July 27, 2021

A short while ago the book Decades: Uriah Heep In The 1970s was published by Velvet Thunder writer Steve Pilkington via Sonicbond Publishing, telling the eventful take of the band’s first decade in existence. We present here an exclusive sample chapter of the book for anyone to get a feel for what it contains.

The chapter chosen is the one covering the tricky year of 1974, with the band exhausted after a gruelling touring and recording schedule, recording the difficult Wonderworld album, and the year concluding with bassist Gary Thain’s fateful on-stage accident…

Chapter Five: ‘1974 – So Tired

Wonderworld

Personnel:
David Byron: lead vocals
Ken Hensley: guitar, keyboards, vocals
Mick Box: guitar
Gary Thain: bass guitar
Lee Kerslake: drums, vocals

Additional musicians:
Jose Gabriel: Synthesizers
Michael Gibbs: Orchestral arrangement on ‘The Easy Road’

Produced by Gerry Bron

Released: May 1974
Highest chart places: 23 (UK), 38 (US)
Running time: 37:40

Tracklisting

1. ‘Wonderworld’  (Hensley) 4:29, 2. ‘Suicidal Man’ (Box, Byron, Hensley, Kerslake, Thain) 3:38, 3. ‘The Shadows And The Wind‘ (Hensley) 4:27, 4. ‘So Tired’ (Box, Byron, Hensley, Kerslake, Thain) 3:39, 5. ‘The Easy Road’ (Hensley) 2:43, 6. ‘Something Or Nothing’ (Box, Hensley, Thain) 2:56, 7. ‘I Won’t Mind’ (Box, Byron, Hensley, Kerslake, Thain) 5:59, 8. ‘We Got We’ (Box, Byron, Hensley, Kerslake, Thain) 3:39, 9. ‘Dreams’ (Box, Byron, Hensley) 6:10

Late in 1973, Ken Hensley had announced that Heep were going to play ‘fewer shows’ in 1974, spending more time rehearsing and ‘exploring new elements of (their) music’. While this would have been a fine idea, it wasn’t to be, and looking back, one would have to say that it was never likely to be so. Bands in those days tended to be on a conveyor belt, in and out of the recording studio then over to the next country, they were due to play in, like some gigantic showbiz version of a Baggage Reclaim belt at an airport. Once you got off the belt, management and record companies would be afraid you wouldn’t get back on again, so ‘round and ‘round they went. Sooner or later, some of the luggage would get lost or seriously damaged, but nobody really thought about that.

Things appeared to start well, with the band only playing around fifteen shows by the end of April, though that is failing to take into account the fact that they were recording their next album already, between January and March. April was actually to provide some time off, but it wasn’t to last, as everything started up again by May, with another new record to promote. The recording was done overseas once again – this time at Musicland studios in Germany, a state-of-the-art facility set up by legendary record producer, Georgio Moroder. The roster of acts who have recorded there could hardly be more A-list, comprising Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Queen, ELO, Iron Maiden, Donna Summer, Elton John and Marc Bolan among others. Situated in the basement of a high-rise building, the studio closed in the early 1990s for the unusual reason that a high-speed underground railway was too close and was affecting recording quality.

To say that these sessions were difficult would be an understatement, as confirmed by the band themselves. Ken Hensley’s cocaine habit was affecting him in terms of depression and paranoia – with Mick Box remembering him spending a lot of the time shut away in his hotel room – while David Byron’s alcohol intake had left the ‘problematic’ stage a while back, and was by now a serious issue.  As Box said later:

‘The whole thing was a bloody nightmare. Ken spent most of his time in his room and David was on this unbelievable bender. One of my most vivid memories was trying to get him across a dual carriageway which separated the studio from the hotel. Cars were whizzing by, but all David could think about was not spilling the champagne cocktails he was holding in each hand! When we got there, Ken was nowhere to be found, and I spent most days like that. Trying to hold it all together was almost impossible’.

Hensley also remembered the situation as being chaotic, to say the least. Looking back on the whole recording period of the album recently, he said:

‘Oh yeah, it was terrible. In fact, I’m surprised we got an album out of it at all, to be honest! The root of the trouble was that we were away from home again, recording in Munich, and we were out of our comfort zone. Instead of going home at night after a session, we’d all be going back to hotel rooms, and that led to problems. That whole tax exile thing wasn’t our world really, and we would have been much better anchored to familiar surroundings. Musicland was a great studio, no doubt about that, but we were hiding David’s bottles of Chivas Regal and all that sort of thing. Mick even showed up in the studio one day when we’d all gone home the night before! It was all over the place, without a doubt’.

