In conversation with Menno von Brucken Fock
Ken(neth) Hensley was born in London, 24th August 1945 and started his musical career by teaching himself to play guitar at the age of 12. Although he played in several bands, things got more serious when Ken formed a band called The Gods around 1965. In the line up a.o. Mick Taylor, well known later for his work with The Rolling Stones. Ken wrote most of the material, sang and played the Hammond B3 organ. The Gods' line-up included, at one time or another, vocalist and guitar/bass player Greg Lake (later of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer), bass player Paul Newton (who would be later the first Uriah Heep bassist), drummer Lee Kerslake (later also of Heep), bassist John Glascock (later of Jethro Tull), and guitarist Joe Konas. The Gods recorded 2 LP's and several singles. A few years later, in 1969, Paul Newton asked Hensley to join forces in Spice, since they were looking after a keyboard player to make their sound less bluesy and more progressive at the time.
In January 1970, Spice changed its name into Uriah Heep. Also on the line-up were guitarist Mick Box and vocalist David Byron. With Uriah Heep, Ken Hensley found a place to develop and show to the world his songwriting and lyrics abilities, keyboards and guitar playing. The major success came, and Heep is now acclaimed as one of UK's most legendary rock bands. The chemistry of the most classic line-up including Hensley, Byron, Box, Kerslake and bassist Gary Thain, plus the management provided by Gerry Bron (Bronz Records), were the launching points of their tremendous capability of making great music. During his time with Heep (1970 - 1980), they recorded 13 studio albums, and one of the most acclaimed live albums of all times: "Uriah Heep Live - January 1973" (not to mention lots of compilations and singles. With the departure of Thain (died in 1975) and Byron, other excellent musicians also got into the Heep family: John Wetton (Family, King Crimson, Roxy Music, later of UK and Asia), Trevor Bolder (from Spiders From Mars, later of Wishbone Ash, before coming back to UH) and John Lawton (Lucifer's Friend), among others. The chemistry, though, wasn't the same anymore...
After ten years of major success, Hensley left the band in 1980, and moved to the USA. There he played a few gigs in North America with his own Ken Hensley Band and released his third solo LP, "Free Spirit" (1980). In 1982 Ken joined Blackfoot, a hard rock Florida-based band. With them, he recorded 2 albums and achieved again some success, but he left after former manager Gerry Bron told him about Byron's sad death in 1985 and has been almost in retirement since then, in St. Louis (USA). Surprisingly though, after years of silence, in 1994, "From Time To Time", a collection of lost recordings, was released featuring rare songs recorded by Ken between 1971 and 1982, as well as some very good early versions of Heep's classic songs, played by Ken and his room-mates at that time, namely guitarist Paul Kossof and drummer Simon Kirke (both of Free). Other musicians on the songs were bassist Boz Burrell (King Crimson and Bad Company), guitarist Mick Ralphs (Bad Company), drummers Ian Paice (Deep Purple, Whitesnake) and Kenny Jones (The Who), amongst others. In 1999, Ken recorded an album, "A Glimpse Of Glory", together with his band Visible, besides his work with St. Louis Music.
During the 4th Uriah Heep Annual Convention in London, May 2000, plans were made for a one-off concert by the so-called "Hensley/Lawton Band". Ken was joined by former Heep singer John Lawton, for the first time 21 years after John's departure from Heep in 1979! With them were Paul Newton (Heep's original bassist), and two members of John's band, Reuben Kane on lead guitar and Justin Shefford on drums. They played a sort of old Heep classics and some of Ken's solo songs and the concert was recorded for a CD release, followed by a tour in Europe culminating with a concert in Hamburg, Germany, featuring a full orchestra and a new rendition of Heep's old classic "Salisbury"! Running Blind" (2002) was his first effort in 21 years, was released worldwide and followed by a world tour with his band called "Free Spirit", including Dave Kilminster (guitar), Andy Pyle (bass) and Pete Riley (drums). After moving to Spain, Ken released "The Last Dance", "The Wizard's Diary" and "Cold Autumn Sunday". Originally billed as “Adios Tour” with the Viking All Star Band, Ken was invited to Apeldoorn (Netherlands) on October 21st for a fan meeting and a concert with the German UH Tribute band “Circle Of Hands”. There he unfolded his current activities and why this adios tour wasn’t adios for now ...
