By Jeb Wright
I’ve been interviewing rock stars for over a decade and a half. Doing so, one may find that rockers are like other people… some are cool and some are not. Some become friends, and some are all business. When one of your heroes ends up becoming a friend, it is pretty cool. In the case of Ken Hensley, that’s what happened. He may live halfway around the globe, but in today’s world he may as well be right next door!
I shot Ken an email and declared it had been a long enough time since we had done an interview. I wanted to go album-by-album through his time with the band Uriah Heep and discuss the most well-known songs… for the most part, we did!
What follows is an insightful and informative chat with a living legend of rock and roll.
Jeb: I want to ask if you ever wonder how you did it all? I mean from 1970 to 1980 you had a LEAST one album a year.
Ken: How we did it all? We were so fired up and so excited and lucky to have great management, a record company, publisher and all that… It was what I had always dreamed about and all I wanted to do, so I willingly sacrificed everything, and everyone, for it. As for the number of albums... well, that´s another topic and I bet we get there somewhere in this document!
Jeb: On ‘Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble” you were not the main songwriter. The credits don’t list you very much. Why was that? Surely you had more material…
Ken: For legal reasons, I was not able to be credited for what I DID write on Very ‘Eavy... it was a publishing thing that was eventually solved.
Jeb: From that album the first song I want to ask about is not one which you composed. “Gypsy” was the first Heep hit. Please share any memories of that song in the studio, hearing it for the first time, etc., etc.
Ken: Actually I did co-write this. It started with the basic riff, David wrote the vocal melody and we co-wrote the lyrics. We developed the longer intro in the rehearsal room. Always a powerful song live, and I still play it!
Jeb: You co-wrote “Bird of Prey.” This is a great song that I still love. Talk about writing this tune.
Ken: No, great story really… just a band fully connected and exploring ¨riff world¨. We were also learning how to really exploit the harmony vocal thing which no one else in our genre was doing then. And what is now referred to as the ¨progressive¨ aspect of songs like this was nothing more than us wringing every musical possibility out of a simple song!
Jeb: In 1971 we got Salisbury. Not my favorite, to be honest. But I want to ask about another classic number “Lady in Black.” What are your thoughts on that album as well as that song?
Ken: HA! “Salisbury” is not my favourite track, either. It was better when we played it live before recording it with the silly brass and woodwind. In Salisbury we were still finding our musical feet and experimenting a lot. You can see that in the drastic contrast within the songs themselves. But bands could do that then...
When I brought ¨Lady in Black¨ to the band they didn´t like it much, said it was too ¨folky¨ and David simply didn´t want to sing it. But the producer saw something they didn´t and we pushed ahead with it and it became our biggest global hit. Lots of great memories there, including hearing 100,000 people singing the chorus at a German festival. Amazing!
And the girl that inspired it will never know. I saw her through my hotel room window, but we never met! The song may only have 2 chords, but it has 279 words, not including the chorus!
Jeb: Also in 1971 was Look at Yourself. This is the start of your super songwriting period. I mean, you were on a roll. Let’s discuss the title track and what you remember about creating/recording it.
Ken: On a roll? I was being pushed to the limit by our manager´s short-term thinking and ¨strike while the iron´s hot¨ philosophy! And a lot of the songs in that period suffered as a result.
For the most part I can identify the source of inspiration for songs but with “Look at Yourself” I can’t. It might have been about me, but I can´t be sure.
Jeb: Same question, same album but the song of songs in my book that Heep ever did. “July Morning.” I bet you could write a book on this song alone.
Ken: Well, it IS an interesting story, but not a book´s worth! Anywhere and anytime I play that oh-so-simple triad intro, people go crazy and over the years I have found out that this song came to mean so many different things to so many different people. Of course, I was just writing a song for an album and in those days songs usually died when the album died, but I have learned that people really attached themselves to my songs and lyrics and that´s part of what makes my musical life remain so inspiring and so stimulating, even now.
Jeb: In 1972 you were the main songwriter on the two most iconic Uriah Heep albums, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday. Again, how do you account for his burst of genius? This is not just creativity. It is super creativity.
Ken: D&W was such an exciting record to write and record. The band was totally connected and there was nothing between us and the music. This liberated my creativity and the fact that FM radio in America was pioneering the musical freedom trend made it even more inspiring. Plus I was really enjoying my songs at that time and beginning to feel the freedom and the ability to write just about anything! I have that same feeling now, but for totally different reasons.
