Uriah Heep’s Phil Lanzon is always in a creative mood. As he talks to Billboard about his second solo album, 48 Seconds, and his first book, Curse of the Mudchalk Devil, he reveals that he’s already thinking of a third solo album and is writing a sequel to the book.
This activity tops off a busy couple of years, which has spanned two U.S. tours and European festival dates with Uriah Heep. It's also included the release of his impressive first solo album, If You Think I’m Crazy!, and the band’s Living the Dream, its acclaimed 25th studio album -- which many fans consider to be the best of the group's 21st-century releases.
While many of the 69-year-old rocker’s peers would likely be content with live shows and nostalgia, Lanzon shows no signs of slowing down. The gifted keyboardist wears his classical and ’60s and ’70s rock influences on his sleeve, and as shown through his solo work (and his major songwriting contributions to Uriah Heep over the last three decades), they still sound fresh and vital in his hands.
“I’m writing stuff all the time; it’s flowing out,” he remarks on the phone from his English home in Broadstairs, Kent. “I have to record stuff and put it down for later on. It’s just crazy. The thing about it is, if there’s something going on in the head and I can’t stay still, I have to get on with it. I can only lie down when I go to bed.”
Like its predecessor, 48 Seconds (released Aug. 2 on Phil Lanzon Ditties/Cargo Records) mixes up musical styles within its 10-song framework. “Azura’s Theme” offers an enchanting orchestral intro to the midtempo rocker “In the Rain.” “Forty Line” serves up a swaggering big-band feel, and “You Can Make a Living” is a timeless anthem. With its rhythmic propulsion and luxurious vocal harmonies, “Look at the Time” is the closest to Lanzon's work with Uriah Heep, while the epic title track is a cinematic tale that transforms from a ballad into an energetic rocker, topped by a choir-driven climax over the span of nine-and-a-half minutes.
The keyboardist reteamed with producer Simon Hanhart and arranger-film composer Richard Cottle for 48 Seconds because their synergy was so good before. “They loved the material, and they can’t get enough of it because they don’t get to work in that sphere very often,” says Lanzon. In addition to strong musical performances, the album features four different vocalists. Lanzon sings on four tracks, while John Mitchell, Andy Makin and Miriam Grey each sing on two, the latter duetting with Lanzon on “Face to Face.”
The title song is a personal highlight for Lanzon on the album. It tells the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath, an event that has long fascinated him. He had tried writing a song about it before, but various permutations over the years had left him dissatisfied. “Then I came across an old song of mine that was, believe it or not, on a cassette,” he recalls. “The mood of that old piece fitted the idea of the song.” So he transcribed it, rewrote the lyrics and shaped them into a story about the earthquake. Then he and Cottle “came up with this great intro,” says Lanzon. “And he filled out all the harmonies in the song. It just worked perfectly.”
Lanzon has a dream of performing “48 Seconds” with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and a 60-piece choir on the anniversary of the event (April 18), possibly next year. “That’s what I intend to do,” he declares. “I’d have to sling at least half an hour of music around that. It can’t just be the one song. But that would be the highlight that pertains to that city.”
Another personal favorite of Lanzon’s is the ghost story “Road to London,” which was “designed around the idea of very old folk stories — folk songs, people telling stories around fires, fireside ghostly stories,” he explains. “It’s based on that principle and that genre … I wrote about it from my experience in the folk world. It’s got a bit of a charm to it.”
“Face to Face” tackles the issue of social media addiction among young people. “Kids walking on the street looking into screens, bumping into lampposts — the world’s gone crazy, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to the young generation,” laments Lanzon, who is a father and grandfather. “I’m an old bastard saying this, but it is true. What will happen to the generation that is born on a screen and looking at it?”
Conversely, his imaginative and well-paced children’s book, Curse of the Mudchalk Devil (which arrived on Kindle in June, published by Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie), which he wrote and illustrated, seeks to empower children. Set in rural 1950s England, its 12-year-old protagonist, Elin, is a talented pianist whose illusionist father develops a device that can transform a melody she writes and performs into “visual music,” colorful patterns that float in the air before them. But when her mother abandons her and her father dies during their first visual-music performance, Elin, along with a male classmate, seeks to learn more about her own mystical abilities and find a way to access the magical realm of the Fudget Fayre. A mythical power struggle from the past between the immortal powers of the Bright Angel and the Mudchalk Devil also looms over their journey.
“The whole essence of it is about the empowerment of children… just being able to listen to two children when they need to be listened to,” says Lanzon. He adds that he always has been bothered when he sees a parent distracted by something and not giving proper attention to an inquisitive child whose questions go unanswered. (He brought that theme into the 48 Seconds song “Rock N Roll Children” as well.)
The inspiration for the visual-music concept came as he was writing early drafts of the story and was continually listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which he calls one of the greatest milestones in music history.
“That used to play in the background while I was writing, and I wondered if I could make music visible while I was listening to this music,” he recalls. “I said, ‘How the hell do you do that?’ After thinking about this for awhile, I imagined all the strands of melody that Bach wrote -- because he used to write contrapuntally -- becoming color-coded lines visually. Then I thought, ‘There’s got to be a flower that’s got strands in it like that.’ I went searching for a flower and found a passionflower that seemed to fit the bill. So I created this thing out of the flower.”
After taking about 20 years to get Curse of the Mudchalk Devil into shape, the book has received a lot of positive reviews from readers and fans. “Because of the nature of the story, it’s pitched to 9- to 14-year-olds, but it’s an adult read just like the Harry Potter books,” asserts Lanzon. He also has a screenplay version ready to go. “I always saw it as a movie,” he says. “The whole story is totally visual. I did a little two-and-a-half minute trailer for it some years back.” He already has a musical turned into a play that is waiting to be produced, called Heartbreak Island, which is set on Ellis Island in 1917 just two weeks before America entered World War I.
Lanzon wants to reach as wide an audience as possible through his work. He notes that Uriah Heep appeals to fans across genres and ages: European festival audiences for the iconic, 50 year-old band include grandparents, parents and kids. Its opening slot on the recent Judas Priest U.S. tour definitely turned some heads. (The bands toured together in 1982 when Uriah Heep was promoting its comeback album Abominog and Priest was promoting the now classic Screaming for Vengeance.)
“Every single show was the same thing,” says Lanzon of the 2019 tour. “We couldn’t believe it. Some people were there for us, but all of the ones that were just Priest fans, you could see their expressions, man. By the second song, they were giving the thumbs-up for the whole show. We pulled in a lot of fans from that tour, which is great.”