Thursday, April 22, 2010

Black Sabbath meets Jethro Tull

In honour of Earth Day, I offer up tales of the rock band once known as Earth...

I recently picked up Ozzy’s autobiography, “I Am Ozzy,” and have been thoroughly enjoying it so far; great tales from one of rock’s greats – it doesn’t get much better than that. (The book could also have been called "No, I Am Ozzy" - inside joke for some pals of mine.)

Ozzy shares a couple of stories from the early days that involve Jethro Tull, and I’ll offer a quick recap of them here – of course, I recommend you pick up the book for yourself.

Inspired by the original Fleetwood Mac, the first version of Sabbath was called the Polka Tulk Blues Band; the original four members were rounded out with a bottleneck guitarist named Jimmy Phillips and Alan Clark, a sax player. It wasn’t long before the two “extra” players were gone, and the group had changed its name to Earth.

One of the craziest plans Earth had to help kick-start their career in 1968 was to show up at big-name band gigs with their van full of equipment, hoping the “name” act didn’t show up; they could then swoop in and save the day for the promoter while playing to a much bigger crowd then they’d get on their own. The concept sounds insane but it worked: one night, the band waited outside a venue where Jethro Tull was booked and, when the group hadn’t gone on stage on schedule, guitarist Tony Iommi put his plan into action. Iommi spoke with the venue manager, played dumb about the whole thing (“oh, we were just driving by with our van full of gear when we noticed…”), and within minutes, Earth were playing to a packed house.

Turns out Tull’s bus had broken down en route, and leader Ian Anderson eventually arrived midway through Earth’s performance; Ozzy got a real rush out of seeing Anderson watching his band from the back of the room. The promoter, Earth, the fans and even Anderson were pleased with the results, and Earth picked up management and a bunch of bookings after the stunt worked.

Fast forward a short time later (timing is not exactly clear, but it appears more likely to be weeks than months): with the band feeling excited about their prospects, Iommi walked into rehearsal one day to break good/bad news to the guys. Ian Anderson’s guitarist, Mick Abrahams, had just quit and Ian offered the gig to Tony, and he took it. Ozzy and the guys were both shocked at the news and thrilled for Iommi, who’s first gig with Tull was playing at the legendary Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.

As a result of Iommi's departure, it looked like Earth were finished as a band.

According to Ozzy, the BBC was originally set to air the Stones event live, but never did, and that turned out to be a good thing: one of the many, many legends about the show is how long the event was due to technical snafus – it started at 2pm on December 11 and didn’t finish taping until 5am the next morning. Organizer Mick Jagger was reportedly very unhappy with the Stones performance and refused to release it - the video didn't see the light of day until 1996.

At the show, Jethro Tull were the opening act and played two songs: “Fat Man” and “A Song For Jeffrey” – only the latter made the final cut. Now when I say “played,” this is not entirely true: the band mimed the songs, with only Anderson’s voice and flute performed live. I’ve never been a fan of miming, and it’s one of those crappy, lazy TV production things – maybe I’ll get into that another day (I feel a rant coming on...). Anyway…so Iommi was present at one Tull gig, but whether he “played” or not is open to your own interpretation.

Iommi’s time with Jethro Tull lasted four days – he quit and returned to Earth, who then changed their name to Black Sabbath.

Over the years, both Iommi and Anderson have been very respectful of each other when speaking to the press about their week together; the one thing Iommi took away from the experience and put to use with Sabbath was a real work ethic: rehearsals are key, professionally-run and original songs are the only way to make it in the business.

Jethro Tull - The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus - Song for Jeffrey Jethro Tull - The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus - Song for Jeffrey

Jethro Tull – A Song For Jeffrey (with Tony Iommi on guitar)
Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus – December 11, 1968