An Interview with Mick Box of Uriah Heep

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What bands do you think of when the discussion of the British Hard Rock invasion of the 70s comes up? Zeppelin? Sabbath? Deep Purple? What you probably don’t hear enough of is Uriah Heep.

It could be because Uriah Heep never got caught up in looking for an “image,” or “scene to define” themselves by — they simply let their music speak for itself. Not only has Heep been together for fifty years, producing countless albums of killer Rock, but their current run of albums is some of the best of their career — period. On top of that, Uriah Heep alone has influenced countless sub-genres of both Rock, and Metal. And the man that has always been there behind it all is none other than Mick Box.

When it comes to Heep, Mick is the only member that has consistently been a member of the band since its beginning. Mick is a great songwriter as well as an underrated guitarist, and an absolute Rock Legend. Still, Mick is not your typical Rock Star, and instead, is down to earth and humble.

When I had the opportunity for a sit-down with a man like Mick Box, I couldn’t have been any more eager. Among other things, we discuss the inception of the second era of Heep, the band’s groundbreaking ’87 concert in Russia, and how they have kept up their torrid recording pace all these years.

If you’d like to learn more about Uriah Heep, check out the band via their website here. Once you’ve done that, dig into this chat with the one and only, Mick Box.

Joe:
Mick, what have you been up to this past year considering the current state of the world?

Mick:
Well, you know, it’s been a strange time for everyone, hasn’t it? I think this is the longest I’ve ever been at home in my fifty-plus years as a musician. It’s a very strange feeling for me not to be out on the road. I miss the concerts so much, and the communication with the fans, and all that goes with that. I haven’t missed the traveling quite so much but, that is part of what we do. I did some videos for Lockdown Diaries. I do a lot of Cameo stuff for my cancer charity, which you can learn about here. I’ve also been writing lots of songs, and just generally trying to keep busy. I try to get in the office, fire up the computer, and not look at the clock. Most days I’m in there, suddenly it’s 9 o’clock at night. I’m trying not to take my foot off the gas.

Joe:
What does the future hold for you and Uriah Heep? Any new material coming soon?

Mick:
Well, the pandemic killed the celebration of our 50th anniversary. So, we still have that to look forward to. Although, by the time it happens it will technically be 52 years. But we will still be celebrating the 50th anniversary. We’re gearing up for that. All the shows we already had for the anniversary tour plus new ones we have added going into next year. We’re ever hopeful that the vaccination will make its way around the world, and we’ll be able to get back to some degree of normality. I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to how it was before but, I think we have to embrace it. Just get out there and do it. We’re looking at recording a new album. We may try and do that this year before we start having to schedule next year. But again, that’s all down to what restrictions are laid on us by the government.

Joe:
So, let’s go back into the past a little bit. When exactly was the transition from Spice to Uriah Heep? How did the change happen? What inspired the name change?

Mick:
Well, basically, we used the name “Spice” because we didn’t want our music to be just any one genre. There’s lots of spices, and that was our train of thought with the name of the band. That mindset kind of rolled over to Uriah Heep. If you look at the first album of Uriah Heep, Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble, there’s a lot of Progressive Rock, Bluesy Rock, and Hard Rock. Even Metal, as it’s called now, with songs like “Gypsy.” As I mentioned, it was a bleed over from what Spice was all about. But once we got in the studio, as a 4-piece, we started augmenting some keyboards. That’s when we got Ken Hensley involved. We thought with a musical change, maybe we should have a name change too. Launch as a fresh entity and that’s how we arrived at Uriah Heep.

Joe:
While I love the first two albums, Look At Yourself seemed to be when you guys found your groove and classic sound. I feel like it was your first fully cohesive album. Would you agree or disagree? What do you remember most about recording this album?

Mick:
By the time we got to Look At Yourself, we’d been out on the road a lot. We’d had many experiences as a band out on the road and suddenly it occurred to us that we just wanted to be a straight-ahead Rock band. I think that’s what Look At Yourself is, really. Even though something like “July Morning” could be classified as a Progressive Rock, that’s about as far as we go with it. Previously, with Saulsberry, we had the 27-piece brass section in a 20-minute song. So, we didn’t take it as far. The songs were a lot snappier and more rocking. That’s where our heads were at the time.

Joe:
In 1972, Uriah Heep came out with Demons And Wizards, and The Magician’s Birthday. Amazingly, TWO of your most well-known albums came out in the same year. Why do you think that is? Can you tell us a little about the direction you took with these albums?

