By Ray Shasho
An Interview with Mick Box of Uriah Heep
Legendary British guitarist Mick Box has devotedly performed with his quintessential hard rock band Uriah Heep for nearly 45 years. Box is the only original member of the band that remains since its inception in 1969, but the mastery of Uriah Heep endures while preserving its rightful place in rock and roll folklore.
1972 thru1976 became Uriah Heep’s most successful era worldwide. The band was spearheaded by their manager and producer Gerry Bron. All of Uriah Heep’s albums through 1983 were released on Gerry Bron’s ‘Bronze Records’ label in the UK. Bron had been producing Uriah Heep for Vertigo Records before starting his own record label.
Heep’s essence became David Byron’s majestic vocalizations and showmanship, Mick Box’s commanding guitar riffs, Ken Hensley’s keyboard wizardry, while culminated by amazing instrumentalists like Gary Thain on bass guitar and Lee Kerslake on drums.
Sadly, Thain died in 1975 from a heroin overdose and was replaced with King Crimson’s John Wetton. New Zealander Gary Thain was 27 years old.
Notable tracks during their heyday period include … “Gypsy” (written by Box and Byron) it’s the bands heavy metal anthem and fan favorite, “Lady in Black” (written by Hensley), “Look at Yourself ” (Hensley), “July Morning” (Byron, Hensley), “Tears in My Eyes” (Hensley), “Traveller In Time” (Box, Byron, Kerslake), “Easy Livin’”(Hensley), “Circle of Hands”(Hensley), “Sunrise” (Hensley), “Sweet Lorraine” (Box, Byron, Thain), “The Magicians Birthday”(Box, Hensley, Kerslake), “Stealin’” (Hensley) and “Return to Fantasy” (Byron, Hensley).
Uriah Heep’s fourth studio album Demons and Wizards became their most successful release selling over three- million copies worldwide and spawned the hit single “Easy Livin’” (#39 on Billboard’s Hot 100). Although Demons and Wizards (1972) was considered the bands breakout album, it was actually their double live LP, Uriah Heep Live (January1973) that launched them into superstardom status.
The Uriah Heep Live album was recorded in 1973 at Town Hall in Birmingham, England. The double-live album featured gatefold sleeves with picture pages resembling a concert program of the band performing. The idea was for the listener to receive the full concert experience while relaxing at home. (Kiss Alive! mimicked the format of the Uriah Heep Live release.) The album’s immaculate sound engineering was equally matched by the bands impeccable live performance and the vitality of the audience. It was the Uriah Heep Live album that enabled the group to headline and sell-out the huge arenas worldwide.
In July of 1976, the band fired their lead singer David Byron. Byron’s alcohol abuse became relentless, and to satisfy the bands better interests was let go. Bassist John Wetton also announced he was leaving the group. Trevor Bolder (David Bowie/The Spiders from Mars) replaced Wetton on bass. Uriah Heep auditioned several singers for the lead role on vocals, including David Coverdale, who recently relinquished his frontman duties from a dismantled Deep Purple.
Uriah Heep finally decided on John Lawton (Lucifer’s Friend). Heep’s choice inadequately satisfied a distinguished rock and roll legacy left my Byron, but Lawton’s pipes were exactly what they needed at the time. A new scheme materialized as Uriah Heep recorded their tenth studio album Firefly (released in 1977) and began touring as the supporting act for Kiss. The track “Wise Man” was their first successful single with the new lineup.
The bands distinct hard rockin’ reverberation was abandoned with the ‘poppy’ release of their single “Free Me.” But the tune became an international hit. Friction between Hensley and Lawton developed and escalated to the point where Lawton was forced to leave the band.
Uriah Heep brought in Lone Star singer John Sloman to replace Lawton. Longtime Drummer Lee Kerslake left the band and was replaced with Chris Slade (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band).
In 1980, longtime keyboardist and songwriter Ken Hensley quit the band. After a 23-date UK tour, Sloman quit. The following year, with the band in turmoil and quickly crumbling … Mick Box and Trevor Bolder made an urgent appeal to David Byron to rejoin the band. Byron refused. Then Bolder left to join Wishbone Ash. After Heep’s newest keyboardist Gregg Dechert left, Mick Box stood alone with a contract and the rights to the Uriah Heep name.
