Uriah Heep: Out in the Wild
Words: Brian Fischer-Giffin
Latest release: Into the Wild (due April, Frontiers/Riot!)
The last time British rock legends Uriah Heep came to Australia, this writer was still too young to go see them play their show at the Revesby Workers Club. In the 25 years since then, guitarist Mick Box has been Down Under many times, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to bring his band here until now.
“I’ve been out many times in between live work,” he says pleasantly on the phone from his home. “I’ve got a long association with Australia. Me and the keyboard player, Phil Lanzon, we stayed there for about eight years. I bought an apartment there in Sydney and I was actually managing the band at the time so I would get about three months work, come to Europe, do the work and come back home again. And I was married to an Australian.”
With their 21st studio album Into the Wild about to see release, Uriah Heep has been invited back to these shores to play shows in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
“Hopefully,” Box says, “we can make a success of it and it won’t be so long before we come back again!”
Into the Wild is only the second album of new material for Uriah Heep since the 1990s. While releasing a string of live recordings, including at least one done acoustically with a choir and orchestra, the changing face of the music industry was proving difficult for acts like Heep to find a label. Mick Box explains that the band’s work ethic sustained them through those lean times.
“There was a big gap [prior to 2008’s Wake the Sleeper], simply because the record industry didn’t exist the way it used to exist,” the guitarist says. “The Internet came along and there was all that rubbish with the record companies trying to take Napster to court and they found out there was a million Napsters and they couldn’t police it at all. And then the record industry went into free fall, record companies disappeared, got smaller, amalgamated and it was a complete mess and we couldn’t find a home there, so we did what we do best: we toured the world and released DVDs and live stuff until it settled down. There’s two ways you can go about it. You can attack it and get upset by it, or you can embrace it. We’ve embraced it, and we’re doing ok out of it so there’s no complaints there. It’s never going to be the same as it used to be, but that’s life! Nothing ever is, is it? (laughs)”
Wake the Sleeper garnered strong reviews and was highly praised by Classic Rock who nominated it as one of the best albums of the year. Their next project was Celebration in 2009 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Uriah Heep. Also including a DVD and two new tracks, the album featured fourteen of their standard songs from the 1970s. Box, the only member left from that period of the band’s history, admits that without the input of their German label Edel, it could have been a very difficult selection process.
“We’ve kind of had different hits in various countries,” he says. “So [Edel] kind of guided us in what we should do, and then we put in a couple ourselves which we thought was a good stage number that worked well on the album. It came together very quickly. Otherwise it would have been very difficult. I think we would still be scratching our heads.”
From their early days, Uriah Heep was almost as well known for its revolving door personnel shifts as it was for the music. Their first album featured three different drummers and it wasn’t until 1972’s Demons and Wizards that the “classic” line-up of Box, David Byron (vocals), Ken Hensley (organ and keys), Lee Kerslake (drums) and Gary Thain (bass) solidified. Even that incarnation only lasted two and a half years, when Thain was fired for drug dependency (he died from an overdose in December 1975). While subsequent versions of the band stayed together for an album or three at a stretch, it took until 1986 for Uriah Heep to find a combination that would last, at least until ailing health forced Kerslake to call it a day in 2007.
“Lee Kerslake had to retire unfortunately, and we got in Russell Gilbrook,” Box says. “But the main body of the band’s been together 26 years or more now. And that’s fantastic. The one thing that happened was that when I started managing the band, everybody got comfortable with the deal and it’s stayed together forever.”
Box puts the fault for a lot of the band’s problems at the foot of management, and indeed Kerslake originally left in 1979 due to managerial issues, only to return three years later after recording two albums with Ozzy Osbourne.
“Sometimes management can be quite disruptive,” Box says with a chuckle. “That’s my experience with it. They come in and take the band as is, and then they begin dissecting it and favouring the one or two that they think they can make more money off, I think. They don’t understand the word ‘chemistry’, or what makes things work. So when I was managing the band none of that was going on. They were getting answers when they had questions and it was a nice place to be, with Heep.”
The band has since taken on new management through long-time associate Martin Darville, who also looks after former Heep bassist John Wetton’s group Asia. But Box is keen to point out that they’re very happy with the way things are in that regard. With that being as it is, even after 42 years, there doesn’t appear to be any plans for Uriah Heep to wind up just yet. Box actually did split up the band after 1980’s disastrous Conquest album because “it just wasn’t working on any level”, but this proved to be a very brief break.
“It lasted two days, I have to say,” he says, before laughing for a few seconds. “I went into my apartment in London and drank far too much vodka and woke up with this horrendous hangover. When I came out of that stupor, I started phoning agents and people and they were saying that they can put a Mick Box Band together.”
Ultimately however, it was a combination of pleas from fans and the legacy of Thain and Byron (who eventually died of organ failure in 1985 after more than a decade of alcohol abuse) that convinced Box to continue as Uriah Heep.
“I started getting this fantastic mail. In those days of course you didn’t have the Internet so it was all snail mail, written letters. A lot of them were saying, “We’ve just found out [about the band], please don’t let it die” or “You were the greatest band in my life”, and I just went, “Well, hang on, there’s something there to build on”. Then I had the brainwave that, you know, with Gary Thain who’d passed away, and David Byron who’d passed away, then if I keep the legacy of the band going it would give other people the chance to access their time within the band. They were so inspirational as a vocalist and bass player that it would give them the chance to see that and re-focus it. So with all that in mind, I put it together that the band should continue.”
As it turned out, it was the right move. The subsequent album Abominog sparked a new interest in the group and Uriah Heep has continuted to tour ever since, with the same line-up between 1986 and 2007, dropping the occasional studio album along the way.
“I always felt that if we had good songs and the Uriah Heep sound and we used good players, that we could always come through in the end,” Mick Box says proudly. “And that’s proved to be right, thank goodness.”
While their status has diminished to the level of a cult act over the years, Uriah Heep was a big deal in the 1970s and provided a huge inspiration for other acts, most particularly for the power and progressive metal movement, many members of whom have since covered the band’s songs for their own releases or tribute albums. Mick Box reckons he’s heard and likes them all.
“My iPod’s full of ‘em. I think I’ve got upwards of forty tracks from people who’ve covered stuff. That’s fantastic! What a great thing. I love hearing them. I think they’ve all got their own string on it. Obviously I see them the way we did it, because that’s the way it was conceived, but Blind Guardian do a fine job. They’re a good band, and they’re showing their influences by covering it, which is really lovely.”
That Mick Box has been the inspiration for so many to go on and create their own music seems to be the biggest reward of his career.
“What a wonderful thing. If you can inspire anybody to do anything, then job done. It’s wonderful. I think, inspiring people to play the guitar because of the way I do it, or the band to inspire people to play, is far better than any gold record on the wall to be honest.”