A long talk-in with a great musician, songwriter and all-round nice man. A pity that some of the music press at the time didn`t understand or appreciate Heep. What a great band they were (and still are).
Have a nice, long read.
Ken Hensley Talk-In
Interview: Pete Erskine
The house shudders, the window panes rattle and the coal shifts in the grate. BOAC flight 701 is thundering over Ken Hensley`s roof top, annihilating the sound of his voice completely. The house, you`ll note, is the true rock and roller`s haven – 10 feet away from a main road that appears to be a truck drivers` drag strip, and a few hundred yards from the end of one of Heathrow`s favourite runways; as the `planes` approach you can check out the fillings in the pilots teeth.
In these tranquil rural environs Ken Hensley sits and writes songs in a large dog eared black book and on a bulky grand piano that takes up over half of the front room.
Considering, or in spite of the stick Uriah Heep have taken from the critics, Hensley is a remarkably positive and optimistic sort of person. Where he would be justified in approaching an interview sourly, using it as a mouthpiece for bitterness he would be justified in feeling, he prefers – naturally – just to take things easy;
I can`t remember a more enjoyable afternoon, anyway. Mr. Hensley is a thoroughly likeable person.
How do you feel about the continuing gap between Uriah Heep, your fans and the music press? In some ways it seems even more pronounced than that, say, of Black Sabbath.
I only get upset by the press if they write something which obviously isn`t true or which obviously isn`t an observation, it`s just an opinion…
Surely that`s all you can really give anyway, isn`t it?
No, you see I`m speaking in particular reference to a review of the Alexandra Palace concert. I`m not mentioning any names, or the name of the magazine or anything, but there were two guys there from this magazine that reviewed it and they begun by saying that what we were making was some sort of indefinable noise so that they said they couldn`t hear anything, they couldn`t tell what anything was, they didn`t know which song was which, and later on in the review they mentioned the fact that we played three or four songs from the new album and mentioned them each by name. I don`t see how they can have picked out what songs they were if they were listening to a noise. And then they made no mention of the fact that the audience was really up for it.
You know, it`s been like that all the way through our time because we`ve had to accept… listen, I like reading the press because you usually think that the people in the press are a little bit more knowledgeable about music than the general public that come to a concert, so sometimes they can be very constructive and very helpful.
But if you get 10,000 people jumping up and down in their seats appreciating you and then you get two people from the newspapers saying it was a bunch of crap without qualifying it at all. Fundamentally it`s the audience we have to please so we try and get as much feedback from them as we can.
I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, though, and in our case I like to think that maybe the press was trying to see if we could prove ourselves and withstand the sort of pressure we were under.
We knew fairly early on that it was going to be a hard struggle to convince anyone that we had something valid to say, but we set our minds to doing it rather than be set back by it… by the reviews we were getting. I think that the general sway which happened about 15 months ago from being so disastrously destructive towards the band happened about the time Gary and Lee joined the band and the time we did what I think was our first really good album, and to date probably still our best album – “Demons And Wizards” – when things started to happen for us in America it all started to take a change for the better. But, just because of that, I wouldn`t like to see anybody give us a good review if we`ve done a bad show, `cos you always know if you`ve done a good or bad show.
Do you think that`s so really? As a musician you may feel you haven`t played your best, but it still might`ve been a great show?
Yeah, but at the same time you still know purely through the atmosphere in the hall whether you`ve actually got through to the people or not. And because we`ve had to listen to audiences right from the word go – because of the press thing we`ve had to concentrate especially on what audiences have enjoyed or not enjoyed, so we`re pretty certain now whether we`ve made them happy or not.
Have the critics ever influenced you in the recording of albums, though? I mean, if they`ve pointed out what they might think is a fault are you conscious of that when you go in to cut a subsequent album?
Over the years I guess that through the criticism we`ve received in the press and through the way audiences bought albums and the way they respond to certain songs in live shows we`ve been able to assess where our strongest points are, although I still have a great desire to experiment musically, you know. I`ve got a load of different ideas that I want to try, it`s just a question of getting the time to try them and feeding them in gently.
