Ken Hensley: The King Without A Throne

hensley_freespirit_sqr“Ken Hensley: A King Without a Throne”, an article by Igor Shveytser, written exclusively for the website.

The life story of this musician is full of ups and downs, difficulties and joys, grief and happiness. Ken Hensley was a complex and multi-faceted personality: in his work — for the most part extremely sincere, in his career — sometimes too calculating, in dealing with the press — usually overly optimistic; in private – perhaps extremely emotional, often doubtful, reflective and very lonely creator.

hensley_guitarMeeting with fans, he behaved inconsistently – sometimes as a star, sometimes as a common lively, friendly person. He encouraged loyalty, but did not tolerate disloyalty. This is understandable, if not for one annoying circumstance: Ken could sometimes take for disloyalty attempts to objectively understand the complex history of Uriah Heep.

By creating his best works, Hensley made our world warmer and brighter. The artist’s more than 50-year career has been phenomenal for several reasons. First, he belonged to the golden generation of British rockers. Secondly, he is one of the undisputed leaders of this generation, who wrote many anthems for the youth of the ’70s and beyond. Moreover, none of the stars of the genre composed as much and did not offer the world as many beautiful musical ideas in those years as Ken did. In that, he beats any hero of the era, because in the ’70s more than a hundred songs – and what songs! – were written by him (or with his share in credits) and recorded, and they make up the golden fund of the artist and the band. Many of them are the genre’s all time classics. Third – and perhaps most importantly, he was a rare example of polyvalent creative person for people of his kind. In hard rock, you will simply not find a melodist who, above all other talents, discovered a poetic gift in himself. And indeed, many of Ken’s lyrics are real poems, in which there are not only words in rhyme, but also images, metaphors, and in general a whole “wonderworld”!


Ken started writing songs as a poet (so that, as he himself often said, he could put poems to music), but gradually turned into an original instrumentalist. Moreover, in his case, there were not one or even two instruments: a Hammond organ, various synthesizers, a mellotron, an acoustic guitar, electric guitars, including a slide guitar. It is impossible to call him just the keyboard player of Uriah Heep, because he, unlike the strong professionals who took his place in the band afterwards, occupied a much larger place in the sound palette than just a “keyboardist”, even if a good one. Many listeners did not even realize that in the Heep songs the voice or guitar parts are not always played by musicians who were supposed to perform these parts. The best examples are Look at Yourself (vocals), Paradise/The Spell (part of the lead vocals and slide guitar solo), Weep in Silence (guitar solo). Plus, Ken was an innovator in his field, he was the main creator of Uriah Heep brand sound. Yes, the others did their best, but without the vocals and distinctive backing tracks that came with Ken from The Gods, without his timbrally rich Hammond organ and other keyboards, without his gentle and sometimes shrill-screaming slide guitars, without his strumming acoustic guitar, Uriah Heep would never have happened as the band the public fell in love with. And as for playing the Hammond, his role is comparable to that of Jimi Hendrix in the destiny of the electric guitar: it seems like a lot of things, but the sound is revolutionary. Hensley’s contribution as a whole cannot be replaced or overshadowed by either virtuosity or the length of stay in the band.

Ken Hensley with The Gods at Abbey Road Studios (1968).

Ken Hensley with The Gods at Abbey Road Studios (1968).

Speaking of bands and projects. In the life of Ken, there were a few. First, there were little-known, local club stage ones, then The Gods, Toe Fat, Head Machine and Weed, whose LPs were released by labels of varying degrees of solidity. The albums themselves did not win any special laurels at the time of their release, but listening to them, you can understand how the future author of July Morning or Rain was formed and which way he went. A particularly important milestone was The Gods, where Ken’s role is at least as important as it was later in Uriah Heep. One of the British journalists who attended the concert of The Gods in the autumn of the distant 1967, wrote that Ken does extraordinary (for that time — I.S.) things[1], his instrument practically talks, and in general the band, which included, in addition to Hensley, two more future Heep members, Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake, promises to become the brightest phenomenon on the British stage since the Beatles! In other words, the uncommonness, the brilliance of the singing organist and the guitar player who writes poetry, was obvious from the very first of his works. Ken was influenced by the cover-filled debut of the Americans Vanilla Fudge (1967) – their organist Mark Stein also “whistled” and “gurgled” on “Hammond”, and backing vocals were sung in about the same key as in The Gods. However, the British managed to create something of their own, less stringy and psychedelic, but more pop, noisy and dynamic. With their own, for the most part, melodies. But then, in 1967-68, either the competition was too high, or the general public on the right side of the Atlantic (the local band could only dream of America) was not ready to take Ken and the band into their arms yet.

