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With their legacy of critical disrespect, deceased band members, and legendary excess both on and offstage, Uriah Heep were the real life Spinal Tap.

The Rockologist: Getting Deep With Uriah Heep

Uriah Heep was one of those bands I discovered completely by accident growing up as a teenager in the seventies.

Like everybody else back then, I had heard “Easy Livin,” which up to that point in time had been Heep’s one song to receive any airplay on American album rock radio. The song was from Demons And Wizards, an album which was selling well for the band despite getting largely terrible reviews.

“Easy Livin” was itself a pretty decent little workingman’s sort of rock tune that sounded good enough sandwiched in between say, “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” by Foghat and “Thirty Days In The Hole” by Humble Pie on the local FM rock station.

Prior to Demons And Wizards, Uriah Heep’s records had included one recorded with a symphony orchestra (Salisbury) and another more known for the mirror on it’s cover than for the music inside (Look At Yourself). Uriah Heep was also going through band members the way other bands of the day went through cigarette rollling papers.

For Demons And Wizards, founding Heepsters Mick Box (guitar) and principal songwriter Ken Hensley (keyboards) had added drummer Lee Kerslake and bassist extraordinaire Gary Thain to the lineup, which by now also included vocalist David Byron. It was this lineup they finally settled on for the next four albums, which would prove to be both Uriah Heep’s commercial and creative peak period.

So anyway, like everybody else back then, I had read the unanimously bad reviews of Uriah Heep’s albums. This was a band that rock critics loved to hate like no other since the universally despised Grand Funk Railroad. In what may well be one of the most scathing album reviews I’ve ever read, one guy writing about Demons And Wizards didn’t even stop with the music. After trashing the album, the critic punctuated his verbal arrows by going after the band’s looks, calling them “ugly as muttonchop mongrels.”

Ouch!

But that’s how it was with Uriah Heep back then. The original “no respect” band, they still managed to eventually sell a buttload of records and develop a reputation for high energy — even if occasionally somewhat sloppy — live shows that made them one of the world’s top concert draws by the mid-seventies.

With their history of critical disrespect, combined with a legendary reputation for excess both on and offstage (one that would eventually claim the lives of two original band members), it’s long since been suggested that Uriah Heep was the actual real-life inspiration for the brilliant rock “mockumentary” film This Is Spinal Tap.

Having partied with these guys myself, I don’t doubt that rumor for one second. But we’ll get back to that in due course. First, some quick history…

Before breaking through big with the Demons And Wizards album, Uriah Heep basically cut it’s musical teeth by touring as a support act behind such mid-level concert acts of the day as Manfred Mann and The James Gang. It was on one such tour, on a bill sandwiched between the headlining Savoy Brown and somebody called Miller Anderson’s Headlock that I saw Uriah Heep live for the very first time.

This was one of those concerts that I happened to be at only because I’d secured free tickets through my after-school job as an intern at Seattle’s rock station at the time, KOL. Like most high school internships, I didn’t get paid for my duties answering request lines and filing albums in the music library. But I didn’t care. For me, getting free tickets to shows; hanging out with legendary Seattle DJs like Burl Barer (who used to call me “little hippie” because of my long hair); and being able to brag to friends that I “worked” at a place like KOL was payment enough.

So as much as I had looked forward to seeing Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown play “Tell Mama” and the rest of their blues-rock repetoire, Uriah Heep’s forty minute opening set just blew me away. The sound was pretty much your classic (as in heavy on the keyboards) sort of Deep Purple influenced heavy metal. But there was something different about these guys.

The singer was a peacock strutting dandy boy straight out of the Rod Stewart school of glam rock. Dressed in outlandish bright red, he prowled the stage like he owned the place. The guitar player meanwhile punctuated the heavy keyboard riffs with shrill leads played while running his axe all up and down the mikestand. The drummer beat the living hell out of his kit like his life depended on being heard above the rest of the din. And the bass player? Gary Thain was a visual freakshow, who I was convinced at the time was the single greatest bassist I had ever seen or heard.

By the time Uriah Heep’s set was over, I had all but forgotten the headliner Savoy Brown, and become a born-again Uriah Heep fan. Six months after that opening set at the 3000 seat Paramount Theatre, they would be back headlining the 6000 seat Seattle Center Arena. Which they sold out, by the way.

Uriah Heep would also have a new album under their belts by that time called The Magician’s Birthday. Clearly designed as not only a followup, but a companion piece to the breakthrough Demons And Wizards, the album also mined the same sort of dungeons and dragons lyrical territory as its predecessor did – kind of like Black Sabbath minus all that nasty dark and evil stuff. Both albums also featured artwork by Roger Dean, best known at the time for doing all the cover art for Yes.

The combination for me was irresistible. As a teenager, I can remember countless nights listening to both albums and trying to decipher the meaning of the fantasy laden lyrics. There was nothing quite like “getting deep with the Heep.” The other thing about the two records was that for all the heavy metal thunder Uriah Heep displayed in concert, there was a refined sort of quality to the albums.

