The latest chapter in a musical journey that includes some of the biggest names in British rock has proved to be a fittingly creative epitaph for the now sadly late, great Pete Ballam of prog pioneers Bram Stoker.
With a resume reading like a madcap caper through one of rock’s richest eras, the guitarist’s colourful career included pulling a band together with former Shadows bassist Jet Harris; playing bass for Tony Blackburn’s group, performing with bandmate and folk-rock star Al Stewart, jamming with future Police guitarist Andy Summers and sharing the stage with the likes of Marc Bolan, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Queen.
His latest release, Manic Machine, traced its lineage directly back to a heady era when Pete was creating music for Bram Stoker’s 1972 debut and was a sequel of sorts to Heavy Rock Spectacular, now a cult classic for rock fans delving into prog beyond its biggest names.
Pete and Bram Stoker might so easily have been one of them – with support from The Who’s Roger Daltrey and backing from Rolling Stones manager Tony Calder, the group looked perfectly placed to hit the big time with their mix of psychedelic, gothic-tinged rock – but it was not fated to be. Yet anecdotes from that short but intense era come thick and fast from Pete – from his coat being bitten by a horse ridden by Jet during rehearsals, after which he was also electrocuted, to his invention of the ‘Doppler’, a spinning box containing speakers, which gave his guitar a 3D sound – or at least did until it took off one day, earning its new name, The Flying Machine.
Pete recalled of that chaotic time: “None of us knew we were laying down the foundations of such a huge industry. As young men we were not taken seriously but after playing eight hours a night in Germany we were sick to death of the moronic stars pumping crap – we wanted bad, black rock ‘n’ roll.”
Spontaneous and unpredictable on stage with Bram Stoker, Peter remained reliably and remarkably creative after leaving the group. Despite failing health in his final decade, he created a steampunk stage persona called Doctor Mock, where the costume and character became ever more elaborate; he designed and made the fabulous steampunk blunderbuss, an effects-pedal stomp-box and the weird and wonderful steam-bench – and he continued to play his vintage Steinberger bass guitar, which was mounted on a pole so that he could play it like a double bass.
And, of course, he finally released Manic Machine – an extraordinary collection of compositions, inspired by flights of fancy, strange tales and real-life antics. Combining Peter’s imaginative lyrics and driving riffs and drenched in Hammond sounds, it channelled his 1970s prog mojo. Having kept fans waiting 45 years for a worthy sequel for fans of Heavy Rock Spectacular, he had no intention of this being the closing chapter from the Bram Stoker Archives – alas, the vault has closed.
After many years battling heart failure, Peter died peacefully in hospital at 3pm on June 14th 2019 aged 76yrs, with his partner, Joy Brittain, at his side. She said: “With his love of all things goth and steampunk, a couple of people have asked me, ‘Has he haunted you yet?’ I maintain that Peter is most welcome to ‘visit’ me anytime. I’m sure we’d have a good chat, with affection and humour. Alas, no such hauntings have materialised, since he passed away a year ago, so, it seems, thankfully, that my dearest Darkling is resting peacefully.”