Above image: Mick Box (photo – Steve Pilkington)
I remember one time, we finished a UK tour, drove straight to the recording studio after the last show and worked through the night, not going home or touching ground even, and then the next day we were flying over to America again. It was non-stop!
It’s been something of a tough time for Uriah Heep of late. Well, it’s been a tough time for everyone, of course – but you have to feel for the position that the Heep lads found themselves in this last year and a half. Having just released their finest album in years, Living The Dream, the band were looking forward to a grand celebration of 50 years in the business, since the debut album Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble was released back in 1970. A heck of a milestone for any band, and doubly so when you consider that they have been active, touring and releasing new music throughout that time – indeed, apart from a very short period of hiatus in the very early ’80s, after the band split following the Conquest album and before regrouping for Abominog, there has always been a Uriah Heep. This is no ‘legacy band’, reuniting to tour one more time and crank out the hits, this is a living, breathing band which guitarist and founder Mick Box has tirelessly been at the helm of for half a century. As I said, some celebration to look forward to, and then some…
And then the Covid pandemic hit. Touring arranged to take the party on the road in mid to late 2020 was scrapped, and rearranged for the same times in 2021, as people optimistically assured themselves that, as they said in the early days of World War Two, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be over by Christmas’. Except it wasn’t, and the rearranged dates for 2021 were rearranged again, and when this party finally happens (hopefully!) in 2022, Uriah Heep will actually be 52 years old. But I think I can echo the thoughts of just about every Heep fan around the globe that a couple more candles on the cake isn’t going to put a damper on things of any sort whatsoever, and I’m quite certain the band will be saying that same thing.
I caught up with Mick Box for a Zoom chat – something from the realms of science fiction back when Heep took their first steps – and naturally those plans were uppermost on my agenda to ask about. But first off, rather than wondering about upcoming plans, I was keen to find out what had actually been happening in the world of Heep – and Mick was eager to fill me in on events…
‘We’ve actually just finished recording the new album’, he said happily. ‘It isn’t mixed yet, and I don’t know when it will be released, but the recordings are in the can, and I’m really pleased with it. It’s funny, when we first started we took quite a while recording the first album because the studio was such a new environment for us, but by now we’re so used to recording that we can get in and out and do it really quickly. The current line up of the band is so good [with the last recruit being Davey Rimmer on bass, who replaced the sadly late Trevor Bolder back in 2013] that I just can’t wait to get back out there and playing again regularly. We had a fairly good run playing the stuff from Living The Dream, but it was cut short, of course, and the 50th Anniversary celebrations got shelved completely in the sense of live shows. We’ve done a few shows just recently again, and it feels so good to be back’.
When touring hopefully resumes in earnest, will that be promoting the new album, I wonder, and when will the release be planned for so that can happen? ‘Well, that’s very much up in the air at the moment’, replies Mick. ‘Really, that’s up to the record company how things are done on that front. You see, we have shows arranged for next year at the corresponding times that they should have happened last year and this year – a UK tour is set for the Autumn, and there were plans to go to Russia before that. The Russian part of things is uncertain, because they still have a way to go before opening up enough following the pandemic, but if we can’t do those shows we will get live work arranged for elsewhere instead, we’re so keen to get out there and do it. Now, those shows were all arranged as the anniversary celebrations, and it may be that the new record gets held over until afterward to avoid the two things getting in each other’s way. We may put the record out and have the shows promoting the new material and also being the anniversary party, but that’s up to other people to decide, I’m not certain at the moment how it will be approached.’
Over the pandemic period I have been busy myself on the Heep front, I mention, having published a biography of the band’s 1970s years (Decades: Uriah Heep In The 1970s), with original bass player Paul Newton providing the foreword. Mick has a copy of the book, but explains that he hasn’t read it all: ‘I’ve looked through it but I haven’t read the whole thing I must admit – it’s an odd thing reading about yourself! You did get one small thing wrong though – in the very early days of the band, when we were still called Spice, Alf Raynor didn’t play bass, he just played acoustic guitar. In fact, I think the only reason we had him in the band was because he had a van! I believe the book’s been quite well received though from what I’ve seen. It was good of Paul Newton to do the foreword for it – he’s a really nice guy, Paul, always has been.’ I mention that Ken Hensley had been very helpful working with me, and what a shock it had been for me when he passed away suddenly so soon after – so I could only imagine how that was for Mick and others who knew him well. ‘Oh, unbelievable’, Mick agrees, sadly. ‘I was in shock for days, stunned. We lost Lee [Kerslake] as well shortly before that, but at least with Lee we were expecting it, with the cancer and the other things he had. We’d had about five years to prepare, knowing that we’d lose him at some point. But Ken, there was no hint. I think the last thing I saw of him was when he did an unboxing thing with the anniversary box set that we put out, and he seemed fine. John Lawton as well, of course, he passed away recently, and that was another big shock’.
