© Dave Ling - December 2000 - previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
“If we were to rent the Royal Albert Hall, we could fill it up with all the musicians who’ve been in this band over the years,” chuckles the ever-cheery Mick Box. “It’s amazing – we celebrate our thirtieth anniversary this year, but what’s given us our longevity is that they’ve all been musicians of the highest calibre.”
Uriah Heep’s current line-up has been together for over 13 years, making them the group’s most durable in their long history, but our incredible tale begins at the end of the 1960s when guitarist Box was a member of The Stalkers.
That band’s vocalist quit suddenly and drummer Roger Penlington suggested his cousin might fill the gap. Enter one David Garrick, stockbroker by day and hell-raiser after dark.
“The Stalkers would do rugby clubs, 21st birthday parties – anything to get experience,” remembers Box, who was then working for an export firm in the City.
“David had got up and sung a few rock ‘n’ roll numbers with us while he was tanked up, so we asked him to audition. He didn’t need much persuading, he always had more front than Woolworths!”
The role of frontman suited the newcomer, who depended upon being the life and soul of the party. He later confessed: “I remember as a kid at parties, I always had to be the focus of attention. It fascinated me. I just had to make people watch me.”
“David and I wrote our early songs in the butcher’s shop that I used to live above in Forest Road, Walthamstow,” grins Box fondly. “We had no money, so we’d go downstairs when they closed and plug into the butcher’s electricity – sitting there behind the counter with the lights out! If anyone had seen us we’d have been thrown out of the flat.”
“When I overheard Gerry Bron saying, ‘I am Uriah Heep’ that really pissed me off”
After completing the last of the HP payments on his guitar Box threw in his day job and turned professional. Garrick joined him, changed his surnamed to Byron and the pair formed Spice. Resisting the covers route, the new four-piece made quick progress under the management of bassist Paul Newton’s father, but struggled to secure a record deal. Finally, in 1969, they lucked out when Newton Snr wrote to producer/manager Gerry Bron and persuaded him to attend a Spice gig at the Blues Loft in High Wycombe.
“I often wonder would have happened if I’d ignored that letter,” muses Bron now. “I went along and decided to sign them and we spent nine months recording, but something wasn’t quite right.” Bron insisted that the band needed a full-time keyboard player, and the band claimed to know somebody who fitted the bill, but were hesitant to bring him in because they felt the producer wouldn’t like him.
“When I finally met Ken Hensley I thought he was great, but they still wouldn’t explain the problem,” says Bron now, scratching his head.
“Ken was an unusual bloke,” reflects drummer Lee Kerslake, not yet a Heep member but an ex-bandmate from a previous Hensley act, The Gods. “Tell Ken to turn left and he’d always turn right. He was clever, but devious. For instance, he convinced Gerry to buy Hendrix’s ‘Flying V’ because he wanted to play guitar on a couple of numbers, but a couple of weeks later at the Marquee he was playing a Watkins Rapier. He’d sold the other one and put a couple of grand in his pocket – and we were still paying it off!”
It was Bron who suggested calling themselves after Uriah Heep, the character from Dickens’ David Copperfield novel), and it was certainly a better option than others that were on the table, including Corrugated Dandruff and Bollards. Over the years, of course, the name would be misspelled and corrupted many times, including by a taxi driver in America’s deep south who believed the group he was picking up were called Dry Heaves.
The new line-up gelled instantly. Combining the influence of Vanilla Fudge’s aggressive keyboard work and the sensational harmonies of Three Dog Night, the first track Heep completed was ‘Gypsy’. Based around Box’s stunningly powerful riff, Hensley’s colossal, colourful Hammond organ, Byron’s theatrical vocals and some stunning multi-tracked harmony vocals, it quickly crystallised their sound. Although Heep didn’t exactly conquer the world with 1970’s debut album, ‘Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble’, they famously prompted one US reviewer to remark: “If this band makes it I’ll commit suicide. They sound like a third-rate Jethro Tull.”
Such comments were made despite Heep’s lack of flute players, and ability to stand on one leg!1971’s ‘Salisbury’ album was a big improvement.
Having contributed odds and sods to the debut, Hensley was making up for lost time and wrote half of the follow-up, also co-writing the rest! The 22-minute orchestral title track won them few friends with the British media, although spending 13 weeks on top of the German charts secured Heep’s immediate future.
America duly beckoned and the band soon developed the knack of letting their fingers do the walking. Like kids in a sweet shop, on days off they’d thumb through the residential section of the Yellow Pages until they heard a female voice at the end of the line. “You’d tell the boiler you were in Uriah Heep who’d been advertised in the paper for weeks, and you’d tell her there was a party going on at the hotel,” winks Box. “Next minute, the hotel was full of women. And it was pre-AIDS, so the worst you could get could be looked after.”
