Dennis Stratton kindly accepted to briefly review his career with us at a a warm-up gig before the Wacken 2000 festival. The ex-Maiden guitarist is open and honest, and took this opportunity to settle a thing or two...
How did you start playing the guitar?
When I was 16, I used to hang around with a bunch of mates in London's East End. They were all in a small band and, one day, their guitar player decided to give up and start playing bass instead. I bought his guitar without even knowing how to play. I was often in a pub called The Bridgehouse. I used to go down there and watch local bands like Power Pack and Freedom, avec Bobby Harrison of Procol Harum on drums. I used to love standing in the front row and watch them play. I was able to gradually memorise the songs they played and, although I couldn't read notes or even play a chord, I was trying to play by ear what I'd heard the night before down the pub. After six month, I was able to play a few chords and, little by little, to play some of the songs. I slowly learned the setlist of the band until the bloke who'd sold me his guitar asked me to join as an extra guitar player. The first serious band I joined was Harvest, with Steve Gott (a school friend) on the bass and myself on the guitar. We gave our first gig at The Cart & Horses, in Stratford. We then decided to try something else and we found a keyboard player and a drummer. We progressed a lot and we changed our name to Wedgwood. We went back to The Bridgehouse for a few gigs and we were doing just fine. However, I thought that we needed a second guitar so we asked Dave Edwards, who got us into a more rocky style. Our line-up was composed of Dave and I at the guitars and vocals, Steve Gott on the bass, and Johnny Richardson on drums. We rehearsed together a couple of times and, about a week later, we were playing as Remus Down Boulevard in a fully packed Bridgehouse.
Where does the name Remus Down Boulevard come from?
It means the tube station down the street. One of our roadies said, "Why wouldn't you call yourselves Remus Down Boulevard?" He'd seen this sign somewhere in the States – "Remus" is a train or an underground station. Anyway, we became RDB. Friends of ours had made those stickers with our logo and we put them all over London. That generated some publicity and got us to play pubs like The Greyhound and The Golden Lion, towards Fulham Broadway. Then, we started to write a few songs and we got the visit of Jonathan King [Note: British producer who initiated Gogmagog, a project that included Paul Di'Anno, Pete Willis, and a few others]. He was working for UK Records. He came to one of our gigs and really liked it. So we signed and he offered to record our first album live at the Marquee. It had never been done before! The Marquee was completely packed and people could hardly move. We recorded the lot, then we had a photo shoot for the album. Everything was ready but the record was sadly put aside 'cause Jonathan King wanted to focus more on production and dropped the label. Then Quarry took some interest in us. They were managing Status Quo and Rory Gallagher, among others. We signed with them and we toured as an opening act for the Quo. On the other hand, there was no deal for an album. So we quickly found ourselves in a dead-end despite the interest we generated. Obviously, le band split soon after.
But you feature on the Live – A Week At The Bridge E16....
That's right. At the time, many bands were playing The Bridgehouse. The landlords then decided to record six or seven bands to make a live album, some sort of compilation, with only two songs from each band. They had their own label and the records were made in the pub itself.
How did you join Maiden?
We used to live in the same area. Maiden were looking for a new guitar player at the time. That was just before they recorded their first album. They wanted somebody who could play the harmonies, and who also had some experience in the studio. At that time, I was working near Stratford and I saw Steve's [Harris] girlfriend who told me that a telegramme from Rod Smallwood was waiting for me at my place. I asked her how the band took notice of me and she said that Steve used to go see RDB at The Bridgehouse, a club where Maiden couldn't play because they were too heavy. They were more often playing at The Cart & Horses and at The Ruskin Arms. Sure enough, when I got home my wife told me that a telegramme had arrived. The message said, "Dear Dennis, please call Rod Smallwood at the following number..." The next day, I met Steve, Dave Murray and Rod in a pub nearby The Marquee. Rod told me that Steve wanted me to join Maiden. But there was a small amendment to be made to the contract: I was married and had a little girl to care for. So I had to earn a bit more than the others. Once this detail was out of the way, they gave me a tape so I could learn the songs. The first song I played when I got back home was 'Phantom Of The Opera', with all those harmonies. I thought to myself, "Well, not bad at all..." When I arrived at the studio, I understood that they were also looking for a new drummer. I told them to try out Johnny Richardson, but the poor bloke was ill and he gave up after 30 minutes, he was knackered. Some time later, I saw Clive Burr in a local pub – we knew each other 'cause he was playing the same venues as RDB – I told him I was rehearsing with Maiden and that they were looking for a drummer. The next day, he came along with me. The rest is history....
