Geezer Butler on football fandom and inventing heavy metal

BY Simon Hemelryk

11th Jul 2023 Celebrities

Geezer Butler on football fandom and inventing heavy metal

The Black Sabbath founder and bassist Geezer Butler chats about heavy metal excess, his love for Aston Villa and finally finding peace

Growing up in Birmingham

Being amazed when I realised not everyone supported Aston Villa. I grew up very close to the ground and went to my first game with older brother, Jimmy, when I was about six.

The away team scored and I couldn’t understand it when their fans cheered. How come they didn’t love Villa like I did? I found them very disrespectful.

Walking two miles to Handsworth Park with my dad, James. He loved walking, and we didn’t have a car. He’d take me to the cinema to watch cartoons, too. Tom and Jerry bashing each other was my favourite.

Spending my pocket money on rosary beads and crosses. I was ultra-religious. It wasn’t surprising as my dad and mum, Mary, were strict Catholics and our house was covered in pictures of Jesus and Mary.

At school, the nuns would tell us we were going to hell, if we didn’t behave. Terrifying.

But when I was a teenager, I got into the occult. Magazines, horror films with Vincent Price and books like The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley.

There were lots of immigrants with different religions coming into Birmingham, too—Muslims and Hindus. It was fascinating to see new perspectives.

"Younger bass players in bands would come up and tell me I was their hero"

A two-string guitar changed my life. When I was about 11, a lad brought an old acoustic guitar to school and asked if anyone wanted to buy it. My dad worked packing steel tubes and I thought affording an instrument was beyond me. But the lad only wanted ten shillings.

When the Beatles came along, I learned how to play their hits using the guitar’s only two strings. Then I formed a band with a mate. I didn’t enjoy my grammar school much, so this was my escape.

I got into alternative culture and, when I was older, I would go down to a club in Covent Garden in London called Middle Earth. It was full of hippies and loonies—people covered in silver paint dancing to Captain Beefheart. There was nothing like that in Aston!

Accountancy turned me to drink. After I left school, I went to work for the accounts department at Spartan Steel in Aston. But music was what I really wanted to do, and the firm had me doing difficult work I wasn’t properly trained for.

I would come in later and later, then, to make it through the day, get absolutely legless in the pub at lunchtime. One day, I came in at 4:30pm. They finally sacked me.

Geezer Butler playing guitarLearning to play bass guitar saved Geezer Butler from a life in accounting

The beginnings of Black Sabbath

Meeting a young eccentric called Ozzy. I was in a band called Rare Breed. After getting sacked by Spartan Steel, I wanted to do music full time.

But the singer went off to perform on cruise ships, so I contacted someone who’d put a note in a guitar shop saying they wanted to join a band. He was called “Ozzy Zig” and the next day, there was a knock on the door.

Stood there was a skinhead with no shoes on, carrying a chimney brush over his shoulder and pulling a training shoe on a dog lead. He was obviously a complete nutter. I burst out laughing and said, “OK, you’re in.”

Rare Breed broke up soon after, but Ozzy [Osbourne, vocalist] and I [bassist] teamed up with drummer Bill Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi in 1968 to form Black Sabbath.

Realising we had something special. We played on the blues scene in Birmingham, but the first songs we wrote together, “Wicked World” and “Black Sabbath”, were very different.

Audiences would talk and drink while we played the blues but they concentrated and looked amazed when we did our own tunes.

When our first album, Black Sabbath, was released in 1970, the music press slagged us to death. But Alan Freeman made “Paranoid” his single of the week for four weeks running, later that year.

When Paranoid, the album, came out we were doing a gig in Belgium. Our tour manager came up to us and said, “Guess what, lads. You’re number one in the UK!”. We all went “Yahay!”. It was a great night.

"In Nashville, someone jumped on stage and went for Tony with a knife"

My dad wasn’t very pleased when he saw the inverted cross on the sleeve of our first album. But, generally, nobody in the UK or Europe cared that much about our Satanic imagery.

In the US, though, people would threaten us and turn up at our gigs with crosses and bibles. In Nashville, someone jumped on stage and went for Tony with a knife. Fortunately, Tony had turned around to kick his faulty amp at that point, saw the attacker and got out of the way.

