Rock music, like anything, hinges on circumstance. In many cases, the incidents that have unfolded into legend may not have occurred if the stars had aligned slightly differently. Indeed, there are several other universes at play, in which a variety of alternative scenarios play out.
Imagine a world where Paul McCartney walked out on The Beatles to work in a factory, as per his father’s suggestion? Picture a universe where Roger Taylor abandons Queen to play with Peter Gabriel and Genesis? And then there’s another portal where Noel Gallagher takes a moment to breathe, reflect, before joining his Oasis bandmates onstage for a brilliant show in Paris.
Well, one scenario almost became a reality, and had it taken off, we may never have heard Black Sabbath or even heavy metal. In an interview with Far Out, Ian Anderson discussed working with Tony Iommi, a guitar player who had left his burgeoning Birmingham outfit, to work with Jethro Tull.
“Well, Tony came in to mime to a pre-recorded backing track on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” Anderson recalled. “Tony’s approach to music rather struck me, because everything was very clear cut, the chords were simple fifths; they were very ambiguous. His melody lines could weave around and dictate whether something was a major, or a minor, or a seventh, or any other interval. Melodically simple and transparent way of making music. He was a great solo guitarist, and could play quite fiery guitar solos. I was intrigued by his sound- he was obviously not a blues guitarist. What it was, was really a precursor to heavy metal, so he came by invitation, and we started playing together in a studio. I don’t want to call it ‘an audition’, because it was a bit of mutual exploration to see if a symbiotic relationship might evolve out of that.”
While it didn’t snowball into something grander than a one-off performance, Anderson holds nothing but admiration for the Birmingham born guitar player. “At the end of a few days, we probably both decided that it wasn’t going to work, because some of the songs I was writing were partly a little more complex, as I only discovered at the last minute, Tony was finding some of these things difficult to play,” Anderson explained. “The way I was playing them, and showing them on the guitar…what the chord sequences were…they were due to his physical limitations because of an industrial accident, but rather like Django Reinhardt, it didn’t stand in his way. It actually helped him develop a unique style, and laid down the foundation of everything you could call ‘heavy metal’. Tony was the man: Tony was the prime moving force. It inadvertently became a genre of music. But he wasn’t in Jethro Tull in the sense that he didn´t perform with us outside that point.”
In a strange parallel with Anderson, Iommi is the only person to perform on every Black Sabbath album, and much like Anderson is with Jethro Tull, Iommi serves as both the band’s musical director and custodian. Judging by the interview with Anderson, it sounds like both parties benefitted from the amicable parting of ways, but the flautist is right to label Iommi “the man.”
He may not be the most technically accomplished of guitar players, but he did single-handedly create a genre by himself. Known for their fast freneticism and plodding guitar licks, anthems ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Paranoid’ captured a movement that was pivoting away from the happy-go-lucky charm of the ’60s into something more sinister sounding and denser.
Black Sabbath were arguably the first mainstream band in which the guitarist took centre stage. As if recognising his place, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne sang from the side of the stage, while Iommi stood in the middle, those power chords rising in the air.
Sometimes, it’s better to enjoy the rock stories we have, and not focus on the alternate dimensions. And with Jethro Tull and Black Sabbath, audiences got to enjoy two formidable groups who added to the spectacle, lexicon and genre of rock.
Stream the performance of Iommi and Jethro Tull below.