Gerry Bron believes that the band didn’t discover a firm direction until the third attempt, and both Box and the record-buying public agree with him. The group’s first UK chart album, ’71’s ‘Look At Yourself’ featured a masterpiece of light and shade in ‘July Morning’, yet it soon became clear that Hensley, Box and Byron were running the show. Bassist Newton and drummer Ian Clarke were soon replaced by New Zealander Gary Thain and the aforementioned Kerslake, respectively.
“Lee’s joining really steadied the ship musically,” reflects Box now. “I knew that we were getting the right kind of people in. Like me, he doesn’t need to practise. Lee’s a natural player, and it was fantastic because Gary [Thain] brought in all those beautifully melodic bass-lines that became a big part of the sound.”
‘Look At Yourself’ was the third album to be produced by Bron, who Hensley has since dubbed the sixth member of Uriah Heep. “That’ll be the day,” Kerslake now fumes at such suggestions. “Fame took him over. He was telling us to keep our egos level, but his trip was worse than the five of us put together. When I overheard him saying, ‘I am Uriah Heep’ that really pissed me off.”
“Gerry never pooh-poohed any of our ideas at first, but later on in life he wasn’t quite so good in that regard,” says Box, more diplomatically. “As instrumental as he was in building Uriah Heep up, he was equally guilty in bringing it down.”
With hindsight, Box and Kerslake claim not to have noticed the escalation of their fame, due in part to a hectic workload.
“But maybe David did change a little,” points out the drummer. “We knew he was going to be a star and nobody could keep him off the stage.”
“He could walk into a sold-out Albert Hall and everybody would know he had arrived,” agrees Box. “He had that charisma. Unfortunately, he had it everywhere. He couldn’t switch it off. A lot of it was front. He’d have a drink and think he could do anything. There was a fragile side to him, but he wouldn’t allow anyone to see it.”
Fusing incredible power with understated melodies, the group’s concerts would almost pin you to the wall of the venue, and they managed to capture the experience on their fourth album. ’72’s ‘Demons And Wizards’, was the one that really established them, especially from a British perspective.
As Byron later remarked: “Until then we were almost at the point of giving up touring here because we got terrible press. People were coming to the gigs just to see how bad we were, which was totally wrong.”
Box refutes the suggestion that ‘Demons…’ remains the band’s peak (although “it’s one of them”), yet he proudly acknowledges the importance of Roger Dean’s sleeve artwork and the strength of tunes like ‘Easy Livin’’, ‘Circle Of Hands’ and ‘The Wizard’ – ironic considering they were mostly written or co-penned by Hensley.
“The strength of this band at that time was that we could make anything sound great,” reflects the guitarist now. “Ken could bring in a bare-boned idea on acoustic guitar, we’d give it the Heep treatment and it would take a life of his own. At the time, we felt indestructible. We still say it, give us a stage to perform on and nobody could beat us.”
The pair admit to rushing out the follow-up ‘The Magician’s Birthday’ just six months later, but now feel that events were beginning to overtake them.
“We should have taken some time off,” observes Box. “We were being pushed to the hilt and when things are moving at breakneck speed you start looking for other areas of recreation. We were experiencing more in one month than some find in a lifetime. I honestly believe that’s why some of the band are no longer here.
“On the day I found out that Gary Thain had died I went out and did cocaine.
I thank God for destroying that addiction”
Instead, Heep headed to France to cut 1973’s ‘Sweet Freedom’ album and then Munich for the following year’s iffy ‘Wonderworld’. By now, recording abroad and touring incessantly was driving wedges between the group. Hensley, who was also focussed on his ‘Proud Words On An Empty Shelf’ solo album, was beginning to be perceived as the villain of the piece. Arguments over royalties ensued. And Hensley was jealous of the attention that Byron was beginning to attract. But by then the singer was already thinking of other things.
“I’m a really great admirer of guys like Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr,” professed David in 1974. “I’d love to be an all-round entertainer, acting in films and plays, appearing in shows, singing. If I can stay in Uriah Heep forever I will, but I’d want to incorporate other things.”
The bickering was interrupted by the onstage electrocution of Thain on an American tour. Gerry Bron, though, was unsympathetic and forced the group back out onto the road. Three months later Thain was out of Uriah Heep, and in December 1975 was found dead at his home in London’s Norwood after a heroin overdose.
“After Gary’s accident there was no support from the office, we were pushed back out for the almighty dollar,” sighs Box now. “That was the beginning of his downfall. Look at the Toxic Twins [Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry]: someone realised they’d made ’em a load of money and stuck ’em in a clinic. We had the same problem with Gary and David, but the support wasn’t there.”
