I don’t recall exactly when I first purchased Ozzy Osbourne’s Tribute, but I bought in on cassette, so that would mean early 90s. I wasn’t into metal when the album was first released in 1987, let alone 1981, when it was recorded. In 1987, I was 12 years old, and I might have known that Ozzy was some crazy heavy metal singer that bit the heads off bats. As for Randy Rhoads, he was long dead before I ever knew he’d lived. By the time I purchased Tribute, however, I was obsessed with metal, but primarily thrash, and maybe a little death metal. I probably had an album or two apiece from Maiden, Priest, and Sabbath, but I had every album from Metallica, Slayer, and Sepultura. So, I probably bought Tribute because it was cheap, and it had a lot of the well-known Ozzy songs on it, not because I was a huge fan, or even particularly familiar with Ozzy’s solo work outside of the rock radio hits.
Obviously, since I’m doing a Diamonds and Rust on it, I ended up loving Tribute. It accompanied me on many trips in my 1986 Buick Century (which I drove like a complete asshole), back and forth to college and work at the pizza shop, and probably contributed to my tinnitus as I blasted it on my Walkman while mowing the lawn. Fast-forward to 2007: I get finally get a vehicle with a CD player. Having long since switched to CDs for home listening and lawn mowing, and with no working cassette player save the one in my recently traded-in 1998 Ford Ranger, I found myself without much use for my large pile of cassettes. I had purchased 99 percent of my cassette collection on CD format by then anyway, so I shit-caned all my cassettes, Tribute among them. I had, by then, purchased the first two Ozzy solo albums, so I figured I could live without it, and I could, but it has been, I realize now, a hollow existence.
After more than a decade without it, I pulled my head out of my ass and bought Tribute on the now similarly moribund Compact Disc format, and fuck me, but I’ve missed it and didn’t know it. Randy Rhoads’ talent, you see, shined perfectly bright on the two studio albums he made with Ozzy, but live, Randy was a fucking supernova, and the rest of the band – which included Randy’s Quiet Riot pal Rudy Sarzo on bass, former Black Oak Arkansas, Pat Travers, and Gary Moore drummer, Tommy Aldridge, Keyboardist Don Airey, and some crazy bat-biting motherfucker – wasn’t too shabby either.
Tribute begins with the ubiquitous “O Fortuna” from German composer Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana as the band’s intro music. You may not know the title – I had to look it up myself – but you’ll know the music when you hear it. Eschewing any sort of dramatic entrance, Ozzy immediately begins talking up the crowd, but, as “O Fortuna” reaches its climax, Oz bellows “Rock n’ Roll!” and the band launches into the quasi-speed metal of “I Don’t Know.” After 20-odd years the hair still stands up on my arms, every time I hear this.
The energy on this record is infectious. Ozzy has always been a manic frontman, even when singing over Black Sabbath’s lumbering wall of sound. With his solo band and Randy’s up-tempo compositions, he had players and songs better suited to that manic energy. I can’t say whether these recordings were tinkered with in the studio, but they certainly sound authentically live, and Ozzy sounds great. By all accounts, during this period and perhaps most periods, Ozzy was out of his mind on drink and drugs, but at this juncture it seems to have taken no toll on his performance and may even have enhanced it.
Let’s get to the meat of the matter here: Randy Fucking Rhoads. As the lone guitar player in a heavy metal band, Randy has a lot of musical space to fill, and brothers and sisters, does he ever fill it. Randy crams licks into almost every empty space, no matter how small, through an endless onslaught squealing artificial harmonics (Zakk Wylde was no doubt taking notes), bends, trills, toggle switch fluttering (Tom Morello was listening too), hammer-ons, pull-offs, and whammy bar dive-bombs. One could say that Rhoads over-played – he runs right over the dramatic bass intro to “Crazy Train” with a solo, for instance, and tacks on another at the tracks conclusion – but his playing was so positively exhilarating that it’s hard to find fault. In the wake the of hundreds of mind-blowing metal guitar virtuosos that have followed, and because his recorded output is so small, it might be difficult to understand just how special a player Randy was, but to my ears he played like the guitar was a part of his body, his soul, even, with complete and seemingly effortless command of the instrument. He combined technical ability, emotion and showmanship in way that few in the rock arena, save Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, ever have.
