Graded on a Curve:
Ozzy Osbourne,
Diary of a Madman

Ozzy Osbourne almost bit my earlobe off during an interview once. One minute we were talking about Master of Reality and the next he was lunging across the table to take my left ear—an easy target seeing as how I suffer from Meniere’s Disease, which causes radical enlargement of the earlobes—and shaking it, while growling like an angry Rottweiler. It was like a scene straight out of Dostoevsky, to be precise the moment in The Devils when Nikolai Stavrogin bites the governor’s ear. Anyway, I cried “Mercy!” as he literally lifted me out of my chair and led me around the room, my earlobe clenched in his slavering mouth. He finally let go and apologized afterwards, but offered no explanations. Then again, what can you expect from the guy who once said, “Off all the things I lost I miss my mind the most.” I consider it an honor.

Okay, so the above never happened. (I feel obligated to say this because in another article I swore my adolescent skull secreted sperm, that’s how horny I was, and a few folks actually wrote to tell me this was impossible. Duh.) But the Ozzy earlobe biting could have occurred. He once ate the heads off two live doves, and famously bit the head off a dead bat on stage, an act that led him to quip, “I got rabies shots for biting the head off a bat but that’s OK—the bat had to get Ozzy shots.” And then there’s the time he thought it would be a good idea to snort fire ants. In short, in Ozzy World, biting off a journalist’s earlobe would be child’s play.

I love Ozzy’s work with Black Sabbath, but have always avoided his solo stuff, although I love “Crazy Train.” Why? Because after being fired by Black Sabbath in 1979, one would have expected Ozzy to continue in the grand Sabbath tradition of releasing records filled with songs so monolithically slow and heavy they sounded like mammoth King Tiger tanks grinding up unlucky Poles. But Ozzy took a radically different path. His solo albums were lighter, in fact almost dainty; compared to the relentless eardrum-pummeling crunge of Black Sabbath they sounded spritely, bouncy even. In short, he gave up mastodon metal for regular old metal, which in that time and place was as much about hair spray as it was gargantuan guitar wank. If Sabbath’s albums are pig iron, Osbourne’s solo LPs are aluminum, and I for one wasn’t crazy about Ozzy’s transformation from Iron Man to Tin Man.

Osbourne released his first solo LP, Blizzard of Ozz, in 1980. It featured the great “Crazy Train,” which showed off the talents of former Quiet Riot guitarist Randy Rhoads, and was followed in 1981 by Diary of a Madman. At that point the band consisted of, in addition to Osbourne and Rhoads, bassist/lyricist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake, both formerly of Uriah Heep, and depending on whom you believe, Johnny Cook or Don Airey on keyboards. (In a 2002 reissue of the LP, Daisley and Kerslake’s bass and drum parts were replaced, leading to fan anger and lots of finger-pointing at Ozzy’s wife Sharon, who presumably performed the foul deed out of Lady Macbeth-like spite towards Ozzy’s former band mates.)

The reason Ozzy’s solo albums differ so greatly from those of Black Sabbath can be summed up in two words: Randy Rhoads. Whereas Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi played riffs heavy enough to pulverize concrete, Rhoads played a far flashier guitar with neoclassical flourishes that led one critic, obviously not a fan, to describe Rhoads as “a junior-league Eddie Van Halen.” The results were a perkier sound, one with pizzazz and more in touch with the hair metal gestalt. The songs produced by solo Ozzy are more search and destroy missions than slow, grinding panzer assaults, and if I prefer the latter, the former have their pleasures.

Take “Over the Mountain,” the opening track of Diary of a Madman. It opens with some big and fast chug-a-lug guitar, includes some cool keyboards, and boasts a guitar solo by Rhoads that I personally find too fancy-pants for its own good. What, is he channeling Bach? And if this is the sound Ozzy wanted, why didn’t he bring in Glenn Gould on piano? But despite these reservations the song works as a slice of likeable metal, in large part because when Rhoads isn’t soloing he’s making like an out-of-control locomotive or playing great fills, and the rhythm section is as tight as Ebenezer Scrooge. The peppy “Flying High Again” works too—even if it does remind me of a Van Halen tune—thanks to more great rhythm work, Ozzy’s declarations that he’s been a “bad bad boy,” and the ever-busy contributions of Rhoads on guitar. So what if his classically inspired solo reminds me of something I would expect to hear in a concert hall rather than at a rock concert? Otherwise he’s the pure rocket fuel that gives this V2 of a song its thrust.