Mick:
I think when we got to Demons And Wizards, the band was firing on all 5 cylinders, if you like, with every member focused on the task at hand. I think none of the other unwanted fractures came into play at that point. We were just all creatively focused in one direction, and I think that that’s why the album is so good. The Magician’s Birthday followed the momentum gained from Demons And Wizards. Also, you know, having the Roger Dean cover on both of those albums was quite something. For the first time, the music, and the artwork were intrinsically linked together. It became a full entity, and I think that was an important part of it too. We captured everyone’s imagination when we started writing songs like “The Wizard.” We started going into these other areas of lyricism that the people loved. People just, you know, opened their arms to that sort of lyricism. It was great, and of course, other people went on and took it even further. When we got fed up with it, somebody else picked up the baton and carried on.

Joe:
I know one of the few non-Uriah Heep albums you were involved with recording was David Byron’s first solo album, Take No Prisoners. How did you get involved with recording that album and what do you remember about it?

Mick:
Well, it was something David was keen to do. Seeing as I was his co-writer in the early days, he just wanted me on board to do some writing with him. So, it was a sort of natural thing to do, to be honest. David loved it because he was calling the shots, whereas with Uriah Heep he only had 1/5th say in what was going on. He enjoyed it because it gave him a breath of fresh air away from what the band was doing. It was pretty good. I think it was a nice, rocking album. It was David’s expressing himself how he wanted to express himself.

Joe:
Around 1980, Uriah Heep had all but broken up. In 1982, you put the band back together and came out with Abominog. How exactly did those events unfold? Looking back, how important do you think this album was in the transition of the band?

Mick:
I think it was a good marker in our career because it was very successful. It went on to the Top-40 in America. The album had a hit song called “That’s The Way That It Is,” written by Paul Bliss. We had a video that was on MTV at a time when it was all very new Rock acts. We were on high rotation. Around eight times a day, which was quite incredible. We went over to America and played loads of shows with Def Leppard. They were the biggest thing since sliced bread out there, with all the Union Jack stuff, and all that. Great albums produced by Mutt Lange. So, it was a great time for us. It was a resurgence. Basically, after Conquest, I kind of dissolved the band because it wasn’t going anywhere. We were losing a bit of direction of what Uriah Heep was all about. I thought that was the best thing to do.

Shortly after that, I phoned up Lee. Lee Kerslake was now with Ozzy Osbourne. He has played on his first two albums, Blizzard of Ozz, and Diary of a Madman. I phoned him up to wish him well before he went to America with Ozzy. I said, “Lee, have a great time mate. Send me lots of pictures. Say hello to everyone we know.” You know, all the usual things you say. He said, “I’m not going.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, Sharon’s decided that they want an All-American band.” So, I said, “Well, look mate, I’m managing the band now. I’ve got a record contract. I’ve got the publishing contract. I’ve got all the work in the world and the equipment.” He says, “As long as Gerry Bron isn’t involved, and you’re taking care of the business, I’m in.” I said, “Well, that brings me to another point — do you know what’s happening with Bob Daisley?”

Bob ended up being in the same position as Lee, so Bob was also in. Then I got Peter Goalby as the vocalist. I remember he auditioned before the Conquest album. I remembered his voice. At that audition, he didn’t show us full his capabilities. He showed us just one side of what he could do, which was his bluesy side. That’s why he didn’t get the gig for Conquest. John Sloman had come in and shown the full range of what he could do. We knew he could handle all the stuff. The screams and everything else. But I remember Pete being a nice guy, and having a great tone to his voice. So, I phoned him up and he was just about to go off to America with Trapeze for a very short tour. He said, “If you still want me when I come back, give me a call. I’d love to come down.” So, we waited for him. He came in and never left. It was fantastic. Then John Sinclair ended up being the keyboard player. I knew John from the Heavy Metal Kids. I am a big fan of the Heavy Metal Kids with Gary Holton. It was ironic that the day David Byron got fired in Spain, Gary Holton got fired from the Heavy Metal Kids. They happened to be supporting us on tour when that happened. It was a terrible day for singers. [Laughs]. I remembered John being a nice guy as well as a very capable player, singer, and writer. He was in a band called Lion, in Los Angeles. He was tied up with all sorts of legalities on contracts that made it very difficult for him to come over. But I got him over. We looked at the contract and found some loopholes. We got him a lawyer and got him out of that situation. Then he became a full-fledged member of Heep. So, that’s how that came together. It all happened very quickly.

