Bram Stoker emerged from the bowels of a disused Poole night club after months of intense rehearsals in the summer of 1969. Hammond organist Tony Bronsdon, formerly of the soul covers band Renaissance Fare, guitarist Peter Ballam, ex-Kapota All Stars, The Crescendoes, The Trappers, The Feel and Freedom Village plus drummer Robert Haines, also of The Feel and Freedom Village, collaborated initially with the former Shadows bassist Jet Harris in the short-lived Harris Tweed. The proposed new band never got past the rehearsal stage because of Harris failing to get to grips with a progressive rock arrangement of the old traditional English ballad “Scarborough Fair”. He then blotted his copybook by riding a horse into the bands rehearsal room at the Henry Brown Youth Club in West Howe and ruining the parquet floor. With Harris out of the picture, the band recruited bassist and vocalist Jon Bavin, after a link-up with John Wetton fell through. The band then set about concocting a gothic rock stew which incorporated themes borrowed from classical composers. Pinning a tag to this new musical fusion proved tricky as they scoured books, including the Bible, looking for suitable names. Ezekiel and Obadiah Jones were considered then rejected, before they settled on Bram Stoker from an old copy of Dracula they found lying around. The fit was perfect.
At the outset the band were managed by Vince Silver, who secured several dates around the Bournemouth area including the Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe and the Pavilion Ballroom, where on 29th August 1969 they supported The Who. Impressed, their front man, Roger Daltrey, invited the band to his Jacobean pile, Holmhurst Manor in Berkshire where they recorded six demos, but the tapes remained in the can after he embarked on a lengthy tour of America with The Who to promote their new opus Tommy. Buoyed by the attentions of rock royalty, they joined the thriving club and university circuit supporting Yes and Caravan at the Civic Ballrooms in Dunstable, Genesis at the Royal Holloway College, T. Rex at the Roundhouse, Dagenham, Family at the Marquay Club in Torquay, May Blitz, Juicy Lucy and Blonde on Blonde at London’s Temple Club and on one occasion they shared an incongruous pairing with the veteran bluesman Son House at Mothers in Birmingham. Another favourite venue was the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, where they mingled with Argent, the Groundhogs (apparently their guitarist Tony McPhee told the band he could make a whole album out of one of their songs) and headlined over an odd-looking bunch dressed in glittery tights and daubed in makeup called Queen.
Further opportunities to commit their music to tape came their way when Deep Purple’s producer, Derek Lawrence, booked sessions at London’s De Lane Studios with engineer Martin Birch at the controls, but yet again the tracks were shelved as the band chose not to take up an option with Purple’s management team. Months later they were spotted at Brunel University by Tony Calder, the man who set up Immediate Records with The Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1965. Calder was interested and organised a couple of full day sessions at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London under the watchful eye of producer Tony Chapman. The band hurriedly taped the bulk of their live set in the allotted time. On hearing the playbacks, they were unhappy with the finished results and asked if the album could be remixed, but Calder refused. They walked away fully expecting what they believed to be an inferior representation of their music to be released, but it was caught up in the collapse of Immediate. Apparently Calder sold his share of the company to Loog Oldham and months later the label went onto voluntary liquidation, the album was caught up in the fallout and was quietly forgotten. However, it wasn’t the end of the story.
In 1972 the tapes recorded with Chapman fell into the hands of the unfashionable Windmill label, a budget imprint better known for Easy Listening compilations and were released with no input from the band. Apart from the odd offering from Dickie Henderson and Michel Legrand, Windmill’s main modus operandi centred on their Parade of the Pops series. Originally instigated by labels such as Embassy, who sold their records through the Woolworth’s chain and Pickwick, the practice of re-recording the hits of the day with sound-alike session singers and unleashing them on an undiscerning public in cheesy sleeves sporting dolly birds clad in mini-skirts and hot-pants, was a way of circumventing the need of paying royalties to the original artists. Reg Dwight famously recorded hundreds of songs for these labels until he found fame and fortune as Elton John. The dubious “reinterpretations”, as the labels liked to call them, died with the arrival of K-Tell who went directly to the horse’s mouth and licensed recordings from the original artists. The Now That’s What I Call Music franchise took up the cudgels in 1983 and is still going strong to this day.
Unfortunately for Bram Stoker, the unimaginative dullards in Windmill’s art department came up with a trashy, cheap looking sleeve that fared no better creatively than the girly shots that adorned their hits collections. A negative facial shot of a model bathed in a psychedelic wash would never compete with the dreamscapes of Roger Dean, or the surreal photographic jiggery-pokery of Hipgnosis when sat side by side in the record store bins. Add to that the clunky, pretentious title, Heavy Rock Spectacular and the records credibility was doomed from the outset. Apart from T. Bronsdon’s writing credits, the cover was devoid of any clue to the people involved, leading to speculation over the years that the band didn’t exist at all and that it was the work of a bunch of faceless session musicians. It’s a shame, although it appears to have been hastily cobbled together, the record holds up well when compared to say The Nice or Atomic Rooster and if released when recorded in 1970 on the progressive Vertigo, Harvest or even Immediate imprints and housed in an appropriate sleeve, the album could have been a contender.
The eight tracks are unsurprisingly dominated by Bronsdon’s Hammond and also showcases Ballam’s ‘doppler effect’ guitar, a homemade spinning speaker cab much like a Lesley cabinet used by organists. The standout vocal tracks are “Born to be Free” and “Extensive Corrosion”, but where the album really scores is on the three classically infused instrumentals. “Ants” borrows a refrain from Mozart, “Fast Decay” is based loosely on themes from Beethoven and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and “Fingal’s Cave” is a reworking of the piece of the same name from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture”. On release Heavy Rock Spectacular quickly disappeared into the bargain bins, along with several other poor sellers that are now highly sought after by collectors.
