Although only a member of Iron Maiden for eleven months, Dennis Stratton’s impact on the nascent outfit cannot be underestimated. Introducing the harmony guitars that the band are now famous for, the guitarist’s mark is all over their historic self-tiled 1980 debut. Now a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee, we sat down with Dennis for a chat about the surprising announcement, the early days, and what he’s up to with Lionheart. Strange world; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Dennis, how are you doing, and how has the lockdown been treating you?
I’m good buddy. It’s been just drastic, isn’t it? As soon as the winter came, it’s been so boring! Last year, it was lovely because we had a long summer, so I imagine a lot of people got to sit outside in the sunshine. But for musicians, we don’t get involved in the furlough, so its been drastic, money-wise, and also, now the winter’s here, it’s just climbing the walls sometimes, you know?
Did the pandemic cost you much, in terms of work?
Last year (2020) was the 40th anniversary of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), and it was the 40th anniversary of the first album by Maiden, and we had everything booked for the whole year.
Was that with your band Lionheart?
With Lionheart, basically, we were in the process of trying to finish the last album, ‘The Reality of Miracles’, but at the end 2019, Steve [Mann, guitarist] was out on tour with The Sweet, and Michael Schenker, and I was going all over the place with the Maiden stuff that I do with Maiden United and all the other bands I work with, and so it was hard to get that album finished.
So how did your 2020 begin?
Well, when 2020 kicked off, it was the best January I think I’ve ever had! January is normally a graveyard month where there’s no gigs; it’s where nobody’s got any money after Christmas and New Year. I was working with these bands in Europe, and we were in Finland, and we went over there and did a gig with the Maiden fan club - the Mad Vikings - and it was absolutely fantastic. We came back from Finland, and we were then in Stockholm for a few days. I did some work on a guy’s album out there, and we had to film a video, so we did two shows in Stockholm. And then we were in Southern Italy, and we did five shows with a band I work with in Italy, and we did five shows, ending in Rome, and it was absolutely brilliant.
That sounds like a fantastic start to the year for you!
When we came back, a couple of the guys went down with what we think was the virus, which we didn’t know at the time, and I came down with it for two weeks in February.
So you came down with COVID-19?
We don’t know, because we couldn’t get tested. When we got back from Italy, and they were the first to go down with it, I said to Julia [Dennis’s partner]; “I don’t feel too well”, and for the next two weeks I was basically flat on my back, coughing. But we still don’t know, because I’ve still not had my antibody test.
Despite this, you had a great start to the year?
At the end of the day, it was fantastic. We were looking forward to dates in Brazil, Chile, all over South America, and at the end of February, everything was cancelled.
Moving on to more recent times, and let’s start with the big news, which is Iron Maiden’s nomination for 2021’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; You must be thrilled about that.
The thing is, before we go any further, I want it in print, so I can frame it! [laughing]. Even if we don’t get inducted, I want to be able to put it on the wall and say that I was nominated. I want it in black and white!
How did you find out you were to be nominated with the band?
I got a group message from Tristan, who does all our artwork and graphics for Lionheart, and he’s always on the internet, and he sent a message on the Lionheart Whatsapp group, and he said; “Hey Den, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this”, and I looked at the link and I thought; “bloody hell!” It’s an honour, and also, for me, over the last forty years, there’s been many, many times where basically, I’ve either been forgotten, or left out, somewhere along the line, i.e.; the gold discs from the first album. They went gold in nearly every country, but I couldn’t get them because I was no longer in the band. There’s no one in Maiden’s office to represent me to get them gold discs, if you know what I mean.
So how did you feel when you saw that you had, in fact, been nominated with the rest of the members?
When I saw it, I was so pleased that actually, me, Clive [Burr, drums 1979 - 1982], and Paul [Di’Anno, vocals 1978 - 1981], were included, and then of course, I read the politics of it, about so many years having to go by. It’s all red tape, but at the end of the day, it was nice to be included. The penny never dropped until about two or three hours later. When we were sitting, just after dinner, I looked at my phone again, and I said to Julia; “do you know what? That’s a really big thing to be nominated for the Hall of Fame”, and that’s why I said to a couple of guys in the band; “it would be nice to get some kind of printed out ‘you’ve been nominated” just to keep as that souvenir.
What some people might not know, is you and Steve Harris are quite close these days; how did that conversation go when you spoke to him about it?
We’ve got West Ham to moan about, me and him! We talk quite a lot on the phone. There’s some things he doesn’t get if he’s on tour, and I’ll text him and say; “here boy, have you seen this?” It was in the afternoon when I found out, but I’d already spoke to him in the morning regarding West Ham, and I texted him and said; “Steve, not sure if you’ve seen this, but we’ve been nominated, and I’ve been included”. I said; “I do hope that we get in, and I do hope that the fans vote”. At the moment, it doesn’t look like the fans are voting, because we’ve only got 66,000 votes, and you would have thought, you know, one gig in South America is 100,000. So, I’m not sure how it’s going to end up.