It helps your status as a guitar hero immeasurably when you play songs that people actually give a shit about. Fortunately, Randy’s talent as a composer was every bit the equal of his talent as a performer. Randy’s classical background helped to lend depth and sophistication to Ozzy’s music, but he managed to keep the songs accessible and brimming with vital energy. Tribute is a great album not just because the performances are great, but also because the songs are great, and that is a testament to the songcraft of Randy Rhoads and, to varying degrees, bassist/lyricist Bob Daisley, drummer Lee Kerslake, and Don Airey, all of whom contributed to the songwriting (some without due credit) on Ozzy’s first two and far-and-away best albums.
Tribute is a compilation of several performances from 1981 and includes every song from Blizzard of Ozz, save “Dee”, but even that is represented by a studio outtake bonus track. These shows were most likely recorded shortly before or after the release of Diary of a Madman, as “Flying High Again” and “Believer” are the only representatives from that album. “Over the Mountain” and/or the title track would have been great additions, but Randy died too soon, and this is all we have. Ozzy has famously always had great guitar players in his band, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde being the most notable after Randy, but all that talent has managed – with the most generous assessment – only a handful of truly great songs over 35 years and eight more studio albums. To this day, Randy’s songs make up the backbone of Ozzy’s live set. Tribute, in a way, is as strong for the filler it lacks as the greatness it contains. Admittedly, “No Bone Movies” is pretty fucking dumb, and not exactly a homerun of a closer, but otherwise, the set list is impeccable.
Also of interest on Tribute is Randy’s interpretation of three Black Sabbath tracks. Rhoads wasn’t much of a Sabbath fan, so his renditions were not particularly reverent. The leaden trudge of “Iron Man” seems to try Randy’s patience, as the band only performs about half the song, with Rhoads tacking a nervous squeal on the end of nearly every phrase. The more energetic “Children of the Grave” suits the band’s style much better, but even so, it’s played about 20 percent faster than the original. The up-beat simplicity of “Paranoid” provided Rhoads with the perfect canvas to paint a masterpiece of whammy bar abuse, and his solo, as I’m sure you can imagine, uses roughly ten times as many notes as Tony Iommi’s laid back fuzzy workout on the original version. Purists might quibble with the liberties Randy took with these classic tunes, but Iommi’s riffs are more than sturdy enough to handle the abuse, and I find it interesting to hear one metal master interpret the work of another.
The only real missteps on Tribute are the momentum-killing extended solos. I mean no disrespect to drummers nor to the importance of drums in rock music, but there is almost nothing worse than a drum solo. Tommy Aldridge is a fantastic drummer, but his nearly-five-minute solo at the end of “Steal Away the Night” is five minutes too long. I know Ozzy probably needed some time to do more blow, but in five minutes he probably could have snorted half of Columbia. Furthermore, I think I’ve made it pretty clear that Randy Rhoads is a veritable guitar god to me, but I don’t need to hear him wank unaccompanied for two minutes in the middle of “Suicide Solution” either.
After re-connecting with this album and discovering that after over a decade I still have practically every note and all of Ozzy’s stage banter memorized (“You guys are stiffs. STAND UP!”), I have come to the realization that Tribute is not only my favorite Ozzy album, it’s one of my favorite albums, period. None of us can know what could have been, but Randy’s recorded work, little though it was, gives us a pretty good idea of how much potentially great music was tragically lost in that plane crash in 1982. Thankfully, for those of us that never got to see Randy live, we have Tribute as proof that in the live setting, Randy was every bit the guitar hero he was in the studio and more.