Mick Box miraculously compiled a new lineup from the falling ashes. Box convinced drummer Lee Kerslake to return and hired Peter Goalby (Trapeze) as the bands new lead singer. Box also hired John Sinclair (The Babys, Black Sabbath) on keyboards and Bob Daisley (Ozzy Osbourne’s band) on bass guitar.
Uriah Heep released the critically acclaimed album, Abominog in 1982. The album produced by Ashley Howe, spawned the U.S. Hits, “On the Rebound” and “That’s the Way That It Is,” which became the band’s highest charting single at #25 on the Billboard charts. Howe and Heep followed the success of Abominog with Head First in 1983. Bassist Bob Daisley left to rejoin Ozzy Osbourne, but Trevor Bolder rejoined Uriah Heep for good.
The band regained much of its popularity and toured the U.S. supporting bands like Rush, Def Leppard and Judas Priest. During this period, Bronze Records collapsed and the band’s financial condition was in question. They secured a new deal with CBS’s Portrait Label. They also hired Harry Maloney to replace Gerry Bron their longtime manager and producer.
In February of 1985, legendary Uriah Heep vocalist and frontman David Byron died of alcohol related complications including liver disease. David Byron was 38 years old.
After the release of the Equator (1985) album, more lineup changes ensued. After incurring voice related issues, Peter Goalby left Uriah Heep. Then John Sinclair left returning to Ozzy Osbourne’s band. Stephen “Steff” Fontaine was briefly brought in to be the band’s new lead singer but wasn’t disciplined enough to remain with the band.
From 1986 thru 2007 the Uriah Heep lineup remained unscathed. The second consistent Heep lineup became leader Mick Box on guitars, Canadian rock singer Bernie Shaw (Stratus) on lead vocals, Trevor Bolder on bass guitar, Lee Kerslake on drums and Phil Lanzon on keyboards.
While changes were happening in the American music scene …Uriah Heep shifted their principal touring circuit to Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan and Russia. The band returned to Britain in 1988 to play the Reading Festival and eventually toured the UK.
Ken Hensley and John Lawton rejoined the band for a reunion gig in London in December of 2001.
Drummer Lee Kerslake left Uriah Heep due to health reasons in 2007.
In October 2009, Uriah Heep released their 40th anniversary celebration album. It’s the bands 22nd album and features re-released classics by the group as well as two specially recorded tracks for the album.
The band performed at The High Voltage Festival in London’s Victoria Park in July of 2010.
Today Uriah Heep periodically plays U.S. dates at the smaller venues. The band’s latest release is entitled … Into the Wild (released in 2011) on Frontiers Records.
Uriah Heep is Mick Box (guitars, vocals), Trevor Bolder (bass guitar, vocals), Bernie Shaw (lead vocals), Phil Lanzon (keyboards, vocals) and Russell Gilbrook on (drums, vocals.)
The band is currently touring dates in Europe and will eventually join forces with Status Quo.
John Lawton is temporarily filling in on lead vocals for Bernie Shaw while he recuperates from a medical procedure.
It may seem like ages since Uriah Heep’s first American show in Indianapolis supporting Three Dog Night, but Mick Box and Uriah Heep have affirmed that the band can withstand the test of time.
Box says, “I came in to be a musician for life …that was my focus, it’s been a brilliant ride so far and long may it last.”I had the rare pleasure of chatting with guitarist Mick Box recently about his incredible journey with Uriah Heep.
Here’s my interview with legendary guitarist/ songwriter/ singer/ philanthropist/ longest member of classic rock legends Uriah Heep …MICK BOX.
Ray Shasho: Mick thank for being on the call today.
Mick Box: “Thanks for having me mate”
Ray Shasho: First, I’d like to say congratulations on recording 23 studio albums and celebrating nearly forty five years with Uriah Heep, that’s quite an amazing accomplishment!
Mick Box: “When anybody tells it like that, it’s almost like it’s someone else. (All laughing) It’s just amazing because it feels like that time has just flown. To be still doing it is the best feeling in the world. You can’t get a better job anywhere in the world to do something you love, so we really appreciate that more than anything. Plus, we play over fifty six countries, and our friendship is all over the world, which is wonderful.”
Ray Shasho: John Lawton will be rejoining the band for some dates?
