URIAH HEEP (1970–80, 1982–PRESENT). Trevor Bolder (bass/vocals, 1977– 1981; 1983–present), Mick Box (guitar/vocals, 1970–present), Russell Gilbrook (drums/vocals, 2007–present), Phil Lanzon (keyboards/ vocals, 1986–present), Bernie Shaw (lead vocals, 1986–present).
“If this group makes it I’ll have to commit suicide. From the first note you know you don’t want to hear any more…”—Melissa Mills, Rolling Stone magazine, reviewing Uriah Heep’s debut album in 1970.
Heavy metal did not have an easy birth. Perhaps more than any other genre of rock, the bands instrumental in developing it were belittled and ridiculed by mainstream critics from the start, with recognition of their influence and artistic genius grudgingly coming much later, including icons such as Led Zeppelin (whose debut album was initially dismissed by Rolling Stone magazine as “stainless steel shit”), Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Uriah Heep rank with them as among the most influential British founders of heavy metal and were similarly reviled by mainstream rock critics in the process. Heep went on to sell over 30 million albums worldwide from 1970 through the present, while the fate of the critic noted above is unrecorded.
Uriah Heep was founded in early 1970, when organist/guitarist/vocalist Ken Hensley was asked by record producer Gerry Bron to join Spice, a London-based band he was recording, on the recommendation of the band’s bassist, Paul Newton.
Newton had previously played with Hensley in a band called the Gods, which at various times had also included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson/ELP), and John Glascock (Jethro Tull). Spice consisted of David Byron (vocals), Mick Box (guitar), Paul Newton (bass), and Alex Napier (drums), and much of their music was based on American blues and jazz influences. Hensley brought in both a Beatlesque sense of melody and vocal harmonies and a heavy, organ-driven sound influenced primarily by Vanilla Fudge. The name of the band was taken from a character in the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, at producer Bron’s recommendation.
Heep’s first album, Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble, was a combination of their various influences, from the thunderous proto-metal opening track, “Gypsy” (reminiscent of Black Sabbath with a Hammond B3 organ added), to the acoustic “Come Away Melinda,” to the straightforward jazz of the closing track, “Wake Up (Set Your Sights).” The rest of the album was largely a melange of a band looking to find their direction (some tracks sound like Spice, some like the Gods), although all of the material is first-rate. During the recording, Alex Napier left the band, to be replaced by Nigel Ollson, who would leave after playing on one song (“Dreammare”) to become Elton John’s longtime drummer. Ollson was replaced by Keith Baker, whose playing is first heard on “Bird of Prey,” which was substituted for the track “Lucy Blues” on the U.S. release of the first record (entitled Uriah Heep, and with a different cover).
The most significant impact of Heep’s first album was not in the rotating drummers (often cited as the inspiration for the succession of drummers in the film This Is Spinal Tap) or even the material, as much as the performances. Vocalist David Byron established himself immediately as one of the most versatile singers in rock history; his ability to shift from a gentle ballad to a piercing, operatic scream in the same breath is almost unmatched, and the list of singers significantly influenced by him includes Ian Gillan, Freddie Mercury, Klaus Meine, Rob Halford, Bruce Dickinson, and King Diamond. Keyboardist Ken Hensley had a similar impact; his (often heavily distorted) Hammond B3 was cited by W.A.S.P.’s Blackie Lawless as “writing the book on heavy metal keyboards.”
Most important were the backing vocals. Often incorporating three- to five-part harmonies, either supporting or engaging in counterpoint with the lead vocal, they became Uriah Heep’s signature sound, leading to them sometimes being referred to
as “The Beach Boys of Heavy Metal,” and heavily influencing Queen, The Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Def Leppard, Saxon, and others.
Salisbury, their second album, was released in early 1971 and showed the band growing by leaps and bounds, with the prolific Hensley largely taking over the songwriting (which was to become a major point of tension down the line). Most prominent among the tracks were “Lady in Black,” an acoustic number that continues to be a major hit in Continental Europe, and the title song, a complex, 16-minute epic featuring a 22-piece orchestra, and a lengthy guitar solo by Mick Box that many Heepsters (a term used by fans of the band to refer to each other) consider his finest performance, and which featured his prominent usage of the Vox “wah-wah” pedal that became the final important component of the band’s overall sound.
