15 Mar 2016

Dennis Stratton

Dennis Stratton is a classic, living and breathing case of a person who grew up and loved East London and its pride: West Ham! Dennis visited Greece for a concert; a tribute to the early Maiden years and Rockpages invites him to the magazine’s headquarters and discuss with him all about those days back in the 70s when Maiden started and the punk movement was all over England. Dennis clarifies what really happened with his dismissal of the band; who was responsible for it and many other interesting topics. At the end of our conversation, we allowed Dennis to drink his beer although it must have been a little bit warm by that point. But…a good beer is always a good beer…right? Interview: Sakis Nikas – Yiannis Dolas

Rockpages.gr: Let’s start from the very beginning…would you like to describe us how was East End back in the early 70s. Would it be accurate if we say that the main outlets of the youth back then were football, music and the pubs?DennisStratton01

Dennis Stratton: Yeah! It was very poor…you got to remember that most of the East End was bombed in the World War II so we grew up in streets where there were bombed houses; there would be gaps…there were two families living in one small place with an outside toilet. You had to walk all the way to the back to go to the toilet…there was no heating so yeah…it was pretty poor, pretty rough. But it also gave East End its name of being good people…a very close community. There weren’t lots of money around but the people did work. My parents worked in the docks doing anything, any manual work cause that’s they were used to. So I was lucky that my parents work and as you grow up…of course, you start kicking the football cause my father played football. You learn at a very early age to play in the streets all the time. As I got older I went to the Catholic School because my parents seemed to think that I’d get a better education due to the fact that the school, the primary school was run by nuns. In my secondary school there were Franciscan priests. So basically, you tend to get a better education compared to the other schools in East London. But yeah, as you get older you play football for your school…cricket…but football was a very important thing in East End. Same as boxing. You know there is a statement saying…in a Cockney Rejects album many years ago…in order to survive in East End you have to play the guitar or play football or you box or you rob a bank! That was the only way really…you either end up going to prison or going out there and doing something else. I was lucky enough because I left school at a very young age and I went to work as an apprentice in engineering. I started playing guitar at the age of 16…quite late for someone to pick up a guitar. So, it was rough…the pubs were great with live music. You grew up in a good environment with close friends. That’s what gave East End its reputation.      

Rockpages.gr: I guess it goes without saying that if you had grown up in East End, you were bound to be a supporter of West Ham United, right?  

Dennis Stratton: Of course! Unfortunately there are still people in East End that have decided to support teams like Arsenal or Tottenham. I don’t understand that but you can’t make people support a certain team. I was taken to Upton Park at a very young age, I think I was about three or four. In the terraces, there were an all standing area and there were these iron bars that people used to rest while they watched the game. I remember sitting on this iron bars with my dad holding me firmly cause it was quite packed. I still support West Ham very much.

Rockpages.gr: I am sure that the fact that Steve Harris was also a big supporter of West Ham added a few points to a good start of your first meeting.

Dennis Stratton: Of course. The funny coincidence was…we still talk all the time, we text each other messages on our mobiles when West Ham wins, loses, how the game was or whatever. I remember back in 1974-75, I was playing with Remus Down Boulevard (RDB) at the Bridge House…we were resident (band) there…I remember this guy with the long black hair and the leather jacket coming into the pub with a West Ham scarf. Later on, I found out it was Steve who used to come and watch us play. So, the West Ham bond was always there and it still is.

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Rockpages.gr: You seem to have a good year so far…

Dennis Stratton: Yeah, but let’s not get that carried away…we were fourth and now we are fifth. Christmas is coming and let’s where we will be when the decorations come down (laughs). Steve Harris texts me…my children are West Ham fans so are his children. He texts me and he says: “do you realize that we put our children in a lifetime of misery?” (laughs). So, they will go through the same stress I’ve gone through 60 or so odd years ago.

Rockpages.gr: In the mid to late 70s, the punk movement was all over England. Was there a tension between the fans of rock music and the punk fans? Do you remember any specific incidents?

