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Never Say Disc: Ozz to See the Blizzard

This year both the blog's founders have turned or will be turning 40, and Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career is celebrating similar milestones, with 2021 being the 40th anniversary of both the US release of his debut solo album Blizzard of Ozz and the worldwide release of its follow-up, Diary of a Madman. We reviewed Black Sabbath's debut album around this time last year for its own 50th anniversary as the first installment of our “Never Say Disc” segment, and it’s only fitting to follow it up with a post on the former Sabbath singer’s first solo efforts. In the future, we'll probably take a look at Dio's early solo work as well. Before then, and when our obsession with dice games allows for it, we hope to cover other artists, genres and topics. But first, we’re off to see the Blizzard… - A

A Side:

My copy of Blizzard of Ozz has been played so many times that I didn’t really need to do another listen before starting this post (even though I did anyway). It was one of the first CDs I purchased myself, and it rotates steadily through my collection. It’s fortunate I know it so well, because there’s the question of “which version do you go to?” This is more a problem with Diary of a Madman, since there isn’t one single version that I’m most familiar with. Fans of Ozzy’s solo career have to deal with the issue of the (controversial) replacement of Bob Daisley and Lee Kerslake’s original bass and drum tracks on the 2002 reissues of both albums. Or do you avoid that problem by going with the 30th Anniversary releases, which contain the original recordings plus bonus tracks? I prefer to go with the originals, myself - the way they were meant to be (and were first) heard.

One does wonder, though, would all the famous controversies have even happened if the band was never presented as “Ozzy Osbourne” and had gone instead by the original name “Blizzard of Ozz?” I’m sure this was ultimately a marketing decision, but it could have changed the course of everything. Most certainly, Ozzy’s career would have been very different if this had been the self-titled album of a new group. Even at a glance, the title immediately invokes Ozzy’s assumed name without centering it. Digging only slightly deeper, you get the reference to The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps this band/album will take you into another world, much more colorful than this one? It’s not a wizard though, it’s a blizzard. Perhaps something to wake you from your dreams like Glenda does for Dorthy and the crew. Or maybe it’ll make you Snowblind…  Diary of a Madman finally solidified the change, though. Obviously it’s Ozzy’s own diary and he’s flying high again after his departure from Sabbath.

No matter what you call the albums or the band, they’ve given us some classic songs. The obvious stand-outs from Diary of a Madman are “Over the Mountain” and “Flying High Again.” Blizzard of Ozz brought us the controversial songs “Suicide Solution” and “No Bones Movies” as well as classics like “I Don’t Know,” “Goodbye to Romance” and “Crazy Train.” These albums also brought Randy Rhoads to the forefront, even if his life was cut so tragically short. We can at least appreciate some amazing guitar solos from Rhoads - the  instrumental “Dee” was even played at my wedding reception. His guitar work can be appreciated for generations to come on these albums, and for that we should all be thankful.

It is hard to picture Ozzy’s career without these people, songs and albums. Who knows where he would have ended up without them? Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman can take you through a musical journey through Ozzy’s life, much like delving into the fantasy world of a D&D game. In the end, just as with his work with Black Sabbath, I am reminded  that this is why both fantasy games and heavy metal appeal to me. Both can take us to a different world, if only for a short time, together… even if we’re apart. I hope they mean something just as important to you. Don’t look at me for answers, though, I don’t know.

B Side:

 I can only imagine what listeners familiar with Black Sabbath thought when thy first heard Blizzard of Ozz, different as it is from both Sabbath's classic period in the early '70s and the album Heaven & Hell they had released with Ronnie James Dio on vocals five months prior to Blizzard. (Although fans who stuck with Sabbath through the less-regarded Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die got some hints of the direction Osbourne would take his vocals.) Even today it feels like something of an oddity - while I certainly don't agree with the "modernization" of the 2002 version (and consider myself one of the very first saps to be fooled, thankfully the store let me exchange it for the earlier edition the next day), I can understand the reasoning behind it. It's not a record that fits into any category neatly. It is simultaneously heavy and poppy, with a guitar sound closer to fuzzed-out garage rock than than the thick solidity of Judas Priest, or Black Sabbath for that matter - different enough for Randy Rhoads to be cited in "Worst Guitar Tone" lists even today. It prefigures both pop-metal and shred guitar styles that were just around the corner, but Ozzy's trademark flat vocals have little in common with the over-the-top singers of the next few years and create an instant dichotomy with Rhoads's showy technique. The closest comparison might be to early Van Halen, but Ozzy presents himself as a grumpy old man in comparison to David Lee Roth's free-wheeling hedonism, albeit through a "been there, done that" survivor's sensibility rather than conservative moralizing ("No Bone Movies," excepted, of course, but even that is a reflection on the same compulsive behavior behind "Suicide Solution" directed toward a different vice). Even the songs themselves are full of contradictions -  it's often pointed out how much the opening of "Crazy Train" sounds like a completely different genre than the rest of the song, and "Mr. Crowley" abandons its air of mystery for a rising, upbeat (and jaw-dropping) solo at the end, with Rhoads throwing in enough off-the-cuff melodic motifs to start a whole new album.