Mention of the box set [50 Years In Rock, containing 23 CDs and a vinyl remaster of The Magicians Birthday, plus a hardback book and other ephemera] prompts me to mention that, even though live celebrations have been curtailed, the band have at least been able to mark the half-century with some special edition releases. ‘Yes, BMG have been really good with that, they’ve come up with some great ideas. I loved the Every Day Rocks set, with the T-shirts and the picture discs, I thought that was a beautiful set’. The release which he refers to was indeed a splendid artefact, containing the first seven albums on picture disc with new artwork, plus – among other things – seven matching T-shirts of the album covers (one for every day of the week, as the marketing material had it). I have to ask Mick though – as nice as the set is, surely nobody buying it would ever actually wear the T-shirts! ‘Ha ha – no, I guess you’re right there. Well, you’d probably wear them once, maybe get a photo in them, but I agree, they’d stay as a collectable for most people, I suppose!’ At a slightly lower budget range there has always been the interesting concept of the Choices box, which contains six CDs, compiled respectively by Mick, Ken, Lee, Paul Newton, Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon, together with matching art cards. ‘That’s right. The thing about that one was that we’d done the four discs with the tracks chosen by myself, Ken, Lee and Paul for the 50 Years In Rock set, and when we decided to use them again for Choices, we included two more, from Phil and Bernie, because they are both such long-standing members of the band now. When I gave them my selections, I went for some deeper cuts, and I picked too many, so it had to be whittled down. I was disappointed, because I originally included Salisbury [the lengthy, highly progressive title track from the band’s second album], but because that’s about fifteen minutes long it had to go, in order to fit three other songs on instead. That was a shame though, because I think that’s an important piece, and a real deep cut that casual fans might not know. It’s nice to look at the less obvious tracks sometimes, because that can be where the magic is’. I point out that one slightly ironic thing about the whole set is that on a release called Choices, nobody actually picked Choices [the closing song from the Innocent Victim album, written by songwriter Jack Williams]. Mick can’t resist a laugh at this point: ‘Ha ha! You know what, I’d never even thought of that, but you’re right – that should have been on really, shouldn’t it? Actually, that’s a great example of a deep cut itself I think, it’s a really good song. Written by Jack Williams as you say. yes – he did a few songs that we used’.
In my experience, it seems that there is a real momentum about Heep at the moment, and has been for the last couple of decades. There is a sense of continuity which was missing a little with the line-up changes through the ’80s and ’90s, and I have spoken with a lot of fans who regard the current incarnation of the band as something of another ‘classic era’ along with the ’70s. Mick: ‘Well, that’s really great to hear, that’s really good news for sure. You know, I feel the same way actually, the mood within the band is fantastic. They’re all great musicians, and we all get on really well. There’s a lot of really positive creative energy, and we’re all pulling in the same direction. It’s all about chemistry with a band in that way, and there is certainly that chemistry now as there was back in the ’70s. I think that’s a great comparison between those two eras.’
