Working In Uncertainty

Ozzy Osbourne and the beginnings of Black Sabbath

The autobiography of former Black Sabbath front man and reality TV legend Ozzy Osbourne isn't the most obvious place to find examples of smart thinking in uncertainty and, to be honest, a lot of his life has been a mess. However, even in his pithy stories of desperate poverty, failure at school, fights, and addiction, there are some gems thanks to Black Sabbath guitarist and unofficial band leader, Tony Iommi.

After a spell in prison and being fired from a series of jobs, Ozzy was inspired by the music of the Beatles to get into the music business. This was a desperate last hope and not exactly a unique idea so he faced a lot of competition for limited opportunities. Achieving success in this sort of situation requires a willingness to persist with activities that have a low chance of success.

Ozzy had no skills so just dressed the part and worked on his tattoos. Eventually his dad bought him a PA system so that he could offer himself as a singer and he put a card in the window of a local music shop saying ‘OZZY ZIG NEEDS GIG’. That brought Geezer Butler to his doorstep, and together they continued to fail.

Ozzy decided to give up on music and talked to his mum about trying to get another job at the factory where she worked. He thought he couldn't succeed and told the music shop to take down the card saying ‘OZZY ZIG NEEDS GIG’.

This certainty in the face of limited evidence was not smart handling of uncertainty, but fortunately for Ozzy the music shop failed to take down the card and it attracted two more musicians to his doorstep: Bill Ward and Tony Iommi. This completed the line up for the band that would eventually be called Black Sabbath.

The music shop's mistake was doubly fortunate for Ozzy because Tony was much better at dealing with uncertainty than Ozzy. Tony had the idea of taking the van, loaded with equipment, and waiting outside venues for gigs by famous bands in the hope that they would fail to show up and Tony's band could step in. This sounds like a very long shot but getting into the music business was all about long shots. A big band failing to arrive shouldn't have happened, but in life things that shouldn't happen actually do more often than we think.

(Remember also that, at that time, people didn't have mobile phones and vehicles were much less reliable than they are now.)

Tony's idea worked when Jethro Tull failed to arrive and Tony persuaded the venue manager to let his band step in at the last moment. Their performance was a success and Ozzy recalled that over the next few weeks everything started to take off for them.

Another example of Tony's ability to function in highly uncertain situations (or ‘make luck’ if you prefer) was the name and concept of ‘Black Sabbath’. Tony noticed that the queue outside the cinema near where the band rehearsed was always long when horror movies were shown. He thought it strange that people would pay to be frightened and suggested the band make music that sounded evil. Responding to this the band came up with the song that became Black Sabbath and later the band name was changed. Although not everyone liked this name, Ozzy believes it later helped get them a record deal and it clearly gave their music and their first album cover a unique character, as well as attracting a lot of free publicity.

The name ‘Black Sabbath’ was the third name of the band but both the previous names had been selected on a whim. The first name, ‘The Polka Tulk Blues Band’ was Ozzy's idea and came from a brand of talcum powder his mum used. The second name, ‘Earth’, was from Bill Ward and he thought it would look good on a big billboard. Only the third name, ‘Black Sabbath’ was based on evidence of potential mass appeal – the cinema queues.

Choosing names is almost always difficult and it's natural to rely heavily on one's own feelings. But, rather than rely entirely on your personal reactions, it is better to make use of evidence that involves more people, such as by testing names in some way, or at least looking at trends.

In summary, Tony Iommi's handling of uncertainty was crucial to dealing with two elements of the band's success: (1) its initial break, and (2) its brand.

Working In Uncertainty observations

The early years of most showbiz successes involve persistent efforts to grab limited opportunities. In some cases this takes years, with many small advances. In the case of Black Sabbath the breakthroughs were more dramatic.

If you want to break into showbiz then be prepared to stick at it and take all opportunities going to work, make friends, learn from people, and get known. Try alternative personal ‘brands’ and base them on evidence based on the reactions of many people, not just your own opinion or a friend. Look for opportunities from events that are outside normal expectations but still happen, perhaps more often than most people think.

(Source of information: ‘I am Ozzy’ by Ozzy Osbourne with Chris Ayres, published 2009 by Little, Brown Book Group.)

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Words © 2011 Matthew Leitch