Remember When: Black Sabbath Had a Stonehenge Set that Was (Way) Too Big

Plenty of classic rock aficionados remember the epic scene in This Is Spinal Tap when the band are supposed to have a massive Stonehenge set piece lowered from the ceiling for a concert. Due to a mistake where the dimension of 18 feet was inadvertently written as 18 inches on a napkin diagram, the fake stone monolith that gets lowered, much to the chagrin of the ban, is in peril of being crushed by two dwarves hired to dance around it.

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That classic screw-up is one of many that defined Rob Reiner’s immortal mockumentary about the hilarious side of rock ‘n’ roll. But the truth is seven months before the film came out, British metal legends Black Sabbath, with then-new singer Ian Gillan in tow, planned to tour the Born Again album with an actual Stonehenge set. The quandary was the set was actually too big for even the largest venues they played, which meant that the band was being dwarfed by fake monoliths.

In his recent memoir Into the Void, bassist Geezer Butler recalled that tour and the bizarre stage situation. He relayed how Sabbath had an instrumental called “Stonehenge” on the Born Again album, so manager Don Arden (father of Ozzy Osbourne’s wife/manager Sharon) thought a Stonehenge stage set would be a great idea. Butler thought it was ridiculous. Further, Arden wanted a sun to rise up behind the stone set while each concert progressed, although that idea was nixed due to the expense.

Meters, Not Feet

Here’s where things took the opposite turn from the Spinal Tap scenario. The Birmingham, England-based company LSD (Light and Sound Design) reportedly took a look at the tour manager’s design idea for the stage and thought their measurements were meant to be in done in meters rather than feet. In other words, interpreting it with the British measuring system, not the American one. Since one foot equals 3.28 meters, the Stonehenge stage pieces were manufactured to be three times taller than what they expected. Thus the largest pieces at 15 meters became nearly 50 feet.

“When we rehearsed at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, the stones were set up on the floor and actually looked really expressive,” Butler wrote in his book. “But when we did our first gig of the tour in Norway, and put the stones on the stage, they were almost touching the ceiling.”

A guest in 1992 on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show on the BBC, guitarist Tony Iommi said, “We couldn’t believe the size of it when we saw it. We seen it when we rehearsed … and we’d only seen it on the floor. Parts of it—they hadn’t finished it … It gets to [the 1983] Reading [festival] and we’ve got these huge [stones] at the back that are just, like, gigantic.”

Gillan told Mojo magazine in December 1994 the set idea was Butler’s, although Butler has denied it. Gillan’s version is that when asked by LSD how he envisioned the stage, the bassist told the company life size. So that’s what they got.

“Another Brainwave”

Although Butler later said they had to keep the fake stones in storage because they would barely fit anywhere, some smaller pieces were used in concert as can be seen in the video for “Trashed.” But the weirdness of the tour did not stop there. Butler added Arden had “another brainwave” for the tour. The cover of Born Again—which some people like and others think is abominable—featured a red devil baby with yellow nails.

Gillan hated the Born Again album cover, and in the 1992 documentary The Black Sabbath Story Vol. 2 – 1978-1992, he relayed how, unbeknownst to the band until the final rehearsal for the tour, Arden hired a dwarf to dress up as the demonic tot. As Butler wrote, he was “dressed in a red leotard with long yellow fingernails and horns stuck to his head … crawling across the top of the tallest stone.” Then he would fall off of it.

“Normally, three or four roadies used to come on in monk’s cowls, and the bells would chime, and then we would go into something like ‘War Pigs’ or ‘Iron Man’ or whatever the opening [song] was,” Gillan explained in the film. During the last rehearsal, the dwarf staggered across the top of the Stonehenge set, mimicking the taped screams of the “baby” before falling 35 feet onto some unseen mattresses below. Then the monks emerged.

The members of Sabbath thought using the dwarf was in bad taste, but Arden figured audiences would love it. It seems the “devil baby” performer debuted at one of the first shows of the North American tour in Canada. Many in their audience reportedly laughed at the ludicrous sight.

“It was absolutely horrendous,” Gillan said in the documentary. “So anyway, the dwarf came out and fell off, and the scream sort of tailed away, and the monks came out … and you could still hear the screaming in the background. It wasn’t the tape … we’d taken all the mattresses away, you see, and that was the end of the dwarf.”

Butler’s recollection of the events did not specify who pulled that stunt, but he felt bad about it. Of course, that situation was not funny. It was just mean.

Here’s another strange twist to this tale: the Spinal Tap team shot their Stonehenge shenanigans at least a year before Sabbath went on tour starting in August 1983. But the film did not get released until March 1984. Life unintentionally imitated art here.

The Born Again Period

The Born Again period was strange for Sabbath. Gillan was their third frontman. There had been the first decade with Ozzy Osbourne, then two albums with Ronnie James Dio, followed by the short-lived Gillan era. Born Again is a better album that many people gave it credit for at the time, but the reception to the Deep Purple singer fronting the band—especially when they performed “Smoke On the Water” live with him—was very mixed. Further, ELO drummer Bev Bevan filled in for Bill Ward on the tour (due to the latter’s personal issues), so the band’s lineup was shifting at the time. That situation would continue throughout the ‘80s as Iommi soldiered on with different members until the reunion with the Dio lineup in 1991.

“We had a great time. It was fantastic. I was the worst singer Black Sabbath ever had,” Gillian quipped in The Black Sabbath Story. “I was totally incompatible with any music they had ever done. I didn’t wear leathers, I wasn’t of that image. I loved Tony, loved Geezer, but … I think the fans were probably in a total state of confusion.”

At least they’ll have always have Stonehenge.

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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