Oh, what a great look into the past this one is. Once again, it shows you that this band should have been inducted in the Rock`n`roll Hall of Fame a long time ago. Yeah, I know I always nag about this, but this band was one of the four most important bands of the early 70s, along with Purple, Sabbath and Zeppelin. Still touring and largely influential with a great catalog of songs that will stand the test of time. I know that Lee Kerslake is seriously ill at the time of writing this, and it would have been nice for him and the other members to be recognised for what they have given the world of rock.
What the fuck are the Hall of Fame waiting for?
Into the abattoir with Heep
Rob Mackie snaps his fingers and Uriah Heep jump, (well almost). The lava spewing valium tablet in the human form of Uriah Heep recently visited Chicago and Cleveland. Here Rob gives us a bird`s eye view of the concerts and talks to Mick Box, the world`s only one-armed guitarist (almost)
“I`m Richard, your chauffeur. Snap your fingers, I`ll jump.”
Everyone in the car snaps their fingers, but the driver remains fixed in his seat, a large jowl topped off with a shiny cap. His pronouncement interrupts a flood of Monty Pythonic exclamations from Uriah Heep drummer Lee Kerslake, seemingly a spontaneous reaction at seeing an English face in the back of the big black limo at Chicago airport.
Kerslake slumps down in the back seat. An absurd blue cap picked up somewhere along the tour is pulled firmly down over his eyes. Ken Hensley, the Heep keyboard man and guitarist, sprawls in the front seat, all flowing hair and patched denim, providing the perfect contrast to the sombreness of the traditional Big Black car and its close-shorn driver.
The pair eye Chicago with something approaching fondness – one of the places where the Heep has traditionally been able to snap its collective fingers and have everybody jumping. A place where the audience expects commitment and vigour, and is no slouch at giving it back. The sort of city that a real road band looks forward to in the midst of a return US tour after a year`s absence. Not so very long ago, Uriah Heep were placed down bill to T. Rex here – a teaming which in Chicago eyes is not far away from putting Jimi Hendrix on before the Monkees. The support band did three encores. The headliners earned a cornucopia of raspberries, and have not been seen around these parts since.
Not that Chicago is anybody`s idea of a picnic. David Byron has met with a stabbing attempt here a couple of years back, and another time, guitarist Mick Box was due to meet a friend who was White Trash`s drummer, in a Chicago club. The meeting never took place, because the drummer, got involved in an argument, and was killed stone dead by three swift karate chops. Accordingly, a quartet of burly locals is added to the party for Chicago. As singer David Byron puts it: “If they like you here, they`re the best audience in the world. If they don`t like you, better look out.”
The first port of call, after a quick stop off at the hotel, is a bizarre trip to a gigantic suburban shopping centre called Randhurst, for a `personal appearance` number. The band is met at the door by the manager, a bulbous extremely nervous man of a sweaty disposition, wearing a white top hat for the occasion, and a troupe of shop security men dressed like park rangers in Yogi Bear. By now, even the security men have a security man.)
The highpoint of this traditional American mixture of show biz, shop biz and politics, comes when the band is ushered on to a specially erected stage in the centre of the main thoroughfare, to be gawped at by a few autograph hunters, and a majority who look ready for the members to start juggling or balancing circus balls on their noses.
Ladies and gentlemen, Uriah HEEP!”, the manager says into a microphone. A smattering of applause is followed by renewed two-way gawps. Photos are taken. Autographs are signed. Box repeats the tale of how he broke his arm for the umptundreth time. Bassist John Wetton, now a fully-fledged Heep of six months, is hanging around the edge, nursing a stomach ache. Someone thrusts towards him one of the Uriah Heep photos being distributed.
Almost inevitably, it`s at least a year old, and features his predecessor, Gary Thain slap bang in the middle.
Wetton groans quitely. “After four years of looking at Ric Grech and Greg Lake, now I`m Gary Thain.” He looks as if he may be trying to imagine how Robert Fripp would disport himself on a stage in the centre of a supermarket.
Eventually, the party of people and protectors is led downstairs to a tiny clothing store, where they are allowed to meet the plebs in a somewhat less conspicuous way, and sign some more autographs. The band is allowed out, but not before the shop manager has taken the microphone for an exceptionally tedious speech, which eventually rambles around to the fact that there will be Uriah Heep T-shirts in stock the following week. “Which you`ll give away free!”, Byron shouts. “Well, er, yes of course”, the manager mumbles. By this time, Box has sensibly Sellotaped a note to the plaster on his right arm: `I fell off the stage`.