During the fan-meeting all attending had the opportunity to ask Ken questions. The first question was obviously to find out what happened to the originally planned tour….
KEN: I’m working really hard on my next solo-album at the moment and I haven’t finished it yet. Because this tour was supposed to support the new album “Blood On The Highway” we had to postpone the tour to march 2007. I promised Louis (Rentrop) however I would be here, so here I am! You will be hearing some of the new songs and of course tonight I will play with my friends of “Circle Of Hands” later on. At the moment you are watching part of the new live DVD scheduled for release in February 2007. Another exciting thing in the lives of Monica and me is that after this trip, we will become foster-parents. You know, in Spain there are a lot of abandoned children and since we can’t have children ourselves, we went to school for 5 weeks last year to learn how to become foster-parents. Next week we will have ourselves a 12 year old boy called Juanito, abandoned by his Gypsy-family at the age of three. Now he’s ready for the outside world and by living with us during the weekends and the holidays we hope to give him a chance for a decent life. Last thing I wanted to share with you is that Monica and I will start a foundation and we will be raising money to help people in need anytime, anywhere. For this purpose we will open a little shop in a village near selling CD’s. other musical stuff and children’s books. The people running the shop will all be handicapped people who wouldn’t be able to work a normal job. The first fundraising will be tonight when we do the auction Louis has set up for us. Another thing about this foundation will be total transparency. Everyone involved will be given access to the information where the money is coming from and where it is going to.
(At this point Ken is given a special gift by one of the fans for making such great music: a wooden miniature guitar!)
MENNO: On your album “Eager To Please” you wrote the song “How Shall I Know”. I always wanted to know where you got the inspiration from?
KEN: I’d have to set my mind back because it’s such a long time ago, 1972 was it I believe. To tell you the truth I haven’t got the faintest idea!! Some songs seem to come out of nowhere while others like “Lady In Black” have a very detailed story as to where the song came from.
MENNO: Do you remember the PINKPOP concert from 1976? For me it was a very important concert but the sound of UH was terrible that night.
KEN: During 1970-1976 we played so many concerts that I only remember very few of them like Mannheim Germany where a crowd of 100.000 sang the chorus of Lady in Black, those things you never forget! But ’76 Pinkpop, no I don’t recollect that particular show at all and I must add I wasn’t in too good a physical shape at that time….
MENNO: You were dressed in black ... everything! The crowd were 40,000 and it was the first ever TV recording of Pinkpop and the UH roadies were threatening the cameramen to throw their camera’s off the stage!
KEN: I was dressed in black? That’s really unusual, but maybe because I was feeling black ... but I feel ashamed of the conflicts but the band wouldn’t notice these kinds of things.
MENNO: What did you do all those years in St Louis?
KEN: I’d have to go back a little further. I left Uriah Heep in June 1980, and at that time I was a drug addict and a complete mess. One of the reasons why I moved to the US in June 1981 was to re-gather myself, get rid of my drug addiction and get my feet back on the ground. The life of a young musician playing in a major rock band, well known throughout the world is something that is very hard to describe or to imagine, but with my time in Uriah Heep my whole identity was vanished into the band. I was completely lost, had no idea who I was anymore. At first I went to Denver but I ended up in St Louis thinking it would take me 2-3 years to get back on my feet again, but in fact it took me twelve years to recover!! When I was in St Louis I worked for a company called St Louis Music who manufactures musical instruments (guitars, amplifiers, PA systems). In those days they owned AMPEG (bass amplifiers) and ALVAREZ (acoustic guitars). This was a great thing for me because it was a stable situation, having a job, which I hadn’t had my whole life. Furthermore it was perfect because it was a connection to the industry I loved the most and knew the most about and I worked there for 15 years, travelling all over the world, most of the time visiting friends in the business and offer them a free guitar and have their picture taken for endorsement purposes. The last three years, when their export-manager left, I handled all their export-business because I speak three languages (English, Spanish and German). It really helped stabilizing my life and I consider it a blessing. Eventually I felt strong enough to make records again and I wanted to perform live again. In St Louis I had my own studio but the music-business had changed so much that at the time I was ready to play and record, I had to re-adapt.
