In last week’s post I exposed some pretty hard to stomach footage relating to Lionheart, the NWOBHM supergroup. Seeing as that proved to be the source of some pretty hilarious revelations, I thought I’d carry on with this theme, and in an attempt to understand the phenomenon I’ll consider another 4 case studies, 2 this week (Wild Horses and Stratus) and 2 more next week (Tytan and Gogmagog). There are probably more of these groups that I may have forgotten about, so feel free to tell me in the messages if you think I should have featured anyone else, bearing in mind I had to keep this mammoth 3 part post from reaching PHD length! Next week after I’ve finished wittering on about these bands I’ll expose my findings and list consistent features, then try to sum up what the NWOBHM supergroup phenomenon can teach us about our glorious era…
Wild Horses- The first nwobhm supergroup
This particular supergroup was formed by ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson and ex-Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain in the summer of 1978, which qualifies them as being the first NWOBHM supergroup, although you could argue that they evolved into a NWOBHM entity rather than starting out as one (many would say ‘78 precedes the era). Throughout their short career they ‘borrowed’ many NWOBHM musicians, making one bad album that sold well (‘Wild Horses’ 1980) and one incredible album that depressingly failed to inspire as much enthusiasm (‘Stand Your Ground’ 1981).
This one featured ex-Next Band/Red Alert/ Wildfire (same band who despite having an unfortunate name change tendency demonstrated that you could still kick ass with keyboards) guitarist John Lockton. This three named band also supplied bassist Rocky Newton and drummer Frank Noon to the first line-up of Lionheart so it’s about time I exposed one of their ditties. Here is a song from their 1978 ‘Four By Three’ EP they released when they were still called The Next Band.
‘Too Many Losers’ appears to be about bands trudging through a well worn path of clichéd ideas, a lyrical theme that perfectly suits a band who put out such a great example of the late 70s experimentation that triggered the NWOBHM. I have no shame in admitting I have a preference for bands that tilt their hats to the groovy 70s over those who were more comfortable rolling with the developing tradition of sounding ‘heroic and powerful’, which at its worst became an embarrassing cliché.
Wild Horses drummer Clive Edwards (who joined after ex-Lone Star man Dixie lee was booted out) had served time in groups that although not officially NWOBHM had the hard edge we tend to crave such as Filthy McNasty, Electric Sun (which was Uli Roth of Scorpions’ band) and The Pat Travers Band. This guy was no amateur, which demonstrates Wild Horses showing the ‘supergroup’ tendency we explored last week with Lionheart, i.e. wanting to recruit musicians who have already proved their worth in other projects. Here’s the raw album opener ‘I’ll Give You Love’…
Vocals duties were mainly provided by Bain, but Robertson did a fair bit too. Unfortunately the Wild Horses project also demonstrates how this kind of venture can become overlooked due to suffering by association; a Thin Lizzy fan will always compare Wild Horses to Thin Lizzy, Which I find quite unfair because ‘Stand Your Ground’ is a great record. I must confess I’m an exception to the ‘if you like 70s sounding NWOBHM then you like Thin Lizzy’ rule and don’t find them all that convincing. I actually find this record preferable to most Lizzy albums, which to my ears sound too patchy to classify their justification as ‘classics’ (I admit they had their moments, I rave about their use of John Sykes on their last album in this post).
I guess they sound more like Lizzy than Rainbow (who during their Dio phase pioneered the ‘heroic and powerful’ themes I was talking about earlier), but I really do agree with their early assurance that the project would sound nothing like the bands they had departed. Same genre, totally different outlook.
Are ‘Back in the USA’, ‘Miami Justice’ and ‘New York City’ evidence for Wild Horses seeking a US audience? I guess having played to huge US audiences in their previous groups (and developed a following for the new venture playing first of all in smaller venues) would have made playing the States quite an important prospect for the whole group, but Robertson especially. He had had a bite of the cherry playing in the US but was quite rightly gutted to have been kicked out of the group before they were to embark on their US tour with Queen.
Come to think about it, using lyrics that (however naively) they believed would be more palatable to an American audience could be viewed as a more realistic and subtle tactic than incorporating numerous AOR tactics such as overbearing keyboards and saxophone solos like Lionheart did! To my ears, ‘Stand Your Ground’ (just about) retains its dignity in attempting to court an American audience.
Of course this failed, and in 1981 Robertson ran away to join Motorhead. Drummer Edwards spent some time in… Lionheart! What followed was a depressing tangled spaghetti mess of shared personnel, as Bain continued with a new line-up, featuring a stand alone vocalist (Reuben Archer). This line-up attempted to record a third album, but they decided they couldn’t work with Bain and broke off to form Stampede.
