Gary James' Interview With
"The Nicest Guy In Rock"
They enjoyed enormous success in the 1970s Rock world, selling over forty million records and traveling the world, playing to sell-out audiences. They are part of what is known as The Big Four: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. And so, we spoke to Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box, know as "The Nicest Guy In Rock", who incidentally lives up to that reputation.
Q - Mick, I've actually interviewed you before. It was backstage at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, New York.
Q - But I don't remember who else was on the bill at the time.
A - Well, I don't remember that at all. I don't remember the bill. It could've been anyone. It could've been KISS supporting us or us supporting KISS or Rush supporting KISS. It could've been anyone.
Q - It wasn't KISS and it wasn't Rush. Even before then, I saw Uriah Heep in August, 1972 at the Syracuse War Memorial. Uriah Heep was headlining. Earth, Wind And Fire opened the show and in between was Z.Z. Top.
A - Yeah. What a bill that was! I've just recently seen a poster of that. (laughs)
Q - That was the full tour for that line-up, wasn't it?
A - Yeah. A full tour. Back in those days music wasn't pigeon holed, was it? It was either good or bad so we didn't have the same mindset we do nowadays where we go and see a package. I think they'd be scared of putting one genre on with another genre. It wouldn't work, but in those days it was either good or bad music. And it was all good.
Q - Wouldn't it be great to have audiences today exposed to that type of bill?
A - We turned on their audience and their audience was turned on by us. You had a chance to develop your audience rather than just playing to the people who already love you. So, it gives you a chance to actually spread your wings a bit, which in great. If you could turn on an Earth, Wind And Fire audience, then you knew you're a winner. (laughs)
Q - That tour lasted what? Three months?
A - Very much so. Three month tours. We used to leave England and basically spend nine months in America.
Q - It's a big country, a lot of venues.
A - It is. When we first started, we sort of treated it as an army maneuver really. We'd hit the Midwest 'cause we knew that was s strong point for us. Then we'd let the umbrella grow a bit and then we'd do either coast and build them up. It was kind of a real big planner.
Q - You are the only original member in Uriah Heep performing today?
A - Yes. I formed a band way back when. It's been my baby ever since. So, it's very true. It's just me.
Q - I remember when Gary Thain accidently stepped into a solo of someone else on that '72 tour and he started laughing. But those are the kind of things you remember.
A - You do, the oddest things. (laughs) Sometimes it's those things that make the concert. I'll give you a for instance: Occasionally there'll be a big power failure. If you're a playing band you find a way to continue. Often with us when a power surge has happened and it's a lengthy one, I'll go down to the front with Bernie Shaw, our singer, and we do an acoustic thing for the fans and that really stays with them forever. They won't see that again. It's through circumstance and I think that's great. It makes an evening special for sure.
Q - When you turn on one of these award shows you only see Rap and Country acts, which begs the question, "Where does an act like Uriah Heep perform?"
A - Luckily enough we have a fan following all over the world, so we play in over sixty countries. We're doing fine, thank-you. I guess we've just build up a reputation as a great 'live' band that's stood for all this period of time. I also think we've had a lot of songs that have stood the test of time. People still like hearing that in the 'live' arena and you put that together with the band's reputation as a good 'live' band. We don't go out there with all the bells and whistles. We don't do the fireworks. We don't do the make-up. We don't do the hair part up. We don't do any of those sort of things. We just come out and give an honest Rock show and people are really, really buying into that now. I think they're really getting tired of one guy singing as a choir coming off the stage. All the tapes, at least with us, you see the veins popping out in our necks 'cause we're hitting all the notes. I mean, people are really relating to that now.
Q - It almost seems like everything that could be done in Rock music has been done. So, the only thing to do is to go back to the beginning, the music.
A - Absolutely. For us, see it's always been about the music. We never actually created an image for ourselves that we got stuck in, if you like. We always let the music be our image and that's the way we dealt with it from Day One.
Q - If you were a Rock musician in the 1970s you were special. Being a British Rock musician you were really special. You were talking about make-up. KISS takes off their make-up, I don't know if they were recognized off stage. When you would get off stage would anyone say, "Hey, there's Mick Box, Uriah Heep!"?