But, if anything, that level of criticism and the audience feedback has probably helped us when we`re recording because we`ve gone in with a preconstructed idea of what`s going to be best for us to and what we ought to leave alone. I mean, if we went in the studio and did an acoustic album it`d probably be the end of the band – as much as we`d like to do something like that, we don`t have the license to do it…
Yes, because your solo album is something quite different, isn`t it?
Oh yeah, it`s a complete change. Because it`s a solo album it`s only one person you`re really listening to. I would never classify anything that the band did to a song, say, as interference, but you always get a certain amount of interpretation lost as you give it to four other people, so there`s got to be a very clear distinction about the sort of things that the band can do and the sort of things that they can`t do – or shouldn`t be asked to do, that sounds better – and having made that distinction now it`s possible for me to reserve a certain amount of material or write a song and know that it`s got to stay in the book until such times as I get to record it myself.
Does that happen more or less as time goes on – the thing that the group has a certain sound or identity, that audiences become more cemented in their tastes, making it harder to digress a bit, or is it easier because they`ve accepted you?
It`s both. It`s harder and it`s easier. That sounds like a weird way of answering the question, but it`s true. In some ways it`s harder because there are always things they want to hear and in other ways it`s easier because you`ve got such a degree of recognition that it does allow you a little license to play around. What I`ve tried to do when I`m writing is just to try feeding in something a bit different in a small way so that you`re not suddenly thirsting half an album on an audience that they`re not familiar with. It would be totally unfair and unrealistic to do that, but nevertheless the desire to change is always there and the desire to progress, so if you`ve gotta take people with you then you`ve gotta consider both things. You`ve got to consider your own musical ambitions and co-relate them with what you know an audience has in it`s mind preconceived that you`re going to play.
Did your own album – “Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf” – come about because you wanted an outlet for different material or was there also a part of you that wanted to show people that the band contained other facets? I mean, will the others follow suit?
Yeah. There are plans in the works at the moment for David to do an album and I`ve got another one all ready to do – which I hope`ll be a very distinct progression from the first one because as I said it`s a great medium for trying out musical ideas.
The first one was really basically what you said – it was an outlet for a surplus of material which wasn`t right for the band, and, at the same time, I can`t deny the fact that it did give me a chance to muck around in the studio as much as I wanted – playing all those things, and just creating songs from the beginning to the very end. It does help you to prove to yourself whether you`re going in the right direction musically or not -and from a composing point of view. It`s always nice to be reassured and that first album served as some kind of reassurance and, having established a precedent with it, I`m hoping to use the next one to air all these different musical opinions.
It`s much better that way than having to come to grief through the band. In other words trying to force all these opinions on the others and when there are five people each has his right to twenty per cent say. Even when I take a song to the band, it changes drastically, in some cases, from the way I originally wrote it.
On “Sweet Feeling” there`s a song called “If I Had The Time” and I could play you – in fact I think I will – I`ll play you the tape of the original demo that I did of that and then play the way we did it, and that`s the sort of thing that the band does to songs.
You know I can take – I don`t like to admit it, but in some cases the songs might be mediocre, but I can take an average song to the group and they`ll turn it into a really good song. So, that`s the value of having four other people around who`ve got something very positive to say musically – and something very positive to add to what`s basically just a very fundamental idea.
It must be good also because ideas you might get doing solo work can reflect back for the benefit of the group.
Oh yeah. That`s what I say. If I go into the studio and do this other album which I`m hoping is going to be fairly soon, before I start writing another one – and that goes for the chop – if I go in and do that and some of the things come off the way I think they`re going to then it could be instrumental in helping the band to go forward. This is what David will do with his album.
It`ll be great… practice, no, that`s probably the wrong word, but it conveys what I`m trying to say, it will be great practice for him as a singer to go into a studio and do somebody else`s songs, and do them in a totally different way and get into a totally different atmosphere from that with the band.
But everybody`s basic thing is to keep Uriah Heep together as long as we can and exploit it as fully as possible and if we do these other little things on the side, without being detrimental to the band`s progress, then they`ll help, I`m sure they will.
