The Magician’s Birthday: Rock’s Romantic Classic

1. The Magician’s Birthday Party

The Magician’s Birthday by Uriah Heep deserves a place of honour in the tradition of mythic storytelling, not scorn for its “sword and sorcery” overtones. And anyway, the low-budget films and comic books that originated the term are just ham-handed caricatures of these same perennial archetypes. It’s the classic confrontation of God and Lucifer, whether in Milton or Genesis. It’s Inanna in the Underworld, stripped to the skin before the Queen of the Dead, begging for her lover’s life, for the very life of the soil. Jung would have loved The Magician’s Birthday just as Joseph Campbell loved the original Star Wars films.

The classic album art by Roger Dean.

With poetry becoming increasingly remote to most of the public by the Sixties, popular songwriting became the new lingua franca, the voice that spoke to millions. The lifestyle and creative experimentation of the era kicked down the barriers to the subconscious, allowing its archetypal images and stories to flow through. Hence the proliferation of bands like Uriah Heep, Genesis, Yes, Gentle Giant, the Moody Blues and others who sensed a new freedom to explore age-old themes, both lyrically and sonically. Using the new musical tools that had become available, prog rockers created a seamless synthesis of the traditional and modern. Unfortunately very few music critics of the era were equipped to understand the deep tradition of mythic themes in art and resorted to sardonic dismissal of concept albums built on these ideas.

Uriah Heep’s Magician is the Seventies counterpart to Merlin. But this is a Romantic Merlin, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Merlin, so he isn’t a craggy greybeard but a lithe young man, life juices flowing. More than that, he’s little David poised on the balls of his feet against Goliath. Only this time, instead of a slingshot, he’s armed only with a wand—an alchemical symbol for the power of imagination. This is just epigenetics showing up, given the British/Celtic heritage of the band. It’s the ancient tale, still whispered in the blood all these centuries later.

For some unknown reason the Seventies had the tendency to give the Devil the upper hand rather than God in popular media. You can see in Roger Dean’s superb cover artwork, a shaggy, primordial devil figure looming high above the Magician, who in this case represents the forces of light. What made Dean’s work so alive, so endlessly compelling, was its organic quality. His fantasy landscapes are entirely believable even when the eye knows better. It adds a whole other  dimension to Ken Hensley’s story.

The use of dynamics is excellent throughout the record. Particularly on The Magician’s Birthday track, the band shows its prog rock chops, letting the sound lapse to a whisper to follow Byron’s emotive singing, building gradually to an explosive climax with the confrontation of the Magician and Devil. Whether guitar, bass, organ, voice or drums, all here is in service of the song, the story. Box’s guitar stings like a wasp on a hot summer afternoon but never distracts. The sweeping acoustic guitar of Tales and Blind Eye easily evoke smoky-eyed nights around the fire, listening to stories so old time to them is meaningless. The mythic spell is woven with ease and grace from the opening track, Sunrise, an apt way to start telling a new tale. Spider Woman kicks into an easy lope to tell the legend of a man willingly lost in the goddess’s web:

Uriah Heep lead singer David Byron, who tragically died as young as his Romantic namesake Lord Byron.

I had a Spider Woman and she was so good
She chained me in her web so tight
I lost the freedom of release that night
So I stayed right by her

The spider woman theme is as old as mythology itself, with roots in ancient Egypt, and before that, some of our earliest recorded myth tales from Sumer some five thousand years ago. Neith, a form of Isis, was sometimes depicted with a weaving shuttle on her head, other times with the crown of Lower Egypt.[1] These goddesses are usually associated with weaving, a skill that would have seemed like sorcery to the uninitiated. In Greek mythology, Athena “created the universe on her loom rather than from the primordial waters as had Neith in the older Egyptian tradition.”[2] Better known of course for her weaving wizardry is Arachne, the basis of the biological classification of spiders as arachnids.

Echoes in the Dark tips the wizard’s hat to the strangely compelling ancient voices that drive the narrative of this record. This is the protagonist, lifting one heavy foot after another to try and get through the Underworld back to the light:

I have heard the echoes in the dark
Dim and distant voices of the past
And I’ve seen so far into the night
And lingered in the land of no light

The final verse gives the nod toward a trope of the hero’s journey archetype—the unknown ally, travel companion or wise man, sometimes the wise fool, who shows up just when least expected:

The day of darkness comes to every man
And lingers while he reaches out his hand
And he cannot know how it will end
Till he finds out if he has a friend

Ken Hensley’s beautiful Rain is the Magician-poet-singer at his lowest ebb, heartbroken and wide open to the world and its pain. Hensley’s vocal is expansive, searching to the very roots of feeling the lyrics explore. Melancholy, “the black dogs,” are the purgatorial companions of all too many creatives:

Rain, rain, rain, in my tears
Measuring carefully my years
Shame, shame, shame, in my mind
See what you’ve done to my life
See what you’ve done to my life

Sweet Lorraine is the only song that doesn’t age well from the album, with its simplistic and dated Moog riff that ruins an otherwise perfectly fine song. The grating synthesizer squeal sadly defeats its virtues, an otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill rocker.

