The Stranglers

March 22, 2010

The Stranglers

‘I’m moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me, And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground’ spits Baz Warne singing Hugh Cornwell’s claustrophobic and quite brilliant lyrics to the 33 year old Strangler classic, ‘Hanging Around’.

The atmosphere is electric, the band are in their third encore and the place is going old school mental. The Stranglers are back in Manchester for the spring 2010 sold out tour- a celebration of this band that is more of a strange cult than a mere group. there is talk of this being the band’s last tour- afterall Jet Black is now 71- but he’s pounding the drums harder than the new bands and the Stranglers don’t stop- they may talk about it but the band is as they sang on their last album, ‘Relentless’.

I travel a lot and everywhere I go I get the Stranglers conversation.

That hushed intense talk of esoteric lyric matter, suicidal career decisions, karate chopping bass ruffs and awesome songs that for several years made the band the best selling band to come out of the punk scene in the UK.

For me, like many a bit too smart, intense misfits The Stranglers have been an important part of our lives and their covert, strange, weird and wonderful world has become a fascinating enclave in rock music.

They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars ever.  Easily the sleaziest, most off the wall band in the whole punk rock canyon. If you were taking magic mushrooms and getting off on punk rock and living in Blackpool like I was then, they were as near as damn perfect. The music was a brutal slab of angry, snarling punk rock psychedelia served up as three minute slices of pure pop magic- every song constructed from great riffs with unexpected melodic flourishes and an intro and outro that was another great riff. Most bands manage one good riff in a song if they are lucky! the Stranglers outros had riffs in them that most bands would kill for!

Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.

They talked and sang about aliens, karate, motorbikes, Yukio Mishima, Leon Trotsky, heroin, Nostradamus, rats, ravens and alienation.

This was no average band.

History has remembered The Clash and pushed the rest of the punk bands away; retro features now re-write the history of the punk era around the Westway wonders. But as much as anyone who grew up with punk loves The Clash, it is a crime to see The Stranglers pushed aside. Their influence has been enormous and overlooked.

Maybe The Stranglers didn’t help themselves. They always antagonised the press and flew in the face of the curse of fashion. they were called sexist and they played up to the accusation winding up the press when in fact they were no more or less sexist than most of the bands from the punk era.

Their utter originality and influence has been largely  ignored by the media but acknowledged by a rabidly loyal fanbase and a generation of musicians who were in thrall to this creative unit who had wilfully defied fashion to carve out their own distinctive niche with a moody, belligerent bass and keyboard driven pop that was a great mixture of melodic, snarling rock n roll and sometime beautifully baroque.

There has never been a band quite like The Stranglers.

Denied credit by the media and rock snobs they relished in their outsider status and quirky line up of a black belt karate kicking bass god, a 40 year old ex ice cream selling drummer and a moustache bearing psychedelic, warlord keyboard player working with the suitably eccentric, laconic, lanky Cornwell- whose rich vocals are still one of the best signature voices in British rock n roll and were, with the Sex Pistols, the most commercially viable of all the initial punk new wave bands.

In the late seventies they sound tracked the times better than everyone else. I loved the Clash and the Pistols like anyone else did at the time but the band’s bass driven punk Floyd weirdness, aggression and sheer melodic nous hit a raw nerve like no other band.

Their inventiveness, originality and their surly attitude was perfect for my magic mushroom stained punk upbringing. The way the band were obviously not fashionable and existed with their own set of rules was perfect as well. The way that you could get into arguments with punk purist snobs just by owning their records made them even better!

The Stranglers were ahead of everybody musically.    Their whole composite sound was perfect- four lead instruments with Jet Black’s neo jazz pounding drums, Hugh Cornwell’s idiosyncratic guitar work that hinted at Beefheart before switching to scratching, scarping Telecaster scouring and Dave Greenfield’s amazing bubbling keyboards that were such a signature sound. Meanwhile JJ Burnell invented that bass sound- dredging the bass up to lead instrument with tough sounding, gnarled bass epics that a generation learned to play bass from. You can hear echoes of his bass sound in any band that cranks the bass up- from the Fall to a whole host of hardcore, indie or rock bands who reworked the bass into its rightful lead place.  Saying that no-one has ever got the bass as good as the sixth dan four string master though! And his hunched on stage shapes with the bass- where he becomes one with the instrument-  has been copped by so many other musicians- step up Peter Hook (a Stranglers acolyte incidentally).

