Ken Hensley: On Top of The Heep - A Retrospective

Ken Hensley: On Top of The Heep – A Retrospective

Whilst Ken Hensley will be forever known as the Hammond/guitar/vocal/songwriting force that helped shape Uriah Heep, his early works deserve much more attention than they seem to get. His solo albums while still with Heep and his extensive work after his departure also deserve a wider recognition.

I first heard Ken when I bought the Uriah Heep classic ‘Look At Yourself’: it was one of those ‘no idea of the music, but I have to buy the cover’ purchases. The mirror and the eyes were a powerful image and called to me…I didn’t regret it as, once home and with the LP on the turntable (OK, a Bush record player with a lid that detached and were actually the speakers providing primitive stereo) I fell in love with the multi-layered Heep sound, particularly on the epic ‘July Morning’ and so bought the previous two, and then every album since on release day.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Kenneth William David Hensley, he was musically active for a while before he joined Heep: in 1965 he was the driving force behind the modestly named band, The Gods…a band that also saw future stars Mick Taylor, Greg Lake, John Glascock and soon to be Heepy Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake are among the players at one time or another and they released two albums, ‘Genesis’ in ’68 and ‘To Samuel A Son’ in ’69. In this early phase of his career, Ken often played guitar too; it was only when he paired with Mick Box that he majored in hefty Hammond Organ, although his twin guitar outings with Mick (especially live) were always a treat. His songwriting prowess was already in full flow with The Gods however and the re-release of those two albums on CD provided bonus tracks aplenty and are well worth seeking out to hear his song craft begin to blossom. Try the poppy, in a Kinks way, ‘You’re My Life’ or the Hendrix-y ‘Misleading Colours’ or the proto-Heep harmonies of ‘Farthing Man.

The second album provided such gems as the bass driven rock of ‘Eight o’Clock in the Morning’, the Hammondy, Beatle-y ‘Sticking Wings on Flies’ or the groovy ‘Groozy’. The promise shown developed further when, in 1970, the planned third album was released under the name of ‘Head Machine, Orgasm.’ The players (Hensley, Kerslake, the Glascock brothers and David Paramor) were listed under pseudonyms for contractual reasons and the content, for 1970, was surprisingly smutty and yet escaped the attentions of Mary Whitehouse…and most of the record buying public to be honest. It did contain some excellent heavy, riffy rock with a psyche overtone at times; witness the thinly veiled muckiness of ‘You Must Come With Me’ and the nigh on nine minute ‘Orgasm’ that leaves you in no doubt about the subject matter…but also provides superb, proper early 70s rock…complete with a suitable climax! A great album lost in the mists of record company obfuscation.

Ken’s next move was to the curiously named Toe Fat: a band put together from the ashes of The Gods by Rebel Rouser, Cliff Bennett. There were two Toe Fat releases, but Ken only played on the first, self-titled album. Cliff does the majority of the vocals but listen to Ken on guitar and keyboards and there’s no doubt about the ability he was due to bring to Uriah Heep. Try ‘That’s My Love for You’ or ‘Nobody.’

Ken Hensley also took part in another weird but brilliant side project called Weed: their self-titled and only release came out in 1971 when Ken joined a group of German musicians and added his vocal, keyboard and guitar flourishes. The songs have his trademark structure but weren’t credited to him, although this could be contractual as he did this in between Heep’s ‘Salisbury’ and ‘Look At Yourself’ albums. Regardless, it is heavy, 70s, quality rock…one listen to the opener, ‘Sweet Morning Light’ or the raucous instrumental title track will convince. All of these albums I have picked up on CD over the last twenty years and should still be available.

Before moving on to Ken’s solo output, I want to cover his short time with American band Blackfoot: after leaving Heep in 1980, he was living in the US when that opportunity arose, and he appears on two of their albums…’Siogo’ from ’83 and ‘Vertical Smiles’ the following year. These are two fine albums where Ken’s influence and playing modified their southern rock sound with his signature keyboard and vocal styles. On the first album, if you ignore the pomp rock of opener ‘Send Me An Angel’, you’ll be rewarded with proper rock on ‘Crossfire’ or blues-rock on ‘White Man’s Land’. The second is marginally better with a cover of the lovely song, ‘Morning Dew’…although it doesn’t match Nazareth’s or Robert Plant’s version, it is still rather good. The straight ahead rock of ‘Get It On’, ‘A Legend Never Dies’ or ‘In For The Kill’ make it more than worthy.

