“So tell me, Ken, why is it Uriah Heep drive rock critics to suicide?”
This article was published in the NME magazine on June 8, 1974. Author — Chris Salewicz.
So tell me, Ken, why is it Uriah Heep drive rock critics to suicide?
Chris Salewicz fearfully puts the question, remembering adverse album reviews and also the murderous bottle-throwing devotion of Heep’s fanatical supporters.
“IT GETS ON my tit when people start talking when I’m listening to music, so when I’m at ‘ome I always turn the sound right up loud so that it’s impossible for anyone to try and hold a conversation.”
And the entourage grins sycophantically at the chortling Ken Hensley, and I begin to wonder what I’ve let myself in for.
The point is that hardly anyone I know exactly gets off on Uriah Heep’s music. Yet all over Europe, North America and the Far East the band helps maintain the scarcity rates of precious metals by picking up silver and gold albums each time they clear passport control.
And then, of course, there’s the blind allegiance of their followers – loyal, dedicated, murderous (remember their maniac Lord Of The Flies bottle throwing at Alex Harvey at Alexandra Palace last year?).
So this has become something of a voyage of discovery – an attempt to discover the answer to “Why Uriah Heep?”
ALREADY, THOUGH, I’m beginning to fear the worst. The setting – the King Henry VIII hotel in Bayswater – epitomises that kitsch opulence that often seems associated with the band: plexiglass habitatty chairs, portraits of the Tudor ruler and his various ladies, and the obligatory swimming pool with green and blue surround.
This obviously ain’t no place for any rock ‘n’ roll confessional. So the Uriah Heep keyboards player and myself are ushered through the hotel to one of the bedrooms where we can sprawl on burnt ochre bedspreads (what else?) with nothing to disturb us but the distant rumble of the Circle line.
In my experience, heavy musicians tend to be somewhat lightweight mentally – I once spent the most awkward hour of my life attempting to discuss the philosophical and sociological ramifications of their music with a member of a very popular and very heavy band – and so I take my time letting Ken get comfortable. There comes a point, however, when small talk can be carried beyond the bounds of decency, and, from the way he’s shuffling about inside his denims, it quickly becomes apparent that he knows I’m procrastinating.
Alright, then. No point in holding back any longer. Why is it, Ken, that rock writers seem, shall we say, not too keen on Uriah Heep? After all, when Melissa Mills reviewed your first album in Rolling Stone she wrote that if the band ever made it she would commit suicide.
“You asking me this on tape?” he mutters quizzically.
Well, yes, I am actually genuinely interested in this loathing or, at best, total apathy that mention of Uriah Heep tends to generate. I mean, how do you react to it all?
He considers this for a second or two, and then: “I think it was because we dropped a bit of a cobbler when we first got going.
“See, what we did was to try and advertise our product before we took it on the road and it was just about the time people were getting tired of hypes.
“But I didn’t regard it as a hype because I was too busy. Mind you, we were very, very rough when we first got going and I think that some of the criticism was right. But it didn’t just apply to the critics, y’know – it applied to the public as well.
“The only criticism I didn’t like was the stuff that just rejected it out of hand and that didn’t attempt to make any constructive remarks but was just totally destructive.”
And he cites that initial Rolling Stone review.
“We’re still waiting for her to do it.”
Am I to take it, therefore, in the light of what you’re saying about having been very rough, that you’re not exactly satisfied with some of your records?
“If you’re ever totally satisfied with any of your records then you might as well give up.
“But on those first three albums – well, we were just thrashing about trying to find a direction. You should just listen to a couple of cuts of any of them and it’ll indicate just how much out of our depths we really were.
“Our feet were right off the ground!
“In some ways, though, it seemed to help us. We were good and aggressive in our early days and not very much else. And when we went out to Germany they seemed to like that and went out and bought a lot of copies of our first album.”
Okay, you’re said some of what you think about Uriah Heep and its problems. Now let me say that I tried to understand your music by playing Sweet Freedom several times, but I just felt that it churned on and on and on.
In fact, the only moments that I faintly enjoy were when the structuring reminded me of the early Vanilla Fudge.
For once I seem to have got Spot The Influence right on target.