The band released a series of massive hit singles and tough sounding leering albums in the late seventies that were stuffed full of songs that could also have been singles. Their melodic suss has been unrecognised by many taking the likes of Pete Waterman to call them the most melodic British band apart from the Beatles!

Their attitude was hilarious- grumpy old men who could stand their ground, they were charismatic, deadly and took on everybody and won.

And they looked cool as fuck dressed in black, like rock n roll ninja assassins come to cause trouble in the prissy corridors of pop.

They made the angriest punk albums with their debut, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, detailing the sewer life of their underground, steaming London of the late seventies and its follow up, ‘No More Heroes’, perfectly capturing the juvenile outrage of punk. In 1978 they swerved into a sort of avante garde and invented post punk a full year before Joy Division on their stark and bass heavy ‘Black and White’ (which features the best bass sound ever!). They then came on all weird-punk-prog-pop with ‘The Raven’ before going really bizarre on their aliens come to earth piece of weirdness ‘Meninblack’ before swerving back to crystalline Strangler tough pop on ‘La Folie’.

They then grew up and got more polished or maybe I grew up and got less polished! I’m not sure- the later albums still had flashes of genius but didn’t quite take over our weird world like their earlier works. In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left and they became a great live band, one of the best before finally getting Baz Warne joining in the 21st century to pull of really unlikely comeback with ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Suite XVI’

Which brings us neatly to tonight’s sold out, packed show at Academy 1 in Manchester. Routinely ignored by the mass media which is still in thrall to the far smaller and less influential (although still great) bands like The Fall- the Stranglers take comfort from their fiercely partisan fan base that supports the band like some strange black clad religion.

The atmosphere is intense and the gig is joyous. At 71 Jet Black is still the powerhouse drummer and the set list is peppered with the weird, wonderful and plain genius anthems from their long career.

The line up has now settled with JJ singing again and his tough gnarled voice is a welcome piece of genuine aggression on ‘Go Buddy Go’ another song they have not visited for a long time. His co- vocalist Baz Warne takes all the Hugh vocals and sings them perfectly.

In 2010 you don’t think of Baz as a replacement. You think of him as a Strangler.

The fact that they can play complex long pieces like the bizarre ‘Genetix’ with Dave Greenfield’s great weird vocal and the utter genius, classic ‘Down In The Sewer’ again after 15 years is thrilling.

‘Down In the Sewer’ for me is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, the Stranglers’ very own anthem and a distillation of everything great about the band. A swooping, dramatic and darkly funny song, it has a twanging Ventures guitar break and a stub toed bass riff to end all stub toed bass ruffs. In the songs seething middle section Baz Warne and JJ resurrect the Stranglers famous rat walk on the stage and you were there back at the heart of Stranglerdom- that sense of outsider outrage and great twisting music, a disdain for everything and amazing songs. The stage is drenched in red and green lights and the seven minute epic burst at its climax- a pure Stranglers moment.

There were new songs in the set like recent single, ‘Retro Rockets’, and a cavalier assault of great songs from a never ending, relentless career that shows no sign of slowing down. Baz Warne rejuvenated the band and the fact that he looks like Strangler and can deliver the vocals with the same kind of menace as the great Hugh Cornwall stand the band in great stead. JJ is as charismatic as ever- doing the karate kicks and picking out those killer bass lines.

The band were easily as good as in their pomp. It’s criminal to ignore them any longer. It’s time to acknowledge the group’s massive influence and to stop pretending they don’t exist because it’s not convenient.

Many bands have their importance overstated –continually.  I’m sick of seeing my youth re-written. I’m bored off the linear narrative of rock n roll that tells us that the Clash made everyone want to be in bands. I grew up in those strange times and I know what people felt- I’ve met them all!  I’veproduced countless records where the band wanted the JJ sound. I’m bored of the lies that get told.

The Stranglers may not have been nice to media people at the time but their music made a massive difference. They were the sound of the real UK of small towns, they captured the frustration of the times with the high IQ smarts of disillusioned graduates with a darkly funny sense of humour that half of them were. They reflected the ugliness back at everyone and they made some great records while they were at it.

The fact that can still triumph in packed, big halls all these years later is living proof of the band’s genius and way that the public will not always be fooled by what they read.


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