Sunday Old School: Uriah Heep
A few weeks ago, Sunday Old School took a look at British hard rock legends, UFO, one of the architects of the heavy metal sound. With the recent passing of their bass player, it seemed like an opportune time to examine another English band that helped define the heavy style, Uriah Heep. The band was initially formed under the moniker, Spice by guitarist Mick Box and singer, David Garrick, who met while members of another band called, The Stalkers. They rounded up the lineup with the additions of Scottish drummer, Alex Napier and bass player, Paul Newton. They performed regularly, working their reputation up to being a regular headline act and soon led them to sign with Vertigo Records, whereupon they decided to change their name, deciding to go with "Uriah Heep" after the character from the Charles Dickens novel, "David Copperfield," since "Dickens’ name was everywhere in Christmas 1969 due to it being the hundredth anniversary of his death." It was also around this time that the group decided to add a keyboardist to the mix, inspired by another early heavy band, Vanilla Fudge, a position which was eventually filled by Ken Hensley, who previously played with Newton in The Gods.
They released their debut album in 1970, which was self-titled in the United States but was known everywhere else as, "Very ‘eavy, Very ‘umble," which was a reference to a phrase frequently said by the Uriah Heep character in "David Copperfield." Although the album has found favour over time and contains one of their trademark songs, "Gypsy," it initially received a very frosty reception. Cold enough in fact, that Rolling Stone reviewer, Melissa Mills opened her review of the album with, "If this band makes it, I’ll have to commit suicide." The band followed, "Very ‘eavy…" by releasing, "Salisbury," a progressive rock record if ever there was one, exemplified by the sixteen minute long title track, in which the group were accompanied by a twenty four piece orchestra. Like their debut, it also featured one of their best known songs, this time, "Lady in Black," which would become a hit in Germany when it was re-released six years later. The album itself was not received much better than it’s predecessor, but nevertheless, generated enough interest to allow Uriah Heep to tour the United States for the first time, where they joined Three Dog Night and Canadian rockers, Steppenwolf.
Uriah Heep’s deal with Vertigo soon expired and they signed with Bronze Records, a new label formed by their producer, Gerry Bron. They shifted away from the progressive sounds of, "Salisbury" to create a harder edged tone, which was predominant on their next album, "Look at Yourself." The record featured a number of fan favourites, most notably the epic, "July Morning," which is considered Uriah Heep’s equivalent of "Stairway to Heaven" and was so popular, it spawned a hippy tradition in Bulgaria, where people gather at the Black Sea to see the sun come up every July 1st. "Look at Yourself" was the best reviewed album of their career up to that point, but nonetheless, Newton decided to quit the band, feeling marginalised by Box and Byron’s partnership. His place was first taken by Iain Clarke and then by Lee Kerslake, another former member of The Gods. They also recruited a new bassist named, Gary Thain, a native of New Zealand. This new lineup would be considered their "classic" incarnation and they soon set about recording their fourth album, "Demons and Wizards," which, as the title suggests, took a more fantasy driven approach when it came to the lyrics. Today, many fans (and indeed critics) regard the record as their best album to date and it is generally recommended as the gateway album for anyone seeking to check out the band. It also did well at the time, reaching number 20 in the United Kingdom, number twenty three in the United States and becoming a top five album in several countries, most notably in Finland where it topped the charts.
The praise continued with their next record, "The Magician’s Birthday," which hit the top 40 in the United States and Great Britain and was notable for the vocals exhibited by Byron. The album spawned a single, "Sweet Lorraine," which made it into the top 100 in the United States and became one of their better known singles. They succeeded this release with a double live album, recorded at the Birmingham town hall at the beginning of 1973, before releasing the more commercial, "Sweet Freedom" later in the year, which fared better in the charts than "The Magician’s Birthday" both at home and across the Atlantic. Despite the attempt at mainstream recognition and the shift away from the fantasy lyrics, the record was considerably better received than their next outing, "Wonderworld," which was considered a disappointment by both fans and critics. The recording of the album was marred by infighting, addiction and personal issues, which arguably showed on the patchy release. Times got particularly hard for Gary Thain, who was electrocuted while on tour and was then fired from the band when he argued with Bron and accused him of using the band for his own financial gains. Less than a year later, he was found dead in his home after overdosing on heroin.