Dennis Stratton: Basically, in the East End you had the Cockney Rejects who are West Ham fans. You had RDB who were all West Ham fans and at the late 70s, RDB were signed to Quarry Management with Status Quo. Basically, we jumped up the ladder and left the other bands behind. We were all over Europe and Scandinavia for months. When we came back from these tours, it was then that we realized the pressure from the record companies. Punk bands were signed from independent labels…I hate punk. I am sorry but I am friend with the Cockney Rejects and they know how I feel. It gave bands a chance to record their music whether they make any money or not, I don’t know. It gave them a chance to stardom…but at the same time it ruined the career of many great bands that spent the last 5-6 years building a fan base. It still affected them…punk was still moving around and pushing other bands out of their way. Luckily for Maiden, Steve has kept Maiden working through the late 70s and built a fan base not only in London but all over England…Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Manchester…so, Maiden had already built a huge fan base around 1977-78. But punk did ruin quite a few bands…yeah.  

Rockpages.gr: The first Maiden album included some really challenging tracks like “The Phantom Of The Opera”, “Transylvania”, “Strange World” etc. Did they give you any trouble whatsoever learning and playing them?

Dennis Stratton: “No. To be honest I always used to work with two guitars. I was very much influenced by Wishbone Ash. So, RDB was based on harmony guitars, twin vocals…twin harmony guitars. When I first met Steve and Dave Murray they gave me a copy of a cassette of some songs on it and I went on…you got to remember that before Maiden recorded the first album, they had never worked with harmony guitars. So, it gave me a big opportunity to walk into this band and take these songs home…“Phantom of the Opera”, “Running Free”…it gave me an opportunity to open up the songs…making them bigger, more excitable…just bigger, with a wider sound. I didn’t find them hard to learn the Maiden stuff and it was kind interesting to work on it. I added the harmony parts on those songs.  

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Rockpages.gr: You stayed with Iron Maiden for one year, recorded a groundbreaking record, did a European tour with KISS and then left “due to musical differences” as the official statement underlined. Was it really the reason behind your departure from the band?  

Dennis Stratton: Yeah…you got to remember that when you say “you did the album”, we had already done two tours in England…the Metal For Muthas Tour and another, smaller tour. Then we recorded the album. What you got to remember is for us to headline any gig we had to play for about and hour and twenty minutes. So, basically our set consisted of the first two albums. In our set back in 1979 there was “Wrathchild”, “Killers”…certain songs that were kept for the second album. So, were already doing first and second album live…not every song but most of it so as to make the set last longer. When we went in to record the first album, we did it very quickly and then headed out to the Judas Priest tour, Top of the Pops and the KISS tour. While we were working with KISS, we didn’t have to do such a big set cause our set was cut down…we were supporting KISS…so, I was already working on the guitar parts for “Killers” because I thought I’d be recording the album. It was on the KISS tour that Rod Smallwood decided that it wasn’t a good thing that that I enjoyed listening some certain songs at my private hotel room, on my Sony walkman…so, he took it upon himself and said to me that I wasn’t totally into Iron Maiden! It was a big problem for him that I was listening to a different kind of music. I asked Steve and Rod: “am I not doing the job properly?”. They said: “Oh, no…you are doing far more than we expected”. The amount of depth that I put into the songs and the harmony guitar parts, the harmony vocals that they never had in the past…al this stuff…but, Smallwood took it upon himself…but it gets to a point when you have a wife and a child at home because I was married at the time…we had a daughter…I couldn’t even go home and see my wife and kid because Maiden had already booked gigs. It became a really big problem really because Rod started telling me how to live my life and I am not that kind of a person. So, that’s how we ended up drifting apart.

Rockpages.gr: What did Steve say about it?

Dennis Stratton: Steve and Rod have a big partnership. Don’t get me wrong, Maiden was always Steve’s band and without Rod Smallwood Maiden would still have made it big! Rod Smallwood didn’t make Iron Maiden…Iron Maiden made Iron Maiden. But I think Steve basically went along with Rod because Steve was very young and I was older than Steve, I was older than Dave and everyone else so he made a point and I went to Steve’s house and talked all about it…he said that Rod’s was not happy with me…but yeah…Rod was the manager…you know.

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Rockpages.gr: No hard feelings whatsoever…?

