Uriah Heep: Ken Hensley Staying With It (1974)
Two years ago, Ken Hensley, Uriah Heep’s organist and informal leader, told a Melody Maker reporter that he would probably never play in any band other than the Heep. More importantly, he said that even that association would not last for more than two and a half years.
Of course, that interview took place before Uriah Heep arrived as a full-fledged headlining rock band. It came after the release of four albums. The first two had been slammed unmercifully by critics and did not win a multitude of fans. The third, Look At Yourself, fared a little better. It even earned a silver disk for international record sales. The fourth had just been released, and its fate was uncertain.
Today, half a year short of his predicted departure from Uriah Heep, Hensley has made quite a turnaround. He states flatly: “…(we) all decided that we were going to accept the slight differences there are between us personally… and just get on with what we’re doing as a band. The band’s still together, and probably will be for quite some time.”
Thinking back to the earlier statement, Ken simply admits that he made a mistake. “I made a guess and I was wrong. It happens to everybody from time to time.”
Such a mistake is easily understood, however. Shortly after this statement was printed, that fourth lp, Demons and Wizards, brought both critical and public acclaim to the often maligned Heep.
This album marked a major turnaround in the band’s career. “I’ve always marked that down as a critical point because that was when Gary and Lee first started to work with us.” (Gary Thain and Lee Kerslake, at that time, replaced Uriah Heep’s original bassist and drummer.) “(That was) when it first seemed like there were five people who wanted to go in the same musical direction. That was really important. That was what was missing from those early albums. We had no combined, unified musical aims. We were all just kind of thrashing about trying to find a common direction.”
“As soon as we got Lee and Gary, that happened. Then we started to move along at the correct pace. That was the beginning of a run of successful albums, which was what we were looking for at that particular time. I even think now that it is reasonable to say, at this stage in our career, that Demons and Wizards was probably our first album.”
This first taste of success helped the band in more ways than one. It lead to the Heep’s eventual signing with a new record company, Warner Brothers. Ken sees this as another important factor in his current enthusiasm for the band.
“Being a bigger company, I guess they add a slightly more professional, considerably more professional, dimension to the record promotion side of it. I think that what happened was that, although Mercury was a good company, I just think they weren’t able to grow with us. They didn’t have the capacity for growth that we had.”
One thing that happened when the band changed labels was that it tried to make a concurrent change in its image. Demons and Wizards, and its follow-up, The Magician’s Birthday, were fantasy albums. They dealt with mystical and occult themes. Birthday was even based on a short story about a party for a magician thrown on his birthday. Heep’s preoccupation with these subjects soon led to an unwanted stereotype. Sure, they liked fantasy, but they were no prophets of the occult.
With Sweet Freedom, the first Warners release, the band tried to drastically demonstrate that it was still a fun-loving rock band. Now, Ken admits, “I think that’s what’s wrong with Sweet Freedom. We were trying too hard to lose that image. I think we were trying too hard to move away from the thematic type of approach we’d had to albums. We tried to move back to the Look At Yourself type of thing, where there’s a collection of songs which don’t necessarily come under one collective title. That’s what I think was wrong with Sweet Freedom. That’s why we weren’t happy with Sweet Freedom. Well, we were at the time, but, on reflection, I don’t think any of us felt really comfortable when we’d done it.”
“We ended up with an album that was just a collection of songs. I prefer to use the word ‘jumble’ actually. I don’t even think it was a collection. Now, with Wonderworld, we’ve moved back to having a number of songs which are, to some extent, some of them are directly, and some of them are less directly pertaining to the overall title. We feel much more satisfied with working that way now.”
Ken does have more on his mind than Uriah Heep. Satisfied with the band as he is, he still has solo projects on the fire. His first order of business after the current tour is to work on his second solo lp. It has been his intention for a long time. He has written and rewritten it, and wants to get it done before any more time passes.
This upcoming album is neither more nor less important to him than his work with the band. Ken sees both solo and band recording as appealing, yet in necessarily different ways.
“The interesting point about working on albums with the band is that you always have this terrific degree of energy and idea exchange going on.
“When you’re in the studio on your own, there’s just you. You’ve got to depend on your own choice of instruments to overdub and things like that. It’s got an atmosphere of its own which is very appealing.”
The first solo effort gave Ken some problems with the critics. It followed on the heels of the Heep’s first wave of success. Many critics immediately dismissed it as an effort to cash in on the band’s new popularity. At this point Ken has some thoughts about the ever-present problem of relations between artist and critic.
“As far as I was concerned, I was doing the solo album for very genuine reasons. They were completely wrong. If they wanted to use that for their angle, than fair enough. Adverse criticism of that kind is absolutely irrelevant.”
For all the trouble Hensley and the band have had with the critics, though, he shows a remarkably tolerant attitude towards them. “Criticism can be adverse and still be constructive and objective. That’s when it’s useful. Even the worst review can be useful to you because at least the people are actually criticising something you are doing. You can see that they’ve watched or listened or whatever.”
He even can look back to the torrents of criticism that blasted the first Uriah Heep albums as having been constructive. “I think that, on reflection, most of it was justified or honest. I can’t listen to the first album that we did. If I was asked to pass an opinion on it, it would probably be very close to what the critics passed then.”
Despite the adverse criticism and the struggle to establish itself — perhaps because of it, according to Hensley — Uriah Heep is now enjoying considerable success. The band took the stage in Toledo* with its characteristic flamboyance, and it was greeted by one of the most enthusiastic audiences I have recently seen in the city.
The Heep put on a commanding show. It opened with the recent single, “Stealin’.” The song demonstrated all of the strength and weakness which would mark the entire show. Dave Byron’s lead vocals were tight and powerful. The characteristic Heep vocal harmonies were in full strength. Stage movements were exciting and natural. And the rocking beat seldom let up.
There were negative aspects. The sound system performed horrendously. Although the vocals were clear, the instrumental sound was often little more than a jumbled mixture of pounding drums and grinding organ. In a way, though, it was a blessing since Mick Box continues to concentrate his enegries on throwing his guitar around instead of playing it. Granting that this helps generate some of the visual excitement, its musical merit is dubious.
The early part of the show concentrated on material from Wonderworld — a fact which worried Ken. “With the album not having been promoted quite as much as we thought it would have been by now, it means that a lot of the new songs — instead of having been in people’s heads for three of four weeks like they thought they would have been — are, in fact, new to them completely. So that leaves us with a bit of a problem. We deliberately didn’t want to start playing songs that were too new. We wanted to give them time to hear them first, then start doing them live.”
The band was keenly aware of the fact. Byron made numerous references to the new lp, as if to judge by the crowd’s reaction whether or not they were familiar with it. Such worries were unfounded, however. New material like “Suicidal Man” and “So Tired” fit so well in to the Heep style that the people loved them. Even the soft title song held the audience’s attention. This must have been a pleasant surprise to the band since past attempts at acoustic material in concert were disastrous.
The remainder of the set was rounded out by the old favorites. “July Morning”, “Look At Yourself”, “Gypsy” romping good fun. That the Heep would win an encore was certain.
It began with an explosion of confetti. As another bow to the audience, the band launched into its legendary medley of old rock and roll favorites. The visuals came complete with strobe lights and explosions of flash powder.
“They (the audience) are the only people outside the musicians that are important in an actual musical sense. The whole purpose for everyone being there is for the connection between the audience and the group.” Ken Hensley said it the afternoon before the performance. His band did its best that evening to prove that he was telling the truth.
© David Fandray, 1974
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