Monday, September 24, 2007

Ozzy Osbourne, '60s Pop Star?

In 1968, an unassuming British pop band called The Magic Lanterns scored a major hit in North America with the catchy “Shame, Shame.” Little did anybody know that nearly 40 years later, a debate would be raging as to whether one of the most legendary and controversial figures in all of rock was a member of this outfit. The issue has been in dispute for decades and it may never, ever be resolved. But that doesn’t stop this writer from tackling one of the most polarizing questions concerning the history of rock ‘n’ roll:

Was Ozzy Osbourne a member of The Magic Lanterns?

Here are the facts: The Magic Lanterns were from Warrington, England. During the late ‘60s, their personnel included a bass player and singer named Mike “Oz” Osbourne (also spelled Osborne), who was featured on “Shame, Shame” and other Magic Lanterns recordings from 1968-69. Many music critics and historians have since claimed that Mike “Oz” Osbourne and John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne are one in the same and record dealers have often sold the Lanterns’ 1969 LP Shame, Shame as an early effort by the Black Sabbath frontman and solo superstar. Ozzy himself has always denied being a Magic Lantern, but there is no shortage of music lovers who refuse to believe him.

Ozzy’s fans have plenty of responses to charges that he was in The Magic Lanterns: Ozzy’s from Birmingham, not Warrington. Black Sabbath were already active, under the names Polka Tulk (or Polka Tulk Blues Company) and Earth, before and during the period when Ozzy was supposed to have been plucking away at his bass as a Magic Lantern. And for that matter, when has Ozzy Osbourne ever been a bass player? In addition, this webpage includes detailed personal recollections from The Magic Lanterns’ own Alistair “Bev” Beveridge, who mentions Mike Osborne [sic] but never says a word about Ozzy.

And yet, one can reasonably make the argument that Ozzy is indeed doing what oh, so many people over a certain age are wont to do: lying about what he did in the ‘60s. Here’s a picture of The Magic Lanterns from the appropriate era:

Now, here’s Ozzy:

There is a fellow in the Magic Lanterns’ photo who looks like Ozzy. One might even listen to recordings from Mike “Oz” Osbourne’s tenure in the band and discern a voice in the harmonies that bears a certain resemblance to Ozzy’s. Most intriguing is this paragraph from Mark Marymont’s liner notes to The Magic Lanterns’ CD compilation Shame, Shame (Collectables Records, 1998):

“[Ozzy] has denied that he was ever in the group and most rock history books have Black Sabbath forming in 1967 in their native Birmingham, England. The four schoolmates were originally known as Polka Tulk, a blues band, before changing their name to Earth in 1968 and Black Sabbath in 1969. The record company for whom The Magic Lanterns recorded, however, has confirmed that it is indeed THE Ozzy Osbourne on these recordings. It would appear that this group was only a side-gig for the fledgling superstar.”

This paragraph seems compelling at first, but it raises a few questions. Exactly what record company confirmed the identity of the Lanterns’ bass player? The UK branch of CBS Records, to whom The Magic Lanterns were originally signed? Atlantic Records in the United States, for whom the band recorded the Shame, Shame LP? Or was it another label entirely? Also, one must only look at a map of England to see some problems with The Magic Lanterns being Ozzy’s side-gig during Black Sabbath’s early history. Warrington is close to Manchester, which is in turn a considerable distance from Birmingham. Marymont claims that The Magic Lanterns “ventured down to London in the mid-‘60s,” but if we operate on the premise that the Lanterns were based in London during the “Shame, Shame” era, we must also take note of the fact that London is no closer to Birmingham than Manchester. If Ozzy was already in a band in Birmingham, why would he take such a long trek to play in another band as a side project? It’s possible that Ozzy felt he wasn’t advancing quickly enough in the music business, took up the bass, traveled a long way to live a second life in a commercial pop group with a UK chart entry (“Excuse Me Baby”) under its belt, and then denied having any involvement in said band after he became famous. It’s just not particularly likely. A voice in The Magic Lanterns might sound like Ozzy’s because a latter-day listener is casting about for proof that the Prince of Darkness really was in that band. As for the Ozzy lookalike in the Lanterns’ photo, let’s face it: Ozzy Osbourne does not have a distinctive face. His overall image is what makes him easy to identify.

So the data available to us would seem to indicate that Ozzy Osbourne was NOT one of The Magic Lanterns after all. But The Magic Lanterns have a lot of intriguing connections that can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt:

=> “Shame, Shame” and other early Magic Lanterns tracks were arranged by John Paul Jones, soon to become the bass player for Led Zeppelin. This is not surprising; during the 1960s, Jones was a highly prolific arranger and, like his eventual bandmate Jimmy Page, an in-demand session musician.

=> Later Magic Lanterns recordings (post-Mike Osbourne) included Albert Hammond, the singer/songwriter responsible for ‘70s soft rock favorites like “It Never Rains In Southern California” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Hammond co-wrote a number of Magic Lanterns tunes from the early ‘70s, including their small US hit “One Night Stand.” Hammond’s son is the appropriately-named Albert Hammond, Jr. of The Strokes.

=> The Magic Lanterns’ only UK chart entry, “Excuse Me Baby,” was written by Artie Wayne, a legendary mover-and-shaker who has done everything and then some in the music business. His website is here and his entertaining blog can be found here.

=> “Shame, Shame” was co-written and originally recorded by American singer and songwriter Keith Colley, best known for his own regional 1963 hit “Enamorado.” He and his wife Linda wrote several songs that ‘60s rock and pop collectors know and love, such as “Shame, Shame,” “One Track Mind” (The Knickerbockers), “Playgirl” (The Knickerbockers, Thee Prophets), and “Mindrocker” (Fenwyck, The American Breed). Colley’s demo version of “Shame, Shame” is available on his Mindrocker compilation, but the 45 version remains a rarity.

All those ties plus the allure of Ozzy Osbourne’s alleged membership? Not bad for a typical-sounding pop band that would probably have been forgotten otherwise.

Original text copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.