Joe:
What inspired you to write the song “Between Two Worlds?” It was dedicated to David Byron, and Gary Thain, right? Did you decide to dedicate it to them afterward or write it with them in mind? I’m curious, what was the impetus for writing a song about them during this time?

Mick:
I was writing the lyrics with Phil Lanzon, who still writes with me now. We were just trying to find some sort of lyrical content that would go with the music. I hit on the idea, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could meet people from the other side, and they can meet us halfway?” Just say, “How are you doing? What’s it like out there?” They would say, “I can see you’re doing all right. Keep the band going.” You know, one of those kinds of deals where you had that conversation, and then just go back up. You go back up because you got peace in your heart, and everything’s okay. Their side and your side were kind of where I was coming from. Of course, when you think like that, you think of David and Gary. At that point, everybody else was still alive, and it was very centered on them. But, it also applied to my mother and other people in life that have been lost. As far as the song is concerned, you have centered on David and Gary. But the song really has a wider birth than that.

Joe:
From the late 60s through the mid 80’s you averaged at least one studio album per year. How did you guys keep up that torrid pace?

Mick:
I keep asking myself that mate. I’ve got no idea. [Laughs]. To be honest, the easy answer is that you need to have a passion for what you do. You can’t look at it as being heard. You just get in there and get on with it. Come up with what you can, and do the best you can. I think the passion for what we do has always been a driving force. Even today.

Joe:
Your longest period without an album was from 1998-2008. Otherwise, you never went more than four years without a studio album. What caused that extended delay?

Mick:
Well, that’s quite simple. The whole industry collapsed, didn’t it? With the advent of the internet, record companies were caught with their pants down. The record companies disappeared. They amalgamated and got smaller. It wasn’t important, in the great scheme of things, at that time. Because of all the streaming and all that, it was a whole new world. We couldn’t find a home because we left our previous record company just prior to all the major changes in the industry. So, we weren’t tied to a record company. We were free. We had to wait till the dust settled down. In the meantime, we moved out and did what we do best. We toured 62 countries, released a lot of live DVD footage, and stuff of that sort. Anything to keep the momentum going, while we waited for the right opportunity. Universal Music gave us that opportunity. They were very much interested in the band, and we came back with Wake the Sleeper. We called the album that because it was like waking a sleeping giant. We were waiting all this time to just get in the studio and do another album. It wasn’t until the right contract was in place that it happened.

Joe:
You mentioned Wake the Sleeper. In my opinion, it’s a late-career classic. I think it is one of the heavier albums you have recorded and my favorite since Abominog. The album was more than worth the wait. Do you agree? What do you think about this album? What do you think you guys got right as a band?

Mick:
I think it was a couple of things. It is the first time, in a long time, that we had a preproduction before we were in the studio. I think that paid dividends. It enabled us to kick ideas around. We could work on the songs fully. Work on them until we were truly happy. By the time we went to the studio, we were just looking for good-sounding performances. I think that was one of the elements that I found worked for the band. The fact that we recorded it, as a band, standing next to each other was also important. When I stood next to Russell’s cymbals, I came out with ringing in my ears for months. They were so loud. [Laughs]. The album has a certain essence from having the whole band together. We didn’t use click tracks. We didn’t need to. We just went on the pulse of what the band was playing. I think that all comes through in the honesty of what that album is all about. Of course, there were some really good songs. In the end, you need good songs. The “Wake The Sleeper” title track has no real vocals, but what a steamy riff. Russell Gilbert is a very different drummer than Lee Kerslake. Russell had the double bass drum thing going on. It enabled us to write songs differently. That sort of big double bass drum thing kicked off the whole riff. It made it very exciting that we could do that.

Joe:
Do you think they’ll ever reissue Wake the Sleeper on vinyl?

Mick:
Well, I’m a big vinyl freak myself, so I certainly hope so. I can’t see why not, somewhere down the line. As you well know, there are all these vinyl companies springing up from everywhere now. It was just a little cottage industry for a while, but I think it’s grown and grown, and grown. People realize that it’s the real deal. You get the real sonic deal. It’s not squashed into an mp3 sound. That’s the thing about our world. We go into a studio to produce the best audio sonic sound you could have, and the listener gets it in a form of mp3. All squashed and squeezes the life out of it. But that’s the world we live in right now.

Joe:
Sadly, two of your long-time former bandmates, Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley, passed away during 2020. What is it like to lose people you worked so closely with for so long? How will you remember them?