When the resulting album, Wonderworld, emerged in May, it still did reasonably well chart-wise (23 in the UK, 38 in the US), with more strong European showings (Number five in Finland, which seemed to be cooling its obsession a little), hitting the top three in Denmark and Norway, while Austria saw the album hit Number 2. Of course, much of that would be people auto-buying the album based on the quality of the previous few.

The opening title track is perhaps the highlight of the album – big, brooding, melodic and ultimately very much in the Heep mould. Opening with a strident passage led by some classic Doctor Who-sounding keyboards from composer Hensley, it soon settles into a quite lovely verse melody, sung with great sensitivity by Byron over a flitting piano backing. This builds into a hugely stirring chorus which is among the best the band have produced. The big sci-fi keyboards re-enter to break things up before the entry of a stirring Byron, again with that marvellous chorus, vamped on to a big finish. It’s a tremendous track, combining all of the best Heep trademarks into a compact four-and-a-half minutes, and is another which Hensley, for one, still speaks very highly of. The high standard continues with ‘Suicidal Man’, a much more direct and hard-hitting heavy rocker, unusually credited to all five members of the band – as are four of the tracks on the record in fact. The melody gets lost a little at times, but the guitar riffs are crushing and propulsive, and the coda has the frantic Byron sounding for all the world like, alternately, Ian Gillan and Alice Cooper. Not a top-shelf Heep classic, but enjoyable and certainly a great live track.

We’re in much more restrained territory for Hensley’s ‘The Shadows And The Wind’, which enters on a soft percussive motif not dissimilar to Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, accompanied by reflective keyboards and guitar slowly growing until it goes into a quietly sung verse. Just when you think you have a handle on it, however, it shifts into an uptempo and moderately heavy mode, but it’s not entirely successful. Byron’s falsetto ‘la la la’ section merely grates, and the whole thing sounds very much like the reliable Heep magic being applied to a song which wasn’t really strong enough. ‘So Tired’ is another full-band composition, and a rather banal skittering rocker, a little similar to ‘All My Life’ from Demons And Wizards. The line ‘I’m so tired and I’m so uninspired, please help me’ sounds rather close to home, in all honesty. It went straight into the live set, as a fast number early on to get the crowd moving, but it was gone before the end of the year (as was everything from the album, other than ‘Wonderworld’ and ‘Suicidal Man’ in fact). Fortunately, the first side of the album is rounded off in brilliant fashion by Hensley’s ‘The Easy Road’. A simple ballad, lasting under three minutes, if ever a song followed up ‘Rain’, this was it. It’s a beautiful mix of words and melody, and Byron wrings your heart out as he sings it. It even went into the live set for a short time, illustrating its quality. A lovely orchestral arrangement by Michael Gibbs (including some tasteful horns toward the end) is the bow on the gift-wrapping, as one might say.

Side Two opens with the Box/ Hensley/Thain ‘Something Or Nothing’, a straightforward, three-minute, catchy rocker. Not by any means a classic, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable track, with a chorus guaranteed to lodge in your brain, so it is no surprise that it was the first single from the album – nor any more of a surprise that it sank without trace. What is a surprise perhaps is the fact that this was the only single plucked from the album, as ‘Wonderworld’ or ‘Suicidal Man’ would seem to have been contenders. Then again, the latter may have been considered unsuitable due to its title and lyric.

If that opened the side in a bouncy, upbeat manner, the following band-composed ‘I Won’t Mind’ brings it back to earthbound territory with a bump. A somewhat turgid, bluesy plod, it trundles on for six minutes, with even Box’s frantic fretboard flurries only providing a slight relief toward the end. You could dance to it, I suppose, but you’d need to be wearing deep-sea diving boots. If any song illustrates the paucity of the Wonderworld material, this would be the one. The following ‘We Got We’, with its driving funky bass-driven riff, is similarly thin, but is shorter and does get points for its original approach. With one track to go, the album is clearly flailing a little, desperately needing a big finish to rescue it.

Thankfully, it gets one as the six-minute Box/ Hensley/Thain song ‘Dreams’, giving the listener six minutes of close-to-classic Heep to go out on – building gradually to a big keening guitar riff, before Byron’s entry with ‘You should have seen Tuesday’s dream dancing in my head’ recalling ‘The Magicians Birthday’. The chorus is strong (if not quite top drawer), and provides a nice hook for the song to regularly return to after departures into choral and spacey keyboard asides and some great Box work. Byron is the real star on this track, with his vocals commanding the whole thing and acting as ringmaster for the whole piece. A little snatch of ‘Sweet Freedom’ and ‘Dreamer’ come in at one point as Box reaches for the stratosphere in a closing freak-out to end the album in very satisfactory manner.