MENNO: What role did Christianity play in your recovery?
KEN: Actually it didn’t in the early stages, because I became a Christian in 1993 and it was 1987-1988 when I was finally clean from cocaine and stopped taking any kind of drug. My faith did help redirecting my life and gave me the strength to make a new start. It still gives me strength day in day out!
MENNO: When did you become aware of the impact Uriah Heep has (had) on the people and the importance of the lyrics?
KEN: That’s a really good question and you’d have to ask that question to the other boys in the band, but for me that moment came some 5 years after I left the band. When you’re in the middle of this, it feels like a huge adventure, like an ongoing party. Only when Rodrigo started the website and I started to read emails I realised the impact of UH. As a sort of prehistoric band without internet, security or anything I didn’t realise that specific songs meant specific things to specific people and I started to realise how important the music and the lyrics had been for different individuals after I read their emails. It was only then that I realised, that as a musician you have a certain responsibility, which during the heydays was practically the last thing one would worry about. I met this man in some supermarket in St Louis (I used to meet fans in the bar, now I meet them in supermarkets!) and he came up to me and said ‘hey I have been following your music for some 25 years’ and I realised that it wasn’t just a party. It made me fully aware of my responsibilities as a normal (or almost normal) person with an abnormal gift. Surely my faith also taught me to be responsible to what lyrics I write because people do listen to what I’m saying.
MENNO: is the name Ken Hensley bigger than the name of Uriah Heep because you make a record every year and it takes Heep 8 years ...
KEN: I can’t be the judge of the first part of your questions because I don’t think I’m bigger than anything. We all have specific gifts and we should use them appropriately. Uriah Heep will always be important to me because without Uriah Heep I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t make a record every year. I don’t want to speculate why it takes Uriah Heep so long to make a new record but it’s kind of sad because then they would have the opportunity to make new songs based on the old things but also bring in some new things and bring out something new into the market place! But people know me because of Uriah Heep so it will always be a part of my history and that’s something I have to accept.
MENNO: We’re gonna hear Salisbury tonight and what always interested me how that song came to be with an orchestra and all while all the other songs are plain rock ‘n’ roll ... who came up with the idea?
KEN: In those days, the early Seventies, as a band you could do almost anything you wanted and you were allowed to experiment. If you listen to the first and the second album you can appreciate the band did a lot of different things. There were no restrictions and the record companies just took what you gave them… in those day there were a hundred bands, now there are tens of thousands and the record companies tell the bands what to do. Although it was a collaboration in the end, the original idea came from me, inspired by Jon Lord’s concerto for group and Orchestra (Deep
Purple 1970). When I heard that I knew it was possible to combine rock music with an orchestra and I decided to try that.
MENNO: When you decided you wanted to make rock music again, did you consider joining Uriah Heep again?
KEN: When I decided to make records I didn’t know if I was able to do it so I wanted to try this really gently. I knew I could write but looking back I think the first record was a bit dodgy, the second one was a little better and now I’m beginning to get the hang of it again! I was never asked to rejoin the band and I guess there good reasons for that. Some of them would be personal, some of them would be philosophical and maybe some of them would be prejudice. I can only tell that if they ever would ask me I would definitely say ‘no’ coz’ I don’t want to go backwards….I’d rather sell 10 new records than spend my life playing only songs I wrote 30 years ago. In my live shows we only play 5 or 6 songs from those days, partly rearranged as you can see on the new live DVD. So rejoining for me would mean a giant step backwards. I think the band would have been together now if David and Gary would have been still alive, because there wouldn’t have been reasons not to. I had the best years of my musical life with the band and I want to keep those memories positive but leave them as they are.
During the break Ken shared a couple of his newly recorded songs with us, amongst others with Jorn Lande on vocals. After that it was my privilege to have Ken for myself for half an hour!
MENNO: What interested me in your biography was the impact the death of Gary Thain had on you as a person. Was he that close a friend?
KEN: No, not that, but it was simply that when you are young you feel indestructible and death seems so far away. When an older person dies you expect that to happen, but when a young person dies, someone you know and whom you worked with, it’s quite a shock. Although I knew Gary had a problem with drugs, especially heroine I just didn’t expect him to die!! It didn’t change me and my habits though. Furthermore Gary was the best musician in the band and when he was gone for me it was the beginning of the end. Although Gary’s replacement was John Wetton, a great bass player, singer and arranger, still it was not Gary… the chemistry was completely different.
