Osbourne, Ozzy (1948—)

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Osbourne, Ozzy (1948—)

With his rebellious image as a dangerously extreme rock musician, Ozzy Osbourne became, in the 1980s, one of the foremost creators of the heavy metal genre and one of the era's most outrageous performers. He first came to prominence as the lead vocalist for the British hard-rock group Black Sabbath from 1969 to 1978. Throughout his career, his music has consistently focused on alienation and nonconformity, from "Paranoid" (1970), one of Black Sabbath's biggest hits, to his "Mama, I'm Coming Home" (1991). As a master of overwrought stage performances, Ozzy Osbourne taught other performers how to transform hard rock into theater, continuing in the vein of Black Sabbath, which had employed pseudo-religious images like the upside down cross and pentagrams. He advocated the notion that a modern rock hero should be a troubled, alienated outcast. Of all of his contemporaries, his rebellion against church, family, and convention seems most extreme and genuine. He was one of the most despised, censored, and idolized musical figures of the 1980s.

John Michael Osbourne was born to a blue-collar family in Birmingham, England. He dabbled only in vocal music in his early years while working in local steel mills and engaging in petty thievery. It was during an early prison term that he tattooed the word "OZZY" on his knuckles. His band, Earth, had some local success in the late 1960s, but it was with Black Sabbath that Osbourne would record his first album and tour outside of Britain. Black Sabbath played blues hooks under muddy distortion, topping their often disturbing sound with Osbourne's wavering nasal vocals. Sabbath's first manager is reported to have said, "Black Sabbath makes Led Zeppelin look like a kindergarten house band." Paranoid, its 1970 album, caught the attention of American record executives and catapulted Osbourne and his bandmates to world-class status. As he described it, "When we hit America we were the wild bunch. We bought dope and f—ed anything that moved." Their behavior did nothing to alienate audiences of the time, and Black Sabbath's star rose steadily.

Osbourne left Sabbath at the height of its popularity, blaming his own bouts with depression and a sense that the band was "losing their edge." As a solo performer, he found himself laying the groundwork for the developing genre called heavy metal. Capitalizing on his reputation as a troubled soul, and using album titles like Diary of a Madman (1981) and The Ultimate Sin (1986), Osbourne summed it all up for fans in the opening verse of "Crazy Train," his 1980 hit: "mental wounds not healing, life's a bitter shame /I'm going off the rails of a crazy train."

Ozzy Osbourne spent the 1980s developing an image and personal mythology that placed him on the gothic fringe of heavy metal. He threw raw meat into the audiences, was arrested for urinating on the Alamo, bit the head off of a dove in a record company's office, and in his most publicized antic, bit the head off of a bat on stage. Ozzy's dark songs became targets of the religious right and other groups concerned about negative influences of rock music. He was sued more than once for the negative effects of his 1980 song "Suicide Solution," which Osbourne claims is really about the ill effects of alcoholism. By the 1990s, he was creating a gentler sort of heavy metal, and he eventually faded into the role of tour organizer with his Ozzfest events that tapped into the summer-festival tradition in American music.

—Colby Vargas

Further Reading:

Osbourne, Ozzy. The Best of Ozzy Osbourne. New York, Hal Leonard Publishing, 1993.

Rosen, Steven. Wheels of Confusion: The Story of Black Sabbath. New York, Music Sales Corp., 1997.