There’s no way to precisely quantify the colossal amount of drugs Black Sabbath inhaled in 1972 while making their fourth album, which they’d hoped to title Snowblind, in tribute to their favorite powdered narcotic. All they have to go on is the bill their manager presented to them when they were done with it. “Whether you can believe him or not, the record cost, I think, $65,000,” bassist Geezer Butler says drolly, “and the cocaine bill was $75,000.”
“At that time, [the cocaine] was good stuff, and we used to have it flown in on a private plane,” guitarist Tony Iommi recalls, sounding lighthearted. “That’s why we used to have all the musicians turning up at our house at the time, pretending they’re coming to visit us. We were all bloody smugglers if you think about it.”
“We had a lot of late nights,” says frontman Ozzy Osbourne, who now regrets his coke indulgences. “We’d stay up all night.”
“There are some things around then that I can’t talk about, so I can’t go down that road,” drummer Bill Ward demurs. “I got grandchildren now, right? So I’ll stay out of all that.”
At the time, the four musicians were in their early twenties and reveling in fresh success. In the two years since they had ignited heavy metal’s Big Bang with the gargantuan riffs and horror-movie lyrics of their self-titled debut, they’d scored a Number One album in the U.K. with the follow-up LP Paranoid, and kept up the momentum on their third album, Master of Reality. Those records allowed them to leave the dark satanic mills of Birmingham, England, and tour the world, experiencing everything it could offer them. So, by the spring of 1972, they were riding high, literally as much as figuratively, as they set out to craft their fourth volume. While making this LP, they finally had the luxury to stretch out and develop the songs in the comfort of a California mansion over several weeks.
With loose deadlines and infinite drugs, Black Sabbath ended up breathing fire into a masterpiece — though their label, Warner Bros., refused to allow them to title it Snowblind. The record, newly rechristened Vol. 4, sounded more sophisticated than the previous three. Songs like “Supernaut” and “Cornucopia” grooved harder than ever, the ballads “Changes” and “Laguna Sunrise” sounded prettier, the quixotic interlude “FX” was trippier, and heavier fare like “Wheels of Confusion,” with its gut-punch opening guitar notes, and the group’s coke paean “Snowblind,” which they buttressed with Alfred Hitchcock-esque strings, unraveled elaborately to reveal new depths within the Sabbath experience. The cover art, a picture taken by photographer Keith Macmillan of Ozzy Osbourne with his arms in the air displaying Winston Churchill V’s, said it all: This was victory.
“You’ve got to remember, coming from the backstreets in Birmingham, now we’ve got a house in Bel-Air with a hit record, people know our music, and we were the kings of the planet,” Osbourne says. “So we experienced everything we could.”
The album was an immediate hit, reaching Number Eight in the U.K. and Number 13 in the U.S., where it was later certified platinum. When Rolling Stone ranked the 100 greatest heavy metal albums, Vol. 4 bowed at Number 14, only a few places behind Black Sabbath and Paranoid.
Now, a new box set is giving the album its full due. In addition to a remastered version of Vol. 4, the super-deluxe edition includes several alternate versions of some tracks, studio banter, a live album with previously unreleased recordings from March 1973, a hardcover book filled with rare photos and liner notes, and a never-before-seen poster teasing the record when it was still called Snowblind. The outtakes feature Osbourne singing different lyrics (“Wheels of Confusion” focuses more on world ecology), songs have slightly different titles (“Snowblind,” in its infancy, was called “Snowflakes,” and Osbourne dubbed “Wheels” “Bollocks”), and “Changes” was slower and more plaintive. The collection is a rare fly-on-the-wall chronicle of one of the great turning points in heavy metal.
“I found some of the outtakes to be quite interesting and funny,” Ward says. “Some of Ozzy’s things and some of the things we were experimenting with — more so just screwing around — are interesting. It becomes very intimate. It’s showing that we were actually human beings in the studio and make mistakes, and we fall over ourselves. Beside some of the iconic imagery, it makes us human.”
Black Sabbath began 1972 with a short U.K. tour. It was then, at a hometown gig at Birmingham’s Town Hall in January, that Macmillan took the iconic cover shot. “[The peace signs] was just a thing to do,” Osbourne says. “Everybody was doing it, so I just did it. It wasn’t my thing. I was far from a peaceful guy.” It was at that show that the group premiered the foot-stomping new number “Tomorrow’s Dream.” It opens with a lumbering guitar line and Osbourne singing about how he’s checking out because he feels unloved. “When sadness fills my days/It’s time to turn away,” he sings in the chorus, “And let tomorrow’s dream become reality to me.”