“Being totally honest I think that Vanilla Fudge is the strongest influence on the band – that first album they did was such a totally original heavy album.”
But what of my feelings that Sweet Freedom does just churn on?
“Oh. I felt that too.”
“In fact, I felt the same about all of them – this sense of emptiness. There’s a lack of achievement. But after I’d heard Wonderworld (Uriah Heep’s new album) I though that we had actually achieved something at last, because we seem to have got so much more dynamics on it.”
NOW I’VE already been told that Ken Hensley drew the majority of his inspirations for the lyrics on Wonderworld from dreams. Which gives me a chance to make the point that his lyrics often seem at odds with the relatively violent sounds of the music.
His reply surprises me, to say the least.
A thoughtful swig on his scotch and coke and: “I think this comes as a result of the inevitable – but hopefully minute – interpretation loss that comes from presenting something to four people who then have to listen and present something in their own way and then present it as a group.
“But for the most part the music and lyrics are sympathetic with each other.”
Well, how do you see your lyrics? Do you see them as short poems or just as lyrics – because I really can’t see they stand up without the context of the songs?
“Sometimes I write lyrics first, but the songs I’m happiest with are the ones where the music and the lyrics all come together at the same time. I was talking to this bloke in Norway who’d listened to my solo album and he’d interpreted it as being space rock because the first line goes: ‘I’d travelled across the universe on wings of space and light.’
“And I said ‘No. You’ve got it completely wrong. All that that is is just a poetic way of saying I’ve been all round the world and I like coming home again’.”
Thank Christ someone else has suggested it.
Ahem. Er, actually, Ken, that guy was saying what I feel, that your lyrics are rather Ladbroke Grove spaced-out. But you’d claim they’re not?
“I’m only learning to write songs. While I’ve been given this licence to write songs, then hopefully people will accept that my songs will improve.
“But I happen to be the proud owner of a very, very dangerous piano – a very large Steinway. And when I’m writing I can sit there and play it for hours and hours, y’know.
“And I just vanish into some place where I can’t be contacted at all. The phone can ring for hours and people can bang me on the shoulder but I’m just lost in this kind of…wonder world.”
(N.B. Plug for album).
This is all going a whole lot better than I expected. No moodies or incoherent mumblings when I criticise the music or his lyrics.
HOWEVER, Uriah Heep suddenly made it in America about eighteen months ago. What happened? “The American thing was a freak thing of very, very good luck. We happened to do our first tour with Three Dog Night, which meant that in one month we got to thousands and thousands of people – they liked us and we’ve just gone from strength to strength.”
But wasn’t there a tale or two strange gentlemen latching on to the band in the States?
A long and thorough mouthwash with the remnants of his drink and Ken Hensley wryly rubs his face with his hands. He shakes his head.
“People really got the wrong end of the stick about the Demons And Wizards album. And we followed it up with Magicians Birthday – that’s when we got the diagrams for space ships and all the weirdos decided to come and visit us in the hotels. Probably didn’t do us any harm though. It’s nice to get away from life for a moment and get into your imagination. I like it. I like going off into fantasies and things. I enjoy it…I find it stimulating. Then when I come down to the real world I’m ready for it.
“Bit like going to a football match really.”
Well, considering all that, what is Uriah Heep’s music really all about?
“Our music now is just about five people who’ve taken rock ‘n’ roll and tried really hard over the five years we’ve been together to make it our kind of rock ‘n’ roll – to establish our own kind of identity and make it in some way original.
“We work very, very hard at it, y’know, and it’s honest music – that’s one thing I can say for sure – because it’s music that’s intended to try and entertain people and take them away from everyday life just for the period they’re listening to it, whether it be an album or a show.”
And can you truthfully promise me that if I’d come up to you after your third album and said that I just couldn’t understand or appreciate your music that you would have maintained your cool and not have given me any misunderstood artist bullshit? That you would have been as up front with your replies as you have been today?
No hesitations whatsoever.
“Look, if you’d said that to me then I’d have probably said okay and gone away and thought about it.
“The trouble is that now it sometimes seems to happen the other way round and we get a good review of something that we know has been lousy.
“When that happens it’s really the end, it’s rockbottom. It was better the way it was before.”
© Chris Salewicz, 1974
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