In 1968 two friends from school, nineteen-year-old guitarist Peter Grenville ‘Gren’ Fraser from Parkstone and seventeen-year-old bassist James Haines from Westbourne, tired of the pop direction their flower power group Free Love was taking and put together a tough r&b band called The Parkers. By chance they were invited to headline a free festival a short hop across the channel in La Harve, France, for no other reason than they were from England. On their return to Bournemouth, Gren and James had aspirations of turning professional and placed an advertisement in Don Strike’s shop window looking for a like-minded drummer and a vocalist. The first successful applicant was ex-Push drummer Bernie James from Redhill, who harboured musical ambitions of his own. He suggested Pete Thorpe, a tall, gangly vocalist in his mid-twenties from Pokesdown, who had gained plenty of experience while fronting The Harvey Wells Soul Band. The band were regulars at the Beat Room upstairs at the Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe, where they entertained the young, fashionable punters with Motown and Stax classics, while the Bill Collins Band dispensed foxtrots and waltzes downstairs in the large ballroom for the less with it patrons. The band were also the go to support act at the Pavilion Ballroom where they warmed up audiences for the likes of Status Quo, the Small Faces, Spooky Tooth and The Nice. By 1968 soul had become passé and any band wanting to extend their shelf life either pulled on a pair of flared trousers, donned a paisley shirt, grew their hair and plugged in a fuzz box, or fell by the wayside, which was the fate that befell Pete’s band.
In their rehearsal room the foursome knuckled down to knocking a setlist into shape, but it soon became apparent that they needed a lead guitarist to augment their sound and Bill Napier, an older musician in his early thirties with a young family, briefly plugged the gap. However, his unwillingness to commit paved the way for Neil Tatum to leave his home in New Mills near Stockport and head south after answering an advertisement in the Melody Maker. The new quintet set to work creating riffs and jamming endlessly, gradually forming a foundation on which Pete could add lyrics and construct fully formed songs. Over time, the hard graft paid off and their repertoire of covers gave way to a new and original body of heavy, muscular rock songs. When discussing a name, all five members agreed that The Hulk epitomized the power and aggression of their music perfectly, the Elias was added later as they feared a lawsuit from Marvel Comics, home of the fictional superhero the Incredible Hulk.
After a debut gig at the Sunday Beat Club held at the Pavilion Ballroom on 12th October 1969 supporting Black Velvet and a short period breaking in their new material around the south coast at venues such as the Steering Wheel Club’s in Dorchester and Weymouth, where they supported Hawkwind and High Tide and appearances at the Weymouth Pavilion with Mighty Baby and Eire Apparent, the band were ready to spread their wings and signed on with the Laidham Entertainments Agency in Romford. Before long they were venturing further afield, taking in the industrial hubs of Birmingham and Coventry, where they supported the anarchic underground wastrels The Pink Fairies, north to Stockport, south to Canterbury, the home of Caravan who they supported at the university and west to Weston-Super-Mare, rural Wales and the Granary in Bristol, where they played second fiddle to Warm Dust (an obscure progressive rock band that featured Paul Carrack and Terry Comer who went on to form Ace of “How Long” fame). The Hulk also hit the hot spots of London supporting Graham Bond at the Klooks Kleek in West Hampstead, The Temple in Wardour Street and Eel Pie Island, a rundown hotel on an island in the river Thames near Twickenham where they played with Wishbone Ash and Audience. Life on the road was tough and like many bands trying to eke out a living, they existed on next to no money relying on the charity of fans, or overly friendly female members of the audience, for a bed for the night and hopefully a bite to eat in the morning before they headed home or set off for the next gig.
Neil Tatum’s close connections to the Manchester area provided the Hulk with a way on to the bill of two prestigious all-nighters at the Buxton Pavilion Gardens in 1970. Billed as ‘Sound 70’ and hosted by the DJ Pete Drummond, the first in August boasted a line-up of Manfred Mann’s Chapter Three, the Keef Hartley Big Band, Mungo Jerry, the Climax Chicago Blues Band plus Tea and Symphony, while the second in November included headliner’s Ginger Baker’s Airforce, the incongruous Marmalade, Black Widow, Noel Redding’s Fat Mattress, Paladin and Strange Fox. Tickets twenty five bob in advance, or thirty shillings on the night, fee for the Hulk, twenty quid.
