September 15, 1974; Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas. Uriah Heep is touring the US promoting their 7th album, Wonderworld. About midway through the set, during the epic ‘July Morning’, Bassist Gary Thain suddenly vaults 3 feet off into the air, collapses to the floor unconscious, lying face-first. Uriah Heep’s 1974 US tour is suddenly over.
“All I remember is going to the amplifier to adjust the equalisers, the next thing that happened was I blacked out.”
Thain is rushed to a local hospital, where he is treated for symptoms of electrical shock, including severe burns to both his hands. Thain’s bass rig was poorly grounded, jolting the native New Zealander with enough electricity to end his career. Thain would never fully recover from his injuries, and was fired from Uriah Heep about 4 months later. He was now free to fully indulge his drug addiction, and it killed him.
Gary Thain died of an respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin in December of that same year, at that magic rock n’ roll age of 27. He was a fantastic player; next time you hear Heep’s “Easy Livin'” be sure to pay extra attention to the hypnotic, fluid bass parts, which nimbly drive the song forward… Or the bluesy throb that cralws around underneath “Stealin'”, from the ‘Sweet Freedom’ album; yeah, that’s him too.
While it was Gary Thain’s drug use that ended his life, I’d argue that his bass rig was an accessory before the fact.
The name Keith Relf probably isn’t too familiar to with the average rock fan, although his band the Yardbirds were hit makers in the mid 60’s and are often credited as being one of the forerunners of Heavy Metal. If you’re familiar with Yardbirds classics like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down”, then you’ve heard Relf’s vocals; he also wrote those songs, and many aothers. Not long after guitarist Jimmy Page (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) re-built the Yardbirds as the New Yardbirds, which quickly morphed into Led Zeppelin, Relf found himself in a folk-rock band with his sister Jane called Renaissance.
On May 14, 1976, Relf was demoing material in his basement recording studio for a reworked version of his group Renaissance. He picked up a guitar that was not grounded properly, and he was electrocuted. His son found him on the floor and brought him to the hospital, where he died soon after. He was 33.
The late, great Jimmy Dewar wouldn’t have been available to join Robin Trower’s band if electrocution hadn’t intervened. Dewar was in a band called Stone the Crows, with singer Maggie Bell and her husband, Les Harvey (brother of Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). Stone the Crows were one of those bands that were 6 degrees from stardom; besides the Trower connection, the band was managed by Peter Grant, Les Harvey’s brother Alex would make waves in the UK with his own band, and Maggie Bell would later sing on Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ lp.
On 3 May, 1972, as the Stone the Crows soundchecked before a set at Swansea’s Top Rank Ballroom, guitarist Les Harvey touched his lips to a badly grounded (or ‘earthed’ as they say in the UK) mic. The 27 year old (seriously?!) guitarist was killed instantly on stage with his wife standing right beside him.
Instantly. This electricity thing doesn’t fuck around.
There is only one musician that I know of who mainlined the lightning and survived unscathed, and that’s Ace Frehley, of Kiss. During the Lakeland, FL stop of their ‘Rock and Roll Over’ tour in ’76, The Space Ace was starting his walk down from the riser where the band had played it’s opener ‘Detroit Rock City,’ and touched a handrail on the light-up stairs. Something in that electric death-trap of a stage set wasn’t grounded right, and he was immediately zapped with a gazillion volts of the good stuff. His body clentched and convulsed, and for a few several seconds he couldn’t let go of the rail. He eventually broke loose and fell backwards off the rear of the platform to the stage below.
Who knows how many volts the Spacemen took at that moment? A Kiss show in the late 70’s looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But Ace Frehley simply shook it off. After a mere 10 minutes backstage, and with no feeling in his left hand, he re-took the stage and played the rest of the set. Ace later wrote a song about the incident, called “Shock Me”, laughing in the face of near-death and taunting electricity to go ahead and try it again.
There is only one explanation: Clearly space travelers from the planet Jendell process electricity through their alien bodies differently than we humans do. I believe that Ace actually absorbed the electricity. According to the Wikipedia entry for ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’:
“Frehley has the ability to shoot lasers and to teleport by making a ‘hitchhiking’ gesture with his thumb.”
But seriously, who really knows how this stuff works, anyway? Amps, volts, watts, ohms… After writing this piece, as a musician who’s played almost 200 gigs, I feel lucky to be alive. I had no idea that a lethal jolt of crackling electric death was always lurking within the wires, waiting for the opportunity to strike. It’s almost enough to make a guy go accoustic.