At this point Mick has to break off for a moment, as his year-old dog enters the room eager for the limelight, trying to steal things and finally climbing up onto Mick’s chair! Deciding to continue with a human rather than canine perspective for the rest of the interview, he ushers the mischievous beast out before returning. Getting back to the matter in hand, I remark upon the John Lawton era of the band, which got – unfairly I feel – dismissed by a lot of the fans. There is, I still believe, a lot of good material on all three of those albums to different degrees, and it is a shame that the band’s popularity dipped a little at that time. Mick is philosophical about this: ‘Well, I think that’s always likely to happen when you change something like that. David was so familiar, and so popular, and when you bring in something different some people aren’t going to want to take that journey with you. It’s funny, a lot did drift away at that point but came back later, and in hindsight they enjoyed those records, but it’s just at the time it’s a bit too much of a change for people to take. John had a fantastic set of pipes, that’s for sure, but to replace David Byron was a big pair of shoes to fill. David was the full package – the voice, the charisma, the whole thing – he was a star 24/7, you know? A voice from the angels, really. The only way I can explain it with David is that most singers will use the song as a vehicle, and do a very good job of it, but he used to live inside the song, in a way that made it just so believable. Together with his tonality and range, it was just win-win-win every time. But when John came in I think he was also up against it to a degree because some of the songwriting went fairly poppy – a little too much so at times for me if I’m honest. But the other side of that is that the way John delivered those songs, with that bluesy edge he had to his voice, he made them rock in a way that a smoother voice wouldn’t have been able to, so I think it’s important to give him credit for that. But I think from Firefly on there wasn’t quite enough rock in there, at least for me – I was always pushing for it. That’s why we did Free And Easy for example, let’s just get in there and go for it, you know! But there were other influences creeping in, maybe things Ken was listening to, and wanting to get on the radio or what have you, and I felt that we should have kept a bit more rock in there, because it had served us pretty well up to that point! But when you start listening to lots of different factions it can get a bit watered down and, well, not so rocky – and that’s what happened a bit there.’
One thing which I still find to be surprising to this day was that, after the band fell apart following the Conquest album, leaving just Mick and Trevor Bolder, he actually went to see David Byron to invite him back and, unexpectedly, he actually refused the offer. ‘That’s right, that’s exactly what happened. I went to his house with Trevor Bolder actually, and I remember Trevor was driving that day, and thank God for that – when we went in David was surrounded by three managers, blowing smoke up his backside, and he was drinking fairly heavily. I said to him ‘Look David, I’d like to get back together with you in Heep, you and me like it used to be. We’d have the writing, no question about your voice at all; I’ve got agents, management, whatever you want – we’d just be going round the world and making great albums’. But he was sort of ensconced in his own thing at the time, and with all those people telling him how great he was he’d kind of lost control of any train of thought about what would happen, or what could happen. I was in there with him for a short while, and when I came out I was halfway drunk from trying to keep up with him! When you’re drinking that heavily there’s not a lot of clear thinking going on, is there? I think that was the essence of it all to a large extent. In fact, I think he ended up at one point asking me to join his band! I mean, that’s how far we got from the subject, and the original reason for being there. And he had Robin George at the time, so I don’t know where that would have left him!’ I remark that this must have been a huge shock, as surely he must have expected David to snatch his hand off for the chance to go back – and also that in a way it could have gone some way to saving him, giving him a sense of purpose and a framework for his life again. Mick agrees absolutely: ‘I did. I mean, with everything I laid on the table for him it was the perfect opportunity for him to come back and shine, and at the level that he was used to. There was no step down, it was a step up for him again – but it wasn’t to be mate, it wasn’t to be. It absolutely could have helped him as well, I think that’s highly possible. The thing with him and Gary as well at the time when they had their problems a bit earlier, it was all to do with management chasing the almighty dollar, you know, and we really did get run into the ground at that time. It was tragic’.
