Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Stray


Released 1970 on Transatlantic
Reviewed by achuma, 29/03/2006ce


Stray (not to be confused with Stray Dog, who had some occasional good moments, it must be said) are a sadly obscure and overlooked band who, in their early days, made a wonderful noise that should have earned them a solid place in rock mythology, but quickly slid into mediocrity, slogging it out for years and getting nowhere. Now, they are loved by only a small but dedicated cult following and known dismissively to those few others who have even heard of the group as a “poor-man’s Status Quo”. Well, perhaps some of their later recorded output might warrant such a tag, but the early, classic Stray were a totally different four-headed beast to behold, and it’s for this early peak of superior prowess they should be recognised as some of the most rough and real rock gods that ever strode the earth.

Formed in 1966 in London with the four members (all school chums) averaging 14 years of age, Stray consisted of vocalist Steve (Stephen) Gadd, guitarist Del (Derek) Bromham, bassist Gary Giles and drummer Steve Crutchley, who soon left and was replaced by Ritchie (Richard) Cole (no, not the Led Zep road manager). They played as much as they could (including gigs at the Roundhouse and Middle Earth), building up a live reputation and supporting the likes of the Groundhogs, eventually being signed up by Transatlantic to record this, their debut album.
These guys, as laid down on their debut, are a brilliant testimony to the vigour of youth and the unbridled rockfests it can produce when fuelled by genuine raw talent and given a chance. I’m amazed they could find a producer (Hugh Murphy, for Shel Talmy Productions; the engineer was Jerry Boys) in those days so willing and able to let them breathe fire so savagely without feeling compelled by commercial responsibility to draw in the reins. As contemporaries in the teenaged heavy rock stakes, Stray stood alongside greats such Clear Blue Sky and the early UFO, but in my opinion Stray – although less acknowledged now than those two bands – knocked them all into a cocked hat with their songwriting skills, roughshod instrumental talent, heaviness, and the near-psychotic streetwise abandon with which they approached their music in their brief early peak, whilst still retaining catchy tunes, almost like unused Beatles songs being handed over to a gang of crank-and-hash-crazed bikers’ little brothers with a penchant for jamming out and extreme fuzz. And, even though this album isn’t as polished, refined or stylistically varied as their next two (excellent) albums, in my opinion it stands the test of time as their best and most unleashed overall album, and it’s here that I think their true peak occurred. This is one of those albums I can listen to loads and still not get tired of it (it’s been a regular player for several years now), the catchiness of the tunes and the raw enthusiasm of the music never wearing thin.