“What inspired it actually was Marc Bolan and T. Rex,” says Butler, who wrote the lyrics, and adds that he never knew Bolan personally. “Every time I’ve seen Bolan, it always reminded me how fragile everything is. He was a massive star in England, but not really heard of outside of England. And it was just really about how delicate being a pop star is. Like, one day you’re massive, the next day you’re forgotten about.” (At the time, the glam-rock T. Rex had recently released Electric Warrior — home to “Get It On” — and it had become the Number One LP in the U.K.; the highest it got in America was Number 32.)
Once Sabbath’s tour wrapped, they began recording their fourth album at London’s Marquee studios. Over the course of three days, according to David Tangye and Graham Wright’s book How Black Was Our Sabbath, the band cut “Snowblind” and the avant-garde psychedelic interlude “FX.” The first track set the tone of the album with its mix of monolithic guitar chords and ornately gothic arpeggios. The lyrics, naturally, paid tribute to the band members’ favorite new obsession. “It was a time for us when we did really get into doing a lot of cocaine,” Iommi explains, “and we really liked it.”
“We wrote ‘Snowblind’ because it was the most amazing discovery of our lives,” Osbourne says. “We thought that’s what success was, but it turned out to be our worst enemy. We were headfirst into that shit, and it was terrible. Now I think to myself, ‘What the fuck was I thinking to think that was a good night out?’ The night never ended. You’d still be going to the next morning.”
What makes it interesting all these years later is the inherent sadness within a song about such a happy drug. “I suppose it was about being frightened of getting addicted to it,” Butler says of the lyrics.
But if “Snowblind” was about drugs in theory, “FX” was about narcotics in practice. “I think I just finished doing the solo or something,” Iommi recalls. “I put my guitar down on the stand, and I never turned it down. It was feeding back, and I tapped it, and it went boink, and of course the engineers recorded it, and it was a bit mad, really, because we were pretty out of it.”
“Tony took all his clothes off, but he still had his cross [chain] on, and his cross got to bouncing up on the strings on his guitar,” Butler says. “And he was just messing about, dancing around the studio with no clothes on. And the engineer put an effect on in the control room, and it sounded quite good, so we went out and started hitting the strings as well as his cross.”
“Everybody started dancing around it, tapping it, and I believe we were naked at the time,” Iommi adds. “I think it got out of hand a little bit. It was just one of those stupid things, and of course the last thing you think is it’s going to be on the album. But somebody said, ‘Why don’t we put it on the album?’”
With a few songs on tape, Black Sabbath went back out on the road for a run of U.S. dates, where they added the newly recorded “Snowblind” to the set. After a few weeks at home, the band headed west to cut the rest of the album.
The L.A. mansion where Black Sabbath set up shop is located on Stradella Road, a secluded bend in the city’s tony Bel-Air neighborhood. Public records claim the six-bedroom house was built in 1936 and renovated in 1970, shortly before Black Sabbath’s arrival. The estate belonged to John du Pont, a philanthropist and heir to his family’s fortune, but he rarely stopped by. So Black Sabbath made themselves comfortable. “It was a fabulous house with a ballroom, and a little bit of everything,” Iommi remembers. “We had the equipment set up in a room off by the swimming pool, and we could just rehearse, write stuff in the day, and party at night.” Before long, the drugs started pouring in, almost literally.
“We had a dealer who used to appear every so often,” Butler says. “He used to have these washing detergent boxes, like Persil and Oxo, and instead of washing powder in them, there’d be cocaine. And he’d literally empty these boxes of cocaine out in the middle of the table. It’d be a little mountain. And then we used to have stuff flown in by people that the manager knew.” Butler deepens his voice melodramatically: “The mafia.” He returns to normal pitch. “And they were all in these little bottles with wax tops on them. So they were, like, 100 percent pure cocaine. And that was the good stuff.”