Tatum’s contacts also opened the door for their first recording experience. Former Mindbender and future 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart invited the band to his Strawberry Studios complex in Stockport to lay down a couple of tracks for a demo disc, which they hawked around London hoping to gain a recording contract. Initially Wishbone Ash’s manager and future supremo of The Police, Miles Copeland, showed an interest but eventually passed. They then struck lucky with Miki Dallon, a minor sixties pop singer and founder of the fledgling Young Blood label. He was on the lookout for new talent and signed them up to join Dando Shaft, Julian’s Treatment, Mac and Katie Kissoon and Python Lee Jackson on his ever expanding roster of artists.
Dallon ushered the band into the studio and acted as producer, overseeing the Hulk as they laid down the eight song live set they had finely honed on the road over the past months. The recording took place over two days, one for the backing tracks and any overdubs, plus one for the vocals, although it was touch and go on the second day whether Pete would make the session because his van broke down on the M1. He eventually dashed into the studio late after hitching a ride. Unchained appeared in November 1970 to a smattering of favourable reviews and a complete lack of promotion or advertising. The amateurishly drawn sleeve by Peter Lee depicting a large rampaging figure grappling with two naked women tied up with rope, did little to draw in the casual listener or help bolster sales. Although in Germany the album sold over five thousand units, possibly because of a change of sleeve featuring photographs of the band doused in a blue hue. The band never found out how many copies the album sold worldwide, as the paltry royalties dried up after two years. However, Bernie remembers receiving a cheque for the princely sum of £29 which he wishes he had kept and framed, but at the time he was a starving musician and had to eat.
Unchained is fairly typical of the period, more blues inflected hard rock than heavy metal with plenty of pounding drums, a fuzzy strident bass placed high in the mix, wailing guitars and tough, gravelly vocals. The album gets off to an upbeat start with “We Can Fly” but soon gets bogged down in a tedious bass and drum solo, a rookie mistake when trying to make a good first impression. Things pick up considerably with “Nightmare”, a hard driving number that bears more than a passing resemblance to early Black Sabbath. “Been so Long” slows the pace but benefits from a jazzy interlude mid song, while “Yesterday’s Trip” also receives a mid-section makeover with a boogie inspired romp and a Tatum guitar solo over the fade. The excellent loping groove of “Anthology of Dreams” is a highlight followed by “Free”, a slide guitar showcase for Gren and a leisurely vehicle for Pete’s vocals. The other high point on the album features Gren again on the raga influenced instrumental “Delhi Blues”, which leads into the final song, the wah-wah infused “Ain’t Got You”. Unchained has been likened to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in some quarters, but that is stretching it a bit as it is too rough and ready around the edges for the comparisons. A closer lineage would be the little known Leaf Hound or Dark, two outfits of a similar vintage that are now, like Elias Hulk, highly collectable. Unchained should have been the first rung on the ladder to an ongoing career but it turned out to be both their debut and swansong, as they struggled to write new material for a possible follow up. Without financial backing or a successful album to promote, the gigs dried up and in late 1970 a disillusioned James and Bernie pulled the plug.
Peter and Grenville relocated to Huddersfield to write a set of progressive songs for a doomed blues band that disintegrated when their bass player left to join Babe Ruth. They then had a short spell as a folk duo before returning south, where Gren joined Rudy and the Zipps then Jenny Haan’s Lion, a rock band assembled from the ashes of Babe Ruth. Later in life he performed with the Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra and enjoyed a short flirtation with the reformed Hulk, before retiring to Cornwall. Pete ended up in the Bristol based music commune Magic Muscle, who became the Fabulous Ratbites from Hell. After a tour of Holland he became disillusioned with the lack of money and kipping on people’s floors and quit music. In the late eighties Pete made a comeback with Raising the Dead and then moved to Spain where he fronted a covers band on the Costa Del Sol, he now lives in Lanzarote. Neil Tatum moved back to the East Midlands where he formed the self-titled outfit Tatum, before moving onto Cumbria where he played local pubs as part of a duo with Michael Byard. For the last thirty years he has gigged around the Kendall area in a succession of bands including Big Amongst Sheep, The Cuckoos and the Front Room Blues Band.
