Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi on Fighting with Skinheads, "War Pigs" Inspiration and More

by Brad Angle
Posted Jan 29, 2015 at 3:26pm

This is an excerpt from the all-new March 2015 issue of Guitar World, which features an interview with Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. For the rest of this interview, plus our guide to the 30 greatest classic Black Sabbath songs, plus gear views, tabs, lessons and more, check out the March 2015 issue of GW at the Guitar World Online Store.

It’s rare that a band emerges and, with one inspired release, simultaneously launches and perfects a genre of music.

Such is the singular case of Black Sabbath. Their 1970 self-titled debut, which celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, took the heavy blues and hard-rock idioms that came before and infused them with anthemic tritone riffs, doom-laden drum tempos, maniacal vocals and diabolical lyrics.

Black Sabbath’s pioneering sound would later be christened heavy metal, and in many people’s minds that album still reigns supreme as the best representation of the genre. Many influential bands in their own right have come along and made contributions to heavy music, but all of them—from Judas Priest and Van Halen to Metallica and Soundgarden—hail the supremacy of Black Sabbath.

Below, enjoy an excerpt from Guitar World's new interview with Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. Interestingly enough, Butler—who was arrested in California this past Tuesday for assault and vandalism—discussed fighting, including a brawl with skinheads that took place several decades ago.

GUITAR WORLD: Geezer, you’ve mentioned before that “Fairies Wear Boots,” [from 1970’s Paranoid] was inspired by a confrontation you guys had with skinheads. Being a longhair yourself, did you run into a lot of problems in England back then?

GEEZER BUTLER There used to be fighting all the time. I used to be a football [soccer] fan—well, I still am—and I’d go down to watch the [Aston] Villa [Football Club]. I had long hair at the time.

Then this one day, the skinheads, or hooligans, turned on the people with long hair, even though we were fans too. So after that I couldn’t go down there. This other time we did this gig in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare [in North Somerset, England], and we had a fight with all these skinheads. I think that’s where the lyrics for “Fairies Wear Boots” came from.

Do you remember what kicked off the fight?

BUTLER We didn’t get paid! [laughs] I was the one that used to go collect the check. We’d had this problem where we’d go collect our money and the guy would go, “Oh no, we sent the check in the post [mail].” We were promised that we’d get the money on the night, so I went to the promoter to get it. And he said, “Oh, I already sent it to your manager.”

I went outside to the telephone to make a call to the manager and I got surrounded by all these bloody skinheads, going, “Kill him! Kill him!” So I had to time it right so I could throw the phone at them and leg it back into the gig. [laughs] I told Tony, and of course he said, “Come on, let’s go.” And he grabs a microphone stand and we went out for a battle with them. F---ing nuts.

Parental groups and decency nags always bemoan the satanic and occult allusions in Black Sabbath lyrics. But Geezer, you were also writing about current social issues, too, on the track “War Pigs.” Were you following the Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement and political unrest going on at the time in the United States?

It was actually being covered more [in the press] in England than in America. They had this program on in England, and it showed all the stuff that wasn’t being told to the American people. Stuff like how the president [Lyndon Johnson]’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had this road-building company. The Americans would go in and bomb all these roads [in Vietnam]. Then her company would go in and rebuild them and get the money. They weren’t saying all that in America. We wrote “War Pigs” because many American bands were frightened to mention anything about the war. So we thought we’d tell it like it is.

In 1971, you released Master of Reality, which saw the band experimenting a bit more with tracks like “Solitude” and the acoustic instrumental “Orchid.” Tony, had you always played acoustic or did you pick it up around that time?

TONY IOMMI No, I never played acoustic that much at all really. I don’t even remember where we did that track, to be honest. I think the idea on the album was to have a bit of light and shade and relax it from the heavier stuff.

Speaking of heavier stuff, what were you coughing on during that intro to “Sweet Leaf”?

IOMMI [laughs] I choked me bloody self! It wasn’t intended to happen, and it wasn’t supposed to be on the track. We were in the studio tracking that song, and Ozzy gave me a joint and I nearly choked myself. The tape was on, so of course they wanted to use it to begin the track.

BUTLER You couldn’t have gotten anything more appropriate for a song called “Sweet Leaf.” [laughs]

That’s the truth. But the title “Sweet Leaf” was actually inspired by a different type of smoke, right?

BUTLER Yeah the name “Sweet Leaf” came from the [Irish brand of] cigarettes called Sweet Afton. I’d just come back from Dublin. Everyone smoked back then, so I’d be offering them all cigarettes. You’d open the top of the package and it said something like, “It’s the sweet leaf.” I thought, Hmmm, That’s a good title.

The following year, Sabbath headed to Los Angeles’ Record Plant Studios to track Vol. 4, on which you broke new ground with “Changes.” It’s a piano ballad, and the lyrics are quite touching, which makes it a very unusual track for Sabbath.

IOMMI It was a sad track as well. We were staying in this house and there was a ballroom with a piano in it. It was back in the days of doing a bit of blow and staying up late. And I just started playing and coming up with this idea. We had a Mellotron and Geez started to play the orchestrations. It fit well and came about pretty quickly, considering we’d never done anything like that before.