After Motorhead, Robertson helped out with Statetrooper, the band that ‘Good Bad Music For Bad Bad Times’ blog said ‘ended the NWOBHM’.
Nevermind though, I love ‘Stand Your Ground’ and find it the heaviest and least clichéd example of a NWOBHM supergroup album out there. Although doomed to failure, the project was an inimitable relic of the era.
Stratus- More melodic than Lionheart?
Stratus began with a name that definitely categorised them as a band who craved NWOBHM supergroup status. Clive Burr’s Escape was formed just after the talented drummer left Iron Maiden in 1983. On guitar and bass were the Troy brothers, core members of Praying Mantis, a project that had also ground to a halt around this time. Vocals were provided by Bernie Shaw, who had been with Praying Mantis since 1981.
Now, I absolutely love one of Praying Mantis’ early songs ‘Captured City’ from their ‘Soundhouse Tapes Part 2’ EP (which is also known as ‘Captured City’ when housed in the limited edition picture sleeve)…
However I’ve got to make another confession… As with Thin Lizzy I’m not a huge fan of Praying Mantis, generally finding them the wrong kind of melodic for my taste. Now, I’m someone who has a diverse appreciation of our music, finding the dynamic clash of melody and raw power the main attraction to NWOBHM. So I should really be into the 1981 Praying Mantis debut ‘Time Tells No Lies’, what with its prog orientated compositions and thoughtful lyrics, shouldn’t I? However, I consider it to have glaring issues that I just can’t see around. The unfocused vocals (which sounded perfect on the less polished ‘Captured City’) don’t help. Next I find the Kinks cover completely out of place. It’s just such a strangely judged choice for this band, and appears so early in the record it shatters the atmosphere. Finally I feel that the whole record occupies too much of a middle ground, with plenty of vocal but not enough dual guitar harmony. Here’s ‘Children Of The Earth’ from that album. Considering their large and massively dedicated fanbase it’s clearly my problem, but I just can’t see what’s so special about it. Sorry!
So back to Stratus. They had a pretty straightforward start, all members having earned their stripes in previous bands. They added keyboard player Alan Nelson who had been in (that well used NWOBHM supergroup human resource pool) The Next Band/Red Alert/ Wildfire (although he only joined after they became Wildfire I think), Lautrec and Stampede.
The album ‘Throwing Shapes’ (1984) which is well played and put together, but veers more than a little bit towards the commercial side of the NWOBHM spectrum, is regarded by some as a Praying Mantis side project these days. Which if you ask me is pretty solid evidence that Stratus suffer by association to Praying Mantis, and if this is the case, surely Iron Maiden too, more about this later). Here is ‘Even If It Takes’ from the album.
Warning: this song has a thick, keyboard sugar coating complete with an artery hardening synthesised tom drum effect, and is only suitable for consumption by those who have been fully desensitised to 80s hard rock clichés. You have been warned.
Personally I find ‘Throwing Shapes’ (it even has a disco influenced title!) less adventurous than the Lionheart album. Having said that Clive Burr’s drumming has more personality than session drummer Bob Jenkins from the Lionheart album (which I used to consider a ‘guilty pleasure’, however since last week’s post I’ve been trying to analyse my obsession with this record. Despite it not being something I could take seriously, I think my love for the over the top instrumental gymnastics juxtaposed with a straight-faced delivery that operatically screams ‘this is the 80s’ goes far beyond irony). Many would categorise Stratus as Praying Mantis experimenting with a considerably softened sound in an attempt to become more favourable to American ears (which was also Lionheart’s tactic). However I don’t think this album demonstrates much of a change of heart from the 1981 demos for the intended second Praying Mantis record. So my personal interpretation events is that since releasing ‘Time Tells No Lies’, for some reason Praying Mantis decided they wanted to add keyboards and a professional vocalist and proudly continue as a melodic rock band. Here’s a song from their 1982 ‘Turn the Tables’ EP, which I’m sure you’ll notice is pretty close to the level of radio-friendliness the Troy brothers achieved with Stratus…
It’s kind of like a heroic version of the ‘Cheers’ theme isn’t it? Well that’s because this song was written by Gary Portnoy WHO WROTE THE GOD-DAMN ‘CHEERS’ THEME! I can’t think of better evidence than this for Praying Mantis massively softening their sound prior to the Stratus venture.
Here’s a bit of light relief in the form of the song ‘Run For Your Life’, which was used in the 1986 Troma film ‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High’. It’s a surprising choice for a soundtrack, and I’d imagine the main reason it features is probably because it didn’t cost the budget film studio all that much…
Another thing about Stratus that’s consistent with all NWOBHM supergroups is they were based in the capital, I’d imagine because that is where bands would have management headquarters. It would have also been an easy place to pick up new recruits for the revolving door policy that seems to be a feature of many NWOBHM supergroups.