Fame came a little later – with the creation of Uriah Heep, in which Ken Hensley was directly involved. With Uriah Heep, he experienced the joy of discovery, the ups and downs, and the bitterness of decline, all in just ten years. But what years those were! In the seventies, Heep created masterpieces, and even relative failures (for example, High and Mighty or Conquest) are seen today as the standard of the genre created by the band. And whose fault is it that the press sometimes simply ridiculed the early works, and practically ignored the later ones, which are very good in their own way?

Ken Hensley has always been an outstanding creative person, but when evaluating his contribution to the treasury of British rock, it is very important to put the right emphasis. It is now fashionable to call Hensley and other songwriters of his level great composers, although this is not true. After all, the composer composes the finished works, writes the score, and so on. Ken, like most rockers of the ’60s and ’70s, didn’t do anything like that – he simply саmе up with songs. However, this “simply” is actually not at all simple. It takes a special talent that develops for the time being in the company of the right people. Yes, it is true that his ballads or rockers originally, as a rule, did not have the finished form into which they were developed by Uriah Heep. However, without these songs, Heep would not have been able to attract much attention and successfully tour around the world. This has been going on for half a century, although Ken left the band 40 years ago. Look at the Uriah Heep repertoire of any era: for the most part, it’s the songs written by Hensley and arranged by the band. Of the works that define the face of Uriah Heep, only Gypsy was not Ken’s idea, but without his participation, it would never be the song as it is known to the world.

uheep_easylivin_singleAt the pinnacle of his creative powers, Hensley wrote a lot, not only for Uriah Heep, but also for himself. He was constantly searching for melodies and rhymes, but the band often refused to work with his diverse material, preferring to compose songs collectively, jamming at rehearsals. Apparently, Hensley was already bored with this method by about the mid-70s. He, unlike the rest of the band, had set up a very expensive professional recording studio at home. Why deal with other people’s ideas when you can create a full-fledged album almost independently, with the help of session musicians? This authorship and production independence has had a significant impact on the work (and its success) since leaving Uriah Heep, especially in the twenty-first century; the absence of high-ranking musical associates is often felt in the recordings of recent years.

The change of lyrical vector is also very noticeable: in the first half of the ’70s, in the years of his heyday, Ken often told us about imaginary kings and queens, about the seasons and romantic love, about childhood and dreams. By the end of that super-productive decade, the lyrics of many of the songs are either not about love, but about relationships – usually problematic ones – or are a declaration of one’s own intentions. In this not very romantic, in fact, paradigm, Ken remained until the end of his days, sometimes “diversifying” it with moralizing, sometimes even quasi-religious texts and template rhymes on a rock’n’roll theme. The dissonance with his lyrical work of the 1970s is sometimes so painful that you can’t help but wonder: what happened?

Most likely, the answer is simple: Ken lived a bright, eventful life, and lived it in different countries and several musical bands, and all the ups and downs that he had to go through, steadily changed him as a person and a songwriter. He consistently lost friends, jobs, money (and that was a lot of money), love; his music career at some point came to naught, which was due to drug addiction, disillusionment with life, and just a bad time for his music. After a decade and a half, Ken found the strength to quit drugs and made an incredible effort to reassemble himself as a musician and a person and at least partially make up for what he had lost. He did it, he got back into music, and that in itself certainly deserves respect.

