October 11, 2021

Hopefully this beautifully put-together reissue will allow this most underrated of Sabbath recordings to finally undergo some long overdue reassessment. It surely deserves it!

There is a certain received wisdom among Black Sabbath fan circles that 1976’s Technical Ecstasy album was an abrupt shift in direction which represents the first dramatic loss in quality following the first six albums, culminating in 1975’s Sabotage. This is usually ascribed to Tony Iommi, as he is portrayed as some kind of desperate platinum-disc seeker scheming to become Fleetwood Mac while the rest of the band lay on the beach near to the Miami studio, unconcerned by these nefarious shenanigans taking place. This to me seems to some extent to be an example of something being repeated as fact so often that it becomes its own ‘truth’ in the minds of many people. Because from my point of view, as someone who bought and loved the original album on the day of its release in 1976, I simply can’t hear the evidence.

Let’s look at some of the damning exhibits claimed by the ‘prosecution’: firstly, the fact that keyboards had suddenly ‘appeared’, with Jezz Woodroffe being drafted in as a support member. This disregards entirely that, not only did Sabotage use keyboards to a significant degree (Thrill Of It All to a massive extent), but also Rick Wakeman and even Ozzy played them on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Changes used a synthesiser as early as Vol 4 in 1972. Exhibit B, your honour – the slightly Beatlesque It’s Alright, sung by Bill Ward and supposedly the first sign of an ‘obsession’ with a more poppy sound. Once again, let me direct the jury to Am I Going Insane on Sabotage, and arguably even Looking For Today on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and also remind the court that Ozzy in particular has always been an admitted major fan of the Beatles. Finally, m’lud, there is the damning evidence of the overwrought string-drenched ballad She’s Gone, complete with anguished Ozzy vocals. Once again, that would make it a logical extension from Changes on Vol 4, and not enormously different from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s instrumental Fluff, either. Claims of one or two more ‘prog’ influences creeping in are essentially illogical piffle, with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage both going strongly in that direction.

To me, some of the negative reputation of this album may well spring from the admittedly dreadful artwork, commissioned by Hipgnosis (who were producing utter rubbish like Obsession and Strangers In The Night for UFO around this time), and depicting what Ozzy would describe later as ‘basically two robots screwing on an escalator’. Sabotage was a rightly ridiculed cover, but there were reasons behind the fiasco of a photo-shoot for that, whereas Technical Ecstasy was commissioned and accepted from supposed market leaders in album design. Added to that was a non-gatefold cover which omitted the best part of the design (the band members’ heads as androids being retooled, used in the programme) and the tactic of including a lyric sheet helpfully printed in red against a blue background, widely accepted to be the most difficult combination to read bar none. That, alone, is the understandable reason for the album being unfairly written off. Thankfully, with this lovingly curated four-disc set, there is an opportunity for the balance to be redressed. Let’s look at the material itself, before coming to the new mixes.

The album kicks off in fine, galloping style with Back Street Kids, Ozzy painting a picture of himself as a ‘back street kid’ of the title, with rock and roll being his only obsession, and going on to express bafflement at how it has led to limousines and big tax bills and the like, reaffirming that he is still that same back street guy at heart. Nice lyrical nods to Hand Of Doom and Changes as well, for the fan (the line ‘writing about the stars’ can also be taken to reference Planet Caravan). It’s a fine opener, although the chorus of ‘Nobody I know will ever take my rock and roll away from me’ does seem to allow for the ever present danger that somebody who Ozzy doesn’t know may indeed, tragically, take his rock and roll away. It’s more ‘bouncy’ than what one might expect from a Sabbath album opener, certainly,but it does seem odd that the similarly upbeat Neon Knights in 1980 received no such criticism when it opened the Heaven And Hell album – maybe the world was beginning to catch up with this Sabbath flavour by then? The second track You Won’t Change Me is at the same time much more typically Sabbath-like with its doomy, slow-paced atmosphere, yet also conversely strikingly original with the supremely atmospheric keyboard work. It’s an unsung Sabbath classic featuring – not for the last time on the album – some spine-tingling Iommi soloing. The divisive It’s Alright is a case in point as to the album finding its place over time, as the initial mauling given to the track at the time has since given way to many people, especially critics, claiming it to be the album’s best song. Closing the original first side of vinyl comes what MAY actually be the best song here, the dramatic, dark and mysterious Gypsy, lyrically and musically captivating with perhaps the most overtly progressive influence on the album, and climaxing with more dazzling Iommi fretwork. This was, by any band’s standards, a great side of vinyl.

