I find myself agreeing with things I never thought I would and completely baffled by some of the other stuff that goes on. ... Some of my original manuscript was deemed unsuitable for modern readers—times have changed was the excuse I was given, but I suppose as publishers they know more of what is acceptable these days.”

The greater significance of Geezer Butler and Black Sabbath is in their songs: a landmark repertoire of rock anthems documenting, and perhaps anticipating, the gradual eclipse of prosperity and order in the late Western imperium. “I’d hear bands on the radio, singing about falling in love and breaking up, and there we were, without two pennies to rub together, rehearsing in this horrible little pub,” Butler recalls of the group’s impoverished start. “Things were bleak, they really were. Yet nobody was singing about that side of life, which is why we thought we should.” At first no more than a gimmicky elaboration on common sonic motifs from the period (dissonant, distorted guitars, thudding drums, keening vocals), his recurring topics elevated the songwriting into quasi-Biblical jeremiads against class and power that captured the imagination of a powerless, class-bound cohort in a post-Biblical epoch. Many performers subsequently appropriated the musical and lyrical templates of Black Sabbath, but their moral weight originates with the memoirist of Into the Void. Some might blame Geezer Butler for imparting a sonic lexicon of decline and desolation to so many, but for the huge electric threnodies that opened our ears and our eyes to the wickedness in the world, I give him thanks.

George Case

George Case is a Canadian author of numerous books on social history and pop culture, including ‘Takin' Care of Business: A History of Working People's Rock 'n' Roll’ (Oxford University Press, 2021)

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