Born Again has enjoyed renewed interest in recent years. The only album to feature vocalist Ian Gillan, the lineup faced the unfair burden of competing with preconceptions of what Black Sabbath should be. Gillan soon returned to Deep Purple while Iommi began work on the Seventh Star record. Born Again has since become a half-forgotten gem in the vast Sabbath canon.
Time has a way of mending wrongs. As older fans listen with fresh ears and younger ones retroactively explore Deep Sabbath, Born Again has earned a cult following. Not only does the record capture a creative peak; the assorted tales that have crept up around the album lend an aura of mystique.
One first encounters the album cover. Ian Gillan famously declared that he puked the first time he saw it. Iommi and Butler both agreed it was horrible but oddly redeeming in its over-the-top awfulness. A demon baby with razor sharp claws slashed his way into life against a jarring color scheme. Geezer was quoted as saying “It’s shit. But it’s fucking great!” Gillan’s guttural reaction aside, many are inclined to agree with Butler. Born Again remains among the most memorable album covers in metal.
The back cover revealed good news. Bill Ward was back. The original trio behind the music of classic Sabbath lived again. Certainly some fans refused to accept anyone other than Ozzy in this capacity. Others were thrilled to have the core reunited and curious as to what this unlikely match-up had to offer.
Unfortunately Bill didn’t last long. After a year of sobriety, Ward had started drinking again to his own detriment. Bev Bevan of ELO would be recruited as the touring drummer. Still, the nine tracks that comprise Born Again proudly stand as the last studio LP to feature the trinity of Iommi, Butler and Ward.
Leadoff track “Trashed” is the first of many songs steeped in legend. Ian Gillan’s tale of drunken escapades behind the wheel is no work of fiction. “The Manor” was a recording studio in the English countryside where Sabbath had settled to record Born Again. Amenities like a swimming pool and racetrack made their stay comfortable while ensuring that assorted hijinks would ensue.
Racetracks and alcohol are never a good combination. “Borrowing” Bill Ward’s car, Gillan lived out the lyrics to “Trashed” as he navigated turns at impossible speeds. Yielding to the laws of physics, Ward’s car flipped, landing upside down. Ian climbed out unscathed, moments before the demolished sports car burst into flames. Gillan simply walked away from the flaming wreck, presumably in search of more tequila.
“Trashed” was the first exposure many had to the new Sabbath line-up. Not only does “Trashed” open the record but the song was also chosen as a single. Although Born Again was a commercial success, some found Gillan’s voice to be an odd pairing for riff-heavy Black Sabbath. One wonders how many would-be fans rejected the new pairing based solely on the comically bad promotional video.
No track has added to the Born Again legend more than “Stonehenge.” The short instrumental has given rise to one of the most notorious goofs in rock and roll. When time came to build a stage-set for the coming tour, Geezer Butler presented the idea of replicating the actual Stonehenge. It all went horribly wrong when the production company misinterpreted Geezer’s instructions. Misreading centimeters as inches, a larger than life Stonehenge was created as a backdrop.
Naturally the mistake was a logistical nightmare. Heavy and cumbersome, transportation and setup was not only a burden but often impossible. With the exception of a few outdoor festivals, only a fraction of the actual props were used on tour. Even with only a quarter of the set in use, arena stages were cramped as the musicians stood wedged between monitors and over-sized props.
Unbeknownst to the band, manager Don Arden had hired a dwarf to dress as the demonic Born Again baby. At the start of each show, the sounds of a screeching infant came blasting through the PA. Strategically placed on top of Stonehenge, the dwarf, donned in red clothing, crawled along the edge before falling onto a pile of mattresses below. More often than not, the display brought laughter from the audience. For those precarious first moments, the Sabbath show had devolved into a comedy act.
In a strange turn of art imitating life, the film This Is Spinal Tap poked fun at Sabbath’s misadventure. Rather than oversize props, the opposite problem arose. A confused Nigel Tufnel mistakenly gave dimensions for inches rather than feet. The result was a hilariously small Stonehenge whose diminutive size was emphasized by a dancing dwarf that towered above the tiny stone.
“Disturbing the Priest” is also rooted in a strange incident. Hosting a heavy metal band was no treat for locals. Writing sessions were deafening loud and the sound of guitars would reverberate throughout the countryside. One session was interrupted, not by police, but an actual priest insisting the volume be lowered. The unlikely confrontation was immortalized in song.
Like “Stonehenge” before it, “The Dark” is an instrumental fueled by Geezer Butler’s bass effects. It was an experiment first explored on “The Sign of the Southern Cross.” Manipulated sounds create a soundtrack to evils unknown. Short and suspenseful, “The Dark” is 45 seconds of impending doom that segues into the unspoken anthem of the Gillan era.
“Zero the Hero” follows with a doom-laden riff that is the Sabbath specialty. Iommi knows how to make a guitar sound tortured. By exploiting an ominous note, a desperate, pleading quality overtakes the song. Heavy studio effects add another dimension. It’s epic and grand in the way that “Heaven and Heaven” was larger than life.
“Digital Bitch” has long been rumored to be about Sharon Osbourne. At the time she was Sharon Arden, daughter of Black Sabbath’s manager. After falling out with her dad, the younger Arden orchestrated a successful solo career for Ozzy Osbourne. A contentious relation with her estranged father fueled speculation that Sharon was the inspiration for “Digital Bitch.” Purely conjecture, but oddly fitting.
While much of Born Again takes on an upbeat feel at odds with their doom-laden sound, the title track conjures dark vibes. Mournful guitar tones combined with soulful vocals get to the heart of what made a Gillan fronted Sabbath so perfect. The lines “Look at this prince of evil/fighting for your mind” recall vintage Sabbath lyrics. The conclusion of each chorus confirms Ian can scream with the best of the metal screechers.
The solo section is true Sabbath. Ward creates a groove that is loose, percussive and organic. It helps make the clean tone haunting and ghostly. You forget the guy from Deep Purple is there at all. It’s the sound of Bill, Geezer and Tony locked in and playing naturally. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an outtake from Heaven and Hell.
Once “Hot Line” kicks in, there’s no doubt that you’re listening to a new breed of Sabbath. Gillan was an upbeat, energetic rocker. A man who insisted on bringing bongos on stage, that energy is captured on “Hot Line.” A rock and roll soundtrack to a good time, classic Iommi riffs complete with shredding solo keep the song distinctly Sabbath.
Album closer “Keep it Warm” is a heavy metal love song. Acknowledging the strains of touring on relationships, a lover is reassured that when youthful exploits are over, their union will resume. An uncompromising insistence on adventure minimizes any sappy sentiment inherent in the pledge of domesticity.
Unfortunately Gillan’s reign in Sabbath lasted only a year. There would be no new music together, though an unreleased song titled “The Fallen” saw the light of day in 2011 as part of a deluxe edition. The newly remastered album helped smooth over Born Again’s notoriously bad production. A bonus disc also included a live recording of Purple Sabbath in action. Complete with Gillan singing vintage Ozzy tunes and a curious rendition of “Smoke on the Water,” the collection was a fitting tribute to a special moment in metal history.