Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY ANDREW FREUDENBERG
Around about 1980 a friend’s elder brother played me Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ album. In the intervening years there have been faster, harder, and arguably better records made, but at that moment it was aural perfection. This was my gateway into a lifelong love of heavy rock’n roll.
I soon figured out that, incredibly, the singer could occasionally be seen on television, injecting some much needed energy into the charts of the time. Having devoured most of Deep Purple’s back catalog, I dived into Gillan’s solo releases. Somehow I even ended up buying the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack on which he played the lead role; clearly I was a man obsessed.
My first gig was Gillan’s final tour, promoting ‘Magic’, in 1982. It did not disappoint in any way. (Lead guitar role was taken by Janeck Gers, a name that may be familiar to some). Three years later I finally got to see Ian back where he was meant to be, fronting Deep Purple with a triumphant return performance at Knebworth Park. Again, it was as legendary show as a youthful Purple fan could ever hope for. Somewhere in between those two,(for me major), events, Ian Gillan joined Black Sabbath, recorded ‘Born Again’, and left again after one tour.
I’m not sure why this didn’t make more impact on me at the time. I think I was simply bemused by the whole thing. It seemed weird. Unlike some, I wasn’t appalled or even that surprised by it; after all, you can’t like Deep Purple without becoming used to rotating line ups. It wasn’t as if it was this was the first time Iommi had hired one of Ritchie Blackmore’s cast off vocalists either. It was just one of those things that seemed a little off and I didn’t pay it much attention. The line up only played one gig in the UK, (more on that later), which sadly I didn’t bother making any effort to attend. Some things just don’t click and it was a few years before I even bothered picking up the album.
‘Trashed’ is a more than decent opener, with a chug reminiscent of the Dio era and Gillan laying his stylistic cards on the table from the get go. Immediately though, its clear that there’s something wrong with the production. It lacks bite and punch.
‘Stonehenge’ is an amateurish soundscape unworthy of its own title. ‘Disturbing the Priest’ is an uncomfortable meld of Gillan’s story telling vocals, an 80’s electro-throb and some uninspired Iommi riffs. It’s a forgettable mess.
More over cooked reverb heralds the ‘atmospheric’ introduction to ‘Zero the Hero’, again undeservedly given its own title. Thankfully it’s not long before a fat riff kicks in and it sounds like we may be on to something here. Gillan and Iommi find common ground and this actually sounds like a new direction for Sabbath. Despite being hampered by the ongoing amateurish production, this really isn’t too bad. It’s not fantastic either though, and Iommi’s solo is too long and not that interesting.
A groovy riff fights against the compression squashing the life out of it to introduce ‘Digital Bitch’. The lyrics are hardly worth mentioning, clearly scribbled on the back of a beer mat somewhere, and the chorus fairly laughable in today’s context, but its at least got energy and a little fire.
‘Born Again’ is a slow cruncher in the vein of ‘Heaven and Hell’. Gillan pulls out all the stops and shows why, with the right material, he’s one of the best in the business. This is genuinely good material.
‘Hot Line’ kicks in with a riff that could have fallen off ZZ Top’s ‘Eliminator’. The similarity quickly fades as a clichéd set of riffs underline an appalling lyrical scribble. Dull.
Unfortunately ‘Keep it Warm’ features more dreadful lyrics and another lazy backing track. This just isn’t good or really worthy of listening to.
If there’s one thing I have no ambition to write, it’s a hatchet job on an album by arguably my favorite band, featuring one of my childhood heroes on vocals. This however, is really not worthy of the Black Sabbath name.
To quote Tony Iommi, "To be honest, I didn't like some of the songs on that album—and the production was awful.” Whether the production was due to poor work at the time, or as Mr Iommi claims, some mysterious event between mastering and pressing, its unacceptable. When accompanying some of the worst songs produced by the band, it’s a total non-starter. I think the deluxe CD editon makes some mild audio improvements to the original release, but its barely significant.
One can only guess at why it turned out this way. My guess is a mixture of things. We won’t get a decent explanation for the muddied production. It seems strange that it couldn’t be saved in the mix at a later date. Song writing wise, I just don’t think the rhythm of Gillan’s writing style gels with that of Iommi.
Once the recordings were done, Bill Ward headed back to rehab. Bev Bevan of ELO fame stepped in for a short lived tour, after which Geezer quit the band and Gillan answered the call that neither he nor his bank manager could refuse. All in all, not the most salubrious of episodes in the band’s history. What about this line up as a live act though?
Helpfully the deluxe CD edition of ‘Born Again’ includes their Reading Festival Set, their only UK gig with this line up. The new songs regain some of the energy that the poor album production stole from them. Of course a bad song is a bad song, but these versions are a definite improvement. Gillan does a truly great job with the classics, delivering them with every ounce of his not inconsiderable power. The encore of ‘Smoke on the Water’ Sabbath Style along with ‘Paranoid’ Gillan style is… something else… arguably worth the price of admission alone!
So… come for the album… stay for the bonus disc!