Ah, classic rock. And prog rock. The Seventies, in other words. Tomorrow is the birthday of Ken Hensley, the writer behind most of the output of the heavy-prog band Uriah Heep in their heyday from 1970-72. Not so long, you say? Yeah, exactly, but in that time they did five albums and created their trademark sound, thanks largely to Hensley’s cooking Hammond organ. My aging heart goes pit-a-pat to Hammond organs even more than to Moog synthesizers. And mellotrons! Loving—after all these years—the bands that rocked with this stuff—and, in Heep’s case, power chords and high-pitched harmonies—is nerdy, true. But it’s no nerdier than watching the various iterations of Dr. Who, or reading Tolkien, or Game of Thrones. I mention such things because today’s song, from Demons and Wizards, tapped into—for most of its tracks—the fascination with magic and magical beings that was fairly rampant in the late Sixties/early Seventies. Perhaps it hasn’t fully gone away since, with fantasy always good for comics, films, and multi-volume page-turners. But for me it was a phase I identify with the close of middle school.
Seeing the band perform the song—or rather lip-synch the song—on a TV show, as here, brings it all back: the silly rock costumes (silver lamé boots, anyone?), the styled hair, the interesting facial hair, the open shirts and tight pants, sometimes looking like boudoir loungewear. As a teen—almost 13 when Demons and Wizards was released—I was embarrassed by such get-ups, though possibly a bit envious. In fact, I still remember walking to the department store (quite a hike when you don't have a bike), buying it, and walking home, so enthralled with my idea of what the album might sound like, with titles like “The Wizard,” “Traveler in Time,” “The Spell,” “Rainbow Demon.” I hadn’t heard any of it, but was taken with the cover, painted by Roger Dean, and made curious beyond bounds by those titles. Could it be that two of my favorite things might combine: fantasy and rock? Yes, to a certain degree. Uriah Heep didn’t completely live up to my own fantasy of what the album might sound like, but it didn’t completely disappoint me either. (It might be worth noting that I used to buy albums based on my expectations, sometimes due to written descriptions; there were not many avenues to hear music not played on the radio. The radio song from Demons and Wizards was “Easy Livin’”—which I may have heard once or twice—but I assumed it was just a single—great example of the Hammond riff—and that the wizardry songs required buying the LP).
The song isn’t exactly an exploration of the psyche of a wizard as I was probably hoping to hear, but starts off propitious enough: He was the wizard of a thousand kings / And I chanced to meet him one night wandering. Thoughts of Merlin imparting esoteric secrets no doubt thrilled me, filled me with fantastic visions never thought before. He told me tales, and he drank my wine / Me and my magic man, kinda feelin’ fine. Huh?
He had a cloak of gold and eyes of fire [ok!] / And as he spoke I felt a deep desire / To free the world from its fear and pain / And help the people to feel free again. Oh, so he’s a philanthropist wizard, not the kind I usually had in mind. But that’s ok. I soon became enamoured of that acoustic strum, the Hammond, and the eerie faeries singing “Why don’t we listen to the voices in our heart / Because then I know we’d find we’re not so far apart / Everybody’s got to be happy / Everyone should sing / For we know the joy of life / The peace that love can bring.” Yeah, I know. Sort of the last hurrah of hippiedom, but the music didn’t feel that way. Hensley's music and Uriah’s sound was riding along the path that led from the “Stairway.” Wizards, Ladies who’re sure all that glitters is gold. No, it wasn’t Faust, but it wasn’t Black Sabbath either. And that was enough to make Demons and Wizards my favorite album of spring, 1972.Until I got hooked by Ian Anderson's demonic flute.
So spoke the wizard in his mountain home.