How Black Sabbath Completed ‘The Eternal Idol’ Amidst Total Chaos

Tony Iommi can be forgiven for not remembering 1987 in complete detail. He used a large amount of cocaine, but there was also an awful lot to remember – and some of it didn’t make much sense.

It is surprising Black Sabbath13th album The Eternal Idol came out of such a confusing time.

Iommi was the last man in the original lineup – singer Ozzy Osbourne had been fired in 1979, drummer Bill Ward faded in and out before finally leaving in 1984, and bass player Geezer Butler wandered about at the same time. Iommi intended the 1986s Seventh Star to be his solo debut, but his label insisted on using the Black Sabbath title. So as the follow-up began to take shape, Iommi kept keyboard player Geoff Nicholls in the future Kiss drummer Eric Singer and bassist Dave Spitz on board. Glenn Hughes had moved on, so vocalist Ray Gillen was hired for the new project.

Manager Don Arden faced some legal issues, so Iommi reinstated 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 surrounding me were trying to tear me off anyway, so I thought it might as well be someone I know who might do something for me while he’s at 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” when Iommi found himself surrounded by “nice people, but risky people.” His six-week stay at a London hotel was supposed to be free, but it 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 on that basis. “When we were jamming … Ray would always sing whatever, but when it came to making the actual songs, he didn’t come up with a lot of lyrics,” Iommi said in Iron Man. “It’s hard 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 by the stardom. He got a little lost.”

Iommi was also increasingly aware of an age gap within the band; at times he and Nicholls simply felt “ancient”. Singer and Spitz “were a great little team. They loved to play and try things all night. They were always energetic, and that was good for me, too,” Iommi said. “Ray was only 25. It was like him and Eric and Dave were novices; they hadn’t worked for it like everyone else who has been in the game for 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 anymore.”

Listen to Black Sabbath’s ‘The Shining’

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 yacht, which encountered a storm so severe that some of the crew admitted they had never seen anything like it. “I survived, but I swore I would never get on a boat like that again,” Iommi said.

Arriving 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 neighbor,” he recalled in Iron Man. “I began to think that maybe someone had cut the power so they could come and stab me and cut my throat! I prayed for morning. Everything returned to normal, but I hated staying in that house alone, stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

Seventh Star producer Jeff Glixman arrived in Montserrat to join the team, but the arrangement did not last. Former Sabbath engineer Chris Tsangarides came in to finish things off, but then Spitz left. Bob Daisley, who had previously worked with Osbourne, took over the bass. “I had never really worked with Tony before, but Tony is amazing,” Daisley said in 2021. “I love his playing, his writing, his sound. Everything he plays is a classic riff. They just pour out of him—and they’re not just one-off riffs. They’re all really, really good, valid riffs, and that building songs around these riffs was great for me and I enjoyed it.”

Still, things were about to get worse. Iommi signed payroll for the band under Meehan’s management, but the money never came through. “The old scam,” Iommi said. He believed that this lack of cash then led to Gillen’s departure. Iommi’s new frontman was soon followed by Singer, who joined Daisley to join Gary Moore‘s band. Finally, Meehan also left.

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 any warning or anything to sing on some of the tracks we had written with Ray in mind,” Iommi reported. “He sang some of the things that sound like 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 tunes were already there,” Martin subsequently revoked. “Actually, it was good for me. They said, ‘Don’t change anything. Don’t try to write any lyrics or anything. Just do what’s already been done.’ Geoff Nicholls said they couldn’t really change it after spending so much time and money on it.”

The Eternal Idol “was fine,” argued Martin. “It was like, ‘Whew, thank God, it’s over.'” And then almost immediately I was on the road playing with a band that had carpet on stage: Only really big bands have carpet on stage! So it was like a complete sudden immersion in a world I knew nothing about.”

Listen to Black Sabbath’s ‘Nightmare’

Iommi owned up to more “ridiculous” episodes. The video for Black Sabbath’s lead single “The Shining” featured a stand-in guitarist mime bass. Clash drummer Terry Chimes took part 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 was dropped. “I would love 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 Iommi admitted he had 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 and had their pictures taken.” The scene recalled an earlier mishap when Black Sabbath covered Ward in gold paint, leading to a medical emergency: “They may well have ended up in the hospital, because that’s what happened to Bill when we painted him. You just can’t cover parts of the body that way.”

Published in November 1987, The Eternal Idol only reached No. 186 on the Billboard 200. However, critical assessment of the project 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 support what I did,” Martin later admitted“but at the time those voices weren’t very loud. It was a tough time on the Sabbath, so I’m glad my era is being recognized.”

For Iommi, keeping Black Sabbath together at this point was comparable to running the factory where his working life began. “If someone leaves, you don’t close the factory, you replace him,” Iommi said. “Actually, it wasn’t as cold as that: I was always looking to find someone who could also replicate a friendship, but I never did. I was certainly never able to replicate the friendship that 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 difference also became a problem for Martin during the subsequent tour. “They hang out with Ian Gillan and Brian May, and I hang out with Fred down the road. I could not communicate with them on a single level. They had 20 years of experience [on] me,” Martin said. “I kind of got used to it, but I never got it right. It must have been like having a little brother who you don’t like tagging along – but they liked my voice and I was cheap.”

There was a final insult, after The Eternal Idol trip ended. Martin passed Iommi’s house, where he ran into the gardener. “He yelled, ‘Hey Tony, your new album, the one Eternal idiot – I love it!’” Martin recalled. Stunned, he and Iommi asked each other: ‘Did he just call the album The Eternal Idiot?’ And it stuck!”

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