The Stranglers



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One of the main provocateurs and motivators behind the London-centric birth of punk and the new wave (alongside The SEX PISTOLS, The CLASH, The DAMNED and SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES), The STRANGLERS were the meat ’n’ two veg of the movement; dirty, ugly and nasty – all the proper marketing tools of a great punk combo. Although musical progress and major personnel changes have taken their toll in recent times, The STRANGLERS still have an enormous and dedicated fanbase willing to debate whether No.2 hit `Golden Brown’ (a ballad about heroin and their second most controversial) can be gauged next to the BBC-banned `Peaches’ (about a certain part of the female anatomy). Anyway, when other punks were posted missing from the scene, The STRANGLERS were only too willing to court controversy while stirring up the media beyond boiling point.

Formed autumn ’74 as The Guildford Stranglers in Chiddingfold, Surrey, Messrs Hugh Cornwell (a former science teacher who’d sung alongside RICHARD THOMPSON in school act Emil & The Detectives), history graduate Jean-Jacques Burnel (bass) and seasoned jazz drummer Jet Black. Augmented by keyboard-player Dave Greenfield by spring ‘75, the quartet ventured into the capital for gigs central to the burgeoning pub-rock circuit, developing their boorish, black-clad brand of DOORS/ELECTRIC PRUNES/DR.FEELGOOD retro-rock with scant encouragement from the press. Late in ‘76, after supporting the likes of The FLAMIN’ GROOVIES, RAMONES and PATTI SMITH, the group were signed to United Artists and were immediately lumped in with the fermenting punk/new wave scene.
Released early the following year, `(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’ found the band at their sneering, leering best, Greenfield’s churning organ characterising a sound with which they’d stick fairly closely over the early part of their career. The single stalled a few places outside the UK Top 40 – reportedly due to a chart mistake! – although its feminist-baiting follow-up, `Peaches’ cracked the Top 10 and immediately brought the band into conflict with the more liberal contingent of the music press. A rarity in itself. Pitched as a double-header with flip `Go Buddy Go’, the A-side was also banned by the BBC; a slightly modified and radio-friendly version superseding the offending “clitoris” word with “bikini”. The surrounding hoo-ha was the first of many throughout the band’s career, but one which certainly didn’t harm sales of their accompanying debut “mini-concept” set, STRANGLERS IV (RATTUS NORVEGICUS) (1977) {*9}.

A Top 5 success comprising both hits and enduring favourites such as `Hanging Around’, `London Lady’ (the B-side of “Grip”), `Ugly’ and `Goodbye Toulouse’, the record met with enthusiastic reviews as the group enjoyed their briefest of honeymoon periods with the press. On reflection, the DOORS-entwined opener `Sometimes’ and the epic `Down In The Sewer’ medley, were like missing links from some long-gone, psych-prog LP.

One of the group’s first cover versions to be released was the thinly disguised and pseudonymous backing of Celia & The Mutations (aka Celia Gollin) on a re-take of TOMMY JAMES & THE SHONDELLS’ `Mony Mony’; the band’s own `Mean To Me’ was the B-side; a co-scribed `You Better Believe Me’ (penned by Celia and JJ) was another commercial dud as the torch-esque singer was reluctant to promote it.

A not entirely convincing attempt at political comment, `Something Better Change’ (twinned with `Straighten Out’), gave The STRANGLERS a second Top 10 hit later that summer, closely followed by the vicious momentum of `No More Heroes’. The accompanying album of the same name (or STRANGLERS IV NO MORE HEROES (1977) {*8}) narrowly missed pole position, another solid set which armed their feminist detractors with more ammunition in the form of the nasty `Bring On The Nubiles’; needless to say, the “f”-word was predominant in the lyrics, while a notorious, stripper-enhanced gig at Battersea Park didn’t help matters, as the testosterone-charged quartet were firmly tarred as sexist yobs. The opening cut `I Feel Like A Wog’ and the ALICE COOPER-like `Peasant In The Big Shitty’ caused further ripples among other obvious factions. Not that their fans cared one iota, most of them could almost make sing-a-longs from the likes of `Bitching’, the shadowy `Dead Ringer’ and `Burning Up Time’; the 7-minute white-noise genius of `School Mam’ was another story.