Ken Hensley also made guest appearances on W.A.S.P. album ‘Headless Children’, Cinderella’s ‘Heartbreak Station’, and Bruce Cameron’s ‘Midnight Daydream’ and, in later years, added some great Hammond to Ayreon (‘Loser’) and Therion (Trul’) releases.

Now for Ken Hensley’s solo output: after the first Heep album, ‘Very ‘Eavy, Very ’Umble’, Hensley became the main songwriter and so when his first solo album, the sort-of-but-not-really Heepy, ‘Proud Word on a Dusty Shelf’ came out in 1973, I bought it unheard and was rewarded with a varied and original album, albeit with the inevitable Heep tinges. Packed with quality and a must have as tracks such as the countrified ‘The Last Time’, the soft rocking ‘King Without a Throne’ or even the reworked ‘Rain’ are unmissable.

The follow up was the less accessible, but equally good. ‘Eager To Please’ from ’75 provided the raw rocker ‘Stargazer’, the epic ballad ‘Through the Eyes of a Child’ or the powerful ‘Winter or Summer’ and all are worthy. His next release came in 1980 as ‘Free Spirit’ further confirmed his song craft, although track one, ‘Inside the Mystery’ was worrying as needle hit vinyl: a bit funky and poppy until his guitar playing overlays the bass and electric piano and his vocals stay true. Other songs reinforce his rock credentials however as ‘New York’, the Uriah Heep tinged ‘When’ or ‘New Routine’ make up for the odd misstep.

Following his US odyssey, we had to wait until ’1994 for his next solo album…’From Time to Time’ which had a rework of the ‘Sweet Freedom’ track ‘If I Had the Time’ that is more piano led and even echoes The Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ which I hadn’t noticed on the original…still a brilliant song and this is a great version. Even more entrancing is the update on ‘Cold Autumn Sunday’ from ‘Proud Words…’ Add to this the slide driven rock of ‘Who Will Sing For You’ and ‘The Name of the Game’ and it is an all-round great album. Next came ‘A Glimpse of Glory’ in ’99: another fine example of his song craft but with a twist.

After returning from the States, Ken eventually based himself in Spain and, due to various challenges, found himself turning to God and the gospel music blended with his work is testament to his ‘born again’ mindset. This CD was released as a “revised version” in 2001, and has a few additional tracks which also focus on his new found faith. It opens with a neat Spanish guitar introduction (strangely, it is part two of an instrumental from the yet to be released ‘Running Blind’). This segues into the first overtly religious ‘Jesus (Again and Again) followed immediately by ‘The Joy of Knowing Jesus’…it can still appeal to any denomination as the worshipful lyrics are wrapped in Ken’s cleverly worked melodies and the guitar work is excellent. This tendency carries on ‘Who I Know’, and whilst the appearance of his latter day backing band Live Fire vocalist taking the lead may add a little variation on tracks like the acoustic ‘Guard You Heart’ the whole album is not where someone new to Ken’s work should start…the songs are weaker structurally and, apart from the rockier ‘Shakey Ground’ and ‘Win or Lose’, being brutally honest, it is a collection for completists only.

The wait (and hope) for more quality Ken lasted until 2001 when he surprisingly teamed up with fellow Heep vocalist John Lawton for a live album: ‘The Return’ featured The Gods and Heep’s original bassist too as Paul Newton adds the Uriah Heep almost reunion feel of the concert. An evening of many Heep classics. Very hard to find is the ‘Salisbury Live’ release with the same line up performing in Hamburg in May 2001 and, in addition to the expected classics, they were joined by an orchestra for two numbers: the marvellously complex ‘Salisbury’ and an interesting reading of ‘Circle of Hands’. I had this on VHS but can’t find the damn thing anywhere. A similar experience can be found when Ken was joined by one time Heep bassist John Wetton this time for a couple of live recordings of Heep and Asia songs. ‘More Than Conquerors’ and ‘One Way or Another’ are both great live albums.

The next solo album, ‘Running Blind’, arrived in 2002: this was indeed a return to form and the first track is the orchestral instrumental that sits alongside the previously mentioned part one piece. ‘Overture: “La Tristeza Secreta De UnCorazon Gitano” (Pt. 1)’ is a sweeping piano led track that has a majesty about it and leads us nicely into ‘Prelude: A Minor Life’ that opens with Hammond building into a proper rock instrumental. Elsewhere we have more Heep-y ness with the ‘Wonderworld’ styled ‘Out of My Control’, ‘The Final Solution’ or ‘It’s Up to You’. Ballads are still catered for with the acoustic ache of ‘I Close My Eyes’ and ‘Julia’s Song’…in fact there’s only the poppy, gets nowhere ‘Finney’s Tale’ that has the finger heading for ‘skip’.

