The recent Facebook War – the page  ‘1,000,000 Black Sabbath fans say yes to Bill Ward’ (check it out and ‘like’ it for Bill’s sake) – regarding Black Sabbath‘s drummer Bill Ward started me thinking.

The page, in support of re-adding Bill Ward to the upcoming Black Sabbath reunion album and world tour after he pulled out citing an ‘unsignable’ contract is a signifier of something bigger. I watched it jump from around 1,400 ‘likes’ midweek to almost 37,500 as I write, at the end of the weekend. Online Metal magazines, blogs  and fans got behind the push and it quickly flourished. Guitarist and writer Tony Conley, who set the page up, admits he would have been happy with 1,000 ‘likes’ – it looks as if he actually might make his 1,000,000 at this rate. Why?

Bill Ward is just a drummer from a ’70s heavy rock band who have not put out a significant album for 20 years and have the occasional reunion, playing their 30 year old hits. On the other hand Bill Ward is a demi-god among demi-gods who gave heavy metal to us and will live forever. (Before you get out the voodoo doll with my name on it, I want to say quickly that I subscribe to the latter view, as obviously millions around the world do).

Black Sabbath – through a once-in-a-lifetime combination of personalities, vision, happy accidents and the blessings of Odin in the form of good old luck – came fully formed into the world of rock music with a cinematic, doom-laden music that instantly electrified 15 year old boys the world over. All the elements that form Heavy Metal were there on their first album Black Sabbath (deliciously released on Friday the 13th, 1970) – even though the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the early ’80s would refine and streamline the music in the hands of bands such as Iron Maiden, the template was set by Black Sabbath.

The band was helmed by the visionary guitarist Tony Iommi (now there’s a surname for a Lord Of This World) and bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler. Their singer was Ozzy Osbourne who brought an amazing, blood-flecked drama to Butler’s acid-fried sci-fi/Hammer Horror lyrics. And on the drums was a sweet natured stoner with the very workaday name of Bill Ward.

As a drummer, Ward was often overshadowed by his early Metal contemporaries – Deep Purple‘s sizzling Ian Paice and Led Zeppelin‘s towering John Bonham – and yet, he was the most human of all three. His playing was often sloppy and it struggled with some of the faster tempos or more syncopated grooves that Iommi’s compositions and riffs presented. BUT without a doubt he was the best, by a country mile, to air-drum to.

And before you 2012 hipsters start sniggering at the thought of a 1970 15 year old boy air-drumming to Black Sabbath, I want to say that it is reaction to music that makes music fun – and ridiculous reactions, such as air-guitar, air-drumming or singing along to AC/DC on your iPod make it super-fun, and stamp that music indelibly on your soul, often till the day you die. Dancing is not the only reaction to music, and some music draws out no reaction at all. Bill Ward’s playing was just perfect to air-drum to – check his tom fills on 1970’s (yes, that’s 2 great albums within 4 months of each other) Paranoid‘s ‘War Pigs’. Generations know these fills as well as they know the anti-war singalong refrain ‘Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at Black Masses‘. Unlike the regal rock-prince stance of Led Zeppelin or the concert-hall classicism of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath’s music was approachable and more inclusive (and, importantly, kids could actually play this stuff in their suburban garage bands). And Bill Ward’s style and personality had a lot to do with that.

Fans loved him for it, and obviously still do. But that is not entirely the cause of the groundswell of support. It is that Black Sabbath fans around the world want a Black Sabbath reunion to be just that – a reunion of the four original members of Black Sabbath. Sharon Osbourne was initially identified as the evil witch in this scenario (come on, it is Metal, and Sharon does seem to relish the Black Queen role now and again) but it seems she had nothing to do with it. There is silence from all sides as to how the contract presented to Ward was ‘insignable’ – but the consensus appears to be that for the most down-to-earth, no bullshit member of the band to walk away, it MUST have been an absolute iron-clad insult.

