Uriah Heep: true survivors of rock

Ahead of their performance in Malta, Eric Montfort delves into what makes the classic rock band from Britain Uriah Heep such an enduring phenomenon, five decades on…

Riding the crest of the prog wave in Britain, Uriah Heep went on to become one of the most consistent rock bands of all time
Riding the crest of the prog wave in Britain, Uriah Heep went on to become one of the most consistent rock bands of all time

Uriah Heep are another band that reflect the endurance of classic rock, and moreover hard rock. It is significant that over more than four decades, ever since the progressive, hard rock and blues festival days of Reading Festival, this genre has never waned in popularity. It is even more significant that despite flagging record sales, this genre has remained strong, when it comes to live concerts, which is practically the best way for most artistes to survive nowadays. 

Uriah Heep fit perfectly in this scenario. They have been around for almost five decades, and despite undergoing different line-ups, and various pressures, not least the death of their lead singer David Byron, back in 1985. He was their original singer and sang on ten Uriah Heep albums. He is really brilliant on ‘Very ‘eavy Very ‘Umble’ and in songs like Gypsy Blues, Walking in Your Shadow and Dreamare. His melodramatic, almost operatic vocals made him quite distinct at a time when prog-rock was gaining huge popularity. He eventually ended up sacked by the band’s manager, the astute Gerry Bron, who died in 2012. Bron stated that Byron was dismissed in the best interest of the group. 

There is no doubt that despite his relatively short term with Uriah Heep (just under seven years), David Bryon gave a sterling contribution as a vocalist and with founder member and guitarist Mike Box, they were pivotal in the band’s musical direction. 

Uriah Heep evolved from Spice, another one of the many experimental bands sprouted ten a penny during the British beat-boom and grooving psychedelia years. Just like The Doors, Soft Machine, Supertramp and many other bands from this era, they adopted their name from literature, in this case, a character from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. When Gerry Bron, whose musical credentials were already well known took over as manager, their fortunes changed. He signed them to Vertigo Redcords, which had just been founded as a subsidiary with the Philips Label.  

Bron encouraged them to open up, widen their sound and show what they are really made of. Mike Box was keenly following Vanilla Fudge, arguably one of the most innovative and expansive rock bands ever. Their improvisational takes on standard pop classics like Holland and Dozier’s You Keep Me Hanging On fascinated critics and fans alike. Mike Box decided to do the same and Uriah Heep’s original songs on ‘Very ‘eavy Very ‘Umble’ show the improvisational influences of Vanilla Fudge but they also reveal a freshness and determination that would place Uriah Heep in a class of their own. Dreammare, my favourite song from this album shows some fine and searing guitar and the equally passionate vocals from Byron work out a superb anthemic song. ‘Very ‘eavy Very ‘Umble’  simply funneled the band’s potential and soon afterwards, they became big crowd pullers.

Not all critics were pleased though. Understandably, Rolling Stone, then the leading rock music magazine, dismissed the album.  They could not understand that Uriah Heep were not some Vanilla Fudge clones. Though their roots were in the blues and psychedelia, just like many other bands in this genre, their compositions revealed a sense of creativity and moreover, an appeal to newcomers to the scene. The band composed most of their songs in a relatively short time; so was the recording of this album. Thankfully, the attitude towards the band by American critics softened somewhat considerably after that. 

Uriah Heep also had their ups and downs, even when it came to group policy. They also went through various changes. Their various line-ups included some of the finest UK musicians, including drummer Lee Kerslake, who was with the band between 1971 to 1979 and between 1986 until 2007. Uriah Heep also featured ace bass player Trevor Bolder. He was not just a bass player par excellence but a good songwriter too. He cut his fame and fortune as a member with David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars in the early 1970s. He can be heard on Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane and also Pin Ups. Eventually he joined Spiders’ guitarist Mick Ronson on the excellent Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1974. Trevor Bolder actually replaced another eminent bassist in the Uriah Heep fold, John Wetton. 

Trevor Bolder came at a time when Uriah Heep were smarting off the disappointing sales from Wonderland, which fell from favour with fans and critics alike. Their next album, Innocent Victim (1977), was more melodic and ear-friendly. It sold moderately at a time when the old guard were somehow still caught unaware by the impact of punk rock. Nonetheless, it was huge in Germany, selling over one million copies there. Uriah Heep by now had become a stable and popular act across Europe – just like some other UK hard and symphonic rock bands like Barclay James Harvest and Yes. 

They toured extensively during the 1980s and were much respected as supporting acts for Rush, Judas Priest and Def Leppard. Their output may have dropped over the years. They spent ten years away from the studios until they released the rather articulate Wake The Sleeper in 2008. Their most recent release, Outsider, shows the band tighter and still full of mettle. Most of the songs are written by Mick Box and Phil Lanzon, who has been a significant contributor to the band for the past 30 years. It is remarkable that a band which has undergone so many changes, has also managed to survive so many changes, both creative and technological, and managed to keep their reputation intact. I have reasons to believe that most latter day bands won’t last that long! 

Uriah Heep will be performing at Ta’ Liesse, Valletta on July 29 at 20:00. To book tickets log on to: http://new.ticketline.com.mt/