“You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll” opens on a slow note, with Ozzy singing while Rhoads plays some oh-so-sensitive guitar, before the band kicks in with some mid-tempo verses and fast choruses, during which Ozzy declares rock and roll his religion, which makes the two of us. Airey or Cook produce some nice backing keyboards, and the second chorus is followed by a fantastic Rhoads solo that is, praise Satan, more sound and fury than showboating neoclassical wank. “Believer” opens like a slower Van Halen, and Rhoads produces some gargantuan chords that give Iommi some competition. I can forgive Ozzy for singing about “chasing the rainbow,” and even the “you’ve got be to believe in yourself” brouhaha he spouts, because who knows: maybe it led some glue-sniffing teen in Texarkana away from a life of hoodlumism and into the mortuary business, where he is a productive member of society. But my chief problem with this song is that it’s too static; it goes nowhere, unlike “Little Dolls,” which unfortunately is a dead ringer for a Van Halen tune. The main guitar riff, the melody, the backing vocals; “Little Dolls” is a definitely a case of imitation being the highest form of flattery. That said Ozzy’s vocals are great, and Rhoads avoids the overly flashy guitar histrionics that sometimes make him sound like a Van Halen clone.

“Tonight” is that ultimate fall from grace, the power ballad, and it’s lucky it’s pretty and has a cool chorus or I’d write it off as undiluted bad juju. Black Sabbath wouldn’t have touched this song with a ten-foot pole, and not even Rhoads’ comely guitar solo (and the wilder one that follows) can save “Tonight” from its status as standard hair metal chick bait. I don’t want the guy who bites off bat heads to have a sensitive side, and speaking as a front man who used to pour hot wax and cheeseburgers down his pants I feel betrayed, but he does, and I guess I’ll have to put up with it. “S.A.T.O.” is more like it, a hard-driving metal tune that pushes it way through your earphones to sucker punch all those little bones in your inner ear. Rhoads’ guitar is pure adrenaline, and I don’t hear any dead composers in it, which helps make the song my kind of metal. He’s still showing off, but he’s throwing punches, and not flirting with Mozart. As for “Diary of a Madman,” I like it because it’s (a) the title of a great Nikolai Gogol short story and (b) thematically pure Ozzy, and if I’m not wild about its beginnings (more sensitive as a daisy guitar noodling by Rhoads) it quickly goes metal in a big way, although the verses are relatively quiet. Rhoads plays some big guitar leading up to a quiet passage, after which Osbourne sings some more about his poor mental hygiene, and then Rhoads comes back in and this time he’s not fooling around, and plays the best guitar solo on the album. “Diary of a Madman” even includes a string arrangement—roll over Black Sabbath—as well as a choir of uncredited singers. This is not good. Sure, they take the song out on a swelling note, but unfortunately it’s one that makes me think more of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” than it does the self-proclaimed “Prince of Fucking Darkness.”

Rhoads died tragically after Diary of a Madman, but with him or without him I will remain ambivalent about Osbourne the solo artist because, unlike Black Sabbath, which were playing a totally unique kind of metal, Ozzy’s solo works sound a lot like other metal bands. Ozzy’s presence as a front man made his bands unique, but their music is standard issue, and that’s a big difference. Black Sabbath were pioneers; Ozzy was following the trends. But you still gotta love the guy. Heck, I’d love him if the only thing he ever did was contribute the insane laughter that opens “Crazy Train.” I even forgive him for almost biting my earlobe off. After all, I have two of them. And the Ozzy shots didn’t hurt as much as I thought they would. In short, the world would be a poorer and less insane place without him. Bite on, Ozzy, bite on!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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  • Bleaked

    Thanks for doing this. The Donald Situation will be thrilled! And you’re dead right about the solo in “Over the Mountain.” What the hell was that? I like the riff, though. Dah Na Na, chugga chugga chugga chugga chugga chugga Dah Na Na, chugga chugga chugga chugga Dow Now!

    • Michael Little

      I like the riff too. I think Randy just needed to sit down with a 13-year-old and take some lessons. And you’re welcome!

  • Bleaked

    Donald read the first paragraph and laughed out loud. “Did Ozzy really bite Uncle Mike’s ear?” he asks.

    • Michael Little

      Oh that’s great. Seriously, that’s one of the highlights of my writing career. Thanks to you and Donald for making my day.

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