Photo: Sam Emerson

The original second side opens in equally fine style with All Moving Parts (Stand Still), a funk-metal edge introduced to proceedings in the swing and groove of the early verses before the tempo kicks up a notch, as Ozzy delivers one of the great Sabbath lines ‘I like choking toys…’ with undisguised relish. This is one track which does show some experimentation and a new approach, but not so much as to sound jarring. It’s different, but it is unmistakably Sabbath. The lyrical content about a corrupt and morally decadent politician could be seen as more relevant than ever in today’s climate, one could argue… Sadly, the one real dud in the set is up next as, following a brief but promising opening sounding a little like an old Mountain track, the leaden-footed Rock And Roll Doctor wheezes its way into proceedings. Driven by a riff so pedestrian as to require a sign banning motor vehicles, the song consists of Ozzy enthusing about going to meet his dealer, the titular ‘Rock And Roll Doctor’ (see what they did there? Stifle a yawn?) to the accompaniment of music as hackneyed as the lyrics. For some reason this monstrosity was played live on the two tours following this, which beggars belief. Still, moving on, as quickly as we can, we get the anguished She’s Gone, which sees Ozzy sounding as if the song is a real cathartic release for him in what is surely the spiritual successor to Changes. He was going through a divorce from his first wife Thelma at the time, so this may have a lot to do with his convincing performance. It’s worth pausing to remember that these were the days when a band like Black Sabbath could (and generally did) include a track like this on an album and most of the time not an eyelid would be batted. Four years hence, by the time Judas Priest released British Steel and Sabbath their own Heaven And Hell with Dio, the metal world had moved on to the point where this sort of composition would likely be greeted with scorn. To my mind, it hadn’t moved on for the better, as the contrasting light and shade afforded by something like this, or indeed Laguna Sunrise, Solitude or Fluff, added a huge amount. Still, it was back to the ‘day job’ for the final song, and the only one to keep a place in the live set following the late ’90s reunion, the classic Dirty Women. It’s another very proggy piece, going through several changes over its seven minutes-plus length, but it never feels like it, as the creepy tension of the opening verses moves seamlessly in and out of the choruses before a mighty riff-driven section, borrowing just slightly from NIB, ups the power, ready for a grand closing section to build into Iommi’s spectacular guitar work to finish. It’s a masterpiece, bringing to a close an album which delivers on the nose seven times out of eight. And I like those numbers.

The first disc here contains a remaster of the original album, which beefs up the occasionally thin and trebly sound of the original to make it much more powerful. Whether this is a good idea, however, is a debatable point, as the second disc gives us a new mix by Steven Wilson, which while bringing out the guitar and vocals at times, and also highlighting some of the previously buried keyboard work, is less of a leap from the already improved remaster. It could be argued that using the original album master on the first disc would have shown Wilson’s work up in markedly greater relief. Regardless of this, however, the latter is still the optimum mix to these ears, even containing an extended (by almost a minute) version of Dirty Women. This is lessened in significance mind you, as much of this turns out to consist of a fade in and out of unaccompanied vocals singing the track title, lifted from the end section. It makes for an ending as oddly left-field as Blow On A Jug from Sabotage, and really it is hard to see the point. The only track not remixed is It’s Alright, and while this is not addressed in the accompanying book, apparently this was because the master tapes could not be located. In order to preserve the running order, a mono single mix is included instead.

