Songwriter Interviews

Ken Hensley (Uriah Heep)

by Jeff Suwak

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Critics were rarely kind to Uriah Heep, even during the band's peak in the 1970s. In her Rolling Stone review for Heep's 1970 debut album ...Very 'Eavy ...Very 'Umble, Melissa Mills vowed to commit suicide if the band was ever successful.

Yes, she actually said that.

The critical disdain didn't abate: four years later, Chris Salewicz of the New Musical Express opened up his write-up on Heep songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Ken Hensley with the line, "The point is that hardly anyone I know exactly gets off on Uriah Heep's music." The rest of the piece was no more generous.

Hell, the press' dogpile on Heep was so bad that for decades they were the top candidate for being the band on which Spinal Tap was based (Christopher Guest later set the record straight on this, calling the Heep rumors untrue. Heep also failed to make our list of the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap).

Hensley's not the sort of guy to let all that negative coverage bother him, though. He's still making music and touring today, and he always seems to be smiling. Rather than wasting time resenting the press, he focused on being grateful for his many fans.
See, that's the funny thing about Hensley and Heep. The press treated them rough, but their fanbase was about as hardcore as a band could hope for.

Heep sold some records, too. Maybe not to the level of Zeppelin, but enough to earn their share of silver and gold. "Easy Livin'" may have been the band's only Top 40 hit in the United States, but they had several songs crash the charts in their native UK and in various countries around Europe.

Pretty much all of those Heep hits were written by Hensley. He left the band in 1980, and they've trucked onward without him, but fans will always consider the Hensley era to be the band's creative heyday. Hensley's made his mark in other ways, too. Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P said, "Ken Hensley wrote the rule book for heavy metal keyboards as far as I'm concerned."

So, maybe he's not a press darling, but Hensley has carved out a worthy legacy for himself. After over 55 years making music professionally, he's still not lost his humility or appreciation for his fans.

In preparing for this interview, I came across a promotional bit Hensley did for his 2018 compilation, Rare & Timeless. For that album, Hensley remixed several of his classics and some of his newer solo songs, and he recorded two brand new ones. "I wanted to make a special package specially for you [the fans]," Hensley said in the promotion, "because you're the ones who made all my dreams come true."

I found his humility and sincerity to be endearing. I didn't know how to fit that into a question, so I just came out and told him so before we started the interview in earnest. I'm glad I did, because he responded thoughtfully and then shared a verse of a new poem he recently wrote while touring.

Hot off the presses, I think it makes a good place to kick off this piece.
Ken Hensley: Actually, I have been a fan of my fans since the earliest days of Heep, when the "professional critics" began to dismiss the band in so many ways. That was when I thought to myself, "hmm...we have many thousands of people around the world telling us how much they love what we are doing, buying concert tickets and albums, and one guy in an office somewhere passing judgement."

No problem figuring out who to play with!

I tell every audience that, at that precise moment in time, they are the most important audience of my life and how, without them and people like them all over the world, I would never have had a career, let alone one that has (so far) spanned more than 55 years!

In fact, just the other day, on one of our city-to-city treks around Ukraine, I wrote a poem to express this, and I am honored to share it with you here.

What of a song, without a soul to receive it
Or a word from my heart with no-one there to believe it
With nothing but emptiness to welcome my tune,
I'm alone, in a cold, empty room


Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): Is it true that "Lady In Black" was inspired by a real-life experience?

Hensley: All my songs start with the lyric which, when completed, begin to "speak" to me in terms of melody and rhythm. This is partly because I started writing poetry when I was very young and had not yet learned to play an instrument and, much later, because Heep used to tour so much I had to write "on the run" and finish a song whenever I could get to an instrument!

It's true, I did see this young lady and she was dressed in black and her hair was blowing around in the "mid-winter wind," but she wasn't "coming to me," she was just walking up the street outside of my hotel in northwest England during a tour.

I just picked up my guitar and let my over-active imagination run with this vision and, as is often the case, let the lyric go wherever it wanted to go.

Songfacts: People are always debating whether "The Wizard" is about Merlin, Gandalf, one of the great religious figures? Please solve the mystery and tell us exactly what "The Wizard" is about!

Hensley: Actually, this song came from a dream that I had persistently over a week and, when I decided to write it, I just followed what I had seen in the dream, along with a little amateur philosophy!

The dream came to life in the song and, although I always dream a lot, I never had that particular dream again.

Songfacts: Who are you addressing in "The Longest Night," and what is the "longest night" you're looking to belong in?

Hensley: It's simply a "musical ode to life on the road." A largely positive reflection on what I've done for most of my life.

Songfacts: I would argue that "Simon the Bullet Freak" has one of the greatest titles in rock history. What inspired you to write this one?

Hensley: Ha! Never thought about the title in that context, but I will gladly accept the award!

