Interview By Ville Krannila & Kimmo Tattari / October 2008
On a rainy October evening couple of Millworkers travelled to Helsinki for a meeting with none other than Ken Hensley, a keyboardist (and occasional guitarist) and main song writer of one of the legendary classic rock bands Uriah Heep. During his tenure with Heep from late 1960’s through to 1980 when he left the band, Hensley composed some of Heep’s most well loved tracks including such masterpieces as “Lady In Black,” “Easy Livin’,” “July Morning” and “Look At Yourself”. After leaving Heep, Ken went solo and spent some time with southern rockers Blackfoot.
Later after successfully kicking a serious drug habit, he did some session work before returning to music business in late 1990’s resurrecting a successful solo career. Arguably its highlight “Blood On The Highway” was released last year; a autobiographical story of star’s many twists and turns, it is also augmented by a new book “When Too Many Dreams Come True” and full DVD. Recently at a special gig organized by the Finnish Heep fan club, Hensley played a full acoustic set in Helsinki. Steel Mill couldn’t pass the opportunity to talk to the man himself of many aspects of his long and illustrious career.
You are doing an acoustic show tonight, is this one off occasion for that kind of performance on this tour?
Yeah, I’m actually doing a solo show tonight and then I’m going to Russia to do six shows with my band Live Fire – they are all from Norway. After that I’m off to Switzerland to do a solo show there. So it’s two solo shows and six band shows.
Have you played these type of acoustic shows before and what’s the biggest difference compared to full electric sets?
Yes, I do them all the time. The main difference is obviously the songs are different and the focus is completely different because it’s on the songs and not on the performance. So I play the songs the way I wrote them. It’s very interactive. I invite the audience to ask questions and discuss certain things, to tell me what they like about the songs they make requests for. Also if anybody brings a guitar, I invite them up to play. So it’s designed to be interactive and do things you can’t do on a band show. I mean I can’t sit down and talk about how the song came to life, where the idea came from, what my circumstances were at the time etc. And all those things are important in understanding the song itself. This is information people don’t normally get from a concert and of course when you are surrounded by a band you have a very different feeling than when you are sitting on stage completely alone.
Your latest solo album was all about personal stories; “Blood On The Highway.” How has the response been?
Very good. I’ve been really, really busy since the record came out in May last year. Of course it didn’t go to number one or anything like that but so far I think it’s sold 40 000 copies in Europe. And it sells steadily about the same number of copies every month. And it’s not just the CD, but also the book and the DVD. It’s a trilogy, a title which is carried by three products. I’m very satisfied with the way it’s been selling, very satisfied with the critical response. There must be something happening which is good.
Was it anyhow different to make this one compared to the numerous other albums you have made? There must be quite strong feelings attached when telling your own life story, and it might be hard to stay objective…
Oh it was much easier to make this record. First of all, I had my record company behind me and secondly we decided to make the record focus on a concept. The concept being 10 and a half years of rock star’s life. And I know a lot about that. So when I looked at the concept and the story, I just took the elements from the story and made songs out of those. There’s the beginning, there’s the slow climb to fame and then there’s the drugs and the women, all the psychological drama later on. It wasn’t actually very difficult to write, but it took about seven months to record because I used a lot of different voices on the record. That was something we decided in the beginning…
That was actually the next question… the different voices and reasons behind them?
Well, that was something we decided very early on because this isn’t just about me. This record’s about hundreds of people including K.K. Downing who were around in the early days of real rock’n’roll. Those who really planted the whole thing and created a lot of what we see now – as we are influenced by those times.
So there was a lot people and a lot of bands involved. I wanted the story to be a little more generic, but I can only tell it as I saw through my own eyes. Plus I’m not a rock singer. I can sing some ballads really well, there were songs like “Lady In Black” which no one else could really have sung. But I’m not a rock singer, I don’t understand how Glenn Hughes, Jorn Lande, Paul Rodgers or Sammy Hagar even think of what they do, let alone do it. For me that’s the best thing my father ever taught me: “if you want a job done, hire an expert and get out of the way!” So that’s what we did. I just picked the voices I wanted for specific songs and I think it created a much bigger story.
© Kimmo Tattari
Some of the songs (“Think Twice” ’99, “You’ve Got It” ’02, “The Last Dance” ’03) were actually written and recorded in your previous solo releases. When writing those songs, did you have this idea of forthcoming autobiography in mind?
