"Snowblind" in L.A.: Bill Ward Remembers the Making of Black Sabbath's Vol. 4
So how loud was it inside the Record Plant — then located near the corner of 3rd Street and La Cienega Boulevard — as Black Sabbath recorded basic tracks, all in the same room, for Vol. 4, the only album the band’s original lineup ever recorded in Los Angeles?
“I think that question might be a little difficult for me because I’m on cans, on headphones, while we’re tracking. But I’m sure we played pretty fucking loud,” says drummer Bill Ward with a laugh. “I would walk into the studio when Tony was doing his [guitar] overdubs and man, it’s just like holy fucking shit, really loud. And that’s just doing overdubs. Or Geezer. The [speaker] cabs are flying, man, there’s no doubt about it.”
After recording their first three brilliant, heavy-metal-pioneering albums in England, in spring 1972 Black Sabbath — Ward, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and singer Ozzy Osbourne — were living in a rented Bel-Air mansion while working on the follow-up to their 1971 disc, Master of Reality.
This was the band’s most experimental music yet. The piano balladry of “Changes.” An orchestra on the haunting coke paean “Snowblind.” Cuban rhythmic influences on “Supernaut,” a track with such an infectious, powerful groove it “was one of John Bonham’s favorite songs, actually,” Ward says. And of course Sabbath’s hallmark mix of savage guitars, jazz-gone-wild rhythmic counterpoint and Osbourne’s eerie, melodic vocals.
“We had been working literally non-stop,” says Ward, a total English gentleman who now lives in Seal Beach. “At that point we’d been on the road I think for probably about four years and we hadn’t stopped. We’d visited L.A. when we played concerts here and all of us liked Los Angeles. We felt it was pretty laid-back here, so we probably were attracted to the fact it was a much slower pace here and we could actually relax.”
"Relax" might not be the best word for Sabbath’s activities at the mansion, which Ward recalls as being in a colonial style with a white exterior. The address of the mansion was 773 Stradella Road. The Du Pont family once lived there, and Charlie’s Angels sexpot Jaclyn Smith would call it home several years later.
It’s no secret the band consumed Scarface-like piles of powder and other substances at the time, resulting in the kind of mirth ’70s rock bands specialized in. "There was one point where Ozzy had spray-painted my private parts," Ward remembers. "And then I read on the spray paint it was poisonous and do not apply to the skin, so in fear of my private parts, I panicked and went kind of crazy." (Osbourne, in his 2010 memoir I Am Ozzy, wrote that it was Iommi who spray-painted Ward's junk.)
"We’d play all kinds of stupid pranks and things like that. That’s when the band was great," Ward continues. "I’m not saying the band’s not great now, but there was truly a lot of camaraderie and a lot of really, really good stuff at that time period.”
The contrast of SUV-squashing riffs and intricate rhythms makes some of Vol. 4's most enduring cuts, like “Wheels of Confusion” and “Tomorrow’s Dream,” particularly powerful. Ward's groove on "Snowblind" is strikingly panther-like and patient, particularly on a song about cocaine. For the Vol. 4 sessions, the drummer used a mix-and-match kit made up of specifically selected Slingerland, Ludwig and Hayman drums, including double 26-inch bass drums.
“Tony Iommi once told me that in order to be truly heavy, you also need to lighten it up because when you get heavy again, it makes it all the more impactful," says That Metal Show and Sirius/XM radio host, author and renowned heavy metal expert Eddie Trunk. "I think with Vol. 4 you start to see some signs of the variety and dynamics. No place further than with a song like ‘Changes,’ which was a tremendous turn for the band and still holds up incredibly well. It’s really a dynamic record that shows a lot more was going on with Black Sabbath than just these brutally heavy riffs.”
Released in September 1972, Vol. 4 also features one of Sabbath’s most iconic album covers: a yellow-monochrome image of Ozzy, wearing one of the fringed shirts he favored for years, his arms extended in a peace sign. Says Trunk, “I got to say, it’s always a flag to me when a band that I love more prominently features one member on the cover than anyone else. You’re saying to yourself, ‘Wow is this just one guy’s band?’"