TMB is a different story and not a totally happy one.
Gary´s drug habit was practically unmanageable, egos were flying, arguments about royalties occupied time that should have been spent more productively and we were beginning to lose our way. Bron was pushing me to finish the songs and, as a result, a number them were and still are ¨unfinished¨. Very frustrating and the beginning of the end actually.
Jeb: I will just name the songs and you tell me about their creation and any good stories that come to mind. Ken: Okay, I will try...
Jeb: “The Wizard.” Why does Mark Clarke get a credit? Also, I heard there is teapot on the song? Tell me about that song as it is so spiritual.
Ken: Mark wrote the melody for and sang the bridge and deserves the credit for that. Actually, the tea kettle story is true and almost legendary! “The Wizard” was written from a dream I had for a week... every night. I got so fed up with it that I decided to write it and the dream came to life in the song and I never had that dream again.
While I was recording the demo at home, my wife was making tea in the kitchen and I could hear the kettle whistling through my headphones. And it was whistling in the key of C, perfectly in tune with the song. So we used it on the recording as a kind of ¨string machine¨ and it even featured in our appearance with the song on ¨Top of The Pops.¨ Amazing what happens in the mystical world.
Jeb: You didn’t write this one, but I want your take on it. It’s a rocker! “Traveler in Time.”
Ken: A nice collaboration between the other guys. I did help change a few lyrics ... free of charge!
Jeb: “Easy Livin’” is your most commercial song. It’s short for a Hensley tune!
Ken: We were entering the era of the 3-minute single, Jeb. The song took me 15 minutes to write, based on the words ¨easy life¨ that were part of a conversation in a cab home after three straight days in the studio. Somebody remarked on how people thought we had such an easy life and, within three minutes of the cab dropping me off at home, the song was being born.
Jeb: Here is a forgotten gem in my book….”Poet’s Justice.”
Ken: You know.... there are so many songs in my books that I just can´t figure out. Almost like I wrote them in a trance! And this is one of them.
Right now, I am in the middle of finishing and polishing a batch of new songs that I will record in 2016, probably just as nice demos, but I am also reviewing the list of songs I will use in 2016 for my solo concerts and re-living a lot of different moments to include in the program. It´s absolutely fascinating to me that I was given this gift and that it grew so fast and so abundantly and that it is still growing.
Jeb: “Circle of Hands” is spiritual yet spooky!
Ken: More mystical than spiritual I think, Jeb. But it´s a cool story. On a tour of Italy in 1972, we played the beautiful town of Santa Margarita. We had a day off there after the show and I was in love with two girls I met, one was never enough then Jeb, although, ironically, one can even be too much now. HA!
We met up next day, at a restaurant near the sea and they invited a couple of us to a séance they were having that afternoon. ¨Séance, schmeance¨ I said, but I knew enough of séances to know that I would be holding hands with both of them in that silly circle. So, while someone was moaning and groaning about summoning dead spirits, I was halfway to heaven and grabbed the title as soon as it came into my head, wrote the Hammond riff at sound check the next day and there you go. How I got the rest of the way to heaven is a story for another day!
Jeb: “Rainbow Demon” is bad-ass. I am addicted to that opening riff!
Ken: Another Hammond riff that people seem to recognize instantly and from this song we had the second half of the album title. The song is pure imagination.
Jeb: Another epic is “Paradise/The Spell.” Dude what were you on? That is some wild music, and the listener goes on a total trip with you!
Ken: I write best when I am not trying, or when I am not intending to, or supposed to be, writing. I set my acoustic to a semi-open tuning, played a few non-existent and extremely wrong chords and went from there. I still do that and I still enjoy breaking all the rules, especially musical ones.
These were two entirely separate songs originally, but in the studio they fit together so well and I finally had a chance to rip off the tape-phasing effect from Itchycoo Park by the Small Faces. As I was writing these songs, the more I wrote, the more I imagined was necessary and that´s why it goes in so many directions.
For the recent Heep reunion concert in Moscow, I had to completely re-learn the slide guitar solo and that was a trip. The choir in the background is just David and myself, multi-tracked a kazillion times and I could probably write a book about that, too.
Jeb: The follow up, amazingly in 1972 as well was The Magician’s Birthday. Talk title track! What an epic journey. Was that you’re doing or a band effort?
