Monday, 29 December 2014

Hard Rock's Stray Band

Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, MC5, Mountain, Deep Purple and… Stray?

The canon of hard rock and heavy metal is filled with founders and originators. Some argue The Kinks created the genre in 1964, others claim Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were the bands who ushered in the heavy era of rock. 
But one band who helped define the sound Hard Rock is Stray who were made up of a bunch of teenagers from London who formed in 1966 and played together until 1997.
To help indulge the music lovers amongst us, I decided that we should all be aware of the rocking impulsive sounds which come from Stray. To help me tell you about the band and its history I enlisted the help of Stray's guitarist Del Bromham.

M-D M: Who were your earliest musical influences?

Del Bromham: Well All my family loved music and my older brother Allan had a band so consequently there was always music playing in my house.

I remember the first record that had a big impact on me even though I was just a small child was Elvis Presley - Heartbreak Hotel. Just something about the sound of that recording. Eddie Cochrane - loved the sound of those big strumming guitars.

When I got into my teenage years I loved everything that was coming out of the Tamla Motown and Stax labels. In the UK, bands like The Small Faces and The Spencer Davis Group/Traffic both of whom had two of my favourite singers Steve Marriott and Stevie Winwood, but ultimately my biggest influence has to be The Beatles. For me, they, along with George Martin changed the face of recording and songwriting.

Were you a musical child (Would you say you were naturally able to play music)?

DB: In all modesty I think I was. I suppose because of my brother there were always guitars hanging around the house. One of my first Christmas presents was a toy drum kit. It may have been a toy but it had a bass drum pedal and good sounding skins. I put myself up to sing songs in my junior school and I got my first guitar when I was about 11 years old. It was a guitar somebody had dumped in my brothers dustbin, so he brought it home and gave it to me.

Was Stray your first band?

DB: I suppose it was really. we were all 15 years old and met at school and realised we had the same interests. From the age of 13, I had a couple of groups, you know the sort of thing where school mates get together and changed the name of the group every few months.

It was at those times where I first met Steve Gadd and Gary Giles who along with Ritchie Cole,another lad from a neighbouring school, became Stray. I have to mention my brother again as I joined his band called The Traders when I was just thirteen years old. I was playing various clubs and functions and going to school as well. It served me well like an apprenticeship who might get in a 'normal' job!

How did the band form?

DB: Like I said I had met Steve Gadd and Gary Giles (vocals and bass guitar respectively) when we attended Christopher Wren School in West London. To be honest I didn't know if Steve could sing, I just assumed he could. He was the fashionable one at school. All the latest clothes and hair styles. A real mini Steve Marriott. I remember by comparison to the rest of us, he had a young mum who must have influenced and encouraged his look.

Gary Giles used to come around to my house and play guitar. He had learnt a bunch of Hank Marvin/Shadows tunes and I used to back him up on rhythm guitar. I eventually persuaded him to take up the bass guitar. Another kid in our school was Steve Crutchley who played drums. We got together and I knew there was something different about the sound we made, even though we were playing a lot of popular songs from that time interspersed with songs which I had started to write.

Steve Crutchley left after about a year after to join a traditional jazz band. Steve Gadd had a friend Ritchie Cole who was playing drums for a band in another school. I went to see him play and asked if he wanted to join us. He said yes and the rest is history.

Did Stray tour much at the beginning of its career? If so can you share one of your fondest memories of its earlier touring life?
DB: I suppose we were lucky really. Somehow as soon as we formed we were off playing in pubs and clubs. I'm not sure how that happened really? We always went down very well and I suppose we were something of a novelty being so young. We always had to get someone to drive us in Ritchie's dads van and we were too young to have a drink in the pubs so it was Coca Cola for us!

We soon had an agent and we were off playing initially all around London. We soon met our first management team Peter Amott and Ivan Mant and they were a big influence on us to develop our writing and performance. We soon moved away from the pub circuit to the progressive club scene which was growing in the late 1960's.