Ultimately, Blizzard of Ozz is an inversion of Sabbath's general approach, emphasizing melodic lead parts where the band had foregrounded their formidable rhythm section, and openly flaunting the rock'n'roll boogie Sabbath had (mostly) kept to their underlying foundation. Tonally, there's a complete reversal: Sabbath presented nihilism and gloom up front, but ultimately longed for peace, love, and a better world. On Blizzard, Ozzy is openly joyous and having a blast, layering laughter and his stage calls of "yeah!" and "come on!" throughout the record - quite a change from the anguished "oh nooooo" that punctuated the opening track of his old band's debut. But at the center of this is a sense of sad frustration, that the past shows little hope for the future, and the best we can do is try to discourage each other from our more harmful behaviors. "Maybe it's not too late / to learn how to love / and forget how to hate," he sings, but the emphasis is on the first word, and it certainly doesn't seem to enough to get the "Crazy Train" we're all trapped in back on its rails. 

All of these contradictions, of course, help keep Blizzard of Ozz timeless, and, aside from some synthesizer cheese, very little feels dated. Diary of a Madman sounds far more consistent, likely due to the band's seasoning and a hurried recording schedule. Ironically, while it was known by that point they were Ozzy's backup band rather than a new collective group, Diary feels more like a concerted team effort, with Rhoads and Daisley assembling tighter arrangements that flow together better than the "whatever seemed like a good idea at the time" quality of Blizzard. The lead parts are better integrated and feel less like they're small separate songs of their own. While this results in a technically superior record, it's also somewhat less memorable despite being the absolute peak of Rhoads's considerable abilities. It's also less thematically schizophrenic than its predecessor, which presented its ideas as directly as bumper stickers. Aside from the fairly direct "You Can't Kill Rock and Roll," it's hard to tease out what these songs are about. Flight and magic imagery blend into (drug-induced?) horror and madness - it feels about as distinctive as the generic haunted house set on the cover. Is "Little Dolls" about a serial killer, hard drugs, or both? All classic themes that Ozzy has sung about before, but with nothing specific standing out to latch onto - further raising Rhoads's profile, with his guitar work defining each song's personality.

It's almost impossible to hear either of these records today without the shadow of Randy Rhoads's death hanging over the experience. Except for the very earliest fans (Rhoads died a year after completing recording Madman), he will always be one of those tragic artists whose image is trapped in amber, leaving generations to speculate how he might have developed or even what he might have done. It's notable that what soured his relationship with Ozzy is something that would come up time and again, on both sides of the divide: the significance of one's own work versus the legacy of the singer's old band. (In 1992, Ronnie James Dio would quit Sabbath following his own reunion with them because he refused to be the opening act for Ozzy's (supposed) retirement concerts.) Quite simply, Rhoads was unhappy about the plans for Speak of the Devil, a live album of Black Sabbath songs that would allow Osbourne to coup publishing royalties following the expiration of the band's old contract. (Sabbath's Live Evil was recorded with Ronnie James Dio for the exact same reason, and there was pressure to get Ozzy's album out first). Rhoads had put a lot of time into the new music and a distinctive sound, it must have been heartbreaking to be told all that had to be shelved for Osbourne's financial gain. And while things were patched enough for him to agree to play on the record, he was insistent that he would quit immediately afterwards. Of course, he died before any of this could happen, and Speak of the Devil took on a very different quality than originally intended, signifying a back-to-basics approach in the aftermath of Rhoads's death.

We don't know what Randy Rhoades would have done had he lived, but it probably wouldn't have been with Ozzy in any case. And Ozzy's own career became somewhat static from that moment, never really defining new musical territory again and relying on his image and legacy from then on, rather than distinctive, new material. Neither would ever grow or develop beyond that point. More than anything else, then, these records signify the importance of the fleeting moment, the immediate present, of life and what it can offer. Death is the final fixative, closing off possibilities and potential - in many ways, even for the survivors. But Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman present us with raw talent and limitless potential, all the more significant because it was cut so short. It's a wonderful thing to have these records in my live, to inspire me to keep flying high, over the mountain.

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