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Emerging seemingly fully-formed with 1970's eponymous debut LP Stray, Del Bromham, Steve Gadd, Gary Giles and Richie Cole looked to have the world at their feet. Listening to their accomplished blend of prog and proto hard rock, it's hard to believe they were just 18 or 19. Driven by Del's commanding guitar, they seemed set for great things.
But despite releasing ten records which ranged from the decent to excellent over the next half a dozen years, they never achieved anything like the status of some similar acts - Lizzy, Mountain, Ten Years After. Del has kept the band going in one format or another more or less ever since but is, we respectfully suggest, a worthy recipient of our slightly double-edged Obscure Guitar Hero award this month.
West Londoner Del - real name Derek Roy Bromham - picked up a guitar at 11 and was still a 15-year-old schoolboy when he formed Stray in 1966. By January 1970 they had a deal with Transatlantic. They played at the first Reading festival (1971) and enthusiastically embraced the possibilities offered by stage and lighting design and pyrotechnics - closing shows by detonating a "bomb" and setting off stage flares at Weeley that were so bright they attracted the attention, and fury, of the Coastguard!
Their third album, Saturday Morning Pictures was gigged at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park... on a Saturday morning. To give you an idea of how near they were to the big-time of early seventies hairy rock, they supported Kiss, Rush, Quo and Ten Years After, while Iron Maiden covered 'All In Your Mind' from the debut album with great success.
And it can't have been a lack of business-side ruthlessness that held them back - Stray were managed by Charlie Kray for a while! Steve Gadd left the band in 1975 and they dissolved in 1977, although Del reformed it periodically over the next few years - a notable highlight being 1984's Live At The Marquee live album. They are still rocking to this day - and are touring as we write, so if you want to see a little bit of living prog rock history, check out their site for gig dates.
As a guitarist, Del really had the set. He had a gift for a soaring solo, could belt out a fearsome riff, could orchestrate a ten-minute prog epic or surprise you with a bit of delicate classical guitar. Even from a very early age he seemed to be a master of any style from chugging blues rock to spacey folk, from jazz-funk to metal.
The title track of the second LP, 'Suicide', demonstrates the mixture of finesse and brutal power that characterized Del's playing, and by the third record, the aforementioned Saturday Morning Pictures, it looked like Del and co were going to break out. But maybe Del's huge variety of styles and influences was starting to get the better of the band - or their public - as a sometimes bewildering brew of styles and synths began to overwhelm. That said, the fourth album Mudanzas, has some great soloing on 'I Believe It' and 'Pretty Things'. Gadd left after the modest Move It LP and the band moved on to Dawn Records - the Pye subsidiary - for Stand Up And Be Counted, Houdini and Hearts Of Fire but the punk writing was scrawled on the toilet wall.
The story of Del Bromham and Stray is definitely one of a near-miss - but if you want to hear a really inventive, powerful guitarist producing some relentlessly eclectic music, check out any of their first three albums. Quality stuff.