It’s 1966 and England are about to win the World Cup, The Who will score the joint biggest hit single of their career (I’m A Boy peaking at No.2), the Rolling Stones go one better with Paint It Black, before Jimi Hendrix and Hey Joe arrive like a flaming meteorite.
In such a glorious year for rock’n’roll, it’s perfectly excusable that the formation of Stray passed as something of a footnote. More than 50 years later, guitarist Del Bromham’s living-room wall isn’t plastered with gold and platinum discs, though he has achieved something equally difficult.
Pointedly lacking record label support, his band accumulated some colourful rock’n’roll anecdotes while colluding with murky gangland figures to record several of the most underrated albums of the 1970s. And, continuing to defy the vagaries of the music business, the band still exists today.
“I’ve been a member of this band for most of my adult life,” Bromham muses. “I often meet people who tell me that Del Bromham and Stray are one and the same entity. Maybe they’re right.”
In keeping with their sound’s unpretentious rough and readiness, Stray’s other co-founders – vocalist Steve Gadd, bassist Gary Giles and drummer Steve Crutchley (later replaced by Richard Cole) – came from working-class backgrounds, having met at various schools in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.
All four had been weaned on the pop-rock of The Small Faces, but before too long they were turned on to Led Zeppelin’s stadium-friendly electrified blues and the writing style of The Who’s Pete Townshend. Gadd and Giles were just 17 when Stray started playing prestigious shows at London’s Roundhouse, opening for the likes of Deep Purple and Spooky Tooth.
“In a very short space of time we went to those places from playing pop tunes and Tamla Motown stuff in working men’s clubs,” recalls Bromham, “but things began to accelerate as we heavied things up.”
Within a year the youngsters had signed to Transatlantic Records, a UK label that specialised in the folk-rock of Pentangle, Ralph McTell and The Dubliners. Issued in 1970 and featuring the nine-minute All In Your Mind – later covered by Iron Maiden – Stray’s self-titled debut was a commendable enough effort but, with hindsight, the ill-fitting liaison between group and label was doomed from the start.
“Going with them [Transatlantic] was the wrong decision. Transatlantic wanted to move into the prog market, and the press, who never really looked at us favourably, thought that we were too young to be any good,” Bromham reflects on the album’s failure to chart.
As the 1970s wound on, the likes of UFO, Judas Priest and Motorhead would all open for Stray, who put on a high-volume, visually enhanced show that included a dustbin that exploded (yes, really) during All In Your Mind.
However, signed to a label with little money or inclination to promote them, the band struggled to raise their profile. Although recorded in just 30 hours, 1971’s Suicide album was a step in the right direction. As well as introducing Jericho, which the band still performs live today, the album is said to feature the very same Mellotron that The Beatles used on Strawberry Fields Forever.
But by Saturday Morning Pictures in 1972, Stray’s belief in their support mechanism was wavering. Besides hiring Martin Birch to co-produce, this time Transatlantic did get around to releasing a single, Our Song, also staging a title-inspired 9.30am matinee show at London’s Rainbow Theatre.
When SMP failed to chart an intended spot at 1971’s Reading Festival was cancelled, so the band headed to a small seaside town in Essex to join T. Rex, Rod Stewart and Status Quo at the now semi-legendary Weely Festival instead.
This lead to an embarrassing situation when the pyro that went off during All In Your Mind was mistaken for distress flares in nearby Clacton-On-Sea, causing lifeboats to scramble. “We apologised and sent them a donation,” Bromham grimaces.
Things threatened to take a turn for the better when Stray were signed for management by a shady individual called Wilf Pine. The first Brit to be accepted into America’s wave of organised crime, Pine had been one of Don Arden’s heavies during the previous decade.
A close personal friend of London gangsters the Kray Twins, his gangland exploits were later detailed in John Pearson’s book One Of The Family: The Englishman And The Mafia. Pine had become accepted as a trusted friend of the influential godfather Joe Pagano, and with the help of business partner Patrick Meehan had begun to make waves in the music business, accumulating a management and promotion roster included Black Sabbath, Yes, The Groundhogs, Gentle Giant and The Edgar Broughton Band.
“Wilf turned up like a cliché, with a white suit, a big cigar and a Mercedes car, insisting he could take us further,” Bromham recalls. “But it wasn’t to be. Years later, after re-establishing friendship with Peter Amott and Ivan Mant [the group’s original managers], I learned they’d been on the brink of signing us to Island Records, who were very much the label of the time. Had we become part of that stable, history might have been very different.”
After the disappointment of the previous year, for Stray’s appearance at 1972’s Reading Festival, Bromham decided to cause a splash by making a suit covered entirely in mirrors.