Dennis Stratton: No! We speak with Steve all the time and I saw Rod in O2 Arena…listen, we went on tour with Status Quo when I was in RDB but the thing is that RDB were just kids…we were like brothers as we grew up together. Basically, we were just a bunch of mates being on tour. With Maiden it was more of a business…Rod Smallwood got into his head that he would keep the whole band together and it was on the KISS tour that I decided to travel with the crew for a couple of days just to have a laugh with the crew. I didn’t want to sit on a coach with the band and they thought that I didn’t like them or I didn’t want to be in the band. It was not that! You just need a break from being together with the same people 24 hours a day. Because I could see that and because everybody started getting on everybody’s nerves, I used to travel with the crew a couple of times. I even traveled with the A&R manager of EMI in Germany by car because we went out for a dinner and Rod didn’t like it because he wanted to keep the band together. In 1984, I was in Los Angeles recording the Lionheart album “Hot Tonight” and was at the Rainbow having a drink…a girl comes over to me and says that there’s a guy who wants to buy you a drink. It was Rod Smallwood sitting at a table in Rainbow Club. I went over and he said to me: “I want to apologize”. I asked: “what for?”. Rod said that everything that I had said about keeping the band together, it happened and now they don’t talk to each other…and that was the start of everybody leaving…Di’Anno had left, Clive was on his way out…you can’t keep five people together 24 hours a day. I was right…but there are no hard feelings.

Rockpages.gr: You started a new and successful chapter in your career with Praying Mantis. Would you say that Praying Mantis is the highlight of your recording and touring career?DennisStratton06

Dennis Stratton: I was with Mantis 15 years! Tell you what…I would like to think that if we didn’t have such a big problem with CBS Records in Los Angeles and New York, Lionheart would have made it big because myself, Steve and Rocky went back together from the RDB days. With Praying Mantis…again, me, Tino and Chris…we were like three brothers; the three mesquiteers. It was like that all the time. The lovely thing about Mantis was that we had our own studio and for all the 6 or 7 or 8 albums that we did, myself, Tino and Chris used to sit together with guitars, drum machine, keyboards, piano and we put everything down and then we would get the drummer and then we would get the singer in. It was only the fact that after 15 years the record company in Tokyo closed down the rock/metal department and Mantis…it was the first time in 15 years that we didn’t have a record deal. So, I said to Tino and Chris “what are we gonna do?”…Pony Canyon brought out the “Best of Praying Mantis” and they didn’t need us to record anymore songs because they had the best of the old ones in one album. So basically we sort of drifted apart because we didn’t have a record company. I went to Italy to work with The Clairvoyants and some other bands in London…I even went to America to work with Al Atkins. Tino and Chris just left Mantis drift away. It was only the last few years that they got back together again and started recording with Frontiers. Everyone had a bit of a rest.   

Rockpages.gr: Would you consider working with them once again…maybe, for one last studio album?

Dennis Stratton: I don’t know. I got up on stage with them in Holland…they did a festival in Holland…I was headlining that gig with them; brilliant festival. Mantis were just before us and I got up and did two songs with them. The whole place just lifted the roof…it was brilliant! So, they asked me if I’d do some bits and pieces with them but I don’t want to interfere because they had another guitarist in the band right now. Good luck to them! You got to understand that I work all the time. I work from Christmas to Christmas. Italy, Holland, Germany, France, Bulgaria…it doesn’t matter. Mantis don’t work all the time because Chris has a very important job and Tino has a very important job, too. So, if you are a member of Mantis you got to have another project going otherwise you sit around doing nothing for months. Well, I can’t do that. I am working all the time. So, if I were to do something with Mantis that would be a recording or a part time thing because they don’t work all the time.  

Rockpages.gr: If you were to write an autobiography, what title would you give to it?

Dennis Stratton: God (laughs)! I don’t know…I never thought of that. I’ve been asked many many times to write a book because from the experiences of growing up in the East End, playing football, working in the docks, going on tour with (Status) Quo, Maiden, 15 years with Mantis, America with Lionheart…they wanted me for years to write a book…but a title…? I never ever thought about it. It had to be something like “I can’t believe that I am still alive” or “I can’t believe I am still here”. Something in that vein to say I am lucky to have done what I’ve done and still doing it! That sort of thing.

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