Picking up on that point, I mention that this is something which I have had said to me from people who have read my book, that they simply could not believe what they were reading with regards to the endless treadmill the band were on. ‘Oh, it was relentless. I remember one time, we finished a UK tour, drove straight to the recording studio after the last show and worked through the night, not going home or touching ground even, and then the next day we were flying over to America again. It was non-stop! I remember we got to Chicago, and they said how pleased they were to see us, and that they were going to take us out to dinner and all that, and we just wanted to go to bed! We got to the restaurant, and we were falling asleep at the table, it was unbelievable’. One notable incident I wanted to remind Mick of (not that he needed reminding!) was on one US tour when he fell off the stage and injured his arm, played through the pain, and then fell off again and broke the other wrist for good measure – and incredibly had to continue with the tour uninterrupted! ‘That’s absolutely true, absolutely right. In fact, I dislocated my left arm, then when I fell again I broke four bones in my right wrist. And the next night we were playing to 10 or 20,000 people at Detroit Cobo Hall. I did three months of it as well mate! Three injections a night for pain, it was madness. I think I saw every hospital in America – because what would happen was that I’d play a show and every time the cast would break, with the swelling and the sweat, and I’d go straight to the hotel after the gig. In the morning, the swelling had gone down in this broken cast, and It was – I can only think of a rude analogy to be honest – like a cock in a shirt sleeve! Flopping about in this cast, so I’d go off to the hospital to get another cast put on before the next show, and the same would happen again. Every city, every show, it was endless. And the other thing to remember as well was that there were no tour buses to get about, where you could sleep on the bus. We’d get up and out of the hotel at six or seven in the morning, onto a flight – or sometimes two if you had to change – to the next show. You couldn’t catch your breath.’ This sort of schedule hit Gary Thain particularly hard, I suggest. ‘Oh yes, it certainly did. You see Gary, he was a lovely bloke, but he was very weak, both physically and mentally, He just wasn’t a strong person at all. I remember one time which was quite funny, and sort of sums him up. We were doing this photo shoot one day at Shepperton Studios, an old Dickensian sort of thing, and Gary decides for a lark that he’s going to throw a brick at this window. So he picked up the brick and threw it – and it bounced back! So we sort of said that that was Gary all over – he didn’t have the strength to put it through the glass! But he was very weak-willed for sure, and after he had the electric shock he felt very much that he didn’t get the support from the management that he deserved, having given them his all, going all over the world – and he was absolutely right, they didn’t care about him, and it underlined the fact that they were just chasing the dollar, and not anything to do with the well-being of the band, sadly’.
It could certainly be said that the story of Heep in that decade, for any bands today, could be seen as a cautionary tale – an example of the pitfalls to studiously avoid in terms of the touring and recording demands. ‘Well, that’s very true, but what you have to remember is that basically we were writing the book on this stuff, there wasn’t a generation of touring bands before us to learn from so we just did what was in front of us. It’s amazing to look back from today’s position, but on our first American tours we didn’t even have merchandise! None – we never even thought about it. Whereas that later became the main source of income for a lot of artists. We were learning on the road and writing the guide book for others in a way’.
Of course, it wasn’t just the touring which was a insane schedule – it is astonishing that the albums turned out as good as they did given the writing and recording pressures. For example, after Demons And Wizards, having The Magicians Birthday come out only a few months afterward – nowadays, given the success of Demons, bands would be riding that wave for about five years before considering the next one! ‘Ha ha – that’s absolutely right, they would! But we were lucky really with The Magician’s Birthday that Ken had that whole storytelling idea for it, and the material that he had for it enabled us to get into the studio quickly, as we were pushed to do, and get it out pretty fast’. Of course, however, Ken has said that he still regrets that album because he didn’t have chance to finish his whole concept owing to the rush, and as a result it contained only some of his grand plan, together with unrelated songs such as Spider Woman and Sweet Lorraine which went to fill it up. Mick sees both sides of this issue. ‘Well, I can certainly understand Ken’s feelings there, because him having a vision for how the whole thing would fit together and then to have to compromise that vision must have been very hard. I can see how that would sour his outlook on the record for sure. But on the other hand, fortunately we were able to put some other good songs on there which ended up being popular, so there was a plus side to it. Sweet Lorraine in particular has always been very popular with fans, and a good stage number – particularly with the American audiences as it happens. I think the ‘let the party carry on’ hook line seemed to appeal to them over there for some reason!’
