Well, Heep’s The Magician’s Birthday turned 50 in November! (Yes, I’m late on this) It was released a mere 6 months after the band’s hugely successful Demons And Wizards. Demons would become the band’s biggest album – a worldwide success that featured the hit single “Easy Livin”, and propelled the band in to being a headlining act around the world, particularly in North America. Back then record company mentality was to strike while the iron was hot, so it was not as crazy as it sounds today for a band to be hurried into record another album so soon to capitalize on success. The Magician’s Birthday is a classic Heep album, and for many maybe the band’s best (or one of). The album would make a great pairing to Demons And Wizards with it’s Roger Dean artwork, and fantasy themes in various songs. It did however, (IMO) sound a bit rushed, lacking in the grander production of it’s predecessor. The Magician’s Birthday was originally conceived as a concept album of songs Ken Hensley was coming up with based on a short story he was writing, and never finished. The story according to details in a Circus magazine feature were about “a magician who throws a bizarrely supernatural party to celebrate his 500th birthday… the magician would invite his rivals to a party, throw a huge feast where an orchestra of orchids would provide the entertainment, then end it all with a spectacular show of the spells and tricks he’d learned in nearly half a millennium on earth.” The article goes on to tell how the rest of the band didn’t share Hensley’s vision for a concept album at the time – “They were afraid that a total concept LP would come across like an opera, and stir up bitter comparisons to Tommy. So they kept five songs Hensley had composed about the spell-bound feast, but added ‘Spider Woman’ and ‘Rain’…” Ken Hensley stated over the years that the record’s release date was moved up and there was no time to finish it properly. In a 1973 interview with Geoff Brown, he stated – “I think there were some great songs on the album and I think there would’ve been even better songs had we had another two or three weeks to go through all the material. The time allotted was slotted in between tours and things didn’t go well for us in the early stages like they normally do. …Having mixed the last track we left the studio at 7:30 am and 4 and a half hours later we were on a plane to the States. That shows the sort of screws that we were on.”
Ken Hensley, in a 2016 interview with Jeb Wright recalled – “I was writing a short story called The Magician´s Birthday and the title track was the core song from which all the others spread out to paint the complete picture. It would have been so cool, but they took away my time and I consider this album to be less than 60% of what it could have been. Very disappointing.”
The Magician’s Birthday however, would go on to be one of the band’s most successful, with almost all songs from it returning to the live show over the decades. Side one opens with the organ and build up intro to “Sunrise”, a classic Heep heavy near ballad, with those high end Heep harmonies coming in early on, and certainly one of David Byron’s most passionate vocals. The song would be the tour opener, and thus opener for Heep’s historic Live album. Mick Box once told Metal Hammer – “We used vocals on this one is a very different way. It’s like a car starting up almost. We used very heavy vibrato and really played on it. We weren’t quite sure about the song at first, but once we recorded it – it sounded really great.”
The next track, “Spider Woman” was a short upbeat rock tune highlighted by slide guitar, followed by “Blind Eye”, another good guitar based tune (and B-side in North America). “Spider Woman”, co-written by Box / Byron / Kerslake & Thain was issued as a single in many parts of Europe, and was a hit in Germany (#14). And although it was a short and somewhat catchy tune, I don’t know that it was the right choice to represent the album as a single, in comparison to a number of other songs here. I am also quite certain it is the lone track from The Magician’s Birthday never to be played live. “Blind Eye” was brought back for the band’s Acoustically Driven live recording (and Electrically Driven), featuring Ian Anderson on flute. This first side (or whole album) featured less heavy keyboards, and I think less heavy guitars. And this approach, as with the previous 2 mentioned tracks IMO suggest things were hurried and less produced than the previous album. “Echoes In The Dark” is a dark atmospheric number, one of my favorites here, and an under mentioned gem in Heep’s ’70s catalogue; again highlighted by Byron’s vocal and Hensley’s slide guitar. It would’ve been part of Hensley’s original concept, and was brought back for the band’s Acoustically Driven show decades later. The first side ends with one of the band’s most loved ballads, “Rain”, which is a short piano tune, written by Hensley and interestingly also appeared on his solo album Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf, which came out a few months later. Although I like this album, this first side did not capture my attention as the first side of Demons And Wizards had. I think just less cohesive and lacks a greater Heep epic (there’s no “Circle Of Hands” here folks!). But I am sure there will a Heep fan out there who disagrees with me (!?). Side two, for me, is better.
