April 27, 2019

FTV: R.I.P. Lee Kerslake


    By the time you read this, Lee Kerslake may actually be ‘resting in peace’ – as in ‘dead’.  If not and he is still hanging in there, be assured that he was at peace long before he was told that he wasn’t long for this world.  I knew that since 2007 he had been battling a variety of illnesses serious enough to retire him from his drumming duties with Uriah Heep.  In 2014, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and given four years to live, yet in the early part of 2019, he was still here, contemplating his newest health crisis (now being told he has four or five months left).  Hearing Kerslake describe his health to Classic Rock Magazine’s Dave Ling (Issue 261, May 2019), it sounded more like the recounting of some sporting event:  “I have bone cancer, a complicated type that’s very nasty,” he confides, seemingly without a flicker of emotion.  “It’s gone right down my spine. . . Now I’ve got diabetes, psoriatic arthritis, and a heart murmur. One more and I’d have hit the jackpot.  I’ve got no choice but to laugh, and of course, music helps me to keep on fighting.” It is sad news to his fans, but it is good to know that the anger and bitterness he felt about parts of his career have been laid to rest as he contemplates his mortality.   He has a head start on ‘resting in peace’ and that seems to be a better way to go than wasting time being bitter about the past.

    Lee Kerslake’s first major band was The Gods, a band that may not be well known in the States but had a who’s who of famous musicians pass through its ranks.  The short list of those who played with The Gods would include Greg Lake (ELP), Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), John Glassock (Jethro Tull), and future Uriah Heep members Paul Newton and Ken Hensley.  Kerslake was toiling with the National Head Band when he was asked to join Uriah Heep in 1971, two years before Heep recorded the album that would be their big break through, Demons and Wizards (1973).  As Heep made their first in-roads in the States (touring with a new American band named KISS opening for them), the critics weren’t kind.  One Rolling Stones reviewer stated, “If this band makes it, I will have to commit suicide!” (which Uriah Heep eventually did and the writer did not).

    At first, Kerslake had reservations about leaving his NHB band mates to join Heep, at least until he found out how much money he would make.  He joined a solid band with a charismatic vocalist (David Byron) who Kerslake describes thusly: “When David was on, nobody could touch him . . . I remember one gig opening for Rod Stewart, who was one of the best showman in rock.  After we came off, Rod asked, ‘How the (expletive deleted) am I supposed to follow that?’”

    Kerslake was a robust drummer in the same vein as John Bonham, burly enough that the rest of the band called him ‘The Bear’.  He is also a gifted songwriter in his own right. At times (and by his own admission), he has been seen as opinionated. This latter quality put him at odds with Heep’s primary songwriter Hensley and the band’s Bronze Records label boss, Gerry Bron (who was also their producer and manager).  “It was a conflict of interest,” Kerslake admits now. “Gerry and I never really got along. We clashed at almost every step of the way, I admit that.” When Byron’s drinking affected his ability to perform, he was ousted from the band. By 1976, bassist Gary Thain had died of a heroin overdose and the rest of the band was complaining about how hard Bron was pushing the band.  Some blamed Bron for Thain’s death. Kerslake told guitarist Mick Box, “I can’t fight all of the problems because I haven’t got the strength alone,” but being the loudest voice in the choir, it further strained his relationship with both Hensley and Bron. In October of 1979, he left the band: “[Bron} actually called me ‘irrelevant’. . . this was the man who took fifty percent of our earnings and stopped paying us for a year to finance his airline project.”

    One door closes and another opens;  Kerslake had no sooner exited Uriah Heep when he was asked to join Ozzy Osbourne’s new Blizzard of Ozz band that included bassist Bob Daisley and an unknown guitar player from California named Randy Rhoads.  Although he joined well into the writing of their first album, he brought in ideas for lyrics and did all the drums. The album was so good that Don Arden, the head of their label Jet Records (and the father of Mrs Ozzy Osbourne, Sharon) told them to, “Get straight back into the studio and make another one, because you’re going to be away for at least a year and a half on tour in America.”  Kerslake and Daisley were a big part of Osbourne’s new found success, but they became expendable after disagreeing with Sharon about playing two shows a day in some cities. Even Ozzy and Randy Rhodes hated the idea of multiple shows, but it was Kerslake who ended up with a target on his back for being the messenger. Sharon wanted new members in the band and Sharon usually got what she wanted.