Talking of partying, it was sad when David Byron was dismissed, but it would appear that given the state things had reached, he had to go. Mick absolutely concurs here: ‘Oh yes, for certain. By that time there was no turning back. It got to a position where his behaviour, and his drinking, was out of control. The night he got fired we were in Spain, and we were stuck outside the venue unable to get in at one point. And David just kicked the glass door in! Then when we got to do the show, he was a bit … well, ‘loose’ might be the word. So we just had to let him go, it was impossible to carry on – he had lost sight of what we were all about and what we were trying to do. Funnily enough, supporting us that night were The Heavy Metal Kids, and they sacked Gary Holton after that show as well – so it wasn’t a great night for rock and roll really!’ After the subsequent eras with John Lawton and the short-lived and unpopular John Sloman Conquest period, at which point the band fell apart, it was amazing in retrospect how quickly and successfully Mick reinvented the band from the ground up for the Abominog album, which though a little divisive among fans today, undeniably proved a remarkably successful comeback. ‘Yes, that was an interesting time with the Abominog album. The thing was, times were changing, people like Def Leppard were starting to do these big production things with Mutt Lange, taking about eighteen months to record an album or whatever, and it was becoming more and more important for a record to sound good on the radio, otherwise you’d just get lost in the mire. Pete Goalby had a very ’80s voice, a terrific voice for radio at that time, so that helped, and we went a little bit in that direction – because you simply had to at that time. If you wanted to do well, you had to get on the radio, and to do that you had to play the game a bit, you know?’ It certainly worked, I suggest, because the momentum built up by that period has carried on through and in many ways allowed the band to have the long and successful career they have had since. ‘Yes, I think you’re right there. There have been a few moments in our career which have ended up as turning points, and Abominog was certainly one. We went top 40 in America with the album as well – MTV was just starting up, and we had a video on that. It was absolutely dreadful mind you, but it got played about eight times a day, and that was massively important over there. In fact, we even went over for a tour with Def Leppard, who were the biggest thing since sliced bread over there at the time, with Pour Some Sugar On Me and all that, and we were playing ten to twenty thousand seater arenas again, it was amazing. They had all that union jack thing going on as well, all of the merchandise with them on, and I remember I used to get there early and watch the crowd coming in – and honestly it was a sea of union jacks! I’ve never seen a merch operation like they had to this day; they had whole trucks just delivering the stuff, I’ve never seen it shipped quite like that anywhere else. How things had changed from when we went to America without even having any!”
Another major resurgence for a lot of the old fans seemed to come around the turn of the millennium with albums like Sea Of Light and Sonic Origami, which really captured a lot of that great ‘signature’ Heep sound, with the Hammond and the step harmonies, all of that. ‘Yes, Sea Of Light was another big turning point, for sure. We were out of that whole ‘radio’ phase, so we just decided to go old school with it. It was an anniversary year as well, and Roger Dean did the cover for us, so that appealed to a lot of the old crowd, and it did really well. We also went back to all recording in the same room together, which gives you a much more ‘live’ feel to it, and even the desk that we used was an old one from Miami from the Bee Gees, so that old kit helped as well. It all paid dividends then’.
The band show no signs of even slowing down at the moment, with audiences healthy, touring regular, and crucially they keep releasing new music. ‘Yeah, that’s always been my train of thought, it’s important to keep making new music – both for yourself and the fans. It’s great to have new material to play, and I find it energises us for playing the old stuff as well, having that contrast with some new songs in the set. That’s important to me, always has been’. There was only one period when that frustratingly stopped, after the Sonic Origami album, when label issues prevented a new album for several years until Wake The Sleeper, and there were a few tours during which they would shake things up by putting old, rarely played songs back in. ‘I know, that was such a frustrating time, and none of it was our fault I must add. The whole industry got shaken up badly; the internet started coming in big, and there was the whole Napster case – which of course Napster won and the industry lost, because to be honest there were a thousand Napsters really, you couldn’t stop it. Record companies folded, got smaller, or were taken over, and it was a tough time for them. The industry was caught with its pants down, essentially. The internet came along, and they tried to fight it, when if they had actually embraced it at that point some other rules might have come in which made the new model more favourable to the artist – but they didn’t do it, and it was chaos for a while. Even worse, we’d just left our old label, so we were in limbo without being signed to anyone, and it wasn’t until we did Wake The Sleeper with Universal that it started happening for us again’.
That whole thing, alongside other trying times such as Gary and David in the ’70s, the collapse after Conquest and some rather lean times in the late ’80s and early ’90s, shows that Heep have an amazing knack of bouncing back – almost like a giant game of Whack-A-Mole, you can try to knock them down, but as the song has it, You Can’t Keep A Good Band Down… Mick has the final word on this: ‘Well, I think we have been lucky in a way because we have always had a wide following globally, which means that if times get bad in one area, we can still keep playing in another! I think that’s helped with our longevity in a way. I still feel privileged to do it to this day’.
And there isn’t really a better way to end than that. Can’t keep a good band down indeed. And that fact has given us so much great music over the years, we can all be grateful for it! As Mick would say – ‘Appy Days!