Remembering when Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi set Bill Ward on fire after a prank goes wrong
Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi was a serial prankster in the head days of the band’s initial stardom. Alongside Ozzy Osbourn, the band were famed for their chaotic behaviour but sometimes it veered off the road of fun and went down a more dangerous path.
One particularly crazy event once saw Sabbath’s guitarist Iommi set his drummer and bandmate Bill Ward on fire after a prank went wrong. It would be yet another close call in the band’s risky career.
Black Sabbath’s career is an iconic one. Alongside almost single-handedly inventing heavy metal with songs like ‘War Pigs’, the group were also notorious for two other things; their penchant for partying and their insatiable delight in pranking their bandmates and touring party.
Being on the road for much of their career the group spent hours and hours bored out of their brains. It’s likely the reason for both the drugs and jokes they regularly shared with one another. Iommi in particular was a prankster extraordinaire and was regularly the mastermind behind one tale or another.
Iommi spoke with The Guardian in 2016 where he shared some of the more serious moments he picked on drummer Bill Ward. One moment saw Iommi pick up a gold paint tin and go will, turning ward into a shiny Oscars statue. “We were staying at John DuPont’s house in Los Angeles, the bloke who owned DuPont paint products. We found all this paint in the garage and were all pissed, so thought it would be fun to paint Bill gold from head to toe.”
The guitarist may have started the prank as a joke but things suddenly got a lot more serious, “He started having convulsions. The ambulance people gave us a right bollocking: ‘You idiots! You could have killed him.’ They gave him adrenalin and we had to use paint stripper to get it off. He looked like a beetroot by the end.”
It may sound serious but somehow it wasn’t the most dangerous prank the band played. Sabbath were also keen on setting people on fire, namely, Bill Ward, “It was our party piece,” Iommi confirmed, “which always worked until the last time we did it.” The last time was in front of Martin Birch, the producer who was at the time a little wary of working with the notorious (and allegedly Satan-worshipping) band.
Iommi remembers: “Bill says – in front of Martin – ‘Are you going to set fire to me then, Tony?’ I tipped rubbing alcohol over him. Normally it just burned off but this time it soaked into his clothes, so when I lit it he went up like a bomb. He was rolling on the floor, shouting and screaming. I thought it was part of the joke, so I poured more stuff on him. Martin couldn’t believe it. We had to get an ambulance for Bill.”
The seriousness of the situation has put the kaibosh on any further pyrotechnic pranks for the guitarist, “He’d got third-degree burns. I felt bloody awful. We still play jokes on each other. Not quite as severe as that. I learned my lesson.”
It’s one of those crazy stories that if you had heard it from the mouth of anyone but Iommi you surely wouldn’t believe it. But if there was one band who have a “party piece” which included setting a member on fire, it was always going to be Black Sabbath.