By David E. Gehlke
Few have gotten more out of a year in a band than Dennis Stratton. The guitarist joined IRON MAIDEN in 1979, played on the band’s 1980 self-titled debut, then was replaced by Adrian Smith the same year. His stint in MAIDEN has currently provided him with an active career playing with MAIDEN tribute bands and popping up at MAIDEN conventions, making him, alongside Paul Di’Anno, the primary ambassadors for the band’s fabled early years. And while Stratton never received a MAIDEN writing credit, his crafty lead playing and, perhaps more importantly, backing vocals on “Phantom Of The Opera” have rightly justified his place within the band’s canon.
Stratton‘s non-MAIDEN work has included fellow NWOBHM act PRAYING MANTIS, with whom he was a member from 1990 to 2006, and relative to this conversation, LIONHEART, the melodic hard rock outfit he helped form shortly after his MAIDEN exit. Playing a brand of AOR (“album-oriented rock”) that is a far cry from the raw and energetic brand of NWOBHM for which he’s known, Stratton appears at ease and quite happy having LIONHEART as his primary creative outlet. The band’s fourth studio album, “The Grace Of A Dragonfly”, is set for late February release, which was enough for BLABBERMOUTH.NET to connect with the guitarist, who was fresh off a return from Brazil.
Blabbermouth: At this stage in your career, what do you get out of playing with LIONHEART?
Dennis: “I don’t get a lot of chances to play with LIONHEART. It’s one of those bands that has so many people in the band that, over the years, are involved with different projects. It’s frustrating. Back when we did ‘Second Nature’ in 2017, we got down to Nottingham and did Japan with MANTIS, then we did Sweden Rock [festival]. Everything was, ‘It’s so good to play together again.’ Then we started on ‘Reality Of Miracles’, but Covid happened. We all work around Steve [Mann, guitar]. He’s the producer and it’s his studio. We’re lucky to have a place where we can record and send all of our parts in. When we’re working on songs, it’s all done from home. It is quite frustrating, especially since Steve‘s away with Schenker and Lee [Small, vocals] and Rocky [Newton, bass] are doing something else, and I’m away in Brazil, which is where I’ve been the last six weeks since November. I only got back last week. It’s hard when every individual is involved in different projects. It’s great when we get songs under our belt and the writing and the excitement get going, then once the ball starts rolling and we’ve got Steve back from Michael Schenker, things start moving very quickly.”
Blabbermouth: Would you consider LIONHEART your priority, considering all the other things you do?
Dennis: “Everyone in the band understands LIONHEART doesn’t bring in any income. Everyone has different projects to generate income. We’re all playing with different bands. I do a lot of conventions in Europe for the IRON MAIDEN stuff I did in the early days. I play with different bands. As I said, since November, I have been in Brazil working with the [MAIDEN tribute band] BLOOD BROTHERS. It’s been fantastic. I was away for six weeks from the U.K., but you still need to have some kind of income. LIONHEART is always our recording, playing-out, professional band, but we still have to rely on other projects to create income.”
Blabbermouth: While you are known for MAIDEN and even PRAYING MANTIS, the AOR stuff you do in LIONHEART may be a surprise to some.
Dennis: “I’ve always been into AOR and melodic rock. My favorite bands are TOTO, FOREIGNER and JOURNEY. They always have been and always will be. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up with DEEP PURPLE, BLACK SABBATH and LED ZEPPELIN, but it’s always been harmony guitars and vocals for me, which is my love. Before MAIDEN, REMUS DOWN BOULEVARD was a pub band, although we toured the States in the ’70s. We always had two-and-a-half vocals with the bass player chiming in. It was only during the MAIDEN days we were limited to the harmony guitars. Still, it was only limited to the harmony vocals because Steve [Harris, bass] didn’t want to take away from the rawness of MAIDEN, which I understand. Going through the bands with LIONHEART in 1980, then 15 years with PRAYING MANTIS, it’s always been my favorite music to play, which includes harmony guitars and vocals, with lots of melody involved in the songwriting. I’ve never been a straight heavy metal guy.”
Blabbermouth: Do you think that has something to do with your skills as a singer? Why haven’t you taken on lead vocals in a band?
Dennis: “Unfortunately, on the vocal side, my range only goes up to B flat. Maybe I could get to a B, but I’m not a lead vocalist. Backing vocals and choruses, I do great. I do a lot of vocals when I’m working with our ‘bread and butter’ gigs around London, Essex, Cambridge, Norfolk and Sussex where I do cover songs and a lot of vocals. But the range, I don’t have the vital quality of a lead vocalist. We tried with LIONHEART in the early days, but I couldn’t get the quality that a real lead vocalist could. I tried it with MANTIS with me and Chris Troy [bass], but we couldn’t get it there. With a cover band and certain MAIDEN stuff, I will sing, but you can tell the difference that I need a lead vocalist. I need a bit more range and quality in my voice.”
Blabbermouth: Maybe that’s your claim to fame: You’re a tremendous backing vocalist.