A - Most definitely, yeah. But it was always good natured. We never had any trouble with fans. It's a lot how you carry yourself. If you walk in a circle of bodyguards you're going to get the attention you don't really want, even though you're craving it. So, we're very natural about it. With a band like Uriah Heep you have to have an ego to get on stage in the first instance 'cause that's what it's all about, but then you leave the ego on stage and you come off and you're just plain Joe Schmoe when you come back off. That's the way we deal with it. We're very personable when we meet people. We shake their hands, have our pictures taken with them. It's not a problem for us. We're just normal people that just happen to play music. We provide the music.
Q - Very early on, a reviewer said, "If this group makes it, I'll commit suicide." I don't know why a guy would say that.
A - I think it was a lady to be honest. I think her name was Melissa Manchester, from Rolling Stone.
Q - Not the singer?
A - No. I don't think so. (laughs) I might've even gotten the name wrong. It was Melissa something.* But, I agree with you. I don't know why they say things like that. I think if you're going to review something, you say, "Look, it's not my cup of tea, but people are buying it in droves." It's a slightly different response, isn't it? "If this band makes it, I'll commit suicide," is stupid. This same reviewer said, "They sound like a third rate Jethro Tull." I can guarantee that those five members of Uriah Heep, not one of us playing our instruments standing on one leg. There she goes more far off the beaten track. To be honest, critics criticize, don't they? (laughs) That's what they do best and that's what they do. They're not interested in people's feelings or anything like that. The unfortunate thing is we proved her wrong a million times and is she still writing for Rolling Stone? I think not.
Q - She should have been an interviewer and just told you why she didn't like your particular form of music.
A - Absolutely. Talk to us and you'll probably get a different opinion to what you're thinking. Sometimes when you're getting a degree of success there's many people who want to put you down, as many as who want to put you up.
Q - And she wanted to put you down!
A - She was, and that comment has stayed with us for now, how long? Forty-five years. (laughs)
Q - And here you are.
A - And here we are. It's laughable when you think about it.
Q - You were a teenager in London when the whole British Invasion just exploded. Did you see the groups of the day in concert? Did you see The Beatles or The Stones in a club setting or a concert setting?
A - I was born in 1947 and that was like winning the musical lottery because from that moment on, coming out of the '60s into the '70s, it was magical. Absolutely magical. Now, I didn't see The Beatles and I didn't see The Stones, funny enough because I was too busy myself out working. But, obviously I was very aware of what they were doing. They were all over the TV and in the press. You couldn't ignore them at all. It was just fantastic, but out of that came the genre that I was very proud to be a part of and that's The Big Four, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath. Without knowing it, we just were rebellious. If you look at a lot of the bands in the early days of the '60s they were very smart, smart haircuts, did a little dance while they played, it was all very clean-cut if you like. We rebelled against that and came out with long hair and bell bottoms. We had Marshall stacks, the bigger the better. So, it was a complete rebellious time. But out of that came some really great music that stood the test of time today with all those bands. I think a lot of it is because it's honest, it's real. It's bands going into the studio, playing their songs and recording them. It's not people going in piece meal or getting three months for a drum sound or a producer polishing off all the magic until it's sterile and horrible. (laughs) This was really real and I think that's the reason it's lasted, to be honest.
Q - But, as a teenager, you never walked down the street and saw a mob of people surrounding a car that maybe The Beatles were in, or The Stones?
A - No. I kind of saw that from a distance really, from TV and the media at the time. I did go see The Kinks on a package tour and that was a lot of screaming. So, I did witness it a little bit, but I didn't go see The Beatles. For starters, my mother was a single parent. My dad died when I was six years old. So, my mother brought me up and she didn't have the money for me to go to these concerts. it was enough that she could buy me the records I wanted so i could put them on the old wind-up stereo and learn songs off them.
Q - In America we called it a record player and in Britain you called it a wind-up?
A - Well, it was a wind-up in those days. You had to wind it up to get the momentum.
Q - You played 78s on them.
A - Yes. Then it turned into the 45s and all that sort of stuff with the record players. That whole industry grew from there.
