Named after one of the most odious characters in literature, Britain’s Uriah Heep have been churning out records and touring relentlessly for over forty years. The Allmusic guide lists more than three dozen albums and informs us that there have been over 30 members of the band formed by the wonderfully monikered Mick Box and singer David Byron in the late sixties. Though Mr Byron died in sad circumstances in 1985, Mr Box still carries the flame, toting it around the world with unflagging energy. If memory serves, they visited these shores as recently as last year, playing the Narre Warren Hotel, or something like that.
In a revelation that will draw sneers from the metal crowd and disbelief from those who would rather have their teeth drilled than listen to heavy prog, it can be revealed that the Vinyl Connection collection contains precisely four Uriah Heep titles: the third, fourth, fifth and sixth releases.
But which is my favourite? And which should I write about?
Maybe the one I heard first.
Sitting on the brown shag-pile carpet in the gloom of Rod Amberton’s bedroom, I had my first taste of many albums that became as good mates as Rod and I were back then. Santana’s Lotus was spun, Black Sabbath Vol. 4 thumped forth. And Uriah Heep’s Magician’s Birthday (rel. Dec. 1972) with its captivating Roger Dean cover art and stomping single “Sweet Lorraine” was another. I was wowed by the heavy sounds; the mystery of opening song “Sunrise”, the mournful majesty of “Echoes in the dark”. Listening again this week, I enjoyed the long proggy final title cut too. But much of what is in between is somewhere between good and a bit plodding.
So what about the other Roger Dean cover?
Demons and Wizards (rel. May, 1972) was probably the peak for Uriah Heep. Its eight songs covered both wizards and demons as well as magic, stalking, confused mysticism and er, marriage.
I never ever thought I was looking for a wife
But I think I could love her for the rest of my life
[“All my life”]
You can imagine how that lyric connected with a couple of repressed, lonely seventeen year olds who’d never even managed to ask a girl on a date. On the other hand, maybe it was only me being inattentive, as within a couple of years Rod had indeed found a wife and settled into a life of deadening suburban endurance.
Back to Demons and Wizards. What really stands out is how many short rock songs there are on the album. Three clock in comfortably under three minutes while a further trio are under four-and-a-half. Given that the final 12 minute piece is actually two songs joined together (“Paradise/The Spell”), this is clearly not a meandering record. Centrepiece of the album is “Circle of Hands”, a terrific Ken Hensley composition that manages to pull off the fantasy/magician thing in a way that stays on the right side of risible.
Sky full of eyes / Minds full of lies
Black from their cold hearts / Down to their graves
Murdered the dawn / Spreading their scorn
Cursing the sun / Of which love was born
There is even a bit of existential philosophy chucked in, the sort of thing Gandalf might say. “Today,” he’d intone to a young hobbit, “Is only yesterday’s tomorrow.” Yeah, right greybeard. But the album isn’t grey, it’s alight with prismatic sprays of synthesiser, explosions of guitar and thunderclaps of rhythm. In short, it charges in, rocks its robe-clad arse off, and buggers off into the sunset waving a rune-engraved staff triumphantly.
Then there’s the album I played on radio.
On Friday nights in the early 90s, a mate and I alternated presenting Late Night Shopping on 3PBS FM, a Melbourne public radio station. Whenever there was a fifth Friday in the month, we did the show together, usually with some sort of theme. For one such show we featured moments on live albums where things go wrong. Steven pulled out a wonderfully wince-ful moment on Bowie’s live Ziggy Stardust set where Mick Ronson hits the wrong fret on a guitar fill in “White Light/White Heat” and plays the run a semi-tone low. Ronson redeems himself with savage playing throughout the rest of the piece, yet the blooper moment is simultaneously awful and funny.
My choice came from Uriah Heep Live (rel. Oct. 1973) which draws entirely – bar a dreadful rock and roll medley at the end – from the two albums above and the one below. The moment I chose for radio was the start of “Traveller in time” where proceedings are delayed. We’ll let singer David Byron take up the story.
Oh… [Crestfallen voice], I’ve got some chewing gum on me boot an’ I keep sticking to the stage, yeah… ‘S terrible when you get it stuck on yer boot like that… [Woefully] Terrible stuff.
At another point someone – presumably not keyboard maestro Ken Hensley – introduces a song as featuring the “Moog simplifier”. Pure Tufnel and St Hubbins. Don’t get me wrong, Heep Live is a pounding, thundering tank of a live album that I loved hearing again. Hensley adds yummy synthesiser squoodling* here and there, a delight for analogue synth fans. Design-wise, I love the glossy colour photos of the lads almost as much as the inner sleeve inclusion of Rolling Stone’s less than complimentary review of the first album. If you don’t know it, do read it. You’ll be happy you are not a recording artist.
Ultimately, it has to be Look At Yourself.
This 1971 album is one of the earliest albums that could be labelled ‘heavy prog’ and is an excellent showcase for the category. After the excitement of the fast-rocking title track, things slow barely at all for the bluesy “I wanna be free” where a ponderous rhythm is hoisted joyfully on multi-tracked harmonies. 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!
“Tears in my eyes” tears out of the blocks with a crunching riff before the quieter middle section reminds us that these blokes have hearts. After the frantic, riffing “Shadows of grief” comes a genuine ballad (“What should be done”), more pleasant than memorable.
The album closes with “Love machine”. A little Spinal Tap to be sure, yet if you can avoid images of foil wrapped cucumbers then the song offers a bushel of 70s rockin’ fun. And mention must be made of the mirror cover that allows the listener to, um, look at themselves. This fab cover has featured previously but deserves a return appearance.
Playing Look At Yourself again – several times! – for this review made me smile. And maybe that is better therapy than almost anything else. Though I have been tempted to put a verse from the title track on my flyer:
If you need assistance or if all you need is love
There’s no point in hiding, tell me what you’re frightened of
You’ve got a friend, just look at yourself,
Don’t be afraid, just look at yourself.
* Squoodling = squelchy noodling. Patent pending.
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Footnote: Rock and Prog fans were saddened to hear of the death of Ken Hensley, organist and core member of Uriah Heep during the 70s. He was previously in The Gods and brought his heavy organ riffing to the fledgling outfit, who had their most successful albums with Ken on the keys.
Kenneth William David Hensley: 24 August 1945 – 4 November 2020