Back to the air-conditioned limos, bearing the spoils of war. Hensley has been presented with a large and useless key “for services to music”, mounted on a wood plaque. Kerslake, no shrinking violet, emerges with seven free shirts. “I earned them” he says shaking his autograph wrist painfully…
By the time of the concert, one of the shirts has found its way on to the back of one of the security men, who struts it around like it was a policeman`s badge. True to Chicago`s heavy reputation, the concert hall has also served its time as an abattoir and animal market. In earlier days the Heep played a splendid small hall in another part of the city. Now, economics demand the sacrifice of acoustic niceties in order to house the 15,000 in a near sell-out audience in the big barn called The Amphitheatre.
The full-throated roar that greets Heep`s arrival brings back to mind the pathetic Village-green-cricket applause accorded to this afternoon`s supermarket superstars.
Like their last album title, Heep going back on the road is a return to fantasy, and their fantasy is hitting this audience right there, where it hurts, which is what this crowd loves.
Visually, Heep are clearcut and straight to the point. Hensley tilts his organ in front of him, throws his waist length hair back like a brunette Wakeman. He`s wearing white boots, as absurdly long as his hair, so that the two almost meet.
Behind him is the beefy Kerslake, laying down the heavy Heep drum sound that`s always been a trademark. In front of him, Wetton, serious in black at one side of the stage, and the amiable Box on the other, plaster limb and all. Between the two, and just about everywhere else on the stage at one time or another, Byron struts flits and poses his way unashamedly through the set.
Aside from the unrelenting din of early Heep, it was probably Byron`s stage presence that led the critics to lambast the group so unmercifully. He`s playing the pop star every minute of the set. If pulling his shirt over one shoulder gets a few squeals, he`ll do it; if rolling on the floor is a crowd pleaser, he`ll do that. The more the older element cringe, the more the kids love it.
“We just want to be where it`s all going on / But tell me what do you do when it`s over and everyone who loved you is gone? / You`re just another prima donna of rock`n`roll / So please let me know when you want me to go.”
`Prima Donna` perfectly sums up Byron and this Chicago audience, playing the church to Heep`s steeple. And of course they don`t want them to go. Ever. It`s an impressive tribute to the band`s popularity that the crowd sings the `rock and roll` part of the chorus without prompting, although the song`s a new one-off `Return To Fantasy`.
Most of the songs are current, although some old favourites like `Stealin` and `July Morning` – an impressive song reminiscent of Vanilla Fudge – survive. The addition of Wetton has broadened out the band`s sound a lot: his bass playing was always firm but fluid, and the band now has four vocalists, well used on the likes of `Primma Donna`.
Not that Heep are going subtle, but there are signs that they`re moving away from their old unenviable reputation as the Peter Storeys of Rock. And it is odd how numbers like `Shady Lady`, which come over as almost unlistenable on the album, suit a time and a place like this so well that you find your legs going up and down like they`re supposed to do on such occasions.
They do stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood, as Shakespeare used to put it, particularly on `Easy Livin`, another big crowd-pleaser out here in the mid-West. It has Kerslake doing his menacing immovable-object drumming, and Byron and Wetton duelling up front, one in black and one white, like good and evil. Heep set a fast pace for themselves and live up to it. The end roar is even louder than the beginning one, and it`s filled out with explosions and the eternal matches.
For Chicago, the crowd seems unusually well-behaved, which could have something to do with around 200 plain-clothes security men being posted out-front. It`s a success, and over dinner the band`s manager Gerry Bron is going over some impressive figures. In one city, he says, they`re outselling Clapton three to one.
The Heep`s hotel bookings always include a Mr. Loon, whose room is available for anyone who feels like partying. In Chicago, everyone feels like partying.
Next day, people are a little clumsy. Settling themselves on to the plane for Cleveland, everyone manages to bump their heads on the overhead luggage compartment. Kerslake does it twice, and gets his own back, by planting a firm header into it, just like he was nutting an enemy on Sauchiehall Street. Wetton whiles away the hour`s flight leafing through a few Press cuttings. He pauses in amazement over a piece in Cashbox, which, underneath the obligatory picture of Heep with Thain, proclaims: “In the case of Uriah Heep, critics less attuned to pulverising lead riffs, finely sculptured keyboard runs and the overall subtlety of a train wreck, have been prone to dismiss the band as a lava spewing valium tablet in human form”.