Did you go straight into the studio after you joined the band?
Yes, we spent two to three weeks at the Hollywood Studios, in Clapham, so we'd get used to the setlist. When I joined Maiden, they didn't have so many harmonies on the guitars. As I was nuts about harmonies, I sat in a corner of the studio and I added some here and there, like for instance on 'Running Free' and 'Phantom Of The Opera'. Many parts were right for them so I put loads in there. When we recorded, I spent quite a lot of time working on these harmonies, but they weren't all kept in the end. During the 'Phantom Of The Opera' sessions, Paul [Di'Anno] did the vocals and I recorded up to four different harmonies to complement his voice. When Rod wnet into the cubicle to listen to the result, he shouted, "It sounds like fucking Queen!!!" and he left. Half of Paul's vocals were taken out. We also had to re-record 'Running Free' in order to have a different mix 'cause the song was supposed to be aired on the radio. It was the same with 'Women In Uniform'. After we came back from Oslo where we were opening for Kiss, we filmed the video clip of this song at the Rainbow Theatre. When the shoot started, I didn't understand why no single camera was on me. I understood some time later, though.
Do you mean that Smallwood is the one who fired you?
I would say so... It's a combination of different things... When I joined the band, I gave one of my first interviews and I told the journalist that I was sorry not to be able to answer some of his questions 'cause I didn't know Maiden very well yet and I wasn't a die-hard fan of their music. Steve interrupted the interview and told me that I couldn't say things like that. I quickly realised who was the boss. It was like going back to my school days... Then, during the Metal For Muthas tour with Praying Mantis, Paul started acting like a Rock star: he demanded that he had his own dressing room and didn't want to talk to anyone. I was getting along pretty well with the Troy brothers from Praying Mantis and I often shared my hotel room with Dave Lights. Rod wasn't too keen to see me hang out with musicians from other bands 'cause he wanted to create some kind of exclusive kinship between us. The icing on the cake remains the story about the walkman: one day I was knackered and my head was about to explode after a gig. I only wanted one thing: to relax. I was listening to 'Soldier Of Fortune' by Whitesnake, a pretty quiet and melodic song, when Rod came into my room and started to shout at me, telling me that I wasn't supposed to listen to that kind of music. I told him that if I was to listen to Motorhead 24 hours a day, my head was going to explode. He then told me that I shouldn't be in the band if I was listening to that kind of music. It was absolutely ridiculous. And he didn't stop there: during the Kiss tour, I got on really well with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. On my birthday, in Stockholm, they invited me to the restaurant. Rod simply blew his top: he came over and and started shouting and screaming – no one else but Steve was allowed to mingle with Kiss. I've done enough tours to know that you can't remain constantly with the same people. Rod wanted to isolate us and force us to stay all the time together, but that couldn't work. I met him four years later in Los Angeles and he was better: he'd realised it himself 'cause he'd gone through it with the rest of the band.
Do you regret leaving the band?
I have to admit that I found their music a bit tough to stomach. Many people say that they lost touch with their roots after the first albums. I don't think so 'cause they've had a fantastic career. If I'd stayed, Maiden would have made me a millionaire and money wouldn't be an issue anymore. But there's another side to the story: my son Jack, who's 13 now, has always seen me play, ever since he was 5. He often talks to me and tells me that if I'd stayed in the band we'd have a large house and nice cars. So I tell him, "Certainly, but if I'd stayed, you'd probably have never been born." We have to be happy with what we have most precious in life.
Did you keep contact with the band?
Yes, we've kept good contact. My daughter, who was 18 at the time, looked after Steve's kids when Maiden were touring the States. Steve's ex-wife, Lorraine, was a very good friend of my wife's and it was thank to her that my daughter got the job... I sometimes see Dave Murray. Not every day, but we meet from time to time.
Did you start Lionheart right after you left Maiden?
Yes. Two week after I left, I met Jess Cox [Note: ex-vocalist of Tygers Of Pan-Tang] and we talked about it. He wanted to set up a band very quickly. That was good 'cause that's exactly what I wanted too 'cause I didn't want my name to be completely forgotten. I was introduced to Steve Mann and Rocky Newton, and we rapidly started writing songs and recording demos. Unfortunately, Jess's voice didn't quite suit the harmonies. So we had to split up..
Did Jess sing on the Heavy Metal Heroes compilation?
