Is Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘The Ultimate Sin’ Really That Bad?
“The songs weren’t bad, they were just put down weird,” Ozzy Osbourne said of the solo album he named as his least favorite in August 2019. “Everything felt and sounded the fucking same. There was no imagination. … If there was ever an album I’d like to remix and do better, it would be The Ultimate Sin.”
The Black Sabbath singer’s fourth LP arrived in 1986, complete with a hit single, “Shot in the Dark,” and went to No.6 on the albums chart, eventually selling more than 2 million copies. Even so, the record has been out of print for years, with Osbourne suggesting that producer Ron Nevison was to blame for the perceived “weird” sound.
But there are other reasons the Prince of Darkness might be unhappy with the follow-up to 1983’s Bark at the Moon. Not least of which would be the fact that he’d only recently come out of rehab when he started work, and he was still trying to find his feet after a stay in the Betty Ford Clinic, where, on arriving, he asked Ford to direct him to the bar.
“Part of the problem is that just as in Jacques Cousteau's business, where water comes with the territory, ditto for rock 'n' roll and drink,” Osbourne said in 1986. He admitted he struggled to write without the help of alcohol. “I've tried. Nothing comes out. If I try and write straight, I can't fantasize. I need a drink to get the imagination working.”
As a result, he was more or less presented with an album’s worth of material written by guitarist Jake E. Lee – who wasn’t in the most favorable mood for sharing. He was still feeling unhappy over the amount he was paid for his work on Bark at the Moon and had insisted on a new and detailed contract before he started work on the follow-up record.
"While Ozzy was in the Betty Ford clinic, I got a drum machine, one of those mini-studios, a bass from Charvel – a really shitty one – and I more or less wrote entire songs,” Lee said after the album’s release (via Destroyer of Harmony). “I didn’t write melodies or lyrics, because Ozzy is bound to do a lot of changing if I was to do that. … I write the riff and I’ll come up with a chorus, verse, bridge and solo section, and I’ll write the drum and bass parts I had in mind. I put about 12 songs like that down on tape, and when he got out of the Betty Ford clinic, it was, ‘Here ya go, here’s what I’ve got so far.’ And I’d say half of it ended up on the album.”
Listen to Ozzy Osbourne's ‘Thank God for the Bomb’
Bassist Bob Daisley had similar feelings, though he returned from being dismissed to write lyrics for the LP. “I had a falling out, and he fired me and he was going to fire Jake as well,” he said later. “I’d already written a lot of the music with Jake, so they knew they had to credit me on the songs anyway. … I guess [Osbourne] thought he may as well get his money’s worth and asked me to come back and write the lyrics also. I did that as sort of a paid job. I write it, you pay me and take it and go. So I spent a few weeks writing the lyrics for the whole album. Then they recorded it.”
Daisley said he was “glad” he wasn't a bigger part of the project. “It’s the one album I didn’t really like,” he noted.
Even the hit single was the subject of debate. “It was getting kind of commercial, and Ozzy wasn’t too sure of it either,” Lee recalled. “But [producer] Ron Nevison gunned for that one. ... It worked out all right.”
The guitarist described Nevison as a challenging collaborator. “He doesn’t have a very open mind," Lee explained. "He hears things his way and he thinks that’s the way it should be done.” As a result, Lee said, he “didn’t go into the studio with the attitude of, ‘Oh boy, I get to play today, let’s see what I can put down!’ I went in there thinking, ‘Oh shit, what are we going to argue about today?’”
Nevison countered that he didn’t think their working relationship was that bad. “He was a strange guy," he said. "No drugs; he was into Zen stuff, martial arts … . I don’t know what he was into. But he was a fantastic guitar player; I never had a problem with him. If he had a problem with me, he never told me. Doesn’t surprise me.”
Lee was fired for good after The Ultimate Sin was released and touring duties were completed; he was mentioned just twice, in passing, in Osbourne’s 2010 memoir. But he still believes the song “Killer of Giants” – which at one point was the LP's title – is his “proudest achievement.”
“I had written the intro as a whole separate thing and included it on a tape of song ideas that I gave to Ozzy," he told Guitar Player. "It was just this minute and a half of music that I thought was really cool but didn’t know what to do with. … I was sitting with Ozzy and I said, ‘What’s the first couple of notes you would sing after the intro?’ And he gave me the first line, which is, ‘If none of us believe in war … .’ And he and I wrote the segue into the song, which was one of the few times that I sat down with a singer and we figured something like that out together. So, it was an interesting session for me.”
Listen to Ozzy Osbourne's ‘Killer of Giants’
Bassist Phil Soussan, who’d been brought in to replace Daisley and then was soon fired to allow for Daisley’s return, may hold the key to Osbourne’s unhappiness. Credited with co-writing “Shot in the Dark,” Soussan noted that "it is metaphorical for someone who wants to change. He wants to end what has been and start from new, but only has so much control. … Literally, he turns his back on what has been his life.”
That sounds like something Osbourne wanted to associate with, but appeared unable to do. With the Betty Ford Clinic residency behind him, he soon returned to his addictive ways. In 1989, he was charged with the attempted murder of his wife and manager Sharon Osbourne during one of his many drug-induced periods.
“I used to black out a lot," he later admitted. "And my biggest fear was waking up in a police cell and having an old lady say to a police officer, 'Yes, that's the guy who ran my husband down,' or 'That's the guy who hit my son over the head with an ax. It used to terrify me.”
Listen to Ozzy Osbourne's ‘Shot in the Dark’
In 2018, Osbourne said he was bewildered that he had ever thought drinking and getting high was worth it. “How did I think going into a bar and getting smashed and doing all that cocaine was fun?” he said. “I have come to think that if, right now, you had a gun, a bag of cocaine and a gallon of booze and you said, ‘Take your pick,’ I’d pick up the gun. It’s not worth it.”
So perhaps he’s being unfair to The Ultimate Sin as an album, which, in general, has received more praise than many of his other records. Perhaps it’s not the LP itself, but the memory of how he expressed his desire to change via “Shot in the Dark,” and then failed to deliver to himself, that’s the problem. In which case, maybe revisiting the work and giving it a new lease of life is exactly what Osbourne should do.