"It was five guys having the time of their lives in a recording studio. It was out of control but under control at the same time": Uriah Heep and a tale of Easy Livin'

Uriah Heep pose outside with their arms around each other in 1972
Uriah Heep in 1972: L-R Gary Thain, Mick Box, Ken Hensley, Lee Kerslake and David Byron (Image credit: Fin Costello via Getty Images)

Sometimes the course of one’s life can be changed by an offhand comment. For Ken Hensley, Uriah Heep’s keyboard player and guitarist throughout the 70s, that moment came during a taxi ride home after a marathon three-day studio session. 

“We’d been rushing to finish an album before we left to go on tour,” Hensley told Classic Rock in 2018. “We were having a conversation, and someone mentioned how people think we have such an easy life, how we just show up, collect the dollars and go home. The words ‘easy life’ stuck in my head. When the taxi dropped me off at my flat, I went in, put the kettle on, sat down at the piano, and within about ten minutes that song was finished.” 

The song was Easy Livin’, a galloping hymn to chasing hopes and ambitions even as they remain tantalisingly out of reach. Released as a single in 1972, it helped transform Heep from a mid-card rock band into arena-filling heavyweights. Almost 50 years after it was first released, it remains both their best-known song and one of the great anthems of rock’s golden age. “We were already doing well, but that song took us to another level of success,” said Hensley. 

With three albums already under their belt, Heep were far from unknown before they made Easy Livin’ and its parent album, Demons And Wizards. They offered up a more grandiose alternative to Led Zeppelin’s priapic blues or Black Sabbath’s primal howl. Hensley had done his time with an assortment of 60s pop and prog bands, and it showed – Uriah Heep favoured melodic bombast and musical intricacy over deafening bludgeon. 

Not everyone bought into it. “If this group makes it I’ll have to commit suicide,” proclaimed Rolling Stone writer Melissa Mills in a review of their debut album, 1970’s Very ’Eavy, Very ’Umble.

But Heep didn’t need the blessing of the mainstream media. They’d notched up a string of hit singles in Germany and cracked the Top 40 album chart. The flip side was increased pressure from their management and label to keep the success coming, churning out the hits.

“Looking back on it, there’s absolutely no reason why we should have had to do an album every ten months,” said Hensley. “But at the time I was relishing it. We had a whole lot of freedom to do what we wanted, which was wonderful.”

Heep always had an unconventional internal dynamic. The band’s two founders, guitarist Mick Box and singer David Byron, were close, having known each other since they were teenagers. Hensley joined the band in 1969. Relations between Hensley and his bandmates were professional and cordial, but they were never especially close. 

“I wasn’t really friends with anyone in the band,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were enemies, but I didn’t see any reason to socialise with them, as our interests outside of the band were completely different. We rarely collaborated in terms of writing the songs. Basically, I wrote all the songs by myself.” 

Despite that, Hensley says the mood in the band was electric when they began work on their fourth album. Heep entered West London’s Lansdowne Studios to record Demons And Wizards in early 1972, then took a break to tour America. When they returned, bassist Mark Clarke had been replaced by Gary Thain. 

“It was five guys having the time of their lives in a recording studio with halfway decent equipment,” said Hensley. “There was no stopping us. It was out of control but under control at the same time.”

New songs such as The Wizard, Circle Of Hands and the two-part Paradise/The Spell were complicated and grandiose. By contrast, Easy Livin’ was urgent and direct, powered by drummer Lee Kerslake’s relentless shuffling beat and Hensley’s grinding, stabbing keyboards.

“I knew when I wrote it that it was a great song,” said Hensley. “And when the band converted it into what they did, I knew it was special.”

Hensley had sung on a couple of Heep songs before, notably Lady In Black and the title track of the band’s third album, Look At Yourself, but he wasn’t tempted to step up for the mic this time around. “Not with a singer like David around,” he said.

Byron was a charismatic showman whose strident, ringing voice was a world away from the likes of Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers. If the music propelled Easy Livin’ along the runway at high speed, then Bryon gave the song wings.

“He could take a song and turn it into magic,” Hensley said of his former bandmate, who died of alcohol-related illness in 1985. “He was a different singer – he leaned more towards pop than rock. And that’s why he was virtually impossible to replace.”

Easy Livin’ was the second single to be taken from Demons And Wizards, released in the late summer of 1972. The groundwork Heep laid in America paid off. Radio picked up on it. Suddenly, Heep had their first US Top 40 single, dragging Demons And Wizards along in its wake. 

“We never really saw it coming,” said Hensley. “It hit radio hard – and in those days radio wasn’t just hugely influential in America, it was influential everywhere. It was like riding on a magic carpet. We were playing sold-out arenas around the world, playing to thousands of people at festivals, making tons of money. [Laughs] Although I still don’t know where most of it went.” 

Even the critics’ view of Heep had changed. Now even Rolling Stone magazine was praising them. 

“It overcame a lot of the lack of credibility that the band had suffered from within the media,” said Hensley. “We were finally impressing some people. But the people we wanted to impress were the ones that bought the records and the concert tickets.” 

Easy Livin’ proved to be Heep’s commercial high-water mark, at least in the US. The band’s management swiftly bundled them back into the studio to record a follow-up album, The Magician’s Birthday, which Hensley says he never finished to his satisfaction. He left the band in 1980, leaving sole remaining original member Mick Box to steer them ever since. 

Unsurprisingly, Hensley had nothing but fond memories of the song that propelled Uriah Heep up into the superstar bracket. “I’ve played Easy Livin’ with a lot of great musicians, but no one can play it like Uriah Heep did,” he said. “It was a one-off."

The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 249, in June 2018. Ken Hensley died in 2020.

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.