When I was 14 or 15, I was an aspiring rock keyboard player, particularly enamored with Deep Purple's Jon Lord. Then a friend introduced me to Uriah Heep. I was knocked out by all the fantastic material such as "Easy Livin'", "Sweet Lorraine", "Sunrise," "Stealin'" and many more. Even more than the songs, I was hypnotized by the distinctive organ sound of Ken Hensley. His approach had a real bite that stood as a pillar of the Heep sound and when I read the credits I found that he had written the bulk of the material as well.
Ken has recently released a fantastic new record "Blood on the Highway" which has been glued to my stereo since I got it. It's sort of an autobiographical record that traces his career in rock and the hills and valleys that accompanied it. I had the great pleasure to do an email interview with Ken to talk about it:
antiMusic: Why do you think it was necessary to tell your story at this time?
Ken Hensley: I had just completed what I refer to as a "life cycle" in which I was fully reconciled to both the life behind me and the life ahead so it seemed that this peace would allow me to tell the story both in words and music.
antiMusic: When did you first think about doing a record in this style (autobiographical)?
Ken Hensley: After the head of my record company read the first edition of my book and suggested that we should cover the musical side of it on a CD.
antiMusic: How long did the record take to put together? Were there things that you wanted to put in there but lyrically were hard to get down on paper? Or hard to find the music to convey the proper mood of the lyrics?
Ken Hensley: About seven months from start to finish. The main reason for this was that I was writing "on the fly" whereas I normally finish the songs before I start recording. This was an interesting process and not an impediment at all.
The songs themselves came quickly though, because the concept was defined and so were the individual topics. I always write lyrics first and find the rhythms and melodies in them.
antiMusic: Your story sounds like a common story in rock history. You start off a new band, get some success, money, drugs, and women before hitting some potholes in life. Would you change any of your experiences or do you chalk it up to the experiences you had to go through?
Ken Hensley: Well first let me say that music doesn't force you to make bad choices, we are all individually responsible for the consequences of the decisions and choices we make and it is the drug thing that I would change if I could. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with money, success and women, though they can all cause problems, but I have always had an addictive personality so it was inevitable that some apparently harmless "dabbling" would lead me into full-blown addiction.
antiMusic: Since this is a personal story, why did you select guest vocalists rather than telling the story yourself?
Ken Hensley: Well, it is a personal story but I was trying to get the message across that there were a lot of us out there and I wanted the various voices to add different colours at different times whilst realistically capturing the spirit of the time.
I am not a great rock singer either, so I definitely needed Jorn's voice as well as John Lawton's
antiMusic: How did you go about selecting each vocalist?
Ken Hensley: As I finished each song I began to think about who would be best to sing it. It wasn't difficult really. I knew Jorn because my touring band is from Norway and he had jammed with us before and I was introduced to Eve Gallagher by a friend in Switzerland where she now lives.
antiMusic: What memories came back to you when you wrote:
"We're on Our Way"
Ken Hensley: The excitement of feeling that something was really happening and that a dream might really come true!!
"Blood on the Highway"
Ken Hensley: The fact that we all worked so hard to forge completely new paths and make new rules. Blood, Sweat and Tears!
"Doom (Scenes 1 + 2)
Ken Hensley: It really happens/happened. It really causes problems and it is really relevant to the story.
"I Did It All"
Ken Hensley: For me at least, this is a really important song! When faced with the fact that you are not what or who you once were, that the industry you helped to build has consigned you to the trash and that you must deal with the death of your ego, you have a couple of choices. You can either be bitter and twisted about it or you can reflect positively on the fact that you did accomplish a lot, you did make a difference, you did realise a lot of dreams and that you achieved something that 99.9% of the population can only wonder about. The last chorus of this song could have gone either way but I am happy where I am in life so it had to go the way it did. And I thank God for that!
antiMusic: Is the cover with the mirror a sort of nod to "Look at Yourself"?
Ken Hensley: No! With LAY it was the whole cover, here it is only a component, there to symbolise the period of reflection that created the album.
antiMusic: The packaging is great. Did you spend a lot of time designing everything or did the concept come to you right away?
Ken Hensley: Actually I didn't have much to do with it, it was all designed and executed by the record company, Membran. They sent me stuff to approve etc. but they deserve all of the credit.
antiMusic: Going back a bit, your early organ sound was so unique. One knew right away it was you. What did you first start using and how did you develop your sound?
Ken Hensley: My first organ was a Farfisa. Then I got a thing called a Bird but I always wanted a Hammond and I began with an L100 with a 145 Leslie. As soon as I was able to buy a B3 I did and that was when I started exploring this amazing instrument. There are countless sounds in it of course but there are also a lot of little tricks you can do to create sound effects... you just have to be willing to experiment. That was how I found my basic sounds and you have to inject the right "attitude" into it too!
antiMusic: Tell us about the back of Benny's Pub.
Ken Hensley: I don't know if his name was Benny but the pub was in Chiswick, West London. I could take you there tomorrow but, even if it was Benny, he would have moved on by now. In those days a lot of us rehearsed in pubs and did a gig there now and then to pay for it.
antiMusic: Do you remember Heep's first tour of the U.S.? How did it go over and who did you play with?
Ken Hensley: I will always remember it. It was June 1971 and we toured with Three Dog Night which meant we played in sold-out arenas and got our first glimpse of limos and groupies. We were hooked!
antiMusic: What were your first impressions at that time of being so far from home and on the road?
