On October 30, 1998, the four original members of Black Sabbath – Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward (drums) – reunited on television for the first time in 22 years, as Halloween-ish musical guests on The Late Show with David Letterman. Their performance of the classic “Paranoid” (the title track of their second album, from 1970) lived up to the hype – a full-on rush of power and precision, played by the men who had pounded the thing out in the studio nearly 30 years before.
Sabbath was on Letterman’s show to promote Reunion, a two-CD live album recorded the previous year during a two-night stand in their hometown of Birmingham, UK – the first full shows the four musicians had played together in 18 years. The record was the first real live album the original quartet had had a hand in recording together; a previous live recording, 1980’s Live At Last, was released without the permission or knowledge of the band, then reissued with some other concert recordings in 2002 as Past Lives. Neither album remains in print.
The dearth of live Sabbath recordings is surprising and a little disappointing – at their best, Sabbath was a juggernaut onstage, laying waste to any crowd brave enough to buy a ticket and stand in front of them. Still, what is available (on both record and video) is awesome. Here are a few examples:
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” from Reunion: This doom-drenched classic is, like much of Sabbath’s work, incredibly heavy and intense. This version, recorded at the Birmingham reunion shows in 1997, shows the original quartet more than up to the task of recreating the menace their fans had and have loved for decades.
“War Pigs” (live at Ozzfest 2005): This one is a study in contrasts – Sabbath playing their tense antiwar anthem in front of a massive festival crowd in the famous Donington Park, and Osbourne spending much of the song egging that crowd on, at one point even mooning them.
“Black Sabbath,” from The End: Live in Birmingham: The band went back to Birmingham for their final show, and crushed a willing audience with a run through the highlights of their Osbourne-centric catalog, including this – the first song from their first album, a track Osbourne says is their scariest.
BONUS: Heaven & Hell, “The Mob Rules”: No discussion of Black Sabbath’s history is complete without mentioning their time with singer Ronnie James Dio, who replaced Osbourne in 1979 and fronted them at three different times, before his death in 2010. His final run with the band (during which time they were legally compelled to change their name) was captured at a show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in 2007, and featured a number of great cuts, including the title track of their second album together, “The Mob Rules.”