By Patrick Prince
Uriah Heep is best known to American classic rock listeners for such epic albums as “The Magician’s Birthday” and “Demons and Wizards” (both released in 1972). These two records — best listened to in their entirety — contained the right balance of rock hits (“Easy Livin’” and “Sweet Lorraine”) and sprawling prog (the 10-minute “The Magician’s Birthday”). Aided by guitarist Mick Box’s outworldly wah-wah pedal and Ken Hensley’s combination of searing organ and far-out moog synths, the afforementioned albums defined the signature sound of Uriah Heep — an experience sort of akin to Tolkien’s tales put to progressive hard rock music. Afterall, the concept of “The Magician’s Birthday” album was based on a fantasy short story written by Hensley himself. It was upon this fantastical creativity that Uriah Heep made its mark amongst the biggest rock bands of the era.
Now, Uriah Heep and BMG have begun an extensive reissue campaign of the band’s back catalog. And Mick Box spoke to Goldmine about this immense undertaking.
Goldmine: How did the idea for the new Uriah Heep album reissues come about?
Mick Box: Basically, BMG got in touch with me and (asked) if I would I drive it. I said I’d love to as long as everything is done faithfully and we release albums with bonus tracks for the fans. I didn’t want to just go back to the well again and produce something that the fans already got.
GM: Which a lot of record companies do.
Box: They do, yes, and BMG were good about that. They said okay, let’s see what we can put together. For instance, with the first album, “Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble,” we’ve got equal amount tracks and bonus tracks unheard before. It’s good for the fans. And it is of course remastered but remastered faithfully. It hasn’t been digitalized too much, you know. It’s faithful to analog as much as it can be. And so, with all that in mind, I was very happy to be a part of it.
GM: One of the criticisms of remastering is that it gets too “digitalized.”
Box: Yes, I don’t like that because you take away the warmth and the good feeling you get from listening to something that’s obviously analog and (made for) vinyl.
GM: Do you still listen to vinyl? You had that in mind when thinking about the reissues?
Box: I have tons of vinyl but for a while I haven’t played any at all, I have to be honest, because we’re touring so much as a band — we do 100 to 150 shows a year — we we’re constantly on the move so we have to use the formats that we don’t particularly like. (laughs) You know, because if we go into a studio and record an album we spend an inordinate amount of money to get the optimum sound and everything and then it gets released for iPods and things and it’s all squashed down, isn’t it? Squashed down and you lose the essence of what it’s all about. You wonder sometimes: Why? Why did we do that? But it’s only because you’re professional — you still feel like you have to go in and do that.
GM: The general listener probably doesn’t even realize that there are different types of MP3 quality.
Box: There are, most definitely, You’re absolutely right but they’re not interested either. It’s a disposable world we live in. You want it now, you press a key on the keyboard. And if you want to get rid of that, okay … gone. It’s kind of here today, gone today … not even gone tomorrow. (laughs)
GM: But you had the listener in mind when you wanted to get the warmth and sound …
Box: Definitely, yeah. Because it’s what I want. That’s how I like listening to things and I know there’s a lot of people out there like me.
GM: There are, especially with the resurgence of vinyl.
Box: Well, vinyl is the thing to listen to music on … to my ears. You’re right, there used to be a boutique interest in it but now it’s getting bigger, bigger, bigger because people are realizing. And I think that’s wonderful. The other thing is you get back into focus listening to the whole album as well.
GM: That’s right, and when you put out all those albums with Uriah Heep, that’s what it was about.
Box: You never looked for immediate stuff. It was all the growth of the album. If we got a single off of it, so be it, fantastic. But it wasn’t the goal or our motivation.
GM: Speaking of vinyl, your debut album, in mint condition, commands a price of $600 or more now.
Box: It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? Who would have thought.
GM: I hope you kept a few copies.
Box: I’ve got them all stored in a cupboard.
