Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today, Greg Moffitt deconstructs the holy hell out of Black Sabbath’s Born Again.
As with several other entries in this series, Black Sabbath’s much-maligned 11th studio album is the victim of received “wisdom.” Pundits and punters alike—sometimes even without hearing it—have, since its release on August 7, 1983, happily lined up to put it down based on secondhand opinions. Evidently there are those who genuinely detest the sole release from the lineup dubbed Deep Sabbath by detractors, but too many of the haters, even today, hate Born Again because the guy next to them says he hates it, and so on. Fortunately, recent years have seen something of an upswing in sentiment in its favor, and if there’s a Sabbath album ripe for revision and revisiting anew, it’s this one. So, it gives me enormous pleasure to defend—nay, celebrate—a criminally overlooked work that I’ve adored since the moment it first blew my teenage head off.
As a product of probably the most notorious phase in Sabbath’s long career, the saga of Born Again is well known. For the uninitiated, however, a quick recap may be in order: After two successful studio efforts—1980’s Heaven and Hell and ’81’s Mob Rules—frontman Ronnie James Dio split from Sabbath during the mixing stage of their 1982 live album Live Evil. At the suggestion of the band’s manager, Don Arden (father of Ozzy’s wife Sharon), former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan was recruited as Dio’s replacement, much to the surprise and consternation of, well, just about everybody. “What the hell is that gonna sound like?” was the overwhelming response, prompting the aforementioned Deep Sabbath jibe and much head-scratching. The uncle of one of my school chums back then was none other than Paul Clark, Sabbath’s road manager at the time, so our little circle had a bit of advance warning about all this. Still, it didn’t make Gillan’s appointment seem any less bizarre.
Dio had been a perfect fit for Sabbath. Ian, God bless him, with his aversion to leather and lack of facial hair—to say nothing of his back catalog—seemed at first glance uniquely unqualified for the job. Sure, he could sing the roof off a cathedral, but could he cut it performing “N.I.B.,” “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” et al? The real test, of course, would come when the next Sabbath album appeared. And, we told ourselves, whatever happens, with Bill Ward back behind the kit, it’s still three-quarters of the original band. In my view, the worst thing that can be said about Born Again is that it tipped Ward back into alcoholism, but that’s another story. Actually, it’s not, but we’ll leave that part of it for another day.
Born Again has something in common with my other attempts to “justify my shitty taste:” As with both My Dying Bride’s 34.788%…Complete and Paradise Lost’s Host, the problems start before we even get to the music. That bloody artwork—what in the name of Satan were they thinking? I could give you my take on the situation, but it’s probably best to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth. Here’s Born Again sleeve designer Steve “Krusher” Joule speaking in 2004:
“The Born Again album sleeve was designed under extraordinary circumstances. Basically what had happened was that Sharon and Ozzy had split very acrimoniously from her father [Don Arden]’s management and record label. He subsequently decided that he would wreak his revenge by making Black Sabbath the best heavy metal band in the world. His plans included recruiting Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan, getting Bill Ward back on drums, and stealing as many of Sharon and Ozzy’s team as possible, and as I was designing Ozzy’s sleeves at the time, I got asked to submit some rough designs. As I didn’t want to lose my gig with the Osbournes, I thought the best thing to do would be to put some ridiculous designs down on paper, submit them and then get the beers in with the rejection fee, but oh no, life ain’t that easy. One of the ideas was the baby, and the first image that I found was from the front cover of a 1968 magazine called Mind Alive. I overexposed it, stuck the horns, nails, fangs into the equation, used the most outrageous color combination that acid could buy, bastardized a bit of the Olde English typeface and sat back, shook my head and chuckled. Don loved it… So, suddenly I find myself having to do the bloody thing. I was also offered a ridiculous amount of money (about twice as much as I was being paid for an Ozzy sleeve) if I could deliver finished artwork for front, back and inner sleeve by a certain date. As the dreaded day drew nearer and nearer I kept putting off doing it again and again until finally the day before I sprang into action with the help of a bottle of Jack Daniels and the filthiest speed that money could buy on the streets of South East London, and bashed the whole thing out in a night, including hand-lettering all the lyrics, delivered it the next day whereupon I received my financial reward.”
So, there you have it. The sleeve that was never meant to be. I can’t say that I thought—or think—that Born Again’s cover is a great piece of work, but it’s memorable and, in a strange sort of way, appropriate for such a unique entry in the Sabbath canon. It’s the band’s other “purple” album, alongside Master of Reality.
Artwork aside, the production—credited to Robin Black and Black Sabbath—is another major bone of contention. Although it does somewhat sound like they set up the perfect mix and then decided to drape a tarpaulin over the speakers before re-recording the muffled playback, Born Again always sounded good at high volumes. No surprise there, perhaps, but the remastered CD version also lends a degree of crispness to what is an extremely bass-heavy mix. Any way you slice it, the album sounds heavy as fuck and I’d rather suffer some slight opaqueness than endure the whimper of emasculated perfection.
Despite the fact that many observers were aghast at Gillan’s addition to the lineup, Born Again was far from a flop when it eventually emerged. It reached No. 4 in the U.K. charts, making it the highest-charting Sabbath album in England since Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. It also entered the top 40 in the U.S. To those who still rue giving Gillan the keys to the microphone cabinet, I offer this thought: would Born Again really have been improved if the band had plumped for either of their other options, namely Robert Plant or David Coverdale?