1978 kicked off in much the same way, the non-album single `5 Minutes’ just missing out on a Top 10 place. The nasty but `Nice ‘N’ Sleazy’ 45 followed it into the charts, the latter track featuring on their third album, BLACK AND WHITE (1978) {*7}. The part-concept (one side black, one white) record was supported by a freebie, limited edition 7″ featuring the lads’ interesting cover of the Bacharach-David standard, `Walk On By’, soon-to-be tastefully placed side-by-side with the inimitable `Tits’; one avoids the many puns. Not everyone’s cup of char, the LP certainly had it low points, but bypassing these wee foibles, the explosive `Tank’, the frantic `Hey! (Rise Of The Robots)’, the questionably racist `Sweden (All Quiet On The Eastern Front)’ and the Dalek-like `Curfew’ were stars of the show. Okay, the need to include a former B-side, `In The Shadows’ (however big a part of the concept), was probably unnecessary, but The STRANGLERS cared less in the sequence of things; `Death And Night And Blood (Yukio)’ and `Enough Time’ bringing the curtain down on their weirdest half-hour ever.

Licking their wounds somewhat (although one could phrase that a little better!), the timing of a various concerts LP, LIVE (X-CERT) (1979) {*7} documented a warts ’n’ all peak period for the punks who’d surfed on the crest of the new wave. Meanwhile, J.J. BURNEL and HUGH CORNWELL were contemplating respective solo albums of their own, the former’s pitiful `Euroman Cometh’ barely reaching the Top 40, while the latter’s `Nosferatu’ (paired with Robert Williams) failed to make any impression whatsoever.

A testing and transitional time for The STRANGLERS, but promising and certainly more memorable was the melodic, power-pop ditty, `Duchess’, a Top 20 hit lifted from accompanying fourth studio set, THE RAVEN (1979) {*6}. Socio-political for the most part (`Dead Loss Angeles’, `Genetix’, `Shah Shah A Go Go’ and minor hit `Nuclear Device (The Wizard Of Aus)’ raising pressing points at the time), the group followed an urge to slow down by way of the almost horizontal `Don’t Bring Harry’, or speed things up through Chipmunks-style, DEVO-type creation `Meninblack’. One again, a leftover/outake song un-spawned from this Edgar Allan “Po”-faced set was the excellent `Bear Cage’ hit.

Meanwhile, Cornwell was embroiled in media attention, when, on the 7th of January 1980, the singer was found guilty of drug possession and sentenced to three months in prison. Later that year, the whole band fell foul of the law, this time in the South of France where they were accused of inciting a riot; although threatened with serious jail terms, they were subsequently let off with fines, later claiming (in 1986) through the art of sarcastic verse, it was indeed `Nice In Nice’.
The STRANGLERS’ subsiding commercial fortunes didn’t fare much better on their return early in 1981 with (THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO) THE MEN-IN-BLACK {*3}, a tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless critically derided pseudo-concept affair about alien undercover agents. One might recognise opening salvo `Waltzinblack’ from TV chef Keith Floyd’s gourmet show, while follow-on track `Just Like Nothing On Earth’ brought back a scatty, Pinky & Perky-like harmony, that for the most part worked. All but repeat-prescription minor hit `Thrown Away’ showed any signs of recovery.

Boasting the exquisite jazzy harpsichord styling of the aforementioned smash hit, `Golden Brown’, LA FOLIE (1981) {*6} was a considerably more successful album, if a tad pretentious. However, due to their previous misnomer, the set was just squeezed out of a Top 10 placing, cool frontman Cornwell effectively monotone and nigh-on narrative on the several of the numbers. Pushing the pop buttons once again, and taking a leaf from The CARS rather than a misguided attempt to clone other Americans DEVO, the record was graced with the ENO-like title track (edited to become a minor hit) and `Let Me Introduce You To The Family’.

In line with the prevailing trend, The STRANGLERS (with another non-LP Top 10 hit, `Strange Little Girl’, in the can) moved perilously closer to synth-pop/rock as the 80s wore on; Top 5 set FELINE (1983) {*5} possessing several Bontempi-type tracks to compensate for their lack of political angst. When one thinks that NEW ORDER, OMD or NUMAN could do the neo-dance thang so much better, one had to admire The STRANGLERS’ courage of Mediterranean meanderings like `It’s A Small World’ plus spawned hits, `European Female’, `Midnight Summer Dream’ and `Paradise’.

Working on a film (Ecoutez Von Murs) which was left in the can, didn’t stop the release of an associated extracurricular activity for Messrs D. GREENFIELD & J.J. BURNEL by way of `Fire & Water’ (1983). With the help of Scots singer MAGGIE REILLY (who’d recently won over new fans via her contribution to MIKE OLDFIELD’s `Moonlight Shadow’), the STRANGLERS pairing spawned a near hit with `Rain & Dole & Tea’. BURNEL himself, later issued a couple of further sets for French labels: `Un Jour Parfait’ (1988) and The PURPLE HELMETS’ 60s covers LP, `Ride Again’ (1989); this ad hoc band also comprised Greenfield, John Ellis, Alex Gifford and Manny Elias.