I`ve got plans to do this album with Mike Gibbs and use some small and relatively unusual line-ups on it. Mike did all the arrangements for Mike Maran`s album and I went down to play synthesiser on one track and met him, listened to some of the arrangements he`d done and they were really impressive, so my first thought – with the sort of material I had written for it – was to see if I could get to work with him. He`s the sort of guy I could learn a lot from without actually sitting down and being taught. It will be good experience for me. I want the album to be really different. I want to experiment, although I obviously won`t go too far astray because I`m the sort of person that likes to stray fairly close to the line.
I like the tried and tested path, but there`s something inside me that wants to go off at a tangent every now and then, and if you haven`t got an outlet for that it can get frustrating, but fortunately I`m working with a decent bunch of people and I`m allowed to do it, which is great. I could see it getting very ugly if I was in the sort of situation where they said “No you can`t do that” but there`s never been that sort of situation; it`s always been just ideal.
Does writing come easily, then?
Yeah. When I started writing I kind of started writing because it was in the days when, if you went to a record company they`d insist that you`d have something original to record, so it was all just a question of finding a “B” side in those days. I can remember the first song that I wrote was just really written so that we had an original “B” side and from then on it came fairly regularly and I found that the quality of the songs was improving and that`s something I`m always trying to watch `cos if they keep on getting better then I`m happy you know.
I listen to them all really carefully even before I let anyone else hear them and now I find I can write – especially getting used to writing on the road has helped a lot, I find I can write on the road as easily as when I`m here now. In fact all the stuff for my next album and a lot of the things I`ve put together for the band`s next album were actually written during the last tour and pieced together in my hotel room. I was carrying a little electric piano around, and me guitars, so that helped.
This (he says, indicating a battered black book of approximately the same dimensions as a telephone directory) was all stuff that was written on the last tour. I usually take a new book out on the road each time we go. Thoughts come in weird places – in planes and cars – and if I`ve got the book I can just scribble them down.
That`s odd – in contrast to someone like Roy Wood who says that the only time he can write is if he shuts himself away in his home.
Well, they come to me in the strangest places – showers… it`s really weird… have you ever tried writing under a shower?
I sat here this afternoon. I had a Beach Boys tape on and I had an idea for a song and it didn`t disturb me at all. I was writing away, concentrating on what I was doing and I just wasn`t aware of what was going on around me although I could`ve been… I mean Shirley was vacuuming and the Beach Boys were pounding away on the sound system.
I suppose I`ve got used to writing on the road because I`ve had no choice for three years – because that`s where we were at the beginning.
It must be nice to lock yourself away for n. months but we`re never off the road that long.
Are lyrics very important to the band or are they about equal to the importance of the music?
Well, it`s difficult to say, onstage, because one of the criticisms we`ve always received has been that, you know, our lyrics have been inaudible, but I don`t believe that`s true because it`s something we check on very carefully. You know we periodically get people to go out front and check the sound system and our overall volume to make sure we`re not obscuring things because if you sit down and spend a day writing a song with very careful words and everything in it, the last thing you want is for the band to go out and play so loud that all that hard work gets thrown down the drain.
We pay attention to lyrics at least as equally as we pay attention to music; in most cases I`d say more so. Ever since I first got introduced to the Beatles type of music and to Paul McCartney – his songwriting in particular has made me feel that lyrics are very important and I`ve therefore always tried to make them as refined as possible, at the same time not forgetting that it`s important for audiences to be able to relate to the substance of the song; the other dividing line I have is the everyday social comment type situation without trying to be too philosophical and then there`s the “Demons And Wizards” type thing which is pure imagination and which is on a different level for an audience…
I`ve seen somewhere that some sort of cult thing has grown up – especially in the States – around “Demons And Wizards”. Is this so?
Well, I suppose when you write on a subject like that, that`s so broad, it`s obvious that some people are going to interpret it the wrong way. I mean, there`s a definite meaning there.
It started with the “Wizard”, which was a dream, a recurring dream that I got so pissed off with seeing every night that I decided to put it down on paper, and then a lot of things came up like that, and there were “Rainbow”, “Demons”, “Circle Of Hands” which people chose to connect with black magic. I mean if I had the time to get into black magic, I don`t think I would… in fact, I`m such an optimist as to believe that it doesn`t actually exist, but people chose to interpret it that way and we started receiving our blueprints for spaceships and loony phone calls and it just got terribly out of hand.
