How Black Sabbath’s Opening ‘Bar Band’ Turned Out to be Van Halen
On May 16, 1978, a relatively unknown band called Van Halen opened for Black Sabbath. The young band had just released its debut self-tiled album, but Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne knew little about the group.
According to Don Airey, who played keyboards on Black Sabbath's 1978 album, Never Say Die!, Osbourne had actually been seeking a tamer and less-memorable band to open his band's tour that year. "Sabbath had done a tour for a year with Kiss as his foreband, and it nearly killed him because Kiss had been so good," Airey recalled. "And he said, 'We're never doing that again. Next tour we just want a bar band from L.A. That's all we want.'"
He got a bar band - but not quite the one he was hoping for. Eddie Van Halen, a self-admitted Sabbath superfan, was thrilled to book the gigs, knowing they were a major opportunity for his band. "We played just about every Black Sabbath song," he told Guitar World in 2010. "I used to sing lead on every Black Sabbath song we did — things like 'Into the Void,' 'Paranoid' and 'Lord of This World.' When we toured with Black Sabbath in 1978, they scared the shit out of us."
The bands hit the road together for the next several months, but it took only the first show for Osbourne to realize he had once again booked an opening group that risked upstaging the main act. "Ozzy said they walked in as 'Eruption' was going on," Airey remembered Osbourne telling him. "Ozzy said, 'We just went into the dressing room, [and] we sat there going, 'That was incredible.'"
Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi also recalled being impressed with Van Halen, particularly the band's 23-year-old guitarist. "I can’t remember if I heard the [Van Halen] record first or saw them live," he recalled to Rolling Stone in 2020, following Eddie Van Halen's death. "I must have heard the record, knowing they were on tour with us. But God, he was an amazing guitar player. I’d never heard anything like it. Like, 'Bloody hell, what’s this?' Well, he was the first to do that. As a band, they were so alive and fresh. They were so good."
Listen to Van Halen Cover Black Sabbath's 'Tomorrow's Dream'
Iommi could tell Van Halen weren't going away anytime soon. "They were very energetic," he noted. "You’ve got David Lee Roth there, jumping up in the air and doing somersaults and God knows what else. And the way they’d run around the stage, of course, it was the complete opposite to us. We, like, stood there when we went on. But they were just a very, very excellent band. You knew then that they were gonna make it."
Over the course of eight months of touring, Iommi started to notice Van Halen were drifting just a bit too far out of their lane as support act.
“They watched us almost every night from the side of the stage," Iommi recalled in the book Eruption. “And obviously they’d pick things up from us, seeing what worked and what got the crowd going."
“Van Halen went down incredibly well,” Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler added. “The only thing that pissed me off was that at the beginning of the tour they seemed like a really raw band, but as the tour went on, they were sorta ripping us off." That led to a brief talking-to from Iommi. “They were all really good blokes,” Butler said. "So we weren’t really that bothered about it. But Tony had to have a few words with Eddie, in a ‘behave yourself’ kind of way.”
The guitarist did, indeed, behave himself - he and Iommi would hang out frequently after their shows together and became lifelong friends. "He’s the sweetest, most humble, down-to-earth, normal guy," Van Halen once said of Iommi. "He has no attitude, and look at what this guy has done! Tony is still like a brother, even after all these years."