The front row at a recent Black Sabbath tour stop offered the seminal hard rock outfit a glimpse of the future. At the head of the crowd: a 5-year-old boy and his father rocking in tandem to the band’s pounding Gothic rhythms.
“I thought that was pretty wicked, to have this young kid bopping away with his dad there,” singer Tony Martin said with a laugh, calling from a Chicago hotel.
Martin was a bit worried that the boy might cushion a fall by one of the euphoric stage-divers who greet Sabbath’s every gig on this tour, which arrives tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre with guests Motorhead and Morbid Angel.
The band is crossing those kinds of generational boundaries these days, after more than two decades as towering metal heroes and critical pariahs.
Black Sabbath’s reputation rests on its creation of such roaring rock anthems as “Iron Man” and spawning the career of founding vocalist and rock funnyman Ozzy Osbourne. But the British rockers are now also cited as a key influence on such new grunge-masters as Nirvana.
“On the road, a lot of bands are coming up and saying, ‘Without you, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be playing,’ ” said guitarist Tony Iommi, who founded the band with his Birmingham, U. K., schoolmates Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler in 1968. “That’s a great feeling, to know that you’ve done something and made somebody’s life better.”
The current tour ultimately takes the band to Japan and Europe, and offers fans a mix of songs from Sabbath’s new “Cross Purposes” album, with material spanning the band’s grinding repertoire. That’s because Martin, who joined in 1987, wanted to mark his fourth world tour with the band by demonstrating “the fact that Sabbath has got a lot of history, and it is well worth putting it out there.”
The new album is the band’s third for IRS Records and follows a short-lived reunion in 1992 with singer Ronnie James Dio, who replaced Osbourne in 1979 before leaving for his own solo career a few years later. The latest break between Dio and Sabbath came last year with the band’s decision to perform with Osbourne at a special onetime concert in Costa Mesa. Dio was invited to participate, but refused.
For the others, Iommi said, the show was a pleasant reunion of the band’s original members, who had last performed together in 1985 at the Live Aid benefit. And soon Osbourne suggested embarking on a full tour together, then a live album, followed by a possible new studio album.
“After eight months of negotiations, everybody agreed to do a tour. We signed our deal and sent it to Ozzy’s office,” Iommi said. “Then we got a fax back from Ozzy’s office saying, ‘I’m not ready to do it yet.’ And that was it.
“I still don’t know the reason really because I haven’t spoke to Ozzy since, for some reason. We’ll see in the future.”
Martin didn’t appear to mind all these reunion projects with other singers and even encouraged the Osbourne reunion. That original lineup had performed at one of the first concerts he’d attended as a youngster in Birmingham.
And while Sabbath recorded its “Dehumanizer” album with Dio in 1992, Martin recorded a distinctly non-metal solo album called “Back Where I Belong” with Queen guitarist Brian May and such elements as a gospel choir and horns. The album was released on Polydor last year in Europe.
“It’s very English rock, Eric Clapton-type stuff,” Martin said. “That’s what happens when I sort of write by myself.”
For all his metal history, Iommi considers himself a fan of everything from Frank Sinatra to the hardest of rock (although none of “that techno stuff”), as long it is played well. He survived a mid-'80s creative crisis that had him questioning the direction of his music, ironically at the height of that decade’s metal explosion, to finally lead the band toward its third decade.
“I’ve been through a lot of ground over the last 25 years, and you’ve just got to believe in what you do and stick to it,” Iommi said. “Over the years, there have been record company people and management saying, ‘Why don’t you try a different sort of music?’ In 1983, they tried to get us to make some singles. And we’re not really a singles band. You can only write what you believe in.
“The band has always meant such a lot to me, and it’s been a major part of my life. I put everything I can into the band. I enjoy it a lot more now. I take things a little lighter, but I’m still concerned with what we do. I’m really having a great time.”
WHERE AND WHEN
Who: Black Sabbath with Motorhead and Morbid Angel.
Location: Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza.
Hours: 8:15 tonight.
Price: $17.50 to $25.
Call: (818) 980-9421.