It's an early song and a little angry, looking at the futility of war. It bears some philosophical similarities to other, quasi anti-war songs I wrote at the time ("The Park," "Lady in Black"), although I learned over time to say such things in a rather more eloquent way.

Songfacts: Is the "flower man" whose tears are filling the sea supposed to be the hippies?

Hensley: No! He's an innocent street-seller and just another casualty!

Songfacts: Can you tell us a bit about where you were in your life when you wrote "Stealin'," and what you were trying to get across with it?

Hensley: Nothing really deep to this one to be honest. We had just come off of our second or third US tour experience and my imagination was really charged with the American "experience." None of this story is true of course and it's really what the band did to this song in rehearsal that made it such a huge hit!

I actually wrote this song on a rare social night at Gary Thain's flat in London.

Songfacts: Another intriguing one is "Blind Eye."

Hensley: The "human condition," as it's frequently and loosely referred to, has always fascinated me. I have always been acutely aware of my own weaknesses and aware that I am not alone in them and that's basically what this lyric speaks to.

As far as the "sun" thing is concerned, the word appears repeatedly in my songs and I know that's because I am its biggest fan. I love "light" and I am not too fond of "dark" and the sun is one of the reasons I like living in Spain. Perhaps the only one actually! Ha!

Songfacts: "Look at Yourself" is kept somewhat vague, which of course is good because people can apply it to all kinds of situations in their life. Still, I'm wondering if there was any particular situation you had in mind when you wrote it?

Hensley: Hmmm... Introspective!

Not "kept" though! That would imply intent and I never "intended" to write a song. It just happened and happens!

One of the great things about writing, whether it be song lyrics, poetry or prose, is that you can always point at someone or something else to avoid responsibility or blame! "My baby left me" frequently converts to the truth that, in fact, "I left my baby." It's also reflective of my occasionally stubborn refusal to face reality.

In terms of people's varied interpretations, I only really discovered this in the last 10 years or so, when I began forming a deep relationship with my fans in Russia and the former Soviet countries. They often refer to my songs as "the songs of their youth," referring to the times when access to so-called "Western Rock" was strictly forbidden and actually punishable by imprisonment.

Because I play so many solo shows there, they have grown to love the "author's version" of these songs, as I am able to tell them the story behind each song and play it for them exactly as I wrote it.

And, as you observe, they all have a different reason for their deep, personal attachment to one song or another!

But, I digress (another form of "escape" - Ha!). This song is about me at a time when I was unsure of which direction to take in a variety of personal and business situations. For my next album, I have written a song called "Mine" which specifically speaks to the conflict between fantasy.

Usually all that's needed is a strong dose of simple truth!

Songfacts: "Easy Livin'," obviously, was a big one for you and Uriah Heep. Do you recall where you were, physically and mentally, when you wrote that one?

Hensley: As a matter of fact, I remember this very clearly!

After a few long days in the studio, some of us were sharing a taxi home, and the conversation drifted to the fact that most people see our lives as easy. That we just show up at a venue, play, collect a million dollars and go home!

The two words, "life" and "easy" stuck with me and, as soon as I got into my flat and made a cup of tea, I sat down at the piano and the song was finished in about 15 minutes.

Songfacts: Did you know you had a big hit when you wrote "Easy Livin'"?

Hensley: No! I did not!

I knew we had a great song for the band and it translated into a great live song but, since I never wrote (nor write) with a particular "destination" in mind, I hardly ever considered that a song may succeed to any extent at all.

As a matter of fact, at the end of recording an album, we all used to sit around and think about what the single should be. I was always wrong!

Songfacts: Was "Bird Of Prey" about an actual woman or incident from your life?

Hensley: Pure imagination!

Songfacts: Can you tell us about writing "July Morning"?

Hensley: Happy to!

Uriah Heep was on tour in the UK with an American band named Sha Na Na and we were sharing a bus, which meant we had to wait for them to finish before we could go home. This was boring!

On one of those nights/early mornings, I just took my acoustic guitar and began noodling. I found some interesting chords and thought about a lyric. It began with a true statement, "There I was, on a July morning," and then my imagination took over.

Over the next few days, I finished the song and took it to the rehearsal room. I played it to the band on my acoustic guitar and, by the end of the day, it had become the song that so many people grew to love. That was magic!

Wherever I play now, with my band, alone, with an orchestra, a string quartet, etcetera, that song receives a rapturous response and it is such a joy to see, from my vantage point on stage, the audience singing, smiling, hugging each other and even crying to this song.

Even people in non-English speaking countries know the words to this song and I am always amazed at the atmosphere it creates.

Songfacts: If you had to choose one single song from your long career, one song that you felt best encapsulates Ken Hensley as a songwriter, which would it be?

Hensley: This is practically impossible of course but, apart from those mentioned above, I would say "Paradise/The Spell" from the Demons and Wizards album. Or, "Dear Mr. Star" from my next album, but that's not fair is it?

November 1, 2018. Tour dates and more at ken-hensley.com.
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