Uriah Heep are an English rock band formed in London in 1969 and are regarded as one of the seminal hard rock acts of the early 1970s. Uriah Heep's progressive/art rock/heavy metal fusion's distinctive features have always been massive keyboards sound, strong vocal harmonies and (in the early years) David Byron's operatic vocals. Twelve of the band's albums have made it to the UK Albums Chart (Return to Fantasy reached #7 in 1975) while of the fifteen Billboard 200 Uriah Heep albums Demons and Wizards was the most successful (#23, 1972). In the late 1970s the band had massive success in Germany, where the "Lady in Black" single was a big hit.
Uriah Heep's audience declined by the 1980s, to the point where they became essentially a cult band in the United Kingdom and United States. The band maintains, though, a significant following and performs at arena-sized venues in the Balkans, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia and Scandinavia. They have sold over 30 million albums worldwide.
The band's origins go back to 1967 when Mick Box, who was 20 at the time, formed in Brentwood a band called The Stalkers which started playing in local clubs and pubs. When the band's singer left, drummer Roger Penlington suggested his cousin David Garrick (who knew the band) as a replacement. Box and Garrick instantly formed a songwriting partnership and, having higher musical aspirations than their colleagues, decided to give up their day jobs and go professional. They set up a new band called Spice; it was then that David Garrick changed his second name to Byron. Drummer Alex Napier joined, having answered a music paper ad and bassist Paul Newton of The Gods completed the line-up.
From the very beginning Spice avoided playing covers and, according to Box, "were always striving to do something original". Managed initially by Newton's father, the band climbed their way up to the marquee level, then got signed by Gerry Bron (the Hit Record Productions Ltd.'s boss) who saw the band at the Blues Loft club in High Wycombe. "I thought they were a band I could develop and I took them on that basis", remembered Bron later. He became the band's manager and signed them to Vertigo Records, the newly formed Philips label. The four-piece found themselves booked into the Lansdowne Studios in London, still under the name of Spice. Then the name was changed to that of the well-known character from David Copperfield, Uriah Heep (for, according to biographer Kirk Blows, "Dickens' name being everywhere around Christmas '69 due to it being the hundredth anniversary of his death") and the decision came of widening the sound. "We'd actually recorded half the first album when we decided that keyboards would be good for our sound. I was a big Vanilla Fudge fan, with their Hammond organ and searing guitar on top, and we had David's high vibrato vocals anyway so that's how we decided to shape it", Box recalled. First session player Colin Wood was brought in by Gerry Bron, then Ken Hensley a former Newton's colleague in The Gods who was currently playing guitar in Toe Fat was lined up. "I saw a lot of potential in the group to do something very different", remembered Hensley.
Their debut album, Very 'eavy... Very 'umble (which was self-titled in the United States), introduced Hensley's heavy organ and guitar-driven sound, with David Byron's theatrical, dynamic vocals soaring above thunderous sonic backgrounds, although acoustic and jazz elements also featured in the mix. The album's title references the signature phrase of the Dickens character Uriah Heep ("very 'umble") from the novel David Copperfield from which the band took its name. Hensley had little to contribute to the debut: Box and Byron wrote most of the material, including "Gypsy", in many ways (according to Blows) "...a marriage of contrasts that would, in time, become their trademark". "The funny thing was we wrote it at the Hanwell Community Centre, Shepherds Bush, and Deep Purple were rehearsing in the room next door to us. You can imagine the kind of racket we were both making between us", recalled Mick Box in a 1989 interview. Three quarters into the recording of the album Alex Napier was replaced by Nigel Olsson, recommended to Byron by Elton John. The debut was not popular with rock critics (especially in the USA where a Rolling Stone reviewer infamously promised to commit suicide "if this band makes it") but in retrospect the attitude towards it changed. "Those unfamiliar with Uriah Heep may want to try out Demons and Wizards or a compilation first, but anyone with a serious interest in Uriah Heep or the roots of heavy metal will find plenty to like on Very 'eavy... Very 'umble", advises critic Donald A. Guarisco. In the course of the album's making the writing relationship between Box, Byron and Hensley was beginning to develop. "It was very quick, because we were all into the same things. It was like it was meant to be, there was that kind of chemistry", Mick Box recalled.
