Looking back on 35 years of The Eternal Idol and its sessions
The late vocalist Ray Gillen sadly enjoyed one of the briefest of Black Sabbath’s frontman stints.
In the end, his official recorded legacy is a wicked laugh on “Nightmare” from The Eternal Idol album. So why, you may ask, do we take the time to celebrate him now?
After the departure of Ozzy, then Dio, and then Ian Gillan, the next name in Iommi’s rolodex was Glenn Hughes, formerly of Trapeze and Deep Purple. The idea was to make an Iommi solo album, but upon delivery of the tapes, Warner Bros insisted on releasing the record as “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi”. Odd as it was to issue such commercial ‘80s fare under the hoary Sabbath name, at least Iommi was in business, and working with an old Brummie like Hughes. Two Americans filled out the rhythm section: Eric Singer (later of Kiss) on drums, and second-degree black belt Dave Spitz on the bass.
Both Iommi and Hughes were snorting mountains of cocaine at the time, though Hughes was reportedly in far worse shape. An altercation with a roadie on the eve of the Seventh Star U.S. tour left Hughes with a black and blue face, and a chunk of his eye socket dislodged. This resulted in a blood clot in his throat, which had to be scraped out. Caked in makeup to cover the bruising, Hughes hit the stage in front of 15,000 Sabbath fans with no voice to speak of. By the fifth show, he was lip-synching while keyboardist Geoff Nicholls did the honors.
Behind the scenes, Spitz suggested the band bring in a young vocalist from New Jersey. Ray Gillen had just begun to make a name for himself in an outfit with Rainbow drummer Bobby Rondinelli called… Rondinelli. Though unknown to the world at large, Gillen had dreamboat good looks, and vocal talent that went off the charts. As loath as Iommi likely was to be the only British member of Sabbath, the band was in serious jeopardy unless the tour could go on. Gillen was swept into the fray. He found himself standing in the shoes of giants, in front of massive crowds, almost overnight.
Gillen held a position that had belonged to superstars like Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. So it’s little surprise that his head and ego began to swell immediately. Rather than showing the respect due to someone of Iommi’s stature, Gillen spent his nights carousing with groupies, and partying hard. In his defense, he was twenty-four, and had just been handed the keys to the kingdom.
At his ripe young age, Gillen was a huge fan of Dio’s work in Rainbow and Sabbath. The songs from Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules were already embedded in his DNA. Not so much the Ozzy material. In concert, Gillen pulled a Gillan, and littered the stage with lyrics sheets and notes, which were sometimes so obscured by fog that mishaps ensued.
AUDIO: Black Sabbath Live at the Hammersmith Odeon 1986 with Ray Gillen
One of the great documents of Ray Gillen’s short time in Black Sabbath is the Live at Hammersmith Odeon bootleg, which was finally officially issued in truncated form as the bonus disc on the Deluxe Edition of Seventh Star in 2010. Gillen works the crowd admirably, “something old, something new” he says as the band shifts gears from “Danger Zone” to “War Pigs.”
Honestly, Gillen’s takes on the older songs comprise the most remarkable aspects of this concert. When Dio sang Ozzy material, it never sounds to me like his heart was completely in it. Gillen takes the song “Black Sabbath” to a place it never went again. So when we talk about this obscure moment in Sabbath history, the reason it’s important is that, more than any other vocalist (including Gillen’s successor Tony Martin), Ray was the one guy who could really do it all.
What he couldn’t do, however, was write songs. After saving the day on tour (and bringing loads of young women to the shows to catch a glimpse of his remarkable visage), it was time to take the untested front man to George Martin’s AIR Studios in Montserrat. This proved to be Gillen’s first time in any kind of proper recording facility, and he was wildly out of his element.
The only reason The Eternal Idol turned out to be one of the better late-Sabbath efforts is because bassist and songwriter Bob Daisley was brought in while Dave Spitz flew home to deal with some personal business (reportedly an affair his girlfriend was having with Kiss drummer Eric Carr). Daisley wrote more of Ozzy’s lyrics and music during the ‘80s than Ozzy did. His sensibilities helped keep The Eternal Idol sessions on track. He also helped turn Gillen’s rough outlines of ideas—like “The Shining”— into a clever and memorable parody of the Kubrick film.
By now, Gillen’s record was checkered by his ego, his sexy soirees, his inability to show up on time, and his lack of ability to write his own lyrics. To top this off, his diction (or lack thereof) came to light in the studio. Dynamite as his vocals were, he was nearly impossible to understand. The engineers worked with him on every passage in order to come up with workable renditions.
Gillen must have seen the writing on the wall, because he bailed on Sabbath before The Eternal Idol was even finished. Guitarist John Sykes had just been dismissed from Whitesnake and was putting together a band called Blue Murder. Sykes led Gillen on for a few months before ultimately deciding to handle vocal duties himself.
AUDIO: Black Sabbath The Eternal Idol Ray Gillen Mix
Thankfully, we have the rather rare 2010 Deluxe Edition of The Eternal Idol. The bonus disc is the sole document of Ray Gillen’s studio work with Sabbath. Though it’s not a complete final mix of the album, every song is accounted for on a reference tape that members of the band had. If the mix were a bit better, it would be the definitive version of the album to most who hear it. Unfortunately, being a reference tape, it sounds a bit soft, not hitting as hard as the official version, on which Gillen’s parts were copied as closely as possible by Tony Martin. The one bit Martin simply couldn’t recreate was Gillen’s maniacal laugh in the aforementioned “Nightmare.”
No shade on Martin, of course. He just did what he was hired to do. And to his credit, he was a ‘yes man’ who showed up, never canceled a gig, and was a reliable bandmate who wrote his own parts. Still, the glimpse we get of what could have been, based on the Hammersmith concert, and the Eternal Idol reference tape can send shivers up your spine. What if Black Sabbath had leaned into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a vocalist like Ray Gillen, who could stand comfortably next to other immortal voices like Chris Cornell?
Gillen did get his moment in the sun. He skipped from the Blue Murder debacle into a collaboration with former Ozzy guitarist Jake E Lee. Together with Eric Singer on drums, they formed Badlands, and released a self-titled album on Atlantic Records that enjoyed MTV airplay. After some further lineup tinkering, Badlands released a second album, Voodoo Highway. But by now, Gillen was looking thin and unhealthy.
Ray Gillen died of AIDS-related complications in 1993, at the age of 32. Considering the release date of Eternal Idol was Nov 23, 1987, and Gillen’s death was on Dec 1, 1993, this seems as good a week as any to celebrate the work of this incredible talent, whose light burned so brightly, for such a short time.
*included for context