Words and Interview Joel Parnell.
These are the names of the four guitar players who defined the first wave of British Heavy Rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first three are more or less household names to anyone with an even mild interest in the genre but the fourth may not ring a bell to those who haven’t yet done their heavy metal homework.
Mick Box is, of course, the lead guitarist and founding member of the legendary Uriah Heep.
Having grown up in a household where classic rock history was passed down from Father to Son like Bible stories and people like David Gilmour and Frank Zappa were worshipped like prophets, I was fucking shitting myself in the moments leading up to my interview with a bloke who might as well be known to me as ‘St. Mick’. I’d never interviewed anyone in my life, let alone an artist who has sold over 30 million albums in his efforts to pioneer a style of music that has so heavily influenced what we know today as ‘Rock and Roll’.
“Good morning!” exclaims a chipper English voice through the telephone.
Mick Box comes across as a personality in direct contrast with the Charles Dickens character after which his band is named. He is warm, courteous and with a way about him that is refreshingly working-class. This revelation puts my nerves to rest and the conversation starts to flow with ease.
JP: What’s it like when you hear the influence of Uriah Heep on the work of another band? Is it often that you do see a band at a pub and think “This guy’s been listening to ‘Demons And Wizards'”?
MB: “Well, quite often it’s the fans who get in touch with me (and ask) “Have you heard this Mick?” (Laughs) because with Facebook now it’s so immediate, people come straight to me and go “Have a look at this!”…”
Mick reflects on the classic Uriah Heep albums ‘Demons And Wizards’ and ‘The Magicians Birthday’…
“I think at that time we tapped on lyrical content that perhaps hadn’t been used… well… I wouldn’t say it hadn’t been used before but it captured everyone’s imagination. Between ‘Demons And Wizards’ and ‘The Magicians Birthday’ I think that lyrically, a lot of bands were totally influenced by that. Bands like Blind Guardian and people like that. There are many, many (bands) that took that route and went even further. It’s certainly stood the test of time! (Laughs)”
Though Mick acknowledges the impact of his work on so many musicians to come after, he does so in a way that is ‘Very ‘Umble’ and doesn’t come off as being too egotistical or boastful.
As well as being revered by rock enthusiasts for their music, Uriah Heep have long held a reputation for sporting some of the most vivid, striking and imaginative album covers in rock history. The artwork chosen for their latest release ‘Outsider’ is no exception; a surrealist piece that rivals some of Pink Floyd’s most bizarre and dream-like covers.
I inquire as to how much influence Mick and the band have over their iconic sleeves…
MB: “We’re totally involved. It’s important to us too, because we have a tradition of having great artwork on our product. We have as much input as we possibly can. We talk to the artist. With ‘Outsider’ for instance, we gave the title to the guy and sort of a rough idea of what we were thinking and he come up with that and it was top notch.”
“We’re a five headed animal and sometimes it’s very hard to get everyone to agree on everything but generally when someone comes in and everyone puts their hand up and says ‘Yes’, then it’s usually the right move to make! (Laughs) And that’s what’s happened on the last few albums as well.”
Mick dismisses any mysticism surrounding the title of his latest work…
MB: “We had no sort of ‘deep meaning’ but since then other people have started putting meanings to it (laughing) saying that maybe we thought of ourselves as outsiders and all this sort of guessing what it’s all about. But really, it was quite innocent (Laughs).”
And ponders the subjective nature of music…
MB: “Well, that’s the beauty of music and lyrics isn’t it? One song will mean one thing to me and mean something totally different to you but we can both like it as much, I think that’s great. One thing I used to hate in the ‘80s on MTV, they used to do these videos, they were like mini films weren’t they? What they did was they took away the imagination of the listener. They created such strong images that it didn’t allow the listener to use any imagination to where he wants to take that song. It’s something that I used to really dislike, that. (Laughs)”
JP: “Mick, if I were to pop ’round your place right now and have a look in the stereo, what would I find?”
MB: “Oh, my word! The new Opeth album, the new Tea Party, probably some Jeff Beck, he’s my favourite guitarist so he’d be blazing out somewhere and maybe Neil Young, any one of his albums, I float from one to the other.”
Having played in Uriah Heep for over 40 years, Mick Box is the only original member still active in the band. While they enjoyed success in the early 1970s that enabled them to share relatively equal footing alongside rock juggernauts Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Uriah Heep reached their commercial ‘peak’ by the mid-seventies and their popularity waned throughout the following decade as the band struggled with seemingly endless line-up changes, a target audience who’s appetites were rapidly becoming attuned to the more easily digestible offerings of KISS and Aerosmith and a music industry that had begun to prioritise image and commercial viability over creative integrity and grit.
Today, however, Uriah Heep enjoy a cult-like international following, particularly in Europe where the band still play to packed stadiums and festival audiences every year.
I ask Mick what drives him to stay the course after all these years and carry on the legacy of the band…
MB: I think it’s simple, really, I’ve got the same passion and energy for it as I’ve always had. I passionately believe in it and therefore it’s just a natural course to take. Any member that comes in, they understand that and they know what the template of Uriah Heep is about, what’s been established and they’re very faithful to that and they add their own twist as a player or a singer. I mean there’s no use changing the template because we’ve established something that’s been very successful over the years and you stay with it, don’t you?”
Mick bemoans the pursuit of technical mastery in music and values a natural and easy approach that allows the artists unique style to flourish…
“If I pick up a guitar, it’s to write something. That’s the essence of it, really. I don’t sit down and practice scales and things. Scales are for fish, mate! (Laughs) It’s the same with singers, you know, say Ozzy (for example) you wouldn’t call him a fantastic singer if you were looking in terms of technique and the rest of it but you hear his voice mate, you know it’s Ozzy! He’s not gonna go and sing classical, is he? But what he’s got is perfect, it’s a great tool. It’s just Ozzy.”
Above all else, Mick is a proper old-school rocker. He doesn’t do duets with P-Diddy or sell chewing gum in foreign commercials and he still looks much the same as he did in 1973.
JP: Will the world ever see a short haired Mick Box?
MB: “No! Never! (Laughs) I get my hair cut once a year and that’s one hair! (Laughs)”
URIAH HEEP 2015 Australian Tour Dates:
Thu 19th March – Sydney – Rooty Hill RSL
Fri 20th March – Sydney – Metro Theatre cap.
Sat 21st March – Melbourne – Shoppingtown Hotel
Sun 22nd March – Melbourne – Chelsea Heights
Tues 24th March – Perth – Astor Theatre
Wed 25th March – Adelaide – The Gov
Thu 26th March – Brisbane – Eatons Hill
Tickets ON SALE NOW HERE.