Mick Box: “Bernie will be going into the hospital for a little bit of surgery. So I asked John …What are you doing mate? He said he was doing a thing in Bulgaria and could move some things around. I said will you fancy coming on and having a jam with us, and he said yea, fantastic! So we’re going to go out around Wednesday and then start, I think its Holland, Germany, Austria and Italy. It will be great fun. We had one rehearsal and we’re doing all the Byron stuff up to when John was in the band, so no new music at all, but we’ll be hitting nostalgia very hard.”
Ray Shasho: I’m finding many classic rock bands that are based overseas either stopped coming to the U.S. or are performing very limited dates. Some examples are … Deep Purple… and Status Quo and Golden Earring never come to the U.S.?
Mick Box: “We’re trying to come; it just doesn’t always work out. I think the dynamic of touring in America … most American bands only work Friday, Saturday, Sunday and then fly home. But we’d have a whole crew out there and the expense of having them go into hotels …and financially it gets quite difficult. Therefore we’d have to fill in those gaps where we’d be doing the weekend work and also work the midweek dates. And it doesn’t always get pretty; you end up in some very strange places. It’s not to say that we’re giving in, we’re still looking at the U.S.A. as a viable market. The last three times we’ve been there it proved to be very successful.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, I’ve been a fan of Uriah Heep since 1972. My first Heep concert was back in Baltimore around 1973, Uriah Heep was the headliner and supported by Earth Wind and Fire and a new and upcoming band called ZZ Top … Strange lineup?
Mick Box: “You know what, I remember that vividly. We used to have a great promoter down there and used to book us in those areas. When I tell people nowadays, they can’t believe that sort of lineup. In those days it was just good or bad music. There were no genres or pigeon holes, you went along and enjoyed it all. And the beauty of it all was you turned-on the Earth Wind and Fire audience and visa versa. So you widened your audience each time. It worked very well on all levels but of course you can’t do that today.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve been disgruntled with the music scene for quite a long time.
Mick Box: “It’s changed with the business end of it. The internet explosion and there’s less heart in it now, it’s all very disposable. Listen to it today and gone tomorrow. Where we used to buy albums and live with them forever. And you bought an album perhaps because of the one track, but by the time you dug into the album, that track fell by the waist side and other ones grew on you and became your favorites. That doesn’t happen nowadays people just go for the front-end of things.”
Ray Shasho: When I saw Uriah Heep that first time in 1973, the arena sold-out over 13,000 people. A few years later the band played the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland and sold-out over 18,000 people. What do you think was the turning point in the U.S. when Uriah Heep stopped drawing those kinds of numbers of people?
Mick Box: “Just different times, the whole music industry has gone through quite a few changes along the way hasn’t it. In those days, especially in Europe, people only got involved in three things … sports, fashion and music. Those were the interests. It was really those three things that people got involved in. But things are so diverse now where in those days it was quite defined.”
“The other big change of course is we go into the studio and record something and spend a ridiculous amount of money to get the best possible sound we can, and it gets squashed down to an MP3. (All Laughing) But it’s our art and we chose to do it that way.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, what musicians got you interested in playing the guitar?
Mick Box: “Going way back, I liked jazz … Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel …people like that. Then I sort of grew into Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, The Shadows and Hank Marvin. Moving on from there … Jeff Beck was a turning point for me. He has been my favorite guitarist for many-many years and above all the others who have come along. He’s just amazing, he’s the type of person who puts the guitar on and is absolutely one with the guitar. It’s not a guitar and a person, they are just one. And he ekes sounds out that nobody else can get. He does with one note what others do with a thousand notes. Music is meant to move you and he does that to me. The hairs stand up on my arms and I get shivers down the back of my spine and that’s what music is all about.”
Ray Shasho: I made the mistake of asking Robin Trower if he’d ever play acoustic guitar. Of course he said no way, I play electric. But you’ve adapted well in playing the acoustic guitar.
Mick Box: “Since our first album …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble , the reason it was called that because the very early song was called “Gypsy” where we’re pounding at a hundred miles an hour and then we’ve got something as beautiful as the acoustic “Come Away Melinda” which is just as powerful but on acoustic. So it’s always been something we’ve always done.”
Ray Shasho: I thought the Uriah Heep Live album is what I remember turning the band into superstars in the U.S. It was an incredible double-album release, engineered perfectly, great photos of the band. I’d definitely rate the Uriah Heep Live album in the top three of all-time!