With Nigel Olsson returning to the Elton John group again, Keith Baker took his place. The band's second album Salisbury was more squarely in the progressive rock genre, with its 16-minute title track featuring a 24-piece orchestra. One of the album's tracks, "Lady in Black", described as "a stylishly arranged tune that builds from a folk-styled acoustic tune into a throbbing rocker full of ghostly harmonies and crunching guitar riffs", became a hit in Germany upon its re-release in 1977 (earning the band the Radio Luxemburg Lion award). Produced by Gerry Bron, the second album went a long way to (according to AllMusic) perfect Uriah Heep's "blend of heavy metal power and prog rock complexity" and was also significant for Ken Hensley's instant rise to a position of the main author. Soon after the release Keith Baker left the band to be replaced by Ian Clarke (from another Vertigo band Cressida). With him the band made their first US tour, supporting Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf.
By the Spring 1971 Gerry Bron's deal with Philips/Vertigo was over, so he set up his own label, Bronze Records. The third album was recorded in the Summer months of 1971, during the band's three visits to Lansdowne. "It was the point in time when the band really found a solid musical direction", said Bron later. The third album, Look at Yourself, released in October 1971, marked the solidification of disparate ideas that had been a prominent feature of Salisbury and presented the unified sound and direction. Among the stand-outs were the title track, "Tears In My Eyes" and "July Morning", an epic which Heep fans regard as equal to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Deep Purple's "Child in Time". "I think that "July Morning" is one of the best examples of the way the band was developing at that point in time. It introduced a lot of dynamics, a lot of light and shade into our sound", Ken Hensley argued. The album peaked at #39 in the UK.
By the end of 1971 it became clear, according to Hensley, that he, Byron and Box had become the tightly knit nucleus of the band. Feeling marginalised, first Newton left to be briefly replaced by Mark Clarke, then in November 1971 Ian Clarke was replaced by Lee Kerslake, once of The Gods.New Zealander Gary Thain, a then member of Keef Hartley band, joined Uriah Heep as a permanent member halfway through another American tour. "Gary just had a style about him, it was incredible because every bass player in the world that I've ever known has always loved his style, with those melodic bass lines", Box commented later. Thus the 'classic' Uriah Heep was formed and, according to biographer K. Blows, "everything just clicked into place".
The result of this newly found chemistry was the Demons and Wizards album which in June 1972 reached #20 in the UK and #23 in the USA. While the title of it and Roger Dean's sleeve both suggested that the band was romantically working medieval myth into their songs - and surely songs like "Rainbow Demon" and "The Wizard" (co-written by Mark Clarke, during his short stay) did have thematical links with fantasy world - more straightforward, hard-rocking approach was also obvious. To discard any possible insinuations concerning any kind of concept behind it, Hensley's note on the sleeve declared the album to be "just a collection of our songs that we had a good time recording". Both critics and the band's aficionados consider the album as 'definitive' and 'crowning achievement' which (according to AllMusic) "solidified Uriah Heep's reputation as a master of gothic-inflected heavy metal". Ken Hensley remembered:
"The band was really focused at that time. We all wanted the same thing, were all willing to make the same sacrifices to achieve it and we were all very committed. It was the first album to feature that line-up and there was a magic in that combination of people that created so much energy and enthusiasm".
Two singles were released form the album: "The Wizard" and "Easy Livin'", the second (a defiant rocker, according to Blows, "tailor-made for Byron's extrovert showmanship") peaked at #38 in Billboard Hot 100. Six months later, in November 1972, Uriah Heep's fifth studio album The Magician's Birthday (#28 UK, #31 USA) came out, with "Sweet Lorraine" released as an American single and the title track (a multi-part fantasy epic featuring Hensley-Byron vocal duel and Box' extensive guitar solo in the middle) being the album's highlight. "Uriah Heep used to have an image, now they have personality", wrote Melody Maker in 1973. A lot stemmed from the flamboyant Byron. "David was the communication point, the focal point of the whole group's stage presentation. He had so much charisma, so much ability," admitted Hensley many years later. But Hensley too developed into a sophisticated instrumentalist and stage persona, whose writing and keyboard flair ignited the rest of the band.