For every blistering rocker like “Easy Livin” or “Traveller In Time,” Demons And Wizards also featured songs like “Paradise/The Spell” which featured a gorgeous middle section powered by Hawaiian sounding guitar parts and an angelic sounding vocal choir. For The Magician’s Birthday’s part, the title track was a tour de force which went from a kazoo humming the “Happy Birthday” song to a thunderous duel between Kerslake’s drums and Mick Box’s distorted, fuzzed-out guitar. Through it all, Gary Thain played some of the most intricate bass parts I had ever heard on a rock and roll album.

So, true story here…

By the time Uriah Heep returned to Seattle for it’s first sold out show as a headliner, I was not only well immersed in their records — I was also determined to meet what was by now my favorite band. And guess what? I succeeded.

Earlier that day, my friends and I had staked out the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, which was well known at the time as the hotel of choice among visiting rock bands. Because you can fish out your window there, Seattle’s Edgewater over the years has proved an irresistible draw for touring rock bands. You may have heard some of the stories about the place, forever immortalized in songs like Frank Zappa’s “The Mudshark.” Perhaps you have heard the one particularly infamous tale involving a mudshark; a groupie; and the group Led Zeppelin.

Anyway, sure enough Uriah Heep showed up like clockwork at about three that afternoon. Lee Kerslake came in first. When me and my friends introduced ourselves, Lee was not only quick to return our greeting, but to invite us back after the show for a post-concert party. For a group of star struck sixteen year old rock fans like us, this was just too incredible for words. In retrospect, I think Uriah Heep may have been as dumbstruck as we were to find they actually had devoted fans, after the critical drubbing they had become accustomed to for years.

So after a great concert where Uriah Heep proved they’d grown into their newfound status as headliners quite nicely (Thain in particular sounded amazing that night), we went back to the Edgewater. As promised, Lee showed up soon after with some beer and we headed back to the group’s room for a long and memorable night of partying with our rock heroes. Much of that night is a blur more than thirty years later.

What I do remember vividly was that Uriah Heep’s “party contingent” consisted of Kerslake, Thain, and David Byron, while Ken Hensley and Mick Box chose to retire to their rooms to sleep. Thain spent most of the night rolling those newspaper sized joints you see in reggae videos.

At various points that night, we were throwing karate stars into the hotel room door; tossing lamps out the window into Puget Sound below; and we even caught a mudshark. I have one very distinct memory of Lee Kerslake sending me to the front desk for a salt shaker in the hopes that adding salt to the bathtub where the shark was being kept would help keep it alive.

The following year Uriah Heep released two records. The Uriah Heep Live album fulfilled their contract with Mercury Records and basically documents the same tour we saw in a great show from Birmingham, England. This record faithfully captures all of the thunderous power of a Uriah Heep concert. But again, it is Gary Thain’s bass playing that really stands out. The mix puts it much more out in front than on most concert recordings, and on songs like “July Morning,” he is simply all over the place. Thain plays bass runs here that rival the best solos of lead guitarist Mick Box.

Though live footage of Uriah Heep from this period is somewhat rare, I did find a great clip from that period (roughly 1973) from a show in Budokan, Japan. It can be viewed immediately below:

Later that year, Uriah Heep signed with Warner Bros. Records and released it’s last great album Sweet Freedom. Although his drinking had reportedly become a problem by this time, David Byron is in fine form on vocals here on songs like “If I Had The Time” and “Stealin,” which scored the band it’s second bonafide radio hit. Here again, Uriah Heep combine heavier tracks like “Pilgrim,” with the more refined sound of the title track and “One Day” (with those choir vocals again!).

The album’s followup, Wonderworld was however not nearly as good, and bassist Gary Thain died soon after. By the time of Return To Fantasy, an album where King Crimson/Roxy Music bassist John Wetton did his best to fill the gaping hole left by Thain’s death, the magic was pretty much gone.

David Byron who was by this time a full on alcoholic would later try to front his own band Rough Diamond. Sadly, he too would soon be gone. Kerslake went on to become the original drummer for Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard Of Ozz. He also had one more modest hit with a new version of Uriah Heep in the much more metallic sounding “comeback” Heep album Abominog.

These days, Box and Kerslake alone remain from the original glory days and actually enjoy a devoted cult sort of following fronting a new version of Uriah Heep.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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One comment

  1. “For Demons And Wizards, founding Heepsters Mick Box (guitar) and principal songwriter Ken Hensley (keyboards) had added drummer Lee Kerslake and bassist extraordinaire Gary Thain to the lineup, which by now also included vocalist David Byron.”

    Great article (especially in your praise of Gary Thain, who was a force of nature on bass), but the founding members were Box and Byron. Hensley joined part way through the recording of the debut album. And the Look at Yourself album contains a bunch of classics, including their most enduring song, “July Morning”, which is regarded on the same level as “Stairway to Heaven” in most of Europe and Japan.