No, not really. Obviously when you have had a career like mine, I’ve been doing this a very long time, there are a lot of things which influence your thinking so for me those songs at the time may have come from a personal situations. “Think Twice” definitely because I was dating a woman who was not in love with me, she was in love with my money and my career, my image and everything that went with it. So she inspired that song and when we decided to tell this story, when I went to my songbook I felt like those songs were appropriate. “You’ve Got It” was always a drug song, it’s all about cocaine – which I was addicted to for 16 years. That had to be there, I wanted a drug song and pulled it out of the book.
There are also bits and pieces of classic Heep songs inserted..
Yeah, but keep it in context; what do the words in that chorus say? “One million miles, ten million hearts, one simple song.” That simple song was “Lady In Black,” “Free Me” and “July Morning.” So they were there as illustrations. And I couldn’t take anything from Kiss or anybody else, because I can’t play anybody else’s music so I had to use my own. But they fit for a reason, it’s not just accidental poaching. They are my songs so I put them there.
Especially “You’ve Got It” sung by Jorn Lande on “Blood On The Highway” sounds a lot heavier than on “Running Blind” because of different singer…
Yeah, it was meant to be sung like that and I couldn’t do it. I could maybe dream of singing like that, but I couldn’t do it! (laughs) And we are going to do the same thing with the new album by the way. I’m using a lot of excellent voices so it’ll be interesting.
When should we expect it?
Late spring. I start recording on December 2nd. I’m using some very interesting singers, female singers as well. It’s going to be fun.
Are you still with the same record company?
Yes. I’m actually going to play three songs from that album tonight. We call this tour “Past, Present and Future” so there will be a lot of old songs, one or two new songs and then there’s going to be three that nobody’s ever heard before, which are planned for the new album. I’ve never played them live before so I don’t even know how they end! (laughs) I was practising in my room today and thought to myself: “How am I going to end this?”
Let’s look back at your career a bit… The early years at Uriah Heep were an extremely creative period, and there’s a chain of great classic albums done in a very short time span (“Salisbury” ’70, “Look At Yourself” ’71, “Demons And Wizards” & “The Magician’s Birthday” ’72, “Sweet Freedom” & solo album “Proud Words From The Dusty Shelf” ’73). Where did such creativity came from?
Well, we were doing two albums a year, or maybe one album in every ten months. No one does it anymore and it was ridiculous. And albums like “The Magician’s Birthday” suffered because of this scheduling. Also my song writing really started to suffer when I became more addicted to cocaine.
Then I really lost my focus, my focus was entirely on the drug. Everything else was second. So it had a big effect on everybody. We had guys in the band who were alcoholics and some of them were drug addicts. This all developed in late 1972, early 1973 and as a result, everything went right down. We couldn’t see it and blamed it on something else. But I believe I was born to write songs. I believe that’s my purpose on earth, my purpose in life because now I’m writing more songs than ever before in my whole life.
Partially that’s because of where I live, which is very peaceful and I don’t have the noise of the world in my head. And partially because when writing my book and the songs for “Blood On The Highway” and particularly writing the song called “I Did It All” I realised that’s what I’m here for. I’m here to write songs, that’s what I do. And that’s why I started my song writing school because I can teach other people to do what I do very easily. Once I realised that’s my main gift, I focus more on writing, not so much on singing or trying to be a virtuoso musician.
My true belief is that inspiration comes from a supernatural source. I’m Christian as you probably know so I just happen to believe that God is using me to say things He wants to say to people. I don’t know why and I won’t find out while I’m alive but that’s my job. And I think it wouldn’t be possible for any normal person to be able to write so many songs without some kind of supernatural source of inspiration. Songs come to me in the most silliest ways, so that’s my belief.
Nowadays many bands tend to make albums for years… Do you think that the approach of making music has somehow changed during the years, or is it the record companies or the whole music business in general?
Didn’t Guns’n’Roses just deliver their first album in 12 years or something? Well, I don’t think it’s the record companies or the industry. I think the key is in the 1970’s we were very creative, we had to be. We had no tools to work with, we had no internet, no computers, no mobile phones, nothing. So we really had to be creative to make anything, to get from here to there, just everything.And that’s why a lot of great music comes from that time, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, all the hard rock bands from that time. Such great, lasting, classic and enduring music.
