April 11, 2021

FTV: Last Man Standing


     We have visited Uriah Heep twice in past FTV’s.  There was a feature focusing on guitarist Mick Box back in 2017 (FTV:  Uriah Heep 11-15-17) and another featuring drummer Lee Kerslake in 2019 (FTV:  RIP Lee Kerslake 5-8-19).  In the 2017 piece, Box talked about the challenges of being the last original band member and how he treated the current version of Uriah Heep almost like it was a new band.  When we spoke about Kerslake two years ago, the main theme centered on the drummer’s determination to fight through a myriad of health problems that had been dogging him since he retired from Heep in 2007.  As the above title hints, one of them is now the last man standing from the classic Uriah Heep lineup, and it isn’t Kerslake.

     Like many bands that survive decades longer than the norm, Uriah Heep has had a fair number of members since their 1970 debut, Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble.  The rate of attrition in Heep was not rapid when compared to some bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Skynyrd’s tragic plane crash on October 20, 1977 claimed six souls including three band members, their assistant tour manager, and the two pilots, a mere three days after the release of their Street Survivors album.  Skynyrd has reached the same ‘last original man of the classic line-up’ status with only guitarist Gary Rossington still performing as they wind down their storied career.  At age 73, Mick Box is busy planning Heep’s return to the road in the post COVID-19 pandemic world.  In his most recent discussion with Classic Rock Magazine (The Magic CircleCRM #286 – April 2021), Box revisited the band’s history as the fiftieth anniversary of their breakout album Demons And Wizards looms on the horizon in 2022.

     Uriah Heep wasn’t Mick Box’s first band.  He began his professional career with The Stalkers in his teens.  The Stalkers became Spice in 1966 when they first came to the attention of their eventual manager/producer/publisher Gerry Bron.  Box learned his craft in the shadow of The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who, and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates.  It was Bron (who later  formed Heep’s label,  Bronze Records) who suggested the Uriah Heep name.  He set them up to write and record their first album at a community center in West London.  The MkII Deep Purple lineup was also working on their Deep Purple In Rock album at the same Hanwell CC.  Box recalled listening to Purple through the walls during this period.  Heep’s Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble album was constructed as the band was, in Box’s summation, “just thrashing about trying to find a direction.”  The mix of folk, blues, jazz, and hard rock did not find favor with the rock press at a certain American music magazine that was trying hard to be the arbiter of what was or wasn’t ‘good’ rock music.  

     Rolling Stone magaizne critic Melissa Mills famously wrote, “If this group makes it, I’ll have to commit suicide.”  While this seems overly harsh, one needs to remember Rolling Stone seemed to have little liking of bands coming from across the pond in the early 1970s.  Led Zeppelin’s debut album was deemed “dull, redundant and prissy”.  The previously mentioned Deep Purple In Rock was described as “dull” and the band as, “quiet nonentities, lacking both expertise and intuition.”  “Wooden, inane, and plodding” were applied to Black Sabbath’s first album, with RS further categorizing the heavy metal pioneers as, “Just like Cream!  But worse.”   I would be stating the obvious to say Rolling Stone was trying to be a little too hip (even for them) as they predicted the demise of all of these bands way too early in their careers, including Heep.  I find no evidence that Mills did herself in (in the wake of Uriah Heep’s success), but it is worth noting a search for Heep’s name today conjures up many pages covering their positive reviews and album sales over the five decades that have passed since she tried to shovel dirt on them.

     After the release of Mill’s ‘suicide’ review (which the band included in the liner notes for a later album), the band dug in a went to work on two albums released in 1971;  Salisbury and Look At Yourself.  The band’s line up of David Byron on vocals, Mark Clarke on bass, Lee Kerslake on drums, Box on guitar, and Ken Hensley on acoustic guitar and keyboards remained intact during the first American tours in 1971 and 1972.  What changed was the band’s songwriting dynamics.  Hensley began to take the lead in crafting the next two studio albums rather than Box and Byron.  Between the release of Salisbury and Look At Yourself, Heep played their first gig in America.  Opening for Three Dog Night in front of 16,000 new fans in Indianapolis was an eye opener.  Hensley recalled later, “When we got there, and saw all the limos and groupies, it was mind-boggling for us.”  Box continued the band’s reaction:  “There was never a feeling of being overawed by it all.  We all felt that this is where we should be.  The American audience loved us from the first minute onward.”  Bassist Clarke opted out of the band after their second tour  supporting Deep Purple.  Feeling the stress of touring would drive him mad, the ex-Colosseum bassist left after a four month stint with Heep.  He may not have been around when Gary Thain replaced him for the recording of their fourth record, but he did leave his imprint on the track that would elevate them from a slot opening for other groups to headlining their own shows.

