Performing out of the box

For Uriah Heep co-founder and guitarist Mick Box, keeping the band going for the past 40 years has "been a labor of love."

 Uriah Heep (photo credit:
Uriah Heep
(photo credit:
It’s one of the hazards of the trade – if you’re a senior citizen and your trade is rock & roll.
Two weeks before British hardrock pioneers Uriah Heep were scheduled to arrive in Israel for their show at the Tel Aviv Opera House on January 28, the band announced that longtime bassist Trevor Bolder would be undergoing an operation for an undisclosed ailment and would bow out of the band for several months of recuperation.
However, the show must go on and last week, Heep main man Mick Box quickly recruited veteran bassist John JJ Jowitt, one of the original members of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, to replace the ailing Bolder.
In a Spinal Tap-esque statement posted on the band’s website, guitarist Box wrote, “We all wish Trevor a speedy return to the fold. In the meantime we’re very pleased that JJ has agreed to step in and cover Trev’s unique bass panache, which is so crucial to Heep’s sound. JJ will also contribute to the signature fivepart vocal operatics.”
Bass panache and five-part vocal operatics aside, Uriah Heep has managed to survive on the rock & roll battlefield for over four decades with their fusion of progressive, art rock and metal, heavy on fantasy, swirling keyboard and reverent bombast.
Back in the early 1970s, for a short time, thanks to hit albums like Demons and Wizards, Heep was even considered one of the “big four” of hard rock along with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
While in the long run, they couldn’t keep pace with those marquee names, and many rock fans hoisted them on the scrap heap of ’70s has-beens, the truth is somewhere in between; Uriah Heep has continued as a recording and touring unit selling out arenas and theaters regularly around the world.
For the 65-year-old Box, who formed Uriah Heep in 1969 with vocalist Dave Byron, the lack of recognition from formal bodies like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is just not that important compared to the band’s accomplishments and longevity.
“To be honest, it really does not bother us, as we have been very successful, by selling over 30 million albums and playing concerts in over 53 countries,” Box told The Jerusalem Post in an email interview last week. “Our measure of success is that we are still doing it, as we still have the same passion and energy for our music as we always had. Part of what keeps us going is the desire to play music and travel the world together.”
Box remains the only original member of the band, but until Holder’s illness the Heep lineup had been stable for a record duration, compared to the revolving door the band witnessed in the ’80s and ’90s. For Box, keeping the band’s legacy going has seen him do everything from playing the music to booking and managing the tours.
“I managed the band and tour-managed the band for many years, and that bought about some stability,” he said. “Previous managers did not do their jobs properly, and things very quickly start to come unstuck as a consequence. With me at the helm, everyone was really comfortable with that, hence the stability. However we now at last have management that we are all happy with.”
During their latter-day resurgence, Heep has performed in Israel twice – in 2003 and 2008, and the sold-out audiences included a top-heavy segment of Israelis originally from the former Soviet Union, where the band’s status as rock royalty remains untarnished. According to Box, it’s due to the wild reception they received when they took the honors in 1987 of being the first Western rock band to play in Moscow.
“We played to over 180,000 people.
We were invited over by Glasnost and it was a very exciting time,” said Box, adding that the band’s albums were treated like gold.
“They could only buy our music on the black market and then pay a month’s wages for one of our albums. Now they were true Heep fans. We had no idea of how big we were over there until we went, and it was phenomenal.”
That kind of reaction has continued to be standard fare at the band’s shows, and Box admits that it’s kept him going as he’s pursued his life’s work of preserving the Uriah Heep’s legacy. It’s been a journey littered with casualties, including the deaths of original bassist Gary Thain in 1975 and vocalist Byron in 1985.
“It’s been a labor of love, though it has not been without its heartaches, too,” said Box. “By keeping the band going, it gives young musicians the chance to check out how wonderful David Byron’s vocals and songwriting were, and also how amazing Gary Thain’s bass playing and songwriting was. Both were of the highest caliber.”
With musical trends being cyclical in nature, Box said that the progressive rock of the 1970s, which fell out of favor with punk, alternative and indie styles taking hold in subsequent decades, is once again drawing in a younger audience who missed it the first time around.
“We have Heep fans shouting out for songs that are older than them, which is terrific,” said Box. “It just shows you that good songs stand the test of time and people still like hearing them in the live arena. The band today is very strong too, and we have a lot to offer young musicians.”
While Bolder’s illness might serve as a warning sign for some musicians to unplug and let the next generation take over, Box said that Uriah Heep has no intentions of packing it in, as their show in Tel Aviv on Monday night will attest.
“We do not put limits on anything, to be honest. As long as we enjoy what we do, we have the health to continue, and the audience is there, there is no reason to stop.”