No, it was Rocky and myself. Those who initiated this compilation came to see us because they wanted to include a Lionheart song. So we went to the studio in order to record it. We then shared the bill with Def Leppard and More. We played the Reading festival and it went really well. We auditioned several singers, but we mainly remained a three-piece: Rocky, Steve and me. We played with many drummers like Clive Edwards [Wild Horses], Les Binks [Judas Priest], Steve Hopgood [ex-Persian Risk and future Battlezone with Di'Anno].
Nicko Mcbrain also features on one of your demos...
That's right, we recorded a demo and gave a few showcases together, but he tended to always speed up, which perfectly suits his style with Maiden. But he never was a full-time member.
What happened next?
The line-up was completed with the arrival of Chad Brow at the vocals. We signed with CBS. During the four years afterwards, we wrote songs and learned to become very patient. A record was eventually released in the USA, then in Japan. But as soon as it happened, the band split up: things weren't going anywhere, we were just there doing nothing and we knew that it wasn't going to work.
How about the Unearthed – Riders Of The Lost Archives compilation?
The japanese wanted to gather all the songs we'd written on a single album. So I got in touch with Rocky and Steve, I told them about the project, and we got hold of tapes that were recorded on a simple 4-track with rehearsal equipment. So it was material that was as raw as it gets. But Pony Canyon [Note: The Japanese label] always wanted more and more, so we found some later material that was recorded on a 24 track.
What happened after the split of Lionheart?
In 1985–86, we were not allowed to work together anymore 'cause our former management was trying to sue us for breach of contract. So we went our separate ways and I worked a lot in the studio. I was playing pubs and clubs, which I still do nowadays with a band called Story. Around 1988–89, there were all those dodgy projects with Lea Hart, like Original Iron Men. It was really bad and set up like a total rip-off. It started with All Stars. Clive, myself and a few others took part in it. The basic idea was to write songs together and to get a deal for the band. Then we formed True Brits and we played festivals in Poland and in St. Petersburg, in Russia. Everything was in playback except the vocals that were live. In 1990, I worked with Praying Mantis, but Lea Hart started telling all sorts of rubbish, saying that I'd left Mantis to go work with him full time, which wasn't true 'cause I was only doing a few things in the studio.
How did you join Praying Mantis? Was it after Live At Last?
Yes. At the end of 1989, we got a phone call from Japan asking us to give a few gigs. So we got together, Paul Di'Anno, the Troy brothers, and myself. The japanese wanted us to select a few songs from our former bands: Maiden, Praying Mantis and Lionheart. After rehearsing for two weeks, we went to Japan and performed three shows around mid-1990. The live album was released soon after, then, with the success of the band, our Japanese record company asked us to record a studio album [Predator In Disguise], but without Di'Anno, 'cause he's very difficult to work with..
Praying Mantis had several singers, then?
We had rehearsed in the studio for the Predator In Disguise tour. Chris Troy and myself were doing the lead vocals. Jem Davis was on the keyboards. One day, he came over with a tape of his band, where Dougie White [Note: Rainbow, Malmsteen] was singing. We eally liked his voice and we asked him to join. Then we started realising that Jem and Dougie were only using Mantis as a stepping stone for their respective careers. It was the same with Mark Thompson-Smith on the Only The Children Cry EP. Then we tried to hire Gary Barden [ex-MSG]. I wasn't too keen 'cause I'd known Gary for a while, but I decided to give him a chance. So he came over and we recorded To The Power Of Ten, which sounded really good. But soon after, he started drinking again and he was unable to reproduce the songs on stage. After the release of the album, we had a meeting with Pony Canyon in Japan. They apologised 'cause Power... was a mistake and they offered that we write a new album, which is what we did with Forever In Time. This record was an attempt to get back to the roots of Praying Mantis. We then knew how to get the best in ourselves. We also knew that we were going to find a good singer, but the only problem was to find him. Once again, the word of mouth worked very well. Tony O'Hara was playing in a two-piece in a pub and a mate of ours advised us to go see him. The chemistry was immediate. He's been a great fan of Mantis for several years. We recorded Forever In Time with him, using hi-tech equipment. We were a bit nervous, but we're really happy with the result. The latest album – Nowhere To Hide – is the best. Forever... was the first one to be recorded with a stable line-up. It all went so well that we were looking forward to recording a second album with the same line-up. It's really something new for Mantis to have recorded two albums in a row with the same line-up..