Mick:
Lee’s battle was almost a FIVE year-long battle. He went through issues with cancer and diabetes, and things were just coming at him from all angles. He was a fighter. Even with everything he was going through, he was still quite a buoyant character. We could still have a laugh, you know, we never stopped laughing on the phone. I went to see him a week before he passed away. We talked about music, and I played him songs I was writing, and he just bubbled. He just came to life when we got to talking. It was amazing. It was just an absolutely incredible thing to see. We were talking about music as well as the old days, and everything else, you know. It was a fun time. But I could see that although his mind was very active and he could talk very articulately, his body was falling to bits. That was the scenario I was dealing with there. I knew it wasn’t going to be very long. His wife said the same. She said, “It might be the last time you see Lee,” and it was. That was very, very sad. But it was a long-term thing. Even so, it was still a smack in the mouth.

When it came to Ken, I had no idea. I had no idea at all. I think was on the phone with our keyboard player, Phil Lanzon, about writing some songs. He said, “Something has come up on my computer. I think Ken has passed away.” I said, “No way,” because those things happen all the time, those rumors. Then I decided to ring up his manager. He said, “It’s true, he passed away.” Everyone was just gutted. It was just something I didn’t see coming. Equally as hard of a smack in the mouth there too. It was like going ten rounds with Mike Tyson without getting a punch in. To be honest, I just felt numb, just totally numb about the whole thing. But, between the two of them, they’ve left a legacy of music bar none. By me keeping the band alive and vibrant, hopefully, people that haven’t heard about the band will listen. They will hear all the great work they left behind.

Joe:
What do you think is Uriah Heep’s most underappreciated album?

Mick:
I think that’s a very hard question. Probably Salisbury, because I do get a lot of people saying it’s their favorite album. They all love the title track, “Salisbury” with the orchestration that John Fiddy did with the brass and woodwinds. It’s a very driving song, and it’s us dipping our heads in the Progressive Rock genre. I think we did it very well. I think it’s got some songs there that just shaped you right later on if you like because we were showing our Progressive side. It has songs like “Bird of Prey,” with step harmonies, which was just another trademark of Heep. It also had a song like “The Park”, which was a very gentle song with a Jazzy instrumental bit. There was a lot of growth to appreciate from the first album to the second. Of course, as you rightly said, we then rocked it out on Look At Yourself. I would say even the first album, to be honest, is underappreciated for what it was. It was the opening gambit, wasn’t it? It was us declaring ourselves to the world.

Joe:
What do you miss most about touring? What do you not miss?

Mick:
I miss the shows, of course. The band camaraderie on the road, you know. I mean, the first thing I tell the guys to pack is a sense of humor, and this band has got a sense of humor. We are all good mates. Since everyone has kind of been cut off while in lockdown, you don’t really get that in your life. We will get on a few phone calls, and laugh and joke. It’s not the same as being out on the road. Being with the crew, and all that stuff. It’s a good feeling to have your gang out there, putting together great shows. Everyone pulling to make the show the best it can possibly be, from every angle and every level. It’s really great. But, I don’t miss the traveling. When I say I don’t miss the traveling, I mean the traveling can be quite exhausting at times. Heep works in 62 countries, so we get out there. When we do a world tour, it really is a world tour. It can be quite exhausting. I mean, you can do eight hours of work traveling before you get to work. [Laughs]. Eight hours in a van, two or three flights to the hotel room. Just have enough time for a shower and a quick sandwich. The next minute you’re on stage. But I do miss that camaraderie. All of us pulling together.

Joe:
Who were your favorite bands to tour with over the years?

Mick:
Def Leppard was fantastic. There was great respect between the two bands. They were fans of ours when they were coming through the ranks. It was a great tour to be on because it was huge. They drew massive numbers every night. 20,000 people every night. It was a great tour to be on, and they were great guys to be around. Just recently we did one in America with Judas Priest. They were fantastic, great guys. Great crew, and great camaraderie between two English bands out on the road. We’ve got 50 years. They got 50 years. So, on stage every night, there were 100 years of Rock, and Metal there for the fans to enjoy. We loved it. Every night we watched them play. It was just marvelous.

Joe:
You have collaborated with so many great songwriters and musicians over the years in Uriah Heep. How do you feel you have changed over the years as a songwriter and guitarist? Do you feel Uriah Heep’s circumstances pushed you to be a better songwriter or musician?

