A bass player reunited after 43 years with Black Sabbath star Tony Iommi has revealed how a terrifying 6am drugs’ bust sparked the creation of the world’s first heavy metal band.
Carlisle-based Neil Marshall had auditioned and signed guitarist Tony Iommi and fellow Brummie drummer Bill Ward for his own band Mythology. He’d lost other members in quick succession following their return from Germany in late 1967 and Tony insisted that to guarantee his presence, Neil had to sign singer Chris Smith, too.
In May 1968, the new Mythology members were all asleep with Neil inside the same room of a three-story Georgian town house in Carlisle. As dawn broke, the police arrived at Compton House in Compton Street, woke the landlady and arrested all four of them in their pyjamas. “We were one of the first bands, if not THE first band, to all get busted at once thanks to the landlady kindly letting the police into our first floor flat,” says Neil. “We were all fast asleep in our beds in the same room. We were told to stay in beds while our clothes and flat would be searched. My little lump of cannabis was found in a pocket of my jeans by Sergeant Carlton, a fearsome ex-Scots Guardsman with a large handlebar moustache and a formidable reputation. A bigger lump appeared in my pyjama bottoms, but it wasn’t cannabis!”
Neil says he can’t remember any great lines said aloud during the raid to match ‘Get yer trousers on, you’re nicked!’ from The Sweeney. But he
adds: “I do remember thinking: “Oh, s***, they’ve found the s***!’.
“It was a pretty frightening experience, especially as it was the first time we had touched the stuff. Someone from another band had sold it to us in little blocks for about ten shillings or a £1 each and when he was caught he told the police we had some, too. It was the first time we’d ever smoked it. Tony, Bill and Chris were given £15 fines and a conditional discharge, but I was put on probation for two years because I was the eldest.
“I’m quite glad it happened because I never smoked it again.”
Reporting the court case on July 8, 1968 with the page one headline “Drug fine for pop group – four admit having cannabis,” the Evening Mail inadvertently helped to change the course of rock history by paving the way for the creation of Black Sabbath.
“After (the publicity) of being raided like that, we just couldn’t get any more bookings,” admits Neil, a father-of-two who will turn 72 in June.
"We had lots of fun together and some really good times but when the others decided to return to Birmingham I didn’t want to go for personal reasons. Now I’m glad, because if I had gone, there might have been no Black Sabbath, with Geezer Butler replacing me and Ozzy Osbourne taking over from Chris. It’s funny how life works out, how one think influences you and how you influence something else and affect things. I have no regrets and am so glad they have got where they are. But I’ve just read a feature on Tony in an old guitar mag and it’s surprising how much information regarding pre Sabbath is just not true – that’s so annoying.”
While Tony became a rock legend, Neil began to the basics of his future technical career with BT by “going up the poles and down the holes.”
And it’s only in recent years that he has returned to music, recording backing tracks in a studio at home to accompany his own solo performances at bowling clubs and the like where he covers songs from the 60s to 80s by artists like Status Quo and Bob Dylan. After their version of Mythology split, Neil says Tony and Bill were able to return to Cumbria in a new guise to play lots of gigs with Geezer and Ozzy in towns like Workington and Whitehaven.
“There were a lot of ‘nutters’ in that area,” laughs Neil. Earth and Sabbath used to come and see Mythology play and we’d see them. "I eventually lost touch with Tony in about 1973 because you just couldn’t get anywhere near them, Sabbath were then so big. My son, who lives in Leamington Spa, managed to get tickets for Gary Newbon’s An Audience With Tony Iommi show at Birmingham Town Hall on March 19, 2016 and I then emailed Tony to see if we could meet. Even then it almost didn’t happen, because he had our backstage passes in his pocket and at first security wouldn’t let us go through to see him.
“It made my night that once we were back in the same room he clocked me straight away. Tony still looks great, even though he’s been through such a lot with his cancer, poor lad. He has still got great charisma and is an amazing guy. When I auditioned him, I could tell instantly what a great guitarist Tony already was. I’d just signed another new signer called Rob, but Tony said he would only come if he could bring vocalist Chris Smith, so Rob agreed to go back to Newcastle after hearing how good Tony was for himself. I just knew Tony was going somewhere and the tips he was using for his injured fingers had already changed his sound. If he heard a song twice he could play it by ear – like me, he doesn’t read music.”
The irony about the police raid on a house that’s now painted blue and white was that far from being a bad boy, Neil hardly drank. And he doesn’t understand why people take drugs either.
“I used to do a lot of the driving, so I didn’t drink,” he says. I think the reason I never made it was that I was just too sensible, but I think every band needs someone who is sensible otherwise it just falls apart. I think Tony is that man now in Sabbath. He knows what he wants.
“If you are in a well known group it is inevitable you are going to get targeted by dealers and if you are struggling to sleep... that’s obvious. You can see how people can be taken in. I don’t particularly like Jack Daniels, but you are supposed to be seen with a bottle if you are rock and roll. I don’t think you will ever stop drugs but I don’t understand why people take them or how you can enhance your life by taking stuff that will eventually really damage you. After Tony and Bill had left Mythology, we were playing a gig in Dumfries and we began with four people playing four different songs in different keys and rhythms. I was the only one who knew what we were doing. It is frightening when it gets like that, so it’s a miracle that Ozzy is still alive. He was always daft – whereas I was too sensible. I would have found it quite difficult (working with him). In my opinion he is not a great singer, but he can sing, don’t get me wrong. He has also got whatever it is... charisma, which might attract people as well. Ozzy has something that a lot of people are drawn to – I remember him wearing a tap instead of a cross. Today, I am disappointed Bill Ward can’t play with Black Sabbath... he says he wasn’t going to be paid as much as the other three and, if that’s true, it isn’t right.”
As for the future, Neil says he hopes to see Tony again.
“I would love to spend more time with him and I would like to think it will happen but if it doesn’t I am pleased that we have met again.”
Birmingham Mail, 27 March 2016, Photo Birmingham Mail