Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #27: Uriah Heep

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Named after an odious, unctuous character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Uriah Heep are an English hard rock band that have been doing what they do since 1969, through myriad line-up changes, with guitarist/songwriter Mick Box as the sole constant in their long and convoluted history. Despite all of their many personnel configurations, there is an identifiable Heep sound to which each and every one of the group’s incarnations have hewed, more or less. Box’s wah-heavy guitar stylings are a key part of that, as are heavy organ riffs, massed male vocals, driving rhythm section work, and song structures that are punchy and progressive in equal measure. I’m not quite sure exactly why it’s the case, but the Heep sound has made them super-stars in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and parts of Asia, while the English and American fan bases are smaller, but deeply devoted. Me among that posse, of course. The modern core of the group, since 1986, features Box, his primary songwriting partner and keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and vocalist Bernie Shaw. Drummer Russell Gilbrook has been pounding the skins with aplomb since 2007 (replacing the late, great Lee Kerslake), and bassist Dave Rimmer joined in 2013, after long-time bassist-composer-singer Trevor Bolder (once one of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) succumbed to pancreatic cancer. I last caught the current five-piece live in March 2018 at the great Arcada Theater in the Chicago suburbs and they were just utter dynamite, delivering the classic tunes that the audience expected, mixed with new material that (to these ears) stood and stands up as well as anything they’ve ever done. The group had a deep history with Chicago, as one of the first markets where they broke big in the United States, and as an act of respect for the venue’s management, who had been involved with promoting the group regionally in the early 1970s, and the fans in attendance, the group members did a wonderful impromptu Q&A session before the show, making the evening even more memorable. Here’s what that looked like, from the cheap seats (left to right: Gilbrook, Shaw, Box, Lanzon, Rimmer; click to enlarge this and all subsequent images):

When I First Heard Them: Not exactly sure, honestly. I must have heard their AOR hits from the ’70s on the types of radio stations that I listened to in that era, but I think I actually started tuning into them a bit more when I got into King Crimson and started exploring that group’s convoluted family tree, which connected to the Heep via bassist-vocalist John Wetton. (Wetton’s peripatetic career also introduced me to Wishbone Ash, Roxy Music and Family, three other great bands in which he served short, but memorable, stints). As a “Rock Family Trees” nerd and avid liner-note reader, I loved the fact that the Heep’s first U.S. Best Of collection from 1975 included a way cool back cover image that charted the group’s membership changes and band members’ earlier projects. I learned about The Gods and Toe Fat (more on them below) from that chart, happily. For the record, that sleeve, which I pored over a lot in various record stores and libraries before actually buying the thing, looked like this (it might be hard to read, I can’t find a higher resolution image, alas):

I scored that Best Of record and the 1973 Uriah Heep Live double album sometime in the latter half of the ’70s, and those were my stalwart delivery vehicles for their classic-era material for a good number of years. The first non-compilation Uriah Heep studio album I purchased was Abominog in 1982. It was a re-boot for the band, of sorts, as the first disc released after long-time songwriter-keyboardist-guitarist-singer Ken Hensley left the group. It was a big hit for them, critically and commercially, laying out a glide-path for the Mick Box-helmed incarnation of the group that continues to this day. Plus, Abominog had a truly heinous title and album cover image if you wanted something to rub your religious parents the wrong way, which I did. Check this out:

Why I Love Them: I guess I must have some sort of Eastern European-Scandinavian-Russian thing working deep within my critical consciousness, as I hear and perceive of the Heep as a charismatic arena-caliber rock band, which they are in those territories. Years and years ago, I wrote a piece here about Heavy Organ Music, a self-named genre that I particularly enjoyed then and continue to enjoy, and which Uriah Heep embody as well as anybody. Their back-story bands also fit that idiom perfectly: I’m quite fond of The Gods and Toe Fat, which featured Hensley and Kerslake as members in their pre-Heep days, and I listen to their small catalogs of great albums regularly to this day. Look ’em up, along with other things recommended in that prior link, if you like this sort of music. You’ll be glad you did, I promise! I do deeply appreciate the fact that Uriah Heep have released some of the finest music of their 50+ year history on their most recent albums, and that those songs fit and sit soundly alongside the classics of their canon. They’re not a nostalgia act, at bottom line, though their body of work would certainly allow them to rest on their laurels and profiteer on the path of least creative resistance were they so inclined. The years have been tough on the group, it must be noted: Mick Box is the only surviving member of the “classic” Uriah Heep era, as Kerslake and Hensley recently flew away, singer David Byron and bassist Gary Thain were early rock-lifestyle casualties in 1985 and 1975 respectively, and bassists Bolder (died in 2013) and Wetton (2017) are also no longer anchoring things on this mortal coil. I’m certainly hopeful that Box can continue on for years to come, as he is an utter delight, wonderfully fun to watch and hear onstage (he’s got a very distinctive visual style and flair in his playing, in the ways that he uses his hands and body to emphasize what he’s doing with his guitar), and equally enjoyable in video and printed interviews, a real gentleman who seems pleased and proud to have made his way all these years doing exactly what he loves to do the most. Bravo, Mick! While it’s not directly related to their musical output, as a creative person who has been highly active online since the very dawn of the World Wide Web, I also have to share my appreciation for the fact that Uriah Heep have had a vibrant and useful presence in virtual space since ~1996, long before most bands arrived in this our virtual play-space. Hats off to long-time webmaster Dave White for that fine feat!

#10. “T-Bird Angel,” from Into the Wild (2011)

#9. “Sweet Lorraine,” from The Magician’s Birthday (1972)

#8. “Lady in Black,” from Salisbury (1971)

#7. “Rocks in the Road,” from Living the Dream (2018)

#6. “Poet’s Justice,” from Demons and Wizards (1972)

#5. “Nail on the Head,” from Into the Wild (2011)

#4. “Easy Livin’,” from Demons and Wizards (1972)

#3. “Stealin’,” from Sweet Freedom (1973)

#2. “One Way Or Another,” from High and Mighty (1976)

#1. “Waters Flowin’,” from Living the Dream (2018)

6 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #27: Uriah Heep

  1. I never owned their music. I somehow just missed them. No one turned me on to them. I’d heard of them but could name none of their songs. My loss, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They seemed to be very market-specific in terms of the places where they had impact in the States. Which was not unusual, I guess, in the days before radio formats became standardized under corporate playlist policies. It was fun to see them in Chicago area, as that was where they said they had their very biggest US fan base back in the day. Lots of singalongs and fan interaction at that show!

      Like

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