The English-bred Uriah Heep sprung from the axis of Mick Box (guitar) and David Byron (vocals). The pair had worked together in both the Stalkers and Spice before hooking up with manager/molder Gerry Bron. A big Vanilla Fudge fan, Box wanted the band to have a prominent keyboard sound, so in came Ken Hensley, who would also serve as the band's main songwriter. Paul Newton was recruited on bass.
It was Bron who suggested in 1970 that the band change its name to Uriah Heep, after the "'orrible little character" known for his greed and cloying insincerity in Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield
. Both Alex Napier and then Nigel Olsson handled drum duties for their debut, Very 'eavy...Very 'umble
(released in the U.S. as Uriah Heep
However, reaction to the band was mixed. One Rolling Stone reviewer opined, "If this band makes it, I'll commit suicide. They sound like a third-rate Jethro Tull."
The drum chair changed feet several times, and follow-up Salisbury
included the 16-plus-minute title track. Shortly after, Uriah Heep made its U.S. debut in front of 20,000 opening for Three Dog Night. The band began to gel in 1971 with Look at Yourself
and the epic "July Morning."
But it was the next year's Demons and Wizards
- sporting the classic lineup of Byron, Box, Hensley, Gary Thain (bass) and Lee Kerslake (drums) that finally scored. It was also the first album cover noted fantasy artist Roger Dean did for the group, and it spawned their sole U.S. hit with the more straight-ahead rock of "Easy Livin'." Albums like The Magician's Birthday
, Uriah Heep Live
and Sweet Freedom
Even during its heyday, Uriah Heep seemed like a band searching for a consistent identity, dipping its toes in the ponds of hard rock ("High Priestess," "Look at Yourself"), melodic rock ("Stealin'," "Sweet Lorraine"), prog-rock ("Gypsy," "The Wizard"), even dramatic ballads ("Come Away Melinda"). Its good stuff was really good, but there was also a lot of filler. And the Heep also lacked a really standout member in an era of big names who became synonymous with their instruments or voices. Oh, if only there were never a Deep Purple...
Why Should I Care?
Uriah Heep helped set the template for proggy, Dungeons & Dragons-themed metal that would follow and flower in the '80s. They were also one of the earliest classic-rock bands to have a significant overseas following and popularity, proving that a working band plays wherever their fans want to see them.
Diehard UK followers still hold a Heep celebration/convention/concert each year. Plus, you could always impress your high school literature teacher with a Dickens reference.
Where Are They Now?
Of the classic lineup, Thain was thrown out of the group in 1975 due to his rampant drug addiction and general bad behavior. He died in December of that year from a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Byron was similarly fired in 1976 for erratic behavior, though drink was his drug of choice. He put out a few solo records, and died of a heart attack in 1985 at age 38.
Kerslake left the band in 1979, rejoined in 1981, and remained with the group until health reasons forced him to retire in 2007. Hensley (who receives the bulk of writer's royalties) left the band in 1980, spent a stint in Blackfoot, and has fronted his own band and released solo material.
There were multiple lineup, sound and highly-questionable fashion changes for the group through the '80s, though the same five men played from 1986-2007, the longest such stretch for any lineup.
Box is the sole remaining member in the current version that also includes Bernie Shaw (vocals), Phil Lanzon (keyboards), Trevor Bolder (bass), and Russell Gilbrook (drums). Their last release was 2008's Wake the Sleeper. A planned 2009 U.S. tour was scratched, according to the band's official site, but there are plans for the group to mark Uriah Heep's 40th anniversary in 2010.
Recommended Listening, Surfing
Demons and Wizards
(1972, Heep's best studio record)
Uriah Heep: The Millennium Collection
- Single-CD anthology of the best of the prime years
The Ultimate Collection
(import) - Double-disc career-spanning retrospective
- The band's official Web site, very detailed with plenty of content