But even after Thain had died, Hensley still didn’t get the message. “On the day I found out I went out and did cocaine,” sighs Ken now. “I thank God for destroying that addiction.”
Was Thain the band’s only heroin addict at the time? Box: “Absolutely. We didn’t even know for a while, but a lot of it was because he was getting no appreciation. He was weak-willed. I’d lie if I said I hadn’t dabbled, but it did nothing for me. So we’d go out, have some pints and get a hangover the next day, but Gary…” By the time that ex-King Crimson/Roxy Music bassist John Wetton had arrived for the ‘Return To Fantasy’ album, Heep were able to sell out 20,000-seaters Stateside. In 1975 alone, they played to a million fans.
“We had bodyguards – the lot,” relates Box. “But whereas the rest of us were in it for the ride, it started getting to David a bit. And the cracks began to show. Management were only listening to one person [Hensley] and the frontman felt upset by that. There was some game-playing going on. Ken was writing some great songs and Dave was singing ’em, but Dave was getting all the attention.”
Didn’t you just want to bang their heads together?
“We tried!” says Kerslake, erupting with laughter. “I grabbed ’em both by the hair and said, ‘I want to keep on shaking you until all the crap just falls out of your pockets, like money. We’ve got 30,000 people out there and were arguing about trivia’. It was so much bullshit.”
Events took a Spïnal Tap-esque turn when Box broke his left arm after falling off a Louisville stage (“I’d had my normal ration of booze, and a bottle of Remy Martin took the pain away – but I fell off again and broke my right wrist in two places!”). There were even more ludicrous happenings at a Cleveland festival when Byron insisted each member of the band take separate limousines for the 200-yard trip between the hotel and venue – John Prescott eat your heart out. Guffaws Box: “The bill was Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult and The Faces, and everyone was trying to out-do each other. So Rod Stewart topped us all by taking a helicopter in!”
Heep’s precarious state was summed up by the next album, 1976’s ‘High And Mighty’, a flimsy, band-produced release that Hensley had assumed complete control of. Even now Box describes it as “less of the ’eavy and more of the ’umble. We used to say, ‘Why do we need to stay here and listen to this shit – let’s go down the pub’.”
The Byron situation finally came to a head on the resulting tour.
“David’s problem was boredom and booze, especially Chivas Regal [brandy],” observed Hensley in later years. “We drove to a sold-out show at the Spectrum for a soundcheck with almost six hours before our show. David got very drunk and [during the performance] stumbled into the microphone stand and then proceeded to curse at the audience all night. We never recovered from that.”
“Dave thought the audience were having a go at him but they were cheering him, so he told ’em all to fuck off,” relates a still incredulous Box. “I was tuning my guitar and couldn’t bring myself to turn round. Afterwards, we confronted him in the dressing room and he just pointed to all his stage outfits and said, ‘What do you mean I don’t care?’ That was when I knew he’d lost the plot, we were talking about music.”
A disgusted Hensley quit on the spot and flew home to England, but Bron talked him into returning. He retorted: “David was pissing his career away, and ours with it.” Byron was finally fired by Uriah Heep after the last gig of a Spanish tour in 1976 – the same night that support band The Heavy Metal Kids disposed of their frontman, Gary Holton.
“We hadn’t been able to get into the venue, so David had kicked through a glass door and given it the whole ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ routine,” sighs Box. “I think even he’d resigned himself to it by then.”
Still an alcoholic, David Byron died of a heart attack in February 1985, after a pair of solo albums and his new band Rough Diamond had failed to rekindle his popularity. Paul Newton among others believes that the singer’s demise was speeded up by the fact that he was no longer a rock star.
“He carried on in the belief that he was still a big star, but Paul’s probably right,” Box concurs sadly. “It was never the same for David. The lesson that he and perhaps Ken would have learned is that you can be very big within the context of a name like Uriah Heep, but outside that you don’t mean quite so much.”
It’s a sentiment that Mick Box, who has clung onto his prize asset with formidable tenacity, understands only too well. And it would serve him well in years to come.
After Byron’s death, Uriah Heep appointed ex-Lucifer’s Friend singer John Lawton. Bassist John Wetton, too, was succeeded by former Spiders From Mars man Trevor Bolder – a faithful servant to this day apart from the brief spell with Wishbone Ash. The appointment of Lawton, who was not exactly pin-up material, came as a shock considering David Coverdale had expressed an interest and, according to Box, performed “a good audition – at which he drank a bottle of Remy… himself! But the offer to finance Whitesnake came in and he was off.”
“Ken Hensley become a born-again Christian… what bollocks.
