October 7, 2015

The Sound of Hammers

British popular culture has maintained an influence over the world long after the decline of the British Empire, from Bond and the Beatles to Catherine Cookson and Coronation Street, from Harry Potter, heavy metal and Kate Bush to Damien Hirst, Downton Abbey and Grand Theft Auto.

In The Great British Dream Factory, historian Dominic Sandbrook looks at the strange, diverse and wonderful creative industries that have sprung up in Britain since the end of empire. In this extract, we find out about the unlikely beginnings of the Black Sabbath guitarist’s unusual playing style…

“We came from Aston. There wasn’t a whole lot of flowers being handed out.”

‘Geezer’ Butler, bassist and songwriter of Black Sabbath, interviewed on Heavy Metal Britannia, 5 March 2010

One Friday afternoon in 1965, Tony Iommi chopped off his fingers. It was his last day at the sheet-metal factory, and he was just back from his lunch break. Normally he worked as a welder, but the woman who operated the giant steel press next to him was away, so that morning the foreman had put him on the machine instead. Even years later, Tony could still remember the wobbly foot pedal that he had to press to bring the great guillotine slamming down on the sheet of steel. He had never used it before, but the morning went well enough. At lunchtime he went home – he was, after all, only 17 – and told his mother that since it was his last day, he might as well not bother going back for the afternoon. She was not impressed. ‘You want to go back and finish the day off, finish it proper!’ she said. So back went Tony, dreaming, like so many teenagers in 1965, about being on stage, guitar in hand, thrilling the crowds beneath the lights. He was still daydreaming when he sat back down at the machine, pushed on the pedal and brought the full weight of the steel press down on his right hand. Instinctively he pulled his hand away, and to his horror he caught a glimpse of the ends of his two middle fingers, just sitting there on the machine. Later, when he was in hospital, someone from the factory thoughtfully brought the severed fingertips over in a matchbox, but by this time they had turned black.

Up until the point he cut his fingers off, Tony Iommi had enjoyed a typical working-class upbringing in inner-city Birmingham. Born into an Italian family in 1948, he grew up in a world that was poor by twenty-first-century standards, but was far more comfortable – affluent, even – than what had gone before. For the first few years, he lived above his grandfather’s ice-cream shop. Later, after his parents had bought a little grocery shop of their own, they moved to Aston, which he remembered as ‘an awful, gang-infested, rough part of Birmingham’.

Tony’s real joy was music. Like so many of the pop and rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s, he came from a musical family, and his father and his uncles loved to play the accordion. For Tony, however, the supreme pleasure lay in retreating to his bedroom and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg on his little radio. His favourites were Cliff Richard and the Shadows; as a keen amateur guitarist, he liked them much more than Elvis or the Beatles. When he was sixteen he joined a local band called the Rockin’ Chevrolets, who wore red lamé suits and knew all the Shadows’ songs by heart. By now he had left school: never a very keen pupil, he worked first as a plumber’s assistant, then in a factory, then in a music shop, and finally at the sheet-metal works. In fact, he quite liked the sheet-metal works. ‘I enjoyed working in the foundry,’ he recalled, many years later. ‘It was hard work but it was rewarding. I became quite good as a welder. It was as noisy as hell with all the crashing of the metal, the hiss of the steam and the sizzle of the welding. Real heavy metal.’ But then he was offered the chance to join a much more professional local band, the Birds & the Bees, who had been booked on a tour of Europe. For a teenager who dreamed of copying the Shadows, it was too good a chance to turn down. And then, on his last day at the factory, he cut the ends of his fingers off.

At that point, his musical career might have been over. But it was the factory manager, whom Tony remembered as ‘an older, balding man with a thin moustache called Brian’, who saved him. Visiting him in hospital one day, the manager handed over a Django Reinhardt record and told him to put it on. ‘This guy plays guitar,’ the manager remarked, ‘and he only plays with two fingers.’ Tony did as he was told. ‘Bloody hell,’ he thought, ‘it was brilliant!’ And if Django could do it, then so could he. Against his doctor’s orders, he tried playing with bandaged fingers, but it was impossible. So he fell back on the skills he had learned during his short spell at the steel factory:

“I got a Fairy Liquid bottle, melted it down, shaped it into a ball and waited until it cooled down. I then made a hole in it with a soldering iron until it sort of fitted over the finger. I shaped it a bit more with a knife and then I got some sandpaper and sat there for hours sandpapering it down to make it into a kind of thimble . . . Then I found this old jacket of mine and cut a piece of leather off it . . . I cut it into a shape so that it would fit over the thimble and glued it on, left it to dry and then I tried it and I thought, bloody hell, I can actually touch the string with this now!”

Even decades later, after he had become one of the best known rock guitarists on the planet, Tony Iommi still used the same technique, only using prosthetic thimbles made especially for him. He even used pieces from the same old leather jacket that he had first ripped up in 1965. ‘There isn’t much of it left now,’ he wrote more than four decades later, ‘but it should last another few years.’

There was, however, one more crucial change before Iommi could play comfortably again. Guitars in the mid-1960s invariably had tight, heavy strings that gradually shredded the leather from his thimbles; what was worse, his mutilated fingers were simply too weak to bend the strings for any length of time. Again and again, with the meticulous patience of a master craftsman, he would take his Fender Stratocaster apart, searching for a way to relieve the pressure on his fingers. Eventually he gave up and asked his local shop to give him banjo strings, which were much lighter than the usual guitar strings. And as he slackened the strings, turning up his amplifier to compensate, so he began to develop an entirely new sound, all his own. Some guitar groups of the mid-Sixties had already experimented with a grittier, more aggressive sound: the Kinks’ breakthrough hit, ‘You Really Got Me’, which had come out in August 1964, is a famous example. But by using lighter, deliberately down-tuned strings, Iommi was now producing a lower, louder, heavier sound than anything in the charts at the time. To put it very crudely, the combination of his missing fingertips and his mechanical tinkering had invented heavy metal.

The Great British Dream FactoryExtract taken from The Great British Dream Factory, by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane) which is out now.

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