Who knows how it will pan out? Obviously, fans will accept nothing else than the original lineup – and i think this is very important. Since the Beatles smilingly destroyed the Sinatra-style solo star in the early ’60s, we have seen our bands as four- or five-headed single entities. It is generally the ‘original’ lineup that we stitch together into one being. And we don’t like it when that being loses a head, or replaces that head with another. The Beatles could never replace a member. Led Zeppelin did the right thing when John Bonham passed away – they split. The Rolling Stones tour without bassist Bill Wyman and it isn’t the same. They replaced Brian Jones after his tragic pool death with Mick Taylor, and then Taylor with Ron Wood – to all intents and purposes becoming a new band each time, stylistically. The Who soldier on without the theatrics of drummer Keith Moon or the dark bass-gymnastics of John Entwistle, which is getting kinda stupid (and faintly arrogant). Black Sabbath themselves have had some truly dreadful lineups over time, alienating fans hugely each time. This time Black Sabbath have moved forward with their album and tour plans by recruiting the drummer from Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Tommy Clufetos in Bill’s place. I am sure Tommy Clufetos (poor bugger, i would not like to be him right now) is a great drummer – maybe he is even technically better than Ward – but that is entirely not the point. Our four headed Black Sabbath is missing a head and we want it back.

  1. Steve Larson says:

    Excellent on all levels. He is the “First Drummer of Metal” as we know it. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Michael Anthony not playing with Van Halen. I hate to see Bass Players and drummers get treated like this. It would be great if every drummer alive in rock music got behind this.

  2. john says:

    she had something to do with it…

  3. Black Sabbath is not Black Sabbath without Bill. The difference between this and other examples is that this reunion was billed as the origional 4 members. Van Halen was not. However, when people die it is more arrogant for fans to say “your career is over, stop” to bands like The Who than for them to say “we are carrying on”. Using the writer’s logic AC/DC should have stopped after Bon Scott died.
    Factual point- Jones was replaced by the Stones after he was sacked, and while he was alive.

  4. johnhardaker says:

    shane, i think i was trying in all of this to understand this great outpouring of outrage over the bill issue. i still think it is true that many have a very soft spot for original line-ups – there are many (myself included) who truly feel that AC/DC with brian johnson is a different band spiritually – excellent of course but not the same. the who lost 2 members who in mind were as important to their sound and spirit as daltrey and townshend – just listen to ‘young man blues’ from ‘live at leeds’ to hear what i mean – to carry on with only daltrey and townshend is almost to say that the who’s music is only daltrey and townshend, which is sure ain’t.
    as to your factual point – yes, you are completely right and i am completely wrong.

  5. Steve Larson says:

    I know the feeling being in a band that doesn’t split the money evenly. It’s frustrating and insulting. Drummers don’t have as much power as the lead singer, usually. Unless that drummer is Neil Peart. Lol.

  6. Michael says:

    It’s nice that you enjoy air drumming alonside Bill Ward’s playing and this is a nice read, but Ward’s playing was never “sloppy” nor did it “struggle to keep up with faster tempos.” If that’s what you hear, you would be well served to dig deeper, because while Ward often played on the edge of reason and possibility, he was locked in a way few have achieved.

  7. johnhardaker says:

    a comment from trish babineau of montreal worth passing on:

    “As a dj in the café downstairs at the legendary Foufounes Electriques club in Montreal, I play a lot of Sabbath; they are one of my favorite bands. Every single time I play one, I look around, and all I see are people air-drumming to Bill!!!”

  8. arnulfo bautista says:

    Michael hits the nail on the head. Bill’s unconventional drumming techniques are rooted in an early love for jazz music. While emphasizing the down beat or just playing slightly behind the up beat, he gave the world a sound that historically was never coupled to rock music. Thus, heavy metal was born. Some also say that this sound also incubated early prog rock. Not fully realized or appreciated until much later.

    No one can play like Bill. No one. Which is why he needs to be on this ‘reunion’.

  9. Steve says:

    Sorry Michael…but…while he had heart and helped to usher in a new wave of heavy metal…it is true Ward was sloppy…and struggled..his fills often fell apart, with lots of rim clicks and missed accents..and bad tempo….

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