Ken: First, I should explain that I always took the songs in their most basic form to the band, either in pre-production rehearsals or the studio itself. From then on, it was a team effort, with not just the band involved but the production and engineering teams, too. They had to make technical sense of my crazy ideas.
The saddest thing about this album is that management brought the release date forward, for reasons I have already talked about, and many of the songs I wrote were/are, frankly, unfinished. They didn´t give me time.
I was writing a short story called The Magician´s Birthday and the title track was the core song from which all the others spread out to paint the complete picture. It would have been so cool, but they took away my time and I consider this album to be less than 60% of what it could have been. Very disappointing.
Jeb: “Sunrise” to me is the most emotional and intense tune you wrote for Heep. Tell me the story behind this amazing song.
Ken: I had split up with a long-time girlfriend and I wanted to write what I hoped she was feeling at the time. It wasn´t what I was feeling at all, I was out looking for another séance.
Jeb: “Rain” is another one that hits you in the gut. Byron kills on that song. Tell me about writing that track.
Ken: Okay. David ¨kills¨ on a whole bunch of my songs and that´s one reason I miss him so much. He was the best conduit for my words and melodies and I still think about him, his favourite words and notes, whenever I write those kinds of songs.
This is another song that uses an immediate fact as the first line, “July Morning” and “Lady in Black” are two others... We took a break from recording to go out to dinner. When somebody opened the front door, I said ¨No thanks... I am going back down to the piano, drink a couple of beers and I will see you when you get back.¨ When they got back, the song was done and it began... ¨It´s raining outside¨, which is precisely why I didn´t go out to dinner. We recorded it immediately, and.....
Jeb: You didn’t write this but it has a cool keyboard part. I love it, but have heard it is not a favorite in the band. “Sweet Lorraine.” On a side note who was Lorraine?
Ken: No idea who she is/was but the mini-moog parts really defined this song, I think.
Jeb: “Tales” is a song that time has forgotten. But I like this one a lot.
Ken: Well then, I will remind ¨time¨, because I re-introduced it into my solo set last year and people really love it. I have the most beautiful painting here from a Russian artist which shows David, Mick and myself seated around a table that seems to be in the dead center of Paradise.
Probably telling tales. Definitely one of my personal favourites.
Jeb: You took no time off, as in 1973 you put out Sweet Freedom. It was impossible to follow up two classics. But you made a strong effort. “Stealin’” is perhaps your second most remembered song! Talk about that story. I LOVE it.
Ken: I went to Gary´s flat in London. He was really struggling with heroin then and I wanted to help if I could. We smoked a couple of joints and played a bit and I wrote ¨Stealin¨ from that moment. The story is purely imaginary as I didn´t know any ¨Rancher´s Daughters¨, or ¨Gypsy Queens.¨
Jeb: Talk about the title track.
Ken: It´s another ¨lost love¨ song. I loved hard and often in those days, so I had a lot of resource material at my disposal.
People in Russia and the former Soviet countries read it in an altogether different way though, and they sing that chorus like they really mean it. This song actually contains the biggest lie I ever wrote. ¨I just want you to be happy, even if it´s not with me¨.... yeah right!
Jeb: Wonderworld was released in 1974. It was a different sounding album but still had a couple of classic Uriah Heep tunes. Tell me about the title track…
Ken: We continued recording outside the UK for tax reasons. Wrong motivation, wrong result.
Musicland in Munich was a great studio, but I wanted my own pillow, not some bloody hotel room.
Lots of sad stories from this time, although someone recently pointed out that the title track has every normal chord in it, except A minor! I still can´t play that intro! ¨Wonderworld¨ is the name I gave the place I go when I sleep and dream. It´s a pretty profound lyric, isn´t it?
Jeb: This is a cool number… underrated I think… “The Easy Road.”
Ken: This lyric is profound, too. I must have been feeling deeply disturbed about things by this time, but I think the message is solid.
Jeb: Return to Fantasy was out in 1975. You had to be worn to a frazzle, yet this album has some damn good tunes. Talk about the title track. That is an emotional rocker.
Ken: Yes! I love this song. All the variations and all the power. The band really captured it perfectly and the production played a big part, too.
Jeb: I also love “Devil’s Daughter.”
Ken: I don´t! Sorry!
Jeb: You nailed the emotions again with “Why Did You Go?” Was this a personal song?
