As one of those people that like and respect the music and the people in Uriah Heep, but without going complete fan-boy and doing research on every little tidbit of their career, I think this interview was really great as there was a lot of things about their early years that I didn`t know – until now. Mick Box says in this interview that he likes to go home and sleep in his own bed – well, considering their hectic activity, still touring all over the world, he has spent less time in his own bed than most people. His bed-bugs are assured to die between every visit home.
Cheers to the man and the band for keeping the flame alive!
Mick Box in the talk-in
by Ray Hammond
Uriah Heep. A misunderstood band in this country, a band who have found such success in the States and in Europe that they haven`t really had the time to correct their British image. They arrived in the 1969 to 1970 period which was remarkable for the rise of the “heavies” such as Purple and Sabbath and to many people`s minds they play loud, heavy music and that`s that. But the band today is far, far more musical than the band which recorded “Very `Eavy, Very `Umble”, back in 1969. Perhaps the man who governs the direction most is guitarist and singer Mick Box and the opportunity of a Talk In with him gave me the opportunity to discover exactly the genealogy behind both the band and the super-fast guitar style of the man.
Can you remember what was the very first music you ever heard?
Oh dear, hang on. Yes, the first thing that actually stuck in my brain was the Buddy Holly era. I don`t even remember a particular tune, just that whole thing. I was knocked out with the sound. I liked the way he sung and it was different to anything else. That was a stage I was going through when I used to stand in the front room miming with a tennis racket.
So you knew that it was a guitar that you wanted to learn to play?
Yes, most definitely, there was nothing else.
How long after that did you actually get your first guitar?
It must have been about a year after that I got this little ukelele `cos I thought it was a cheap guitar, I was a bit dumb. I knocked out a few little tunes on that which was fun and then I wanted to get the proper thing so I got a £12 10s. guitar called a Telston, or something like that, and that was from the pawnbrokers.
So when you switched from Uke to proper guitar you had to learn some new chords?
Ukelele chords are like shortened guitar chords, you know chords with just two fingers and I got a few little books that showed me the chords and I picked up a few things from there. I thought well I`ve got to go further than this so I tried to learn songs from records. That didn`t work at all. I couldn`t get it to sound like the music at all so I started going to a guitar teacher.
I went to him for about a couple of months and he was a bit of a con merchant. He used to give me things to play and I had to go away and learn to play the thing in a week. But within half an hour I could play it to him, it did help in as much as he showed me the basic formation of chords with tonic thirds and fifths and I suppose he was really helpful in just being someone to report to.
After I got fed up with him I didn`t know who to turn to so I just used to plonk away at home and with my knowledge of chord formation I was able to build my own chords.
So you still couldn`t get anything from records?
No, but the first thing I eventually got from records actually shaped my whole technique. I tried to copy a record by Les Paul and Mary Ford. I didn`t know anything about recording at all, nothing. His whole sound is a speeded up guitar sound and he`d play, in rough terms, something at 16 r.p.m. and speed it up to 45 and then put it out as a record.
I used to try and copy him at that speed and in actual fact I kept on plugging away at that record. I think it was “Nola,” and eventually, I got it at the right speed and so I got on into a fast technique thing. After that I started getting into jazz players like Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel.
Well soon after this period I formed my own band. That was just a local band that I formed with guys I`d heard of from the same area. We played the local youth clubs for six bottles of coke and that sort of fee. I remember our first paid gig. I think we got ten bob. That was very much the front room rehearsal scene and it was really a good era.
The band was playing what sort of music?
I think it was just before the Stones happened and we were into Buddy Holly music and Elvis` stuff. Our lead singer could only sing rock so we bashed that out all night. I think I must have been about 13 at this time so we were pretty young. All the music like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” is based on the 12-bar format and that also gave us a chance to do a few lead breaks because you don`t have to think too heavily.
What did you call the band you had at that time?
We were called the Stalkers, and that was for both reasons because we wanted the women as well, you see.
How long did the Stalkers last?
It lasted a good few years because we started to get £15 gigs, and all that and we thought “amazing” and we were really pleased. We started playing the Marquee and that was really the big time for us and just before we made the Marquee we realised we needed a new vocalist because the other guy just wasn`t up to it and our drummer`s cousin was David Byron who`s our singer now and he suggested that this guy David might be suitable and that was the start of a partnership that has taken us right through `till now.
The auditions we had at that time were so silly, we just said: “What do you know” and if he knew “Blue Suede Shoes”, we said: “OK sing it.” So we settled on David.
Where did the band go to from the Marquee?
From there we thought we wanted a change and David and myself wanted a change, we wanted to go professional. I was working as a clerk in an export office. I was determined to be professional.
It must have been a big decision.
David was a bit unsure because packing up and going pro meant that we were going to lose two members because they wanted to go through with their apprenticeships. We struggled a long while when we first went pro and we spent a year just writing songs together.
It proved a lot harder than we thought to get the right musicians and we finally got Paul Newton who was in this band and we got in a drummer and we called ourselves Spice.
So this was in fact the beginning of the band that`s now Uriah Heep?
Yeah, we started doing all the clubs after a period of a year with no work.
How did you live through that year?
For the first six months I did things like potato picking, get up at six in the morning and worked all through the day and get about £2 a week for it. I washed down shop windows and signs, cut someone`s lawn, anything to get money going and get through a week. It was just a struggle for ourselves and in the end we ended up going on the dole for six months.
They kept sending us for jobs and they`d tell us to go on the ninth for an interview and we`d turn up on the 19th and swear that we`d seen a one in front of the nine on the piece of paper with the instructions on it and of course they would immediately consider us unsuitable.
I also used to go down the dole in the bizarre clothes like pyjamas and jumpers with huge holes in the sleeves and I`d do anything not to get a job. I did that for six months and in the end I couldn`t keep a straight face.