As for James and Bernie, they formed the hard rocking Elias with Phil Clough, a singer / guitarist from Northampton. The band persevered for a year but when a hoped for recording contract and financial support failed to materialise they parted company. Two songs, “Milkman” and “Heading Back Home”, recorded on a self-financed return to Strawberry Studios are now believed lost. Bernie remained in Bournemouth and joined The Cliff Beckett Band. Fronted by the irrepressible Cliff, an average singer at best, he gained a reputation as a dynamic showman while fronting The Bossmen and Archimedes Principle during the sixties. Cliff liked to roam around the audience singling out embarrassed girls to sing to, or strip down to his underpants and clamber over furniture and PA columns while still holding down a tune, in fact anything to grab a crowds attention, in rock terms an ideal front man. Bernie eventually left the mayhem of the Beckett Band behind for the relative safety of The Eyes, a Portsmouth outfit that plied their trade mainly throughout Germany and Scandinavia.
After giving up music for several years Bernie returned with Flyer which took him back to Germany and then opened a music shop, Cash Guitars, in Cranleigh Road, Southbourne while holding down the drum position in the club bands Lucky and Echoes. Finally he sold up and moved to Spain where he played with the trio E’s Culpa Meua on the Costa Del Sol in between trips back to Blighty. Jim Haines left music behind to follow a career in a Commercial Property business until he joined the seven piece function band Cheques in the Post in 1990, followed by a stint in the London based Magpie. Phil Clough returned to the midlands and joined Flying Machine, a later incarnation of Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours who had a chart hit with “Mirror Mirror” back in 1965. In 1994 he went to Leeds University to train as a teacher in music, gaining a BA (HONS) and a Music Masters (MA).
In 2007 Bernie set the wheels in motion to reform Elias Hulk by contacting James Haines, Gren Fraser and Phil Clough. The quartet met up at Dorset’s Listen Inn Studios for a couple of days of recording and produced three songs for the 2008 EP, Unfinished Business. Three years later they reconvened, minus Gren, at Atomic Studios in London to record a mooted album, but only six songs came out of the sessions and were made available for download from their website as the 2012 package Elias Hulk Extended Play. Since then their website has been taken down and it is impossible to find the tracks online.
An unexpected foot note occurred in 2007 with the release of a track called “I Don’t Know You” by the American rapper King Magnetic. On closer inspection the catchy slide riff from the Elias Hulk track “Free” has been sampled and used to underpin the song from beginning to end. Of course, as is par for the course, the band received zero remuneration, although it can be assumed Miki Dallon probably received a chunk of cash. According to comments on YouTube the track is “dope” and “unbelievably sick”, so make of that what you will.
Although Elias Hulk never achieved any kind of success in their limited time together, their album has gained cult status amongst collectors and commands large sums of money. Original copies are highly sought after and can change hands from £500 up to £1,000. However, the highest price paid so far is a staggering £1,650 in 2019, more than the whole band received in royalties. How ironic is that! A legitimate CD version is available on Repertoire Records with sleeve notes by Dave Wells and with input from band members James Haines and Peter Thorpe.
Special thanks go to Bernie James for emails and photographs.
Elias Hulk Discography
Albums Elias Hulk
Unchained: Young Blood (SSYB 8) 1970
Unchained: Young Blood (SBYB 8) 1970 German issue different sleeve
Unchained: See for Miles (SEE LP 286) 1990 Vinyl
Unchained: See for Miles (SEE CD 286) 1990 CD
Unchained: Beat Goes On (BGOCD 772) 2009 CD
Unchained: Sommor (SOMM006) 2011 Vinyl
Unchained: Repertoire Records (REPUK 1213) 2014 CD
Unfinished Business: Old Blood Records (IMPELIASCD) 2008 CD Three new songs
Elias Hulk Extended Play: 2012 Six new songs, download only