    The whole affair with Ozzy and Sharon became a nightmare for Kerslake:  “Even before Bob and I were sacked, Randy had told a friend of Bob’s that he was leaving the band.  He wanted to teach classical guitar. But of course he never got the chance. What happened – going up in a plane, with a pilot on cocaine, which dive-bombed the bus and the wing catching the bus – was completely stupid.  But Randy was going to leave, no question about that.” Ozzy changed his band members and the Osbournes, while claiming the two were ‘just hired guns’, denied Kerslake and Daisley royalty payments on their contributions to The Blizzard of Ozz albums.  The Osbournes bought the rights for the two albums and rebranded them as Ozzy solo releases. It became a bitter feud with mounting legal fees that caused Kerslake to declare bankruptcy, lose his home, and in the end, the court case (not by the merit of the case, but because they waited too long to file).  The Osbournes even went so far as to re-record the drums and bass parts with newer band members before the albums were re-released. It was a low blow and it took ten years for the original recordings to be reinstated. It is hard to imagine that Kerslake would ever forgive them for denying his part in albums that resurrected Ozzy’s career.

    Eventually, Kerslake reached out to Ozzy and Sharon with a simple request:  Could he have copies of the platinum records that The Blizzard of Ozz and The Diary of a Mad Man had earned?

“Life is too short, “ Kerslake has said, “I’d like to think that Sharon, Ozzy, and I are friends.”  Sharon made contact, passed along Ozzy’s best wishes, and granted his request. Seven years earlier, he raged that Sharon Osbourne was “evil,”  but with his prognosis, Kerslake has mellowed; he wants to leave with “a clear conscience”. “That’s it,” says a smiling Kerslake. “everything is done and dusted.”  He even took to Facebook to tell some of his less forgiving fans, “People, please lay off of Sharon. Ozzy is very ill and she has enough to contend with.”

    Being bounced from Ozzy’s band put him in line to re-join Heep in time for their 1982 album Abominog.  While they were still recording for Bronze Records, Gerry Bron didn’t like the songs they were writing so he didn’t produce the first two albums recorded after Kerslake returned.  According to Kerslake, “Micky Box wanted to put the band back together again, Oh, how I loved that period and Abominog.”  Uriah Heep was re-energized throughout the 1980s, had some struggles during the 1990s and was riding the early 2000s wave of resurgence along with many other classic rock bands.  When his health problems drove him from the band, “Walking away from Uriah Heep was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but I knew I was ill.” He has made a couple of cameo appearances since leaving the band, including a couple that included his other old nemesis, Ken Hensley.

      Kerslake always felt that both Gerry Bron and Hensley conspired to oust him from the band.  “Ken wanted control of the band, and he couldn’t, not with myself and Micky around,” he says now.  It caused me to leave the band. And I’m glad that I did so.” In October 1979, Kerslake had had enough and told Bron where to stick his label:  “[But when] Gerry ordered me from his studio, I replied, ‘When I’m ready: I bought one-fifth of this place.’” Hensley’s part in his exit caused Kerslake to thunder about never forgiving him for his “skulduggery”.  The cold war thawed in 2001 when Hensley made a guest appearance with the band for an event to celebrate The Magician’s Birthday Party.  Recalls Kerslake, “Ken walked into rehearsals and gave me a huge hug.  I was so glad [the bitterness] was over. We had both suffered for the negativity.  It was time to let it go.”

    Russell Gilbrook took over the drum chair and has now been with Heep for twelve years and four albums, including their latest, Living the Dream (2018).  As anyone who has ever hung around long enough to watch their replacement would find, Kerslake has admitted that it took him some time to get used to the new drummer’s ‘busier’ style:  “At first Russ thrashed around like a lunatic on The Muppet Show (presumably he is talking about Animal, the drummer in the Muppet band), but he’s learned to pull things back.  Now he’s tremendous.” The new album has been hard to find in stock, which is great news for a band that has been around as long as Uriah Heep.  As soon as we find a copy, we will be airing it. In the meantime, we have a good collection of other classic Heep albums that we will be airing when this article goes to print.

    Kerslake keeps himself busy with a solo recording project and a crowdfunding campaign for an autobiographical documentary called Not On The Heep.  The album is called Eleventeen which he describes as, “A varied mix of styles, from a ballad about my mum to a singalong pub song called A Port And A Brandy,” while the film’s focus is, “The camaraderie between musicians who remain mates even when they don’t speak to one another for twenty or thirty years.”  He hopes the film and album can be released at the same time, but in any event, “They are what they are and I’m proud of them.”

    Kerslake plans to hang his Blizzard of Ozz platinum albums on his bedroom wall so he can see them often, saying, “I worked hard for them, so why not?”  Let us all hope we can find a similar peace in our lives as Lee Kerslake has, without waiting until the end is near. ‘Rest In Peace’ does not come with a stipulation to start at one’s passing from this mortal coil.  This being his swan song, we will let Kerslake have the final word about finding peace, even toward Gerry Bron (who passed away in 2012): “I could go on forever about how badly Gerry ripped off the band and me, but he’s dead now.  Let him rest in peace, and I’ll keep on going for as long as I can.”

Top Piece Video:  Lee Kerslake joins Uriah Heep on stage at Shepards Bush Empire in 2018.