When Ozzy Osbourne covered John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” in 2005, there were layers of meaning behind why the tune hit so close to home for him. Not only could he relate to lyrics like “As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small… a working-class hero is something to be,” but Lennon was also part of The Beatles, the band that sparked Osbourne’s passion for music and ultimately set him on a path out of the world he was born into.
“There ain't many people who have had such longevity as I have,” the British heavy metal vocalist says in the two-hour special, Biography: The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne, airing September 7 at 9/8c on A&E. “I feel honored that people still want to see me.”
At 71 years old, Osbourne is still, no doubt, one of the biggest names in music. First finding success as the Black Sabbath vocalist through the 1970s and then as a solo frontman in the 1980s before becoming a reality television personality on The Osbournes from 2005 to 2008, what makes his journey all the more incredible is that he actually grew up in the humblest of conditions.
“Dad is a kid from the streets who worked in factories,” his 34-year-old son Jack says. “He’s very much this working-class blue-collar guy.”
Osbourne 'felt like a peasant' as a child
Born on December 3, 1948, as John Michael Osbourne in Birmingham, England, the future rocker spent much of his childhood running around the factory town, often playing in sites that were bombed during World War II.
With three sisters, Jean, Iris and Gillian, and two brothers, Paul and Tony, the house he grew up in at 14 Lodge Road wasn’t just lively — but crowded. “The bedroom I had back then was no bigger than two single beds, side by side,” Osbourne says in the special. “There's no inside toilet — it was a bucket to pee at the end of the bed. We had an outside toilet where you go to go for a dump.”
Instead of toilet paper, they used newspaper — and they didn’t even have soap and water. “I had quite a bit of shame when I was a kid because I always felt dirty,” he said. “I always felt unclean, I felt like a peasant.”
Despite the conditions, there was something about him that stood apart. “My father always said I'd do something big one day,” Osborne says. “He says to me, ‘You're either going to do something very special, or you're gonna go to prison.’ He was right.”
He lived with a constant sense of fear and doom
What his parents, Jack and Lillian, did instill in their six kids was a dedicated work ethic. “My father was a toolmaker,” Osbourne remembers in the documentary. “He never would miss a day from work, come rain, come shine.”
His father worked all night, tag-teaming with his wife, who would start her factory shift when he came home. The routine proved tough for young Osbourne. “I was petrified most of the time, I was always a very nervous guy — fear of impending doom ruled my life,” he admits. “When my dad was sleeping through the day, I would be freaking out, thinking he was dead. I'd have to poke him to make sure he was still breathing. I can tell you he wasn't too pleased about that.”
School wasn’t much of a haven either, especially after finding out he had dyslexia. “There was a lot of shame for me because if you had that learning disability, they would put you in the corner with a cone on your head,” he says. “They'd call you the class dunce — and the whole class laughed at you.”
Instead, he found humor as the class clown, often seeking out the “biggest guy in the class” to make him laugh and be on his side. But looking back, the singer thinks even that tactic may have been a cry for help: “Most comedians I know offstage are very unhappy people. And that's kind of true to my life. I'm making you laugh to make me feel safe around you.”
Osbourne was jailed for six weeks
By the time he was 16, Osbourne was on his own and truly struggling. “I didn't want to work in a day job, I couldn't stand getting up for a job in the morning," he says. "I could never hold a nine-to-five job ever. I'd go from plumber to a builder.”
One of his gigs was at a slaughterhouse. “I remember gagging all day,” Osborne says. “But eventually, you get used to the smell.”
His brother recalls him just always finding trouble. “John used to go out and have a drink, get in fights and that was it,” Paul Osbourne says in the special. “Dad was always telling him off.”
The pinnacle came when he broke into a shop behind his house. “A lot of kids turn to crime and I did for a bit, but I wasn't really good at it,” Osbourne admits. “I wasn't a career criminal — I kinda wanted to get caught in a way to be accepted by the rest of the bad guys.”
He soon found himself in jail — and his dad didn’t pay the bail to teach him a lesson. “When you're in a place full of bad people, it's a bit of an education,” the future global superstar explains. “ They don't want to kill you, they want to have sex with a young boy with long auburn hair.”
After six weeks, he knew he never wanted to go back to prison and that he never wanted to work in a factory.
The Beatles inspired Osbourne to pursue music
But there was one thing he always found solace in. “Music was a very integral part of the family,” Osbourne remembers. “There was always music, with the record player, radio or the piano.”
When he turned 14, he truly discovered music by listening to The Beatles. “It changed my life,” he says. “It gave me the seed to want to do it myself.”
But how was a working-class kid from Birmingham going to launch onto the global music scene like the Fab Four? Fortunately, he had a loving father, willing to give his son a chance. He talked him into giving him a check for 250 British pounds and Osbourne bought a Shure microphone, microphone stand and Vox speaker.
“My dad was a good guy — I loved him,” Osbourne adds lovingly. “I thought it was the best gift ever.”
Without that, he never would have gotten his chance to start: “The only thing I had a passion for was music.”
Osbourne's humble beginnings shaped his artistry
Now as a Grammy-award winning artist and Rock and Rock Hall of Famer — who even has his own music festival, Ozzfest — Osbourne isn’t just one of the greatest, he literally laid the groundwork for the music industry of the last few decades.
“I don’t know what music would be like if it weren’t for the influence of Ozzy,” producer Rick Rubin says in the Biography special. “Ozzy changed everything,”
Fellow rocker Rob Zombie credits it all to his past: “The working class thing is key because you grew up with nothing and you do everything you can every day so you don’t go back to nothing. It’s all about escaping your reality to something better.”
As for Osbourne himself, he chalks it all up to just being true to himself. “The reason why I do what I do is because it’s what everyone wants to do but ain’t got the guts to,” he says. “All I am is honest.”
For a working-class kid from England, the journey was always within him. “I had a dream and it came true,” Osbourne says in the Biography special. “I have a good life.”