Mick Box: “Even Kiss said they copied the idea and loved the album too. It was recorded exactly the way it was that night. Nowadays people will go in and change things and it sounds less than a live album than ever. It was recorded at one date at Town Hall in Birmingham in 1973. It was unbelievable. Actually we did have three or four shows booked to record and after each one there was always a disaster … microphones have gone down or the mobile truck hadn’t recorded something properly, there was always a technical fault, just one after another. We got to Birmingham Town Hall which was actually the smallest of the dates and I think everyone started to relax. Afterwards I know the people who were sitting in the truck were saying … this is it, the mikes are up, this is sounding fantastic and we’ve got it. So it was very exciting to hear it all played back. It was real and that’s where it wins out. And the idea of having the gatefold like that on the album was almost like you were sitting down at a concert and reading a program, which was a good idea too.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, imagine a DVD of that live performance.
Mick Box: “That would have been amazing wouldn’t it? But in those days of course we wouldn’t have even think that far (All Laughing).”
Ray Shasho: After experiencing the live album, I was like a little kid waiting for the Sweet Freedom album to be distributed to my local record store. And when “Stealin’” was played on Top 40 radio stations, I was ecstatic.
Mick Box: “It was on Top 40 radio for awhile and then it got taken off because people started complaining about the lyric … I’d done the ranchers daughter and I sure did hurt his pride. It was a radio hit but then taken off the radio rather quickly. But we still play it today. Ken wrote some tremendous songs in that time, very powerful.”
Ray Shasho: What happened on that day when Gary Thain got electrocuted?
Mick Box: “He went up to the microphone to sing, it was live, and don’t forget in those days there were no testers like we have nowadays, so the crew had no idea that it was going to be live. Quite often you got static shocks, but when Gary went up to sing he put his mouth right on the microphone, got thrown backwards and landed into the drum riser and damaged his knee. He was a very frail person so it didn’t mode very well with him. Gary was such an innovator and a great bass player.”
Ray Shasho: That core lineup during the heyday of Uriah Heep was incredible.
Mick Box: “In our eyes we were unbeatable; you had the power of the drums with Lee who was very John Bonham-ish if you like, and you had Gary coming in with the power bass lines and melodic bass lines that other people weren’t playing at the time. Ken was at his writing peak and the band was just on form. We felt when we were onstage, we were untouched and unbeatable.”
Ray Shasho: How difficult was it for the band to fire David Byron?
Mick Box: “It was very tough but you get to a point where you couldn’t handle it anymore and it had to happen. You’ve got to move forward. If not, it was just going to drag everything down. With the difficulties he was having, you can sit up all night and talk with someone and agree with you and go out and do it, and you know what you’ve said. It was only him that could ever put it right at the end. But I do feel our management let us down a little bit because we were pushed very-very hard with all the touring we were doing. We were doing nine month tours and going three months in the studio, then straight on the road again. Sometimes we’d do two albums a year, so it was immense pressure all around and also to get that level of performance every night onstage.”
“I think if the management wasn’t chasing the almighty dollar like it was and we could have just come off the road, give us some thought to ourselves and our families, I think it might not have ended like it ended. I can give you an example … Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. Somebody took the time to put them somewhere to get sorted out and here they are today still rockin’. ’It’s just that someone cared enough. I think the people looking after us were going away from the band and into other areas.”
Ray Shasho: When David Byron was fired, did you guys interview David Coverdale?
Mick Box: “We did indeed, yea. David wasn’t sure which direction he wanted to go with his career at the time and he came down and jammed with us. He was a fantastic guy; he brought a bottle of Remy Martin down and we jammed. David has a very powerful presence on that microphone and apart from that a fantastic voice. I think he would have fit very well. So before we could make up our minds, David got the offer to put Whitesnake together, which was always his first love. So that’s obviously what he wanted to do.”
Ray Shasho: What was it like playing with Kiss?
Mick Box: “Great fun, it was a situation where Kiss supported us throughout America and I think it wasn’t long before where we were supporting Kiss years later. We made one major mistake once. We were using pyrotechnics at the time and I think Kiss convinced our management that we weren’t able to use pyros on the tour. But in this particular instance, Kiss did all there explosions and they were about ten times more than ours and we were headlining. But it was quite funny really. There’s was a fireworks display and ours was a damp squib in comparison. (All laughing) But the guys were great fun. As far as Gene and Paul were concerned, they were just so focused, it was frightening.”
Ray Shasho: What happened when Bronze Records collapsed… did that hurt the band?
