Originally published on Forbes.com.
Ozzy Osbourne sold 100 million albums worldwide as a solo artist and as a founding member of Black Sabbath. He was a television star and sat comfortably on the throne of his (and his wife Sharon’s) own making. Yet he still dreamed of a greater feat. “I suppose the one ambition I have left,” he wrote in his bestselling 2009 memoir, I Am Ozzy, “is to get a number one album in America.”
His ambition was realized last week as Black Sabbath’s album, 13, debuted in first place on the Billboard chart.
Black Sabbath formed in 1968. Their first album, released in 1970, was a landmark event that spawned an entire musical movement: heavy metal.
Yet Black Sabbath was originally a twelve-bar blues band with jazz influences that happened to write scary songs and play “at eight hundred times the volume of a jazz band,” according to Osbourne. What audiences latched onto were the dark lyrical themes, scary vibe, and the heaviness. And as their career progressed, they became attached to that slice of their identity as well.
Any small business first starting out goes through this process of figuring out – with each other and with their first customers – who they are and how they are different from their competitors. The result of that figuring out is a blueprint of the company that defines its way of doing things.
From their first album onward, the Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath had their blueprint: Tony Iommi’s heavy guitar riffs and distinct playing style (a result, in part, of two amputated fingers), Osbourne’s singing and anything-could-happen onstage madness, and sinister lyrical content exploring themes of death, war, and the occult. Another key element in their blueprint was their camaraderie, gained in part by growing up within a few streets of each other in working class Aston (near Birmingham) and a democratic songwriting process that was driven by mutual respect for what each person contributed to the fold.
But by the time Osbourne left the band in 1979, that blueprint no longer guided Black Sabbath.
We know from research that when a company tries to change its blueprint, the company’s performance suffers. As Dr. Heather Vough, a professor of management at McGill University who writes about identity processes in small companies, told me, “Founders’ values and identities set the tone for their organization that persists across time. Certain values become taken-for-granted beliefs about what the firm stands for and why it exists. These beliefs are shared by insiders as well as external stakeholders. Research has shown that if these values change, especially early on, the organization can become destabilized and has a greater chance at failure.”
Why would Sabbath change anything? Because they had a run of hit albums. As Osbourne wrote, “We were terrified of becoming one of those bands who started off with a few albums that people thought were amazing, only to follow them up with one turd after another.”
Success made Black Sabbath forget who they were. They lost their direction. In his memoir, Iron Man, Tony Iommi remembers bassist and chief lyricist Geezer Butler telling him, “We’re a bit old hat now with all these riffs and stuff.” The band didn’t believe in themselves anymore. They became obsessed with what other bands were doing. They were trying to imitate their imitators. What’s more, they were burnt out from years of intense work, they had financial and legal troubles brought on by bad management, and they were tired of each other. Something had to change.
Black Sabbath decided that Ozzy Osbourne was the band’s problem, and in April 1979, he was fired.
As with the departure of a key founder in any company, Osbourne’s exit called Black Sabbath’s identity into question. Was Black Sabbath the heavy riffing and dark lyrics or was it Ozzy’s melodies, vocal delivery, and ominous stage presence? Although the band had the law on their side, for many stakeholders, Black Sabbath without Osbourne was not Black Sabbath. And, despite doing well with other singers, Black Sabbath eventually wanted him back. “Reuniting with Ozzy has always been like some kind of holy grail to Tony and Geezer,” said long-time Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio, “After every album and every tour they start talking about getting back with Ozzy.” He became the mythological ex.
Eventually, aided by the passage of time and both sides proving they could be successful without the other, reunion efforts began in earnest. By 1996, an Ozzy Osbourne-fronted Black Sabbath was headlining Ozzfest.
“Throughout the years we remained friends,” Iommi wrote about Osbourne. From an interpersonal standpoint, the split in 1979 had not been acrimonious, which meant that the reformed Sabbath didn’t have too many animosities to repair. Momentum was building for making new music together, but all sides were apprehensive.
Osbourne came back to Black Sabbath for the same reason that Steve Jobs came back to Apple and Larry Page came back to Google. They returned to restore the company to its original vision, it’s original blueprint, the original “soul,” as Starbuck’s Howard Schultz said when he came back to the lead the company he founded. But was putting the original members of Black Sabbath in a room together enough? As the years went by, the answer appeared to be “No.”
Enter Rick Rubin, the band whisperer. Rubin is the comeback expert who resurrected Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Metallica, and ZZ Top. Rubin guides artists back to their blueprint. “The great thing about Rick,” said Brad Wilk, who was the drummer on 13 (original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward did not participate in the reunion because of contractual disputes), “is that he’s really good at getting the best out of you, getting the best out of your performance, and getting the best out of the song itself.”
Rubin and the band discussed their vision of the album and decided to go back to their original vibe, the way they sounded at the beginning of their career. Which meant giving up on some of their current practices, like overlaying multiple guitar parts. “We talked about a mission statement of what we were trying to accomplish,” said Rubin. “And then they would write songs and play them for me and say, ‘Do these fit in the boundaries of what we’re going for?’ And more often than not they did.” The resulting album, according to Butler, “is not heavy metal, it’s more hard rock – how we started out.”
Through their “mission statement” and Rubin’s unflinchingly honest feedback, Black Sabbath rediscovered their blueprint. And the reason fans love 13 is because it sounds like Black Sabbath.