Ozzy Osbourne: 'I had nothing to lose'

Sacked from Black Sabbath and battling addiction, Ozzy Osbourne's career should have been dead and buried by 1979. Instead, he met an inspirational young guitarist called Randy Rhoads and took America by storm. He recounts the triumph and tragedy of his remarkable second chance to Rob Fitpatrick

Ozzy Osbourne is sitting on the patio outside his rather beautiful Berkshire pile being interviewed by a keen young sort from a metal magazine. It's not going very well. A member of his management team – not his wife Sharon, though I'm told she's in the house somewhere – comes into the delightfully appointed kitchen (huge, glass-fronted fridges, brushed-steel Miele appliances, a sizeable farmhouse table littered with Apple products, its surface marked by the word Ozzy scored deep into the wood) and picks at the groaning buffet looking a bit glum. She says Ozzy is getting increasingly aggravated by the endless questions about bats and booze and urinating on the Alamo. Even he's bored to tears with all that stuff after 30 years of being asked about little else.

On the pastel-coloured island in the centre of the kitchen lies a piece of paper that lists everything Ozzy has to do today. There are at least 15 interviews, mainly with radio stations. You can't help but fear that most, if not all, will, at some point, allude to bonkers rock drunks gnawing hungrily at flying mammals. Feeling sorry for a multimillionaire with a landscaped garden the size of a decent London suburb is a decidedly odd emotion, but you feel it all the same.

In 2011, John Michael Osbourne is so universally famous, such a cherished English eccentric that it's easy to forget things could have turned out so differently. In 1979, his band, Black Sabbath, once among the biggest rock bands in the world, had seemingly reached the end of the road.

"We never knew what was happening from one day to the next," Osbourne says, devouring a mini sausage roll. "We tried to manage ourselves for a while but we were always in the fucking bar. We were sick of each other, too – you don't even want to be around your wife all the time and you married her – and none of us wanted to drag this black magic shit around forever so we tried to get a bit modern. But you should stick to what you know best."

Black Sabbath released a couple of underperforming LPs in which they "tried to get a bit modern" – Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! – in the late 70s, their creativity increasingly crippled by alcohol and cocaine. All of them were tired of the legal battles with their label and their management ("We were ripped off to the point where we didn't even own our houses"), and in 1979 Osbourne was sacked. He spent three months in the Le Parc hotel in Los Angeles with the curtains shut, his dealer delivering every day. Sabbath's then manager Sharon Arden – daughter of the legendary hardman manager Don Arden – was assigned the task of keeping Ozzy together enough to write new songs. She would become his full-time manager and, later, his wife. One of her first pieces of advice was to get rid of the wine bar he owned next to his English home, known as Atrocity Cottage, in Staffordshire.

"My reasoning was," he laughs, "I'm a drinker, I need a wine bar. But I was getting too pissed there. The thing was, at that time, I had nothing to lose. If I even got to make a new record and it was a flop, who cared?"

But if he was going to make a new record, he'd need a new band to make it with. In the autumn of 1979, while in Los Angeles and preparing to go into the studio, Osbourne hired a local spotter to look for musicians. One bassist, Dana Strum from the band Slaughter, auditioned and then raved about a guitarist he knew called Randy Rhoads.

"He would go on and on about this guy like he was fucking Jesus," Ozzy says. "I was smoking dope and getting tanked and fucked up on powders and I just wanted to go home, but he said I had to see this guy. So Randy came in, five foot fucking two and so skinny, I thought he was a fairy. When he played my brain went, 'Either this is the greatest gear ever or this guy really is the best guitarist in the world.'"

Within a few weeks, Rhoads, a classical guitar theorist whose mother owned an acclaimed music school, was living with Osbourne in the UK, while writing and recording demos as part of his new band. Look at the pictures of that band now and you see one young guy who looks like the 1980s surrounded by hairy throwbacks who have barely noticed the 70s.

"Exactly!" Osbourne shouts. "Randy's mum came to see us once. I had a big fat beer belly, the other guys had moustaches and his mum went, 'So, when do the band get here?' She was fucking sitting next to me!"