Can you talk me through the incident where the coastguard thought the band had sent a distress call when they saw stage flares?

DB: Oh Yes! We were booked to play the Weeley Festival. We knew it was going to be a big festival. Remember there had been the first of a few successful and legendary festivals such as Woodstock, Isle of Wight and Reading Festivals which had just begun. We were becoming known for the pyrotechnics and light show which we used so it was decided we should deliver something special for such an important show. Our road crew purchased a lot of various pyrotechnics. We were the last band on.

It was the early hours of the morning and at the end of our set the stage and the sky was alight with explosions, rockets, thunderflashes and rockets. I doubt there had ever been such a display at the end of a rock show before! People still talk of that today, all those years on!

However what we did not realise, our crew had inadvertently purchased distress flares the type used by ships or boats which are launched if a craft is in trouble. Weeley is in Essex, England and unknown to us at the time, the Lifeboats based in Clacton on Sea were launched looking for a ship or boat in trouble. Consequently we sent The Lifeboat Society a donation. Rock 'n Roll eh?

Stray's debut album is one of my favourite hard rock albums. Do you have any interesting stories from the recording of the album that you'd like to share?

DB: Well we had been in recording studios before but only to record demos, but this was the 'Real thing'. You have to remember we were only 17 and 18 years of age at this time. We had just signed our first recording contract with Transatlantic Records we had management and we were already doing well on the club circuit. We were now going in to record our first album in a professional recording studio, Sound Techniques in London with a real producer Hugh Murphy!

I only realised recently that we had lots of songs at that time but interestingly enough and I still don't know why but we didn't use many of them and when the album was released we promoted those songs and the other songs were forgotten, I suppose because we were constantly writing new material. I think we realised while in this studio that we could do so much more than we thought. The whole process really fuelled our imagination and this gave us great encouragement to do more and quite honestly we wanted to go back in the studio and do more and more. I believe that is one of the things that got us back in the studio to record the second album Suicide soon after the first album.

Also on a lighter note, even now when I smell coffee I always think of that album and that studio. Maybe because being so young at that time I didn't drink much coffee, but the coffee machine was always on and the smell of coffee wafted around the studio all day!

Being part of the early "Hard Rock" scene, did you have much contact with other similarly heavy groups?

DB: To be honest with you with had very little personal contact with other bands. The times were very different then, difficult to explain really, but it seemed back in those days bands kept themselves pretty much to themselves. I think our management at that time wanted to keep us apart from other bands. Not sure why really maybe to create a bit of mystique around us, I don't know. I do know that the scene is very different now and I have had this conversation with many artists from that time and they all seem to say the same as me. We kept ourselves to ourselves!

Stray had a lot of contact with The Groundhogs in their early career. Were there friendships between the bands, or what?

DB: We were signed to Worldwide Artistes in 1973 and The Groundhogs were on their rosta with Wilf Pine as our personal manager. We soon went on the first of many UK tours with them.
At that time I would not say we were friends as much as fellow musicians or bands on the road together.

Having said that in recent years I have worked a lot with Tony McPhee and I now consider him to be what I call a friend. A couple of years ago Tony and I attended the Newark Blues Festival where along with Andy Fraser (Free) we were given 'Lifetime Achievement' awards.

What was the American reaction to you when you toured there in 1975? The American took to hard rock a fair bt after the Brits.

DB: I have to say that wherever we went in the USA and we seemed to go everywhere, big cities, small towns ... you name it we played it. We always got a great reaction from the audience. The Americans really did take a liking to British bands at that time.

What did you think of KISS when you opened for them?

DB: They had a great stage show. They just went on and rocked every song like it was the last song of the show. From our point of view what was quite ironic was that we had by that time dropped all the pyrotechnics we had previously been using as the press predominantly had been criticising us for using them saying that we needed them to cover up our lack of musical ability which by any means was very harsh! So we thought, ok, we will show you that we can play without any gimmicks.

