Gary James' Interview With Ken Hensley
In the 1970s, Uriah Heep was one of the biggest acts going. They enjoyed such hits as "Look At Yourself", "Easy Livin'" and "Stealin'". Ken Hensley was a part of Uriah Heep and played a major part in making the group successful. He was their keyboard player, guitarist, singer, producer and had a hand in writing most of their hit songs. There's still a Uriah Heep, but Ken Hensley is no longer part of it. Instead, he's focusing on a solo career. We talked to Ken Hensley about his solo career and all things Uriah Heep. It turned out to be a very enlightening conversation, not only about Uriah Heep, but about the Rock business itself.
Q - Ken, you call Spain home?
A - I've lived here the last ten years. I had lived in the States for just a little over nineteen years. I decided I wanted to move back to Europe to be closer to my family and do some more interesting musical things. My wife is Spanish. We moved from St. Louis to England where we lived fairly close to my family and after a year we couldn't stand England, so we decided to move to Spain.
Q - What didn't you like about England?
A - Well, you know I miss England. It'll always be my home. I still carry my English passport and allegiance to the Queen and everything else. The problem is the weather is awful. It's very expensive. I don't know, it's just not a happy place for me to be today. We just said this is enough of this, so we decided to move to Spain. It was a fairly easy decision. That's not to say that next year (2012) I might not be living in Switzerland or somewhere. I've always been a gypsy, so it doesn't matter to me. I think more than the country, more than the climate, more than anything else, I think what inspired me the most and enables me to work relatively prolifically is the actual location in which we live. We live in a very remote place surrounded by mountains and desert. The noise of the world generally doesn't invade us at all. So there are no real distractions of that sort. With my eyes, my mind and my ears open, I find myself constantly inspired by things I see here or experience. I think it's the location more than anything else. To be perfectly honest with you, when my wife and I are sitting on the terrace at night at the end of our long days, we could be anywhere in the world really. There's nothing where we live to say were in Spain particularly.
Q - Why such long days?
A - We bought this house with four acres of land. We started rescuing abandoned animals, dogs and cats.
Q - Good for you!
A - So we established a charity which helps us to feed them and pay their medical bills, through the kind donations of people from around the world. And we've expanded it now to where we've got sheep and goats and chickens. It's a lot of work. We just recently lost one of our main farm workers. He just kind of disappeared. We don't know what happened to him. (laughs). And so Monica (Ken Hensley's wife) and I are pulling double shifts at the moment. We have another part time guy that comes in and helps out. It's a full time job. It's a lot of work.
Q - Did you have to learn Spanish to get along in Spain?
A - Well, if you want to live in Spain, yeah, you have to learn the language. Otherwise you just sort of have a long vacation. You can't enjoy Spanish culture and can't understand Spanish culture. You can't feel like you're a part of the country unless you can at least converse in their language. The majority of English people who come to Spain think everybody in Spain should learn English, which is rather colonistic if you ask me. I've learned it over the years and not found it too difficult. I also found the Spanish to be extremely helpful when you're struggling a bit for a word. I've managed to learn the language, but I always liked languages even when I was in school. So it's not been too difficult.
Q - Let me ask you the obvious question, how can their be a Uriah Heep without Ken Hensley? You were part of that group's unique sound. Is this a situation where maybe someone owns that name now, like Mick Box?
A - Well, I mean it's not a new question. It's a slightly different angle. I appreciate that. But for me there is not a Uriah Heep. Uriah Heep was the band I was in, in the early '70s. David, Mick, Lee, Gary and myself. That's where all my memories are rooted. To be perfectly honest with you, that's the band that was successful and sold millions of records and hundreds of thousands of concert tickets. It's really the music that band created that established the band and gave it it's little, modest place in Rock 'n' Roll history. Mick uses the name because he can. I can use the name also, but I chose not to. But for me, there is not a Uriah Heep. There is no Uriah Heep because Uriah Heep died with Gary Thain and David Byron. That's my take on that.
Q - Gary Thain died in 1972. David Byron died in 1985. Why? Rock stars are the envy of everybody who sits in the audience. What is there about that job that lends itself towards on untimely end?