MENNO: The material you wrote for Heep, was it arranged by the band or did you tell them how to play? Did you compose your songs on the guitar or rather on the keyboards?
KEN: I brought in basic songs, and all songs were arranged by the full band. A song was taken into the rehearsal room and eventually came out as a Uriah Heep song. Most of the time I composed on the guitar because we were travelling so much and in those day there were no small portable keyboards you could use. Without exception the words came first and often in some hotel room I started writing the music to go with the words. I only started to play an instrument because I wanted to make my poems into songs so I taught myself to play the piano and I taught myself to play the guitar and that is why I play in a such a different way compared to a real musician. I never learned how to play keyboards properly and I could never do the things Keith Emerson does or play like Rick Wakeman but still nobody plays like me and it’s the same with slide guitar. I loved the sound so much and I wanted to play. Just like playing the B3 I just said to myself you can do this, so I bought a slide and there I started to play. Only some years later to find out I did play it the wrong way…. most players play the slide guitar tuned in an open chord but as I didn’t know that I learned how to play the slide guitar tuned normally. My friend Mick Taylor told me to try the open chord like an E or a G and I’ve tried it but couldn’t play so I got back to my ‘normal tuning’ again.
MENNO: What was the reason David Byron left the band?
KEN: The simple answer to that question would be ‘alcohol’. A more complicated answer would be what effect David’s drinking had on the band. You know it’s one thing the bass-player is a little drunk, or the guitar-player is a bit stoned but if the lead-singer is completely drunk, can’t speak, falls all over the place and misses out on any communication between the audience and the band, then you have a real problem, because he is the front-man! He was drinking sooooooo much and we talked about it a lot but nothing changed. Ultimately I gave the management an ultimatum and I said either he stops drinking, or we get a new singer or else I’m going! Normally the management doesn’t get involved, they usually only care for the money but I decided to quit halfway the tour in America and flew home and I insisted on speaking to Gerry (Bron). At the time Gerry was somewhere in the Bahama’s having his holiday so I left a message ’if David’s there I’m not, I can’t bear this any longer’. So Gerry flew home and we agreed on giving David two months to clean up or else he was to leave the band. In that period it got even worse so at the end of the American tour we decided to replace him. But in fact that was the end of the band because without Gary and without Dave it just wasn’t THE band, it was just a band…
MENNO: But David passed away quite a while later didn’t he?
KEN: Yeah, fact is he had stopped drinking at that time! When they found him there was no trace of alcohol in his blood, no alcohol in his house, but his liver was completely destroyed so in that respect I’m very lucky to be here!
MENNO: Do you feel you wrote the best songs in the seventies?
KEN: No, it’s the songs I’m writing now, or at least these are as good as the best songs I wrote in the
Seventies. I admit it took me over 20 years to recover my strength as a writer but I really feel I’m writing my best songs ever and if you listen to the new record complete you’ll know what I mean. It’s like writing for a movie because there a story there and I have to pin point a certain part of that story in a particular song, a sort of a subject within a subject so I have to write very focused to capture that subject with good melodies and good lyrics.
MENNO: did you use other older material for the new album except for “The Last Dance”?
KEN: yes there’s one song from the “Running Blind” album called “You’ve Got It”. It’s a drugs-song, about the American preoccupation with cocaine. Since drugs are an important part of the story of rock in the seventies, I’m also using a song which I hope Tina Turner will sing called “Think Twice”, actually that might be on “Running Blind” as well. It’s a song about a relationship. The question is ‘is she in love with the music or the man., with the lifestyle or the person’. It’s about the dedication to music that is so intense that you really can’t have a relationship. Just like in other forms of entertainment or football: you have to give so much that there’s not much left. We offered the song to Tina, who is a
Seventies-artist herself and if she’s not available it will probably be sung by Eve Gallagher. This lady used to work with Boy George, and although she’s white she’s got a very black voice that would be able to create the impact I’m aiming at. By the way I want to keep things focused on the concept and the story, this is not be an all star record!
MENNO: How did you select the artists involved?