A lavishly packaged (an eight-page booklet plus) double album Uriah Heep Live followed, recorded at the Birmingham Townhall in January 1973. Having completed another Japanese tour, the band (due to tax problems) went to record to Chateau d'Heronville in France. It was there that the solid, but rather mainstream-sounding Sweet Freedom (#18 UK, #33 USA) was created with "Stealin'" released as a single. Having gained the world-wide recognition, the band quit the fantasy world in lyrics and made an obvious stab at versatility by adding funk ("Dreamer") and acoustic folk ("Circus") elements to the palette. Ken Hensley meanwhile had been gradually recording his own, mellower material; his solo debut Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf was released the same year.
Wonderworld (1974), recorded in Munich's Musicland Studios in January, proved to be a disappointment to both fans and band members alike. "Recording abroad disrupted the band's normal method of operation and that had a big negative effect on the group. Our communication was falling apart, we were arguing over stuff like royalties and we were getting involved in matters beyond music", Hensley said. Box remembered weeks spent in the studio as 'dramatic' for all the wrong reasons. "David was drunk for most of the time, Kenny was having an emotional time of it and I was constantly trying to help them so it was difficult for me too. There was also a little bit of friction because (artistic) Kenny didn't like all the attention that (flamboyant) David was getting". Gary Thain was in even more serious trouble. According to Blows, "A strenuous touring schedule, compounded by the bassist's heavy drug dependency (inherent even before joining Heep) was taking its toll, though matters came to a head while on tour during September", when the bassist got electrocuted on stage in Dallas. Soon after going out of hospital Thain in Sounds openly accused manager Gerry Bron of having turned Uriah Heep into a mere "financial thing" and was promptly fired. On December 8, 1975, Gary Thain was found dead in his Norwood Green home, having overdosed on heroin.
John Wetton (ex-Family and King Crimson) joined the band and with him Return to Fantasy was recorded; representing a revitalized Uriah Heep, it soared up to #7 in the UK. "It was a relief to have someone solid and reliable, and he had a load of ideas too", Box remembered. The following "Year-long world tour" (according to a headline in NME), was marred by a new accident. Mick Box fell off stage in Louisville, Kentucky, breaking the radial bone in his right arm (but persevered through both the set and the tour, receiving three injections a night). In November 1975 The Best of Uriah Heep compilation was released, preceded by two solo albums: Byron's debut Take No Prisoners and Hensley's second, Eager to Please.
High and Mighty that followed in June 1976 was considered lightweight; even in Box' assessment, "less of the 'eavy and more of the 'umble". The matter of production here became the point of major contention. With Bron committed to non-musical projects (including his air-taxi service) the band decided to produce the album themselves. The manager later insisted the result was "Heep's worse album", while Hensley accused the manager of deliberately ignoring the band's interests. The album, though, was launched in the most lavish manner (with journalists and business people being flown off to the top of a Swiss mountain for a reception). However, it was not matched with the quality of live concerts which were more and more chaotic due to Byron's inconsistency on stage. "He'd always got drunk after the show but it had never got to the point where it would jeopardize the show itself. The performance had always been first and foremost with David. It was when the show started to come second that the problems began", Hensley remembered. "The distance between David and the rest had grown to unworkable proportions", according to Blows. "It's a tragedy to say it but David was one of those classic people who could not face up to the fact that things were wrong and he looked for solace in a bottle", commented Bron. In July 1976, after the final show of a Spanish tour, Byron was sacked. Soon bassist John Wetton announced he was quitting. Obviously neither he was comfortable in the band, nor his colleagues with him. "When he joined we thought that we could replace a great bass player (Thain) with another great bass player, but we ignored the personality factor, which is crucial. It was like grafting on a new piece of skin but it just didn't work - the body rejected it", Hensley later explained.