A - Well, it's a good question and I think it deserves a respectful answer. I've asked myself that question many times 'cause when I see people like Any Winehouse basically killing themselves, it's far too easy for somebody like me to fall into a position of judgment. Yet I'm reminded of my own weaknesses and my own addictions. The question I can't answer and I don't think anybody can is, I was strung out on cocaine for sixteen years. I never drank very much. But I loved my coke. Why Gary Thain died and I didn't is a question I absolutely cannot answer. I don't know the answer to that. I know that we're all different physically and physiologically. We've all got different tolerances. But the fact of the matter is, none of us can really answer that question. Now, I can tell you from experience, looking back as I've had occasion to do, there are things about the Rock 'n' Roll lifestyle that are absolutely unbelievable and wonderful and there are things about it that are hidden from the public view and things which essentially don't occur to you when you're living in the middle of it. I mean, you lose a great deal when you sacrifice your life to Rock 'n' Roll. You lose the intimacy of family. You lose the intimacy of friends really. You're constantly with the same group of people, albeit you're having fun and everything else, but those things are psychologically missing from your life. There's nothing normal or ordinary about it. I mean, it's real. It's actually happening, but it's not really normal at all. And so, I think there's certain people that react to that in different ways. I've got friends who've been in the business as long as me and never touched drugs in their life, don't drink much if at all; generally speaking, apart from their fame and fortune, they're just ordinary people. But others like me and some of the people I've worked with just react differently. Now in Gary's case, he was a very fragile person physically. He didn't eat properly. He didn't take care of himself too much. He only lived to play. So when there was time off, Gary was at the mercy of dealers. I think his problem was he had an addiction to something too powerful for him as a physical person. He had no strength to fight it with. If you look at David, he was a natural born showman and he almost had to be onstage twenty-four hours a day. So when we weren't in front of a big audience, David's way of substituting for that euphoria was to use chemicals, alcohol in particular. So the psychological aspect of that is clear. Ironically, when he died, he had not been drinking they said for six months. They found no trace of alcohol in his system at all and no alcohol in his house. But by then he had done so much damage to his liver that all of his systems collapsed. It's a very un-real lifestyle. Different people react differently to it. I don't think anyone will quite unravel the reasoning. There have been times when I've looked at these young kids destroying themselves and their careers with booze and drugs and wanted to sit and take them by the scruff of their neck and tell them "Hey, you're gonna kill yourself and your career," but then I know if someone had done that to me when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, I would've told them to go away, that I had it under control. Everything was alright, because that's how you feel. You feel immortal. You feel nothing bad can happen to you. Yeah, you might make yourself ill once or twice. You might sort of partially overdose once or twice, but you'll survive.
Q - Did you do cocaine because you needed to keep up your energy level for all of the touring and recording?
A - No. I did it because I thought it was cool. I was first introduced to it in 1971 when I was touring with Three Dog Night in the States. I had never heard of it before, let alone seen it. But the instant I tried it, I liked it. But the whole ritualistic thing and the whole thing of having it in your pocket and doing it. I just thought the whole thing was cool. It didn't inspired me at all. I've never needed any kind of chemicals for energy. Now even at this point in my life, the music and the adrenalin is enough to inspire me. But I've still got all of the songbooks I ever used, notebooks and everything from way back over the years. Occasionally I take a look at them and I can see some of the stuff I wrote when I was on a coke binge and it's absolute crap. Even at the bottom of one page in one book I even wrote, I must've re-wrote this in a sober moment, this so called song I wrote under the influence and I wrote "what a lot of bollocks." I mean, clearly I could see. So it's not necessary at all. It's not necessary for energy. It's not necessary for inspiration. It's not necessary for the schedule. It's absolutely not necessary for anything.
Q - In 1972 I recall seeing Uriah Heep. Also on the same bill was Earth, Wind And Fire and ZZ Top. How did that come about? Was that because A.T.I. booked all those groups?
A - That's a good question. It has something to do with that. It has something to do with the fact that very often record companies sign a new band and they want to get 'em out on the road so they put 'em out on the road with one of their more established bands. So there is some kind of, well, there was some kind of synergy there that was deliberate and planned. It made sense. When we went out on the road with Three Dog Night, it exposed a brand new English band to sixteen thousand people a night. Not a bad plan when you think about it. You have to remember also that in those days there were not so many bands. There were not so many record companies. There were not so many pigeon holes which music was played. We went out on tour with Deep Purple and Buddy Miles at one time. I remember that Earth Wind And Fire tour. I remember touring with Ike and Tina Turner. Those kinds of things were common in those days. It made sense because it put great bands with different styles on the same bill, which meant that the value for your dollar as a member of the audience was colossal. Nowadays of course it can't happen because even though, yes, we had egos in those days they weren't all powerful and all controlling. Now of course the record companies run everything and so those things aren't done with the audiences in mind. They've got thousands and thousands and thousands of bands all chasing the same dollar. It's a whole different world. In those days all that mattered was the music and to be honest with you in the earliest days of Rock 'n' Roll none of us knew what we were doing. We just knew we were playing and the agencies were trying to figure out what to do with Rock bands. Record companies were trying to figure out what to do with Rock bands because all they had before was Pop groups. It was a revolution. It was a great thing to be part of. It didn't matter if we were on a bill with Deep Purple or Earth, Wind And Fire or Buddy Miles. We went out and played music and had fun the people who came to see us had fun. Now, you can't do that anymore.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock one critic wrote about Uriah Heep "If this group makes it, I'll have to commit suicide." I don't get it. Was so offensive about Uriah Heep.