This is a great opportunity then, for you to say; “Get out there, and VOTE!”
The thing is, I have seen a few of the comments that Bruce [Dickinson] has made, and I would say, a lot of the fans are following Bruce’s comments and have said; “F the Hall of fame; we don’t need the Hall of Fame, the band don’t want it, so let’s not vote”. But what they’ve got to remember is that it is a big, big honour for someone like me. I’ve even gone on Facebook and said; “listen, please vote”, because although it might not mean a lot to some people, it means the world to me. So, I’m hoping that the fans don’t take a lot of notice of Bruce’s comments. I want Maiden to get what they deserve.
Yeah, I appreciate what Bruce is saying, and I know how he feels, and if the band and management decide that it's not for them, then I respect that decision. But at least I can say I was nominated, so I'm very proud of that, and one thing I do know is that with the fanbase Maiden have around the world, the other nominees are very lucky, as if all the Maiden fans voted throughout the world, Maiden would be ahead by about a million votes!
This may be jumping the gun, but at previous inductions, ex band members have got up and joined the band on stage; would you be up for doing a song or two with Maiden?
Well, the funny thing is, it’s always been on my bucket list to get up and do one song before it’s too late. It doesn’t matter what song it is, and many time I’ve said it. Whether or not it happens, I’m not sure, but it would be great somewhere along the line. I may not even be invited over if they get inducted; it might just be the current line-up, so it’s all down to the Hall of Fame. But a lot fans know that it’s always been my last, bucket list wish to get up one last time for one song.
That first Iron Maiden album has certainly left its mark in music history.
Well, the thing is, when they asked me to join the band, basically, they were a three piece. They didn’t have a band! I think what happened was, when they signed with EMI, it was such a fantastic deal in them days in 1979, that there were certain musicians in the pub band, in the club band, that they were playing with that just weren’t up to scratch. So basically, I think that when they signed the deal, they sat down with Rod [Smallwood, manager], and said; “okay, there’s Dave [Murray, guitar], there’s Steve [Harris], and there’s [Paul] Di’Anno”. They didn’t have a drummer, and they needed to beef the line-up up to make that first album, so I was brought in.
Do you remember how it went when you first got together?
When I first started rehearsing with them, I had ‘The Soundhouse Tapes’, and I had the stuff that’d been playing live. What you’ve got to remember is they’d done a lot of gigs. They’d done their apprenticeship in the Transit van and the Green Goddess [early tour van], so when they did all the clubs, a lot of hard work went into them songs. I had a rough selection of about twenty songs that were all, basically, raw, punky, stuff that they could get by, playing live. They were a very energetic, punky, heavy metal band playing live, but on an album, it wouldn’t really go down so well being so punky, so I went in there on the first couple of days, ran through about four or five songs. You have to remember that most of those songs were recorded just with Dave Murray, and it’s only got one or two guitars tracked on them.
What did you bring to those early sessions?
I’d always been involved with harmony guitars, even with the band I was with before, Remus Down Boulevard. We grew up on Wishbone Ash, and I’ve always loved harmony guitars, as you can tell through Praying Mantis and Lionheart. But to take them harmony guitar styles into Maiden, you had to be careful, because they were a hard, raunchy band, and you don’t want to make It sound too sweet. We had to pick and choose where the harmonies were going, and then me and Dave would sit down, because Dave, probably, had never worked with another guitarist, doing harmony guitars. It was always a single, solo guitar band. But bringing Clive [Burr] in was an actual bonus. I only bumped into Clive in a local pub in East London which we used to use every now and again, and his parents lived around the corner, so I took Clive to rehearsal, and then the band was formed.
How did the construction of the first Iron Maiden album happen.
It was picking the songs. Steve already knew the songs that he wanted on the first album, and he was holding some back for ‘Killers’ . But we were actually playing both them albums; ‘Killers’, and ‘Iron Maiden’, in the live set, because, as I’ve said many times, if Maiden were headlining, you’d have to have an hour and a half’s worth of songs. It’s okay, supporting - like we did with Priest and Kiss - because you only need seven or eight songs, but we needed as many songs as we could. But most of them seventeen or eighteen songs, we were playing live, all the way through that year.
Were you disappointed therefore, not to have got to work on the ‘Killers’ album?
I was working on the ‘Killers’ album on the Kiss tour. I was doing all the preparation, because I always prepare before I go into the studio. I didn’t get to record that second album, but it was all there, in the bag, ready to go.
