The first time I remember telling my buddy Mitch about Uriah Heep he was either half listening or he was pulling my leg when he responded, “You’re a heap? A heap of what?” Heep’s hit Easy Living was playing on the radio and I had commented how much I would like to learn this song to play with my band Knockdown. It was (and still is) a great song, but sometimes those hits that sound so deceptively easy on radio turn out to be harder to play than one suspects.
Founding Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box is the only one still standing these days, but with ‘new’ singer Bernie Shaw (who has already been on board for thirty years), they keep touring. Their recording output has greatly diminished since their charting days of the 1970’s, but that they are still drawing crowds at festivals around the world fifty years down the road and they still know how to put on a good show. Their latest release came out in 2014 (Outsider) and is a good record, but record sales don’t necessarily explain the longevity of a band like Heep.
I gave our guitarist/human jukebox Ray a copy of Easy Living and asked if he could work out an arrangement. He came back later and said, “We can give it a try, but you are going to have to sing it. I can’t get anything close to the sound of their lead singer.” Previous experience had shown me that Ray could sing anything, so this was the first time he ever fessed up to not being able to sing a song. “Fair enough,” I said. It was a tune that I wanted to learn and previous songs that I had brought to the band ended up to be the ones I sang lead on, so I went to work singing along with David Byron until I had the lyrics and vocal inflections down pat for our next rehearsal.
Uriah Heep’s history is similar to every other band from that era. Starting as a cover band called The Stalkers (some sources say Mick Box started with the band Hogwash but he told Classic Rock Magazine that his “first proper band was The Stalkers”), shifting personnel continued for a number of years until the pieces needed to make it big were in place. David Byron (nee: Garrick) and Box were the main songwriters until Box decided his love of the Hammond B-3 sound of The Vanilla Fudge would be just the ticket for the renamed Spice. As Spice, Box and Byron decided to perform originals instead of covers and adding Ken Hensley’s songwriting skills (and his vocals, guitar, keyboard contributions) was the next key element to the Heep story. When they began to combine their good time bar boogie music with extended jams, superior vocal harmonies and lyrical content beyond the “Baby Baby Baby” confines of 1960’s pop music, Heep became a bigger concert draw. Road work and exposure on both FM radio and the fledgling MTV fueled record sales that today measure in the millions of copies sold (40 million if you are counting). The critics hated the band with one reviewer famously threatening to “kill myself if this band makes it” (and yes they did and no she did not, just to set the record straight). Box took it all in stride, even putting some of the ‘better’ criticisms in their album liner notes. “Critics criticise, it’s what they do. The people vote with their money. They bought the albums and the tickets,” says Box today. Drummer Lee Kerslake joined the band in 1971-72 and bassist Gary Thain came on board a year later solidifying what most fans call the ‘classic’ Uriah Heep lineup. Kerslake was a powerhouse drummer but he was also capable of playing intricate patterns that drove the songs. His drumming also made Heep songs very hard to duplicate live.
Ray and I ran through the lead and background vocals as he showed our bass player the song. We had a high school kid with a small electronic organ filling in as we looked for a new keys player. Nick’s ears perked up when we started learning the song. He loved Uriah Heep and already knew his part so the pieces were falling in place quickly. We tried a couple of run throughs and it turned out the only thing that wasn’t working was the drumming. My ego went “thud” into my shoes and I tried every which way to replicate anything close to what Kerslake was doing and it just didn’t work. Kerslake played Easy Living with a shuffling beat in which his left and right hand were essentially playing the same thing. I kept thinking, “How hard can this be?” Had anyone walked in to this practice session without knowing we had been playing together for six months, they would have thought, “Good band if they only had a drummer who could play and sing at the same time.”
The first cracks in Urian Heep’s road to the top were caused by the twin rock star demons: drugs and alcohol. Bassist Thain was the first out the door when his drug inflicted frailty and a severe shock received on stage at a show in Texas led to a series of canceled shows. Upon returning to the band, he vented publicly about manager Gerry Bron and was subsequently let go late in 1974. A year later he died from an overdose of heroin. Alcohol and bad advice combined to take lead singer Byron down and then keep him from returning to the band. David Byron became, to quote early Led Zeppelin Robert Plant’s tongue in cheek description of himself, “The golden god.” When his drinking made him unpredictable, unsteady, and unreliable, he was given the heave-ho. Box and Kerslake later visited him and tried to get him back in the band, but following the bad advice of his management team, he declined. The combined effects of liver disease and a heart attack claimed Byron early in 1985 at the age of 38. Box says he has few regrets about his career in Uriah Heep, but one is losing band members because, “I still believe that had we not driven it so hard and been more compassionate to the people that made it in the first place, it may still have continued. That is one regret. Everything else, you’ve just got to learn from.”