Q - When you achieved some fame in the '70s did these clubs like The Ad-Lib and Scotch Of St. James still exist?
A - Scotch Of St. James definitely. Whiskey A Go-Go.
Q - Would you go in those clubs and see other famous musicians?
A - Oh, yeah. There were three major places in London; The Whiskey A Go-Go, which was the hang-out for all musicians and crew. There was a pub off the The Marquee Club, just down the market, called The Ship. Across the road, on Waldour Street, was a place called St. Moritz. So, they were kind of the three places you'd hit every time.
Q - No doubt you saw the biggest musicians of the era in these clubs, of which you were a part.
A - Yeah, we were a part of the whole scene, so it was just like being with everyone who was akin to what you were doing and what they were. It was a real big scene that was happening and we were right in the middle of it. You had Carnaby Street, where everybody bought their clothes. King's Row in Chelsea, where the fashion was. Those two places is where you went to get your stage clothes. I remember the stage clothes were starting to be worn on the street. (laughs) I remember getting my first high stack boots and thinking this is wonderful because I'm only 5'6" or something. "Wow! I'm as tall as everyone else now," but then the 6' people bought them and they went up higher as well. (laughs) The ratio was still there. I was still the smallest.
Q - Everyone was always trying to one-up you.
A - Well, yeah 'cause it was that time. In those days it was only really football, fashion and music to be involved in. There wasn't anything else really, whereas nowadays you can do ten times that on your i-phone, can't you? You're spread really thin nowadays with people attention, if you like. There's so many avenues you can travel now, whereas then there was only those three really. To get someone's interest in those days it was really easy because that was all there was to interest people.
Q - Now, whatever you choose to do, it has to grab the public instantly. I'm talking music, TV, fashion and film.
A - Yeah, everything's got to have that worldly appeal to it.
Q - And that quality is incredibly difficult to have.
A - It's harder and harder to get absolutely, yeah because of all the diversions. It wasn't quite so diverse when we came out. So, it was easier to get our music played.
Q - When you would go into one of these clubs would someone like a Paul McCartney come up to you and say, "Hey Mick. Heard the latest record. Good stuff."?
A - Well, he didn't really hang out in there 'cause they were The Beatles. Wherever they went it was quite exclusive. With Zeppelin, Purple and us, we all went to the same clubs. The Speakeasy is where everyone met. And in fact you finished a gig and you drove for two hours to get down there to carry on drinking that night and talk about the gig you had. You'd be down there. Hendrix would be down there, The Beatles, Clapton. Everyone would be down there.
Q - If you knew everybody was there did the general public also know that?
A - They did, but the general public weren't always allowed in. It was one of those exclusive clubs to get in.
Q - A membership club?
A - Yeah, a membership thing. The idea was people of that ilk would go in and relax and chill and chat without being bothered by people wanting to have their picture taken. We could just relax.
Q - The guy at the door at one of these clubs had a powerful position.
A - The guy at the door was key to everything.
Q - Maybe you wouldn't have your card with you.
A - Yes or no. Quite often, yeah. But we used to know the managers quite well. If we didn't have the card they would just wave you in 'cause they knew you so well.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll, Uriah Heep disbanded in 1978 and reformed in 1982. Again, I thought I saw Uriah Heep in concert in the late 1970s. Did you disband? Is that true?
A - It's definitely not true at all. I disbanded the band in the "Conquest" line-up, which was John Simon, Trevor Bolder, Chris Slade and Grey Decker, because Ken (Hensley) had left at the time. I just folded it after a long European tour. I could just see we weren't going in the right direction as Uriah Heep. We had a singer that sang more like Stevie Wonder than David Byron, if you like. It was kind of just not happening. I disbanded the band somewhere in the early 1980s and then I went to the liquor store and bought a small bottle of vodka and went back to my apartment in London and tried to drown my sorrows. I got up with the worst hangover in the world. I said to myself, "Right. It's time to get yourself together." I was phoning Lee Kerslake, who used to be in our band for a lot of the time and he left to go with Ozzy Osbourne. I phoned up Lee 'cause he was about to go on a U.S. tour with Ozzy. I phoned him up and said, "Good luck, Lee." He said, "Funny enough, I'm not going." I said, "Why is that?" He said, "Sharon's decided she wants an all-American hair band, and me and Bob aren't going." I said, "Oh, that's a shame. Well look, I've got a contract, a recording contract. I've got work. I've got all the equipment. I've got agents. Are you still interested in coming back?" He said as long as Gerry Bron, who was our manager at the time, wasn't involved. "He is involved 'cause he is the record company, but I will manage it. You won't have to see him." He said, "If that's the case, I'm with you mate." So I said "I'll ask Bob if he's free 'cause he might be." Then Bob came and suddenly I had the nucleus of a band together in two days. So Rolling Stone had it wrong. It was about a two day period max. (laughs)
Q - Was Uriah Heep ripped off by different managerial people?