Mick Box: “It did to a certain degree, that whole era was when Gerry Bron was losing interest in the band and all the things that made him successful in the first place. He started diversifying into having his own airline. He started an airline where people could fly it from England to say Zurich, do a day’s business and fly home. It was very innovative but he just didn’t get the business. He also got into the computer world but didn’t have the finances to follow through. So at the end, what happened were those two things and a few other ventures he was involved in just dragged it all under ,‘the whole lot,’ along with all of our royalties and everything else. He filed for bankruptcy and we were stuck on the outside saying goodbye royalties. Because there’s nothing you can do when someone declares bankruptcy. So it was a very hard time.”
“In fact … Richard Branson used to look up to Gerry because he had Bronze Records, the publishing, the agency, the recording studios, Girlschool, Sally Oldfield, Manfred Man … and to let all that die was shameful. Because he should have been as big as Richard Branson is today. But he took a few wrong turns.”
Ray Shasho: How’s Lee Kerslake doing, I heard he was ill?
Mick Box: “He’s doing fine and we’re still the best of mates. We play all the time and have a good ol’ laugh. I think he’s in Scandinavia now. He’s got a friend in Sweden or Norway who he’s writing an album with. So he’s pretty active. Nothing concrete, he goes out and does a few shows. He couldn’t possibly do the touring that we do now. But he’s out there doing it and he’s here with us, which is fantastic. And he sounds better than ever. I’ve always loved him like a brother, he’s my mate and that’s it. But he’s doing great.”
Ray Shasho: What inspired you and David to write “Gypsy?”
Mick Box: “We were in a rehearsal studio, where it used to be us in one room and Deep Purple in the other room rehearsing. It was a hell of a racket. I came up with a riff and it was very-very powerful. In those days we were working around using harmonies as an instrument. In the 60’s harmonies were always very sweet and they just sang along with the chorus … just following the melody line and singing harmony to it, were as we wanted to use it more as an instrument. So we came up with the idea of the block harmonies that are on “Gypsy.” And it came together rather quickly. David was always intrigued with Gypsies anyway because there was a big Gypsy culture in Europe. So it just came together very quickly.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, Here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a “Field of Dreams” wish, like the movie, to play or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Mick Box: “Oh my God, only one? … Django Reinhardt, Buddy Holly and Jeff Beck ... all three. Django just to see how he played like that. And the year that he grew up in and all those jazz clubs were just amazing. Buddy Holly’s writing was tremendous and still stand the test of time even today. Jeff Beck has been there every decade and has always done something to blow me away.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, talk about ‘Shirt Off My Back’ auctions for Cancer.
Mick Box: “I started this awhile back, I lost my wife to Cancer, my guitar tech, lots of friends, my mother …many-many people. I started this little thing on my website and call it ‘The Shirt Off My Back.’ And mostly a shirt I’d wear on a tour for a few months and there would be a lot of pictures showing me wearing it, I’d auction it off and put the money towards the Cancer charity. The Nightingale Cancer Centre in London and they do such great work and its all unpaid workers there. So I started with that and then started putting wah-wah’s, signed guitars and all that sort of thing. So it started with my shirt and now it’s anything but. Now its Bernie’s old microphones, wah-wah’s, amps, bits and pieces and it’s grown now and really cool.”
“We’re going to Holland Wednesday, on Thursday’s show day we’re having a fan meet and I’m auctioning off lots of shirts, guitars and things so the fans can buy it and we’re flying in the lady from Nightingale to oversee it. So it’s fantastic. It’s just one of those things that mean a lot to me. Cancer is very indiscriminate in age and everything else and you don’t know when it will strike or how severe it will be. So every little bit helps. My mother used to say, “Mick, every little bit helps.”
Ray Shasho: Mick, thank you so much for being on the call today and more importantly for all the incredible Uriah Heep music you’ve given us and continue to bring to all of us.
Mick Box: “Thank you for your support mate, and I just hope we’ll be able to see you out there in that sunshine. Thanks Ray, bye-bye!
Uriah Heep official website http://www.uriah-heep.com
Mick Box official website www.mick-box.net
Uriah Heep on Myspace http://www.myspace.com/uheep
Shirt Off My Back Auction www.shirtoffmybackauctions.com
Check out Mick's daily diary on his Appy Days Blog
Purchase Uriah Heep’s latest album … Into the Wild at amazon.com
Very special thanks to Chris Hewlett.
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at email@example.com
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