KEN: I needed a rhythm section as flexible as possible and I wanted guys who were able to move and adept to different moods. In Spain I found a drummer and a bass-player who are exactly perfect. They’ll play on the whole album. Most of the guitars will be handled by one of the top five guitarists around Europe: Ovidio Lopez. There’s another guy with a seven string guitar and I’ll do some slide guitar. For the vocals we have Jorn Lande on three songs, John Lawton on one, either Tina Turner or Eve Gallagher and I’m doing the vocals on the two last songs myself. No one understands better than me what it’s like to have a huge career and at present a minor career so I don’t think I would like anyone else to sing those songs coz’ I’ve grown quite attached to them.
MENNO: How did you get in touch with Jorn?
KEN: well, you know my whole live band (The Viking All Stars) are from Norway and Jorn joined us for some jamming sessions several times when we rehearsed. Once I decided Jorn had the perfect voice for those songs I called him up and he came over and sang them just perfectly. Then there is the symphony. The Alicante Youth
Orchestra, a student orchestra performs on that song and I chose them because they’re young and willing to break rules, go outside the book, and that’s what I wanted to achieve. I’ve got some help from an American arranger who lives in Spain. I’d like to add that the record company gave me total freedom, so no interference whatsoever. The director is a former record-producer, he is 59 years old and he is very helpful because he’s got a house in Spain nearby where our studio is and every month he comes down and we have a fresh pair of listening ears and his input is well appreciated. Besides, the bottom line is, I have no addictions in the way now and I ‘m able to enjoy what I’m doing so much more than I used to!
MENNO: How did you end up in Spain?
KEN: my wife is Spanish, but the two of us met in the US but we decided to leave. At first we moved to England because I wanted to be close to my family, but we hated the weather and we found the UK to be very expensive. The solution was moving to Spain: good weather, good food, good wines, just perfect! The costs of living are fairly low also because we live in the middle of nowhere with all our animals. So we have total peace and we’re still only two and a half hours away from my family.
MENNO: if you live in a remote area, how do you get your electricity and water?
KEN: we do have electricity but we don’t drink the water, we buy bottles for ourselves but we use the water for irrigation, laundry and also for the animals. We have eight dogs, pending what day it is seven to nine cats, chickens, rabbits and as soon as we have the fencing done (our land is approximately 14000m²) we’d like to introduce cows and horses too. It’s a great life because I work in the studio from 11 am until 6 pm and when I’m home, especially in the weekends, I look after the animals, play with them, clean them etcetera and set my mind to something else completely!
MENNO: what’s the story of the ‘Adios Tour’?
KEN: at the time the tour was planned I wanted to focus on doing charity work only and make records and stop touring. I thought I’d ask the Vikings one more time and do some 20 to 30 shows and that would be it. I would rather concentrate on the business, studio-work and the farm. But then this deal with Membran Records came along and we decided to do this concept-album. So in 2007 we will have something to promote and that tour will not be called “Adios Tour” but “Live Fire” coz’ that’s the name of the band. Still, I enjoy playing live but I don’t particularly enjoy doing long tours, apart from the fact there’s a lot of money going out and there’s very little coming in, so it’s hard not to lose money on it. Because I will have two products to promote, the record company will support the tour and that will make it work financially as well.
Ken and Menno (being a veterinarian), talked some more about all Ken & Monica’s animals and their problems, the sad stories and the wonderful stories and the help they get from their vet Salvador and the local pet shop, but those tales of caring & loving animals are a totally different subject.
As Ken was asked to go across for the sound-check we parted ways and I saw Ken later that evening, rendering a great performance with Circle Of Hands. Go see the legend live if he comes to tour Europe!
|Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf ||1973
|Eager To Please ||1975
|Free Spirit ||1980
|The Best Of Ken Hensley ||1990
|From Time To Time ||1994
|A Glimpse Of Glory ||1999
|Ken Hensley Anthology||2000
|Running Blind ||2002
|The Last Dance ||2003
|The Wizard's Diary ||2004
|Cold Autumn Sunday||2005
|Elements - Anthology 1968 To 2005 ||2006
|Blood On The Highway||2007
Ken Hensley Official Website
Ken Hensley Official MySpace
Uriah Heep Official Website