A - Completely, yeah. I don't think anybody in the era of our genre didn't get ripped off. Some survived it better than others, but most did (get ripped off). Quite often you were given things to sign. I couldn't afford a lawyer to ask, "Is this good or bad?" So, you think if I sign it I stand to do what I love or I don't sign it and I'll go stacking shelves somewhere. (laughs) So you sign it in the hope and trust that they've given you something decent in life, but quite often it wasn't.
Q - Did anyone in the band ever ask, "How much money are we making?"
A - Of course they did. When I was managing the band they could see very clearly every penny. I think that's why it's lasted so long. I managed the band for about twelve or fourteen years, but everybody was just deliriously happy about that because you had no brick walls. When I was out on the road with 'em and you wanted to ask a question about finance, I'd open up the computer and there it is. You know when you're going to get paid. In fact, quite often by the time you're home it's in your account. So, it was a very comfortable place to be by managing ourselves except it just got too much for me. Not only was I managing, but I was tour managing as well. I was taking the band around the world. They hadn't coined the phrase at that point, but it was definitely 24/7. (laughs)
Q - You were doing the job of three people.
A - And writing and recording and playing and everything else. It was very arduous, but because we felt that was the way the band needed to carry on to survive, that's what we did.
Q - Were you producing the band as well?
A - No, no. Always had a producer. I think a band like Uriah Heep always needs a producer, although we're very capable of doing it, that sixth opinion is very important at times.
Q - Since Uriah Heep is so well-known, you really don't need a record company, do you? You could put out a record on your own label.
A - There is that possibility, but because we tour so much around the world it's better for us to have a record company that has outlets in all those countries we tour to benefit more and also promoters like that insurance if you like that they've got someone to go to, to help with the ads and everything else. We've actually got Uriah Heep records where we have a certain part of our business that goes out under Cherry Records, Uriah Heep Records under Cherry Records in London. As for new stuff, we'd always be with a label I think.
Q - You own how many guitars? Forty plus?
A - Yeah.
Q - Why do you need so many guitars? Do you use some of them for stage and some for recording?
A - You sound like my wife? (laughs) Quite often through life I've had enough popularity that guitar companies want to use me, to use my name, to encourage young kids to play, which is fine by me. Washburn, Yamaha. Loads of 'em. When you do they tend to give you five or six guitars, which to be honest don't see the light of day, but they just want you to have them. As often is the case, I say, "I'm not going to use them. I don't need it," but they still give 'em to you. They turn up. There comes a ring at the doorbell with some more guitars, which is very lovely of them. That's how the collection came about. For the ones I actually use, I tend to use most of them, which is probably about fifteen to twenty of them.
Q - Are those guitars customized especially for you? A person can't walk into a guitar store and say, "I want the same guitar Mick Box uses," can they?
A - You can. I've got a company now based in Canada called Carparelli Guitars and Carparelli made my own signature guitar. So, you can go on to the website and speak with Mike Carparelli and buy the Mick Box guitar fully loaded with everything I use, which to be honest is standard 'cause I don't like the gadgets and gizmos. So I just want a solid, good guitar that you take out on the road and sounds good every night.
Q - You have your guitars stored all over the world? How do you keep them secure?
A - They're usually with family and friends I can trust. I've got one in France, one in America, one in Australia, so that I don't have to carry them or go through the process of taking them on the plane. So I get out there, pick it up and an acoustic is sitting there and I can carry on writing.
