Evoking the spirit of early Uriah Heep – a tribute to Ken Hensley

So many times I’ll put a record on and be transported back to specific times and places, that ability and chance to reflect involving many a genre, many a style of music, many an evocative memory. And while there was no real turning around for this Guildford lad once I moved from a diet of The Beatles, ELO, Queen, Slade and Wings towards punk, new wave and post-punk in my formative years, my appreciation of music occasionally drifted back into various unexpected areas.

A ‘60s and ‘70s soul fixation was coming, via Motown and Stax to Hi, Kent, and Philadelphia International. But old school hippie rock and psychedelia hovered in the background, and if I hear hairy-arse prog classics like Uriah Heep’s Look at Yourself and The Magician’s Birthday albums, I’m back to holiday, lunchtime and after-school visits to my friend Neil, aka Burger, in the attic of a four-storey house on The Mount, a stone’s throw (OK, a bloody long stone’s throw, I admit) from Lewis Carroll’s final resting place, for music I still equate with the mystical world the Rev. Dodgson inhabited during his own late 19th century visits to my hometown, the first a century before I was born.

With hindsight, I can’t imagine Uriah Heep ever took themselves too seriously, but they certainly played their mystical brand of heavy rock with straight faces, and within a couple of years of my late discovery of these innovative blues-driven, prototype metal-meets-prog Londoners, This Is Spinal Tap landed, and I couldn’t help but see a few similarities. And believe me, I did my homework in studies of the ‘Eep, my host always keen to put them on as we embarked upon another frame of pool in Burger’s attic (there’s a perfect title for a UH LP if ever there was one), matches I was more often than not soundly beaten in, despite occasional sly practises at The Queen Vic back in Shalford, run by fellow visitor James’ folks’ (where coincidentally, Neil served as landlord a few years later). Whatever time of day I dropped by, out came the vinyl, often initially with a groan from this teen, too cool – at least in my own head – for such heavy hippie fare. But those records made an impact, even if I never willingly admitted it back then.

Picture the scene. It’s 1983, I’m 15, it’s the Easter school holidays, and while principal songwriter Ken Hensley – who died this week after a short illness, aged 75 – had left the band three years earlier after 13 LPs, those classic early Uriah Heep records were still getting plenty of traction at No.52.

I’ll digress for a moment to a conversation around then with my old man, who swapped working as a Guildford-based loco fireman on the steam railways for the GPO in 1961, his following 30-plus years as a postie including a spell delivering to The Mount. Telling him one day I was off to a mate’s house there, he enquired, ‘What’s his name?’ and I guardedly replied, ‘Erm … Neil.’ A trademark gruff response followed. ‘Kneel down and …. (I’ll leave that bit out)? I meant, what’s his surname?’ The penny dropped. ‘Oh … Underwood,’ wondering what was coming next. He hesitated half a second, the old grey matter whirring, then announced, “D.J.,52.” And he never seemed to forget those details, even when dementia kicked in many moons later.

I loved growing up where I did, my home village a couple of miles out of town, a council house just a bankside path away from the idyllic River Tillingbourne, with woodland to explore either side of the stream. I saw it as the Beverly Hills of council estates compared to most in the area, and that wonderland over the back fence is a place I often return to in dreams – day and night – to re-live those ‘Tales from the Riverbank’ fellow Surrey lad Paul Weller wrote about, ‘where we ran when we were young’. As with my Woking neighbour, ‘True, it’s a dream mixed with nostalgia, but it’s a dream that I’ll always hang on to, that I’ll always run to.’ Yet despite that rural idyll, I also felt I was missing out when I considered that a few mates were so close to one another in town, with Neil barely a 10-minute walk from our secondary school, while for me that journey involved five-mile round-trip bike, bus or train rides.

Neil’s place was an open house back then, and a few of us were regular callers. Even the milkman would walk in, see what was needed by opening the fridge, replenishing it accordingly. ‘I think you might have a burglar,’ I said once, my ears straining, hearing an intruder downstairs. ‘Nah, that’ll be the milkman,’ my host replied, matter of fact, a grin on his face, ‘Checking what we need.’

Anyway, back in the attic, the needle was lowered on to the vinyl, another of Burger’s inherited LPs from his older sister, long since moved out, although her posters of local prog outfit Camel still adorned the wall. Neil’s white soul-boy brother was probably downstairs playing Level 42, his favourites cracking the top-30 earlier that year for the first time, Neil memorably telling us how his brother’s pals left the bar at Guildford Civic Hall in a conga when they played their biggest hit so far.

‘The Chinese way; Who knows what they know; The Chinese legend grows.’

Some days it was Led Zeppelin blasting out of the top window, and again it was initially under sufferance from my point of view, put off by the over-played ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and unmoved and distrusting of those mega drum solos like on ‘Moby Dick’. But I was soon seduced by old school heavy barnstormers like ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘The Lemon Song’. I was already a fan of much of 1979’s In Through the Out Door, lured in by Nicky Horne on Capital Radio, and tracks like 1975’s ‘Kashmir’, but here I grew to re-evaluate the band’s earlier dirty blues moments, getting past the unappealing hair and the rock posturing.