Ken Hensley: Being on the road was nothing new to me, I had been doing it for nearly 8 years already. And I was an outcast from home at an early age so I didn't get homesick- I just occasionally missed fish and chips! Basically I was having far too much fun to worry about anything--It's all in my book by the way.
antiMusic: "Sunrise", "Stealin'", "Gypsy", "Easy Livin'" among many, are songs of the highest caliber. Is there one song that you think of as being the best representative of Uriah Heep?
Ken Hensley: It's almost impossible to pick one but "Stealin" and "Easy Living" best illustrate the simple, high-energy stuff that we were known for in the US. In Europe and other parts of the world the most enduring hit is "Lady In Black".
antiMusic: "Live '73" is one of my all-time favourite live records. Do you remember the show at all and was it as special for you as it is for us?
Ken Hensley: It was special and it was really interesting because we had had the Rolling Stones mobile on the road with us and until we got to this gig we had not really captured a good enough live performance so we were a bit nervous because this was our last opportunity. When we arrived for sound check we just gave up because the acoustics were so bad we felt sure we wouldn't get a result so we just forgot about the recording and blasted through the show, that's why it's so good!!
antiMusic: You've celebrated the memory of Gary Thain and David Byron often in your live shows. What are your memories of them?
Ken Hensley: Gary was the best musician in the band and a unique character, flawed only by the fact that he had no other interest than playing. This meant that, when we had time off, he was free to indulge his addiction and that's what ultimately killed him.
David was a fantastic front man until the alcohol got the better of him and I will always think of him as the best "interpreter" of my song lyrics.
antiMusic: Why did you decide to leave Heep?
Ken Hensley: I had tried to leave a few times before but was always persuaded to stay. However, when the band voted to hire John Sloman, I knew the time was coming and after the last European tour with them in 1980, I had become tired of being in what had become a cover band and simply quit... with no idea of what I would do next.
antiMusic: What are some of your best memories of the band?
Ken Hensley: Generally speaking it was the musical camaraderie, getting our first gold record in Chicago and knowing we were a part of something historic. Musically I loved the Demons & Wizards period because we were so "connected" at that time.
antiMusic: It seemed odd to me at the time when you joined Blackfoot. Why did you decide to join them and what is your take on that stage of your career?
Ken Hensley: Well, it was odd and for a number of reasons. When they called, I was invited to add Hammond and synth to the new album they were working on and I was told they wanted to shake their Southern Rock image. I had heard of the band but I didn't know too much about them but I agreed to do the record and went to Michigan to do it. They were fun people, badly managed, but Ricky was (and probably still is) a great singer and guitar player. The main problem I had was trying to fit my style of playing into their cut-time rhythms. I was a little out of my depth and the songs had been written in their normal style. It was uncomfortable but, when they asked me to tour I agreed mainly because I wasn't doing anything else. Not the most fulfilling time of my life but I blame myself for that, not them.
antiMusic: You've played both keyboards more so earlier on in your career and a lot more guitar later (although you did both at every point along the way). Your organ sound was a cornerstone of the band. Do you have a preference for either or does it depend on the song. And also on which do you most often compose?
Ken Hensley: I have only written a few songs on the Hammond. The technique it requires is probably okay for jazz composition but it doesn't often work for pop or rock, at least not for me. I used to write mainly on guitar but over the last few years I have spent more time playing and writing on piano so that I am more comfortable with that instrument now. I still don't play well enough for close scrutiny but, as I explore and experiment with composition I find the piano helps me more. But I still spend an equal amount of time "playing" both.
antiMusic: I loved your work with John Lawton, especially the live record. It really shows that great music transcends time periods as all the music still sounds really fresh. Do you have plans to work with John at all in the future?
Ken Hensley: Actually I am doing a show with John in Kiev on October 25th but those things are generally not planned, they usually just "happen." John is a great singer and we like to work together occasionally.
antiMusic: Did you ever regret your decision to leave Heep?
Ken Hensley: No. The aftermath wasn't easy because I had under-estimated how much the band meant to me and how much of my "self" was buried in it but I devoted the time to recovering from that and all is well now.
antiMusic: Can you ever foresee a day were you would join Mick on stage again for more than a one-off?
Ken Hensley: Not really. We are traveling totally different paths and I can't really see the point. If David and Gary were still alive then I dare say that a real re-union might have happened a long time ago.
antiMusic: Purple has gone on to legendary status. Heep has enjoyed a great career but why do you think you failed to get the same kind of recognition as them?
Ken Hensley: This is a good question and it's a little difficult to answer actually. Uriah Heep was a "band" and I think people recognized it as a group of guys who really depended on each other musically. There was a magic there (in the best-known line-up) and there was a chemistry that could never be replaced. The individuals were significant but not so much that they could stand alone. So, once the band began to fragment, it was inevitable that the name itself would weaken. Still, I like to think we have our little place in rock history and that we did play our part!
antiMusic: What are some of the proudest moments of your career in music?
Ken Hensley: My "career" started a long time ago when I made the irreversible decision to be a rock-star! It was (and still is) hard enough to be a professional musician but this dream was stratospheric so I am pleased that I was determined and lucky enough to have it come true. All my favourite moments come with each new song that I know is good. Completing a song with which I am satisfied is still the most rewarding moment for me.
antiMusic: Is this really your "last dance?"
Ken Hensley: No, of course it isn't! God will decide that! I am a writer and that has been the greatest blessing to me because I can do it forever, no matter that I can't sell out a club anymore, let alone a stadium. I have two writing projects planned for later this year and most of next so I will be busy doing my favourite things. Writing and recording.
Maybe I should have called that song "The Last Tomato" so people would think I am never going to eat tomatoes again!!! HA!
Morley and antiMUSIC thank Ken for doing this interview.