Undeterred, the band kept plugging away on the live circuit, enjoying a keen following in Britain, Belgium and Holland. However, around the time of the album’s release, Pete Ballam lost his voice at a gig in Cardiff and returned home, where he collapsed with exhaustion. Ultimately he left the band and was replaced by another guitarist who was unsuitable, by which time they were also on the look-out for a bass player as Jon Bavin had also flown the coop. Bassist Tony Lowe and guitarist Harvey Coles were recruited along with Sheila D’arcy, Tony Bronsdon’s sister, who swelled the ranks on vocals and dancing, but the departure of drummer Robert Haines months later was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tony Bronsdon, being the only original member remaining, decided he had had enough and pulled the plug leaving Bram Stoker to become yet another minor stitch in prog rock’s rich tapestry.
In 2004, Pete Ballam approached the original members with a plan of capturing a seventies vibe on a second Bram Stoker album using past material, plus a collection of new songs written and performed in the same vein. The initial response was positive, but for a myriad of differing reasons the project never came to fruition. Twelve years later Ballam finally got to fulfil his dream and entered Cube Recording Studios in Cornwall with vocalist Matt Roberts, guitarist Dion Rush and drummer Gareth Young and produced Manic Machine. According to his website, Manic Machine is a demonstration of the maestro’s ability to create imaginative lyrics, a driving unforgettable riff, his own unique flavour of chord sequences, sound effects and syncopated timing”. Pete released one more CD called Relics & Rogues, containing eight songs recorded at Active Studios in 1999 with past members of Bram Stoker and Agnes Strange, before he sadly died in June 2019 at his home in Cornwall after a long illness.
Three years after Ballam’s initial approach, Tony Bronsdon contacted Jon Bavin, who had carved out a career as a recording engineer working with the likes of the Eurythmics, Kiki Dee and Bob Geldof amongst others, with a proposition to reform Bram Stoker with new member’s, guitarist Pat Flynn and drummer Pete Rumble. To mark the occasion, Digimix made “Heavy Rock Spectacular” available as a digital download by giving it a new title, Rock Paranoia and adding two bonus tracks, “Scarborough Fair”, the song which Jet Harris failed to master and an instrumental, “Illusion Collusion”. A further change in line-up occurred in 2009 when Jon Bavin emigrated to Australia and Rumble and Flyn left, leaving the way clear for the recently married Shelia D’arcy and Harvey Coles to re-join on bass and guitar respectively, along with original drummer Rob Haines. They undertook sporadic gigs at the Talking Heads in Southampton and the Spy Glass and Kettle in Southbourne, Bournemouth before splitting up in 2012.
A couple of years later Tony Bronsdon, who was now living in Salisbury, reconnected with bass player and guitarist Tony Lowe and recorded a new album, the critically acclaimed Cold Reading, with vocalist and drummer Will Hack at Lowe’s TLP Studios in Dorset. The band revisited “Fast Decay” and “Fingal’s Cave” from Heavy Rock Spectacular, giving them a modern make-over and composed a further eight new songs, two of which received input from Jon Bavin. Prog Magazine published a positive review commenting, “It’s all rather beautiful in a gothic way, still symphonic but warmer and more assured, suggests they’ve much to offer the prog revival”. As of 2017 the line-up had changed yet again to the ever present Tony on keyboards, guitarist Neil Richardson and the husband and wife pairing of Josephine Marks on bass and Warren Marks, former drummer with Bournemouth bands The Hedgemonkeys and Ratrace. The new line-up released a four track EP, Bête Noire, in 2017 and two years later a full-blown eight track album, No Reflection. Whereas Cold Reading kept vestiges of their 1972 debut in Bronsdon’s dominant Hammond, albeit with much improved production values, their latest offering displays a lighter and less bombastic style with the keyboards providing washes of colour and atmosphere, less The Nice, more seventies Genesis or Renaissance.
Bram Stoker, like a lot of other obscure acts of the same period, have been the target of bootleggers over the years and companies from the UK (Kismet and Audio Archives who renamed the album Schizo-Poltergeist), Italy (Arkarma and Black Widow Records), South Korea (Media Arte) and Germany (Universum) have all tried to cash in. Heavy Rock Spectacular has gained many fans since its humble beginnings, mainly through these unauthorised recordings, so to ensure that the monies owed go to the correct people when buying their music, only purchase through the official website bramstokerband.co.uk.
Bram Stoker Discography
Bram Stoker Albums
Heavy Rock Spectacular: Windmill (WMD 117) 1972
Rock Paranoia: Digimix Records (DGMX 113) 2007 Digital Download of “Heavy Rock Spectacular” with two bonus tracks, “Scarborough Fair” and “Illusion Collusion”
Cold Reading: Sunn Creative (SUNNC1301) 2013 Ten new songs
Heavy Rock Spectacular: Talking Elephant (TECD302) 2015 with four bonus tracks “Scarborough Fair”, “Illusion Collusion”, “Queen of Sheba” (Live) and “Faith Healer” (Live)
No Reflection: SKU (BRAMCD 18001) 2019 Eight new songs
Bram Stoker EP
Bête Noire: Thoroughbred Music 2017 Four new songs
Pete Ballam Albums
Manic Machine: Private Pressing 2017 Ten new songs
Relics & Rogues: Private Pressing 2017 Recorded at Active Studios in 1999 with past members of Bram Stoker and Agnes Strange