Uriah Heep recruited bassist Trevor Bolder (ex-David Bowie, Mick Ronson) and, after having auditioned David Coverdale (Deep Purple, Whitesnake), Ian Hunter and Gary Holton (Heavy Metal Kids), brought in John Lawton, formerly of Lucifer's Friend and the Les Humphries Singers, with whom they turned away from fantasy-oriented lyrics and multi-part compositions back toward a more straightforward hard rock sound typical of the era. "Image-wise he wasn't quite what we were looking for, but his pipes were perfect and so we went for the music end of it", said Box later. "He had a voice that I thought would give a new dimension", Hensley agreed. Firefly was released in February 1977, displaying "renewed effervescence and energy in unveiling what was clearly a new beginning for Heep" (per. K. Blows), "a new vigour and confidence" (according to a Record Mirror review) and also the new singer's abilities: the latter (according to AllMusic), although lacking the multi-octave range of David Byron, "...boasted an impressive and emotionally rich hard rock voice that instantly jelled with the Uriah Heep sound". The band then toured the USA supporting Kiss. "They were incredibly professional, and so consistent that their worst nights were excellent and their best were tremendous", Paul Stanley later recalled.
Innocent Victim, released in November 1977, "had a slight edge on Firefly", according to Box, but still in retrospect this "blend of sharp, short rockers and pop-friendly ballads" looked like "an attempt to court the American AOR market". The single "Free Me" (whose "acoustic style and accent on harmonies brought the group dangerously close to Eagles territory", according to AllMusic) became an international hit (making it to #1 in New Zealand). In Germany the album sold over a million copies and became Uriah Heep's most successful, which coincided with the success of the re-released "Lady in Black". For some time during this period, there were three Uriah Heep singles sitting together in the German Top 20, these being "Wise Man" (from Firefly), "Lady in Black" and "Free Me".
In the end of 1978 Fallen Angel came out, having completed a hat-trick of studio albums to feature a consistent lineup (only the second time in their career that they had done so). "Too poppy" for Mick Box' liking (but still, "too eccentric to fit the bill of an AOR record", according to Allmusic), it was well received at the time (Sounds gave it 4 stars) but failed to chart. Meanwhile the relative stability of the Lawton period belied the behind the scenes unrest having to do with Ken Hensley earning much more than his colleagues. "Everything he wrote, he had to use... And if you insist in using everything you end up with substandard albums," disgruntled Box opined. The major rift, though, developed between Hensley and Lawton. As K. Blows writes, "the combination of constant friction between the two (resulting in the nearest thing to violence the group had seen) and the constant presence of Lawton's wife on the road finally led to the vocalist getting the chop, shortly after playing the Bilzen Festival in Belgium".
Ex-Lone Star John Sloman was brought in, a younger singer who played keyboards and guitar and was, in the words of Box, "an all rounder". But almost instantly Lee Kerslake departed, following a row with Bron whom the drummer accused of favouritism towards Hensley's material. Several tracks of the next album had to be re-recorded with a new drummer, Chris Slade (of the Manfred Mann's Earth Band). Conquest LP was released in February 1980 and received 5 stars from Record Mirror, but, according to Box, "was a difficult album to record" and represented "a confused Heep", even "a mess" (in the words of Trevor Bolder). The band went on the 10th Anniversary Tour with Girlschool as support and attracted respectable crowds. Hensley was very unhappy, primarily with Sloman, and he explained why:
"The band had chosen John and I had opposed that decision. He was a good musician and he looked great but I thought he had little going for him vocally. The way that he interpreted songs were totally different to the way I had written them. I could understand wanting to move on but this was like the difference between Black Sabbath and Gino Vannelli. We weren't addressing our basic problems, in that we weren't re-establishing our musical direction and John definitely wasn't helping us to do that".
A meeting at the manager's office concerning the songwriting dissent was to be the last straw and in September 1980 Hensley quit. Gregg Dechert, a Canadian who had worked with Sloman in Pulsar, came in and the band went on a 23-date tour of the UK. After that Sloman left, citing musical differences for a reason. He would later go on to work with UFO, Gary Moore and Robert Palmer. Hensley's acrimonious departure had left the group in a state of collapse. Box and Bolder paid a visit to David Byron with very attractive propositions; "we couldn't believe it when he said he didn't want to know", the guitarist remembered. Bolder, who by that time "had had enough of Gerry Bron and the management", decided to join Wishbone Ash and when Dechert left, Uriah Heep were down to just Mick Box with the name and contract. The Melody Maker headline "Heap of Heep" reflected the press' attitude towards the band's possible future.