We eventually got a drummer called Alex Napier in on drums and we started doing some clubs and being picked up by a few agents. A guy who helped us out a lot was Neil Warnock. He worked for an agency called Southbank and he managed us for a while.
What sort of material was Spice doing?
Well to get work in those days you couldn`t do what you wanted to. You had to remember that people wanted to hear certain things and you just had to play them. We tried to get away from playing all the run of the mill stuff and we used to dig out old Joe Tex things and numbers like that which went down very well.
We never did the top twenty stuff, we used to spend hours in record shops digging out obscure numbers to play. I remember finding Donnie Elbert`s “Little Bit Of Leather” and songs like that.
Did you put any soul in the act at that time?
Well soul was the thing at that time and we used to do some as a kind of a mickey take thing with dance routines. Then we started to get into an improvisation kick and we started to play our own numbers on stage.
I remember that it was difficult for a band to play their own numbers on stage at that time?
Yeah it was murder. We got to a point where we were digging up all these old numbers and we thought we could write numbers just as good. At that time we couldn`t actually, but at least we were attempting it. So we started sticking in a few originals and they seemed to be getting the same reaction so we gained a little confidence.
About what year would this have been?
I think it was about 1967. It was during that year that we started doing our own numbers on stage and we did more and more of them until the whole set was just our own numbers.
What sort of clubs were you doing then?
We were doing the Marquee, college dates, the Red Lions, the Wake Arms, Epping, this sort of thing.
This was about the time of the start of the underground movement?
Yes very much so, I think we were one of the first bands to get a little bit indulgent in as much as I used to go and do a guitar solo for 15 minutes on stage with the rest of the band going off and at that stage nobody around was doing that.
I think we were carving our own little niche then but we kept to the format that we used with this band that you can afford to be really heavy and exciting but still retain lot of harmony and melody with it and that`s what we were trying to do then. We`re still doing that.
On stage five of us sing and normally with all that power going on you get just one guy out front who`s singing.
How long did Spice last under that name?
It ended at the end of 1969. Gerry Bron came to see us working at the Blues Loft, High Wycombe, and we`d heard that Gerry was a good straight manager so we`d invited him to come down. He thought we had it all there potentially, musically and so on but he knew there was something missing. So did we but we didn`t know what, we didn`t know where to turn.
So he took us under his wing, he didn`t sign us or anything and he gave us a few pilot gigs to see if we were good enough, whether we`d turn up on time, if we were reliable or if we were temperamental. So he tried us out for a long while and then he slung us in the studio with a couple of our own numbers, just to try and find out our direction.
We`d never been in the studio before except for a few demo sessions and we went in and what we came out with wasn`t very impressive at all – in fact, we still listen to the tape we made on that session now, just for a laugh. Gerry was knocked out with the enthusiasm and the will to get on and he stuck with us. Then we started to record our first album.
Was this the album that eventually came out as “Very `Eavy.”?
Yeah and it was during that we discovered what the missing link was we needed a keyboard player, and another voice. Our bass player used to play with a band called the Gods and another ex-God was Ken Hensley who was playing at that time with a band called Toe Fat.
We approached Kenny and he agreed to come down to Hanwell Community centre and have a blow. We just played for a while and we realised it was going to work. In addition to playing keyboards he could also play guitar, write songs and sing and this was just what we needed. So we started recording that band.
The album came out a long while after you recorded it didn`t it?
Yeah, that was the drag, because when that album came out it was obsolete for the band because we`d moved so fast we were already into other material.
It did a lot of good for you that album, though, didn`t it?
It did more good for us on the Continent actually, it was OK here, but they really picked up on it.
When was the period that the band actually started to break?
We got the Uriah Heep name from Gerry. The band came to him in the centenary year of Dicken`s death or something and we picked up on a bit of publicity. We`d been thinking of all different names for the band like your Corrugated Dandruff and Clockwork Doughnut and it was nice to find a name that had a bit of a story behind it.
We got all that dealt with and we were doing some pilot gigs in England getting new gear worked in and then we were slung over to be on a festival in Hamburg in Germany and we were first on the bill. We steamed in there and they gave us an ovation and they wanted an encore which wasn`t bad for a band there for the first time.
There were a lot of influential promoters backstage who all saw it and they started booking us on German tours and things, which was beautiful and the Germans really started plugging for us. In six months we were over there six times on various tours.
The album started going in the charts; it snowballed for us there.
How did the band come to go to the States?
Well we were very successful in Germany and it was slowly happening here, it was very slow but it was still going. We were having a lot of bad press which may have been right or may have been wrong. I don`t know, but it never concerned us that much because we were still going along to gigs and each time we went we got bigger crowds and we always got encores. We just hoped that the press thing would swing round which luckily it has done.
We thought, States, OK. Let`s go there.
We went over there as a support band playing 30 or 45 minutes just to get experience and it`s the first time we`d ever played before 20,000 people. It was like the Blues Loft, High Wycombe to the Los Angeles Forum, it was ridiculous.
What was the States audience reaction like?
It was interesting, it wasn`t brilliant but it was interesting. Three Dog Night wasn`t exactly our crowd. At the end of the tour we found there was enough reaction to go back and do another tour and then we toured with Deep Purple and Buddy Miles which really broke us out there.
Do you enjoy playing the States more than anywhere else?
I enjoy playing there but there`s no where like home, is there? Up the M1, play the gigs and then you can go home to your own bed.
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: Frankie Miller, Wishbone Ash, Steve Took, Edgar Broughton, Rod Stewart, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, Hookfoot, Lou Reizner, Allman Brothers, The organisers of the Isle of Wight Festival, Roy Harper, Gladys Knight, Tight Like That, Gentle Giant.
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