Whatever else 2020 can be said to have been, it has truly been a tragic year in the Uriah Heep world. Only a few short weeks ago saw the passing of the great Lee Kerslake, a giant of a man and half of one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock history, but now we have had an even greater shock, in the unexpected death of Ken Hensley. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what this loss means to not only myself personally, but Heep fans worldwide and, as it should be, rock fans across the board.
For anyone unfamiliar with his work, Ken Hensley was, for the duration of his tenure across the 1970s, the creative heart of Uriah Heep, and arguably their single most important figure. Most may remember him for his keyboard skills, and unique way of attacking the Hammond organ – but Ken was way more than ‘the keyboard player’. He doubled on guitar for one thing, and his slide playing was unmistakable. The soaring slide work at the end of Circle Of Hands? That’s Ken. He was also a more than capable vocalist in his own right, a vital part of the unique vocal arrangements the band used to such stunning effect, but also a lead vocalist who stood in for David Byron, or sang alongside him, more than some may realise. The classic Lady In Black from the Salisbury album is Ken, as indeed is Look At Yourself, and he traded line for line in the sublime epic Paradise / The Spell from the timeless Demons And Wizards album. Perhaps more than all of that though, is the legacy of his astonishing gift for songwriting. A cursory glance through the Heep catalogue of that time will reveal an amazing body of work composed by him. Lady In Black, Look At Yourself, Easy Livin’, Circle Of Hands, Paradise / The Spell, Rainbow Demon, Sunrise, Blind Eye, Rain, Echoes In The Dark, Sweet Freedom, Stealin’, If I Had The Time, Wonderworld, Firefly, Wise Man, Fallen Angel… and that’s without even touching his co-writes, where the likes of July Morning, The Magician’s Birthday and Return To Fantasy reside. Considering that for much of that decade Heep were forced to put out two albums a year, the consistent strength of Ken’s writing is almost peerless. He wrote Easy Livin’ in fifteen minutes while he put the kettle on after a long day in the studio, which says more than I ever could.
Ken would be, and often has been, the first to admit that he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with during much of Heep’s prime years. Strong-headed and stubborn, Mick Box once said that ‘if you asked Ken to go right, he’d always go left’, which would certainly appear to have been the case. But with a band as full of strong personalities and big egos as mid-’70s Uriah Heep, a firm hand like that is sometimes needed to keep the ship from drifting, and Ken undoubtedly must take a great deal of credit for that. He had his fallings out – in particular with Lee Kerslake, with whom he went without speaking for over 20 years, to his great sadness. Happily, in more recent times those bridges were entirely rebuilt, and they were very close in the last years of their lives.
For myself, this has hit me personally rather close to home, because Ken had recently been extremely helpful to me in regard to a biography of Heep in the 1970s which I have been writing, and it is not very long since we last spoke. He was extraordinarily generous with his time in providing information and assistance on a project which he had no need to, and I will always be grateful. In fact, on the day I heard about his death I was about to send over a first draft manuscript, and am now very saddened that he will never read it. It was clear when talking to him that he had no desire to be anything other than transparently open about his personal issues and character traits in his younger days, and also was now utterly without ego when evaluating – often very harshly – his own work from the period. In his later life he had found faith as a Christian, and this clearly had a profound effect on him.
Even beyond the band’s core fanbase, rock fans of a broader stripe should have a great appreciation for the often undervalued and easily dismissed work that Uriah Heep, and Ken as a composer, did in terms of not only producing great music, but pushing the boundaries. As early as their second album, Salisbury, they produced an almost side-long orchestrated progressive work in the title track which is far less widely known than it should be, by comparison with contemporary works by Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake And Palmer. An album later and they were producing, in July Morning, an epic track which should be ranked alongside Child In Time and Stairway To Heaven in terms of public appreciation. Despite their often lazy and unfair pigeonholing as mere workmanlike heavy rock, they also straddled the line between being a heavy rock band and a progressive rock band better than anyone active at the time. With tracks such as the aforementioned July Morning, Circle Of Hands and Paradise / The Spell, to stay only within a year or so, there was as much of Yes in them as there was of Black Sabbath, those disparate elements co-existing in perfect balance and not even giving cause to consider the juxtaposition of styles. Remember, ‘progressive metal’ wasn’t even going to be a recognised thing for two decades at this time, when Uriah Heep were making it look easy.
After leaving Heep, Ken had stints with bands such as Blackfoot and WASP, but never joined another band for the long haul. He released a string of excellent solo albums, as well as having collaborations with past Heep bandmates such as John Wetton and John Lawton. In recent years he has done some magnificent work with the band Live Fire. He never, however, gave in to temptation to attempt any sort of reunion with Uriah Heep, always respecting the current incarnation of the still-vibrant and very much active band, though he did make some guest appearances over the years. He has generally lived a life away from the spotlight at his home in Spain. His wife Monica is herself a private yet quietly influential person, doing an enormous amount of work in terms of animal welfare and ploughing her own furrow away from Ken’s spotlight, and our thoughts are very much with her at this time, as well as the rest of his family.
It is a very sobering thought to consider that only Mick Box remains of the classic Uriah Heep line-up of Hensley-Box-Byron-Kerslake-Thain. Gary Thain of course died tragically young in 1975, and David Byron in 1985, but Lee and Ken never shied away from their love of, and affection for the band. Lee of course remained a member until ill-health forced his retirement, but Ken also never wavered in the pride he took in the work the band produced and his role in it. He would always happily play old Heep material at live shows, and never for a moment did he distance himself from those times, without ever seeking to trade on the name.
There are a host of lyrics penned by Ken which fans will have going around their heads at this moment, from Lady In Black through Sunrise and Circle Of Hands, and on to Rain and the now achingly poignant If I Had The Time, but I would like to single out this slightly lesser celebrated verse from the Return To Fantasy closer A Year Or A Day:
Can’t we try to let the past go by
With it’s lessons firmly settled in our minds
To our children one by one, and before the darkness comes
Let us leave a world full of light of a different kind
In truth they should meet
And with love their hearts should beat
And with patience solve the problems of our time
It wouldn’t be so hard to do, It’s only up to me and you
Let us not bequeath a life that is a crime
Kenneth William Hensley, 24 August 1945 – 4 November 2020.
Rest in peace Sir, and thank you for the music