Ginger Nuts of Horror
Never Say Die! was a complete mystery to me when I first stumbled across it in a used vinyl bin at my local record haunt in 1981. I was in the throes of my initial discovery of the original Black Sabbath catalogue and I had never heard mention of this album in any of the Sabbath literature I’d read up until then. The cryptic image of two masked fighter pilots in full flight gear standing in front of their plane on the cover didn’t quite jive with Sabbath’s typical album art. Regardless of the strange presentation, I was still beyond intrigued and grabbed it.
It was the final studio album released by the original lineup in 1978, and for some reason, it seemed to instantly polarize Sabbath fans into “love it” or “hate it” camps with very little middle ground. To be fair, it is an odd album for them, even in light of the previous year’s release, Technical Ecstasy, which was also a major departure in style and presentation for Sabbath, but which doesn’t seem to draw nearly as much criticism from fans.
I was asked to write this review because I have always been a fan of this album and, over the years, I’ve only grown to love it more. My first listen to Side A ,(this was a vinyl copy, remember) ,was not only a blast, but I found the songs to be well crafted, memorable and heavy as hell! Side B took me a little longer to get into, but I’ve come to love it just as much. Granted, the overall approach of this album was a bit more upbeat and grounded in the physical world, instead of the mental and spiritual realms of the earlier albums, but the expression was no less potent.
The opening cut, “Never Say Die”, comes out swinging with a rocking riff and resolve that seemed to state that Sabbath was not only back from the temporary sacking of Ozzy the year before, but that they were not going anywhere anytime soon. The sentiment is ironic in hindsight, being that it would be the last full studio album the original four members recorded together. However, the optimism itself is contagious. History has since shown that Sabbath could survive even with only Tony Iommi at the wheel.
“Johnny Blade”, boasts the heaviest of Iommi’s riffs on the album, even though the track itself is heavily laden with keyboards. The character painted in the lyrics seems to hearken back to the members’ roots growing up in the industrial hell-hole that was Birmingham in England; a “take no shit” tough guy who rules the street scene and will not hesitate to knife you if you screw with him. As the track winds down it segues into the downplayed opening bass line of the next song, “Junior’s Eyes”, a heartfelt track that relates Ozzy’s emotions over the recent loss of his father.
“A Hard Road” closes out the first side and has to be one of Sabbath’s most grounded songs, presenting knowledge of hard-won lessons and advice about the rigours of life, and the importance of continuing the struggle with as positive an attitude as one can put forth.
The album's flip side didn't grab me as quickly, but I have come to love and appreciate these tracks almost as much as the others over the three decades since I first heard them. “Shock Wave” kicks in with a jagged-edged riff that is a fitting intro to subject matter that goes back into the scary nether-regions of paranoia, insanity and the afterlife.
“Air Dance”, is easily the most beautiful sounding composition on the album, boasting a super catchy, heavily layered intro riff and a jazzy break not heard from Sabbath since its incarnation. The lyrics relate the story of an older woman, longing for her halcyon days as a dancer and how she is so completely caught up in the memories that she seems to be reliving them in the present day.
“Over to You” is the only track on the album that could be labelled “filler”, as it’s a relatively straightforward and simple track that laments how life seems preordained and offers us little choice in how we begin, live and end our lives.
Closing out the album are two tracks, an instrumental titled “Breakout” which, complete with a saxophone solo, is a fitting intro to “Swinging the Chain”,a very groovy track that features Bill Ward’s second lead vocal performance for Sabbath. He’s no slouch in that department. His delivery is raw, passionate and ultimately convincing, and a premonition of his solo work to come in later years. The song has lyrics that recall the horrors of the past, reveal the condition of the present and are a fitting epitaph to the final album by the original line up.
If you are one of the detractors who dislikes Never Say Die!, I can only say that I believe you’re missing out on a brilliant and severely underrated album that is worth giving another chance. I think the main thing to remember when approaching this album, whether for the first time or otherwise, is that if you come to the door with preconceptions about what any Sabbath album “should” sound like, you’ve already missed the boat. However, if you can approach it with an open mind, not only as a historical document of a band just coming off the most intensely creative decade of their career, and attempting to reinvent themselves for the coming decade, you may be pleasantly surprised.