On October 30th, 1998, Black Sabbath delivered the ultimate Halloween flavoured treat for a national audience in one fell swoop. The nightmarish chow down came when Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward made their first television performance in 22 years on The Late Show with David Letterman. Unlike many reunions of this ilk, it actually lived up to the hype.
The seeds for Sabbath’s reunion came about in the summer of 1997 when Iommi, Butler and Osbourne reunited to co-headline the Ozzfest tour alongside Osbourne’s solo outfit. The line-up featured Osbourne’s drummer Mike Bordin filling in for Ward.
“It started off with me going off to join Ozzy for a couple of numbers,” Iommi later explained, adding: “And then it got into Sabbath doing a short set, involving Geezer. And then it grew as it went on. We were concerned in case Bill couldn’t make it—couldn’t do it—because it was a lot of dates, and important dates. The only rehearsal that we had to do was for the drummer. But I think if Bill had come in, it would have took a lot more time. We would have had to focus a lot more on him.”
Then, finally, in December 1997, the group were, at last, joined by Ward which marked the first reunion of the original quartet since Osbourne’s 1992 so-called “retirement show”. This lineup recorded two hometown shows at the Birmingham NEC, which was then released as a double album Reunion on October 20th, 1998 and reached number eleven on the Billboard 200 before going platinum in the US.
“We hadn’t played together in 20 years or so,” Osbourne said to Pop Culture Classics in 1998 about the reunion. “We’d done jams here and there, at Live Aid or whatnot. It was kind of all right. We had two shows in Birmingham to prove ourselves. The first night, the press there wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. The second night was phenomenal. You can hear it on the album. It was just absolutely fantastic,” he lovingly added.
In the same interview, the Birmingham native revealed how their comeback came about after so many years in the rock wilderness, “We had tried for so long. We had all tried to get together on our own,” Osbourne recalled. “But in the end my wife said to me again in the last year, ‘What do you want to do about this Sabbath thing?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know what? You’re my manager. I’m your artist. I’ll say yes and you take it from there.’ And then she came back and said, ‘They’ve all agreed to do it.’ And I said, ‘Fine.'” Ah, don’t you just love fairytales?
It was an incredibly special moment as they performed on national television for the first time in 22 years and performed a pounding rendition of ‘Paranoid‘ which still sounded absolutely thumping.
Bassist Geezer Butler, who wrote the lyrics, explained the meaning behind ‘Paranoid’ whilst in conversation to Mojo in 2013: “Basically, it’s just about depression because I didn’t really know the difference between depression and paranoia. It’s a drug thing; when you’re smoking a joint you get totally paranoid about people, you can’t relate to people. There’s that crossover between the paranoia you get when you’re smoking dope and the depression afterwards.”
‘Paranoid’ is a barnstorming anthem which set Sabbath apart from the acts who were taking up attention in the mainstream. When it was released in 1970, it cemented their position as pioneering outsiders who were carving out their own unique sound rather than following trends, they were setting them. The performance on Letterman still sounded incredible, almost 30 years after it was released and hearing ‘Paranoid’ when it was released must have been a life-affirming experience for thousands.