Q - Well now, you're known as "The Nicest Guy In Rock."
A - Lordy, Lordy, that's a bit of a tag, isn't it? (laughs)
Q - For an interviewer like myself, yourself is nice and civil and laughs and answers the questions in a polite manner. Plenty of people don't do that.
A - I think you have to be an open book for everything and talk normally. I just have a natural feel for it. I got it from my mother. You should be able to sit down and have a dinner party with kings and queens and a tramp under a bridge. It should be equal. Everything's equal ground to me. I don't see it any differently
Q - Sort of sounds like you're also describing Frank Sinatra. He was like that.
A - Was he really? I don't know too much about Frank except for his golden voice.
Q - Where are you performing these days?
A - I leave tomorrow for France. We've got festivals all through the year, mostly European. We've got one festival we're just finding out about that came through that's in Japan, in Tokyo. Then we got another one that came through for November in Dubai. We've got some U.K. festivals, lots of European stuff. Then over to South America by the end of the year. Before all that, hopefully between September, October and November, recording a new album. We're talking to producers at the moment. We're trying to make a decision on which producer. It looks like the studios are free. We may go to Rockfield, which is steeped in history. It's in Wales. Everyone's recorded there from Genesis to Zeppelin for years and years and years. So, it's got a great history to it. We're looking at all that at the moment. And right now I'm writing.
Q - In the U.S. if we don't hear about a band, we naturally assume the band isn't doing too much, but Uriah Heep is busy!
A - Yeah. We look at the U.S. but we've got another fifty-nine countries we play, so you can see how far afield we go. We were very lucky in the early days. We used to go to the Eastern Bloc countries when it was very different to go there, where most bands in the '70s basically did America, Canada and mainland Europe. We went the entire nine yards. We always had a saying in the band. "If the people can't come to the music, we'll take the music to the people." So, we always went to East Berlin when the Wall was there. We went to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, all these places which they just loved. And now because of that, the Wall has come down and we're almost part of their folklore. So, we can always go and tour those territories. And it's wonderful that we can go there now. Where we used to go and see gray and depression, we see smiling faces and color. It's wonderful.
Q - Was there enough money in the beginning to make it profitable to tour those countries?
A - I don't want to be too cliche, but that was never our motivation. We never looked at it as money. We looked at it as playing our music and getting it out to people. That's still how it stands today. Money comes and goes, but I'm doing something I love. If you do something like that, then you never do a day's work in your life. (laughs)
Q - I can believe you wouldn't necessarily be doing it for the money, but how did you pay all the support people it takes to get Uriah Heep on stage?
A - We're lucky enough to be successful in the major countries to support that. So, it really wasn't an issue. Over there, don't forget they had different currencies at the time. There wasn't the Euro across them countries. Every country's currency didn't mean a lot when you brought it back here. (England) (laughs)
Q - So, what did you do with the money.
A - I can tell you a funny story. We were in one very Eastern European nightclub, which wasn't a nightclub at all. It was just tables and chairs, dimly lit with a candle in there and some music playing. We were all there drinking and enjoying ourselves. Uriah Heep is a band that can self entertain. We enjoy each other's company. We have a good laugh no matter where we are. We were doing that in this particular club. I can't remember where the club was. I think it might've been some place like Yugoslavia. I went to go to the toilet and I'd been given all this local currency which was absolutely useless to me. So I bought lots of drinks for everyone. I went to go to the toilet and in those days you use to have an old lady, and they still do to a degree, cleaning the toilets. I went in and she's got a little saucer there and I threw a wad of notes down and then her eyes lit up. She couldn't believe it. Then she threw her hands around my shoulders, kissing me. That's very nice. I was speaking to the promoter and told him she's very, very grateful. And he said, "Well, you've just given her a year's money. She would be grateful. They get paid so little." But the funny thing was, the rest of the guys in the crew were doing the same as me. (laughs)
Q - And today that woman is a successful business woman!
A - She probably is. She probably owns Toilets 'R' Us. But that's what we did with money. We'd give it to people or buy something that we can pass on to someone.