Probably working on something to better `Golden Brown’ rather than anything from their punk heyday, AURAL SCULPTURE (1984) {*7} was a surprise to many old and current acolytes. Boasting three fair to middling hit 45s, from the classy `Skin Deep’ to `Let Me Down Easy’ via the quirky `No Mercy’, Cornwell and Co had seemed to find the right gear. Others too, were of above standard; `Ice Queen’, `Uptown’ (their loudest here by far) and `North Winds Blowing’ performed with ease.

Fast forward exactly two years, DREAMTIME (1986) {*5} housed no less than four Top 60 hits, the aforementioned `Nice In Nice’ (recounting their time in France), the schmaltzy ballad `Always The Sun’, the care-less `Big In America’ and `Shakin’ Like A Leaf’. Pity then that the other ditties on board were emotionless and yuppie, their dwindling time as new wave protagonists had come to a full stop. Even a subsequent return in 1988 to their former stamping ground (and the Top 10) by way of a musclebound live run-through of The KINKS `All Day And All Of The Night’, couldn’t rejuvenate the flagging band; the parent cash-in ALL LIVE AND ALL OF THE NIGHT (1988) {*6}, at least went some way in restoring faith in their concert prowess.

On to a new decade, the poignantly-titled 10 (1990) {*4} – featuring a clone-like version of ? AND THE MYSTERIANS’ `96 Tears’ – took only a matter of a few weeks to drop out of the charts, while it was rumoured that Cornwell and Burnel weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye; this was proved correct when the singer bailed out that August.

Deciding to carry on with new guitarist, John Ellis (from The VIBRATORS), the group duly added Hugh’s replacement proper, Paul Roberts, the following February, completing the new-look quintet. Distributed from their own Psycho imprint, STRANGLERS’ IN THE NIGHT (1992) {*3} was their initial effort; only `Heaven And Hell’ and flop `Sugar Bullets’ managing to rise about the parapet.

ABOUT TIME (1995) {*4} and the Andy Gill-produced WRITTEN IN RED (1997) {*4} continued their minor liaison with the lower regions of the charts, but most commentators (and an ever decreasing fanbase) it was agreed that the band’s glory days were definitely behind them; COUP DE GRACE (1998) {*4} held no bearing to the once legendary sound of The STRANGLERS. A 1997 live recording, FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH (2000) {*4} marked another to pile into the bargain bins.

Enlisting the fresh-faced guitar whizz-kid Baz Warne as Ellis’ replacement, live shows seemed to be re-invigorated by his introduction on 5 LIVE 01 (*6}. Thirty years young, The STRANGLERS Mk.III re-signed to E.M.I. (rather than resigned), and reverting to the roiling bass-keys aggro of yore on NORFOLK COAST (2004) {*6}. Akin to an English RUNRIG on `Long Black Veil’, the band otherwise gelled and rocked on the likes of `Lost Control’, `I’ve Been Wild’ and `Into The Fire’. Co-produced by Mark Wallis (U2, TRAVIS), the record was top heavy with terrace-ready choruses, not least on the single, `Big Thing Coming’.
Perfecting his light Lee Brilleaux growl, Roberts was again effective on SUITE XVI (2006) {*5}, while the CORNWELL-less STRANGLERS pulled off yet another edgy comeback set through the sprawling GIANTS (2012) {*7}.

One had to admire the resolve of the former punk group for carrying on; in fact one of the tracks from the latter set was entitled `My Fickle Resolve’ (a cool lounge-jazz cut). Drummer Jet Black was now in his 70s (yes, older than CHARLIE WATTS!), but surrounded by the exuberant Burnel, Greenfield and the relatively young-ish spring chicken Warne, high spots were undoubtedly `Lowlands’, `Mercury Rising’ and “The Beach”-like `Freedom Is Insane’.
FEEL IT LIVE (2013) {*6} was a rather unnecessary in-concert detour, but poignant nonetheless, as with the ensuing years, The STRANGLERS were decreasing their workload as to when and if Jet was fit and able enough to perform on stage; he retired after a partial gig in 2015; his berth taken thereafter by Jim Macaulay. In early 2018, there was concern by one and all when Jet had a minor stroke; he turned 80 that August.

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