Hensley may not have been too happy, but he desperately wanted to appear happy and self-sufficient, claiming in interviews over the past 15 years that all the failures in his personal life and career are far behind him; he wrote an entire book about it – an autobiography; he said many times that he lives only for the future. However, in words and texts (and in the eyes), the truth was sometimes read: the long-standing departure from Uriah Heep remained for Hensley an event of such magnitude that it is difficult to come to terms with it in the soul, even after decades. In recent years, he sometimes praised his band, Live Fire, putting the interaction with the musicians of this band higher than the famous “chemistry”, which he once had in Uriah Heep. At one point, he even uttered a bitter “I buried myself for ten years in UH”. Of course, this sounds unbearably biased, and some heepsters may consider it almost a slap in the face; but this is probably what Ken Hensley believed in those moments when he could not shake off the painful memories of the past. For fans, the musician’s past associated with Uriah Heep is certainly the best years, but for Ken himself, there were demons lurking in it, from which he struggled to protect his new world.

Uriah Heep (1973), Pinewood Studios, UK.

Uriah Heep (1973), Pinewood Studios, UK.

The change in Hensley was probably due to many failures in his personal life and career, and it turned him into a creator of a different kind. However, it is also true that Ken himself did enough to make many doors close very tightly in front of him. He repeatedly made sarcastic remarks about both old comrades and new partners in joint activities. They did the same about him.

But we are not going to try to find out who is right and who is not so right; let us return to creativity, to the mid-1970s.

Stylistically, Ken’s first two solo albums were very different from those of Uriah Heep. On these records, beautiful in their own way, there is almost no place for straightforward hard rock, little if any rebellion but much more acoustic instruments and sincere, personal, author’s presentation of the material. But the magic of Ken the vocalist is specific, it only works on those who are ready to hear something a little less “correct” and elegant than David Byron offered to the audience. Perhaps for this reason, the solo albums of Hensley’s time in the band are not so loved by the majority of Heep fans. At the same time, the melodies, arrangements and poetry are no weaker than what was done for the band.

Winter came today and took the sun away
Leaving me with nothing but the stars to play
But I’m sure that I won’t let it bring me down
The rough comes with the smooth but that’s what life’s about

So, to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, 30-year-old Ken talked about the vicissitudes of life, just seemingly watching. But in fact, it is a love lyric. For in the same poem, we read:

hensley-proudwords_283x283I suppose I’ll always have these memories
Till we are together once again
Of the days which were so long and lonely
Till the longer shadows and all the golden meadows
Tell me that the time has come for us to live again

As you can see, the young Hensley looked at the world through the eyes of a poet, but it was the view of a realist artist, moreover, not a stranger to reflection and correct questions to himself. As an example – poem (lyrics) “Take and Take” which deals with friendship:

hensley_eager2please_front_500…But I can see there are decisions
I will have to make
In a world that seems to live on
Take and take and take…
My friend gave me a helping hand
And I wondered then
If I could be a man
Strong enough to
Forgive with a smile
Now as I’ve travelled far-off lands
I see it clearer
And it makes me glad
I guess I’m happy ’cause
I’ll go on giving for a while
And I hope it’s for all my life

The above are just two examples of what Ken’s solo lyrics were like in the ’70s. And although not all of his texts of that time cause delight or response in the soul, most are really beautiful and deep. And now fast forward for a moment to the second decade of this century:

Your eyes don’t lie, they try to tell me why
Your eyes can’t hide the way you feel inside
Your words are kind meant to ease my mind
But your eyes don’t lie and baby I’m not blind

Your heart’s grown cold and your story’s getting old
But I’m the fool for listening to the lies you told
It’s the same sad song where it all goes wrong…

The difference is more than obvious: we are either looking at a very annoyed person, limited in words, or this is a game of love lyrics a la cruel romance or blues, which is hardly winning for a lyricist of the level that Ken achieved in his most fruitful years. What differs his solo compositions of the ’70s? They always contain a play of light and shadow, drama, tension and at the same time relaxation, typical for his Heep numbers, polyphonic sound and a typical trade mark approach to lead and backing vocals.