Subsequent to the release of Salisbury, drummer Keith Baker left the band, citing their grueling tour schedule, and was replaced by Iain Clarke. The next album, Look at Yourself, released later in 1971, was even more of a quantum leap and possibly stands as the heaviest album of its era. The title track, featured in every live performance to this day, thunders like a runaway train, with three guest percussionists from the band Osibisa adding to the frenzy. Tracks like “I Wanna Be Free” and “Tears In My Eyes” are similarly energetic. Most important, the album contained the epic “July Morning,” which, to use the cliche, is widely considered by Heepsters as the band’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and is still placed as the climax of every live show the band performs.
During subsequent months, bassist Paul Newton left the band, following a business dispute between his father, who had been the band’s nominal manager, and producer Gerry Bron, who would manage the band for the next decade. Around the same time, Iain Clarke also departed. Lee (“The Bear”) Kerslake, who had played with Hensley in both the Gods and a short-lived band called Toe Fat, would take up the sticks, while Mark Clark would join briefly on bass, staying long enough to co-write and sing lead on the bridge of “The Wizard,” recorded as a single. He was replaced by New Zealand-born bass virtuoso Gary Thain, completing the “classic” Uriah Heep lineup of Box/Byron/Hensley/Kerslake/Thain, who would produce their career-defining (in the opinion of many Heepsters) works over the next three years.
Demons and Wizards, with cover art by Roger Dean, was recorded largely during breaks in the grueling tour schedule that manager Bron had established for the band, and was the first release by the “classic” lineup, in June 1972. In addition to the previously recorded “The Wizard,” the songs included “Traveler in Time” (an homage to the BBC’s “Doctor Who”), “Easy Livin’” (their first hit single and still probably their best-known song), the mysterious and ominous “Rainbow Demon,” and two fantasy-oriented epics, “Circle of Hands” and “Paradise/The Spell,” the latter clocking in at nearly 13 minutes.
Amazingly, the band managed to record a second album that year, The Magician’s Birthday. Originally intended to be a full-blown concept album, it continued the mystical lyrical themes established by its predecessor, and featured another Roger Dean fantasy cover, depicting dueling magicians. Standout tracks were the opener, “Sunrise,” filled with Heep’s trademark vocal harmonies; “Blind Eye,” a fast, largely acoustic song, which shifts interestingly between minor and major keys; “Rain,” a gorgeous ballad showcasing Hensley’s piano and Byron’s voice; “Sweet Lorraine,” an FM-radio hit; and the title track, a 10-minute multipart epic, featuring a guitar and drum duel from Box and Kerslake in the middle, as well as what may be a unique moment in rock history—a kazoo solo by Kerslake, during a rendition of the song “Happy Birthday To You.”
With two seminal albums under their belt, and the lineup finally stable, Bron felt it was time to record a live album, and in January 1973, the band recorded the double LP Uriah Heep Live. Primarily featuring selections from the three most recent albums, along with a medley of 1950s classics, it is widely considered one of the definitive live albums of its era, frequently compared to Deep Purple’s Made in Japan. Lavishly packaged, with a photo book in the gatefold, the band thumbed their noses at the critics by including a montage of some of the most negative reviews they could find. Certainly, by this point, they were “crying all the way to the bank.”
At this stage, no one could have blamed the band for taking a rest, but they soon returned to the recording studio to produce 1973’s Sweet Freedom. More straightforward lyrically than the previous two albums, it showcased Heep at their most confident and powerful. Highlights included the title track, an early “power ballad” with an almost “gospel” feel to Byron’s vocal, the thunderous epic “Pilgrim,” the dreamy, almost psychedelic “If I Had the Time,” and “Stealin’,” one of their biggest hits, and still played at every live performance, although some U.S. radio stations refused to play it at the time because of the (now tame) lyric “I done the rancher’s daughter.”