Back to the first album…
Once Steve had picked the songs that were on the first album, we polished them up with the harmony guitars and a few dodgy harmony vocals here or there. It was one big rush. You’ve got to remember, joining the band, and then doing the ‘Metal For Muthas’ tour, and then recording the first album was all very, very rushed; it had to be done yesterday! EMI wanted to get the album out, and the studio was in such a rush that I just don’t remember much about it. We were working very fast, but then it was back out on tour! Then when we started to calm down a little but, once we did ‘Running Free’ for Top of the Pops, and we’d done a couple of different recordings and promo stuff. Going on the Kiss tour gave us a bit of time, and extra days to start pre-production for ‘Killers’.
I wanted to touch on a couple of the songs from ‘Iron Maiden’, starting with the instrumental ‘Transylvania’; it’s so fast!
Yeah, on your picking hand, it is quite demanding. Then again, in them days, we were a lot younger. Since then, I’ve broken my wrist, so my picking hand is a little bit slower than normal. But in them days, yeah, it used to be I’d think, a lot of the songs we played too fast! It was one of them things, but ‘Transylvania’, I just took it in my stride.
What way did you and Dave go about working out the solos?
The solos, I can’t remember how we come about it, because I would always say to Dave; “what solo are you going to take”, and I would always work around him, because he was the original member before me, and it was his bat and ball. So, I used to follow him.
Are those bends in that song double-tracked?
It could be; I wouldn’t be able to remember if it’s tracked or not. A lot of the stuff, little harmonies that pop up here and there on certain songs, like in the middle of ‘Iron Maiden’; them little harmonies pop up all over the place, so it may have been tracked.
There’s a lick in there that I heard you reusing in ‘Women in Uniform’; was that presupposed?
I wouldn’t have thought so, no. When you’ve got so much work and you’re in a rush to do things, you tend to find that certain licks, certain solos, certain riffs; they come to you and you think; “oh, that sounds good”, but you’re in such a panic to get it done, you forget that you actually did it on a previous song. On ‘Transylvania’, the bendy notes, Dave used to play that, so it was probably in my head. I had the same problem on ‘The Reality of Miracles’, with Lionheart. When we were in Lockdown, going back to the time when we were tying to produce the album, I was working on one of the new songs, and I played this really fluid, and what I thought was fast for me, a really nice lick that fitted it, and Julia came in, put her head around the door, and she went; “be careful, sweet; you did that on ‘Second Nature’!” It came too easy for me, because I was playing something I forgot I’d already played!
Towards the end of ‘Transylvania’, I noticed four guitar parts, where the two harmony lines are played an octave up.
That’s right, yeah. When I play in Italy, we have four guitarists, and we always try to make that point because it does sound really good. A lot of the times when I was in the studio, Will Malone [producer] wouldn’t be there, it would just be me and the engineer, and because I was left to my own time, my own devices, I was able to put little bits on. I would sit in the control room with the engineer, rather than in the studio and behind the glass window. I would sit there with him and just try different things out. That’s where the story come through with ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and me doing all the vocal harmonies that sounded like Queen.
That was a controversial one.
It wasn’t going to be left like that, as I keep saying to people; it was only messing about with a bit of free studio time. After I’d finished recording on the album, we were listening to ‘Phantom’, I said; “wouldn’t it be great?”, and I put a few harmonies down, and it started building up, and it did sound like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’! But it was never going to be left like that; it was just a case of, basically, seeing what it would sound like. Rod [Smallwood] got the wrong idea, but it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway. As I say, there’s lots of them harmony bits and guitar bits that I don’t remember how we did it but they pop up somewhere.
Going back to your wish to play with Iron Maiden one more time; is there a song from after your period with the band that you’d like to play, or would have loved to have recorded with them?
The funny thing is, working with Maiden United, I know it’s all acoustic and very classical, but I’ve been playing ‘Wasted Years’ and things like that. Yeah, there’s a few songs which I thought were Maiden’s most commercial songs, not so heavy, like ‘Wasted Years’; those songs are very melodic. So, there are a few songs going through that period that’d I’d like to have done.
Finally, after all this time, do you still enjoy performing the Maiden material?
Yeah, when I go out there; whether it’s in Spain, Germany, Holland or Italy; wherever I go, we do the whole first album, and about three songs from the second album, because we headline the show, it’s a good hour and twenty minutes, so doing the first album wouldn’t be enough songs. So we put everything in, all the songs I worked on, on the ‘Killers’ album; ‘Wrathchild’ and things like that, and we try and include all them. It brings it all back to me when I’m out there with them.
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Visit Dennis Stratton and Lionheart at Dennis's official site.