     Box recalled Hensley noodling on an acoustic guitar in the back of their tour van:  “[Ken playing The Wizard] was the first time I’d heard anyone play guitar with a drop-D tuning.  He couldn’t find a middle eight, so Mark Clarke wrote that, and the whole song sounded so good to everyone.  I think we all knew it was something special.”  Especially Bron who quickly booked them into Lansdowne Studios in Holland Park to record it for a single release.  Before it went international, New Zealnder Thain had joined the band and his trial by fire came via a five night stand at the legendary Whisky A Go Go club in Los Angeles.  The meld of Heep’s two newest members clicked and they kicked the entire band up another notch.  According to Box, “Now we finally had a real steam engine of a rhythm section.  Having those two powerhouses behind us provided a wonderful foundation for the band.  Lee was a fantastic drummer, and Gary would come up with these great bass lines that never got in the way of the melody of the song but always seemed to enhance it.  It was an incredible knack,  It was a real pleasure to work with the pair of them.  Everything just clicked into place.”

     By March of 1972, Uriah Heep was back at Lansdowne to work on their fourth release Demons and Wizards.  Everything was, as Box said, clicking:  “Everyone one was focused…and the chemistry of the band was bar none.  There were no personality clashes, no factions fighting for different things, no diversions.”  Hensley later noted, “There was a magic in that combination of people that created so much energy and enthusiasm.  We all wanted the same thing, we were all willing to make the same sacrifices to achieve it and we were all very committed.”  As he had done with the sessions for Look At Yourself, Hensley took charge and brought in five songs.  Tracks like The Spell, Rainbow Demon, Paradise, and Circle of Hands followed similar fantasy themes that had been mined in the album’s first track, The Wizard.  Jamming with Byron and Kerslake, Box crafted the more Zeppelinesque tracks All My Life, Poet’s Justice, and Traveller in Time.  The band was so well tuned, they pumped the songs out in quick fashion.  Box told CRM, “Someone would nip out to the shop, and come back to find another song written.  It was such an easy album to record.”  With FM radio just starting to open up the airwaves beyond the 1960’s Top Forty formats, bands like Uriah Heep were positioned to make albums meant to be heard as albums, not just one-off singles.  Hensley said, “[FM] liberated my creativity.  And the fact that FM radio in America was pioneering the musical freedom trend made it even more inspiring.”

     The ear-catcher for the album was actually written in fifteen minutes by Hensley in response to a tongue-in-cheek comment made while waiting for a flight to America.  While discussing the outside world’s views of the rock star life, someone said, “It’s easy living, isn’t it?” as a joke.  The band had previously concluded that they had overthought some of their arrangements, but Hensley didn’t over work this one.  Easy Livin’ was the unanimous choice for the ‘radio hit’ single the band needed to put Demons and Wizards on a fast track to the top of the charts.  Released on May 19, 1972 it peaked in the U.K. at No. 20 a month later.  Even Rolling Stone did an about face and gave both the album and the Easy Livin’ single (released in August) triple thumbs-up reviews:  “Demons and Wizards has to be the party album of the year so far.”  “They may have started out as a thoroughly dispensable neo-Creak & Blooze outfit, but at this point Uriah Heep are shaping up into one hell of a first-rate modern rock band.”  “[Easy Livin’] is a flat out fuzz-toned punk rocker.”

Easy Livin’ would peak at No. 39 in the Billboard Hot 100 and Demons and Wizards would reach No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart by the end of October.

