It was in autumn 1978, almost 40 years ago, that ‘Never Say Die!’ came out. It was the last classic Black Sabbath album for many years. This is the story…

The eighth album from Black Sabbath – and the last with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals after thirty-five long years together with the band – came out on 28th September 1978. Black Sabbath were supposed to deliver a new record to Vertigo, one they had started working on straight after the disappointing ‘Technical Ecstasy’ in ’76. And there was a new singer in the line up too: Dave Walker, who had made a name for himself in Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac. All because their famous front-man had gone off the radar.

Ozzy Osbourne’s father, Jack, was dying in 1977, and the singer, already a wreck thanks to his alcohol and drug addiction, vanished for three long months. «The fact is that we didn’t even notice, really – Tony Iommi once told an English journalist – because, around that time, we weren’t in the best shape ourselves. But we just thought that sooner or later, he’d come back to the fold». He did.

The band was already behind schedule on the new album and so they decided to recruit Walker (there is even a rare recording of him appearing on the television programme Look Hear! in a broadcast on 6th January 1978). And then, a few weeks later, Ozzy suddendly came back…

The Madman had a few simple demands to make: they were to scrap the tracks written with poor old Dave (so the jazzy ‘Breakout’ came out as an instrumental and the final track ‘Swinging the chain’ is sung by drummer Bill Ward) and start work on the new album from scratch. The band moved to Canada (to Sound Interchange studios in Toronto) and the album was a wrap by May, just as the British tour kicked off.

Noa Yannì, Noaink, Montecatini Terme, Italy
Noa Yannì, Noaink, Montecatini Terme, Italy

In retrospect, ‘Never Say Die!’ gained something in terms of the impact of the sound. «We used to write during the daytime – recalls Iommi – in a freezing, empty cinema. And we would record at night, complaining about how awful the studio was in terms of acoustics. Basically, it was a race against time».

The punky fury of the titletrack (one of Sabbath’s great minor tracks) is the result of these emergency conditions, and it was followed by other great numbers like the experimental ‘Johnny Blade’ (with Don Airey’s synth fusing with one of the most intense solos ever composed by Iommi) and ‘Air dance’ heavily featuring jazz piano. And then there’s ‘Junior’s eyes’, a survivor of the sessions with Walker with the lyrics completely rewritten in honour of Ozzy’s father.

Nikko Hurtado, Black Anchor Collective, Hesperia, USA
Nikko Hurtado, Black Anchor Collective, Hesperia, USA

When it came out, ‘Never Say Die!’ disappointed many Sabbath fans (it was too different from masterpieces like ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Master Of Reality’ not to mention ‘Vol. 4’ and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’). In England it did reasonably well but in the States it immediately plummeted to number 69 and would take nineteen years of word of mouth to go gold. Ozzy realised it was really all over this time and left the group for good on 11th December 1978, on a Monday, after a lacklustre concert in Albuquerque. The Madman would make it all up live in studio thirty-five years later, in 2013 when they recorded the excellent ‘13’. His love of performing with Iommi and Butler, his old pals, had never really gone away. As the song says, never say die…