Interview By Ville Krannila & Kimmo Tattari / December 2009
Steel Mill, while in Salo some time ago, hooked up with another Uriah Heep legend, drummer Lee Kerslake for one hour chat. Lee joined Heep for their seminal “Demons & Wizards” album in 1972 and excluding a two year stint in Ozzy Osbourne’s band in the early 1980’s, played with Mick Box and company for 35 years. He departed in 2007 citing health issues and has been happy playing more infrequently since then. Besides musical activities Lee is also preparing for his autobiography.
You have now semi-retired from playing, right?
Yes, I’ve semi-retired because of illness but I’m getting over it. I’m better now. I’ve had a lot of illnesses which I’ve refused to let take me over and beat me. But there are certain things you cannot beat, old age and everything that comes with it. You can’t deny that. That’s why I had to retire. I have rheumatism in my neck bones, from shoulders to the brain. So because of this I have a headache 24/7. It’s bit of a pain but I’m not going to complain because that’s my life. I’ve had a tough life, I’ve lived hard and fast and I’ve enjoyed it. And I’m enjoying it now probably more than ever. I’ve got a band called Master’s Project in Switzerland. They are semi-professional guys and we’ve done club gigs and some festivals, it’s went down well. We supported Nazareth and ended up playing three encores! So that was quite a thing for me.
Obviously it must be easier for you to play occasional gig here and there than a full world tour?
Oh yeah, I couldn’t do a three month, six weeks on one go anymore. It just takes all out of me. But I still play just as hard on the drums. As I did when I was 25. Except now it hurts! (laughs).
Travelling and everything else involved in something such as a big world tour must also take its toll?
Yeah, playing on stage is wonderful, the rest of it is crap.
OK let’s go back to the beginning, when you first joined Uriah Heep, was it in the early 1970’s?
I joined in 1971. November 23rd to be exact.
What bands were you in before Heep?
I was in a band in Barmouth which was kind of my band. I was semi-professional and working same time as an electronics engineer. Then Paul Newton Senior saw me play a gig in Barmouth – he was the father of future Heep bassist Paul Newton. He found out where I lived and came to my house asking me if I wanted a job in a band from London called The Gods. And it was 25 pounds a week. I went “25 pounds? Oh yeah!!” That was thousands of euros to me then! So he told me to get my stuff and move over to Landover where they were living and rehearsing. Then I met Ken and Paul Newton Junior and with a guitar player we started writing and playing. We became a very, very big cult favourite band. We sold out the Marquee two days in a row. We were quite successful and all the harmonies we did later in Uriah Heep, The Gods started doing those. I, Ken, Paul and Joe Konas did them in those early days.
Your first album with Uriah Heep was the all time classic “Demons & Wizards.” While making it, did you have any idea you were creating something special?
No, none of us had any idea it was going like that. It’s unbelievable how fast the songs were written and recorded in those days. It was genius. It made things a lot easier as Ken would come with a crutch or a format of a song and we’d play and arrange it right there in the studio. We’d listen to playback and think “Wow that’s pretty good!” We never thought it would sell gold in America or go top-20, ever. But we did the album and Deep Purple’s manager said to our manager Gerry Bron they wanted to put Uriah Heep in as a support band in America. And I had never been to America so it was great. We went there in January 1972 and by the end of those two months we were in the charts and headlining our own shows!
The success of “Easy Livin’” single must have helped a lot?
It just flew. Every station played it, no matter where you went it was heard on the radio and that set the album off as well. They started playing the album tracks too and we were on our way.
After “Demons & Wizards” you did several classic rock albums..
Yeah we had a good run. All albums had classics in them.
Especially great achievement considering the short amount of time in which these were issued?
Yes, we did two albums a year and were touring as well. We were doing about 11 months solid on the road every year.
Why do you think the bands don’t do that anymore?
They get it too easy. I think that’s the problem. They don’t even have to play or do any kind of entrepreneurship. If a guy’s good looking, has good hair, can play the guitar and is average they will just train him. And you have to have that entrepreneurship and hardship, trying to make it. That makes you experienced and makes you work harder and be good at your job.
Heep followed “Demons & Wizards” with “The Magician’s Birthday.” The title track was a classic and featured a “duel” with Mick Box’s guitar and your drums. What memories do you have of recording that song?
