40 Years Ago: Black Sabbath Release ‘Never Say Die!’
No one could hold a candle to Black Sabbath for their first six albums, but in 1976 the knots frayed by bad contracts, fraudulent bookkeeping, alcohol and drug addiction and complete mental and physical exhaustion started to rapidly unravel. 1976’s Technical Ecstasy was an unfocused record without much bite. The end of an era came less than two years later when Black Sabbath released their final ‘70s album with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Never Say Die!, which came out Sept. 28, 1978.
The band started working on Never Say Die! in January 1978 at a time when few of the band members were capable of playing “Louie, Louie,” let alone writing a new album. In an effort to be progressive and innovative, they brought in horns, piano, clean guitars. The entire scene was a recipe for disaster, and it was a dish that would take a while to prepare even the initial stages of, since vocalist Ozzy Osbourne was nowhere to be found.
“We’d make plans to get together and he’d pull these disappearing acts,” guitarist Tony Iommi told me in 2010. “We were so far gone it would take us a while to notice he was missing. Someone would say, ‘Well, where’s Ozzy?’ And then we’d go, ‘Oh, well I guess he’s f---ed off again. He’ll be back soon.’ And that just meant me and Bill [Ward] would return to what we were doing, which wasn’t good for anybody, especially us – lots of drugs and drinking, mostly.”
One day Osbourne showed up, told his band mates he was quitting and then disappeared again. At that point Black Sabbath didn’t want to continue without their singer. But when Osbourne didn’t come back or even call, they hired ex-Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker to work with them on Never Say Die! After writing a handful of songs, Osbourne contacted Sabbath and said he wanted to work on the record but he wouldn’t sing on anything they wrote with Walker.
“The situation was a mess,” Iommi said. “We were already behind. So the record label was bothering us and we didn’t have anything to show them. Ozzy wants us to start all over. We’re writing in the day and trying to record at night. I think there was some good stuff there, but it’s hard to keep your footing when you feel like things are falling apart.”
Black Sabbath took three months off after Osbourne’s father died. The rest of Black Sabbath sympathized with Osbourne but didn’t want to wait six more months to finish. They did what they could during that time and even had drummer Bill Ward sing lead vocals on the album closer “Swinging the Chain.”
Finally Osbourne reconvened with his band mates at Sound Interchange Studios in Toronto, Ontario and tracked most of his vocals for Never Say Die!. When the final overdubs were done in May 1978, no one could have been happier than the band. “Let’s just say, well, it definitely wasn’t our finest hour,” Iommi said. “I can tell you that.”
While many have criticized the meandering composition and lack of aggression of Never Say Die!, Ward defended the album, claiming the adventurous forays into jazz on “Johnny Blade” and “Air Dance” were innovative and original.
Thanks in part to the hard rock self-titled single, which was propulsive, upbeat and free or horns and keys, Never Say Die! received a brief push at rock radio and debuted at No. 69 on the Billboard album chart. But the boost didn’t last and a tour with Van Halen was a wakeup call for Black Sabbath, whose groundbreaking sound was being usurped by a new breed of guitar heroes led by Eddie Van Halen.
Never Say Die! went gold in November 1997, more than 19 years after it was released and is still widely considered the least successful album of the original Ozzy era right above or below (depending on who you talk to) Technical Ecstasy. In 2013, Black Sabbath released 13, their first studio album with Osbourne on vocals in 35 years.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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