“All was good until I tried to walk in it,” he giggles. “I was like the Tin Man from The Wizard Of Oz, because I couldn’t bend my knees. Three roadies had to lift me onto the stage.
“We were going on after Status Quo and before Wizzard – our set was during the daytime – but even so, I’m told that it looked amazing. This was a year or so before [Slade singer] Noddy Holder had the idea for his famous reflective top-hat.”
Stray’s fourth album was to be their final realistic shot at the big time. Musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra contributed brass and strings to 1973’s Mudanzas, which was recorded in subterfuge with Pine as producer whilst an escape from Transatlantic was plotted.
Decades later, Mudanzas remains a superb album that some fans still cite as their favourite. If their business worries were getting them down – surprisingly, it surfaced via Transatlantic after the label described the secret session as “fantastic” – they were not affecting anybody’s confidence, nor a desire to keep on pushing the envelope.
Indeed, the sleeve notes penned by Tony McPhee of The Groundhogs, who called the album “still Stray music, but with changes”, seemed a excellent summation.
“Did we go too far with Mudanzas?” Bromham muses. “I don’t think so, but the band did perhaps get a little swamped by the orchestral elements. Having said that, I’m often told that Oasis later nicked what we were trying to do.”
Although Mudanzas once again fell short of the chart, sheer roadwork brought the group their one and only gold disc in the UK. Struggling on with Transatlantic, in an increasingly desperate move Wilf Pine suggested recording Cliff Richard’s 1958 hit Move It as the title track of their next album.
“We went, ‘Wha-a-at?!’ But Wilf was insistent,” Bromham marvels. Stray had flown to Connecticut to record Move It at night – in the same studio where Donovan was also recording, as he worked during daylight hours.
Critically speaking, the band were starting to gain the grudging respect of reviewers, though with sales still failing to materialise they were also conscious of Pine putting them “on the backburner”, in Del’s words, as other business interests filled his time. More damaging still, tension with Steve Gadd, who was starting to make loud noises about wanting to write more, was about to explode.
“How can I put this?” Bromham sighs. “Steve was a great frontman – a cross between Mick Jagger and Paul Rodgers – and we’d been a tight-knit group, until he found new friends – new lady friends. For a while there was a bit of a John and Yoko thing going on.”
The singer’s departure almost ended in fisticuffs with Richie Cole in particular, but in later, wiser years, following a long period of estrangement, Gadd would confess to Bromham: “I couldn’t have lived with what I was like back then.”
Assuming the role of lead vocalist was something that filled Bromham with an icy dread. A naturally shy person, at one of the band’s earliest gigs in Dunstable a stagehand’s broom handle was actually used to prod him from the wings into the audience’s view. With Bromham also assuming the extra responsibility of playing keyboards onstage and in the studio, Stray added second guitarist Pete Dyer for their next album in 1975.
Although its contents had been largely intended as a Bromham solo album, Stand Up And Be Counted was another well-honed smorgasbord of hard and soft rock, offering quality tunes such as For The People and Precious Love, though once again the band failed to settle into a particular niche. Tellingly, the quirky though aptly titled Waiting For The Big Break included the couplet: ‘Maybe we’ll never get out of our record contract/And all disappear down the hole in the middle.’
By now Wilf Pine had prised them away from Transatlantic, but the same old issues of label disinterest and a dearth of chart action returned after the band signed to Pye Records’ prog offshoot, Dawn. During a trip to America opening for Spirit and Canned Heat, Stray were shocked to see the familiar face of Ozzy Osbourne in the crowd at the Starwood in Los Angeles (they had originally supported Black Sabbath at London’s Alexandra Palace back in 1973).
“Ozzy came backstage and insisted that he wanted to produce our band,” laughs Bromham. Things became more surreal still when cops stopped the band’s car after Ozzy requested a lift to his hotel, also on Sunset Strip.
“Our driver jumped a red light and suddenly there were all these sirens,” Bromham remembers. “Sat between myself and Gary [Giles], Ozzy started wriggling about. In the same car the following day, much to our astonishment, we found this elk horn full of dubious-looking white powder hidden down the back of the seat. I’m not saying that Ozzy left it there, but make up your own mind.”
Back at home, Pye Records pulled the plug on the Dawn imprint, casting Stray as labelmates with such un-rock acts as the Brotherhood Of Man, Frankie Vaughan and Carl ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ Douglas on their main roster.
Eschewing orchestras and outré distractions, the band tapped into the Stateside vibe, stripping things down for 1976’s Houdini album. With American radio in mind, Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before and the album’s heavy-duty title song, the group sounded a lot more confident than in recent years.