“One day, I was sitting by the pool and I said to [a guy sitting there], ‘We had some great coke yesterday,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I sold it to you,’” Osbourne recalls. ” ‘Oh, OK. What do you do?’ He said, ‘Oh, I work for the Food and Drug [Administration].’ He was an official. I went, ‘Oh, fuckin’ hell.’ He went, ‘No, you’re all right.’” Osbourne pauses. “He may have been winding me up, I don’t know. When you’re on that fucking bullshit powder, everything seems fantastic for five seconds and then you become a misery beyond belief.”
The promise of good narcotics also attracted many of the band’s peers. “Pete Townshend and other people would pop by, for obvious reasons, of course, with all the drugs floating about,” Iommi says. But the cocktail of drugs, guests, and the band’s love of pranks came to a head one time when Deep Purple’s road crew came over. “Tony was so stoned, he thought he’d pretend that he was a ghost to try and frighten them,” Butler says. “And I’m going, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ And Purple’s roadies came over, and we were having a few toots and things, a few joints, and Tony came down the stairs with a white sheet over him, going, ‘Uhhhhh.‘ And the road crew just looked at him as if he was completely nuts. And Tony was convinced that he was scaring them.”
Another time, the group’s curiosity got the better of them. The band was sitting around a table with a volcano of coke on it, when Osbourne noticed a button next to a window. “He went, ‘I wonder what this button does,’ and he pressed the button, and nothing happened,” Butler says.
“I thought it was the air conditioning,” Osbourne says.
“So he pressed it again,” Butler says. “Nothing happened. Pressed it again, nothing happened. So he sat down. We’re all sitting ’round doing coke, smoking dope, joints. And suddenly, we saw all these blue lights outside, flashing. I mean, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”
“I looked out the window, ‘The police are outside,’” Iommi remembers. “They’ve pulled into the drive, three or four police cars, and, ‘Oh, shit. See, the police are outside.’ Everybody’s rushing quick to try and wipe [the coke] off the table. It was absolute pandemonium.”
“I went, ‘Oh, God, we’re busted!’” Osbourne says.
It turned out Osbourne had happened on the house’s panic button, a silent alarm that summons the authorities. “There was a maid in the house at the time,” Butler says. “We said, ‘Go and stall the police.’ So she went to the door while we were dumping all the coke and weed and everything that we had down the toilet, running upstairs, emptying our personal stashes and everything. And the copper just says, ‘Is everything OK?’ And she answered, ‘Yeah.’ ‘OK, thanks.’ And that was it. And we’d just dumped about five grand’s worth of coke.”
“It was a false alarm,” the singer says laughing. Years later, Osbourne wrote “It’s a Raid” — a punk song about the incident, featuring Post Malone — for his 2020 solo album, Ordinary Man.
It wasn’t always the police at the door, though. “We decided to have a water raid one day, where we’re throwing water over each other,” Iommi says. Butler recalls bringing a hose into the house. Iommi continues: “Ozzy answered the door standing there looking like … and it was the bloody owner of the house. The guy went, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It’s like, ‘Oh no.’” So how did they explain things to Mr. du Pont? “Would you like some money?” according to Butler.
“We shoulda wrote Paranoid as the next album after Vol. 4,” Osbourne continues, “because we all became paranoid wrecks.”
In between the shenanigans, the band kept its focus on music, recording at the Record Plant, a bigger studio than they were used to, just south of the Sunset Strip. “I felt like we were able to get heavier sounds there,” Ward says. “We had more tracks at our disposal. That means that the drummer got more tracks, which, back in 1972, ’73, was a big deal.”
When they weren’t summoning deafening grooves, they experimented with gentler sounds. One night, Iommi decided to play the piano in the mansion’s ballroom. “I’ve never really played piano, and it’s one of those nights I happen to sit up and just tinkle around with it, and I started playing this tune,” he says. “And then Ozzy came in, and started singing, and Geezer came in. We had a Mellotron at the time, the thing that creates the string sounds — just a little sort of keyboard that played tapes — and Geezer started accompanying the piano. And suddenly we’ve got this song.”
“What he was playing came from nowhere,” Osbourne recalls. “And it was beautiful.”
The tune became “Changes,” a moving ballad about the breakdown of a relationship. The alternate, early version of the song in the Vol. 4 box set finds Osbourne singing slightly different lyrics, about a lover being unkind. Butler softened the words a bit and tried to make them more personal. “Tony had just broken up with his girlfriend at the time, and Bill was going through a divorce,” the bassist says. “So there was quite a melancholy air in the house, and I just picked up on that.”