Unfortunately, along with success came rising tensions between members and personal demons. Hensley’s domination of the band’s songwriting led to the other members resenting what they saw as favoritism towards him by Bron. Worse, substance abuse problems were beginning to rear their ugly heads: Hensley had become addicted to cocaine, Thain to heroin, and Byron’s drinking had spiraled out of control into full-blown alcoholism (although the entire band acquired a reputation as having a fondness for alcohol that continues to this day).
Wonderworld, recorded in 1974, saw the cracks in the facade start to become obvious. While largely a solid effort, it lacked the inspiration of the previous three studio albums, and communication had broken down to the point that guitarist Mick Box actually showed up at the studio the day after recording had been finished, because no one had told him the album was completed. The band’s attitude was best summed up by a line from one of the album’s highlights, “So Tired”: “Yes I’m so tired of everybody staring at me. Yes I’m so tired, and I’m so uninspired—Please help me!” Other highlights included the title track, with a gorgeous vocal from Byron, “The Easy Road,” an achingly beautiful ballad, and “The Shadows
and The Wind,” with a multipart counterpoint vocal section that clearly influenced Queen’s A Night at the Opera.
While touring the U.S. in support of Wonderworld, bassist Gary Thain was electrocuted and nearly killed onstage in Dallas in September 1974. While Thain recovered sufficiently to rejoin the tour in mid-October, his health, always frail, and further impaired by heroin addiction, did not permit him to continue with the band, and he left (it is still unclear whether by mutual agreement or termination) in January 1975. Thain would be found dead of a heroin overdose on December 8 of that year (Ling 2002, 66). He was replaced by John Wetton (formerly of Family and King Crimson), and the band carried on with Return to Fantasy.
The album was a return to form for the band, with Wetton bringing a new energy and the writing becoming more sharply focused. While several songs are standouts, the title track (like “July Morning,” composed by Hensley and Byron together) ranks among their very finest work and was brought back to the live set in the early 2000s as the opening song, much to the surprise and delight of Heepsters. The album reached number 7 on the British charts, the highest position of their career.
If 1974 was a difficult year for the band, 1976 would prove disastrous. Tensions had grown to the point that the band members actually insisted on five separate limos to take them three hundred yards from their hotel to a concert hall in Switzerland, and a row with manager/producer Gerry Bron led to the band deciding to self-produce their next album, High and Mighty. Almost entirely penned by Hensley, it showed that even the finest writers need an objective producer’s ear to tell them when things aren’t working. While some songs are gems, particularly “Weep in Silence,” “Footprints in the Snow,” “Misty Eyes,” and “Confession,” the album is also saddled with some of the worst material they ever recorded, especially “Woman of the World” and “Can’t Stop Singing.”
Fans were mystified at the alarming drop-off in quality from the previous comeback album. One weak album is recoverable. What followed arguably wasn’t. David Byron’s drinking had been out of control for some time, and his alcohol abuse, combined with his “rock star” ego, led to such outrageous behavior on his part (including cursing out a stunned audience in Philadelphia and kicking in plate glass doors at an arena in Spain) that Ken Hensley left the tour after the latter incident to fly back to England, and demanded of Gerry Bron “it’s him or me.” Bron, unwilling to lose the band’s primary songwriter, capitulated, and Byron was fired in July 1976. Wetton, who was personally close to Byron, and who had been dissatisfied with the musical direction, resigned two weeks later (he would go on to front prog/pop band Asia in the 1980s).
Byron went on to form Rough Diamond with former members of Wings and Humble Pie. The group would last for one album, before Byron was sacked again for his drinking. He would attempt another comeback with the Byron Band, before suffering an alcohol-related seizure on stage at London’s Marquee club, while singing “July Morning,” in 1981. Another such seizure would kill him at age 38 in February 1985. (Ken Hensley, by then touring as a member of U.S. “Southern rock” band Blackfoot, was so shaken by the news of Byron’s death that several years later he temporarily left the music business to address his own cocaine addiction and subsequently became a born-again Christian).