‘All In Your Mind’ (9:25) fades in with drums and cymbals ticking away on a steady rhythm as harmonious, simple guitar strokes float over the top. A louder vibrato guitar enters with an introductory riff, and it all rises out of the dust electrified, chugging along on a raw boogie plod, soon joined by a catchy verse/chorus bit that would be ripe for a pop song if only it weren’t accompanied by such filthy guitar chunks. A series of yobbish handclaps enthusiastically signal the entry into jam-land, Bromham soloing gutsily over a simple 1-note chug, if you squint almost sounding like Neu! meets Hawkwind’s ugly little brother but without any electronics or experimentation (or sax) – just hypnotic rawk! Well, maybe more like a simpler, rawer Clear Blue Sky or UFO groove. Or somewhere between the two... Anyway, a few minutes of that then back into that sturdy tractor of ‘the song bit’ for a brief refrain, before diving seamlessly back into the 1-note jam, only now with the guitar roaming a bit more free as it all becomes a kind of primitive space rock. Near the 8-minute mark it seems to have grinded to a conclusion, only to slam straight into a new, driving heavy riff and smashing into a frenzied crescendo.
‘Taken All The Good Things’ (5:37) begins as a slowly paced drum and guitar groove, before slightly fuzzy, wiry bass slinks in and they all slide into a funky, sleazy hard riff with another incredibly catchy verse/chorus. It’s got such an easy, laid-back hard cockiness, and you can tell that these young gunslingers are in no doubt that they fill their very large boots, and can take down any man who looks at ‘em funny. A few minutes later, senses are shattered as it all kicks into total overdrive, heavy, brutal fuzzed guitar slamming out raw speed riffs as Bromham overdubs an equally raucous and savage lead onslaught. Then, after a head-smashing climax, as you pick up your hat that blew across the room, it slides with no effort back into the slow riff from before and finishes after another run-through of the lyrics.
‘Around The World In Eighty Days’ (3:40) is one of those almost Beatles-like mutations I mentioned above... kind of. It’s by and large the poppiest track on the album, although pop in a kind of early prog/psych way, and although the word ‘pop’ usually serves as a warning for me to steer well clear (and except for a few songs, I’m not a Beatles fan at all), this is the rare kind of pop that I can get into, and it sticks in my head without pissing me off. Nothing brilliant, but really nice, and having the feel of an orchestrated song but without any added horns or strings save the guitar and bass. It reminds me a bit of some of the softer-edged stuff from T2’s great album ‘It’ll All Work Out In Boomland’.
‘Time Machine’ (4:44) begins like one of those West Coast-tinged Man rockers, before savage heavy fuzz guitar takes great seared slices off of your ears, and we’re treated to yet another incredibly catchy verse/chorus run, with beautiful but not wimpy vocals riding the chariot formed from a wall of guitars, soon going instrumental and picking up a manic pace, hard-driving acoustic strumming hitting harder than you’d think (like on bits of the first May Blitz album) with the bass and drums as Bromham solos electrically like mad, then all grinding into a totally nasty assault of gutbucket demon riffing that sees us to the end after going through numerous boggling changes.
‘Only What You Make It’ (4:05) starts side two like a thug-rock rip-off of Hawkwind’s ‘Brainstorm’ riff, with occasional manly “Uuuughhh!’ thrusts emphasising key beats. However it’s far from an actual rip-off of that song, swinging into a totally different pounding chorus and back a few times before the guys jam out for a bit in typical meaty, uncompromising fashion, like a meaner and more uncouth Man boogie perhaps. Repeat that all again with added harmonica (or perhaps slide guitar played to sound like a harmonica) soloing on the jam bit, and there’s that track, another winner in an album packed full of ‘em.
‘Yesterdays Promises’ (4:25) is the quietest track on the album, mellow but vaguely pained melodic music riding a sad breeze punctuated occasionally with weirdly processed space plunks from one of the electric guitar lines. The vocals are, again, simple and sparse but oh-so-catchy and spot-on, but much of the track is an instrumental jam building from a very simple and repetitive structure that’s totally effective and beautiful without getting soppy. Near the end it rocks up a little but soon ends tastefully without any gratuitous frenzy.
‘Move On’ (5:51) is, at least at first, kinda like Man in a fast-paced Santana-like mood, as far as the funky rhythm laid down by extra percussion and fuzzed chucka-wucka guitar and slightly jazzy soloing, broken up by more serious sledgehammer riffage, before sliding all greased into a mid-paced jazzy rock jam, but jazz in the sense of rock musos who can’t really play jazz but aren’t averse to trying to come as close as they can over a simple groove. And, they do a pretty decent job of it in the end (mainly due to Bromham’s soloing, never trying to get too fancy for his actual ability to perform, which is nonetheless fairly high for such a young gun), even if they’re no Mahavishnu Orchestra but more like May Blitz again in a jazzy mood. You don’t have to like jazz rock to like this.
‘In Reverse/Some Say’ (9:04) closes the album in full razor-rockin’ style, with a frantic progression of manic fuzzed riffs, the whole band stomping along in such easy unison there are no cracks between the seams, but plenty of steam issuing forth from somewhere, all the same. You can really tell these guys have worked hard together over the previous years to get to this point, as they’re all totally locked into each other in service of the rock. Bromham is obviously the leading light that makes it so damn good, especially given the opportunity to overdub multiple guitar lines (which he makes constant use of with mastery), but the others do a fine job of making it whole and backing him up 100%, and it’s great to come across a vocalist who doesn’t seem to want to dominate proceedings but is content to sing a few lines here and there with confidence but in the main, just hang back and listen. At around six minutes and after a lengthy jam, the song kicks up a couple of gears into massively heavy, distorted, raw doom riffing that goes for the throat before switching to another set of complex, driving parts that see out the next few minutes in dizzying fashion. I wouldn’t want to have been trying to go on stage and play after Stray back in those days! A tough act to follow, if this brilliant album is anything to go by, and if the audiences had any taste.

Although headlining their own tour of Britain in 1971, with supports Red Dirt and Steve Tilston, Stray remained one of those perpetual support bands, even after years of gigging and releasing albums. Perhaps this was because, although they reached an early peak, they couldn’t live up to their initial promise as the quality of their albums went significantly downhill after their third album, ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ in 1971. However, some folks must have still liked them, as they continued to get fairly prestigious support slots, such as Kiss and Rush on their respective first UK tours. Their second album, ‘Suicide’, is the subject of a separate review. Later the band were managed for a while by Charlie Kray, brother of the notorious Kray twins, an interesting bit of trivia that no write-up of Stray can avoid mentioning, so there you go (again).

This album is available on CD as disc 2 of the ‘Definitive Collection’ compilation on Castle, and disc 1 of the ‘All In Your Mind’ compilation on Recall/Snapper. It was reissued officially for the first time by itself in 2005, with extra tracks, which I haven’t heard as I’m yet to come across a copy. It may well have extensive liner notes that would tell us a lot more about the early days of the group, but I don’t know. The original pressing of the LP is the rarer gatefold version; the single sleeve second pressing is easier to come by, but still fairly scarce these days. The original has a photo on the back of one of the guys – perhaps the bass player – snapped in mid-head bang, long hair in full flight, whereas the back of the second pressing has the colour photos of the band playing that were on the inner sleeve of the original.


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