What If: Tony Iommi and the Injury Which Characterised Heavy Metal
In 1965, in the wake of The Rockin’ Chevrolets demise, having impressed at auditions, a young Tony Iommi joined a band called the The Birds & The Bees, filling in the vacant guitarist position. A professional band with a European tour scheduled, this meant a fixed income for a 17 year old who still lived with his parents. In The Rockin’ Chevrolets his parents were uncomfortable with their tender young son playing in pubs across Birmingham, asking him to be home at a certain time after every show. Being in The Birds & The Bees then, meant his music was his earning, a step up, and so he debarked on his last day of work at what was then his job in a local Sheet Metal Factory. This was a factory so local that he’d return home for sandwiches on his lunch break and on that final lunch break he vowed never to return to the factory. He couldn’t be arsed, what was the point? His mother however, a proud woman, had other ideas and so persuaded him to see the job out properly.
“There was this lady who bent pieces of metal on a machine, and then I welded them together. Because she didn’t come in that day, they put me on her machine,” recalls Iommi in his autobiography, Iron Man. A big guillotine with a foot pedal, he was dumbstruck as to how to use it. He’d blagged it all morning but it was on that afternoon shift that an incident which would go on to be fatefully vital in the birth and growth of heavy music took place.
“I pressed the foot pedal and the guillotine went down on my right hand. There was blood everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. I was so much in shock at first that it didn’t even hurt.”
A chain reaction of events then unfurled, shaping, in many ways, the future of a genre which hadn’t been properly conceived at this point. Indeed, had the incident not occurred, Iommi would have embarked on the European tour with The Birds & The Bees as was planned. Instead, fate, in his dark, hooded cloak, had his say, lighting a fuse which would result in the explosion of a band known as Black Sabbath.
The incident left Iommi unable to play guitar, the only thing he seemed to enjoy in life, sinking into a spiral of depression.
"Someone brought the missing bits of my fingers to the hospital but they were all black and ruined. They couldn’t be put them back on. Afterwards I just sat at home moping thinking it was over with. I couldn’t believe my luck.” The factory manager, “an old, balding man named Brian,” came over to Iommi’s house on several occasions, but on one occasion came with a vinyl by a man named Django Reinhardt. At first, Iommi was reluctant to listen, such was the depression that losing his fingers had dragged him into, like a mouse into a snake pit.
“This guy plays guitar and he only plays with two fingers,” Brian would then say, urging him once to listen to the record.
“Bloody hell,” reflects Iommi in Iron Man, “it was brilliant. Without Brian buying me this record I don’t know what would have happened. Once I heard that music, I was determined to do something about it.”
The rest, as they say, is history. But it’s how Iommi’s next actions impacted and influenced music that interests us here; how has Iommi shaped the state of modern day metal music?
"The dynamic effect of Tony Iommi's homemade fingertips was monumental, the aggression and roughness with which he fretted the notes helped define heavy music."
He would go on to craft prosthetic ends for his fingers out of thimbles wrapped in leather from an old jacket after previously trying several solutions; cloth, a fairy liquid bottle melted and sanded down and more, but none of these combinations we're effective enough at both numbing the pain of pressing his fingers on the string and detracting from the amount of scratch generated by doing so. The leather and thimble however was, to nick a quote from Goldilocks, just right.
This resulted in two things in the domino effect of history. Firstly, it meant he could play guitar once more, prompting him to search for a new band to join. Having answered a newspaper advert posted by Ozzy Osbourne, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler soon joined the fold to form what was to become Black Sabbath. Secondly, and most importantly here, the dynamic effect of his homemade fingertips was monumental. His experiments led to developing an “aggressive, raw, fat” sound which he hoped would cover for his “disability,” the aggression and roughness with which he fretted the notes helped define heavy music. After all, Sabbath are a blues band underneath Iommi’s viscous playing, Ozzy’s rough vocals, Bill Wards avalanching drumming and Geezer Butler’s bull in a china shop bass. Early demos such as The Rebel echo that, it was just the overall heavier guise their sound took that screamed originality. It was only when these musicians grouped together, led by Iommi’s heavy handed playing, that what would later be coined heavy metal was born. It was more a reaction to the brazen sonics than the musical approach behind it. Sure, Black Sabbath’s infamous riff may use the Devil’s Triad – an interval once banned in music centuries ago – but had a full fingered Iommi played the same riff naturally more delicately, then it makes you wonder if the song would have impacted upon the world quite the same. Or indeed had he got as far with The Birds & The Bees as was seemingly set in stone before that alst day at the factory - a job rather than a hobby - he wouldn’t have been looking for a band when Ozzy had posted that newspaper ad.
More so, Iommi’s injury saw him experiment with different string gauges, finding it easier to play lighter gauges – thinner strings, in layman’s terms. He also found that tuning his guitar lower meant the strings were slacker and easier to play. It was a choice of comfort rather than sound but it characterised the latter considerably, developing the character of his playing and, quite literally starting a musical revolution. Today bands continue to experiment with down tunings, trying to ‘out heavy’ each other. It’s led to the invention of seven, eight and, not for the faint hearted, even nine string guitars.
Heavy metal is a mentality more than a style of music in many ways. It’s a community of people bound together for a love of gritty music that separates itself from the clichéd pomp of the mainstream. But it’s the way that metal is played more than anything that makes it what it is. If James Hetfield had tickled his guitar on The Black Album, would it have sold over 20 million copies? Metal music is about rebellion, about being different. The harshly played guitar of that debut Sabbath album – buffeted by the rawness of the live production – was a blueprint for a different way of thinking, a different way of playing the blues. From there it would grow into the spider’s web of sub-genres and styles that metal music has now spun into, where everything from folk, jazz, flamenco, orchestras and beYond are added to the blueprint. But that rebellious mentality, in all the different movements, is the same when stripped down to its raw bones and it can all be traced back to a Brummie’s dicky fingers.
What would have happened if Iommi hadn't damaged his hand that day, had he not gone into work that afternoon like he intended is anyone’s guess, but it seems that Fate had other plans for him, and for that we thank you.
Words: Phil Weller
Please note, Manchester Rocks does not own the cover image. What If logo design by Steph Hodges Design.