Friday 22 March 2019

Whatever Happened To The Stranglers?

When it comes to Punk Rock, there is the usually accepted Big 3 - Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned.
But there is a fourth way (fifth of you include Buzzcocks).

The Stranglers formed in 1974, The Guildford Stranglers were effectively a Pub-Rock styles band who soon became associated with the Punk scene.
More musically adept perhaps than their peers - Blues, Jazz, Classical, unusual time signatures - all combined with straight rock & roll into one a proper solid band.
JJ Burnel's rumbling bass (a sound not unlike a nuclear explosion at times) and Dave Greenfield's Doors-esque quasi-orchestral keyboards at front and centre, Jet Black's solid thumping drums, and Hugh Cornwells's growling lyrics over the tops.  There is an undercurrent of snarly aggression at times, but writers of fantastically accessible songs (and a few that would blow your ears off).
And their music developed over the albums from the straight snarling punky stuff (with melodies to spare), through Post-Punk stylings, a bit of Krautrock and a sort of pan-European hard-pop sound, and then back to the Garage.

So after 40+ years, what is their prime contribution to popular culture (as recognised by "the man in the street")
  • Their 1977 single "Peaches" - a overtly lecherous song song about staring at women on the beach, and possibly the only song played on Radio 2 containing the word "clitoris"
  • Their 1982 single "Golden Brown" - not a comeback as such, but their first single to get into the top 20 for 3 years.  Peaking at number 2, it is possibly the only song played on Radio 2 about the joys of Heroin
  • 3 of their tracks ("Waltzinblack", "Peaches" and "Viva Vlad!" have been used as the title music for Keith Floyd's foodie TV Programmes
The Stranglers career can (simplistically) be split into 2 phases:
With Hugh Cornwell and Without Hugh Conrnwell
Phase 1 retained the same line-up over 10 albums (plus 2 official Live albums)
Phase 2 has seen Hugh replaced by a separate vocalist (Paul Roberts) and guitarist (John Ellis (ex-Vibrators)), before returning to a 4 piece with Baz Warne (ex-Toy Dolls) occupying the vacant Hugh slot.

They released 2 albums in Punk's high-year of 1977 - 'Rattus Norvegicus' and 'No More Heroes' both deserve a place in any self-respecting music collection.
These two albums of solid tunes can be sometimes confrontational, sometimes un-PC (before Political Correctness was a thing) or just plain rude and sexist (to the unitiated, or those that missed the obvious humour (albeit very dark) or satire in their lyrics).  However they were taken, they sold enough to assure The Stranglers a place at the top table.
Within 6 months 'Black and White' arrived and expanded the standard 4/4 and pushed into new territory (for a mere Punk band).  This album may not have invented Post-Punk, but certainly has a hand in it.
The Stranglers audience accepted the stretch, and were rewarded further as the band broadened their horizons, song subjects and time signatures on 'The Raven' (featuring Vikings, Australian politics and Genetic Engineering) and then went full-blown conceptual with 'The Gospel According to the Meninblack'.
'La Folie' is another change - the sound becoming lighter, the production lusher, but the songs do suffer and this is remarkably inconsistent compared to previous outings.
It was to be their last album for Liberty/United Artists - they had already signed to Epic, and this was their "contractual obligation".
But not before "Golden Brown" was lifted as a single.  A weird one as it is both unrepresentative of The Stranglers, yet representative of their desire to be different from their peers.
In a final act of puk-y "two fingers to you", their last single Liberty Records was "Strange Little Girl" - an original 1974 demo rejected by EMI, finally released 9 years later ... on an EMI owned subsidiary label.

They arrived at their new label with the same adventure as before, but you just get the feeling time and their past was catching up on them.  The albums produced for Epic just don't feel as essential as their earlier outings.
'Feline', 'Aural Sculpture' and 'Dreamtime' are not without their high points, they are just not as consistent.  They do feel like a sanitised version of The Stranglers.  Maybe it was record company intervention, maybe they were chasing glories of "Golden Brown" again - there is just "something" missing in the cleanliness.
And a couple of years later that brief return to commercial heights did happen with a cover of The Kinks "All Day And All Of The Night"securing their first Top 10 appearance since 1983s "European Female". A Live album ('All Live And All Of The Night' (including the studio version of "All Day And All Of The Night")) came next, and placed The Stranglers as Punk Royalty - theor appearance on Channel 4's Saturday Live (performing "No More Heroes") was introduced by Ben Elton saying "10 years ago if you wanted to be a Punk, all you had to do was not hand in your homework and listen to this track".  Other TV appearances followed, including appearances on the Terry Wogan show and numerous mentions on any programme celebrating 10 years of Punk.
The Stranglers seemed to accept their elder statesman position, and returned to the Garge with an incendiary cover of "96 Tears"continued to push forward and 'Dreamtime' was a particularly strong (if inconsistent) album.  The parent album '10' moved slowly - it was good but inconsistent, and at times sounding like the band had lost interest (probably not helped by the fact Hugh Cornwell was leaving once recording was finished).
Eager to get a return on their investment, Epic put out a Greatest Hits compilation which did better than expected business - it seemed there was a market for The Stranglers, but unfortunately the band was (seemingly) no more - no singer, no guitarist, no record label.

Black, Greenfield and JJ Burnel reconvened and brought in live guitarist John Ellis as a full member.  Paul Roberts was brought in soon after when it became clear that neither Ellis or Burnel were comfortable being full time lead singer.
Since Cornwell's departure they have manged 7 albums - the pick of the bunch being the Baz Warne fronted 'Suite XVI'

They remain an awesome live attraction, have a back catalogue that many bands would envy, a past that many rock stars would envy, and are still releasing albums that contain worthy music.
Jet Black recently turned 80 (he no longer tours), Dave Greenfield will soon turn 70 and despite being super-fit Jean Jaques Burnel is now past pensionable age.
Baz Warne has been with the band for nigh on 20 years, and if the others do decide to stand down, I'm thinking Baz may find new cohorts and keep The Stranglers franchise rolling for a few more years yet.

(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)


Always The Sun