Zakk Wylde’s First Concert With Ozzy Was to a Crowd of Mass Murderers

MrPanyGoff, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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Everyone gets a little case of the jitters on the first day of a new job. It’s important to make a positive impression on your new employer and coworkers, which creates a kind of pressure that can rattle the best of us. All you can do is put your best foot forward, maintain a stiff upper lip, and hang on for the ride. Que sera, sera and all that.

Now that we’ve got the relatable part down, imagine that your new employer is your childhood hero and that your first day at work was playing a concert in front of some of the most dangerous criminals in the entire world. That’s what happened to a young Zakk Wylde at his first gig with Ozzy Osbourne.

The story goes like this: In 1987, Wylde’s band Stonehenge were regulars in the same Jersey Shore circuit that Bruce Springsteen came up in decades prior. Through pure chance, an up-and-coming a&r representative with loose connections to Ozzy Osbourne named Dave Feld saw the young guitarist play. Knowing that Jake E. Lee had just left the Prince Of Darkness’ band, Feld convinced Wylde to send in an audition tape for the gig. 

Getting tipped off that Ozzy was actually in New York at the time, Wylde set out to deliver the tape in person. Unfortunately for him, Ozzy was out drinking with Andre The Giant when he arrived, but he was put in touch with Sharon Osbourne who invited the young guitarist to come audition in LA.

During the subsequent audition, Wylde told Classic Rock: “Seeing Ozzy sitting in the room was pretty shocking. Talking to some of the others at the hotel it was obvious they weren’t there because they were Sabbath fans. They knew that the gig paid pretty well and saw it as a stepping stone. When I started jamming, I just recall Ozzy looking over at Sharon and giving her the thumbs up.”

Impressed as Ozzy and Sharon were, the gig was not in the bag for Wylde just yet. He was flown to England to try writing with Ozzy. The chemistry was there, but before Ozzy was willing to risk it in the studio he wanted to see how the young guitarist would hold up in a live setting.

In an interview with Hit Parader, Ozzy said: “I did it to work on some material with the new guitarist. We wanted Zakk to fit in with the rest of the band before we went into the studio, but I didn’t want the press looking down his ass at every show. 

“Someone came up with the idea of doing a prison tour because that would give us the chance to get the feeling for the road without worrying about press reaction. It was a pain to get permission to do it because we had to get Margaret Thatcher’s permission. Can you believe the Prime Minister had to waste time signing papers that allowed us to play those prisons? My only fear was once we got into those places they wouldn’t let me out.”

That’s right… Zakk Wylde’s first live performance with Ozzy was a trial by fire like none other: A concert at England’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison. For context on just how hardcore this place was, among the inmates housed there were prolific serial killer and necrophile Dennis Nilsen, Denmark Place arsonist John Thompson, and family annihilator Jeremy Bamber. Between these three mass murderers alone was a body count of over 50 people.

In the book I Am Ozzy, the Madman from Birmingham fondly reminisces: “My last good memory of the eighties, before everything went dark, was being sent to Wormwood Scrubs,” he recalled. “Not because I’d broken the law again – amazingly – but because I was asked to play a gig there. What a crazy experience that was. 

“I might have been in a few police station lock-ups over the years, but I hadn’t set foot in a proper slammer since I’d walked out of Winson Green in 1966. The iron bars, the balconies, even the guards all looked the same as they had twenty years before, but it was the smell that really brought it all back to me: like a public shitter, times ten. Bad enough to make your eyes water. 

“I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to work in one of those places. I suppose they’re all ex-army, so they’re used to it.”

Supporting Ozzy at the Wormwood Scrubs gig was a band of prisoners and guards called The Scrubs, who had oddly had enough success to release two singles during their tenure. Wylde told Metal Hammer of his experiences that day: “The whole thing was bizarro land; we performed in front of these fuckin’ lifers. All I could think was, ‘I hope I pass this fuckin audition’; I’m the closest thing to Pamela Anderson these motherfuckers are going to see for the rest of their lives!”

All things considered, I think it went pretty well.

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