“Yeah, I found out that was about me,” Ward says with a laugh, since he only learned that within the past five years or so. “I think at that time, maybe a year or two before, I’d gone through a very sad situation with my first wife and started a new relationship. I guess Geezer or maybe Ozz had seen the effect that it had on me, but I actually couldn’t see the effect it had on me.”
The other tender song on the album was an acoustic instrumental, “Laguna Sunrise,” named after a beach in Orange County, where the band liked to hang out. It was there where Butler first seriously tried LSD. “We went down to this girl’s house in Laguna Beach,” he remembers. “She had a farm down by Laguna Beach, which probably cost about $50 million. And we did psilocybin and stuff like that. And we all went down to the beach and one of our crew dived off a diving board, thinking the sea was in — but it wasn’t in — and he nearly broke his neck. I was seeing skeletons and really weird stuff, and I suppose that rubbed off in the lyrics as well.”
Iommi has more peaceful memories: The composition was literally inspired by watching the sun come up from the beach. When he returned to the mansion later that day, he picked up his acoustic guitar and tried piecing it together. (Some of Iommi’s early attempts are among the outtakes in the box set.) As he was playing, he got the idea to bolster the piece with a lush, orchestral string arrangement — so he and Butler obtained a violin and a cello to try to do it themselves. “That was absolutely disastrous,” Iommi says. “It sounded like a dying cat. It was absolutely awful. I bought this violin, which I have no idea how to play the bloody thing. I don’t know what I was thinking, really.”
“You see symphony orchestras and things, and you think, ‘Oh, I can play bass, or I can play guitar. How hard can cello be?’” Butler says. “And then I got this cello. I couldn’t make head nor tail out of it. You have to be a real musician to be able to play that.”
Once they hired session musicians, the piece became one of the prettiest numbers in the band’s catalog. “One thing I can confirm,” Ward says, “is whenever I listen to ‘Laguna Sunrise,’ it sounds exactly like Laguna Beach. There’s something about it.”
” ‘Laguna Sunrise’ was a beautiful piece of music,” Osbourne says. “I would have loved to try and put melodies to it, but that one, I couldn’t beat what he’d already done with guitar, so we left it.”
“We always put something in, like an acoustic bit, to give the album a bit of light and shade, so when you come in with everything it sounds more heavier,” Iommi says.
But if there were any worries about the album’s lighter fare, the rest of the LP was undeniably Black Sabbath. Vol. 4′s best case studies in heavy are its opening track, “Wheels of Confusion,” and closing song, “Under the Sun.” Both songs were recorded in sections. After singing a few lines of “Under the Sun” today, Osbourne muses on how the band would piece together ideas at the time. “See, what Sabbath was really good at is we’d write two songs, and they’d be OK, and we’d make two songs into one good song,” he says. “We’d take different parts from different songs. It was all well worked out. I mean, that band were fucking unbeatable at one point.”
At the start of “Wheels,” the audio engineer asks, “What’s it called?” Osbourne says, “Bollocks.” (“We weren’t never gonna call it ‘Bollocks,’” Osbourne says now. “I’ve done a few things since that have been bollocks, but … ” Osbourne says, laughing.) The band kicks into the song’s signature wallop, and Osbourne sings about the dire state of the planet: “Long ago this world of ours was green/Then there was atomic wars and all things/Man polluted everything around him/Now there’s nothing left for him to do, listen to meee now.” They get about halfway through and stop, and the engineer announces the next take as “Bollocks Two.” Each of the tracks expound on Osbourne’s lyrics about the ecology, but after Butler finessed them, they became more about an inner struggle. “Innocence was just another word,” Osbourne sings on the LP version. “It was an illusion.”
“Most of the lyrics came from Geezer,” Osbourne says. “I wrote the occasional one. I wrote the ones to the song ‘Black Sabbath.’ Geezer is a fucking phenomenal lyricist. He writes so clever. He’s very well educated.”
Butler doesn’t remember what specifically inspired the words, other than it spoke to how he felt at the time. Was it easy to write lyrics then? “Yeah, especially with all the drugs involved,” he deadpans. “[It was easy] because we’d been on tour for two or three years in America, and around the world, and it was just all the experiences that I was seeing for the first time.”