Well, we wanted a fight in between the song. We had to have a guitar and a drum thing in the middle. With guitar being the good wizard and drums the bad wizard. So it created an image of light sabre swords and pandemonium. We did a rough take and I said to Mick: “that’s it, we’re going to have to do it in one take.” It was going to be 10-12 minutes flat out. There had to be a lot of energy. Then we did it and it was just magic, it just happened. We looked at each other and smiled. All the notes were there, it worked. And it was just one-off take.
After “The Magician’s Birthday” you recorded few more classic albums, but problems started to arise, first with bassist Gary Thain’s sacking and death not long after..
Yeah, Gary was a loner in a way. And unfortunately he had a drug habit which became a problem. Anyone of us could have had that problem but discipline with certain people is another way to getting over it. I mean I used to drink Southern Comfort, that was my problem. But next day you would have a hangover and would not want to drink. Whereas with Gary, he’d just take more drugs. It was unfortunate but that was the curse of touring and having to work so much. We were on the road constantly and that added to the problem. We didn’t take the time off to evaluate ourselves or our heads, we just kept on working. You never knew when it was going to finish, so you worked on and on.
And David Byron had a similar problem?
He was a drinker but he couldn’t handle it. There was just so much pressure. You got to imagine it, getting up every morning, then flying, doing a soundcheck, 30 000 people, meet and greet, do the show, then a record company party with all the people there again. And next morning up at 8.00 o’clock. It wears you down. We used to do three days in a row, then have one off. Then four days, one off – just to keep the momentum.
David’s last album with Heep was “High & Mighty,” which wasn’t as successful as previous records…
Well, I thought it was a great album. I really liked it. We just had the inability to cope, we were all getting on each others nerves. Which happens when you live with a band together like a family for nigh on seven years. You end up hating your wife if you were together that much! (laughs) So we had our problems, they came to the surface and people had to go. I mean I had to go too. I couldn’t stand Gerry Bron anymore, I was fed up with him. He was ripping us off, taking 50 % of everything we earned. And his whole attitude which was “I am god.” He always said he was Uriah Heep, don’t know what we were supposed to be.
Bron worked at the same time as your manager, record producer and also ran Heep’s record company..
Yeah, you couldn’t do that now. Nowadays that kind of thing is illegal. It’s a conflict of interest.
An era ended with the departure of David Byron in 1976. For a while there was confusion whether he was fired or left on his own?
He got sacked and it was really sad. Gerry, that guy just brushed him off. It left a bit of bad taste in my mouth because I thought what if it had happened to me with those times I got a bit drunk or had blown it on stage? Although I never blew it on stage, I always did afterwards. I got a bit rowdy. So it was basically down to Gerry Bron not being the right person to manage the band, even though he did.
John Lawton replaced David and Heep went towards more commercial direction. Was this a conscious decision?
Yeah, we tried to outgrow the fantasy. We didn’t know which way to go. We had spent so much time on demons, wizards and other things so we tried to go commercial. And it was good, but the fans didn’t like it.
According to John Lawton, this was one of the reasons he left and the band fell apart..
Yes he wasn’t happy so we decided to call it a day. And when he left, I left at the same time. It was virtually within a month. I just had enough of the politics, I was tired and wanted to do my own solo album. So I met a bass player who ran a studio in London. And I started to record my own songs with Peter Cox, from Go West. This was before he was famous, he was a great singer.
Before this, while in Heep, did you ever feel you weren’t getting your own material across?
No, I was happy with what I put out. I wrote with David, Mick and Gary. We were always on the same opinion. I could write the whole song except maybe one verse, yet we all shared. There was no animosity, no “I’m going to get 10 %, you get 80 %, you get the rest.” We just shared it, it saved us a lot of energy, a lot of hassle. And other times Mick would come in with a great riff, I wouldn’t think of it. We’d write it and we shared.
And you wrote one of the all-time Heep classics “Come Back To Me” with Ken Hensley, which was about your divorce..
Yeah but actually I wrote the whole thing. Gerry Bron again wanted a middle section, a link of sorts, so Ken brought that in. But the majority of the song was mine. And I helped Ken write that link section anyway.
After you left Heep, they recorded one album in 1980 without you..
