Book review: Decades – URIAH HEEP in the 1970s by Steve Pilkington

Decades- Uriah Heep in the 1970s by Steve Pilkington

Sonicbond Publishing (Release Date 28.03.21)

Following the series of  ‘On Track’ releases, reviewing a band’s back catalogue in comprehensive detail, Sonicbond have been moving onto a new ‘decades’ concept in which a band’s history is examined in more detail over a ten year period.

As a band that celebrated their 50th anniversary last year Uriah Heep are prime candidates for such a treatment, and the most logical decade to choose is their first one, in which they enjoyed the most success, and established what we think of as the trademark Heep sound- David Byron’s extravagant vocals, high harmonies and the combination of Hammond organ and wah-wah guitar.

1980 is also a good stepping off point as it marked the departure of Ken Hensley who as principal songwriter was the biggest single impact on that sound, allied to his keyboard (and occasional guitar and lead vocal) work.

The narrative is more rounded than the ‘On Track’ series, as it covers line up changes, of which there was a dizzying array of bassists and drummers, and touring activity. It presents a familiar music world narrative of a relatively short rise to fame, enjoying the trappings of success, drink, drugs and internecine strife, and a longer period of commercial decline, searching for a musical identity and key personnel leaving. The biggest single impression that emerges is the exhausting pressure placed on them to stay on this treadmill as evidenced by the fact that between 1970 and 1978 they released a remarkable 12 studio albums.

At the same time detail is preserved with every song on every album still analysed, articulately yet in a non-technical way for us non-musicians.  It does become a little repetitive with narrative about chart performance in various European countries, which might have been better extracted in a statistical table.

While most of the sources are secondary, Steve Pilkington makes good use of interviews with original bassist Paul Newton, who also provides the foreword, and Ken Hensley, prior to his sad passing last year.

Pilkington, who has authored several in this series, has a neat turn of phrase and while clearly a fan (of Byron in particular), this is best deployed when analysing the less impressive songs or ignominious moments in the band’s history. With the right blend of knowledge and enthusiasm and strong but fair-minded opinions, he comes over as the ideal companion to spend an evening chewing the musical fat over a few pints.

As a bonus a substantial concluding chapter ensures the reader is not left on tenterhooks, dealing thoroughly albeit in less detail with the chequered history of the band in subsequent decades, in which Mick Box has been the only constant.

The chronological narrative does not lend this book to the casual observer wanting a quick overview of what makes Heep such a fine band and the secret of their longevity. But for a committed fan, this is an enjoyable and comprehensive read that makes you want to listen afresh to the albums from one of the criminally underappreciated greats of British rock. ****

Review by Andy Nathan

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 12 September 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week.

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