Vinny Appice: The John Lennon Connection

Vinny Appice: The John Lennon Connection
By Peter Lindblad

Going to high school was a drag for Vinny Appice. Absolute drudgery it was for the future Black Sabbath drummer, sitting in class listening to teachers drone on and on about subjects that bored him to death.
His only salvation was that in the evening hours the 16-year-old Appice could slip into a whole other world that was far beyond anything his classmates could imagine.

Holding down his end in a nine-piece rock band with full horns that also dabbled in funk and jazz, Appice was part of a group that was managed by the Record Plant Studios in New York City. It was called BOMF and Jimmy Iovine was their producer.

“So we used to rehearse upstairs at the Record Plant,” recalls Appice. “We had our room. And we’d be up there every night, like the boys’ club, hanging out. At night we’d rehearse and write songs.”

As it just so happened, at the time, Iovine was also working quite a bit with John Lennon in the same facility. Eventually, Appice would cross paths with the former Beatle.

“One night they needed handclaps, so Jimmy said, ‘Hey guys, come on down here. We need handclaps,’” said Appice. “All right. There were nine of us, so it was easy. And we get down there, and there’s John Lennon and Elton John in the control room, so we did handclaps on ‘Whatever Gets You through the Night’ for that song. Those handclaps are me and my band. So we left. We didn’t get to meet them, but I guess John said, ‘Who the heck is that? Who are those guys?’ We’d just done handclaps. ‘Oh … they rehearse upstairs. I’m producing them.’ That’s what Jimmy said. So, a couple of days later, [Lennon] came and hung out – came up to the rehearsal room, watched us play. He liked the band, and he’d come in. We’d smoke pot with him and shit. He actually always wanted coke, but I didn’t do that. But I always had good pot. And we smoked some joints with him, we played pool, we hung out.”

The story doesn’t end there. Later, Lennon would ask the band to back him during a TV performance, and they did three videos with Lennon, all of which appear on “The John Lennon Video Collection” released in 1994.

“So we played at The Hilton, the New York Hilton,” remembers Appice. “We had outfits made, we went to get fitted for them with him and a van… the whole week was us getting prepared for the show, hanging out with him. And then he asked us to do a bunch of videos, and we did that. And then … he produced the owner’s wife in the studio. She had eight songs to record. He was the producer. We were the band. So we worked with him as a producer, too, which was amazing. And we wound up playing live ‘Imagine’ and ‘Slipping and the Sliding.’ So we got to play that with him. So it was pretty cool. It was an amazing time.I was going to high school. I was doing that at night. I would hang out with him, and then the next day, I’d be in school, not paying attention.”

It being the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s tragic death, Appice can’t help but think back to what was going on in his own life back when the world was still in mourning over what had happened. And again, Appice found himself linked to one of popular music’s biggest icons.

Black Sabbath was in the midst of its tour supporting Heaven and Hell, the doom-metal architects’ first LP with Ronnie James Dio taking the place of Ozzy Osbourne. Original drummer Bill Ward had left the band, and Appice was called to fill in without much time to rehearse for an outdoor show in Hawaii. If ever there was a trial by fire, this was it, but Appice held up his end of the bargain.

“Yeah, on the first tour, until I learned those songs, it was a bit mechanical for me until I got the parts right, and then didn’t have to think about it and play it with feel,” said Appice. “So yeah, it became better and better.”

Out of the blue, Warner Bros. contacted Sabbath about doing a song for the soundtrack to the animated sci-fi movie “Heavy Metal.” During a break in the tour, Sabbath, with Appice in tow, took the opportunity to record the song “Mob Rules.”

“We had a couple of days off, somewhere,” said Appice. “And on those days off, we went to John Lennon’s house in England, and he had a studio in there. Ringo owned it at the time, but it was where John [did] Imagine. And it was right after John got shot, too. And it was weird going there. We stayed there for three days, and that’s when we wrote ‘Mob Rules’ and we recorded it there. So after we finished everything and listened back, obviously, it was a really strong song, a good song, and it came together well, and it was really cool. Everybody that brought the band together was like, ‘Oh, this is going to work with Vinny.’ And that reinforced it a little bit for everybody that, yeah, this could work. It’s not just playing a tour and playing the parts that Bill played. That was a turning point for us, becoming more of a band.

The specter of Lennon seemed to haunt Appice. Lennon’s death, in October of 1980, had occurred just a couple months prior to Sabbath’s session at his former house.

“And years ago, I played with John Lennon. I used to work with him,” emphasized Appice. “It was weird winding up … I actually met Lennon and hung out with him and knew him somewhat and then he got shot and now we’re in his house and I got assigned his room. Because you stay in rooms there, and on the front of the room, it said ‘John and Yoko.’ So I got his room, but I didn’t stay in it. I was afraid. I was a kid. I don’t know if I’d stay in it now either with somebody who just got killed, but it was an amazing house. And it was amazing to be a part of anything Beatles. Very cool experience.”

Most recently, Appice was part of Heaven and Hell, the new name given the classic Dio-fronted Black Sabbath lineup. Fans can see and hear Heaven and Hell, for all intents and purposes done now after the death earlier this year of Ronnie James Dio, one more time on CD and DVD versions of Heaven and Hell’s “Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven and Hell” that capture the band’s fiery live performance at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany on July 30, 2009. 

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