“Beyond Our Ken” (Melody Maker, 1973)
This article was published in Melody Maker (March 3, 1973). Author — Geoff Brown.
ABOUT ten days ago I spent a Sportsnight with Hensley.
The Hensley in question was Ken, organist with Uriah Heep, who during the afternoon had played a round of golf with Cliff Bennett (his old boss in Toe Fat) and during the evening watched the incomparable Mohammed Ali dispose of Joe Bugner with the minimum of sweat.
We also talked a bit about his music.
Ken has recently recorded a solo album — “Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf” — and it has thrown into sharp relief the dichotomy of releasing a solo album while remaining an integral part of a successful group.
“The album has helped me personally tremendously because I can see that otherwise I would have had to split from the band because these were genuine feelings that were coming out from me and I had to have an outlet for them.
“I couldn’t get them out through the band because the band is a much less personal medium. A medium for just a small part at what comes out.”
Nevertheless some of the material has been suitable for both mediums. “Rain” for instance.
” ‘Rain’ was an almost fairy tale sort of story because when we thought about ‘Magician’s Birthday’ we wanted to stay away from a total concept sort of thing, although we wanted to keep a theme running through the album.
“At a point when we were listening to potential material I played ‘Rain’ to the band, I think that at the time I even explained that it was potentially a track for my own album. But everyone liked the song so it went on the album.
“I also did it on my album — for better or worse — because that was the way it was originally intended and because I wanted to see how it came out.”
Ken’s writing output at present is moving at a staggeringly fast pace.
“I have two albums full of songs ready at the moment, about sixteen or seventeen songs which I could sit and play to you now. But I don’t know… sometimes I’m so afraid of them being too personal. I’m very half-hearted about playing them to other people.
“The point is I’m an introvert type of writer but I try to present my writing in an extrovert sort of fashion so that it becomes more widely appealing.”
Ken feels that he needs to write to express himself but realises that he must present his feelings in a way that others can readily relate to.
A song ends up as a combination of the two factors. It will start as self-inspection but midway through its writing will become a song which places the blame for the situation the song is describing onto the other party.
“All the songs, at some stage during their evolution take this change. The crossover between actual reality and presentation of a situation for the purposes of relation to by others.”
This, feels Ken, gives the songs a hint of much needed commercialism.
The transference of blame in his writing is yet another dichotomy — one between fact and fantasy.
“Since ‘Look At Yourself’ I’ve tried to stop writing about reality as much as I was because I just felt I was using the medium I was being given by the hand merely to voice my own personal opinions, which I think is an abuse.
“I felt I was losing the creative side of things a bit. I felt that by writing about actual things that were happening I was only doing what other people could do, only not so ‘rhymingly’ as it were. So I got to writing about magicians and demons and all that, and it got me into a lot of trouble.”
Some months ago Ken received several weird and cranky letters on the subject of the supernatural. Dennis Wheatley would’ve been impressed.
How did Ken think that Heep fans would react to his album?
“I received some letters in response to my album from people who said that they’d listened to it and hoped I’d release a second album soon which was happier because it made them really sad.”
Which brought us inexorably to Leonard Cohen. Yes, Ken did listen to him and liked his lyrics and for pure musical construction he listens to Ravel. For a simple combination of music and lyrics he listens to Neil Young — “After The Goldrush” was playing when I arrived at Ken’s new home in Longford.
Bearing in mind that “Proud Words” took a year to record the material is now, chronologically, quite aged. How do the newer songs compare?
“The new material, as far as my own album is concerned, is an extension of the old album but it is much more elaborate. Not in terms of arrangement but it is an elaboration in terms of what I’d been given a license to lay down on my first album.”
Meanwhile Ken’s work with Uriah Heep goes on. They’ve just completed the mixing of a live double album which will be out, hopefully, next month. It sounds an impressive package with a booklet included and a low price.
The group have also just embarked on a two and a half month tour of the States, which is split in the middle by a trip to Japan. Australia is also on the schedule.
“I know that Uriah Heep can go a lot further. The people that are in the band and the kind of situation that exists within the members of the band — I know that we can go a lot further.
“It’s a question of running the river dry. Can we go further on what other people have to say in their songs or have we to depend on one major source? In that case the band must take my iead, because if they’re going to depend on me then they’re going to have to go the way my songs dictate.
“In the group we’ve achieved a ritual kind of marriage and it’s something we’ll stick to for as long as the ritual’s maintained. Once that’s finished then it’s every man for himself.
“In doing my own album I feel I’ve established a precedent for doing what I’ll be doing later on.
“Up until the time when I did my solo album I felt that my time was very strictly limited. Now that I’ve done it I want to do another one because I enjoyed it so much. But at the same time I didn’t enjoy it anymore than I enjoyed doing a Uriah Heep album.
“Every musician — it doesn’t matter where he is or who he is or who he’s with — would like to think or himself as being the principal focal point in the musical direction.
“In doing my solo album I felt that I was satisfying every musical need that I could. My own songs, interpreted in my own way. There was no question of leadership involved. After a while it became a team effort and will hopefully add fuel to Heep’s fire because that’s where my bread’s buttered at the moment that’s where I’m happiest.
“Take the hypothetical and unfortunately savagely over-emphasised point of ‘should I be a solo artist, should I leave Uriah Heep’. Ultimately I would need to have a band working with me and at the moment I can’t see that anybody else in the world other than the people I’m working with would be more eminently suitable to what I’m trying to say musically.
“It puts me in a trap… it traps me to a certain extent because it’s saying ‘well then you are the leader of Uriah Heep’ but I state quite categorically that I’m not.
“It’s a beautifully challenging situation to be presenting what I want to say through a medium at four other people and to see the way they interpret it. I learn, from everything they do. If they only play two notes a night that astonish me, it’s stIll knowledge that gets stored up.”
Working in the band does have one drawback though. Ken is unable to do any sort of promotion on the solo album.
“I have no choice but to accept it as being promoted through appreciation because there is no way that I would either want to, or could, promote it personally.
“I don’t want, in any way, to be considered as an individual at the moment.”
Promotion is, in fact, beyond our Ken.
© Geoff Brown, 1973
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