Thematically, most of the ground covered on The Magician’s Birthday was already covered on Demons and Wizards, another album that is effortless, seamless in its aesthetic perfection. Together these records represent a creative peak for the band they would never equal. Paradise/The Spell,another song written on the theme of the grand contest between good and evil, is a clear precursor to the title track of The Magician’s Birthday, though I find the dynamics in the latter more compelling. Demons and Wizards is every bit as consistently brilliant as an album, with a lyrical and melodic flow that carries you from the first song, The Wizard, through to the epic confrontation of Paradise/The Spell. The Wizard,with Byron’s emotive vocal processed through a haunting echo effect, taps into the mythos from the first two verses:

He was the wizard of a thousand kings
And I chanced to meet him one night wandering
He told me tales and he drank my wine
Me and my magic man kind of feeling fine

He had a cloak of gold
And eyes of fire
And as he spoke I felt a deep desire
To free the world of its fear and pain
And help the people to feel free again

It’s just this kind of lyric that convinces me the Seventies prog-rockers are the true inheritors of the Romantics. Whatever literary revisionists may think, we can thank the Romantics for the sense of the individual we so take for granted in the West. With so many people finally emerging from the chains of the class system into the comparative comforts of the 19th century, they needed poets to shine light on the possibilities of becoming an actualized, individual human being. Unfortunately they also exposed the destructive, shadow side of that equation—the narcissism, hopeless though innocent naïevté, the fast cooling passions for “undying loves”… The Blakean spirit of burning the soul to the wick and bone in pursuit of the integrity of one’s vision. The cost of it all to those closest to them, the shattered lives in their wake. Still, like the poet Browning, they reach out beyond what they can grasp, convinced of illumination, redemption from this vale of tears:

So spoke the wizard in his mountain home
The vision of his wisdom means we’ll never be alone
And I will dream of my magic night
And the million silver stars that guide me with their light

And as he spoke I felt a deep desire
To free the world of its fear and pain
And help the people to feel free again

Not surprisingly, Rock had its Shelleys and Byrons—including Heep’s own David Byron—with their tragic, premature deaths. Like the Romantics, they had a faith in virtues reality could seldom match for long. It’s fitting that the Seventies—gushing from the fountainhead of creativity that was the mid to late Sixties—would be the ideal decade for a Romantic revival. Western civilization was still in the afterglow of its postwar golden age. The cost of living was cheap, freeing up creative energies. Warren Zevon’s song I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead probably best describes the pace of the era. Or Chilliwack’s Flying High. Literally and metaphorically. During 1973 Uriah Heep put out two studio albums—The Magician’s Birthday and Sweet Freedomand the double live album Uriah Heep Live January 1973. But if you believe geologist M.King Hubbert, oil production peaked that decade. So the end of the party was in sight, and even the Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll began to sputter out by 1975. Data shows that from that era to this one, the working and middle classes have not made any substantial gain, adjusted for inflation, on their earnings.

2. A Bittersweet Wonderworld

After writing most of the material for the band’s three classic albums—Look At Yourself, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday it’s no wonder Ken Hensley was exhausted when it came time to write music for Sweet Freedom. This had led to friction in the band, who weren’t being given the chance to step up with songs of their own. Ironically, much of the strength of the critically panned Wonderworld lies in the more collaborative approach to songwriting it employed. (Though he co-wrote the entire album, Hensley gets sole writing credits on only three songs.) Not to mention, guitarist Mick Box and bassist Gary Thain stepping up with some of the best performances of their careers. Box, with his mastery of the wah-wah and electric slide—often simultaneously. Thain, with his lyrical, fluid, pulsating basslines. I always found the strength of Sweet Freedom ebbed quickly once Stealin’ and Sweet Freedom had finished playing. The rest of the album wanders listlessly and mostly forgettably.

Ken Hensley, principal songwriter for the band. R.I.P. 1945–2020.

By contrast, Wonderworld’s songs are all tightly written and slam home like a sledgehammer, veering into balladry with The Easy Road, or the wistful Shadows and the Wind and Dreams. Hensley seems to have been especially tuned into the parallel universe of dreams, given the number of times it shows up in his lyrics. Box’s electric slide wizardry on I Won’t Mind alone is worth the price of entry. Who can listen to this and still say Mick Box isn’t a great guitarist? What I hear is the band singing for its life, in songs like Suicidal Man, So Tired, and the slow swamp blues grind of I Won’t Mind, a philosophical acceptance of reality’s caprices. The band was loosening up on songwriting concepts but still writing provocative songs. To my ears, this is the last faithful representation of Uriah Heep with its classic line-up of Byron, Box, Hensley, Kerslake and Thain. And that is bittersweet to me. Box the last man standing. Their loss, yet another thinning of the ranks of the most original generation to ever make music.

—November 2020, The Lost Year

RIP Ken Hensley 1945–2020

RIP Lee Kerslake 1947–2020


[1] “Spider Goddess Mythology & Weaving in the Mysteries,” Illumination Through the Western Mysteries, https://www.transcendenceworks.com/blog/spider-goddess-mythology-weaving-mysteries/

[2] “Spider Goddess Mythology & Weaving in the Mysteries,” ibid.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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