     The band went back on the road, starting in the American midwest where they had found an accepting audience.  They were now living the rock star life they had dreamed about, but along with the dream, they began to see the darker side of fame.  Byron told The New Musical Express the following in a feature he sat for in 1973:  While in Detroit, a Mick Jagger-obsessed fan known as ‘Jaggers’ wearing a long black coat and white face paint visited their dressing room.  Jaggers told them, “You see, the thing is, people think I’m dead.  And that’s why I dress in black.  If any one asks if you’ve seen me, say you haven’t.”  Byron states for the record, “It turns out he was a lunatic.  And it goes on and on and on in every major town in America.”  Box finishes by adding, “It got very, very silly.  We got to the point where we had bodyguards outside of each of our hotel rooms…It got very decadent.  All the stories you hear about being in a successful rock band in America are true.  And I can’t tell you any of them.  Ha, ha!”

     The wheels began to depart the vehicle when Gerry Bron made the classic management mistake found at the heart of many a band’s disintegration.  Instead of giving the lads some time to enjoy their new found celebrity, he pushed them back into the studio reasoning, “What better way is there to capitalize on the success of Demons and Wizards than to push out another album right away?” Bron’s ‘go-go-go’ mentality resulted in a  lackluster album (The Magician’s Birthday) and a growing feeling in the band that Bron was only listening to Hensley.  They still sold a lot of records but never approached the level of Demons and Wizards again.  Having played in 61 countries and amassed album sales in excess of 45 million worldwide does not quite frost over the lumps in the cake that appeared in the decade after Demons and Wizards.

     Gary Thain was shown the door early when he complained about Bron’s slave driving ways.  He was gone by 1974 and soon after died from a heroin overdose.  David Byron’s alcohol consumption made him increasingly unreliable.  He was phased out of the band and the health problems Byron developed took him out of the picture permanently in 1985.  Kerslake and Box had visited him to try and get him back into the band, but for some reason David’s manager advised him to pass on the offer.   Byron was all of 38 when he passed away and Box still wonders how Thain and Byron’s story would have unfolded if the Bron team had been a little more compassionate about the band member’s physical and mental health.   

     In the subsequent years, Box and Kerslake kept Uriah Heep together with a succession of vocalists (six at current count but the longest serving voice is current singer Bernie Shaw) and several bass players including the late John Wetton (Roxy Music, King Crimson, Asia) and Trevor Bolder (Wishbone Ash, Spiders from Mars).  When Hensley left in 1980, most assumed the band was going to begin an unstoppable death spiral.  The lone remaining original member and only guitar player through all the years, Mick Box, had other ideas. As he told CRM, “[Heep] have enjoyed career highs that precious few modern rock bands could ever aspire to.  We’ve got a great foundation with a history and songs that have stood the test of time, and we’re still writing new music which the fans are enjoying.”  For the record (pun intended), Heep’s 25th studio album, Living the Dream came out in 2018 and whatever plans they may have had to record more new music are on hold with the current COVID 19 pandemic complications that have left the entire music business in disarray.

     When we last visited Lee Kerslake in April of 2019, he was already well past the ‘shelf date’ his medical providers had predicted for him.  Kerslake finally laid down his sticks for good in September of 2020 after completing one final recording project (Eleventeen) which was released in 2021.  Hensley kept busy with numerous musical projects after his Heep years.  He eventually moved to America and then to Spain.  A quick scan of his music diary shows he kept busy with solo and touring gigs right to the end.  He also completed an album shortly before his death (My Book of Answers) that was slated for release in March of 2021.  Hensley passed away in Spain in November of 2020 after a brief illness.

     Of the original players who crafted Demons and Wizards, it will be left to the last man standing, Mick Box, to comment on the significance of their finest vinyl moment:  “There’s something on every Uriah Heep album that I can look back on with fondness, but Demons and Wizards means a lot to me.  Where we were as a unit, creatively, it was the band at its height, with that line-up.  Listening back to the album through speakers at Lansdowne back in 1972, we felt like we had something special, but that was just in our inner circle.  After that you just hope that it might take on a life of its own and become successful.  Which to our immense gratitude, it did.  I know how much that music means to so many different people, and it’s humbling.  With the Roger Dean cover, it was the first time that the music and the lyrics and the artwork were intrinsically linked, and I think that contributed to its success.  But then, funnily enough, it was Easy Livin’ with no mystical lyrics whatsoever, which was the hit that opened up the world stage for us.  If that song taught us anything, it’s that sometimes in this business it’s best not to overthink.”

     Right said, Mick Box.  After all, it’s only rock and roll…and we like it!

Top Piece Video:  The Wizard miming Demons and Wizards (look ma, no cords!)