Side two opens with “Sweet Lorraine”, penned by Box, Byron & Thain. It would be the single in North America, and closest thing to a follow up to “Easy Livin”, though it wasn’t a huge success, reaching #91 in the US, but predicted to be a top 40 by Canada’s Cash Box – “Sweet Lorraine (3:10) (WB Music, ASCAP-Box, Byron, Thain) Following their surcess with “Easy Livin,” Uriah Heep pull new single from their “Magician’s Birthday” album with plenty of surprises in store for listen- ers. Group should continue with their top 40 success. Flip: “Blind Eye” (3:33) (WB Music, ASCAP-Hensley)“
“Sweet Lorraine” wasn’t as heavy as “Easy Livin”, but it is as memorable IMO, and is highlighted by Hensley’s lengthy moog solo. I can’t help but wish the guitar riff in the intro was higher in the mix (or as high as) the moog synths. “Sweet Lorraine” would become a constant high point in the band’s set list throughout the ’70s, and recently returned to the band’s set for their 50th Anniversary tour. Given the number of fine cover versions of “Sunrise” and (more so) “Rain”, I am surprised there are very few covers of “Sweet Lorraine”, no major ones, particularly given the song’s popularity in the US.
Next up is the acoustic ballad “Tales”, another underrated classic in the Heep catalogue and a favorite of many fans from this album. One of the 3 tracks originally to be part of Ken Hensley’s concept idea, with some of his finest words – “And there you sit, tomorrow’s child – So full of love, so full of life – But you must rise to meet the day – Lest you become another tale.” “Tales” was also brought back for the band’s 50th Anniversary show, as well as being included in Hensley’s solo shows. A shame Heep’s label’s never pushed more than 1 single per album (at least in North America), as “Tales” would’ve been an excellent choice.
The album is brought to a close with the 10 and a half minute title track. Penned by Hensley and co-credited to Box and Kerslake, as the high point of the song is the guitar vs drum duel that is featured in the song. It was done in 1 take. Kerslake also plays a homemade kazoo in this one. In a 2014 interview Kerslake recalled – “I said to Gerry Bron, this is going to be good – it’s going to be a fight between the white wizard and the black wizard, ya know good and evil. And he said “that’s a good idea, have a run through it”, and I said “I’ll tell ya what Gerry – just roll the tape because the intensity that me and Mick play it – this is going to be a one-off or nothing”. and we just played it so on, it was unbelievable; it was just so tight! we were laughing and smiling at each other in the studio, and I went “you’ve got no chance Gerry!”. and he said “I don’t need one.” that was brilliant, and that was it! So they put that right in the song, it was an integral part of the song, so Ken said “right, you wrote that with me. So me, you and Mick. …done- agreed!” This song has also been brought back to the band’s live show on a number of tours over the last couple of decades.
Aside from the classic Roger Dean artwork, The Magician’s Birthday came in a gatefold sleeve, with band pics taken at the Buxton Festival, UK, by Fin Costello. It would also be the last Heep studio album to feature liner notes from Ken Hensley! (Tho he would add liner notes to the 1974 Downunda compilation for Australian & New Zealand). Later remastered and expanded versions of The Magician’s Birthday would also include such outtake as the excellent Gary Thain penned “Crystal Ball” and a band take of “Proud Words”, which would wind up at the title song to Ken Hensley’s solo album (Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf). The band received a Gold record award for the album in the US, where it reached #31, and placed higher in Canada and the UK, and particularly Finland where it was #1, and few other countries where it was top 10 (Norway, Germany, Denmark, Australia).
The band would move on from the fantasy themes (for the most part), as well as the Roger Dean album covers, and the lengthy epic closing tracks, and following Live…January 1973, would move from Mercury to the larger Warner Bros label in North America.