Losing ‘the voice’ of their hit records has killed more than one band, but Heep carried on. Interestingly enough, the so called ‘classic’ line up only lasted about three years. There have been a multitude of bass players (including some recognizable names like John Wetton and Trevor Bolder), at least six vocalists, yet only one guitarist in all this time: Mick Box. Hensley was the next to go and when he removed his songwriting talents from the band, they went through what Box now calls ‘the dark period’. Despite putting out some weak albums and shifting personnel frequently during the early 1980s, Box kept fighting, even during a couple of days when he was the only member of the band left.
Looking back today, I can only think that I must have been trying too hard to play exactly what Kerslake was playing on Easy Living. I had similar problems learning the tricky little drum intro to Grand Funk Railroad’s American Band. I still can’t quite figure out how Don Brewer is able to get his stick work on the toms and his bass drum pedal work to make it sound like that, but in that case I settled for close enough and we played the song anyway. The same difficulty arose when Sledgehammer was learning BTO’s Free Wheelin’. When I got frustrated with not sounding like Robbie Bachman’s version, guitar player Barry said, “Hey, close enough. It isn’t like someone will be listening to the record and comparing it to how we play it.” True enough, but none of this came to mind when we were trying to learn Easy Livin’. Nick the keyboard player got us back on track with a radical suggestion: “If this isn’t working, let’s try Love Machine (another Heep tune, but one I hadn’t heard at that point). It has a neat organ intro (which he demonstrated) and I have a solo section worked out for the middle.” Ray agreed and said, “I had figured that one out before the last keyboard player left and this one I can sing,” so we dumped one Heep song for another. Love Machine came together quickly, so we played it often and let Nick do his organ intro and rave up (both of which got longer and longer each night). It wasn’t the song I originally wanted to play, but we had Uriah Heep on our song list so we moved on.
When Mick Box recruited current Heep vocalist Bernie Shaw, the band was still alive, but on life support. Box treated the lineup like a new band and started to rebuild their audience based on the same model they had originally used: hit the road. Purists will say Shaw doesn’t sound like Byron or complain that they stray too far from the original arrangements, but very few bands keep playing their catalog exactly the same way. I recently watched a full concert recorded in Europe and if I had any negative thoughts about this being a Uriah Heep cover band with Mick Box in it, they were quickly dispelled. Kerslake retired for health reasons in 2007 and Bolder passed away in 2013 leaving Box, Shaw and keyboard player Phil Lanzon making up the core of this version of Uriah Heep.
After we had been playing Love Machine for several months, I actually sat down to listen to the recorded version. I laughed out loud when I heard what Kerslake was playing because it was basically the same beat that I was using even though I had not heard the original when Nick and Ray taught it to us. The reason it made me laugh? The part I was playing was almost beat for beat identical to the pattern that had perplexed me so trying to learn Easy Livin’. Okay, it wasn’t beat for beat, but the same drum pattern would have worked in either song.
We had a similar experience in The Twig when bass player Mike brought in an arrangement of GFR’s Closer to Home (I’m Your Captain). He taught Gene the basic chord patterns and ran me through the vocal parts. When we started playing it, I just added the beat that fit what Mike and Gene were playing. After one high school dance we played, a girl told me, “I like the way you guys play Closer to Home better than Grand Funk. It is easier to dance to when you guys play it.” While flattering, I was a bit confused as to how we could do it better than GFR so I pulled out the album and listened to the original. It turned out Brewer’s playing sounded nothing like the beat I was using: I played it as a straight 4/4 time where he used a more syncopated pattern. I tried it his way a few times and found it was much harder to sing (and apparently dance to) so I kept doing it ‘wrong’. Of course, whenever a band reinterprets a piece of music live, it is never ‘wrong’, just ‘different’.
Knockdown never did go back and learn Easy Livin’ as Nick was soon replaced by our new Hammond B-3 player Rich. Once I showed Rich the three chord introduction to Love Machine, he also enjoyed putting his own spin on the little organ rave up in the middle, but we didn’t think to try and resurrect Easy Living. If I have occasion to sit down at a keyboard these days, I always play the little three chord intro to Love Machine to remind myself that I wasn’t a great piano student, but I did learn enough to make me a better musician. Hopefully I didn’t ruffle too many real keyboard player’s feathers when Ken the drummer showed them keyboard parts to some of the stuff we played.
So why didn’t Mick Box just fold the band when the dark period ended and he was the only one left in the band? “I’m a fighter. I believe if you’ve got good quality musicians and can write great songs, you’ll always win through. It never occurred to me to quit, because I started it, why shouldn’t I finish it?” I can think of no better way to explain how a band the critics hated and the fans loved survived fifty years in the music business and are still enjoying themselves.
Top Piece Video: Mick Box leads the Bernie Shaw era Uriah Heep through Love Machine. It has evolved since the days when the classic version featured David Byron, but it still sounds like Heep to me!