35 Years Ago: Black Sabbath Completes ‘The Eternal Idol’ Amid Total Chaos
Tony Iommi can be forgiven for not remembering 1987 in complete detail. He was using a large amount of cocaine, but there was also an incredible amount to remember – and some of it didn’t make much sense.
It’s surprising that Black Sabbath’s 13th album The Eternal Idol came out of such a bewildering time.
Iommi was the last man standing of the original lineup – singer Ozzy Osbourne had been fired in 1979, drummer Bill Ward faded in and out before finally departing in 1984, and bassist Geezer Butler wandered off around the same time. Iommi intended 1986’s Seventh Star to be his solo debut, but his label insisted on using the Black Sabbath title. So, when the follow up began to take shape, Iommi kept keyboardist Geoff Nicholls, future Kiss drummer Eric Singer and bassist Dave Spitz aboard. Glenn Hughes had moved on, so vocalist Ray Gillen was hired for the new project.
Manager Don Arden was facing some legal issues, so Iommi re-installed Patrick Meehan – despite his own misgivings. “I know it was a stupid thing to do,” Iommi wrote in his 2011 memoir Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath. “The people who surrounded me were trying to rip me off anyway, so my thought was, it might as well be someone I know and who might do something for me while he's about it – the devil you know. It's all a bit vague now because it was a period when I was back into doing a lot of coke again.”
Perhaps predictably, everything “went pear-shaped immediately,” as Iommi found himself surrounded by “nice people, but dodgy people.” His six-week stay in a London hotel was supposed to be free, but wasn't because it didn’t actually belong to Meehan, as Iommi had thought. A man involved in the disputed transaction “turned up dead … burned to death!” Then Iommi was handed a steep bill by the hotel owners. “Another Meehan special,” he reflected.
Work on The Eternal Idol continued against that backdrop. “When we jammed … Ray would always sing just anything, but when it came to doing the actual songs, he didn’t come up with many lyrics,” Iommi said in Iron Man. “It’s difficult if the singer can’t come up with his own stuff, but I think the biggest problem with Ray was that he got carried away with the stardom. He went a bit wild.”
Iommi was also increasingly aware of an age difference within the band; at times, he and Nicholls simply felt “ancient.” Singer and Spitz “were a great little team. They loved to play and would try stuff all through the night. They were always energetic, and that was good for me as well,” Iommi said. “Ray was only 25. It was like he and Eric and Dave were novices; they hadn't worked for it like everybody else who has been in the game a long time. They had come along – and just like that they could go out and say: ‘I’m in Black Sabbath.’ … It didn’t feel the same any more.”
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Meehan made plans for the band to set up base at George Martin's Air Studios complex on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Iommi sailed from Antigua to Montserrat on Meehan’s luxury boat, which encountered a storm so serious that some of the crew admitted they’d never seen one like it. “I survived, but I swore I’d never get on a boat like that again,” Iommi said.
On arrival at the six-bedroom house Meehan had rented for him, Iommi was left alone in the dark during a power outage. “I didn't have a torch or anything, and I couldn’t go next door because there wasn’t a next door,” he recalled in Iron Man. “I started thinking somebody might have cut the power so that they could come and stab me and cut my throat! I was praying for the morning. Everything returned to normal, but I hated staying in that house on my own, stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
Seventh Star producer Jeff Glixman arrived on Montserrat to join the team, but the arrangement didn’t last. Former Sabbath engineer Chris Tsangarides came in to finish things, but then Spitz left. Bob Daisley, who’d earlier worked with Osbourne, took over on bass. “I had never really worked with Tony before, but Tony’s great,” Daisley said in 2021. “I love his playing, his writing, his sound. Everything that he plays is a classic riff. They’re just pouring out of him – and they’re not just throwaway riffs. They’re all really, really good, valid riffs, and to build songs around those riffs was great for me, and I enjoyed it.”