Yeah they did “Conquest” and I was doing my own solo album. Then I got a phone call from an agent for Black Sabbath in Germany. He said: “I’ve got a friend of yours, Ozzy Osbourne, who wants you to join his band.” I thought about it for a while and then asked “Well, who’s their manager?” And I found out it was Don Arden and thought: “Oh my God, the crook, the villain!” (laughs)
But I told them I would audition for them and they would audition for me and we’d see how we get on. I had never heard Randy (Rhoads) at that point. So we set up studios for rehearsal and as I didn’t know any of the songs I was given “Crazy Train” to learn before. And Randy started playing the riff and I went: “Whoaah! Yeah!!” (laughs). I thought to myself what a guitarist! It was mind boggling.
Within two weeks we were in studio recording the first album. They had already written most of it but I put in a lot of arrangements, a lot of ideas, riffs and parts.
With Ozzy Osbourne, you recorded two of his most classic solo albums: “Blizzard Of Ozz” and “Diary Of A Madman”..
Yes and I wrote the songs on “Diary Of A Madman” with Randy and Bob (Daisley). Then my mother fell seriously ill so I had to leave and take care of her. But that was a great time and those were great records. “Flyin’ High Again” was one of my ideas, “Over The Mountain” was another. The basic tracks were just Bob’s words, my vocals – though some of the words I wrote – and Randy’s playing. It was unreal. And then we got Don Airey to come in and do the keyboards. Soon after I was back out on the road with Uriah Heep in America. And suddenly the album was number 10 on the charts! We’d done it again!
Being on the road with Ozzy must have been an experience since he was a quite wild man?
Yes he was wild guy, but I was only with him on the English tour. I didn’t go to America because before that we had a big fight with his wife Sharon and she got rid of me and Bob. It was really unfair but there you go, and that was that. And I’m really glad in one way because I probably would have been on that plane with Randy. I used to love flying, so I could have been killed. I wish Randy had never been on that plane either, I wish he never would have stayed with Ozzy. Because he was going to leave Ozzy, he was going to study classical music and would have wanted to work with me and Bob. And that would have been brilliant. But I didn’t know that until later on.
Still do you have great memories about being part of those two classic albums?
Yes, I wrote a lot of them. I remember every minute. I remember there was a huge piano in the middle of the studio, I played something with it and Randy picked it up and a song would come out of it. And other times Randy would do a solo and I’d come up with an idea for it. We all helped each other out.
You returned to Uriah Heep for 1982’s “Abominog,” which was a heavy record..
Yeah, that was a great album. Geffen Records wanted Uriah Heep in America and that album was ready to go, but they didn’t want Gerry Bron. And Gerry just sniffed it. The album would have gone to top-10 but the way it went, it just died. It was such a shame. That album was a return back to real heavy rock.
How do you remember Pete Goalby as a vocalist?
He was a great singer, everything was fine and we were all getting along. “Head First” (1983) was a good one too.
After that you had “Equator,” which was another slightly problematic era..
Yes that was another one with changes. After that it all fell apart again. We got Steff Fontaine for an American tour but we got rid of him quickly. He was a total fake, a typical Californian fraud. He was an idiot. Then we auditioned Bernie (Shaw) for couple of times and it worked out great. And it just got better and better.
That line-up with yourself, Mick Box, Phil Lanzon, Bernie Shaw and Trevor Bolder would last over 20 years..
Yeah that was solid. We got Bernie in 1985 or 1986 – can’t remember, it’s been so many years. It was right before we went to Russia. We were the first heavy rock band ever to go there.
With this line-up you recorded three records in a row ending with “Sea Of Light” in 1995, which was a great rock album released when traditional bands were suffering from lack of good press and promotion. This in part because grunge had taken over and generally record industry was going through a change..
Yeah, with the CD’s and DVD’s it all totally changed. I was a bit slow on all that but it had to happen.
Were the changes within record industry the reason there were ten years in between 1998’s “Sonic Origami” and last year’s “Wake The Sleeper”?
Well, we were in between record deals and we put out live albums to keep the momentum. The record industry is a funny business, one guy like Robbie Williams gets 28 million to sign to EMI and Billy Joel 50 million to sign to RCA. And then they turn around and offer us 60 000 to do an album. Well, I don’t step out the door with my share of that. You do the album with that and you don’t have any money for your own living expectations. And the 60 or 70 000 they can use as a tax write-off so it’s gone, just like that.
In your opinion, why Uriah Heep never became as big rock mammoth as for example Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple?
That’s a question I don’t have an answer to but the songs we had were equally as good. I think we were a bit late, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin had been there 3-4 years before us. They had already left their mark and we got the tail end.
Heep never did 40-minute jams on stage either, which was popular during the 1970’s..
