The Great (Live) Albums: Ozzy Osbourne’s 'Tribute'

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Tribute, Ozzy Osbourne (1987, Epic/CBS)

For four decades, John Osbourne has been music’s steadfast, avuncular Black Pope of Heavy Metal. And while the Brummie vocalist has been a fixed part of pop culture since 1970, the public’s perception of Osbourne has vacillated wildly. On the one hand, you have 1970s Black Sabbath-era Osbourne: a terrifying proto-goth drug maniac, a wild-eyed rock Rasputin chilling the blood of Middle America. On the other, the doddering, ironically re-contextualized sitcom dad of tacky early-2000s MTV reality program The Osbournes. And sure, every man contains multitudes. But which of these two is the “real” Ozzy Osbourne?

In my opinion? Neither. I don’t know the man personally, but if I had to put money on it, I’d wager the most authentic version of Ozzy Osbourne is early-1980s-solo-period Ozzy, who was no less drug-crazed and out-of-control (watch out, bats!) but who, overall, presented as a much more lighthearted figure than the glowering demon he struck as the frontman for Black Sabbath.

The music on Ozzy’s classic early solo records—1980’s Blizzard of Ozz, 1981’s Diary of a Madman, 1983’s Bark at the Moon—was lighter, faster, and fizzier than anything by his previous band, coupled with an image that was a lot more Halloween-pop-up-shop-at-the-strip-mall than full-on Satanic Black Mass. But despite its often-kitschy packaging, the music found on these records is no less innovative, hard rocking, and technically dazzling.

Of course the bulk of these pyrotechnics during this period of Osbourne’s career came via the singer’s rotating stable of hotshot guitar ringers: Zakk Wylde, Brad Gillis, Jake E. Lee, etc.—and of course Randy Rhoads, whose playing is featured on Blizzard and Diary and whose spectacularly melodramatic death by airplane misadventure in 1982 (at age 25) led a bereaved Ozzy to give Rhoads equal billing on the live collection Tribute, released half a decade later in 1987.

Totaling an appropriately witchy 13 tracks, plus one inessential studio outtake, Tribute was primarily recorded at a 1981 tour stop in Cleveland, Ohio. Two additional tracks—Beatles-biting slow jam “Goodbye to Romance” and peppy rocker “No Bone Movies”—were recorded even earlier, during a gig in the UK cryptically described on Wikipedia as being “possibly from Southhampton.”

The new “guitar-face” fragrance, by Randy Rhoads

The new “guitar-face” fragrance, by Randy Rhoads

Rhoads’ demise was spectacular, but it came at an awkward moment in the guitarist’s young career. Even though his talents were already legend around his native LA, Rhoads had really only just begun to reach a national platform being bluntly snuffed out. And frankly, there isn’t as much Randy Rhoads on tape as it seems like there should be for a guy who was so influential—synthesizing the overdriven neo-classical leads of Yngwie Malmsteen with the pop pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen, presaging an entire decade’s worth of fleet-fingered shredders.

It’s true: Tribute feels oddly curated, featuring live versions of literally the entire track listing of Blizzard alongside just two Diary of a Madman tunes. But the fact is, Rhoads simply died before getting to play much of Ozzy’s sophomore effort live. And besides, it’s the remainder of the album—three Sabbath-era tracks: “Paranoid,” “Children of the Grave,” and “Iron Man”—that are arguably the most interesting, exhuming the tunes from the sludge of Sabbath’s signature approach and giving them a sunny Sunset Strip facelift. The songs feel tighter and brighter than their Sabbath counterparts. Not better, but different, and good, and instructive of how much hard rock had evolved in just one short decade.

Rhoads was an auteur guitar player—one who forced songs to bend to his will rather than subsuming himself into the entrenched paradigm. And when we’re talking about riffs as iconic as those in “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” that’s really saying something. But it’s not all the Randy and Ozzy show. Journeyman rock bassist Rudy Sarzo keeps things on the rails while still finding a few judicious spots to show off, and drummer Tommy Aldridge is allowed an extended solo to herald the album’s precise midpoint, in “Steal Away (The Night)”—I guess no one told CBS Records that albums don’t require a bathroom break.

Tribute is an imperfect record, and arguably less than essential. But viewed as an attempt by Osbourne to honor his dead friend and his dead friend’s talent, it’s an indelible document, of a relationship, collaboration, and moment in time. Ozzy has worked with plenty of great guitarists since, but there’s a reason to this day he still seems haunted by memories of Rhoads. Randy never stayed buried.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)