A - In actual fact, that was a lady by the name of Melissa Mills, who was a record reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine when she received our first record from Mercury, I think it was when she received that to review. That was her opening line of the review of the record. You have to believe we had some fun with that, especially when we accomplished what she was going to kill herself over.
Q - I bet she's still alive today.
A - The last time I knew, and this is going back many, many years, she was working in the subscription department of Rolling Stone. Yeah, it was Melissa Mills who wrote that and I think we even featured that on our 'live' album cover because it's a stupid thing to say. Look, Uriah Heep wasn't perfect, wasn't the greatest band in the world, but it gave people something that they wanted at a time when they really wanted it, willingly and energetically and pretty much without stopping. I think we deserved the success we achieved. I think we worked hard for it and we deserved it. Probably what they did was they just gave the reviewing task to the wrong person. I mean, we had some very unkind press, especially in the U.K., in our home country. None of the critics there ever thought we would achieve anything. They labeled us with all kinds of unkind labels and of course the more we achieved, the more it pissed them off and so the more they wrote bad stuff about us. We didn't care. The fact is, if you've got twenty-thousand people in an arena and one person doesn't like what you do, who you gonna listen to? (laughs) I just make music. I can't guarantee that people are gonna like what I do and it's OK if they don't. So, I just do what I do. What I do is very honest and natural and organic. I obviously hope that people like it, but if they don't... I listen to music a lot and I listen to a lot of music don't like. So I can understand that not all music fits all tastes. It's fine. But the reason for people to be so caustic and to try and determine other people's tastes by their own I think is a little irrational. We had some very interesting experiences with concert reviews because we were doing an interview in the afternoon with a local magazine or newspaper and then during that interview that person would specifically ask us what we were going to play. We finally twigged the fact that what they were doing. They didn't actually come to the show, they just quoted the set list from what we told them in the interview. So, once we twigged that, anybody that asked us that, we simply made up a list of imaginary songs and just sat back and let them publish it and laughed in our beer. You can't account for people's behavior. If people have better things to do than honestly review a show, then fine. It's all nonsense. You can't bother yourself with it. You can't allow yourself to get tangled up in it. Otherwise it's contagious and you don't want to be involved in that. We were just five guys having fun. We weren't the greatest musicians in the world, but we came along at the right time. A lot of kids supported us and encouraged us and inspired us and so we kicked on for as long as we could.
Q - Did you ever have the opportunity to see The Beatles at a club in the early '60s?
A - I didn't ever see them 'live' when they were The Beatles. I saw McCartney 'live' a couple of times, but I never actually saw The Beatles 'live'. I had a close encounter with them when I was recording with The Gods in '67, '68 because we were recording at Abbey Road. They were frequently there. We just saw them through the glass. We weren't able to go anywhere near them. I met George Harrison later on when I lived fairly close to him. I had a guy working for me that used to work for George. Then I met Paul McCartney three or four occasions after that. When I was young, my biggest influences musically were mainly American musicians and some of the English people that kind of bordered on Pop / Rock like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele. The first real inkling that I had of where I wanted to go was the first time I saw a Who concert 'live'. I can't remember what year that was, but I just felt that energy was enormous and I wanted to somehow grab some of it. I've always been sort or a lyrical and melodic songwriter. I've never really brought the Rock element to the table other than in my own personal attitude. But I've sort of subscribed to it and enjoyed it. So, what The Beatles did for me in terms of inspiration is they came with these great songs that were kind of a little Rock 'n' Roll rebellion built into 'em and so I thought, well finally somebody's writing Rock songs with intelligent lyrics. That seemed to me to be a pretty cool direction to go in.
Q - At Abbey Road you saw all of The Beatles?
A - Yeah. A couple of times. Yoko was there and all their minders. It was usually when they walked out in the corridor from Studio Two in the direction of the front door basically. They were on their way in or their way out.
Q - I wonder what album they would've been recording then.
A - Well, that's a splendid question, but I can't answer because I'm definitely not a historian any more than I'm a collector. You'll have to figure that one out for yourself.
Q - You should write your autobiography.