The Stratus story ended well for most parties (and they appear to win the prize for fewest personnel reshuffles), with Praying Mantis reforming in 1987 and Clive Burr becoming established as a session man associated with many well respected groups including Elixir (as well as the unforgivable Gogmagog travesty, more about this next week). Bernie Shaw went on to become the longest serving Uriah Heep vocalist, which is definitely a success story, perhaps because Uriah Heep were a bigger entity than Bernie Shaw.
‘Throwing Shapes’ had a very limited release, and although it was available in Japan, where Praying Mantis are huge, it’s European release on an obscure Belgian label called Steel Trax was so limited very few copies made it to the UK.
So the Stratus line-up demonstrated two years of stability for the Troy brothers, and when people started showing an interest in NWOBHM again around 1990 they got hold of our old friend Dennis Stratton, who contributed second guitar and vocals. Having played with Clive Burr (in Stratus) and Stratton, Praying Mantis are often connected to Iron Maiden. I remember reading their name in Pete Frame’s ‘Rock Family Trees’ as a youngster and expecting them to totally shred! However, the personnel connection has precious little to do with their musical persuasion. Having said this, I personally think Praying Mantis become more enjoyable from this point onwards. After making an attempt at commercial melodic rock with Stratus, I believe 1991’s ‘Predator In Disguise’ is far more convincing than their debut. Their obsessive overseas fanbase gave them an opportunity to begin dropping the ‘shackles’ of the NWOBHM label, and they now they could hold their heads high knowing what they were destined to be, a melodic rock band who had a massive following in Japan. For me, this Video for ‘Can’t See The Angels’ 1991 fills me with respect and admiration for Mantis.
They show such enthusiasm in their performance, not allowing the low production values to get to them (that cliff-top looks cold!). When you consider the money that must have gone into that Lionheart video from last week’s post, seeing Dennis Stratton look this content fills me with reverence for his contribution to the world of rock. This song also redeems them for my earlier complaint of unfocused vocals. Stratton supplied a majority of the lead vocals on this record, and it shows a massive improvement to ‘Time Tells No Lies’. To my ears anyway!
Although Praying Mantis appear to feel more confident when they have a stand alone vocalist, they have never managed to stick with one for long, Doogie White and Colin Peel had served time before this video from 1993, ‘Only The Children Cry’ featuring Mark Thompson-Smith.
This makes me love Dennis Stratton even more! There’s something melancholic in his performance here, has he lost his spark? Seeing him mournfully miming backing vocals in his fading lycra trousers is a far deeper exploration of the human condition than this video’s attempts to achieve that hard rock political tear-jerker pedestal. Although this is far from ‘War Pigs’, the subtle sub-plot about a man broken by melodic rock is the real story here.
‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’ (1995) features Gary Barden on lead vocals, who had also played with Wild Horses casualty Brian Robertson in ‘the band who killed NWOBHM’, Statetrooper!
Dennis appears to have cheered up a bit more here and the video production appears to be on a much higher budget. Tellingly, he’s wearing a vest featuring imagery from the previous album, showing that success in Japan has given him a renewed enthusiasm for his role as melodic rocker ‘til death. Stratton left Praying Mantis in 2006, but the Troy brothers have continued to do their thing and the new album ‘Legacy’ will be out soon. Show these melodic rock veterans your support http://www.praying-mantis.com/.
As with Lionheart, many ex Praying Mantis singers have gone on to join Sweet (gods of early sleeze, taught Mötley Crüe everything they know) who recruited so many NWOBHM scenesters that the three versions of the band headed by ex-members Scott, Connolly and Priest have each played with at least someone related to our glorious era at some time or other. I won’t depress you by showing ex-NWOBHM heroes playing watered down versions of sleeze classics at holiday resorts. Instead here’s their masterpiece ‘Set Me Free’ from the cheekily titled ‘Sweet FA’ album from 1974.
Having said this, the least soul destroying place for ex-NWOBHM supergroup veterans to land would appear to be Uriah Heep. We’ve already mentioned Bernie Shaw’s happy landing, and the same is true for his Grand Prix colleague Phil Lanzon, who played on each Grand Prix album before serving time in Lionheart, followed by a stint in Sweet then happily landing in Uriah Heep and staying with them from 1988 to the present day.
This song from their 2014 album ‘Outsider’ is the happiest ending I could think of for this (in places) distressingly light metal orientated post. Still, if I’m to properly investigate NWOBHM, I can’t ignore this side of our music. I promise things will be slightly less AOR and a bit more metallic next week!