"I locked myself in my flat for two days and drank myself senseless in complete self-pity. But I somehow managed to pull myself together and consider my options", remembered Box. First he rang Lee Kerslake (who in the meanwhile had co-founded Blizzard of Ozz with Ozzy Osbourne) and the drummer brought along with him bassist Bob Daisley. Then John Sinclair came in whom Box knew from the times he was a member of Heavy Metal Kids and who currently played with a Los Angeles band called Lion. The band's new vocalist became Peter Goalby of Trapeze fame. The latter had once auditioned for Uriah Heep and failed, ironically Hensley being the only band member who had supported him as a choice. "With us all contributing to the writing we forged our new direction", Box recalled.
Produced by Ashley Howe, Abominog (1982) album (according to Blows) was "important... in the way it pulled Heep out of the Seventies and thrust them into the Eighties with determination muscle", even if sounded a bit too American. Released in March 1982 (and preceded by Abominog Junior EP), it won favour with the critics. Sounds gave it a five star review, the newly established rock Kerrang! declared it "the most mature and perhaps best album of their career" and in retrospect it is still seen as "one of the most consistent and engaging albums in the group's lengthy catalog." The album did relatively well in the American charts (#56) and the band successfully performed at the Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock event. Head First (1983), produced again by Ashley Howe (who, according to Goalby, became "like the sixth member of the band"), followed much in the same vein, pursueing (according to AllMusic) "a similar combination of heavy metal firepower and AOR sleekness". Not long before its release Daisley left the band to return to Ozzy Osbourne and Trevor Bolder re-joined Uriah Heep. Both albums, Abominog and Head First, updated the band's sound and generated a brief, newfound interest in Uriah Heep among younger heavy metal fans.
Uriah Heep toured the USA supporting Rush, Judas Priest and Def Leppard, whose vocalist Joe Elliot remembered: "They were the best band that we've ever toured with either as a headline or support, because there was no ego, no pretentious kind of stuff. They were good in as much that we learnt a lot from them". By this time Gerry Bron was Uriah Heep manager no longer (they were looked after by Neil Warnock in Europe and Blue Oyster Cult's management team in the US) and then, finally, Bronze Records collapsed under the weight of debts which, according to Box, "cost Heep a lot of money". Massive Asian and South American tours followed before the band returned to the studio with producer Tony Platt and a new deal with CBS's Portrait label secured by new manager Harry Maloney. Meanwhile, David Byron died of a heart attack and liver disease on February 28, 1985 at the age of 38.
Equator (1985) sold poorly, due to the fact that "CBS just did a terrible job getting it into the shops," as Box saw it. On the other hand, what Kirk Blows described as "a solid piece of product that had the potential to do extremely well" was regarded less favourably by later reviewers. Jason Anderson, for one, argues that with this "lackluster" album, high only "in high-schmaltz rating", the band squandered the chance it's been given by Portrait. Totally exhausted and having serious voice problems, Goalby left mid-way through the Australian tour. "I loved and believed in Uriah Heep but it kicked the shit out of me in the end," were his parting words. Then John Sinclair quit deciding to join Ozzy Osbourne and keyboardist Phil Lanzon (Grand Prix, Sad Café) came in to fit in immediately into the Box-envisaged scheme of things. American singer Steff Fontaine, formerly of Christian metal band Joshua, joined but he was criticized for being totally "unprofessional" (he missed for some reason a San Francisco gig) and was sacked after just one American tour. Fontaine's position was offered then to ex-Grand Prix, Praying Mantis and Stratus vocalist Bernie Shaw, and that in retrospect proved to be a winning move. Shaw "felt honoured at being invited to join such a legendary band" while for Box "it was like everything falling into place".