The police arrested the attacker, though we don’t know what happened to him. But he wanted to sacrifice Tony. Lunatic.

Black Sabbath with Geezer Butler and Ozzy OsbourneGeezer Butler co-founded the heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne

Finding love and family life

Chasing the love of my life at the airport. I decided to fly to a gig in St Louis in 1978, as I was fed up with all the arguing and the mess on the tour bus. When I arrived, I saw Gloria waiting for a friend. It really was love at first sight.

They went outside and got into a Porsche—her dad was a car dealer. I told my limo driver to “follow that car”, like I was in some stupid rom-com film. We pulled up alongside her car at the lights and I asked her to come to the gig. The next day she drove me to my next concert in Kansas City.

My first marriage ended—amicably—and Gloria and I have been together ever since. God knows how. Maybe it’s all my touring—we haven’t had time to get fed up with each other.

I always wanted a child and when our son, Biff, was born in 1980, life seemed complete. Plus, it meant I could go to Disneyland. I took Biff there so often that he eventually said to me, “Dad, not again".

Hearing Aston Villa win the European Cup from a phone box. When they made the European Cup final, in 1982, I was on tour in America.

I phoned home and a friend held the receiver up to the TV so I could hear the commentary of the match over the phone. I was in that phone box in the US for around two hours. It must have cost me about $1,000 in quarters.

A rainbow helped me make a heart-rending decision. When my second son, James, was born in 1984, blood wasn’t flowing into his lungs properly. The doctors asked me if they could operate, but there was only a 50 per cent chance of success.

It was a dark, rainy day outside, but as I asked God for some guidance, a rainbow appeared. The operation went ahead and, after several more operations, James was eventually OK. I took a couple of years off touring, as I didn’t want to leave James.

I eventually joined Ozzy on one of his solo tours. His wife, Sharon, had told him to stop taking drugs and drinking, or she’d leave him. To my relief, it was a very calm tour, after all I’d been through.

Life after Black Sabbath

Geezer Butler as solo artist holding bass guitarCredit: Ross Halfin. Geezer Butler now spends most of his time in Utah, having played Black Sabbath's final concert in 2017

It was liberating to do my first solo album, Plastic Planet, in 1995. Tony had written most of the music in Black Sabbath, but now I could take the lead.

It was brilliant when Tony, Ozzy, Bill and I got back together for a proper Black Sabbath reunion in 1997, though. We’d performed and recorded as Sabbath with other singers, like Ian Gillan, but it wasn’t the same.

We played at Milton Keynes Bowl, but Bill had had a heart attack and couldn’t join us. Instead, he introduced us.

Tony decided to pull his shorts down—for fun. But Bill wasn’t wearing underwear and the crowd got quite an eyeful. Especially as Bill was very well endowed.

"Bill wasn’t wearing underwear and the crowd got quite an eyeful"

Being perplexed at being called a legend. In the Nineties and Noughties, younger bass players in bands would come up and tell me I was their hero. It was odd, because I thought I was a pretty average guitarist.

In the Seventies and Eighties, we thought everyone hated Black Sabbath. Now we had this reputation as the inventors of heavy metal.

But in 2017, we broke up for good. Tony had been diagnosed with lymphoma and was absolutely knackered after each gig, and it just felt like the right time. Our final concert was in Birmingham, where it all started. I’d been sober since 2015, so I celebrated afterwards with, I think, a lemonade.

Falling in love with Utah. I’ve still got a house in Warwickshire, but Gloria and I spend most of our time at our home in Utah, surrounded by incredible mountains. My grandchildren love to come here and ski, though I tried it once and really panicked.

Learning to calm down a little. I’ve always been a worrier, but it doesn’t achieve much.

I was in a rock band that sold millions of records. I’ve been married for 43 years. Biff [Butler's eldest son] is now an award-winning video editor. James [Butler's younger son] went to Oxford University. I’ve no idea what he does, but he’s very successful at it, too. 

I’ve taught myself to just be happy to be alive.

Banner credit: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

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