The band would audition several potential replacements for Byron, including Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and Deep Purple’s David Coverdale, before offering the position to John Lawton, who had fronted German band Lucifer’s Friend. The bass slot was filled by Trevor Bolder, who had played with David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars. While Lawton and Bolder brought a fresh energy to the band, Heep arguably never fully recovered from the loss of Byron, a unique and charismatic frontman, whose dramatic and theatrical vocal delivery was one of the essential components of their sound. Many fans seemed to agree, and while Heep have had successes since 1976, they never again attained the level of popularity in the U.S. and UK that they had enjoyed with Byron.
Firefly, the first album with Lawton and Bolder, was released in 1977. With Bron back in the producer’s chair, the material was much more focused, and both Lawton and Bolder turn in stellar performances, as if trying to prove themselves.
Standouts include “Wise Man,” a power ballad with an amazing vocal by Lawton, whose voice was more powerful (if less versatile and emotional) than Byron’s; “Who Needs Me,” a rare contribution by Lee Kerslake; and the title track, largely
sung by Hensley. It was followed up later that year by Innocent Victim, which represented a significant change of direction; while containing riff-rockers like “Free ’n’ Easy,” and Heep’s trademark mysticism in “Illusion,” the centerpiece of the album was the outright pop song “Free Me,” which became their biggest hit in Continental Europe.
Its follow-up, 1978’s Fallen Angel, veered even more in a pop direction, alienating many longtime fans, and winning few new ones, although it contained a few excellent songs, such as the Kerslake-Hensley collaboration “Come Back to Me,” and “I’m Alive,” which would become Lawton’s signature song.
By this point, Hensley had come to completely dominate the band, to the point where he insisted on a separate dressing room for himself at concerts. Tensions, exacerbated by his cocaine addiction (Ling 66), rose to the point that he demanded Lawton’s firing, during the recording of a fourth album, which Bron accommodated. A disgusted Lee Kerslake quit shortly afterward; his enmity towards Hensley continued for decades. (Outtakes from the abortive fourth Lawton album have circulated for years as bootlegs, variously entitled Five Miles and Ten Miles High).
What followed ultimately resulted in the temporary dissolution of the band. Hensley wanted Peter Goalby from Trapeze to replace Lawton, while the rest of the band insisted on U.S.–born John Sloman, and Sloman was given the job. Filling in for Kerslake on drums was Chris Slade. The resulting album, 1980’s Conquest, further mystified and dissatisfied not only the fan base, but also Hensley. Sloman didn’t have a bad voice, but his soul and funk influences made it wildly unsuited for Uriah Heep, and Hensley was extremely unhappy with Sloman’s live performances of the older material. Again, he delivered an ultimatum to Bron. This time, a disgusted Bron refused, and Hensley quit the band in September 1980, leaving it in a state of collapse. He was briefly replaced by Greg Dechert, but the handwriting was on the wall, and everyone in the band besides Box and Bolder left in early 1981. Mick and Trevor attempted to coax David Byron back into the fold; amazingly, Byron refused. Bolder then left to join Wishbone Ash, leaving Box as the sole member of the once-proud band.
1982 saw the unlikeliest of events: Uriah Heep re-formed, now with Mick Boxas the bandleader. Lee Kerslake rejoined on drums (in the absence of long-time nemesis Hensley), bringing with him bassist Bob Daisley, whom he had played with on the first two Ozzy Osbourne solo albums while on hiatus from Heep. John Sinclair, who had toured with Heep as part of opening act Heavy Metal Kids, played keyboards, and the new vocalist (probably much to Hensley’s chagrin) was none other than Peter Goalby. Abominog, their first release, was a surprising critical and commercial success; its contemporary sound placed it comfortably in the New Wave of British heavy metal genre (ironically enough, Heep now drew inspiration from bands that they had originally inspired), and the single from the album, “That’s the Way That it Is,” found its way into heavy rotation on U.S. radio stations. Head First, released in 1983, continued in the same vein, although it was less commercially successful. Unfortunately for the band, at this point, Bronze Records collapsed financially, ending their association with both their longtime label, and manager Gerry Bron. Stalwart Mick Box took over the band’s management himself, a position he held until 2005. At around this time, Bob Daisley left as bassist, only to be replaced by his predecessor, Trevor Bolder, who has remained with the band to date.
