Ozzy Osbourne’s Speak of the Devil album (or Talk of the Devil if you’re in the UK) is the black sheep of his discography, having been disowned by the singer as a contractual obligation, and generally disliked by his fanbase.
Featuring a setlist entirely made up of songs from Ozzy’s former band Black Sabbath, it was released in late 1982 and featured Brad Gillis on guitar, a short 8 months after the death of guitar wizard Randy Rhoads in a plane crash. A live album featuring Rhoads was in the plans but following his death, Ozzy didn’t want to cash in on the tragedy (is that the last documented evidence of wife/manager Sharon Osbourne NOT cashing in when there’s an opportunity?) and quickly recorded this replacement album to placate the record company. Why he chose to record Sabbath songs is anyone’s guess; he had kept touring after the accident, first briefly with Bernie Tormé who left and was replaced by Gillis, using the same setlist he’d used since going solo, so there was material for a true solo live album. One possible reason is that Sabbath was about to release their first live album, Live Evil, featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals, and they figured people would prefer the original singer.
Rhoads’s neo classical style was far away from Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, and he had put his own stamp on the handful of their songs the band played, but Gillis went even further and brought a purely 80’s shredder approach to the material. Now, this was very different from the thundering doom and gloom of Black Sabbath. One major difference was that Ozzy’s band played in standard tuning instead of Sabbath’s Drop-C#, which robbed the songs of a lot of their heaviness. The frequent use of pinch harmonics, whammy bar dives and shakes was also in stark contrast to Iommi’s soulful blues soloing. Ozzy’s in fine form vocally (that is to say he doesn’t struggle more than usual on the high notes) and seems genuinely happy to revisit this material.
So in the eyes of many fans, all these deviations from the sound of the fathers of heavy metal were unacceptable sins. Speak of the Devil is sacrilege committed on the altar of true metal. But you know what? I absolutely love this album. And I’ll make a confession right here: it was the first time I heard all these Sabbath songs, and it took me a long time to warm up to the originals. Even today, after being a Black Sabbath fan for more than 30 years, this album still resonates with me. Except for one thing: who told him he’d look evil with jam in his mouth? Even back then I thought that was daft.
I got this album (on cassette) from the Columbia House Club. Remember that? As a broke teenager, it was hard to resist the lure of 12 albums for a penny. So I ordered all the cool metal albums whose videos I loved on TV. In addition to Speak of the Devil, I ordered Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz and Bark at the Moon, along with Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil, Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith and Scorpions’s Love at First Sting. This was a great time to discover new music!
There’s a lot of things to love about this album. First is the sense that Ozzy’s having the time of his life. The whole band brings a certain joy to the material that, yes, is incongruous with dark, heavy music coming from the working class of Birmingham but serves to remind us of how great these songs are. This is an album that is perfectly of its time.
The setlist is also excellent, a mix of Sabbath staples coupled with lesser known tracks (I doubt Sabbath will pull out Never Say Die or Symptom of the Universe on their summer tour). I learned many of these songs on guitar using these versions; to this day I have a hard time playing Paranoid without all the additional riffs during the verses (which were from Randy Rhoads’ arrangements). But I’ll take Iommi’s solo any day. Tommy Aldrige is also inspired on the drums, providing the driving force behind the material.
Ozzy’s stage raps also introduced me to the existence of legendary venues like the Fillmore East, and his multiple “God bless you all” became expected anytime I heard these songs.
So are these versions replacements for the originals? No way. Black Sabbath’s opus stands as the foundation of heavy metal, and still sounds menacing today. But Speak of the Devil offers a fun, energetic take on the material that still brings a smile to my face, and makes me want to bang my head. It can’t be all that bad if that’s the case.
Maybe the best version ever of Symptom of the Universe:
I used to listen to this version over and over. I mean I’d rewind the tape as soon as it finished!
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