The replica programme, alongside its well-thumbed original ‘Big Brother’ from 1977 (photo: Steve Pilkington)

On the third of the four discs we get outtakes and alternative mixes of every track bar It’s Alright, with two of She’s Gone. Some more information as regards which are alternate takes and which are mixes, and when the out-takes were from, would have been nice, but it can certainly be said that these are all effectively finished versions, coming together to form another ‘alternate album’, in stark contrast to the early in-progress takes included with the Vol 4 set. This is a double edged sword, as it gives much more replay value, but less insight for the die-hard into the creative process. How it will strike you will depend on what you like to get out of a disc such as this, that’s for sure. There certainly isn’t any run of several consecutive half-complete songs, as we get with the run of Wheels Of Confusion takes on Vol 4 – but reaction to those takes showed that what is repetitive mental torture to some is a ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ insight into the album creation for others, so it’s hard to get a win-win! Opening with a punchier take on Back Street Kids, it soon becomes apparent that what is most notable about the early out-takes here is the lack of keyboards. This marks out You Won’t Change Me as an alternate mix, as all of the instrumentation is in place including Woodroffe’s significant contribution. Gypsy is a little more stripped-back, and loses some of its impact, but the takes on the second half of the disc carry the most significance. All Moving Parts is clearly from much earlier, featuring as it does some harmonica from Ozzy (wisely dropped for the final recording as it sounds rather jarring) as well as different lyrics in parts, showing it had not yet been finalised. Rock And Roll Doctor is harder and heavier, and works a little better, but apart from the chorus, the rest of the lyric sounds like Ozzy making up words o the spot just to get the melody worked out. There are two versions of She’s Gone, an instrumental mix which sounds very different without the vocal melody (showing Ozzy’s oft-underrated compositional contribution), but the other take is the fascinating one, being a full band version with bass and drums. It has lyrics in place throughout, though they are almost entirely different, though putting across he same message. It’s fascinating to hear, but in the final analysis once again shows they were absolutely correct to get rid of the rhythm section and go with the stark final take. Finally, Dirty Women is a cracking rendition, with some very different guitar work,and lack of backing vocals towards the end – and it gives the final album track a real run for its money. I just wish they had included a few more of Ozzy’s comments and asides before the takes though, as he is often priceless!

Finally, on the fourth disc, we get what many fans will have been really waiting for – the live recording of a show from the tour itself. I was excited yet apprehensive about this material, having attended a gig on the tour myself at the tender age of 15, but I need not have worried as for the most part this is a great recording. There are sound gremlins hampering the beginning of opener Symptom Of The Universe, but these soon resolve themselves and it proves to be well above bootleg quality. There have been complaints on various Sabbath forums about these recordings having been sourced from mp3 as opposed to lossless format, but I have to say that with this sort of lower fidelity material it works perfectly well for me. One pleasant surprise is how well the new material works. Gypsy and All Moving Parts – neither ever played live again following the tour – are both fine renditions, with Gypsy particularly successful, including some wonderful echo effects applied to Ozzy’s voice. Dirty Women is also excellent. It’s also good to hear Electric Funeral in the set, albeit slightly truncated, and I am certain the worryingly titled ‘track’ Drum Solo And Guitar Solo has been edited down more than somewhat to its compact and manageable three and a half minutes. The show isn’t complete, missing Rock And Roll Doctor and Paranoid (neither particularly missed) but also NIB and Iron Man, which were played at most shows at that time. It’s a fine recording though, and for those who don’t collect bootlegs, the first time we’ve had the chance to hear that tour documented.

Of course, as with the other reissues in this series, the packaging is top class. The mainly white (makes a change from black) box contains a 64-page hardback book crammed with memorabilia and alternate album and single illustrations, as well as a lot of fascinating text with insights from all four members, from the time and also later, as well as a poster and a replica of the original tour programme. Still having the original programme, I can confirm that this is an exact replica, right down to the vintage advertising – with the sole exception of an ad for Pernod which has been removed from the rear cover! Hopefully this beautifully put-together reissue will allow this most underrated of Sabbath recordings to finally undergo some long overdue reassessment. It surely deserves it!

Note that the set is available on vinyl as well as CD, with the same content, but obviously a bigger box and consequently bigger versions of the book and the replica programme. Both are excellent, with the choice entirely down to the buyer’s own audio listening preference.