Today`s gig for the lava spewing valium tablet is at a huge stadium, peopled on other days by the Cleveland Indians baseball team. It`s a one-day festival in which Heep is the penultimate band, sandwiched between Aerosmith and the Faces. A hot muddy day out, especially for the people on the pitch, and something to follow, because Aerosmith are a fast-rising band with a current Top 30 album and get a great reception.
Byron is expounding on the Heep philosophy: “Some other bands get up there and say `Come on and love us`, you know, but with us, we force `em along all the time, and make bloody sure they love us.”
It`s a big day for the band, and a specially big day for Hensley, who is celebrating his 30th birthday and the finalising of his divorce. He celebrates onstage, by dropping a cup of orange juice on to one of Kerslake`s cymbals during `Sweet Rain`. Appropriately, Kerslake gets drenched in stickiness.
At Cleveland, The band is more obviously enjoying itself onstage, looking a little less tense, and, as far as can be heard, playing better. In particular, Mick Box, whose playing is severely hampered by his plaster, is missing very little on guitar. `Shady Lady` (a pretty heavy song, if you listen to the lyrics) goes down well. `Prima Donna` gets the same audience response as before, but with around four times as many people out there, the effect is magnified.
Hensley weaves some intricate synthisiser through `Return To Fantasy`, like a `75 version of Telstar`, and Byron comments: “If you can figure out what the lyrics are about then tell me, because I wrote them and I haven`t got a fucking clue”.
Everyone`s enjoying themselves. Wetton`s sweating like a pig, and Box gets so carried away he`s slapping one hand against his cast in the clapalong part. Only afterwards does the pain show through on his face.
`Gypsy` is a good closer, with its slow, insidious drum part creating a mesmeric effect after a while. The audience is up, and Heep end their encore by kicking huge balloons with `THE END printed on them out into the audience.
The contrast is interesting: Aerosmith, the up-and-coming new band followed by Uriah Heep who came close to dying the death and are now showing signs of being on the verge of their most interesting period, and then the Faces.
Despite their augmenting, including what on this occasion looked at a glance like two Tetsus (the other one was Jesse Ed Davis), the Faces, to judge from the first six or seven numbers of their set, are on their last legs – a fine band degenerated to a very sloppy standard. Sad.
And Rod seemed to have more make-up on than Britt Ekland. But he should worry. Waylaid at the hotel, in the general area of Hensley`s birthday table, he said: “I`ve got the No 1 single and album after five days. Not bad eh”. Which seems to sum up the Faces future. Even the band`s roadies were all wearing `Atlantic Crossing T-shirts.
With America`s second favourite couple in the hotel (after Gregg and Cher, that is), things were bound to be a little more packed with post-concert hangers-on than usual. Like the guy who approached some Heep members having a quiet drink at the bar with a paranoid expression, demanding: “What`s the matter with the girls at that table then? Are they ugly? Why are you all sitting up here? I mean, look at them, are those ugly girls?” Ah the perils of stardom.
Box was already beginning to regret the promise of putting a few words down on tape. “Yeah, anytime Rob. I`ll just have a few drinks.” “Yeah, sure I`ll just go and have one with Kenny.” We finally sat down with the infernal machine at lunch-time on the following day, and so, the last words on the tour from the world`s only one-armed guitarist (almost).
“John joining the group has made a big difference. I think it speaks for itself when we get up there. Towards the end of the old group, things were getting pretty bad, mostly from a morale point of view. There were four people who wanted to really pull all the stops out and work and work, but Gary couldn`t do too much because of his state of health and a lot of personal problems, so we were just going downhill as a band, it was very frustration. In the end we just had to sever that, because we are a terribly hard-working band; that`s our commitment to life at the moment.
ON THE WAY
“I was a bit worried about this tour, but it`s been fine, just like back to square one, the audiences are still just as good; and the tour is selling the album here. Just since we started this tour, it`s shot up to around the sixties with a bullet, so it`s well on its way. We`ll get another gold album if it kills us, which it probably will.
“Now with John, the numbers and ideas are coming out at a rate of knots, it`s ridiculous. From all of us. So now we just go into the rehearsal room with our little box of gems, and say `What do you think of that one?` and then jam off it.
“Yeah, the arm does hurt a bit sometimes, and I go a bit white at the gills, but it was a choice of going on with a little bit of pain or sitting at home getting fidgety with an arm in cement, doing nothing.”