Looking back on the metal legends’ sole album with Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan
Remember in the old cartoons, when the coyote would run off a cliff and stand confused in space, not falling until he realized that there was no solid ground beneath his feet?
That’s exactly where Black Sabbath found itself in 1983, when they recorded their 11th studio album, Born Again.
Knowing that the master tapes for Born Again were found in 2021—and that a Super Deluxe Edition with a full remix could be imminent—makes celebrating this record feel a bit premature. But then, nothing about Born Again went according to plan. Even its 40th anniversary was celebrated a month early, because an apocryphal release date of August 7, 1983 had been making the rounds for decades. Only over the last few weeks did Sabbath scholars and internet sleuths determine that the official UK release date was actually on Sept 12, with the U.S. edition being birthed either on the same date, or sometime after.
Regardless, this is the last “great” Sabbath album for many fans, especially those who weren’t interested in the band’s subsequent decade, during which Tony Iommi was (usually) the only original member in the group.
Born Again boasts everyone from the classic lineup except Ozzy. That’s Iommi, Butler, Ward and oft-overlooked keyboardist-behind-the-curtain Geoff Nicholls. Lead vocals came courtesy of Ian Gillan of Deep Purple Mk II, leading many to call this lineup Deep Sabbath or Purple Sabbath. After a few reinvigorating years of Dio fronting the group, with Vinnie Appice on drums, Iommi and Butler were happy to have an all-British lineup once more.
Much has been written about the schism during the mix of the 1982 Live Evil concert album. Whatever happened, Dio was ready to kick off a tremendously successful solo career. Egos (enflamed by de rigueur cocaine usage) made it impossible to continue. The good news is that this brought a newly sober Bill Ward back into the fold on drums. And after a long night of pub drinking in a meeting set up by Sabbath manager Don Arden, Tony Iommi offered Ian Gillan an equal share as partner and vocalist.
Gillan had been leading his own eponymous band, who released six studio albums. After a few months off to treat his vocal nodes, he unceremoniously broke up that group to join Sabbath. Born Again was written and recorded at Richard “Virgin” Branson’s Manor Studio. There the band took up residence, though the eccentric Gillan set up camp in a tent outside.
All manner of hell broke loose during the sessions, thanks to band pranks, which often involved explosives prepared by Sabbath’s expert pyrotechnic crew. Gillan took to visiting the pub in a boat, in order to avoid drinking and driving, though he still managed to wreck the car that was rented for Bill Ward.
That accident was the inspiration for the album’s lead track, “Trashed.” When Gillan sings, “the ground was in my sky” he’s being literal. This song is clearly modeled on up-tempo, barnstorming album openers like “Neon Nights” and “Turn Up The Night,” and fits favorably among them…except for the inexcusably muddy mix.
After two legendary albums with Iron Maiden (and Deep Purple) producer Martin Birch, Sabbath returned to self-producing, with engineer Robing Black getting a co-producer credit. His work on Sabotage yielded some of the finest audio in the band’s catalog. Unfortunately, no one really knows what happened to the final Born Again sound picture. Supposedly Geezer Butler was left in charge at the end, and some say he pushed the bass louder in the mix. He vehemently denies this, though. Somewhere further along, the mix was ruined. The first time the band heard Born Again, while out promoting the record on tour, they were appalled. By then the album was #4 in the UK charts, and there was nothing to be done.
“Trashed” also received a nonsensical, low budget music video that combines concert footage, Night Of The Living Dead homage, and scantily clad women. Despite the obvious anti-drinking and driving message, the song still landed on the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” list.
Two minutes of atmospheric soundscape called “Stonehenge” follows “Trashed” on side one of Born Again. The band spent hours creating a mysterious sound by submerging a bell in water. Years later, Iommi lamented that the same effect could be done with a keyboard in a few minutes now. Regardless, that sort of studio experimentation is a bit like using a practical effect instead of CGI, and still sounds cool today. The Deluxe Expanded Edition of Born Again includes an extended version of “Stonehenge” that is nearly five minutes long.
On the Born Again tour, someone (reportedly Geezer) suggested a Stonehenge stage theme. Supposedly management mistakenly wrote meters instead of feet, and the band ended up with stage scenery so large that it was only usable at two outdoor concerts. The oversized triptychs physically would not fit into any of the arenas Sabbath played in 1983. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the anecdote was shared with someone in the Spinal Tap camp, who used an inversion of the story in their own hilarious, undersized Stonehenge scene in the classic 1984 mockumentary.