On this occasion though, we were back in the time machine to late 1971, listening to an album released within a few weeks of Neil and I’s fourth birthdays, frenetic title track ‘Look at Yourself’ setting the tone, the harmonies of melodic rocker Wanna Be Free’ up next, teeing up side one’s atmospheric climax, introduced by Hensley’s three-deck keyboard, Neil rocking back and forth on an imaginary tottering stool, figurative long hair blowing in the breeze. Then came Mick Box’s searing guitar, Burger providing facial expressions to match, and his take on Paul Newton’s lines, playing that pool cue as an imaginary bass. And there to our imaginary right was Iain Clark on drums, lead singer David Byron at his side, waiting for his moment to step forward, the look of the fox about him, not unlike Vivian Stanshall doing the sublime ‘The Canyons of Your Mind’ with The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, glancing skywards before setting the scene,

There I was on a July morning; looking for love; With the strength of a new day dawning, and the beautiful sun.’  

I only learned this week that Manfred Mann adds Moog synth on that track and ‘Tears in My Eyes’, the song that announces side two, another powerhouse slice of vinyl that takes us through – via the progtastic ‘Shadows of Grief’ and more reflective ‘What Should Be Done’ – to the dirty blues finale that is ‘Love Machine’. Hell, the album cover even featured a mirror so you could, erm … well, look at yourself, kids.

But it’s ‘July Morning’ that resonated most with me, and still does to this day, an epic on a par with that aforementioned Led Zeppelin IV  biggie and Deep Purple’s ‘Child in Time’, if maybe not so lauded in wider circles. They don’t write ’em like that anymore. To quote my Aussie friend Bruce Jenkins’ May 2015 Uriah Heep appreciation for his Vinyl Connection website (linked below), ‘Then comes ‘July Morning’, centrepiece of this album and a stage favourite for years and years. Hensley’s organ features with rich reedy chords and simple but effective melodic lines; the extended final section where the keyboards extemporise over a repetitive guitar riff is organ/synth heaven – the US version cover notes by Hensley reveal that the synthesiser is played by guest Manfred Mann.’

Well, we already knew that last part, didn’t we, readers (* winks to camera). As for the commercial success of that LP, it just about made the UK top-40, their first to do so, but reached the summit in Finland and made it to No.5 in Japan a year later, its title track reaching No.4 in the Swiss singles charts. Not sure what all that proves, but they were on their way, soon filling arenas, selling millions of LPs, sharing bills with Rush – the latest subject of a ‘fanthology’ from author friend of WriteWyattUK, Richard Houghton, Uriah Heep opening for the Canadian outfit on their first US tour – as well as Kiss, Three Dog Night, and even Rory Gallagher.

Of that third LP line-up, the big league closing in, founding members Newton and Clark – perhaps marginalised by that core of Hensley, Box and Byron – soon departed. Clark’s replacement Lee Kerslake arrived in time for 1972’s Demons and Wizards, and arguably made the biggest impact of the new personnel. He died just a couple of months ago, having gone on to work with Ozzy Osbourne in the early ‘80s. As for Byron, real name David Garrick, him of that distinctive operatic lead vocal, he died aged just 38 in 1985, while one of Paul Newton’s replacements, New Zealander Gary Thain, who initially shared bass duties with Mark Clarke, checked out at just 27 in 1975 after his own troubled series of events.

As it was, Byron, Box, Hensley and Kerslake remained at the band’s core until 1976’s High and Mighty, when the original vocalist was fired amid his on-going battle with the booze. Of the four personnel who played on the first three albums, there’s just Mick Box and Paul Newton left now, in their early 70s and quick to pass on respects to their old bandmate and Uriah Heep’s initial chief songwriter this week. And I too salute Kenneth William David Hensley (August 24th, 1945 – November 4th, 2020) here – paying tribute to a gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer with a passion for poetry and fantasy, who realised his ambition to make it in a band, recently reflecting on that period of his life with the classic line-up of Uriah Heep – talking to Eamon O’Neill at Eon Music – as something that ‘was all like a mad dream’.

At the sound of the first bird singing, I was leaving for home; With the storm and the night behind me, and the road of my own.”

Apparently, Ken  Hensley sketched out ‘July Morning’ on his guitar in the early hours while bored waiting for the headliners to finish so the two bands could leave on their shared tour bus, ‘in the North of England somewhere’. My friend Niall, who got to witness Uriah Heep a couple of times in their early ‘70s heyday at Guildford Civic, paid his own tribute yesterday and said Ken was ‘one of the good guys’. And he’s right. We only briefly travelled the same road, but I admired his musicality and sense of vision, this old school prog-rock innovator who encouraged those who followed his path to realise the power of dreams … mad or otherwise. Can’t say fairer than that. Rest in peace, Ken.

For an intimate, detailed interview with Ken Hensley by Eamon O’Neill from just a few weeks ago, celebrating the release of Uriah Heep’s career-spanning ’50 Years in Rock’ 23-CD boxset, follow this Eon Music website link

Furthermore, friend of this website Bruce Jenkins, based in Melbourne, Australia, has his own Yesterday’s Tomorrow appreciation of early Uriah Heep on his splendid Vinyl Connection website, with a link here

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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4 Responses to Evoking the spirit of early Uriah Heep – a tribute to Ken Hensley

  1. Great stories, Malc. Is that one about the milkman really true? That’s brilliant.

    Also brilliant is this multi-factorial summary: “innovative blues-driven, prototype metal-meets-prog Londoners”. Being just a smidge older than you (*winks at camera), the Heep were a go-to for teenage boys who had their own stereos. I wasn’t one, but my friend Rod was, as mentioned in the piece you kindly linked to.

    A world where you can thrill to “July Morning” and “I’m so bored with the USA” is one I actually do want to live in.

    Cheers, Bruce.

  2. Burger says:

    Wonderfully written Wiggy.x

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