No one really thought Osbourne's first solo album, Blizzard Of Ozz, would sell all that well. Warner Bros had first refusal on all his solo material. Warner executives heard the demos and duly refused (the label's president Mo Ostin wrote him a note that began, "Nice try, but we're going to have to pass.") EMI was similarly unimpressed. However, Sharon had one trick up her sleeve: her father also owned Jet Records, home to ELO and Lynsey de Paul, and it was there that Ozzy would find his first solo home. Jet duly reaped the rewards when, after a slow but steady start, Blizzard of Ozz went on to sell 6m copies. Less than a year later came another LP, Diary of a Madman. MTV and cable TV shows were beginning to take videos of these bands no one had ever really properly seen before and broadcast them into vast numbers of homes.

"MTV made a huge impact," Ozzy says. "Heavy rotation took you from selling 1m albums to 20m albums and that meant a lot of dough. There was a lot of payola, a lot of wining and dining and cocaine buying, but it changed everything for us. Those first two years were incredible."

Some distance from Sabbath's down-tuned doominess, both albums are full of melodic, lightning-bolt rock; emotionally dark but still inclusive and with a sense of raw, limitless potential. There were Hammer Horror theatrics, odd pop moments – Noel Gallagher never wrote a Beatles tribute half as good as Goodbye to Romance, nor anything as wildly anthemic as You Can't Kill Rock and Roll. No Bone Movies worried, in some detail, about a latent porn obsession, while Believer had a skronky lead guitar line that could have come from David Bowie's Scary Monsters album. Blizzard even found room for a Rhoads solo acoustic piece called Dee, dedicated to his mother. Much to everyone's surprise – and delight – things were going extremely well.

In March 1982, Osbourne and Rhoads were on their way to Florida to play a huge arena show with UFO and Foreigner. "Randy had something special about him that night," Osbourne says. "I was drinking gin and he was writing his own music, and at one point he looked up and said he wanted out, he wanted to go to university. I said, 'What the fuck do you want to do that for? We're blazing a trail! Keep on like this and you can buy a university!' But he wanted a degree in classical music."

Early next morning, their driver, Andrew Aycock, pulled into the private airfield where he kept a small Beechcraft aeroplane. First he took the tour manager and Osbourne's keyboard player Don Airey up for a ride. Then he got Rhoads and Rachel Youngblood – Sharon's best friend – to join him. Both hated flying. At 10.30am, Aycock's plane clipped the parked tour bus and ploughed into the upper bedrooms and garage of the mansion where the entourage had been sleeping. Witnesses described the moment of impact as like "a bomb going off". Rhoads's remains were found on top of a burned-out car. He was 25.

"It took me a very long time to get over his death," Ozzy says. "I'm on a low dose of anti-depressants even now. Randy gave me a purpose, he gave me hope. I was fed up fighting people. I just had the greatest respect for him."

Osbourne and Rhoads only worked together for 28 months, but two tracks they made together have followed Osbourne ever since. Crazy Train was covered by Lewis LaMedica 22 years later for the theme song to MTV's hit reality show The Osbournes, while Suicide Solution inspired a 1984 lawsuit that saw Osbourne and CBS Records accused of inciting, via subliminal messages, 19-year-old alcoholic depressive John McCollum to put a handgun to his head and pull the trigger. That case was eventually dropped, only for a similar one to be brought in 1991, five years after 16-year-old Michael Waller, the son of a Georgia minister, died from a pistol wound to his head. He had been listening to Blizzard of Ozz in his van.

"That whole part of the 80s was a crazy fucking time," Osbourne says. "But it was obvious to me that the first guy who shot himself was a fucking fruit loop. I tried to tell them it takes me all my time to put the lyrics in the right way round."

He calls out for a glass of water. The sun is dipping behind the trees on the hill behind the house. "You know," he says, "when I listen to those two records now I hear a real vibe. Rock music is not meant to be perfect. Randy loved hearing his fingers slide up and down the strings. Nowadays everyone irons the fucking air, it's all about technology. Everyone wants to give you some advice!"

But not you, I say. Who's going to give Ozzy Osbourne advice?

"Who the fuck do you think!" he yells. "I'm married to my manager!"

Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman are newly reissued on Sony. Ozzy Osbourne plays Hammersmith Apollo, London, on 21 June.


Rob Fitzpatrick

The GuardianTramp

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