I have a confession to make. My first Black Sabbath album wasn't Paranoid, or Vol.4, nor even Heaven & Hell or The Mob Rules. It wasn't even Born Again. It was a contract-fulfilling compilation album called The Sabbath Stones.
It featured no Ozzy, but tracks from all over he band's eighties and early nineties output. It featured the likes of Dio, Glenn Hughes and Ian Gillian on vocals, but the man who impressed the most was a little known Englishman called Tony 'The Cat' Martin.
'When Death Calls' and 'The Headless Cross' were simply blinding. Here was a man who had a massive vocal range, and was writing the kind of gothic fantasy lyrics that just sounded so incredibly cool to a 14-year-old me. At his best he was every bit as good as Dio, and that's not a thing to be said lightly.
So why have you never heard of him? Could be one of many reasons. Sabbath were at their lowest ebb when Tony joined the band, with Grunge and Hair Metal making what was a 20-year-old band look very dated. Their label at the time, IRS, was tiny, and has since folded, so getting hold of the records is a struggle at best. But most of all it might be because Black Sabbath have seemingly ignored the entire decade he with the band, seemingly making an effort to expunge him from their history.
Anyone aware of Sabbath's history will know they weren't exactly a stable line-up post-Ozzy. The Sabbath Stones covers eight albums, and features five bassists, five drummers, and four vocalists. In fact only guitarist Tony Iommi and keyboardist Geoff Nichols (the unofficial but near-permanent fifth member of Black Sabbath) ever maintained a steady presence. Tony joined Sabbath in 1987, released five albums with the band. "Being in Sabbath was a complete drama!" Tony explains, "I never really had the chance to settle into it because I was constantly learning the ropes or reading between the lines."
In the run up to Tony joining the band, things were a bit of a mess. Singers were coming and going, joining tours, demoing, all the while other members of the band were rotating just as frequently. At one point to fill in on bass for a music video they took a random guitar in off the street, and after filming he auditioned but according to Tony, he didn't cut it. Tony was a singer with a band called The Alliance, and the story goes his manager at the time simply took him for a drive and pulled up at Iommi's house without saying who they were there to see, rang the doorbell and Tony joined the band soon after.
Some pre-Sabbath Tony Martin music:
What followed was a period of relative stability for Black Sabbath. Three quality albums were released, The Eternal Idol (1987) Headless Cross (1989) and TYR (1990), and for the first time in almost ten years, things were on the up for the band. Despite all this, in 1990 Iommi was talked into ditching Tony and bringing back Dio for Dehumanizer. By all accounts making the album was fraught with difficulties (Iommi claims it cost a million dollars to record), and after some success, Dio quit again because he refused to open for Ozzy's solo band.
Suddenly left without a singer again, the band brought Tony back, who had been working on his first solo album Back Where I Belong. Two more records followed, but by then the momentum they built before Dehumanizer had gone. It wasn't just personal problems Sabbath were suffering with, the musical landscape of the mid-nineties was having a negative impact on the creativity side of things too. 1996's Forbidden is widely accepted as the band's worst effort, a fact readily accepted by Martin in an interview he did with Gibson in 2011. But when Ice-T is involved and words like 'Rap Sabbath' are being bandied about by the label, alarm bells should've been ringing. "I never met Ice-T, they did that session after I left the studio. Eventually Black Sabbath petered out and Tony's time in the band ended. No big arguments, no fistfights, nothing.
Though Ozzy is now the defacto frontman of the band once again, technically Tony was never fired. "The phone stopped ringing 16 years ago and they haven't spoken to me since. I saw Iommi very briefly for a few hours in Russia a few years ago and he was very complimentary about me but after that I heard nothing." Despite the lack of open hostility, in Iommi's 2011 autobiography, Iron Man, the guitarist accuses Martin of being 'unprofessional' and having 'no stage presence'. Having never read the book, Tony's reply when told in an interview with Uberrock was justifiably bemused when told: "It surprises me. They never said anything to me. Surely, if you've got a problem, the first person you should say something to is the person that's in the band with you, you don't wait ten years. More fool them for not saying anything because we could have fixed it. I said to them, endlessly, that if there was anything they wanted changed, done differently, just to say and we could fix it, but clearly they hadn't got the guts to, obviously, and to write about it in a book afterwards seems a bit daft to me. I'm not bitter about it, but it is surprising."