GM: So BMG basically gave you the freedom to pick the extras. How did you find the extras? Did it take a lot of work?
Box: That’s a story in itself. We have a guy named Rob Corich who’s been a friend of the band for a long, long while. And way back when — three record companies ago before BMG took over — one of those record companies Rob Corich had friends in … who allowed him to go down in the basement and sift about. So he found all sorts of tapes and things. He was allowed to take them home; in other words, they would have just been destroyed. He took them home and he came to me years and years ago and said “Look, Mick, I got all these things and the fans will love it. Some of these versions are just unbelievable. Unbelievably good.” So I listened to them and I said, yeah. But I said to him at the time, “Look, they’re on the cutting room floor for a reason. The chosen version is the one everybody wants to hear.” But since that time I’ve softened somewhat and now I think maybe playing some of these versions people will see the development of the song, maybe hear it in a different form or an extra bit before we cut it out or a double chorus or something, you know, before we trimmed that fat off of it. It will be very interesting to the fans and I listened through it and some of it’s rather good. So I said “Okay, let’s sift through them all. There’s loads of them and we chose the best versions. And we even found some stuff … in the days on tape in the studio, some producers and record companies when they recorded sometimes they saved tape by turning it over and recording on the back of the tape. We found some versions on the back of the tape of the master (laughs), would you believe? So we used them because they sounded great.
GM: How did it feel to open up all those memories of the debut album, for instance?
Box: It was just unbelievable. I think it’s best described by us smiling through it all. (laughs) It just made me glow, you know, because we were innocent in those days. We didn’t really know too much about recording. We’d all been in studios before but never took it to that sort of level. There’s a lot of innocence there. For the guitar sound, in those days, you’d put the speaker facing the wall with a microphone between it. And all I could get were these muffled guitar sounds and I’ve got to perform with it. But in those days you just went with it, didn’t you?
GM: You were limited as far as sound but many enjoy the old sound better. With something like Pro Tools, it doesn’t sound authentic no matter how hard you try.
Box: I enjoy it, too, for those reasons. But even when we’re recording nowadays as Uriah Heep it’s so necessary for us to record as a band in the studio at the same time. We can’t do anything piecemeal. We won’t go for two weeks on the drums. I’d go mental.
GM: Didn’t you record that way right from the debut album — just go in the studio as a band playing live?
Box: Yeah, that’s how we started. That’s how we always wanted to be, yeah. It’s only when the producers come along in search of perfection which, to me, is madness. Because in search of perfection you lose all the magic that was there in the first place. You know, because if you get a take and you do, say, five takes, you choose the one that you like and that’s brilliant. And it will always be brilliant. And what producers do, especially nowadays and in the ‘80s/’90s, they put the bass guitar with the bass drum or the guitar with the bass drum and then you listen to something that’s not right. It’s perfect but there’s no magic. And it’s the magic you want in music because that’s what speaks to you. So when we do anything like that the first words with a producer is “Don’t touch it.” Because if it sounds good like that, it’s going to sound good like that forever. (laughs)
GM: Hey, sometimes it’s the imperfections that are beautiful.
Box: Of course it is! Of course they’re the ones that send the chills down your spine. Because it’s human and that’s what music should be. It shouldn’t be mechanical and all on the one. It’s not what music’s about. When you go see a band, they’re not all on the one. Unless they’re miming (laughs) or have tapes going.
GM: Uriah Heep should have been bigger in the U.S. You had songs such as “Easy Livin’” … why didn’t that song ever chart better in the U.S.? Occasionally you’d hear it on classic rock radio stations but it deserved a lot better.
Box: We did have our time in America though. We were doing 20,000 seaters a night for long, long tours. We had learjets and whole hotel floors, bodyguards outside everyone’s room and all that, so we did hit some dizzy heights. But I can see what you mean by what you’re saying, yeah.