Kiss were really nice guys to us and we used to get together after the shows. I had a call recently from a couple of guys from the band The Quireboys who were touring with Joe Elliot with The Down 'n Outs. They told me that Gene Simmonds was talking to them in their dressing room and he was recalling that first UK tour and mentioned what a good band Stray were and mentioned me by name.

Why did the band initial break up?

DB: A combination of reasons really. The main one being financial! Our Management Company at that time were becoming less involved due to other commitments. Unfortunately for us we were still contracted to them and could not move elsewhere. Mainly due to this uncertainty many agents would not get involved with us and consequently the gigs were drying up and the bills were mounting up.

We were up against a brick wall and we could not find a solution. All we could do at that time was to sell our assets i.e. our equipment and pay the bills which had become huge! In retrospect we should have looked harder for another solution but at that time I suppose we panicked and did what we thought was right.

Stray reunited throughout the 80s. & 90s why did the reunions always fail to continue?

DB: Hard to say really. We as individuals were living very different lives. Geographically we were scattered all over England where as before we all lived close to each other in London. So once again financially it wasn't viable. I had been performing pretty much as a solo artist so I was quite happy with what I was doing anyway.

There were petty arguments between certain members which had not been resolved from times gone by and all in all it was not fun like it used to be. I guess it is true to say that particularly after such a break you cannot re-live the past. Having said that I think we are all a bit more worldly wise so things could be different now. That's an age thing I suppose?

How long has the current Stray line-up been together?

DB: Myself, Karl Randall on drums and Stuart Uren on bass guitar have been together now for ten years. Stuart and I have been playing on and off since about 1979.

Karl had been playing with Greg Ridley's Humble Pie. When Greg passed away, Dean Rees who was the keyboard player who I knew, asked if we could get together to play a benefit/tribute show in the memory of Greg at The O2 Islington London. Once we'd rehearsed together and played the show we realised that there was something special happening. I was playing some solo shows and I had been asked if I could play some shows as Stray. So we played many shows together but then Dean began acting and then went off to America so rather than replace him we remained as a three piece. In 2014 we have played mainly festivals and former singer/guitarist Peter Dyer has joined us for many of these shows and may well appear with us for some shows in the future.

Did you ever think the band would still be going 40+ years after it was formed?

DB: Probably not. I'm not sure as a young man what I was expecting to be doing 40 years on. I'm think when you are young one tends to think more about today than tomorrow.

What would you say is your proudest achievement from your time in the music industry?
DB: Ooh that's a tough one! Probably Iron Maiden (Steve Harris in particular) recording 'All in your mind' and publicly acknowledging how much of an influence Stray were to him and his band.

I have got to know legendary guitarist Leslie West very well and I wrote a song with him titled 'To the moon' which is on his album 'Unusual Suspects' featuring many artistes such as Joe Bonamassa, Steve Lukather, Slash and Billy Gibbons to name but a few. The album was nominated for a Grammy in the USA.

Getting the lifetime achievement award as mentioned earlier. However I suppose the biggest accolade is constantly meeting musicians and fans alike who tell me how much my music means to them. Doesn't get much better than that!

Out of everyone who you opened for/performed with, who is the act that you are proudest of appearing with/opening for?

DB: I'll take you back to The California Ballroom in Dunstable UK about 1968. The average age of my band were about 16/17 years old.

I mentioned earlier that one of my biggest influences was Steve Winwood. Well you cannot imagine how excited this young kid was when he was told he was going to be supporting 'Traffic'. For me that was a life changing moment!!!!!

For the musos out there, that night Steve Winwood was using a Gibson Firebird guitar. I just had to have one which subsequently I did get one and continue to use to this day. Funnily enough people tend to associate me with The Firebird Guitar. I have four of those now plus many other guitars which is a long way from my first guitar which was dumped in my brothers dustbin! As my old mate Mick Box says 'Happy days'!!!