Thain’s place was taken by former King Crimson bass player, John Wetton, who was described as a stable influence and is deemed to have revitalised the band, leading to "Return to Fantasy" in 1975, which was better received by fans and entered the top ten in the British album charts. They toured heavily in support of the album and persevered through a number of obstacles, including an incident where Mick Box broke his arm on stage but continued to play for the rest of the tour after receiving three injections every night. After a compilation album was released, as well as a solo album from Byron and a second solo effort from Ken Hensley, they released their ninth studio album, "High and Mighty" in 1976, which was launched in an extravagant manner which featured flying journalists to the top of a mountain in Switzerland to hear it, though was considered a weak effort and a disappointment after the promising, "Return to Fantasy." The tour for the album offered little more hope once it had finished, with Byron being sacked from the band for his incessant drinking and erratic stage performances. Wetton announced shortly afterwards that he was leaving too and his place was taken by former David Bowie bassist, Trevor Bolder and former Lucifer’s Friend singer, John Lawton was recruited to fill the vacant position behind the mic stand, after unsuccessful auditions from Gary Holton of Heavy Metal Kids and former Deep Purple vocalist, David Coverdale.
With a new singer for the first time, the band recorded, "Firefly," which was considered an impressive output and earned them a support slot for Kiss in the United States, who were also highly impressed with what they saw, before following "Firefly" with "Innocent Victim," which fared well, spawning a worldwide hit in the song, "Free Me," but was ultimately considered another lightweight effort, earning them some cautious comparisons to The Eagles and after a third album with Lawton, the well received, "Fallen Angel," the singer was fired from the group due to his continuing feud with Hensley. Drummer Lee Kerslake would also quit the group soon after, his place being taken by Chris Slade and Uriah Heep hired their third vocalist, John Sloman, who made his debut with the band on the album, "Conquest," which was met with disappointment, not least from the band members themselves.
After a tour with up and comers, Girlschool, Hensley would be the one who decided to quit and Canadian, Gregg Dechert replaced him, though they would soon find themselves once again having to search for a new singer after Sloman decided to leave, this time offering Dave Byron his old job back, which he turned down. Soon afterwards, Bolder also decided to leave and Mick Box was left to rebuild the band, which he did by re-hiring Lee Kerslake, along with bassist Bob Daisley (both of which had helped form Ozzy Osbourne’s solo band, Blizzard of Ozz) and brought in Trapeze vocalist, Peter Goalby, as well as multi-instrumentalist, John Sinclair. The result was, "Abominog," which was hailed as one of the best Uriah Heep albums up to that point and credited with keeping the band relevant to a modern audience. They continued this style on their next release, "Head First," which was also praised by critics, though it sold poorly and a month after it’s release, Bronze Records went into liquidation and the band were freed from Gerry Bron.
They toured America several times after the release of, "Head First," performing with such big names as Rush, Judas Priest and the young favourites, Def Leppard. They also toured Asia and South America but learned the tragic news upon their return that David Byron had passed away after suffering from a heart attack. The group welcomed Trevor Bolder back after Daisley returned to Ozzy Osbourne and recorded one more album with Goalby, "Equator," which was released through CBS Records. It sold poorly and critics weren’t very kind to their effort, which along with a gruelling tour schedule, led Goalby and Sinclair to quit the band soon after, with the latter also going on to join Ozzy Osbourne. Former Grand Prix keyboardist, Phil Lanzon soon joined, as did another Grand Prix alumnus, Bernie Shaw, who had also spent time with NWOBHM outfit, Praying Mantis. This incarnation of the band proved to be their most stable, staying together until 2007. Soon after hiring Shaw and Lanzon, they became one of the first Western bands to perform in the Soviet Union, playing to ultimately one hundred and eighty thousand people at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow.
Four more albums were released over the next thirteen years, to mixed reviews and success and the group shifted more towards touring, compilations and DVD releases after 1998’s, "Sonic Origami," until they released, "Wake the Sleeper" in 2008, which featured Russell Gilbrook on drums, who was brought in as Kerslake’s replacement, after he was forced to retire due to ill health. They quickly followed, "Wake the Sleeper," with "Celebration," an album which featured re-recordings of twelve classic songs along with two new ones and most recently, unleashed their twenty third album in 2011, entitled, "Into the Wild." On May 21st of this year, it was announced that bassist Trevor Bolder had sadly passed away after suffering from cancer. Where the band go from here remains to be seen, but not many groups can claim to have had a hand in shaping one of the biggest musical genres of all time and still be going today. Let’s hope that despite their recent tragedy, Uriah Heep continue to fly the flag of good old fashioned heavy rock, celebrating their legacy of solid material and reportedly still fantastic live act.
Uriah Heep - "Gypsy"
Uriah Heep - "July Morning"
Uriah Heep - "Easy Livin'"
Uriah Heep - "Sweet Lorraine"
Uriah Heep - "Too Scared To Run"
Uriah Heep - "Stay On Top"
Uriah Heep - "Dream On"
Uriah Heep - "Nail On the Head"
Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.
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