Mick:
I think, generally, on the musician side, you know, I’m lazy. [Laughs]. I do everything naturally. I just think that writing with other people is refreshing. That you get to get their input. Generally, I’m an ideas man. I’m a collaborator bar none. I seem to never finish any of my own ideas though. [Laughs]. I would have this idea and that idea. I need someone to hone me in. Phil is very good at that. He can be very focused. Whereas I can come up with ideas, too many to mention. But that can be good because you need the input, and you will never dry out. We’ve always got too much to say, and do, and write about. I think you just grow as a writer, and you grow as a musician. But saying that, you know, lots of people are still locked with what we did back in the 70s. That’s their favorite. You think you’re growing, but, still, people just love what you did back then. They won’t ever leave it behind. I think I’ve grown as a player in many, many ways. I’m not quite sure how articulate that to you. I’ve got no idea. It’s just a natural transition.

Joe:
What made you guys decide to play that groundbreaking concert, in Russia, in 1987? What was that like?

Mick:
Well, it was a strange one. During the early 70s, the band had a saying, if the people couldn’t come to the music, then we will take the music to the people. A lot of the bands would just do mainland Europe, America, and Canada. We were going out to the Eastern Bloc countries like Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany. We always went to all those places. It took a long while to get there. But when you got there and played the shows, you could see the people crying. Crying because they never thought they’d ever see the band play live. It was hard for them to see bands live because of the regimes that they were living under. We had a Hungarian promoter called Laszlo Hegedus, and he used to take us to all these territories. He said, “You’ve got to get to Russia. You don’t know how big you are out there.” We were always going, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” We were taught in school that Russia, was a no-go area. That they didn’t like the West. The thought of going there and playing the music just didn’t comprehend at all.

Laszlo applied every year for us to play there. Then in ’87, we got the official invitation from Glasnost, which I have hanging up on the wall in my office. They invited us over to be the first western Rock band to play in Moscow. We thought, “Well, why not? You know, let’s just have a go.” So, we went over there, and it was just amazing. We played to 180,000 people over a ten-day period in the Luzhniki Stadium. It was just frightening how big we were. Everything that Laszlo was saying was just unbelievable because we had no idea. When we went out, we would take photos with everyone. They took something like 10,000 photos with us, and they became a sort of currency. We would walk into restaurants, and people would stand up and applaud. It was just heady stuff. I think the most important thing to remember was that during the communist regime the black market was the only place they could buy music. They’d save up two months of money to buy your music. It wasn’t just about buying your album and playing it. If the authorities heard you play it, there was a chance you were going to Siberia. All that for listening to music. How stupid was that? That’s the risk they were taking though. They would come to the concert with stacks of albums for you to sign. It was always so cold that the pens would never work. We would always take the albums inside, and then throw them at the audience. There was always a lot of KGB, and other people looking over you. They were very nervous about the whole situation. We were watched everywhere we went, but one afternoon we sent all the bus drivers out. We sent them to pick up people off the street. Then we did a soundcheck which lasted longer than a show, and we let all the fans come in for nothing. They all came in and sat close down in front. They went berserk. It was the best show of the whole thing because the audiences during the formal concerts were 30 meters away from the stage. During the other concerts, they were too worried to get so close because of the soldiers standing armed in front of them. It was a very interesting time. It was amazing how much our music had meant to so many people out there. It was just incredible.

Joe:
What do you feel the legacy of Uriah Heep is and what does it mean to you?

Mick:
I can tell you that when we’re finished, but we’re not finished yet. I think the legacy we’ve left so far, is that we have stood the test of time. People are still listening in the live arena and their homes. There’s no better testament than that. The music has stood the test of time. We stayed the course. The music is what counts. We were a band that never got strapped into an image with hair pulled up or make-up on. We never went that route. The music always spoke for itself. I think that helped us to survive. We were never locked into a decade. You move with the times that way.

Interested in sampling the work of Uriah Heep? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Records, Roots & Ramblings, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/records-roots-ramblings-archives/

About Post Author

Joe O'Brien

Joe has always been a huge music fan. Growing up on Long Island, NY, USA, Joe did chores and dumpster dove for bottles with his best friend Andrew to trade bottles for money to buy vinyl. Joe is a Registered Nurse in the ER by day, and a life-long music lover by night. Having been an avid consumer of all things music since he was a child, Joe’s diverse collection of over 3,000 vinyl albums, plus several hundred tapes and CDs, tells the story of a man who simply loves music. Joe’s goal is to write about what he is most passionate about and share new and exciting music. Joe lives on Long Island, NY with his beloved dog Scarlett.
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