There was some other material recorded which wasn’t used for the album. ‘What Can I Do’ was the B-Side of the ‘Something Or Nothing’ single, with it’s rather featureless generic bluesy rock which, surprisingly, made its way into the live set for a while. Two other compositions, ‘Love Hate And Fear’ and ‘Stones Throw’, were both recorded, but didn’t see the light of day until three decades later on a deluxe CD reissue. Neither are essential, to say the least, with the former being a sort of rock-soul romp, and the latter being an acoustic country-tinged track. It is easy to see why they weren’t considered for release.

   When the album appeared, it did so clad in what was, at the time, comfortably the worst cover design the band had yet been subjected to. The concept of the cover image was to present the band as statues, presumably immortalised in their stage personas, perched on five podiums. Byron and Thain (the latter playing a convincing air bass) get away with it, but the other three are less fortunate. Mick Box makes no attempt to emulate his stage incarnation, preferring instead to crouch down as if he was caught during a game of hide and seek, while Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley come off worst of all. Lee stands there bashing away at what appears to be the smallest invisible drum kit in the world but ends up looking more like a toddler throwing a tantrum, while Hensley’s pose sat at the keyboard resembles nothing so much as a blind person reaching out for the edge of a table, to stand up. It was truly terrible both in concept and execution, and the back cover – with the band standing as normal, in colour, on the same podiums – was little better, with the unfortunate Kerslake caught yet again in a terrible mid-laugh pose which rather looks as if kindly men will be coming to assist him. There was no gatefold. The inner sleeve carried the lyrics, but to be honest, it could have carried the Dead Sea Scrolls and it wouldn’t have saved this one.

Ken Hensley’s recent memory of it is quite amusing and revealing:

‘Oh yeah, that was horrible, awful. I have no idea to this day why it was done like that or what the thought processes were. We were just told to bring some clothes with us, which they dipped in some buckets of concrete or something and told us to put on so that we’d supposedly look like stone statues. It was absolutely ridiculous. If it isn’t the worst cover, I think maybe only High And Mighty can give it a run for its money! I remember when we went over to the States, and we were driving into Los Angeles, and what did we see on the side of the boulevard but a 40 foot by 30-foot billboard of this cover! You think it looks bad on an album, imagine it magnified to that size – it was horrendous! I remember sitting there in the car and actually pulling my coat up over my head – I didn’t want to be associated with it!’

Before the album was released, though just after it had been recorded, the band played a live-in-the-studio set for radio broadcast at Shepperton Studios in Surrey – the same studio where Led Zeppelin filmed some fill-in live segments for The Song Remains The Same and The Who filmed what turned out to be their last ever live performance with Keith Moon for their film The Kids Are Alright. The Heep set was eventually released on record in 1986 as Live At Shepperton ’74, but it was something of an odd beast. Coming in at a shockingly brief 31 minutes, its eight tracks included four from Wonderworld, namely ‘So Tired’, ‘I Won’t Mind’, ‘Something Or Nothing’ and ‘The Easy Road’ – bizarrely omitting the title track and ‘Suicidal Man’, both of which went straight into the live set, with ‘Suicidal Man’ remaining until 1976. The other tracks were ‘Easy Livin”, ‘Stealin”, ‘Love Machine’ and for some reason, when songs were at a premium, the ‘Rock And Roll Medley’ – the latter the longest track on the album. ‘Sweet Freedom’ was also recorded and appeared later on the CD issue, but why it was left off the 31 minutes of vinyl, as well as two minutes apiece cut from ‘Stealin” and the medley, is a complete mystery! Vinyl buyers sure got a raw deal on that one.

As soon as the album appeared, it was back to the merciless live hamster-wheel again, with May and June seeing another tour of Scandinavia and mainland Europe, with Babe Ruth as support. There were also a few festival appearances scattered among the regular dates as well. In July, it was over the Atlantic again for three gruelling months of shows, firstly with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, with a young Rush popping up as support for the last four. After a rare ten days off, the next leg of the tour kicked off, this time with Suzi Quatro as support. By this time, the band’s demons were pretty much driving them all the time, and with ego problems, infighting and different band factions developing alongside the chemical and alcoholic helpers, something had to give. Nobody guessed how it would happen, however, until the tour rolled into Dallas, Texas, for a show at the Moody Coliseum on 15 September.

