There are pranks like the old whoopie-cushion under the bride’s chair, and then there’s Bill Ward being hospitalised on multiple occasions style pranks. If practical jokes inherently flirt with crossing the line, then Black Sabbath drove over it with a bulldozer when it comes to the stunts that they pulled on drummer Bill Ward.
Firstly, imagine, if you will, being a busy A&E doctor run off of your feet, exhaustedly approaching the end of your shift, when a man is raced through the door at break-neck speed lacquered head to toe in gold paint like some barely animated version of an Oscars statuette? That is the fate that one poor beleaguered doctor met with thanks to the wild antics of Black Sabbath back in their hell-raising heyday.
The group’s guitarist Tony Iommi told The Guardian back in 2016, “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.”
They sprayed the entirety of Ward’s body at close range with the golden coating, without any due forethought for how that might not be medically recommended. Then, from a sober perspective, the inevitable happened, “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.”
Whilst covering someone from head to toe in paint can’t necessarily kill them in the Bond villain-esque way that is often purported in the back rooms of pubs, it can cause some hellish problems with heatstroke as the paint covers your body’s pores, thus preventing you from cooling. This issue is only exacerbated further if the paint is aggressively applied by a group of drunken lunatics, whilst you yourself are far from your fighting fittest. Furthermore, the practice becomes very problematic indeed if the paint is Acrylic. Acrylic paints may contain ammonia, formaldehyde and heavy metals, all of which are highly dangerous if ingested.
Naturally, it would be bad enough if that was the only near-fatal run-in that Ward endured at the hands of the band. Black Sabbaths metal pioneering ways might have represented an incendiary attack on the mainstream, but it was in keeping with their ethos in a very literal sense, as the band had a penchant for setting people on fire if indeed you can call such a habit a penchant, a court of law might argue that it is more akin to GBH or attempted manslaughter.
“It was our party piece,” Iommi recalls regarding the flaming of Ward, “which always worked until the last time we did it,” as is generally the case with these things. 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. However, Lucifer should have been the last of his worries when it came to the combustible heathens he had on his hands, who were surely not quite cordial enough for hell.
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 kibosh 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.” And in a tragic lament of missing those sanguine days of setting your friend on fire, Iommi concludes through glossy eyes, “I still speak to him, but we tend to email. I can’t paint him gold by email. We had some great fun.”
Perhaps the most bizarre tale of all comes from Iommi’s book, in which he recalls an incident whereby after a brief sabbatical from mercilessly pranking Ward, the drummer approached him and earnestly asked if everything was alright? In fact, it can be argued that Ward himself had a penchant for being the butt of the jokes like some sort of fourth Stooge without the production crew on standby to ensure the jokes land safely.
It wasn’t only Iommi who was involved. After partaking in narcotic based activities, an incident occurred that allegedly led to Ozzy Osbourne attempting to poison his bandmate with an aerosol can and the drummer’s own penis. This particular anecdote is from 1972 when the band were living in a mansion in Bel Air which was dominated by cocaine, so much so that they originally planned to call the album they were working on as Snowblind. However, they instead had to compromise and go for the more family-friendly title of Vol. 4.
Reflecting on this period in the band’s history, Ozzy Osbourne once detailed the incident as part of his 2010 autobiography I Am Ozzy, noting: “For me, Snowblind was one of Black Sabbath’s best-ever albums—although, the record company wouldn’t let us keep the title, ‘cos in those days cocaine was a big deal, and they didn’t’ want the hassle of a controversy.” Osbourne revealed a coke-fuelled prank he attempted to pull on Ward whilst they were urinating next to one other, saying to Rolling Stone some years later: “I see this aerosol can and squirt his dick with it. He starts screaming and falls down. I look at the can and it says, WARNING: DO NOT SPRAY ON SKIN – HIGHLY TOXIC. I poisoned Bill through his dick!”
However, in his autobiography, he would remember the incident a little different and tried to rewrite history by painting himself in a more innocent light. He wrote: “One day, Tony gets this can of blue spray paint and sneaks around the other side of the railing, and when Bill starts pissing over the railing, he sprays his dick with it. You should have heard the scream, man. It was priceless. But then, two seconds later, Bill blacks out, falls headfirst over the railing and starts rolling down the hillside.”
He then added in a comic tongue: “Ah, he’ll be all right,’ I said. And he was, eventually. Although he did have a blue dick for a while.”
This supposed perversion to being pranked also came to the fore in an Iommi interview with Guitar World in which he recalls, “Bill and I were in the studio rehearsing one day and out of the blue I asked him, ‘May I set you on fire, Bill?’ And he said, ‘Well, not now, not now.’ And then I forgot about it. Later on, when the day ended, he said to me, ‘Well, I’m going home now; you still want to set me on fire or what?’” Naturally, Iommi adhered to this parting begrudged behest and set the beleaguered drummer aflame. “He was wearing these polyester pants,” Iommi continues, “so they burned really quickly and he was on the floor screaming and crying. I could not help him because I was so busy laughing. It actually turned out to be quite serious. I felt really bad for him. He was sent to the hospital. Later on, his mother called me on the phone and said, ‘You barmy bastard, it’s about time you grew up. Our Bill is going to have his leg off.’ But things like that always happened to Bill.”
Quite how such an incident can be described as “things like that” is anyone’s guess, but in the mad and condemnably dangerous underworld of Black Sabbath, it would seem reality takes on a different form.