At one point, early on in this last tour of America I managed to attract all the loonies there are in North America I think. I have to be the one person in the band to attract all the idiots… all the lunatics. They all come knocking on my door, handing me crushed up flowers… I could go into it for hours.
It`s mainly in the States though?
Yeah, it is `cos I mean they`re the sort of people to get into things more heavily. I`ve had letters from all over the world like that, but they have got a tendency those people, to get into things like that and to choose to interpret things their own way and if someone`s going to be fanatical about something I reckon they`re probably the most fanatical people.
I`ve tried to deny it all as emphatically as possible without, in another sense, putting the music down because people are justified in their own personal interpretations. It`ll die out in time, though…
But then it`s a compliment to you and the band that people have found so much depth in what you`re doing.
Well, yeah, but it isn`t the sort of depth I wanted them to find, but at least they`ve listened. Myself, though, I prefer to put the “Magicians Birthday” and stuff like that on a level with Alice in Wonderland or something. I know that might sound a little pretentious, but what I`m trying to say is that Alice was a product of somebody`s imagination, purely, it doesn`t relate to anything tangible at all, and that`s how those songs arose.
Have you ever picked up any ideas like that from books, though? Books like that?
No. I have got a very strong imagination, and if you have got a very strong imagination you can play all sorts of games with it, and because it`s so strong and so colourful I don`t see the harm in using it, `cos every now and then to just get away from reality without actually losing touch that it`s there and you`ve got to go back to it eventually I don`t think does anybody any harm. It`s a nice rest and a bit of relaxation for the mind.
It must be the same with artists – those who paint landscapes and those who sit and paint something they see in their mind.
I mean, to give you a further example, I have something written for the next solo album which is a story made up on a sequence of events taking place in the lives of three people and I`ve never seen these three people and I`ve certainly never witnessed the things happening that go on in the three songs.
When you were younger did you ever want to write a book or poetry?
Yes, I always wanted to write a book. I didn`t start writing poetry until about five years ago. I always wanted to write a book, but… my mind works in such a strange way. I never read any books. I`m a terrible reader. I`ll read as many books about motor racing as I can lay my hands on but I won`t sit down and read a serious novel or anything like that and so my mind said to me that I wasn`t entitled to write a book because I`d never read any; so I was never entitled to ask other people to read mine.
I have to justify it to myself. I think that after a few more years on the road I`ll certainly have a lot to write about so I`ll look forward to it.
That would be good. There`s usually a need for a good book about bands touring and the whole folklore thing about “being on the road”.
First hand, yeah. There are lots of aspects about being on the road that I think people don`t know about, or don`t begin to understand… there was one particular event we saw in New York when we were coming back from rehearsing the “In Concert” programme and we all witnessed something absolutely and terribly bizarre which is not printable and I remember Gary saying to me in the car “Wow, I think I`ll quit now, there`s just nothing left to see”.
Actually, that`s an impression I have of the band – that you all actually enjoy the lifestyle of being on the road – I mean, apart from playing and everything.
Actually, in the beginning it`s something we had to enjoy, or give up. We went out on the road so much then. After a while we started to go a bit mad and then that`s when I got sick so we realised that there was a limit. According to how tours are organised it can be real good fun or it can be a real drag and I think that if you had the commonsense to sit down well in advance and work it out properly – plus if you`ve enough status to organise it that way, then life on the road can be really good fun. I know I miss it. At the beginning of a tour we`re just like a bunch of kids.
We`re adamant about working hard. We know what we`ll be doing for the next twelve months, but also we have to take more time off than we used to, for all these various constructive reasons… and the fact that when you attain a certain status it has to be a slight mystique thing – it creates itself – and you have to maintain that too. It`s sometimes as good for you, and people… and business for you to stay away from a place as to go there.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Dicky Betts (Allman Brothers), Alvin Lee and Mylon Lefevre, Humble Pie, Wishbone Ash, Michael Chapman, Ringo Starr, Neil Innes, Genesis, Refugee, Steve Tilston, Groundhogs, Mike Heron.
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