The '80s rebirth of Ozzy Osbourne after his 1979 firing from heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath was the first of several occasions in which the singer endured and overcame hardships to continue his success. Beginning the decade with a couple of groundbreaking albums featuring guitar virtuoso Randy Rhoads, Osbourne weathered the loss of his friend and collaborator to become one of the biggest hard rock stars of the decade. These songs provide a strong overview of what gave Osbourne his staying power and loyal fan base, clearly displaying the singer's strong melodic ear and savvy choice of supporting musicians.
On this lead-off track to Osbourne's surprisingly well-received and fresh-sounding Blizzard of Ozz record, the former Black Sabbath frontman places his familiar, keening vocals into a whole different light. Mostly from the undeniable glow of Rhoads' blistering solos and rhythmic, influential riffing but also because of a more probing, less theatrical lyrical focus than he'd ever shown before, Osbourne's work here truly changed the path of metal for the '80s. This tune celebrates a newly commercial yet hard-hitting era for hard rock, and the songwriting collaboration between Osbourne, Rhoads and bass player Bob Daisley delivers genuine quality, especially for a genre that would soon reach a maximum level of critical dismissal.
Well, I held off as long as I possibly could from including this well-worn track on my list, but I knew the attempt was probably futile. Rhoads' one-of-a-kind riff that anchors the song - even if done to death in the familiarity department almost as badly as "Smoke on the Water" or "Sunshine of Your Love" - is simply too fluid and obviously skilled to ignore. Osbourne's most famous signature song has logged tremendous amounts of mileage over the years, from sporting events to dozens of hard rock retrospectives to most neighborhoods' wannabe rock guitarists trying to get what will likely be their only taste of guitar wizardry. A great song can overcome the unique problem of being overplayed, but it's no small feat when that happens.
This track advances itself as a wonderfully formed oddity, a ballad that never falls into the unfortunate traps of many of the era's power ballad offerings. For one thing, the wistful, pleading vocals from Osbourne mesh perfectly with the organic tone of melancholy guarded so carefully in the arpeggiated strains of Rhoads' guitar and the shambling, deliberate performance of the rhythm section of Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake. Still, Ozzy himself might be most pleased by the undeniable truth that this composition better channels the Beatles than many bands more directly linked to those legends. Ultimately, it's a rather fierce statement of versatility from an artist and maybe even a person who has been underrated for much of his life.
Though this song certainly betrays Ozzy's persistent interest or perhaps even fixation with matters related to the occult, it also probably never gets enough due as a fairly serious exploration of the legacy of Aleister Crowley, famous British occultist and magnet for controversy during the early 20th century. In other words, the comparison between Osbourne and Crowley as cultural figures may reveal as much insight as it takes advantage of stereotypes. The track also happens to be a fine representation of Osbourne's distinct melodic ear as well as his band's steadfast ability to present foreboding riffs and rhythms. This is not fluffy music about adorable kittens, but what do people expect from the subject matter of heavy metal anyway?
I've heard much praise for another prominent track on Osbourne's second album, "Flying High Again," for which I can't seem to build much enthusiasm on a personal level. Maybe I'm in a minority that sees that song as mildly uninspired and at best out of sync with the rest of the album, but to defend myself I've chosen a bold and overlooked minor classic. Ultimately, this is a skillful portrait not only of Rhoads' obvious versatility but the accomplished skill of a great rhythm section to blend stops and starts, obscure signatures, and other instrumentally complex flourishes. I've always been mesmerized by the kind of music that resists conventional labels and freely embraces the risks of being musically expansive.
Despite the loss of Rhoads and a circuitous route to his next original album (1982's collection of Black Sabbath covers Speak of the Devil could have been a real momentum breaker), Osbourne emerged as popular as ever with the title track to his 1983 effort, just in time for the stylish music video to find an expanded audience on MTV. With Jake E. Lee on guitar, this song sports a far more standard '80s metal sound, but its familiarity feels comforting and accessible. Ozzy himself channels his Sabbath vocal sound better than he had yet managed so far during his solo career, a choice that works surprisingly well with the pop production employed here. There is real gothic genius here, not often to be matched by Osbourne's many imitators.
A strong consensus exists among critics and Osbourne fans that the singer's output was on the wane by The Ultimate Sin, but I've never noticed signs of decline when I listen to this tune. Lee's guitar work may never be as intricate as Rhoads', but the former's crunchy riffing style far exceeds competency and sometimes finds its own brilliance. Detractors may find this track to be far too mainstream, especially in terms of its non-gothic, relatively serious lyrical approach. But to gain a true understanding of Osbourne as an artist, it's important to note that even "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" are punchy pop songs dependent upon catchy if primitive melodies. This is really one of the best mainstream rock songs of the entire decade, I'd contend.
Many fans viewed 1988's No Rest for the Wicked as a return to form for Osbourne after a few wayward years. The songwriting on this record indeed seems a bit more spirited and consistent than perhaps any record made without Rhoads as a collaborator, but much of this generally higher opinion probably has something to do with the heavy style and intimidating image of new guitarist Zakk Wylde. That dude should have been a professional wrestler, although I imagine he might have had too much of a B.S. detector to travel that career path without inflicting genuine pain. Anyway, neither this song nor the album on which it appears come close to the earliest phase of Ozzy's solo career, but there wasn't much late-'80s hard rock to outshine it.