Hell & Heaven
Written by Jonathan Taylor on June 16, 2023
The crowd outside the Sophia Gardens Pavilion in Cardiff was much too large.
By the time I arrived, a little delayed by a late train, there should have been a few people milling around, perhaps waiting for their friends, perhaps awaiting the person with their ticket.
The rest of the audience should have been inside, getting into their chosen places in the Pavilion for the evening’s concert by Black Sabbath. But they evidently were not. And contrary to the usual expectant atmosphere amongst concert-goers before such a big high-profile gig, the vibe was discernibly one of unease.
It was January 28th, 1981, and a rejuvenated Sabbath were touring the “Heaven And Hell” LP. Now fronted by ex-Elf and Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, the fraught latter years of the first Ozzy Osbourne era were a thing of the past, as Dio’s arrival had been a transfusion of fresh Rock’n’Roll blood, seemingly restoring Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler’s zest for writing and touring, and giving birth to “Heaven And Hell”, a strong, powerful record chock full of big Sabbath anthems and bruising Sabbath rockers. Original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward had bailed out during the USA leg of the tour, to be replaced by Vinnie Appice, younger brother of legendary Vanilla Fudge sticksman Carmine Appice.
I’d seen Dio front Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 1977 (and how that came about is another tale entirely) so I knew what a great vocalist he was, and what huge stage presence he had. And I was really looking forward to seeing him harness the power of Black Sabbath onstage.
And yet here I was, in the company of a friend called Jon, both clutching our tickets for the show, standing at the edge of a restless crowd outside the Pavilion with the doors still firmly shut. As ever with uncertainty in large gatherings, a rumour started and spread quickly through the gathered throng: There was a problem with ticket sales for the gig.
Nobody could substantiate this, but the longer we stood there, the more momentum this story gathered. The mood was changing gradually from one of puzzlement to confusion and frustration.
About 15 minutes later, cue a bloke with a megaphone, who emerged from the Pavilion and suddenly appeared head and shoulders above the crowd, obviously standing on something to enable people to see who was talking at them.
The distorted megaphone voice relayed the truth, that partially at least confirmed the rumour. There was an issue with a fire safety inspection, and the gig now depended on a reduced attendance for safety reasons. The gig was now effectively oversold, and by some distance; only half the ticket holders could actually be allowed in. This announcement did not include a solution to the obvious problem – how would the Venue and the Promoter decide who got lucky, and who got told to seek a refund?
The mood now turned ugly. Predictably, the sure and certain belief that if you were at the front you would get in sparked into twisted life, and resulted in pushing, shoving, and a couple of scuffles. The Police arrived within minutes.
Jon and I were nowhere near the doors of the venue, so we had a quick debate and decided that it was just not worth getting embroiled in the mob rule that was now brewing at the front of the crowd. We figured that our chances of getting in were now remote, so we opted for walking away, and making our way around to the rear of the Pavilion where we knew that the stage door was located.
When we got there a few minutes later, barriers had already been put in place to ensure safe access to the stage door for the band and crew. A few other fans had gathered there, probably feeling as we did that this gig was not meant to be.
As we arrived, a car pulled up and two people emerged; a stylishly-dressed woman and Ronnie James Dio.
Dio, attired in a full-length leather coat with a fur collar, strode into the avenue created by the barriers, followed by the woman, as they headed towards the door. There was no way of knowing whether he was aware of the ticket situation, though as one vexed bystander yelled “Sort it out, Ronnie!”, Dio smiled and gave his trademark horned hand salute. It was an easy gesture to make, but nevertheless it felt good that we’d been there to see the Sabbath frontman deliver it. Some small consolation.
We waited a little longer to see if any of the other members of Sabbath arrived, but as time went on, it was apparent that Iommi, Butler and Appice must already be within. Jon and I elected to return to the front of the Pavilion, to see what, if anything, had transpired.
What had transpired was that megaphone man had appeared again. Whether Police had intervened to prevent civil unrest, whether venue staff and promoter had been in negotiations with the band, or whether Sabbath had made the decision unilaterally, the announcement was startling news. Every ticket holder would get in: Black Sabbath would play two shows. The support band (memory fails me, but I think it may have been A II Z) would have to sacrifice their appearance, allowing Sabbath to play their set, take the interval break, and then go again.
Working on the guiding principle that we’d employed earlier in the evening, that trying to shove in to the first show was pointless, Jon and I nipped around to the right-hand side of the Pavilion, a long rather than wide building. Earlier, on our route to the stage door, we remembered passing some fire doors about halfway back from the proscenium stage end of the hall. Those fire doors had two safety glass panels in (I think regulations have changed significantly since 1981) and…well you can probably guess what we were thinking.
And you’d be correct.
Yes, the music was muffled, but the Sabs were sufficiently loud and also had such superbly well-defined sound that we could hear the songs. And the view through the safety glass panels? Well, think of them as quite-restricted-view tickets. But we could see the pyrotechnics, the large inverted cross backdrop, and Dio and Butler, with Iommi appearing every now and then when he forayed forwards to the front of the stage. For two young Rock fans, it was more than enough, a big Black Sabbath bonus.
Now imagine our excitement as we returned to the main doors and watched the first-show audience file out. We were next! OK, we now knew the set list, but, if you’ll excuse the Sabbath pun, what the hell. How often do you walk into a gig genuinely knowing that it is going to be a hot show?
Sabbath opened with “War Pigs” and “Neon Knights”; it was breathtaking stuff. Dio, visibly energised, paced to the front of the stage, twirling the mic stand, and, making that horns gesture again, proclaimed: “Black Sabbath never lets an audience down!”. The crowd roared their appreciation, and, I believe, their respect.
The pyro had all been re-set, we got exactly the same show, and it was a masterclass of heavy rock; powerful, thunderous, at times beautifully nuanced, and above all damned stylish, delivered by one of the bands that defined an entire era.
As the last chords of final encore “Children Of The Grave” faded, we turned for the exit, having been part of what turned out to be a unique Black Sabbath concert. Or should that be concerts….
I have been fortunate to see Sabbath several times since 1981, including an emotional last-ever show of “The End” tour in Birmingham in February 2017.
But (whispers in case Ozzy diehards are reading) I’m not sure I ever saw them better than they were that night in Cardiff, January 28th 1981.