He did evil things, and I’ll never forgive him”
Lawton lasted for three albums (1977’s ‘Firefly’ and ‘Innocent Victim’ and the following year’s ‘Fallen Angel’), before the band limped into the 1980s with ex-Lone Star man John Sloman at the helm. Bitterness against Hensley had reached an all-time high, and as he freely admitted afterwards, “I didn’t help the situation because I never made any secret of the fact that I’d just bought a Ferrari or a Rolls Royce.” The keyboard player had gone on record as voting against Sloman, and resigned after a tenth anniversary tour with support act Girlschool.
Kerslake, who himself quit Heep to join Ozzy Osbourne at around the same time, remains the only member not to have made his peace with Hensley in later years.
“And I never will,” he says bitterly. “Basically, for the skulduggery. He’s become a born-again Christian… what bollocks. He did evil things, and I’ll never forgive Ken Hensley or Gerry Bron – I don’t have to. I’ve moved on.”
Perhaps ironically, after Hensley’s departure, Sloman and drummer Chris Slade threw in the towel. Box and Bolder went to see Byron and asked him to re-join, but were rejected. So the bassist took that Wishbone Ash offer, and Uriah Heep was down to one member. After locking himself away in his flat and drinking a reservoir of vodka, Box rang Kerslake for a chat only to discover that Ozzy had booted out his rhythm section for the more glamorous American duo of Ruzy Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge.
The legal wranglings between Kerslake, bassist Bob Daisley and the Osbourne camp over disputed credits on the ‘Blizzard Of Ozz’ and ‘Dairy Of A Madman’ albums continue to this day.
“Ozzy’s a betrayer,” Kerslake insists darkly. “Again, I could never forgive him, he’s got no backbone.” Nevertheless, fate had intervened and a new line-up of Box, Kerslake, Daisley, keyboard player John Sinclair and former Trapeze singer Pete Goalby pulled the phoenix from the flames with a series of 80s releases like ‘Abominog’, ‘Head First’ and ‘Equator’. The line-ups weren’t always rock solid, but the group’s commitment always was. In 1987, the trio of Box, Kerslake and Bolder were joined by ex-Grand Prix keyboard player Phil Lanzon, who suggested the band try out Canadian singer Bernie Shaw as a replacement for the “desperately bad” Stef Fontaine. The new-look Heep played to 180,000 fans over ten nights at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, and have never looked back since.
Granted, there have been moments of humiliation, 1991’s ‘Different World’ was a definite low-point, and supporting Yngwie Malmsteen at Hammersmith Odeon didn’t do the legend too many favours, but label-hopping and bad management have dogged Heep’s career for so long that Box has now been forced to handle the group’s affairs himself.
“With ‘Different World’ we signed to a record label with an office, but by the time we finished it there was one car left in the car park. I ended up mixing it myself in a shed in Hull at six o’clock in the morning, seeing the milkman and wondering what was going on here. Another record company had shat on us. If we weren’t called Uriah Heep we’d be Sketchleys, because we’ve been taken to the cleaners so often.”
“If we weren’t called Uriah Heep we’d be Sketchleys, because we’ve been taken to the cleaners so often”
Hensley has stated that Byron’s death in 1985 was partly responsible for him quitting his next band Blackfoot and retiring from the road. He’s also gone on record as saying that Heep have turned into a glorified covers band. Meanwhile, the fact remains that if fellow pioneers like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin have gone on to become legends, but Uriah Heep have been left with the shitty end of the stick. Why?
Replies Box: “We came out just after all of those bands – it may only have been a matter of months, but the press just went, ‘Oh no, not another one!’ It’s just something we’ll have to live with. At the end of the day, the Byron days were a golden era for this band, but I honestly feel that this line-up has the same chemistry and vibrancy,” smiles Box in conclusion. “Only with none of the problems.”
The official Uriah Heep website
Still one of the very best bands on the touring circuit, Uriah Heep’s current line-up has been rock solid for more almost two decades. People still talk of the David Byron and Ken Hensley era in hushed tones – rightly so, of course – but vocalist Bernie Shaw has been their longest-serving frontman by far, and it’s impossible to think of the group without Phil Lanzon (whose wiry physique and talkative demeanour have earned him the nickname Mouth On A Stick) on the keyboards, nor of course livewire bassist Trevor Bolder (sometimes sarcastically known to his band-mates as Turbo). True gentlemen of rock music, Mick Box and Lee Kerslake met me in central London to discuss a career that’s seen just about everything. Since the story ran, Kerslake and Hensley have also seen fit to bury their differences in a bizarre yet welcome post-9/11 twist. Long may they remain ’eavy and ’ummable. (2nd October, 2004)
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