When confronted with an especially dour and poetic line in “Cornucopia” — “People say I’m heavy/They don’t know what I hide” — Butler says it reflects his mental state at the time. “I think most of my lyrics are quite down,” he says. “Because there was no pills or anything like that you could be treated with [for depression]. You’d go to the doctor and they told you get out and have a couple of pints down the pub or take your dog for a walk, thinking it was just some passing thing. So the way to get my feelings out was to write the lyrics.”
In June, Black Sabbath vacated the du Pont mansion, paying whatever they needed to for repairs, and decamped to London to finish up the record at Island Studios. Within a month, they were back on the road for another run of U.S. dates. Some time after Warner Bros. received the masters for Snowblind, someone at the label thought better of the title and demanded a change. “They couldn’t get hold of anybody to find out what they thought,” Butler recalls. “I think Ozzy, Bill, and me were all on holiday, and I don’t know where Tony was. And I think the manager said, ‘Oh, just call it Vol. 4, then.’ And that was it.” What did Butler think of the new appellation? “I thought it was horrible.”
Despite the rebranding, the album sold well upon its September 25th, 1972, release. The band issued “Tomorrow’s Dream” as a single, but it failed to chart. Instead, Sabbath’s relentless touring and growing legend inspired the sales. But even after Warner renamed the LP, the group still got the last laugh. “We wish to thank the great COKE-Cola Company of Los Angeles,” read an inscription in the liner notes.
If the live recordings in the box set, from a couple of March 1973 U.K. dates, are any indication, the band was playing in top form at the time. “When we locked in onstage — I wasn’t playing, I was clowning around singing — the rest of the guys were such a fucking great rhythm section, and Tony Iommi was great,” Osbourne says. “Nobody realized, but we were in our fucking twenties, and he was such a great player then.” The recordings show how well they translated the heavy grooves of Vol. 4 to the stage, especially with the way “Supernaut” transitions into Ward’s drum solo. ” ‘Supernaut,’ that was Frank Zappa’s favorite song,” Osbourne says. “He loved the guitar riff.”
In the decades since Vol. 4 came out, Screaming Trees, Sepultura, Converge, and System of a Down, among many other bands, have covered songs from the album. “Changes,” in particular, has had a fascinating legacy. Osbourne covered it as a solo artist and it became a Top 10 mainstream-rock hit in 1993; he also later duetted on it with his daughter Kelly after the success of The Osbournes, scoring a Number One hit in the U.K. Eminem sampled the Sabbath version on his 2010 album, Recovery, but perhaps the most surprising rendition was by soul singer Charles Bradley, who passionately belted it out in 2013. Both Osbourne and Iommi were especially moved by the way he sang it. “That song has had a good little life,” the guitarist says.
Black Sabbath, too, started going through changes in the years that followed Vol. 4′s release. By the end of the Seventies, too much drink and drugs led them to split with Osbourne. Although some of the members wince when thinking about their extracurricular activities at the time, they all now recognize Vol. 4 as a critical juncture in their history — an album reflecting a fun time when they managed to elevate their art.
“It comes down to this, if Tony Iommi didn’t come up with the monstrous riffs, we couldn’t have done it,” Osbourne says. “Every time he’d come up with a new riff, I’d go, ‘He ain’t gonna beat that.’ And every time, he would.”
“We risked some things that we probably wouldn’t have dared to do, certainly not on the first two albums,” Ward says of Vol. 4. “I think it showed the band was starting to discover themselves as individuals, and also was discovering themselves as a band. I think, to understand Vol. 4, you have to listen to the album that came out after it, because on the opening chords of [1973’s] Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, we went straight back home with that brute force of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.’ But we still had our little acoustic breaks. Vol. 4 opened up enough room to say, ‘Oh, you can do that again on other albums.’”
“A lot of it had to do with being in L.A.,” Butler says of Vol. 4. “We’d never been anywhere for very long. On the album, you actually had time to go down the beach and lie outside by the pool and everything, so it’s really relaxing for the first time. And you didn’t have to look at Birmingham and London. L.A. just seemed really like an exotic place back then. So I think it made us a bit mellower.”
“I liked the atmosphere of Vol. 4,” Iommi says. “I liked everything about it, how it just felt right.”
From Rolling Stone US