Although released on August 7, delivery times meant that I finally got my hands on a shiny vinyl copy of Born Again one week later, courtesy of local music emporium Chartbound, and, as it happens, on my birthday. At that point, I hadn’t read anything substantive about the album in the press, so when the LP hit the turntable, my ears were completely uncluttered by critiques of any kind. Despite being confronted by so many changes, I loved Born Again from the outset. It features some of the heaviest music of the Sabs’ entire career, and it immediately entered into regular rotation on my deck of doom. So, let’s take a closer look…
An up-tempo rocker in the vein of “Neon Knights” and “Turn Up the Night,” “Trashed” is a ballsy opener and a very encouraging start. Lyrically, however, it makes a clean break with the Dio era. Eschewing dungeons and dragons fare, “Trashed” is the tale of a boozy weekend at the the Manor Studio in Shipton on Cherwell, Oxfordshire, where Born Again was recorded. Specifically, it’s about the occasion when an inebriated Gillan crashed Bill Ward’s car during a race around the studio grounds. Look inside either the European or North American Born Again tour program and you’ll find a photo of said vehicle—a Ford Granada—still on fire. Heavier than a sack of spanners, this is a slamming track!
Never mind “Orchid” or “Fluff” or even “E5150”—this is simply the best instrumental Sabbath have ever done. Well, I say Sabbath, but the two minutes of atmospheric synth washes and spooky effects that make up “Stonehenge” were probably all the work of longtime keyboard player Geoff Nicholls. Back in the day, some of my mates used to sit in the dark playing this track like some kind of sonic Ouija board, trying to scare themselves shitless, but it’s really not scary at all. Think a silent winter sunset over Stonehenge itself and you’ll be getting there. Wonderful.
“Disturbing the Priest”
Now, this is scary. It’s at this point that we get into the meat of the matter. “Disturbing the Priest” is one of my all-time favorite Sabbath songs, and the first of two stone-cold classics on this album. Crowned by one of the performances of Ian Gillan’s life, it’s a 10-ton beast of a track, pummeling, pounding and totally pulverizing. The lyrics enter more traditional Sabbath territory, and it employs a tension-and-release technique similar to the song “Black Sabbath” to build atmosphere. I’m playing it right now—just amazing!
This short but spine-tingling instrumental comprises heavily-processed bass guitar. I’m sure if William Friedkin had heard it, he’d have remade The Exorcist with a score by Geezer Butler.
“Zero the Hero”
Born Again’s other monster track, and arguably the best song on the album. As “The Dark” fades away, Iommi unleashes an all-out riff assault of a magnitude not heard since Sabotage. Boiling and burning through an unremitting seven-plus minutes, it’s more than just the apex of the album—it’s a career highlight that actually pops up on several officially-sanctioned ‘best-of’ compilations. Iommi’s extended solo—punctuated by more treated bass effects from Geezer—is as gloriously demented as Gillan’s performance was on “Disturbing the Priest.” Perfect. Time to flip this sucker over.
Rumored to have been inspired by Sharon Osbourne—then Sharon Arden, of course—”Digital Bitch” opens side two much as “Trashed” opened side one: a phat Iommi lick driving a playful, energetic romp. This one never lets up, and from the crappiest Sabs album to the absolute best, we’re reminded yet again that Sir Tony of Iommi remains ever the riffmaster general. The man is on fire!
Not, as you might imagine, another rant about religion, the title track is a decidedly laid-back affair, sublime by comparison to what’s gone before. Besides turning in yet another stellar performance, Gillan conjures some pleasing metaphorical imagery, setting the stage for Iommi’s climactic, “Lonely Is the Word”-style solo. I still have no idea what it’s about, but it feels positive, ultimately.
As Beavis and Butthead might say, “This rules!” What is it with Iommi? This riff kicks so much ass, all Geezer and Bill need to do is nail it down for four minutes while Gillan screams his fucking lungs out. Yeah baby, the hot line to hell! Ow. My neck hurts.
“Keep It Warm”
Dedicated to Gillan’s then-girlfriend Bron, as opposed to being about hostess trolleys, this smoldering stomp concludes the album on a “real world” note, just as “Trashed” kicked it off. No faeries or daemons here, just a heartfelt plea set to the sound of more top riffing and soloing from our man Tony. It’s at this point that I realize, once more, that there are no weak songs here, and I feel somehow younger having listened to this again. I’ll have to do this more often.
Well, that’s about the size of it. As mentioned earlier, Born Again continues to undergo a quiet renaissance, and its list of celebrity fans is ever expanding. Among them are Henry Rollins, Lars Ulrich, Max Cavalera, Joey DeMaio and Glen Benton, and the short but significant list of cover versions of Born Again songs includes Opeth (“Disturbing the Priest”) and both Cannibal Corpse and Godflesh (“Zero the Hero”). But you don’t need those guys to tell you just how amazing this record really is. You need me, and I hope that I’ve convinced a few doubters to set aside their doubts and, more importantly, inspired some of our younger readers to discover the deep, dark dungeon of delights that is Born Again. Long live Sabbath!
3. “Disturbing the Priest”
4. “The Dark”
5. “Zero the Hero”
1. “Digital Bitch”
2. “Born Again”
3. “Hot Line”
4. “Keep It Warm”