We all know that Tony Iommi is one of the titans of metal, but at one point, things could have been much different. In September 1968, Iommi nearly swapped his leather jacket for the waistcoated fusion of Jethro Tull during a time he was playing in Earth, Black Sabbath’s early form.
After Earth played a show with Jethro Tull, the opportunity arose in which original Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams was fired. Weirdly, Abrahams had been dismissed mid-set after a series of handwritten messages were passed between the band whilst on stage. After the show, Iommi was asked by the band if he would be interested in joining them.
Iommi was unsure at first, and being the ever-humble man that he is, asked Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler what they thought. To his surprise, they responded with: “You should go for it!”, and so, Iommi did. He got back in touch with Tull, and told them that he’d take the job.
However, things then took a turn for the surreal. Iommi turned up to rehearsals expecting to get right into it, but there were “50 other guitar players there”. Thinking that he was wasting his time, Iommi headed straight for the exit. However, on his way out, one of the band members of the Nottingham blues group, Ten Years After, who Iommi hasn’t named, caught him and said: “Don’t go, they really want to hear you, go and sit in the cafe across the road”.
Rightly, Iommi was furious, feeling as he’d been duped into a previously unannounced audition-type scenario. Reflecting on the incident later, Iommi recalled that there were some “well known” guitar players who sat alongside him. Regardless, he waited in the cafe until they came and fetched him. He played, and was offered the job. With success falling into his lap, Iommi took the opportunity but couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d let his friends down.
Not wanting to turn his back on his old bandmates, when the time came for Iommi to travel to London to rehearse with Tull, he took Geezer Butler with him. Butler sat at the back of the room whilst they rehearsed, and Iommi thought, “Oh, this is terrible”, and after a while, he realised that he’d made a mistake: “They were different,” he later explained. “We (Earth) were all together and had a bit of a laugh and fun; it was different for them.”
The bands were antithetical in their approach. The final straw for Iommi was when they went for a lunch break in a cafe, and that frontman Ian Anderson was sat apart from the rest of the band. Iommi was told by the other three band members that Anderson didn’t like sitting with other people. He thought that attitude was “strange”, and his mind was made up. He told Anderson, “It’s really not the sort of thing that I thought it would be” and that was it.
However, Iommi did make one dint in popular culture with Jethro Tull. He appeared as part of the band for The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus, but after that, he was gone. He reunited with Earth in November 1968. Despite the disappointment, it wasn’t all bad for Iommi. Professionally, it taught him a lot, and ironically, Tull’s strict method of working was something that he would take back to Earth and Black Sabbath when they renamed themselves in 1969. Filming with The Rolling Stones, Iommi met The Who, John Lennon and other enormous stars of the time, and it galvanised him, giving him a clear idea of how things “could be”.
Of his short working relationship with Ian Anderson, Iommi said: “I learned quite a lot from him, I must say. I learned that you have got to work at it. You have to rehearse. When I came back and I got the band (Earth) back together, I made sure that everybody was up early in the morning and rehearsing. I used to go and pick them up. I was the only one at the time that could drive. I used to have to drive the bloody van and get them up at quarter to nine every morning; which was, believe me, early for us then.”
He explained: “I said to them, ‘This is how we have got to do it because this is how Jethro Tull did it.’ They had a schedule and they knew that they were going to work from this time till that time. I tried that with our band and we got into doing it. It worked. Instead of just strolling in at any hour, it made it more like we were saying, ‘Let’s do it!'”.
Thank goodness Iommi decided to return back to Earth.