About a hundred fifty years ago Charles Dickens penned into his novel, ‘David Copperfield,’ an unusual character by the name of Uriah Heep. Thirty years ago a motley gang of street kids took the name and made it their marquee. Mick Box (g), David Byron (v), Roy Sharland (k), Paul Newton (b), and Alex Napier (d) rose from the ashes of three different bands to produce a diverse blend of sounds. It wasn’t quite Black Sabbath (though just as heavy at times) nor was it Deep Purple (though they did capitalize on the dense use of keyboards). And the ‘Heepsters’ weren’t as artsy as Yes, though they shared the same cover artist: Roger Dean.
Sonic Origami on Spit Fire Records marks the band’s 25th release, a feat that dismantles what one critic arrogantly chided: “If this band makes it, I’ll kill myself.” Granted, Uriah Heep has seen the backside of a dozen personnel changes from the notorious (Ken Hensley) to the ever so brief (John Sloman). Yet through it all their delivery has remained constant.
“There was the heavy element of the band,” defines guitarist Mick Box. “And then there was the orchestrated acoustic stuff as well. We had them both. That’s why the first album is called Very ‘eavy, Very ‘umble.” Heep’s ability to hold on through the musical carousel dished out by three decades certainly chalks one up for true grit and determination. Recently, Castle Communications in the UK revamped the majority of the Heep back catalog. Extensive liner notes, photos, and in some cases bonus tracks have been added to the CDs to illuminate many of the band’s more inspired moments.
We caught up with band vocalists Bernie Shaw and guitarist Mick Box during their stop through New York City to discuss what thirty years of playing ‘Gypsy,’ ‘Come Away Melinda,’ and ‘Easy Livin’ can do to a band. “I can quite safely say we have more compilation CDs than just about any other band out there,” laughs Mick Box. “Every time we go to Germany someone will hand me another one.” Box reminisces about the good old days when you could crowd a record full of mystical lyrics, build a high rise on layered keyboards and chain saw guitars, and wrap it neatly in a Roger Dean landscape.
“Four years ago, for our 25th anniversary we wanted to make a record [‘Sea of Light’] just for the fans.” says Box. “We involved Roger Dean to do the cover. I went back to him and said, ‘Listen, over the years the most popular covers fanwise have been during the Roger Dean period. Would you like to come on board for the 25th anniversary?” (To buy a piece of art from him now you have to put a mortgage on your house!) He said, ‘Yes’ and had some stuff lying around. But then he said, ‘No I’ll do a new one for you.’ It ended up being 4’ x 8’ a huge painting.”
Nostalgia out of their system, Uriah Heep returned this year with a polished roof raiser. “Sonic Origami is an idea we had when we were recording in England,” states Bernie Shaw. “Origami is the Far Eastern technique of paper folding and sonic, well that’s sound. So it’s like the folding of sounds, which is how the album came out.” Does the record compete in today’s market? “We tried to push the envelope a little bit,” says Mick Box. “But with Sonic Origami we wanted to extend our fan base somewhat. Maybe we won’t take everyone with us but we might get a lot of new people.”
Box’s years in the business have schooled him in the power of radio play. “The only way to build Uriah Heep at this stage is to get on the radio. That’s why we did something like ‘Across The Miles’ and ‘Heartless Land’just to take it a little further and see what the reaction was. It’s been very strong.” Shaw joins Box in support of the CD’s direction. “The producer did a wonderful job and a lot of it was him just letting us breathe. He’d say, ‘You guys do what you do and I’ll tell you when the hair on the back of my head stands up.’”
These days Uriah Heep is based in England. The lineup for the past ten years includes ex-Grand Prix, Praying Mantis, Status singer Bernie Shaw; long timers Lee Kerslake (d) and Trevor Bolder (b); and new-ish keyboardist Phil Lazon. “There’s no loyalty within the industry in England,” remarks Box. “In London if you’re called the ‘Crotchless Monkeys’ you’ve got a good chance of being signed. If you’re called Uriah Heep or Deep Purple, nobody’s going to sign you. The last several years it’s been hard for us to find a home.” Box says of the unusual turns in longevity: “There’s a good fan base in England. But in Germany and Japan there’s loyalty in the record company. And that really matters when it comes to working a new release. Nowadays fans of the band own record labels and that helps spread the word and the excitement about what were doing.”