A - Actually, I did write my autobiography. It was published about three years ago, but it was primarily about my life outside of music. I felt like there was enough stuff already published concerning my life within music. I tried to focus more on the background of how I got into the business, why and so on and so forth, to fill in some of the blanks when people only focus on your musical life. So, I did that. It was received pretty well. It's been translated into two or three different languages. It wasn't marketed very well because the company that published it were tremendous at packaging and producing a really nice product, but they weren't very good actually at advertising, promoting and marketing it. It didn't hit the Best Seller list by any means. I just got the rights back to it a couple months back and my manager and I will probably at some point in time take it to a real publisher and have it re-issued. I've been thinking also a lot more about writing a follow-up to that. I already feel like even since 2005 I think it was when it was published, so much more has happened in my life in terms of my attitude to music, my attitude to the industry and my attitude to my own personal history and future, that I think there's probably something reasonably substantial there. I'm not really in a hurry to do anything else at this point. I'm quite busy. I've just released a CD with my 'live' band "Live Fire", which I was very happy with. At the same time, a few months later I finished mixing a record that I had been recording a couple of years previously.
Q - Looks like you're taking your act these days to Eastern Europe.
A - Yeah. Well, Eastern Europe was a market that opened up after I moved to the States and left Uriah Heep. Prior to that it wasn't open, markets like Brazil, South Africa, Russia and so on. None of those markets were open to Western bands. And they all opened up. The most gratifying thing about playing in those markets, the former Communist countries, the people there are so grateful for the music. They were so completely repressed and oppressed during those years. They would go to jail if they were caught with Western L.P.s of Western music, so now when they get to see it, feel it, touch it, for real or even to talk to you, obviously it means so much to them. People say to me sometimes, I represent freedom to them in those days. That's hardly anything you can conceive of as a composer at all.
Q - I'm guessing when you tour Russia and the Ukraine, you're playing three to five thousand seat theatres?
A - Right.
Q - That's pretty good, isn't it?
A - Oh, it's always good. You have to have a completely different technique to play in those markets because obviously as thrilling as it is for me as a musician to get up close with fans that I've never been able to get up close with before, at the same time you're still dealing with people who are trying to get the goods with free market economics. So there's a lot of corruption. You have to make sure you get all the money up front and that you have adequate security because there's a lot of crime in some of those places. They're still growing. It's gonna take them a long time before they're really Westernized. I'm not just talking politically either. I'm talking culturally and socially and they have a lot of adjustments to make and it and it will take them a long time to do it.
Q - Speaking of adjustments, was it a big adjustment for you to go from being in such a big group like Uriah Heep to doing your solo act? Or was it easier than you imagined?
A - Well, you have a choice, don't you? Of course you can continue trying to do the same thing or to imagine that things are the same as they were, but realistically they're not. So you have to come to terms with it and that was the hardest thing for me ten years ago was to try to decide what to do. Clearly the industry had left me way behind. I was out of it for a long time when I was getting my life back and getting rid of my drug habit. When I started to take a look around, I realized there's no place for me in the industry no matter what my history is. So I basically had to start an industry of my own. And that's a huge risk. So I made that decision. Occasionally it's a rocky road. I mean, it's just a decision of do I go out with my band and call it Ken Hensley's Uriah Heep? I said no. I could probably make more money if I did that, but it wouldn't be honest. I guess in my own way, a part of my history influences the markets, reaction to what I do, but it doesn't necessarily mask everything I'm trying to do. When Mick goes to do a gig, he has to play "July Morning", whether he likes it or not. When I go to do a gig, I can play what I like. Of course, I do play "July Morning", but that's not the point.
Q - How do promoters bill you, Ken Hensley Formerly of Uriah Heep?
A - Formerly of Uriah Heep or The Songwriting Legend of Uriah Heep, whatever. They're instructed on the contract to use some kind of past tense reference. They're also instructed on the contract to make sure any reference to Uriah Heep is in substantially smaller print than my name so that we're not deluding the audience in any way, shape or form. Sometimes a promoter will try to work around that and you have to deal with that. But generally speaking my audiences are much smaller and my appearances are much less frequent. But at the same time they're very satisfying and very enjoyable for me as apparently as it is for everybody else. So, I'm happy with the decision I made and I'm happy I'm still doing what I've been doing my whole life and happy to have my health and strength. You have to really avoid repeating mistakes and that's a tough thing for me.
Q - Were you cheated out of royalties by management and record companies?
A - Well, I don't know if there's any way to know if you're cheated by managers or record companies because it's such ancient history. I have no doubt in my mind and I'm certainly not pointing fingers or naming names, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that I wasn't paid all I was supposed to be paid. But the fact of the matter is my residual income from royalties is OK. If that's all I had, then my wife and I would continue to live, albeit somewhat modestly. I've certainly adjusted to the difference in my financial lifestyle from the glory days until now. That's been an easy adjustment to make.