The Moody Coliseum is an all-purpose arena which is part of the Southern Methodist University, and the venue where the university basketball and volleyball teams played. At the time, in 1974, it held almost 9,000, so it was a fairly large capacity, indicating the pulling power Heep still maintained at the time. While it was far from an exclusive music venue, it had hosted a number of high profile shows going back to the 1960s, with Bob Dylan playing there in 1965 on the tour which saw him first play with an electric band, and also The Rolling Stones making an appearance on their 1969 US tour which culminated in the disastrous Altamont show in December, effectively killing the peace and love dream stone dead. The crowd the Heep show was pretty much a sell-out by all accounts for, and the band were playing at the peak of their powers. It has been commented by witnesses at the show that Thain had a glass bowl of white powder on his amplifier, but this had no connection to his worsening heroin habit: on the contrary, it was simply talcum powder. Thain always played with his fingers rather than a plectrum, and it has been observed that he was sweating profusely throughout the show – whether this was a side effect of his poor physical condition is not known – and he would frequently walk to the amplifier and plunge his fingers into the talc to dry them off. 

At one point during the show (which is often claimed to have been during ‘July Morning’ but has also been clearly recalled as being ‘Sweet Lorraine’), as he went back to his amp, Gary decided to tweak the control to give himself a little more treble. What he did not realise – as nobody did – was that the amplifier was not correctly earthed, and as he touched it he was hit with a massive electric shock which surged through his already weakened system. Talking about this after the fact, he said:

All I remember is going to my amplifier to adjust the equalisers in order to get a little more treble on my bass. The next thing I know is I blacked out. David realised I’d been electrocuted because he rushed over and pulled the bass from my hands. At first, he thought I was dead, because I wasn’t breathing and was lying there stiff as a board.

In fact, according to onlookers who have reported the incident, it was even more dramatic than that account sounds – unsurprisingly perhaps, as Gary himself was in no position to remember it. It has been described by those in attendance as Gary being forcibly thrown into the air, as if in a ghastly parody of a hopping motion, before he fell face-forward onto the stage, with his bass underneath him. Reports say that his body was still jerking as if he were having a seizure until he was rescued and carried off the stage. The situation was nothing so much as confusion, with the band leaving the stage in understandable shock, with only Hensley left, idly playing some notes on his keyboard as if stunned – one witness reports that he suddenly realised that he was touching the instrument just after a massive electric shock, and pulled his hands away uttering ‘What am I doing??’, before also taking his leave. The audience were shocked into near-silence apart from a low hum of conversation, over which the distinctive sound of an ambulance siren could soon be heard. David Byron came back onto the stage to apologetically announce that the show was cancelled – there was no objection to this from the still stunned crowd, naturally – and he announced that they would come back to Dallas and play a free concert to make up, whereupon the crowd shuffled out, again, in near silence. To the band’s enormous credit, they actually did honour that promise and returned to play a free show the following October.

The remaining three shows of the US tour, along with the first four dates of the UK October tour, were cancelled as Gary made his way back to something approaching full health. However, he still suffered from some numbness in his hands and, as one might expect, his nerves were totally shot. Not being exactly the most robust of individuals in the first place, this only served to make him, and his addiction, worse, and the band now agree that he really should have been given more time off. Such was the Heep treadmill, however, and sooner or later someone was going to come off it. Much as they hated to lose their friend and what they saw as a near-irreplaceable bandmate, Gary’s increasingly erratic behaviour and performances made it ultimately inevitable that he had to be let go.

Following the accident, he had developed a deep resentment towards how he had been treated by a somewhat impatient Gerry Bron, and he made those feelings clear as some dirty laundry spilt onto the pages of the music papers, with a bitter Thain stating about Bron, ‘I think he thinks I’m putting it on. The music’s been forgotten and it’s all a financial thing now’. Looking at that ongoing touring and recording schedule, in common with so many other bands of the time driven to breaking point, it is hard to argue with that view, sadly.

Things got back to some semblance of normality, with the band completing the UK dates before going to Australia for a short tour in November – one can not imagine that this level of travelling was the best thing to have come along mere weeks after the accident, but the schedule was the schedule. Playing the last show down under on 1 December, the band returned to England to play three rescheduled UK concerts, put back from October. On 14 December 1974, at the New Theatre, Oxford, Gary Thain played his last show with Uriah Heep. He was still in the band at the close of the year, but the end was inevitable, and not far away.