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British rock group Uriah Heep celebrates 50 years: Q&A

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

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Uriah Heep's 50 years has been anything but, as the song says, "Easy Livin'."

The British hard rock troupe has spent five decades living highs, including hits such as "Stealin'" and "Sweet Lorraine," and challenging lows -- and has endured through personnel changes that have seen more than two dozen musicians pass through its ranks, including notables such as John Wetton, Trevor Bolder, Chris Slade of AC/DC and The Cult fame and Ozzy Osbourne/Rainbow vet Bob Daisley. This year alone key 70s members Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley both passed way.

Uriah Heep has, however, created a substantial body of work, which have been packaged as "Fifty Years in Rock," a 23-disc set that includes all of the group's studio recordings as well as CDs of personal favorites curated by Hensley, Kerslake, original bassist Paul Newton and guitarist Mick Box, the only constant throughout the band's career.

Box, 73, confirms the livin' hasn't always been easy, but Heep is still where his heart is...

Fifty years. Does it feel like 50 years? 50 minutes? 500 years?

Box: (laughs) I'm viewing it as a great achievement, a wonderful thing to achieve. But it's just a mark-up; I'm looking at the next album, the next tour -- providing this virus allows us to do something again. This is still a living thing, this band.

What's kept it going for so long?

Box: I think in general terms, I've got the same passion for our music I've always had. That's my driving force. But also, with the departure of David (Byron, singer, in 1976) and Gary (Thain, bassist) passing away (in 1975), I felt a responsibility to keep their legacy alive so people could have access to their music. And that's gone even further -- Trevor Bolder passed away, John Wetton passed away, Lee Kerslake (and Ken Hensley) just recently. Keeping our music up in front of people is paramount.

How did the band arrive at what became Uriah Heep's sound?

Box: It took awhile. We were a band called Spice, first -- the idea was that the world has many spices, and we wanted our music to be like that, not just one genre. If you look at our first album, "Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble," it's got a bit of jazzy progressive rock stuff, folky stuff, blues stuff, many genres. It was a bit of a mix-up, if you like, which is what we loved. The second album, "Salisbury," was the same thing, but by the time we got to "Look at Yourself" we realized we wanted to be a solid rock band and moved forward with that.

There's a lot of music represented in this new box set. Do you have a favorite Uriah Heep album?

Box: Not really, no. I have no real favorites; I'm too invested in it to have favorites. I leave it to others to say what's best, not me.

How did you approach compiling your own disc of favorites that's part of the box set?

Box: I was asked by BMG to do it and I thought, "Oh, my word...Is anybody else gonna do it?" And when they said other guys were doing theirs as well I said OK. I didn't go for the obvious tracks, the hits -- "Easy Livin'," etc. I went for deeper tracks. I though the other three guys might go for (the hits) so mine would be different; It turned out we ALL dug a little deep (laughs), which I thought was cool.

The one song that pops up consistently is "Sweet Lorraine," which was also a bit of a hit. Why does that one seem to stick with you guys?

Box: That's a song that resonated in America more than anywhere else, in the world, probably because the tagline of the chorus is "Let the party carry on." It's just a good, solid rock song. The Moog synthesizer over the intro, I find that a bit annoying now, but at the time it wasn't because the Moog was a new instrument. I feel like we couldíve done a better sound, but it's one of those things that's locked in time. You hear the song and you hear that sound and you know it's "Sweet Lorraine." It did its job well.

We lost Lee Kerslake this year, and very recently (Nov. 4), Ken Henley. What was your relationship like with them?

Box: With Lee...we were brothers with different mothers. That lasted with everything, when he was in the band, out of the band, whatever. We went through the university of life together, side by side. With Ken, we spoke only on historical stuff that we needed to discuss, no more than that. He took a whole different path in his life. If I'm being brutally honest, and I'm quoting Ken here, he says he was never a friend with anybody in the band and, really it was just a business. He created a real distance.

Yet he was the group's primary writer on its first seven studio albums.

Box: That's a balance in life, isn't it, I guess? He was a good writer and he had the band that could take the bare bones of any of his songs and make them into dynamite. He knew he had that vehicle. That chemistry was a big part of our success. I don't know if he appreciated that, though.

An interesting footnote in Uriah Heep's history is that Nigel Olsson was briefly in the band, during 1970, and played on two tracks for "Very 'Eavy...Very 'Umble" before he went on to work with Elton John. What was the story there?

Box: That was really funny. WE were recording the album when we lost our drummer, Alex Napier. So we were looking for a drummer, and there was this company in London called Avenue Records, which used to re-record the 30 top songs on the hit parade and release them in the cheap shops, like Woolworth. One of the guys that did the singing on those was Reginald Dwight, who became Elton John. David (Byron) was in the studio with him one day and said we were looking for a drummer. And Reg said, "I just worked with a guy, made an album with him, Nigel Olsson." So we called him and he came in and we all got on. We did a short British tour and at the end of the tour Nigel got a call from Elton, who'd changed his name, and he took him to America with him and from that day on I never saw anything but the back of Nigel's shiny hair. Iíve never met him since or communicated. He just left the planet. (laughs)

You spoke about keeping the band going to preserve the legacy of those who have passed away. Do you think Uriah Heep can go on if you're not there?

Box: I think that's all down to the music. If people want to hear it, (the band) will be here, whether I'm here or not. The music has stood the test of time. But we're working on another album, as much as we can right now, and we'll be back out on the road when we're able 'cause thatís what we do. We take this music out so people can hear it.

Web Site: www.uriah-heep.com

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