Black Sabbath’s “Born Again” Turns 40

Born Again is the strangest album in Black Sabbath’s career and the product of their strangest era. It might be the most bizarre album in heavy metal’s 50-plus-year history. Unsurprisingly, it started with a night at a bar. 

Sabbath was without vocalist Ronnie James Dio, who left the band after recording two Decibel Hall of Fame classics: Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. Vocalist Ian Gillan — best known for fronting Deep Purple — went out drinking with Sabbath. Towards the night’s end, they asked if he wanted to join Sabbath. Gillan agreed but was so drunk he forgot he said yes. After a scolding from his manager, he was the frontman of the second great band of his career.

Cataloging the weirdness and rock lore associated with the Born Again era could fill a small book. In the interest of time, we’ll share some highlights:

  • Born Again was recorded at billionaire Richard Branson’s country estate in England, conveniently close to a monastery (hence the song “Disturbing the Priest”). 
  • The song “Trashed” recounts Gillan taking out a go-kart while wasted and wrecking it on Branson’s property. 
  • The cover art of a devil baby (designed by Steve “Krusher” Joule) is one of the top five most memorable album covers in metal history, despite or because of an utter lack of taste.
  • Some in the Sabbath camp nicknamed the devil baby “Sharon” after Sharon Osbourne. Sharon was managing Ozzy, and her father, Don Arden, was managing Sabbath. There was bad blood.
  • The devil baby is a reconfigured version of the same infant on the cover of Depeche Mode’s “New Life” single and, earlier, a cover of Mind Life magazine. 
  • Gillan claimed he “puked” when he saw the cover. 
  • Born Again birthed two of the most incomprehensible and ludicrous music videos in the idiom’s history. The videos are so bad I wrote an essay about them years ago.
  • The short version: the videos combine Jim Morrison’s student films and The Curious Dr. Humpp, an Argentine exploitation flick involving a hunchback creature with a guitar. 
  • Sabbath built a Stonehenge model for the Born Again tour. It didn’t always fit on stage. Geezer Butler said this in his memoir Into the Void: “When we rehearsed at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, the stones were set up on the floor and actually looked really expressive. But when we did our first gig of the tour in Norway and put the stones on the stage, they were almost touching the ceiling.”
  • Many of This Is Spinal Tap‘s most outlandish stories are sourced from Born Again era Sabbath. Butler has confirmed this

  • Manager Arden liked the devil baby so much that he decided a dwarf would dress up as the baby and crawl on top of the Stonehenge model.
  • During a dress rehearsal in Canada, the dwarf fell off the fake Stonehenge onto a pile of mattresses. Mercifully, the devil dwarf did not tour extensively.  
  • Gillan could never remember the words to classic Sabbath songs or didn’t take them seriously (or both). Gillan wrote the lyrics down in a cue book for the stage but couldn’t see them because of the dry ice. He fell to his knees often to read the cues. Somehow, the shows sounded good — check out the “Purple Sabbath” bootlegs and the live recordings on the Born Again deluxe set.

Mind you, this isn’t every story from Born Again, just some of the best. Somehow, Sabbath birthed a career worth of absurdity, folklore, and rock myth in under a calendar year. They also recorded an album in the middle of this chaos. 

Considering this history, how does one evaluate Born Again, which turns 40 today? Born Again is one of Sabbath’s most divisive albums. Scores of fans consider it a masterpiece worthy of the band’s top ten, and many consider it dreck. The truth is somewhere in between. Born Again isn’t close to the first six Sabbath albums or the three (OK, four) studio albums made with Dio. Anyone who claims this is trolling or deaf. But Sabbath left many riches over their long and complicated career, and Born Again is a great, if flawed, metal album.

Born Again has many strengths. The album contains some of the best ’80s Sabbath songs. Born Again has a distinct ’80s feel, unusual considering Sabbath’s ability to create music that exists outside of chronology. “Trashed” is a fast and fitting opener and oozes sleaze and bad decisions. “Disturbing the Priest” highlights Gillan’s banshee wails, and “Zero the Hero” contains one of Tony Iommi’s career-best riffs. Less than a decade later, Guns N’ Roses conquered the world with a similar “Paradise City.” Cannibal Corpse also covered “Zero the Hero” on their Hammer Smashed Face EP.

Born Again‘s production is uniformly dreadful, and different mixes have surfaced. If anything, it doesn’t hurt that this album sounds like it was recorded in a cave. Many fans have said in forums that this album sounds genuinely “evil,” and part of that is the dissonance.  The original mix is the way Born Again should be heard. If anything hurts Born Again, it is inconsistency. The first side is much stronger than what follows. “Digital Bitch” is forgettable pseudo-glam, and “Keep It Warm” is tepid.  If side two of Born Again was as strong as the first, we could consider this a peer of Sabbath’s landmarks.

Instead, we have Born Again, the flawed gem with countless footnotes, tall tales, and garish visuals. In some ways, Born Again‘s maligned cover has reached much further than the music. There are doubtless many fans wearing Born Again T-shirts who’ve never heard the album. Metal fans love boundary-pushing and tastelessness, and there wasn’t much that could compete with baby Sharon in 1983 outside of emerging underground bands like Venom. There are, however, also those fans who get Born Again and wear the shirts out of genuine admiration. Born Again will never compete with the stories of what was happening around it. The album, however, is still an exciting glimpse of a timeless band in transition. What you gonna be, what you gonna be brother?