Ken: I don´t know why I became so obsessed with sad relationship stories at times. They never really happened, but I was able to put myself in this miserable place and paint the picture without difficulty.
Jeb: I won’t lie. I am not a fan of High and Mighty, released in 1976. If you love it, I am sorry. I am just being honest. Something was missing to my ears.
Ken: It´s okay, we don´t have to agree on everything, but let me tell you some things you probably don´t know...
By this time, the band was so fractured. David had become a complete alcoholic, we replaced Gary with John Wetton and the band, except me, decided that Bron should not produce this album as he was the reason our sales were collapsing. Ridiculous! So, who was going to produce the album? Bron was paying for it and he put me in charge. A thankless task if ever there was one, because I knew he was going to hate it, no matter what I did.
No one besides me had any songs and they preferred to spend their spare time in the pub. John Wetton showed up when he wasn´t busy with Bryan Ferry so, for me, it was like another solo album and I made the most of it. You can´t listen to this as a Heep album because it isn´t one.
I had fun and I like a number of the songs on it.
Jeb: We have to talk “Weep in Silence.” John Wetton co-wrote that didn’t he? What was he like? I am a huge fan of his.
Ken: This is one of the best songs I ever wrote and some of my best guitar playing, too. Mick couldn´t be bothered and anyway, the chord structure was way too lyrical for his style of playing.
Don´t know why or for what I credited John, but the song is mine and I don´t say that too often!
Jeb: Firefly came out in 1976 as well. What is up with two albums a year?
Ken: Read, ¨short-term¨ thinking, ¨strike while the iron´s hot¨ etc. ....
Jeb: “The Hanging Tree” is a totally underrated song. That is another one that gets to me when I hear it.
Ken: Yeah! Jack was a good songwriter, but he had no real independent direction. This one came out well, though.
Jeb: The only other one off that album I dug was the title track.
Ken: I like to write with quasi-epic thoughts, hence the dynamic between the verses and choruses, which the production really enhanced.
Jeb: I don’t like Innocent Victim at all. Even hate the cover.
Ken: Agreed! Let´s move on....
Jeb: Fallen Angel was in 1978. GREAT cover. I like boobs. Music, not so much. Although you did come up with a great song in “Come Back to Me.” This is another relationship gone bad song.
Ken: Yeah! We really started something with the tits, didn´t we? Jeb, the gift was still there, it was just becoming smothered in the drugs/ego/money/credit bullshit. A sad time for me, actually.
Jeb: Conquest started the 1980s off, but it was not a good start. The only song I want to ask about is “Won’t Have to Wait too Long.”
Ken: Everything was rubbish by now. Sloman was so much the wrong choice, but the other guys had the majority. I tried to make it work, but it was impossible. The worse it got, the more I used drugs to try and hide.
Jeb: Why did you leave? Was the grind I have alluded to just too much? Was the tank on empty?
Ken: I was toast! I was addicted to cocaine and completely lost as a human being. I had to run and I did. The conspiracy theorists say this was exactly what the band wanted when they chose Sloman, whom they fired immediately after I left. I don´t care.
Jeb: Looking back now, as a composer, how proud are you of your output with Uriah Heep? I am, as you know, a big fan of yours.
Ken: Pride doesn´t come into it, Jeb. I was doing what I had dreamt of doing and I now see that composing what I was born to do. No matter where, when or with whom, for me the standard of my work is set by what I know I am capable of doing and by my constant reach for what lies beyond the obvious. Commercial issues no longer matter to me at all and that´s a freedom I am grateful for.
Jeb: This is your chance to tell me what’s up… Are you still writing/recording? Touring? What is 2016 going to mean to you, musically?
Ken: I am writing, but not just songs. I plan to compile my first poetry book later this year and it will include things I wrote when I was around nine years old. I still have those books. I write something every day, not because I feel I have to, but because I write everything that falls into my head.
I am really enjoying this period of creativity and that enjoyment is only made better by the fact that I really don´t care what happens to my work. I leave that to God and I know He has a plan.
I will play some shows this year and I will do a bunch of things I have never done before. How do I know that? Because that´s the way it always works... year in and year out.
Jeb: Thank you for doing this. Last question: If you HAD to choose… which album is better… Demons or Magician?
Ken: At the risk of sounding like a DIY shop, it has to be D&W for me. And you are welcome!
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