So I think it’s got more to do with the fact that there just aren’t enough good song writers around, to write great rock songs. In those days yes, we were writing songs but not all of them were good. And then in the 1980’s the art of song writing seemed to disappear. Everybody was learning to play the guitar incredibly fast and nobody was writing songs. And still when listen to the radio I struggle to find a good song, I hear a lot of songs but songs that really move me, I don’t hear. I think we are all fans of an era where the songs really meant something.
So I find there’s a lot of superficial music around, but no, I don’t think there’s any real excuse for it. I tried to get back into the industry seven years ago when I made the decision to move back to Europe and I realised the industry had left me behind a long time ago. So I had to create my own little industry and the core of that was writing – writing for TV, film, advertisements etc. Through that I started to release CD’s and found my record deal. What you have to do is just to recognize where you are strong and work on that.
© Kimmo Tattari
Between “Salisbury” and “Look At Yourself” in ’71 you also made an appearance on the first (and the only…) album by a German band called Weed. There isn’t much info about this available, so maybe you could tell something about this project?
Oh it was just a friend of mine in Hamburg. He was managing a band and wanted me to write some songs for them..
So all the songs on the album were written by you?
Yeah pretty much so. I haven’t even listened to that record, I do have two or three copies of that at home. I can’t believe it even came out on CD. I wrote the songs, got paid for it, I went to Hamburg and played on it and sang a couple of songs but then I forgot all about it. I thought well, that’s just a piece of history. Then all of a sudden it became a big public thing. I don’t now, it was just to help me. I made some money out of it.
You mentioned Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple before. Why do think Uriah Heep never got the same recognition as those two bands, because you did have many great rock songs and hit singles? Yet Heep never did 20 minute jams on stage like those other groups..
Well I don’t know. We were a little more manufactured I guess because we had a record deal from the beginning and we were very pampered, we had a good management and the press in England especially thought we were just over hyped. They really didn’t give us the credit I think the band deserved. But musically I don’t think we were as good as Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. As a group of musicians most them were better than us. We just didn’t quite reach that same level. Certainly we were very successful, maybe we didn’t go as far as some of those other bands but that’s okay.
After leaving Heep, and making one solo album (“Free Spirit” ’80), you were a member of Blackfoot during the albums “Siogo” ’83 and “Vertical Smiles” ’84. What kind of memories do you have from that era?
Well, I never quite fit in with that band. It was uncomfortable partly because their style of music was really strange for me. It was just hard to make my style work with theirs because their thing was southern rock. It was very much 2 to 4. And then when I went on the road with them, I kind of still had memories of being on the road with Uriah Heep in my head. So I compared everything with everything and that was wrong. It didn’t work and in the end I was just very disappointed. And when I heard that David Byron had died, that’s when I left Blackfoot.
And after Blackfoot years there were almost a decade of silence, at least in regards to releasing your own material…
Yes, but you have to remember I was still seriously addicted to cocaine. When I left Blackfoot my number one priority became just getting off cocaine, getting rid of my addiction.
During this millennium there have been few solo albums, but also a collaboration with John Lawton with the Hensley Lawton Band. Have you planned a future for this project?
No. John and I have a lot of areas where we agree musically but philosophically we disagree on many things. It’s best if we can try to remain friends and stay away from each other musically. I just don’t see any future in that.
As both Judas Priest and Uriah Heep were touring a lot all over the world during the 1970’s did you and K.K. ever meet during those days?
I’m sure that we’ve crossed paths. I don’t know him personally but of course I’m very aware of what they have done and how powerful influence they have been – rock’n’roll in general but also to young people. And Judas Priest merchandise, I see that more than I see a lot of other bands merchandise so..and they were a great band. The fact that they are still together, they are still doing what they do, I think that is a tremendous thing.
Any last words to the viewers of Steel Mill?
From my personal and Uriah Heep’s standpoint, I really appreciate what people like you do. What you do is tremendous and it keeps everything alive and it’s so important.
It’s all about the love of music and same goes for me, I don’t make my money on doing shows. All the money I make from my shows goes to my charity, I make my money on royalties, other recording projects and so on. I do it now for the same reason I was doing it when I was 18 years old. I do it because I love it, and I do it because people like you and those out there waiting for the show. It keeps real music alive. I mean nowadays I’m playing to smaller audiences than before when I used to play to extremely large crowds but that doesn’t make any difference. The spirit is still the same and it’s still just as important as it was then.
Thanks a lot, Ken!
Ken Hensley on the web:
Special thanks to Tapio Minkkinen and Finland’s Uriah Heep fan club!