‘Uriah Heep’ Turns 50: Why ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Band Down’
Choosing a band name is no mean task. The name, as the theory goes, should reflect the mood and imagery that fits with the band’s vision, and give the audience an idea of what to expect. And while generally bands can get away with abstract names, the challenge arises when names are based on actual historical or fictional characters.
Some get it right.
Case in point – Jethro Tull, named after the English agricultural pioneer who helped bring about the British agricultural revolution, by perfecting a horse-drawn seed drill in 1700, that economically sowed the seeds in neat rows, and later, by developing a horse-drawn hoe. Pioneering, revolutionizing, experimenting, pushing boundaries is what the band does. And how.
Case in point: Uriah Heep — named after the character in David Copperfield, known for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity. A man who will tell you he is the “’umblest person going” while scheming to lord it over you. The name of a man you don’t want to touch. Uriah Heep, the band, is none of the above.
‘Uriah Heep’ Gets Off On The Wrong Foot
The band is fifty years old, and shows no sign of calling it a day!
Was only seventeen
I fell in love with a gypsy queen
She told me "hold on"
Her father was the leading man
Said "you're not welcome on our land"
And then as a foe, he told me to go.
‘...Very 'Eavy ...Very 'Umble’ was their debut album in 1970. The album showcased the band’s unique sound of a blend of Gothic-inflected heavy metal and progressive rock, underpinned by keyboardist Ken Hensley’s heavy organ, guitarist Mick Box’s distinctive guitar sound of using the wah-wah as an expression pedal, and singer David Byron’s theatrical, dynamic vocals. Acoustic and jazz elements also featured in the mix. An integral part of their musical landscape was the five-part harmony backing vocals.
The album received scathing reviews by the mainstream press upon its release. The Rolling Stone magazine's Melissa Mills began her review by saying, “If this group makes it, I'll have to commit suicide. From the first note you know you don't want to hear any more.” Now though, the album is acknowledged as an early classic of the heavy metal genre; an album which laid the roots of heavy metal. Wonder whether Mills followed through with her threat!
‘Uriah Heep’ Consolidates Its Unique Sound
With the release of the next two albums – ‘Salisbury’ and ‘Look at Yourself’, the band consolidated its unique style and sound – pushing the envelope and creating innovative music. The song ‘July Morning’ represented the way the band was developing at that point in time. This epic is regarded by many in the same league as Led Zeppelin's ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and Deep Purple's ‘Child in Time’.
There I was on a July morning
Looking for love
With the strength
Of a new day dawning
And the beautiful sun
At the sound
Of the first bird singing
I was leaving for home
With the storm
And the night behind me
And a road of my own
Every band has a standout album – an album which encapsulates the spirit of the band. And for Uriah Heep that was ‘Demons and Wizards’, released in 1972. An album which introduced me to Uriah Heep when I was in college, and which made me passionate about the band. Weaving medieval myth and fantasy into their songs— such as ‘Rainbow Demon’ and ‘The Wizard’ – it also had a no-holds-barred hard-rock approach to songs such as ‘Easy Livin’’ — tailor-made for Byron's extroverted and flamboyant showmanship. With this album, the ‘classic’ Uriah Heep line-up was formed – Byron , Box , Hensley with drummer Lee Kerslake and bassist Gary Thain – and everything fell into place. The album was a huge hit with critics and fans alike.
This is a thing I've never known before
It's called easy livin'
This is a place I've never seen before
And I've been forgiven
Easy livin' and I've been forgiven
Since you've taken your place in my heart
The Changing Soundscape
The classic line-up subsequently released three more studio albums — ‘The Magician’s Birthday’ (with ‘Sweet Lorraine’), ‘Sweet Freedom’ and ‘Wonderworld’. Thain was thrown out of the band in 1974 (he died the next year of heroin overdose). The new line-up, with a new bassist John Wetton, released two more albums – ‘Return to Fantasy’ and ‘High and Mighty’. Byron was sacked in 1976 (he died of a heart attack and liver disease in 1985 at the age of 38) and a new singer John Lawton came on board.
‘Firefly’ was almost there, but the distance became incrementally wider with the next two releases – ‘Innocent Victim’ and ‘Fallen Angel’.
The fanatic fans of the band swear by the albums up to ‘High and Mighty’ when David Byron’s operatic vocals gave the band uniquely distinctive vocals. His ability to reach the uppermost notes, and staying there without wavering, with consummate ease, sometimes made me wonder that if he tried, he could have gone beyond the audible range.
John Lawton, who replaced him, was very good but not in the same league as Byron. The sound of the band changed to a more straightforward hard rock sound, typical of that era. There were some pop-friendly ballads too. But Lawton didn’t stay for long. The other members also left for one reason or the other. By 1980, Uriah Heep were down to just Mick Box.
‘Uriah Heep’: The First Ever Western Rock Band to Play in the Soviet Union
In the 1980s, the band tried to stay relevant by shifting to a combination of heavy metal muscle and AOR sleekness. AOR (Adult Oriented Rock) is a sub-genre of rock that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as an amalgamation of rock, hard rock and progressive rock. The new sound generated a newfound interest in Uriah Heep among younger heavy metal fans. But the veteran fans found the music lackluster and commercial. Nothing new!
Eventually, a new lineup stabilised and remained unchanged from 1986 until 2007, with the veteran Mick Box at the helm, Bernie Shaw on vocals, Phil Lanzon on the keys, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Lee Kerslake on drums.
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. Their Moscow gig re-established Heep's name back at home.
The band still retains a significant following worldwide, especially in Germany, Russia, The Netherlands, and Japan.
Meeting ‘Uriah Heep’ Backstage in Mumbai: A Dream Come True
I saw the band live on 10 February 2006 in Mumbai. They had played in Mumbai earlier in 1984. Regarding the earlier show, Box had said, “I also remember one show in Bombay being literally in the middle of a field, and our light show consisted of something like four light bulbs each side! A reporter asked me about our effects, and I said, 'Yeah, on and off!'" He had also told media, “There was only one bass drum in the whole of Mumbai at that time! There are many bands that might have refused to play, but we made the most of it anyway.”
The band played their vintage classics much to the joy and ecstasy of the middle-aged fans who had grown up on the music of the classic line-up. But they also played many songs from the other albums that followed the classic era – the sounds may have been different and unfamiliar to us, but they were lapped up by the new generation. So, a win-win situation for all.
I had the immense fortune of meeting the band in the green room after the show, and interacting with them. Spending time with Mick Box, the only original member left in the lineup, particularly, was a dream come true.
The Trailblazer is Still ‘Living the Dream’
The band maintain an active touring schedule and have been regularly releasing albums. Their latest album — their 25th — is ‘Living the Dream’, released in 2018. The album received rave reviews
A trailblazer for ‘prog metal’, the band remains very popular with an extraordinary repertoire. The steadfast devotion it garnered in the initial classic years is something very few bands achieve. It has had a glorious history. The future also looks bright.
The band continues to forge ahead and deliver the goods, and retains its vitality and energy levels – something startling for a band of this vintage. It isn’t hanging up the musical instruments any time soon.
The song ‘Can’t keep a good band down’ (from Uriah Heep’s album ‘High and Mighty’)succinctly sums it up:
You can't keep a good band down
You'll never find the solution
You won't stop us runnin' around
You're dealin' with an institution.
(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)