Yeah, that’s what it was those days. Deep Purple never did jams in a sense but some of the bands including Led Zeppelin had these jams in their sets. We never did that, we never did 10 songs and then half an hour jam to fill up the contract.
Zeppelin also never had singles..
Well, they had “Whole Lotta Love” but their manager Peter Grant was very clever, pulled it off the charts and put the album in. And the album was on the singles chart which was unique.
During your time in Ozzy’s band you set a plate with your drum style, which other drummers then followed. How do you feel about that today?
Oh, I’m honoured because it puts me in a category. In between my Uriah Heep stints in the early 1980’s I was rated as one of the top 20 drummers in the world. At that time I was constantly in the top 10-15 in different ratings. To be one of the top drummers in the world, that was a great honour. That’s like being a world champion!
In your opinion, what makes a great drummer?
He has to have a character and a lot of heart. And a lot of guts like John Bonham had. John was my idol, I loved him and knew him fairly well. He was a great fellow and I loved his drumming. He was hard rock to me. Cozy Powell was another great drummer and Carmine Appice another. I mean there’s a legacy of excellent drummers and I was proud to be put in that same category of hard drummers. You get into a band, go out on tour and people come to you saying “you are one of the greatest drummers in the world.” It’s lovely but you can’t let that get to your head. It’s a nice compliment.
Couple of years ago you left Uriah Heep again, was this because of your illness?
Yes, I had to leave. We were doing an acoustic set in Germany and I wasn’t sleeping on the bus. I cannot sleep on the buses, it really is claustrophobic for me. So I had to sleep in the back, sat up. And I could only sleep for 3 or 4 hours at a time so I was really tired. And I just blew it on stage, just couldn’t remember. Then I realized I had to quit and pack it in. And I said to them: “You have got to go on and do your thing, get a new drummer.” It’s a hell of a job getting a drummer and it had to be a totally different kind of player. Most of the guys wouldn’t have worked but that guy (Russell Gilbrook) is quite good.
What’s your take on Heep’s “Wake The Sleeper” album?
I didn’t love the album. And I seriously wanted to like it, because if it was good all the back catalogue with me would have gone up and sold! But I wasn’t too impressed with it. It’s not sour grapes, not at all. It’s just my opinion.
So back to present, you will be up on stage again tomorrow, what can we expect?
All hell breaking loose! (laughs) We’ll have some fun, get up there and do about 8 to 10 songs. We are going to enjoy it and hope fans will too.
One project of yours not mentioned yet is the “Living Loud”-album you recorded with Bob Daisley, Don Airey, Jimmy Barnes and Steve Morse.
Yeah that was a great album. We did some covers of Ozzy’s tracks and some stuff of our own.
Will there be a follow-up at some point?
Well, at the moment we are going to re-release the first album in America next year if we can and get a good release date. It’s a good album. It was quite popular here and in Germany but nowhere else.
You’ve had a long career, can you name some of the highlights?
Oh there’s so many, I can’t possibly name them all. One was receiving a gold album for the first time, it was just amazing! And then achieving the platinum one was even more amazing. That was something to behold. And basically playing to 30 000 people, they are lighting candles and you see 20 000 candles and lighters when you are singing “Stealin’” – it was unbelievable! We had one gig in Pittsburgh in a huge stadium and the place opened up, they let off hundreds of thousands of fireflies. And the whole stadium just lit up with fireflies. You should have heard the cheering and clapping, it was fabulous! Great memories and there’s so many of them. I’m starting to get a book together at the end of this year. A writer is going to come in with me and we’ll start writing my life story. So you can look forward to that.
Before we wrap this up, can you tell us the story of the Jägermeister advert you were involved in?
I was asked to do it by Gunther, Uriah Heep’s tour manager in Germany. I used to drink a lot Jägermeister so he said: “you should do an advert.” And I told him to set it up. So I called them and was told I would get 300 Deutsch marks and a case of Jägermeister and my face on the magazine. That sounded cool, it was fine by me. I asked them if I could wear a t-shirt with the new album cover on it. This was “Firefly.” They agreed to it. But the way they did it; I was in Stern-magazine centrefold which sold millions. And I was on every bus, every train, my face sold Jägermeister! Plus “Firefly” was sold over 200.000 copies more, it was fabulous promotion! (laughs) You couldn’t beat that, it was a big deal.
Thanks a lot, Lee!
Lee Kerslake on the web:
Special thanks to Tapio Minkkinen and Esa Ahola.