The following year saw the release of ‘The Last Dance’ and the comfortable mix of rock and ballad than Ken always excels at…the opener, ‘Crying’ is bluesy with acoustic slide and rock from the electric riff and a new, yet typical Ken melody. The following year saw ‘The Last Dance’ release and, with a head bowed and topless Ken on the cover (he was wearing shorts!), we found more Hensley rock and ballad songs of quality. ‘Crying’ could have been off ‘Firefly’; ‘Second Chance’ a dramatic, near epic; ‘Who Knows’ the acoustic heartache ballad and the glam rock of ‘Dancing’.

A slew of compilations seemed to arrive over the next few years before we got the autobiographical ‘Blood on the Highway (When Too Many Dreams Come True). This told Ken’s story of his musical journey and had Jorne Lande, Glenn Hughes and John Lawton amongst the guest appearances. It’s worth the entrance fee for the blues-rock of ‘We’re On the Way’ story of Heep’s early days.

There’s a part two to this as he reflects on “time marching on”. Jorne does his best Coverdale on the rocking ‘You’ve Got It’ , John Lawton brings Heep back with the layered brilliance of ‘It Won’t Last’ and Glenn does his soulful thing on ‘What You Gonna Do’. An excellent album for many reasons. A live recording was released on DVD with the first disc being the whole album and the second a run through Heep classics. Lande and Lawton also appeared, but no Hughes. Hughes turns up again on the very Spanish ‘Love and Other Mysteries’: recorded in Alicante in addition to Glenn, it features a host of local friends of Ken on vocals guitar, bass and drums.

I got my copy direct from Ken’s site and was chuffed to have it signed by the man himself and with “Hi Tom” above his signature. The music didn’t disappoint either. Glenn does (mostly) restrained in a duet with Santra Salkova on the lovely ballad, ‘Romance’ and another female singer, Sarah Rope, does the soft rock song ‘(Please) Tell Me When’ proud. Two other songs have guest vocals: the Spanish language ‘Respiro Tu Amor’ has Roberto Tiranti singing well on a piano ballad translated as ‘I Breathe Your Love’. He also sings with Irene Forniciari on the lament Ken wrote after his music partner and producer, Dani, lost his wife and three-year old son in a fire…Ken puts drama, passion and heartbreaking emotion into a song that shames many Broadway musicals. Elsewhere Ken shines on songs such as the country blues ballad ‘Come To Me.’

That album came between his tie up with a band called Live Fire who released two studio and two live albums. The studio discs are essential buys and the live ones desirable as they, inevitably, go over familiar ground. The first studio album, ‘Faster’ came out in 2011with brilliant rocking tracks such as ‘the title track or ‘Set Me Free.’ Two years later and ‘Trouble’ came out with more of the same: try Hammond swirling behind the power of ‘Ready To Die’ or the frantic ‘I Wanna Go Back.’

Ken’s final release was completed shortly before his sad passing in November 2020 and came out in early 2021: ‘My Book of Answers’ was a first for Ken as he took the poems of a Russian called Vladimir Emelin…he asked Ken to write music for his poems and this album is the result. The lyrics aren’t as flowing as one would expect but they work well and, with a new capable band behind him, songs such as ‘Right Here Right Now’ evoking heavy Heep (and even borrowing a moog intro) or the epic ‘Stand (Chase the Beast Away)’ and the two versions of ‘The Darkest Hour.’

Ken’s ability to infuse emotion and meaning into his lyrics is often overlooked too…yes, some of them are simplistic but he often includes beautiful, deep and thought provoking phrases: one of my favourites is from Heep’s ‘Circle of Hands.’ “Today is only yesterday’s tomorrow” is a fantastic way to look at life, the universe and everything! His Hammond excursions are rightly lauded but he was a helluva guitarist too, particularly deft on slide that becomes ever more apparent as you journey through his out of the Heep works.

It was a sad day when Ken passed away, but the outpouring of his fans and fellow musicians really showed the respect and love he commanded. Our esteemed editor also did a very nice piece in his memory which I’d strongly recommend you watch and, hopefully, we will have created sufficient interest in for you to explore this masterful musician’s works further.

(There is a multitude of compilation albums out there, should you want ‘dip a toe in the water’ but the majority of tracks I already have from the originals, so check before you buy to save unnecessary duplication.)

Tom Dixon | Now Spinning Magazine

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