By Sarah Kitteringham
CALGARY – In their five decades as an active band, Uriah Heep has left a colossal mark on rock ‘n’ roll. Infused with a Tolkien leaning mysticism at their onset, and musically marked by wah-wah pedal suffused guitar, soaring quasi-operatic vocals, jaunty keyboards and an unmistakably positive vibe, the band’s survival was hard earned and is cherished by both its members and fans.
After numerous studio albums, over 40 million album sales and the cycling through of over 20 members, band leader and guitarist Mick Box is still going strong with a stable line-up that is currently on a world tour celebrating those fruitful early years. Subsequently, this current tour is primarily focused on the 1970-1973 period when the band produced six full-length records and a cache of timeless hits. This whirlwind was kicked off when Box formed the band that would become Uriah Heep as a 19-year-old in Brentwood, Essex. He was eventually joined by keyboardist, synth player, guitarist and vocalist Ken Hensley (writer or co-writer of many of the bands hits) and lead vocalist David Byron.
“It was a really interesting time because in those days, you signed an album deal for four, five, six albums. And you grew with the label; the label grew with you, which is very much unlike today!” begins Box, an affable Brit with a charming accent.
“Because of that, it nurtured the music and allowed the music to speak its own voice,” he says. “I think that’s why we were able to make good songs that stood the test of time and people love hearing them in a live arena.”
Indeed, the Toronto show where the interview was conducted was packed with a devoted cross-generational crowd that included one middle-aged American mother and 20-year-old son; the rabid fan had named her child Uriah.
They were only two amidst a raucous audience that collectively belted out every word to classic hits like “July Morning,” “Easy Livin,’” “Look At Yourself,” “The Magician’s Birthday,” “Rainbow Demon,” and more.
These early discography songs are notably marked by their infusion of J.R.R Tolkien [of Lord of the Rings fame] themes, a focus that quickly evaporated as more bands took up the same mantle. This changed coincided with the tumultuous ‘Heep being concerned about their own relevancy.
“I think because The Magician’s Birthday (1972) was recorded very quickly and we almost exhausted ourselves doing it within one year. We felt going to our next album, we should probably leave it behind, simply because of that: we were exhausted by it,” explains Box. This occurred after the prolific period that saw five albums released in three years, including their 1970 debut …Very ‘Eavy … Very ‘Umble, 1971 albums Salisbury and Look at Yourself, then 1972’s Demons and Wizards, which was followed by The Magician’s Birthday. The shift came with 1973’s Sweet Freedom.
“If you continue with it, you can end up being quite cliché as well, because the inspiration for those things was from Lord of the Rings… and we didn’t want to fall into that trap.”
He continues, “Many bands went on and copied us. [Power metal band] Blind Guardian in Germany, and they’re quite honest and heart on their sleeve about that, but we kind of kickstarted them in that way of thinking… We found a mystical way of doing it that captured the imagination.”
It’s hardly surprising that Heep’s experience in the ‘70s was marked by struggle: critical reception buoyed and plunged as the band released a total of 12 studio albums that shifted with musical trends. Coupled with high turnover and tumultuousness as the members dealt with infighting over royalties, car crashes, and a heroin overdose, it’s a miracle that they emerged from the decade in any form. Sadly, vocalist Byron was fired from the band in 1976 due to alcoholism; he passed away in 1985. Hensley left the band in 1980 due to their differing musical direction; the relationship was a business one that never quite fit, according to Box.
“In terms of writing, Ken would bring along the barest bones things on acoustic guitar, and the band would make it epic. It was a lot of debt to the band to make those songs big classic songs everyone loves and shouts for,” says Box during a serious moment.
Uriah Heep’s songwriting credits have long been a subject of discussion given their turnover rate.
“As a person, he was never a team player. He was always out for Ken. It’s the only way I can explain it to be honest.”
Box continues, “Ken almost created his own situations… There would be a dressing room just for him. But then he’d come into our dressing room and be one of the boys, but imagine how that went down. So there was many stories where you get into a bit of fun with him….”
The remainder of the members would end up playing pranks on their bandmate.
“We had sewn up the bottom of his trousers. So he’s hopping around the room trying to pull up his trousers. So he set himself up. Even the crew. Two of the members would come in and ‘where’s Ken’s room!?’
“‘It’s over there!’”
“And then they’d go in and put a bomb in the light switch. BANG!”
Despite the trauma (and the hijinks), Uriah Heep endured throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and continues well on to current day with a prolific release schedule. It begs the question of whether they’ve grown bored of those early hits that define them.
“It’s easy to get bored with any of those songs, but the short term answer is that the audience keeps you alive every time,” counters Box.
“The minute you start the intro, and the fists go in the air, you’re energized, and you’re in that moment again. And the great thing is you get people saying that about “Gypsy” [the band’s debut single from 1970] and the song is twice as old as the guy yelling it!”
The most striking element of “Gypsy” is its variance: funky guitar rhythms, pounding synchronization, jazzy drums, and jarring keyboards transition effortlessly alongside striking vocals. It’s representative of a band that seamlessly integrates rock, progressive, psychedelic and classical elements.
“In school, that’s what you’re taught,” recalls Box.
“You weren’t taught pop or rock songs, you were taught classical so you tend to get an appreciation for it. I think the most things I get out of classical music is the dynamics of it all. One moment you’ve got your headphones on and you’re drifting off this beautiful bit and then the timpani and cymbal comes in and makes you jump.”
He shouts the word, laughing.
“Oh yeah, yeah. That’s what we try and do with our music.”
The band has maintained that style in recent releases; live, they sound strikingly energetic and utterly fantastic. Now composed of Box and longtime band members Bernie Shaw on vocals and Phil Lanzon of keyboards, the old-timers are joined by Russell Gilbrook on drums and bassist Davey Rimmer. Their last studio offering was 2014’s Outsider; it will be followed up this year with the band’s 25th full-length offering that is appropriately titled Living the Dream.
“We recorded the whole thing in 19 days…. It’ll be released in September. It’s very rock, and very up-tempo, with some ballads,” reveals Box.
“We just got the trademarks right way back in 1970 and we apply them to every song we write. Sometimes we have an alright song and when Heep get hold of it and apply the trademarks, it becomes Heep in two seconds!”
Uriah Heep perform on April 30 at Union Hall (Edmonton) and on May 1 at the Palace Theatre (Calgary).Palace Theatre, Union Hall, Uriah Heep