Track three is one of Born Again’s finest moments, a hefty slab of metallic doom called “Disturbing The Priest”. Black Sabbath had left a door to The Manor open, while the priest next door was trying to have choir practice. There was no actual conflict, and both parties were polite and civil. They worked out a scheduling compromise, and the issue dissolved. Regardless, the scenario inspired Butler’s lyrics. Iommi married them to one of his archest riffs, creating a foreboding and cataclysmic tune that is one of the heaviest in the band’s catalog.
Even on the first album, Black Sabbath had given names to their interludes, and even movements of songs. Originally that was for publishing reasons, because having a certain number of tracks on the album yielded better royalties. Whether or not that was still the case in 1983, a short instrumental called “The Dark” follows “Disturbing The Priest” and was even used in concert at the band’s set at the Reading Festival that year.
Breaking up the two best and heaviest songs on the album was likely a good idea. Side one concludes with the absolutely massive “Zero The Hero”. As long as you can overlook the ridiculous lyrics, which find the usually earthy Gillan going in an uncharacteristic fantasy direction, it’s often considered Born Again’s best song. Guns ‘n’ Roses must have agreed, because they lifted the main riff, sped it up a bit, and used it in their smash hit “Paradise City.”
As seriously as I take this fantastic song, I will never not laugh at the lines:
Your life is a six lane highway to nowhere
You’re going so fast you’re never ever gonna get down there
Where the heroes sit by the river
With a magic in their music as they eat raw liver.
Though side two brings diminishing rewards, there are no duds on this album. As far as songwriting is concerned, Iommi still had it. By 1983, metal had proven hardy enough to survive the punk and new wave explosion. In November of that year, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health became the first heavy metal album to reach number one on the Billboard charts. A few months prior, they were playing support to Black Sabbath on the Born Again tour. Born Again, on the other hand, peaked at number 39.
“Digital Bitch” could easily be a Diamond Head track, or a standout cut from any other NWOBHM act. Which is to say that it’s a hard charging, decent outing for Sabbath. I don’t know that any of the band members have gone on record to state who the digital bitch is, but it is widely considered to be a dig at Ozzy’s manager Sharon. Her father Don Arden was managing Sabbath at the time, and father and daughter were not on speaking terms.
The album’s title track is also its longest, a melancholy dirge of a power ballad. “Born Again” gives Gillan ample occasion to show off his voice’s volume and versatility.
In the album’s boneyard position appears “Hot Line” which wouldn’t be out of place on a Motley Crüe or W.A.S.P. album from the same period. This could easily be a throwaway track, except that Black Sabbath really knew how to write songs. So the arrangement, the interplay, the bridges, all make something greater than the sum of its parts…even if the lyrics don’t really add up to much.
The original Born Again album concludes with a rare love song. Of course that’s bread and butter for Gillan, but not a subject that rears its head much when Osbourne, Butler, Dio, or Tony Martin are penning the lyrics. “Keep It Warm” lurches and stomps, keeping Gillan’s feelings grounded. And of course the song (like all Sabbath songs) really elevates when Iommi’s epic lead break comes along.
Expanded editions of Born Again include one of the best studio outtakes in their entire catalog, “The Fallen.” There’s also a spirited recording of their Reading Festival performance, which features ELO’s Bev Bevan on drums. Ward celebrated the completion of Born Again with some drinks, and fell so heavily off the wagon that he was unable to participate in the tour.
The Born Again era ended unceremoniously with Gillan rejoining Deep Purple for their highly successful Perfect Strangers reunion album. At this point, even Geezer Butler left to attempt a solo career, and Iommi tried to do the same. Much to his chagrin, Warner Brothers forced him to release his next album as “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi” which did no one any favors.
There are some early mixes of Born Again floating around, sometimes called “demoes” and sometimes bootlegged as “The Manor Tapes.” For fanatics, they’re worth a listen. But let’s hope Rhino is actually going to give us a proper remix of this killer record now that the master tapes have been found. Of all the post-Dio Black Sabbath albums worth rediscovering, this is the best of them.