GM: Starting in 1969, did you ever feel like you were in competition with some of the other bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath…
Box: Well, that was like the Big Four: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep. I wouldn’t say it was competitive but everyone was trying to find their own voice, if you like. With us, what put us apart from other bands, we had five-part harmony and we used the harmony as an instrument as opposed to where it was just sung as a three-part harmony on the chorus line of a song. So we used it like we did in “Gypsy” — a complete instrument. And that captured people’s imagination and that also gave us a trademark … and using the wah-wah guitar, that became a trademark. Pretty much we stood apart from others, just on that basis, really.
GM: You could also see someone in a record store picking up “The Magician’s Birthday” or “Demons and Wizards” for the first time and thinking “I’m in store for some good prog rock” because of Roger Dean’s cover art.
Box: In England it was even the labels … it was the Vertigo label, which was our first label. People just bought the albums just for the cover, because they knew it’d be good inside. And they knew the label supported great musicians. That was a great time because you really could just buy from the artwork and you knew you were going to put it on and love it.
GM: I remember buying “The Magician’s Birthday” myself, thinking this would be prog. But I got so much more.
Box: We were a bit of a mix-up. And that’s probably one of the reasons, where you talked about success ratio, because we could cover almost everything, really. But when you think that the band that Uriah Heep became was out of a band called Spice, and the reason we were called Spice is because there were many spices in food and we wanted our music to be the same. We didn’t want to be just one genre. If you look at our first album, there’s a bit of jazz on there, there’s a bit of folk, a bit of hard rock with “Gypsy” and stuff like that. It was very diverse. Very jazzy because I was very jazzy at the time, listening to guitarists like Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Django Reinhardt… all of those influences were on our first album which sort of spread to the second album but by the time we got to “Look at Yourself,” we were a straight-ahead rock band. And to me you don’t want to go to the well all the time with the same thing, do you?
GM: The band would then have the highest charting single of the ‘80s with “That’s the Way That It Is” on the “Abominog” album.
Box: That was a good album for us because it went Top 40 in America. And when MTV came out we had high rotation. It was an exciting time for us.
GM: And metal kids were buying that album thinking they were buying a band that was like Venom because of the cover (a demonic character’s face).
Box: (laughs) Now there’s a shock. I think it got voted second worst album cover of the year in America.
GM: Are you serious?
Box: Yeah. The first was Ozzy. So we’re in good company. (laughs)
GM: You also did quite a few cover versions.
Box: We did have a few cover versions. That was being pressured by the record company. It wasn’t driven by us at all. It was the record company looking for that elusive hit, you know. If they left us to our own devices they might have got one. (laughs)
GM: Now, when you perform live, do you improvise a lot? Would you turn a hit such as “Easy Livin’” into a longer song? Would you even expand on a 10-minute song like “The Magician’s Birthday”?
Box: “The Magician’s Birthday,” we expand a bit on the solo section because you’ve got the freedom to do that. But generally we try to keep it within the structure of the song. Because I think if you move too far away it might be clever to us but the listener might not think so. You have to be aware of that to a degree. We throw the odd things in, like one of our songs “Can’t Take That Away” off the last album, we recorded just a guitar solo so we threw in an organ solo as well. But the momentum of the song itself, in the shuffle, it works very well. It adds an attitude without anyone realizing, if you like. It’s not too far removed and it’s keeping the same energy.
GM: What about touring? What do you have in store for the U.S.?
Box: Well, we’re gonna go out next year. We have agents out there putting stuff together. And we’re looking to create a situation where we can come out to America two or three times a year. The rest of the tour (2016) was amazing. We started the tour in Japan and the we did one of those rock cruises … good fun. We toured Europe. And we just came back from Bolivia. We get enthusiasm whereever we go but in South America it goes up a little.
GM: You haven’t lost any enthusiasm yourself.
Box: I’ve got the same passion and energy I’ve had for what we do, and playing guitar, of course, that’s the driving force.