1985’s disappointing Equator, released on CBS subsidiary Portrait Records, found the band floundering for direction, with most of the record consisting of poor attempts at a contemporary “hair metal” sound; only “Night of the Wolf” is up to the band’s usual standards. Worse, the record was poorly distributed, leading to the band touring to support a product that most fans didn’t have access to. Goalby and Sinclair left, demoralized and exhausted.
They were replaced in 1986 by U.S.–born Steff Fontaine and Phil Lanzon, respectively. Lanzon was an inspired choice, who has remained with the band to this day. Fontaine’s tenure proved the shortest of any member; following a disastrous U.S. tour in which he managed to get lost while taking a walk during a rehearsal break, and at one point found himself in L.A. while the band was ready to go onstage in San Diego (Ling 2002, 123). He was replaced by Canadian–born Bernie Shaw, who remains the band’s frontman. Shaw proved ideal for the situation; his voice is versatile enough to perform songs from all eras of the band, including the Byron–era material, which had challenged the band’s other singers, not so much because of its difficulty, but because of Byron’s unique delivery.
1987 was a triumphant year for Uriah Heep. With their lineup now settled, they played ten sold-out shows in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium, to a total of 185,000 fans, the first Western rock band to be invited to play in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, their refound glory was to prove short lived. Signed to Legacy Records, a small label with few resources to promote the band, 1988’s Live in Moscow, 1989’s Raging Silence, and 1991’s Different World were barely noticed by the record-buying public; indeed, many U.S. fans assumed that they had broken up during the 1980s. While they still retained significant popularity in Continental Europe, especially in Germany, which boasts several Uriah Heep “tribute” bands, their U.S. and UK audiences dwindled down to “cult” band size.
Sea of Light, recorded for German label CBH, followed in 1995. Widely considered one of the best albums of their career, it saw the band shedding the synthesizers and 1980s production that had marred their previous few efforts. Returning to their proto-metal and prog roots, SOL was their first record in years to actually sound like a Uriah Heep album, with Bernie Shaw’s vocal delivery sounding uncannily like David Byron’s in places. Highlights include “A Time of Revelation,” “Universal Wheels,” and Bolder’s haunting acoustic ballad “Dream On.” The album also saw Heep return to their visual roots, with a cover painting by Roger Dean. Unfortunately, the album was not even released in the U.S. until 1999, as Heep lacked an American distributor at the time, the situation only being rectified in 1998. In addition to the release of SOL, 1995 was significant for the band in that it featured a brief reunion with John Lawton for a tour of South Africa, following Bernie Shaw undergoing surgery to remove nodes from his vocal cords.
Three years later, in 1998, again on a new label, Eagle Rock (Spitfire in the U.S.), the band released Sonic Origami, which would turn out to be their last studio effort for ten years. Continuing in the vein of its predecessor, SO clocked in at well over an hour in length, making it the equivalent of a “double” LP, the first such studio effort in Heep’s history, and the quality of the material continued to improve: Mick Box and Phil Lanzon had developed into a formidable songwriting
team, with Trevor Bolder also contributing strong compositions. Standouts on this record included the opening track, “Between Two Worlds,” written about and dedicated to Gary Thain and David Byron, “Heartless Land,” “Question,” “Sweet
Pretender,” and the epic “The Golden Palace,” featuring an orchestral backing. Unfortunately, again, a lack of promtional funds became an issue, and not only was the album largely ignored as a result, but the band was forced to cancel a planned U.S. tour at the last moment.