However, a great success for him as a solo artist in those days did not come, and could not come – there was no live promotion of his solo records. Uriah Heep were a very busy band, and Gerry Bron, the head of Bronze records, as well as the manager and producer of Heep, who had long favored Ken – could only publish his albums. The opportunity to perform solo will appear much later, in less “opportunistic” times.

If there was any interest in such a hard-rock-Paul McCartney-kind-of-guy in the ’70s and early ’80s, then it was most likely a modest one. In particular, because for the quiet, personal, spoken in a confidential tone, it is much more difficult to make its way to the mass listener, than for the noisy, full of drive and shrill screaming, which was a lot of Heep music. The parallel with Sir Paul is deliberately drawn: it is he who owns at least half of the bright melodies that made the Beatles famous. And the main difference between Ken and Paul is – no, not that Uriah Heep missed its Lennon, Harrison and Starr, but that the success of the band, even at the best of times, was way more modest. And therefore, the solo work of the songwriter, organist, guitarist and a backing vocalist, who sometimes sings solo, after leaving the band did not assume much resonance, despite the fact that the songs often turned out great. Ken’s personal charisma (unlike that of McCartney) was apparently not enough to attract additional interest from both show business and the general public — although he did not lack charisma as such.


Year 1981 (“Free Spirit”)

Everything changed for Mr. Hensley when his paths with Uriah Heep parted. The Heep, having reformed and started all over again, literally fought for a place under the not very hot sun of the ’80s, while he almost went into the shadows. At first, he made a vague attempt to start a solo career, then did two albums with Blackfoot (for which Ken’s contribution is tangible, but not commensurate with what was in Heep). Then, by the end of 1984, he quit performing live, transformed into a representative of the US music business and an occasional guest artists (on W.A.S.P “The Headless Children” and Cinderella “Heartbreak Station”).

ken_IR_0208_004sqr_500wThe mid-and late ’90s saw a resurgence of interest in both Mick Box and his bandmates and the former shadow bandleader. The new Uriah Heep have earned this by making music of their own, collective authorship. Ken also reminded of himself with a beautiful anthology, full of previously unreleased tracks, From Time To Time. Also, a new wave of popularity was raised by the official fanzine, published since the early ’90s by The Uriah Heep Appreciation Society, and the Internet helped, too, by letting the world know where and how the once famous hermit rocker lives. Given a boost by connecting with fans and performing at the Heepvention festivals, Hensley returned to artistic activities, continuing to delight his fans with new songs and touring.

This stage of his work is more controversial than the first two[2]. As we remember, Ken played and recorded extensively before joining Spice, the band that soon became Uriah Heep. And the contradiction lies in the fact that, on the one hand, Hensley delighted fans with songs in approximately the same musical key as before, but, on the other hand, almost all the brightest tracks of this century in separate fragments and structure resemble the songs of Uriah Heep of the ’70s. Excluding the spirit and authenticity of the sound, of course. In fact, this is a typical classic rock story, when brilliant musicians on the slope of their creative days, to the delight of some fans and the grumbling of others, if they remain within the same genre, then willingly or unwillingly use their own cliches. And there are no exceptions, no matter how big the star is. In addition, in the case of Ken, there was another nuance: realizing that at concerts he does not quite cope with singing, and, perhaps, the new songs themselves are not as fresh as in his youth, he planned to reformat his career in his sixties, moving away from active touring and studio activities as an artist and focusing on the work of a composer and producer. But the plans, as Hensley often did, were just a declaration of intent.

However, we agree that in the final chapter of Ken’s creative life there is a lot of interesting things, especially for residents of the former USSR. Uriah Heep became the first band that penetrated with great success behind the Iron Curtain, which was dilapidated by the time of Perestroika, and was awarded a 10-day full house in Moscow’s Olympiyski sports complex. Ken did not participate in the breakthrough, but 15 years later he took full advantage of the love for his music in the former USSR and, above all, in Russia.