Dennis: “Funny enough, with MAIDEN UNITED, the acoustic classical band in Europe and sometimes over here, I always have a great vocalist. We have Damian Wilson from THRESHOLD. He’s a great singer. Doogie White [ex-RAINBOW, YNGWIE MALMSTEEN’s RISING FORCE] as well. We did that in October last year with Doogie. We have Frank [Beck] from GAMMA RAY. We have different vocalists that came in because I have to have that high range to do the arrangements with IRON MAIDEN songs. Sometimes, you might get Sharon [den Adel] from WITHIN TEMPTATION to sing a few songs and you got Ruud Jolie and me on guitar. I can add my backing vocals. Sometimes, I take a couple of lead vocals in MAIDEN UNITED, but they’re always sung differently from the original arrangement. I don’t mind doing it every now and then, but I haven’t got that quality as a lead vocalist.”
Blabbermouth: How much has your work in LIONHEART gone to showing a different side of your guitar-playing abilities?
Dennis: “As you get older, I thought it was important to up your game. With my age and the number of accidents I’ve had with my wrists, fingers and hands, you get slowed down by certain injuries and arthritis and things like that. I do try with LIONHEART. One of my hardest jobs is putting a song or a bunch of songs together, and then Steve will lay it out in the studio. He will say, ‘I’m going to send three backing tracks for you to start doing some solos while I concentrate on some of the harmony details.’ We share the load. I sometimes sit indoors and really try to work something magical. The fingers sometimes let me do it and sometimes they don’t. In the end, I’m driving myself mad. At the end of the afternoon, I’m looking at my fingers and they’re red and raw, and the skin is falling off. I’m really trying to conjure up something really different with my playing. I listen to a lot of guitarists, especially Steve Lukather [TOTO] and guys like that. They play so many different styles. As I’m getting older, I’m finding it harder to keep up. I’m not getting any faster. I try to play a bit more melodic now. If you listen to Neal Schon in JOURNEY, now and again, he’ll blast away on the notes. But a lot of them are very melodic and high-end; the guitar is just doing the same thing as the keyboards or vocals. It’s not all speed. Like him, I’m trying to work on the solo to complement the songs. It’s not a crazy and mad solo that will sound disjointed.”
Blabbermouth: You mentioned your work with MAIDEN UNITED. Are you happy with your place in MAIDEN‘s history, even though you’ve been out of the band since 1980?
Dennis: “I don’t think I’m ever satisfied. I would love to see LIONHEART played on some radio stations and get recognized more for what we are. Thanks to the people who are doing interviews like this, we’re limited to a small number of radio stations and probably small promotion — not keeping up with the big boys. I think MAIDEN did me a massive, massive favor from working with them. I wish it had gone on a little longer. In the first year of MAIDEN, from 1979 to 1980, we got to know one another well since it was a new project, whereas in the other bands, we knew one another. It’s one of those things where I still speak to the guys. I still see Steve, especially when he’s with BRITISH LION. It’s easy to see him then. What I am saying is that it’s helped me as a steppingstone to get known more. More with LIONHEART, before in 1980, it was me known as the ‘ex-guitarist of IRON MAIDEN.’ Now, I have come along so many years; it’s now ‘Steve Mann of Michael Schenker‘ and the rest of the guys. You get better known. It’s one of those things that I always wish we could play on a bigger stage. The way life’s gone over the last 50 years, I’m happy. I’m still pretty healthy. I’m coming up to 72 years of age. I’m still pretty agile. I don’t have a walking cane, but I’m still traveling. I’m lucky enough to be traveling around certain parts of the world that I probably wouldn’t have seen unless I’d booked a holiday. It’s given me some opportunities, and as any band member would tell you or anyone I know in the industry, you always want that little bit more for your band. Hopefully, after ‘The Grace Of A Dragonfly’, it’ll be such a great album, and as the band progresses, the production and songwriting get better. Same with the arrangements. I just want people around the world to listen to LIONHEART. I want to get more exposure for the band, but it’s hard when you have a small promotion company doing it.”
Blabbermouth: Are you in touch with Paul Di’Anno at all these days?
Dennis: “No. Well, I’ll be honest with you: [Di’Anno manager] Stjepan Juras has been contacting me for the last two years regarding playing some gigs with Paul in Brazil. He called me many times, texted me and said, ‘Would you ever play with Paul?’ I said, ‘I never say never, but you called me in the middle of 2023. I’ve already booked a tour of Brazil with different promoters than you used. I’m not saying never, but at the moment, it’s the wrong time.’ I left it there. Then I spoke to him at a BRITISH LION gig, then I spoke to him again at the Racetrack and I said, ‘Look, I’m trying to be totally straight and honest with you. I’m never going to say I’m never playing with Paul, but at the moment, it’s the wrong time. He needs a lot of time in his recovery from his operation. I don’t suppose he enjoys singing in a wheelchair every night.’ My thing is that it’s too much for Paul at the moment. They’re rushing him into doing things. He’s got 50 shows this year. If that goes ahead, I wish him luck. It’s grueling.”
Blabbermouth: That makes me wonder whether retirement has crossed your mind, Dennis.
Dennis: “I can’t at this moment. I tried during COVID-19, and we ended up nearly starving. So that’s on hold for the moment, but I don’t want to.”