The lineup remained unchanged from 1986 until 2007, being veteran Mick Box at the helm, Trevor Bolder on bass, Lee Kerslake on drums, vocalist Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon on keyboards. Their principal tour circuit has been in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan and Russia. In December 1987 they were the first ever Western band to play in Soviet Russia, under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. At Moscow's Olympic Stadium the band played ten consecutive nights to a total of 180,000 people (following a reception that Bernie Shaw remembered as being "something like Beatlemania") which was represented in the international press as not just an achievement for Uriah Heep but a major breakthrough for Western music in general. The concerts were recorded and issued as the Live in Moscow album which included three new tracks. Ironically, it was this behind the Iron Curtain excursion that did well to re-establish Heep's name back at home. After a series of sell-out dates in Czechoslovakia, East Berlin and Bulgaria the band returned to Britain for the Reading Festival in August 1988, and toured the UK with The Dogs D'Amour. Raging Silence, produced by Richard Dodd and released in May 1989, was followed by a return to the Soviet Union, concerts in Poland, East Berlin, six dates in Brazil and another British tour. "The last two years have been the most enjoyable of all my time in Heep," Trevor Bolder was quoted to say at the time. The band played in the Central TV studios in Nottingham (the film was shown as part of the Independent TV series "Bedrock" and a few years later it was repeated in the Cue Music series) and celebrated its 20th Anniversary with a series of compilations and re-issues.
Produced by Trevor Bolder and released early in 1991, Different World got a mixed reception from the press (put down in Kerrang!, hailed in Metal Hammer) and sold poorly. "Yet another technically sound but artistically bland recording from Uriah Heep" (according to AllMusic) failed to chart and marked the end of the band's contract with Legacy Records. Touring incessantly, the band issued some compilations of which Rarities from the Bronze Age and The Lansdowne Tapes (featuring previously unreleased material from the early 1970s) are considered most noteworthy. Still the first half of the 1990s is regarded even by the Heep fans as "the wilderness years".
The Sea of Light album (1995) produced by the band along with Kalle Trapp was well received and in retrospect is seen as the band's return to form, the key to success being (according to critic Donald A. Guarisco) the way it "forsook the ill-judged pop metal stylings of albums like Equator for a return to the gothic-tinged old-school metal style that highlighted classic Uriah Heep albums like Look at Yourself". Produced by Pip Williams, Sonic Origami, originally issued in Japan in 1998, then, a year later, in the U.S., had "a grand, epic tone throughout" that, according to rock critic Steve Huey, "doesn't always match Uriah Heep's journeyman-sounding prog-tinged hard rock," still being "a solid entry in its chosen genre. The release was followed by a successful European tour which continued all through 1999. The band released The Legend Continues DVD and then toured the UK. A reunion gig with Ken Hensley & John Lawton took place in London on December 7th, 2001 in the course of the Magicians Birthday Party, which since then became a tradition, even though Hensley never actually joined again. For most of the years that followed Uriah Heep have returned to Britain for a tour or just this annual showcase concert, which in 2003 was held at the now demolished London Astoria. All the while Mick Box acted as a manager for the band until, on April 5, 2005, they retained Simon Porter as their manager.
In early 2007, drummer Lee Kerslake had to leave the group due to ill health. In March of that year the band recruited Russell Gilbrook as their new drummer and immediately started recording a new studio album entitled Wake the Sleeper, where they used double drums in the songs "Wake the Sleeper" and "War Child". Originally slated for a summer 2007 release, Universal Music finally released Wake the Sleeper on June 2, 2008. In October 2009 Uriah Heep released their 40th Anniversary Celebration album, containing new studio recordings of twelve of their best known tracks, plus two brand new songs. "This collection underlines again that Uriah Heep are deserving great respect for their past achievements but far more importantly it makes it crystal clear that this is a band with a bright future as well as a glorious history", wrote Chris Kee in his 9/10 review in Powerplay magazine's February 2010 issue. A United States tour for June/July 2010 was delayed due to immigration problems; the first two dates had to be rescheduled. This resulted in an appearance at B.B. King's in New York City as being the first date of the tour. Then Uriah Heep performed live on the Progressive Rock stage at the inaugural High Voltage Festival in London's Victoria Park on July 25, 2010. They played their 1972 album Demons and Wizards in its entirety, being joined by ex-Whitesnake man Micky Moody on slide guitar.
Uriah Heep released their 23rd studio album Into the Wild on April 15, 2011 in Europe (May 3 in North America) via Frontiers Records.