Photo: Ross Halfin

This is an excerpt from the all-new March 2015 issue of Guitar World, which features an interview with Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. For the rest of this interview, plus our guide to the 30 greatest classic Black Sabbath songs, plus gear views, tabs, lessons and more, check out the March 2015 issue of GW at the Guitar World Online Store.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 10.15.18 AM_0.png


Add a Comment
0 Comments

Similar Guitar News

Best Holiday Rock Song Poll: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (Dio/Tony Iommi) Vs. “Kidnap the Sandy Claws" (Korn) (12/5/2015)
It's that special, joyful time of year once again: GuitarWorld.com readers' poll season! This year, we've decided to spread some musical holiday cheer in the form of our first-ever "Best Holiday Rock Song" readers' poll. It's a chance for all th...
Zakk Sabbath, Zakk Wylde's Black Sabbath Cover Band, Play "War Pigs" (10/12/2015)
Late last week, Zakk Wylde's Black Sabbath cover band, Zakk Sabbath, performed a set at the Slidebar in Fullerton, California. Below, you can watch two decent fan-filmed clips of the band playing "War Pigs" from the October 8 show. Besides Wylde...
Tony Iommi, Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Warren Haynes Recruited for 2016 Rock Fantasy Camp (10/12/2015)
Steve Vai, Tony Iommi, Zakk Wylde and Warren Haynes have signed on for the 2016 edition of Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, taking place February 11–14 in Los Angeles. The guitarists will take part in the camp’s Q&A sessions and the concluding ja...
Tony Iommi's 10 Greatest Black Sabbath Riffs (7/9/2015)
Rarely can you point to a single musician and say, "he and his band mates practically invented a musical genre on their own." But that description isn't much of a stretch for Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, one of the most influential and oft-imitat...
This Is the End: Black Sabbath Announce 2016 Final Tour Dates (9/7/2015)
Black Sabbath have announced what is being billed as the legendary metal band's final tour. "It’s the beginning of the end,” says the new video, which you can check out below. “It started nearly five decades ago with a crack of thunder, a dista...
The 50 Heaviest Songs Before Black Sabbath — Songs 40 to 31 (10/11/2015)
The origin of heavy metal is a very fuzzy thing, but most historians and fans can agree that Black Sabbath’s eponymous 1970 debut was the first true metal album. Its thunderous drums, sinister riffs and downright evil lyrics left little to be d...
Summer NAMM 2015: Epiphone Announces Tony Iommi Ltd. Ed. Signature SG — Video (7/8/2015)
Epiphone has announced the all-new Epiphone Ltd. Ed. Tony Iommi Signature SG Custom, designed by the "Godfather of Heavy Metal" himself and featuring Gibson USA Tony Iommi Signature Humbuckers, a 24-fret Ebony fingerboard and a beautiful Ebony g...
Robots Play Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" — Video (10/15/2015)
Is this the band of the future? Let's hope not. Below, check out a video of a band of robots performing Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." It doesn't sound very good, but it's still semi-cool. I read a story this week about how robots are taking over a...
Pre-Teen Rockers Under The Radar Cover Rush and Black Sabbath — Video (5/18/2015)
Sure, in 2015—and on GuitarWorld.com—we've gotten used to videos of 8-year-olds shredding Racer X tunes and 14-year-olds who effortlessly knock out Yngwie solos. But there's still something fascinating about watching a band of pre-teens tackle—a...
Ozzy Osbourne and Billy Morrison Talk New Single and Black Sabbath's Final Tour (10/30/2015)
Last week, U.K. musician Billy Morrison—who plays in guitar for Billy Idol—released a solo album, God Shaped Hole, via his own King Mob Music label. On the disc, Morrison is joined by Idol bandmates Steve Stevens and Erik Eldenius, plus Jane's A...
Mac Sabbath: Black Sabbath Parody Band Play "Pair-a-Buns" ("Paranoid") — Video (8/13/2015)
So, yes, there's a Black Sabbath parody band called Mac Sabbath, and they sing about McDonald's. You can watch a not-quite-pro-shot video of the band performing "Pair-a-Buns" (their version of "Paranoid") below. They've also reworked "Iron Man" ...
Keith Richards Calls Metallica and Black Sabbath "Great Jokes" (9/3/2015)
In a new interview with the New York Daily News, legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards slammed the current rock scene—and, to some degree, Metallica and Black Sabbath. Of rock in 2015, Richards said, "It sounds like a dull thud to me...
Did Black Sabbath Steal the “Paranoid” Guitar Riff? — Video (7/23/2015)
Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” is one of the legendary U.K. metal band’s most famous tunes, distinguished by Tony Iommi’s guitar riff that opens the track and propels it along to its chugging verses. As it so happens, the riff from that 1970 hit see...
Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi to Appear on New British Talent Show, 'Guitar Star' — Video (6/4/2015)
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is set to appear as a mentor on Guitar Star, a new U.K. talent show that focuses on guitarists. The show, which will feature Iommi alongside other six-string masters including Rodrigo y Gabriela and Lee Riteno...
Black Sabbath's 'The End' Tour Extended to Fall 2016 with Additional North American Shows (10/27/2015)
Due to overwhelming demand, the road to 'The End' just got longer. On the heels of their performances in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, Black Sabbath will end the epic journey they began nearly 50 years ago with another run o...