Whether rock and roll has been your entire life or you’ve just stumbled into the world of warbling cultural warriors matters not when considering the legendary status of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. As known for their penchant for powder as their era-defining jams, Sabbath are a band that knew how to party. Flick through the annals of music history, and you’ll find yourself swamped with stories of the band’s misdemeanours. Paying a little more attention to the subtext, one will also note an underlying theme to most of their early escapades; cocaine.
The question that will likely always puzzle fans of such narcotics-driven bands is a simple one: how do they keep the supply coming in? Apart from any apparent notions of their money and clout, it’s a head-scratching puzzle that most roadies of the 1960s and ’70s would have had to figure out. Black Sabbath, however, were professionals, and they soon worked out the perfect system.
The band from Birmingham were famous for their love of narcotics. Perhaps only surpassed in consumption of the Colombian powder by The Eagles, the rumour is that the band spent more money on cocaine while making their seminal LP Vol. 4 than they did on laying the actual tracks. The record cost the band $60,000 to make, but they allegedly spent around $75,000 on cocaine. They loved the drug so much they even penned an ode to cocaine, titled ‘Snowblind’.
Ozzy Osbourne even confirmed that they had initially wanted to title the album Snowblind: “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.”
Clearly, cocaine still constitutes a “big deal,” but earlier in the 20th century, being caught for the possession of the drug, to the extent that the band were taking it, could have been devastating.
The possible destruction of the band didn’t seem to phase the members of it, however. Tony Iommi, Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward all partook, in some form or another, in the recreational activities and, as their dependency grew, the need to keep the supply coming in on tour grew ever more present. In truth, the band themselves weren’t sure how they got their hands on so much of the drug, as Osbourne confirms in his autobiography I Am Ozzy: “Eventually we started to wonder where the fuck all the coke was coming from. All we knew was that it arrived in the back of unmarked vans, packed inside cardboard boxes. In each box, there were about thirty vials — ten across, three deep — and each one had a screw-on top, sealed with wax.”
It was a serious operation, and the band also had an ingenious way of getting the drug across borders by using their equipment. The band created fake amplifiers that they stashed coke in and delivered them across the world as part of their touring set-up. It would ensure that their supply was always healthy and go undetected by the authorities.
Osbourne remembers the band’s stay at 773 Stradella road, in Bel Air, saying: “We never left the house. Booze, drugs, food, groupies – everything was delivered. On a good day, there’d be bowls of white powder and crates of booze in every room, and all these random rock ‘n’ rollers and chicks in bikinis hanging around in the place.”
“It would be impossible to exaggerate the amount of coke we did in that house,” continued the singer. “At one point we were getting through so much of the stuff, we had to have it delivered twice a day. Don’t ask me who was organizing it all – the only thing I can remember is this shady-looking bloke on the telephone the whole time. I once asked him ‘What the fuck do you do, man?’. He just laughed and fiddled nervously with his aviator shades. At that stage I didn’t care, as long as the coke kept coming.”
Of course, as every single tale of debauched dealings with cocaine will confirm, things never stay high for too long and, sooner or later, you have to come down. For Black Sabbath, the comedown coincided with the breakdown of their relations and the end of the band as their initial line-up. Osbourne would go way off the rails and start his solo venture while the rest of Sabbath continued to flirt with living dangerously. As Osbourne neatly surmises: “The coke was good when it was working. We used to sniff and jam for days, recording everything on big spools of tape. But it was the beginning of the end. Cocaine was the cancer of the band.”