Still, things were about to get worse. Iommi was signing paychecks for the band under Meehan’s direction, but the money wasn’t getting through. “The old con,” Iommi said. He believed this lack of cash then led to Gillen’s departure. Iommi's new frontman was soon followed by Singer, who went with Daisley to join Gary Moore’s band. Finally, Meehan departed too.
Iommi decided to return to London, where the issue of finding a new vocalist was resolved when an old friend suggested Tony Martin. “Tony came into the studio without having had any warning or anything to sing on some of the tracks we’d written with Ray in mind,” Iommi reported. “He sang some of the stuff similar to Ray, following some of the melody lines that we had already recorded. He did really well, so we replaced Ray’s vocals with Tony’s voice.”
The record “was already written and all the melodies were already there,” Martin subsequently recalled. “Actually, that was good for me. They said, ‘Don’t change anything. Don’t try to write any lyrics or anything. Just do what’s already done.’ Geoff Nicholls said they couldn’t really change it after they’d spent so much time and money on it.”
The Eternal Idol “turned out alright,” Martin argued. “It was like, ‘Phew, thank God that’s over with.’ And then almost instantly I was on the road and playing with a band that had carpet on the stage: Only really big bands have carpet on the stage! So it was like a complete sudden immersion in a world I knew nothing about.”
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Iommi owned up to more “ridiculous” episodes. The video for Black Sabbath’s lead single “The Shining” featured a stand-in guitarist miming bass. Clash drummer Terry Chimes subbed in the promo, then went on to play with the group on a tour of South Africa. The track “Nightmare” was written for the soundtrack to Nightmare on Elm Street, but Meehan demanded so much money from the producers in one of his final acts that the deal had been dropped. “I would’ve loved to have done that,” Iommi admitted.
The cover art for The Eternal Idol was another unforgettable experience. Meehan suggested an image based on a statue by Auguste Rodin – a French sculptor who Iommi admitted he’d never heard of. “We went to this photo shoot where we had two people done in bronze paint,” Iommi said. “They stood there for bloody hours having their photos taken.” The scene brought to mind an earlier mishap when Black Sabbath covered Ward in gold paint, leading to a medical emergency: “They may well have ended up in hospital, because that’s what had happened with Bill when we painted him. You just can’t cover parts of the body up like that.”
Released in November 1987, The Eternal Idol only reached No. 186 on the Billboard 200. Critical estimation of the project, however, has continued to rise. Some fans now consider this the best Black Sabbath album that didn’t feature Osbourne or Ronnie James Dio. “It’s nice to think that people are supportive of what I did,” Martin later admitted, “but at the time these voices were not very loud. It was a hard time in Sabbath so I am glad that my era is recognized.”
For Iommi, keeping Black Sabbath together at this point was comparable to running the factory where his working life began. “If somebody leaves, you don't close down the factory, you replace him,” Iommi said. “It wasn't as cold as that, actually: I always looked to find somebody who could replicate a friendship as well, but I never found that. I was certainly never able to replicate the friendship the original four guys in Black Sabbath had. It was the same with the line-up of Heaven and Hell, with Ronnie. You can't find that again. You think you can, but you never do.”
The age gap also became an issue for Martin during the tour that followed. “They’re hanging out with Ian Gillan and Brian May, and I’m hanging out with Fred down the road. I couldn’t communicate with them on any single level. They had 20 years experience [on] me,” Martin said. “I kind of got used to it, but I never resolved it. It must have been like having a younger brother that you don’t like, tagging along – but they liked my voice and I was cheap.”
There was one final insult, after The Eternal Idol tour ended. Martin stopped by Iommi’s house, where he ran into the gardener. “He shouted, ‘Hey, Tony, your new album, the Eternal Idiot – I fucking love it!’” Martin recalled. Dumbfounded, he and Iommi asked one another: ‘Did he just call the album The Eternal Idiot?’ And it stuck!”
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