After Sonic Origami, Heep spent the next few years recording and releasing live albums (no less than seven between 2000 and 2005), the most significant being Acoustically Driven (2001) and The Magician’s Birthday Party (2002). The former was actually funded by online subscriptions and featured Heep reworking both classic and contemporary songs in a special one-time concert with various acoustic accompanists, including an uleiann piper, and special guest flautist Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. (The concert was also significant in that it stands as the only show since the band’s inception at which “Gypsy” was not performed).
The latter album, recorded live in concert in London in December 2001, featured the wildly unlikely one-time reunion of Heep with Ken Hensley, to a packed house of deliriously happy fans who had come from around the world to witness the event. Featuring several songs that had never before been performed live, including “Paradise/The Spell,” and the entirety of “The Magician’s Birthday,” the evening reached a climax when John Lawton walked out on stage during the latter song to sing the part of the evil magician, completing the onstage reunion of the 1977–79 lineup. Both albums were also released as DVDs. After their first U.S. appearances in several years during 2001, the band managed to return to the U.S. in late 2002, appearing with Asia, Focus, and others; another live album, recorded in Trenton, New Jersey, and a DVD resulted from the trip. Two subsequent “Magician’s Birthday Party” concerts led to the same CD/DVD combination, one of them again including John Lawton’s participation, this time in a more prominent role.
Plans for a new studio LP had been announced for several years, without materializing, when in April 2005 the band made the surprising announcement that it had retained Simon Porter as their manager, Box relinquishing the position he had held since the mid-1980s. Porter aggressively pursued a new record contract for the band, and they were signed to Sanctuary Records in 2006, with an album planned for release in 2007. Unfortunately, these plans were derailed by the ill health of longtime drummer Lee Kerslake, and in early 2007, he was forced to leave the band he had played with for most of the past 35 years, to the disappointment of Heepsters, to whom he had long been a favorite. He was replaced by Russel Gilbrook, and the band began recording their long-awaited 21st studio album with producer Mike Paxman, due out this year. Nearly 40 years since their inception, through every from of adversity, the Uriah Heep story still appears to be far from over.
Discography: Given their multiple changes in record labels, and the several U.S. distributors used by Bronze Records, an almost bewildering collection of Heep anthologies (as well as several unofficial live albums, including Live in Europe 1979, Live At Shepperton ’74, and Live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour) are available from various sources. The following
list consists of recordings officially approved and released by the band, with their original U.S. label of release:
Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble [Uriah Heep in U.S. release] (Mercury, 1970); Salisbury (Mercury, 1971); Look at Yourself (Mercury, 1971); Demons and Wizards (Mercury, 1972); The Magician’s Birthday (Mercury, 1972); Uriah Heep Live (Mercury, 1973); Sweet Freedom (Warner Brothers, 1973); Wonderworld (Warner Brothers, 1974); The Best of Uriah Heep (Mercury, 1974); Return to Fantasy (Warner Brothers, 1975); High and Mighty (Warner Brothers, 1976); Firefly (Warner Brothers, 1977); Innocent Victim (Warner Brothers, 1977); Fallen Angel (Chrysalis, 1978); Conquest (Chrysalis, 1980); Abominog (Mercury, 1982); Head First (Mercury, 1983); Equator (Portrait, 1985); Live in Moscow (Legacy, 1988); Raging Silence (Legacy, 1989); Different World (Legacy, 1991); Sea of Light (released in 1995 in Europe and Japan, finally released in the U.S. on the Spitfire label in 1999); Spellbinder Live (released in 1996 in Europe and Japan, released in the U.S. on the Spitfire Label in 1999); Sonic Origami (Spitfire, 1998); Future Echoes of the Past (Classic Rock Legends, 2000); Acoustically Driven (Classic Rock Legends, 2001); Electrically Driven (Classic Rock Legends, 2001); Remasters (Classic Rock Legends, 2001); The Magician’s Birthday Party (Classic Rock Legends, 2002); Live in the USA (Classic Rock Legends, 2003); Magic Night (Classic Rock Legends, 2004); Between Two Worlds (Classic Rock Legends, 2005); Wake the Sleeper (Sanctuary, 2008).