The release of Stray’s Houdini happened to coincide with the debut UK dates from US glam-rock titans Kiss. Strange to say it now but, still uncertain of the headliners’ pulling power, promoter John Curd booked Stray to ensure that bums would occupy at least a few seats. Stray themselves knew very little about Kiss until the tour’s first night at the Birmingham Odeon.
“Just as we were walking onstage they bounded down this staircase in full make-up, looking like they’d come straight out of a Captain Marvel comic, and shouted: ‘Good luck, guys’. It was the weirdest thing ever,” reminisces Bromham.
With punk rock a dominating musical force, 1976 was a tough year for Stray. Captain Sensible sometimes turned up at the band’s shows, and on one notable occasion The Damned and Stray actually shared a stage in St Albans. And despite their average age of just 25, Stray’s expansive discography seemed to tar them with the ‘rock dinosaur’ brush.
“Many of the punk bands were the same age as us,” says Bromham, “and of course The Stranglers were even older. So, I think, were The Clash. [Actually Joe Strummer, their oldest member, was born a year after Bromham – Ed.] But we found ourselves firmly on the outside of what was going on, and before we knew it the gigs dried up.”
Having parted with Wilf Pine and seeking a quick fix, Stray’s underworld links were to escalate with the engagement of none other than Charlie Kray as their next manager. The elder sibling of infamous gangster duo Ronnie and Reggie, Kray had been a showbiz agent during the 60s, but fresh out of jail for having helped to dispose of the body of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, association with Charlie guaranteed the band instant notoriety.
“It was all a publicity stunt, and we made all of the daily papers but it backfired on us big-style,” rues Bromham now, unsurprisingly. The initial plan had been for Arden himself to take them on, but following a chance meeting at Arden’s office in Wimbledon, the unlikely deal was struck.
“Like me, Charlie had come to see Don, but Charlie doesn’t wait for anyone and after an hour he realised we both were being given the runaround,” Bromham remembers. “So we chatted as I drove him to his mum’s place in Bethnal Green.”
The deal done, it didn’t take long for things to change. “On the first night of our tour, in Scarborough, the club’s manager came into the dressing room and asked: ‘Are we expecting trouble?’ Plain-clothes police had turned up. Other bands were terrified of us. It all got out of hand. For a while there was even a stupid rumour that we beat up our support bands.”
Stray would release one further album, the underrated Hearts Of Fire, and open for Rush on the latter’s mid-1976 UK tour – drummer Neal Peart had become a fan of the group while living in London’s Hammersmith – but in late 1977, submerged in writs, debts and perceived artistic baggage, they played their final gig at Nottingham’s Boat Club.
There were several reunions during the 1980s, including a stint without Bromham, who had formed a short-lived band with former Heavy Metal Kids frontman Gary Holton. Bromham returned a year later and Stray were briefly rejoined in ’84 by Gadd, splitting again afterwards.
Stray’s stock rose immeasurably in 1990 when Del received a phone call from Steve Harris. Iron Maiden’s bassist wanted to know whether it was okay for his own band to cover All In Your Mind as the B-side to their Holy Smoke single.
“When Steve called out of the blue I thought it was a wind-up,” the guitarist beams. “We met up for a drink and ended up becoming good friends.”
Maiden later invited Stray to tour Europe with them in 2003, and Steve’s daughter Lauren went on to cover the Mudanzas choice Come On Over on her debut album.
For the past two decades, Del Bromham has patiently rebuilt the name of his band. “Some artists from my era still think that it’s 1972, that they can just walk back into a venue and it will be full,” he comments. “I’m here to tell them that’s not the case.”
Stray’s catalogue remains a mine of unknown (if occasionally flawed) treasures, but the remastering of their first eight albums by Castle Music in 2007 was a welcome profile boost.
The band got to work with Grammy-nominated producer Chris Tsangarides on their latest studio album, 2010's Valhalla, the release party for which saw a spontaneous reunion with Pete Dyer and Steve Gadd, with Gary Giles watching from the bar.
Ultimately Stray’s diversity has turned out both a blessing and a curse. “People get confused by seeing this loud, hard rock band on stage, but when they got our albums home they often featured acoustic songs,” Bromham points out. “As a fan of The Beatles, that’s something I hold my hands up to.”
Bromham retains the energy and drive of a man half his age – but he has no plans to stop just yet. “I’m the last remaining member of the original band, and the reason I’m still doing this is very simple: I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” he declares proudly. “I’d play in someone’s front room for nothing as long as there are people that still want to hear the songs."
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 154, in December 2010. Stray play Newcastle Cluny on November 24 and Bilston Robin 2 on November 25, with Ken Pustelnik's Groundhogs.