Ken Hensley in the recording studio (Moscow, 2004)

Ken Hensley in the recording studio (Moscow, 2004).

Having resumed his active touring, Ken came to Russia in early 2002 – and in fact, our country became his main concert venue for many years. It is here that he always received increased attention from both the fans and the press. Here, in Russia, with the solid support of local record labels, three of Hensley’s studio albums were released in large circulation (for their time, of course). Which, in fact, in many ways gave the artist a powerful impetus for further work in the studio and on stage. The scenes have obviously changed: if in the best years of Hensley as a member of Uriah Heep pleased the Western audience, often gathering stadiums, then in the last phase of his career, often armed only with an acoustic guitar and a synthesizer, the legendary musician most often communicated with fans from the former USSR, mainly in small halls.

Why did he often perform alone, if his most famous songs suggested the format of a rock band? There are three reasons for this. The first is the money and the organization of the process: it’s easier for an artist of his level to earn money alone. The second reason: Hensley repeatedly said that he wanted to stop being Ken from Uriah Heep, and become just Ken Hensley – a solo author-performer. He succeeded. Partly. Because he still had to fill at least half of the concert repertoire with songs that gave the famous band its status. Well, the third reason is that Ken didn’t really need people, and he didn’t always get along with them easily, although in personal communication he could seem like one of the lads. But in fact, he always remained what is called “his own”, and with a very difficult character.

In many ways, for this reason, the relationship with former colleagues from Uriah Heep left much to be desired — at least, in the opinion of many fans who did not know all the nuances of interaction between Ken and “the rest of the family”. And the nuances were such that Mick Box and bandmates both old and new also wanted to go their own separate way from Ken, proving to everyone interested that Uriah Heep can be successful even without the person who once wrote the lion’s share of their great song fund. However, people still dreamed of seeing the man with the non-musical-looking fingers again, long-haired and long-nosed, on the stage, in the usual right corner. The dream came true, and more than once. First, in the early ’90s, there was a guest participation of Hensley in the Uriah Heep concert in St. Louis, where the hero of this article then lived and worked. Then, joining forces with John Lawton and Paul Newton for Heepvention 2000, The Hensley Lawton Band even began touring again and recorded a completely high-quality live album, released in 2001 under the symbolic name The Return. At the end of the same year, Ken participates in the most large-scale and high-quality “reunion”, being invited as a special guest to the next Heepvention. However, the dream of seeing Ken on stage with the current “Heeps” during the entire set came true only for Russian fans, and, alas, not at the best time. In the fall of 2015, Ken, along with Lee Kerslake and the nowadays Uriah Heep, gave a joint concert[3] at the Crocus City Hall in Moscow. Yes, it was a one-off and not quite a full-fledged reunion, but it still took place.

With Uriah Heep in Moscow (15.10.2015)

With Uriah Heep in Moscow (15.10.2015). Photo by Igor Sveytser.

A dream come true, you say? Let’s speculate. Not everyone we associate with the classical period was on the stage. Most of them, for obvious reasons, could not be there. However, on paper, even such a reunion looks solid. Hensley’s Hammond was a real highlight of the evening, as was the performance featuring the band’s classic drummer. But, possibly due to incorrectly tuned sound, Ken sometimes was out of key when playing slide guitar and singing. At the same time, there were almost no dissatisfied with the performance of Uriah Heep. Yes, both Ken and Mick and their band have done a lot to establish themselves as independent artists, but in the minds of fans, Uriah Heep and Ken Hensley will always remain primarily a single entity that made a huge contribution to the history of rock. And the share of Ken Hensley will always remain the lion’s share.

P.S. Taking into account the scale of the creative personality Ken was, it is naive to try to find one song that would most reflect his inner world, which would be a kind of anthem. And yet Ken from Uriah Heep has such a song belonging to both him and the band, both progressive and simple, heavy and melodic, passionate and accurately calculated, and even partly epic. It is like a look in the mirror, a gaze that is intense, restless, and very piercing – Look at Yourself.


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