Even today Martin's legacy in Sabbath has been almost whitewashed from the history books. You'll be hard pressed to find much info on the his time with the band on the official site. And despite the general trend for reissuing old albums, including all the Sabbath releases up to Born Again, only one of Martin's, his debut Eternal Idol is the only one to be given the treatment, and even then he had no input. "I was not a writer on Eternal Idol, I was just a session singer for that album," Tony says, referring to the fact he was brought in to re-record the album after Ray Gillen's departure. The songs and lyrics were all finished, "So I would not be included in the release [process] of that."
But despite everything, and being the nice guy that he his, Tony M has never been bitter. "I am 10 years younger than those guys and our circles didn't really cross, so it was a bit isolating." But in all his interviews he's never anything but nice about his bandmates and speaks fondly of his time in the band."It doesn't mean I hated the experience, I was just completely inexperienced and they didn't have the time or the inclination to really accommodate that,"he says. "It felt like they just wanted my voice and writing ability."
Today Tony's time with the band still has a strong fanbase, testament to that is the all the praise that fills up his Facebook page. And since leaving Sabbath, he's been a busy man. Featuring on well over a dozen albums and guesting on many more, most of Tony's work is on equal footing to any Iommi, Dio or Heaven & Hell releases, it's just a shame he can't afford the same marketing team. When asked what he thinks of his former bandmate's work outside of Sabbath, Tony takes the high ground. "Erm, they are what they are really, all different and valid. In a different time some of them could have been quite big I think."
Even Today Tony still has an active music career. This year saw the release of The Third Cage, an ongoing collaboration between Tony and Italian guitarist Dario Mollo. t’s a decent slab of 80s inspired metal, and was well received by fans and the press. 2012 also saw him return to the live stage with the Tony Martin's Headless Cross tour. Featuring Geoff Nicholls (formerly of Black Sabbath), Dario Mollo, Magnus Rosen (ex-HammerFall) and Danny Needham (Venom), their shows included a triumphant night in Birmingham.
"It was wonderful, the band was fantastic and the crowd were great," he says. "The last show before that was 5 years ago!" Not playing for so long would no doubt leave anyone rusty, and no longer as young as he used to be, obviously as time goes on singing isn't as easy as it once was. "I damaged my voice years ago and it is harder to keep it going but it still works," he admits. "I have to exercise my voice a lot these days to keep it running."
Wicked World, from Martin’s latest album The Third Cage with Dario Mollo:
As well as being a singer, Tony is a talented musician. Able to play a wide variety of instruments, including bass, drums, violin, keyboards, harmonica, and even the bagpipes and panpipes. He takes the term 'solo' artist seriously, playing most of the parts on his solo albums. His latest effort, Book Of Shadows, is around 2/3 done, but is currently on ice. "Book of shadows got put on hold of course because it's a solo album and solo albums are the worst because you are too close to it and its never perfect," Tony says. "But apart from that you still have to pay the bills and so I do other projects too and that takes me away from the solo album. But I do intend to have all those re recorded and released."
The other project fans had been waiting for was Silver Horses. Tony has said in interviews it consisted of 'beautiful bluesy stuff, a kind of Led Zeppelin thing' and we could expect it in 2013, but plans seem to have stalled. "Silver Horses is dead in the water right now. It turned nasty because they tried to release it without having the rights and contracts in place and we are fighting over the way forward," he explains, adding how much of a shame it is. "As things are we don't have a release, but we are still working on it and maybe we can recover it, but it doesn't feel the same now." [Since the interview Tony got in touch saying there may be a way forward, but nothing in the way of definites.]
While that must be annoying, it probably doesn't compare to the fact that most of Tony's back catalogue just isn't available anymore. "It is very frustrating that all my songs are out of print now. I'm very disappointed of course." As mentioned before, only one of Tony's album form his time in Sabbath is available, and much of his other material is equally scarce. In today's climate, self-releasing has become popular, is that something Tony's considered to get his previous work out there? "I have talked to various people about releasing it again and there is some interest but I think the moment has passed now."
So, despite all the ups and downs, there seems to be little in the way of regrets. "I cant imagine what I could change, unless I knew then what I know now.Then I could have changed a few things but I guess it would otherwise be the same." In this writer's opinion, if Sabbath had worked under a different name, perhaps just as the Iommi band, Tony's legacy might be more well known. "I don't know what would have happened if the band was not called Black Sabbath, no idea." Seemingly not interested in playing the what if game, Tony is far more focused on himself.
"I am very much an independent artist and i have many things I wish to do still, so in the next few years there should be a lot of TM related things happening."
So all in all, Tony is a happy man doing his own thing. But there's still one question that needs answering; why were you known as 'the Cat'? When i was in a band called Orion we played Wrexham festival with Motörhead and Twisted Sister, and a review in Melody Maker said the band was pretty good but had a singer that looks like Catweasle…"