Of course, with Sabbath, that was never the case. "And we’ve also found out over time that Ozzy, although he’s the singer in the band, he was never really a writer in the band," Trunk continues. "And even early on, or later at certain periods, the band was actually fronted by Iommi; I mean Ozzy would be off to the side and Tony would stand front and center and Ozzy would sing over to the side. So just looking back on it, it’s just kind of interesting they would make a move like that.”
Trunk places Vol. 4 within the top three of the classic lineup Sabbath LPs, up with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and of course Paranoid. Interestingly, he discovered the band through 1981's Heaven and Hell, the group’s first disc with Ronnie James Dio as singer, and eventually worked his way backward into the Ozzy-era catalog, beginning with the compilation We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll.
Calling from his New Jersey home office, Trunk notes that while Vol. 4 contains songs like "Supernaut" considered classics by connoisseurs, “You don’t really have ... that across-the-board smash hit. ‘Snowblind’ may be my favorite track on the record because it’s just got that great groove and slams in with that killer riff, and they’re singing about something that, at the time, was very near and dear to their heart."
During their Vol. 4 period, when not tracking at the Record Plant or getting debauched at the Stradella Road manse, Ward says Sabbath would “just hang out with some of the heads in the Valley and get high, and we went to Laguna [Beach] to get high as well. Back then, for me there was nothing like dropping some windowpane [LSD] and just letting the surf roll in, you know? Just listening to everybody on the beach." The influence of those blurry, bucolic beach trips can be heard on Iommi’s string-swathed instrumental “Laguna Sunrise.” “It’s a credit to Tony he was able to write this incredible melody and these incredible guitar parts which actually completely summarized Laguna," Ward says."It just couldn’t have fit it any better, man.”
Ward, who has been sober for years now, says Sabbath’s Los Angeles days were super-indulgent for everyone in the band. When it was time to cut tracks, he did so with a clear head, "but when the sessions were winding down, I used to wind up. We used to have a lot of people in the back getting high. A lot of naked people. It was just sex, drugs and rock & roll; that’s what it was like back then, so when I look back at it now it’s like, ‘Wow, fucking hell. Did we really do that?’" He laughs. "All the debauchery that actually brought me to my knees. It took a few more years, but it actually brought me to a place where I had to seriously, seriously look at changing my life.”
Black Sabbath originally wanted to title their fourth album Snowblind. But after the band’s U.S. label, Warner Bros., balked at naming not just a song but an entire LP after cocaine, Sabbath shifted on a whim to Vol. 4, possibly at the suggestion of road manager Spock Wall.
Ward says Wall also played a key role in getting drum and guitar sounds on the record, Sabbath’s first without producer Rodger Bain. Although the band’s then-manager Patrick Meehan was credited as co-producer on Vol. 4, Ward recalls the band self-producing and that "I felt a lot of detachment from Patrick.”
Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut remains Ward’s favorite of the band’s LPs. But he listened to spiraling Vol. 4 track "Cornucopia" less than 24 hours before this interview, and frequently plays the track on his monthly Internet radio show, Rock 50.
Alas, Ward is not behind the drum kit for the group’s (allegedly) final “The End Tour.” The band previously embarked on a farewell tour in 1999. Ward has said the split goes back to an unfavorable contract he was presented with before sessions for Sabbath's 13 album, recorded in late 2012 and 2013. Osbourne has said Ward was out of shape. Tommy Clufetos, from Osbourne’s solo band, will be on drums when Sabbath performs at the Forum on Feb. 11.
Some accounts say Sabbath made a stab at also recording their next album, 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, in Los Angeles, but Ward says no such recording sessions ever happened. "I’m sure we had plenty of riffs and ideas; that certainly wasn’t uncommon. But it was time for a change and that’s when we went and did Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in a castle in England. I think it might have been time to shake out the party that we’d been in and come back and really get into some focused, damp weather music.”
Black Sabbath's "The End Tour" comes to the Forum on Thursday, Feb. 11.
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