The Stranglers, A Retrospective

About 5 or 6 years ago my son’s guitar teacher, a young dreadlocked guy into hard rock and grunge, asked me who was my favourite band. I surprised myself when I immediately answered “The Stranglers”. “Oh” he replied, “The band who sung Golden Brown?”  “Yes” said I “but haven’t you heard the early stuff from the punk-era like Hanging Around, Grip, Peaches?”……

I’ve asked a few from the younger generation about the Stranglers and many either haven’t heard of them or they are remembered for some of their 80’s pop hits like the aforementioned ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Strange Little Girl’, ‘Always The Sun’ etc. Indeed they did write some superb ‘pop’ songs but I remember them for their uncompromising attitude; their clear desire to ‘progress’ their musical style and their unique sound, driven along by thumping bass lines and swirling keyboards.

In 1977 and 1978 the Stranglers produced certainly one (Rattus Norvegicus), if not two (Black and White) of the great albums to come out of the Punk Era. Whilst not considered punk, these albums stand alongside the great Punk albums of the period: The Clash and London Calling by The Clash; NMTB by the Sex Pistols; Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by The Dead Kennedys; Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned; The Ramones by The Ramones; Love Bites by the Buzzcocks and Pink Flag by Wire, to name a few. But you won’t find Rattus or B&W featuring highly, if at all, on any Top list of Punk albums.

Rattus Norvegicus

No More Heroes

Black and White

Many at the time said they had jumped on the punk bandwagon. Certainly they had been playing as an unsuccessful pub-rock band for a couple of years as the Guildford Stranglers. But by opening for the 1976 tour of the Ramones and Patti Smith they got noticed and signed a deal with United Artists.

From a punk perspective they were considered outsiders, both in terms of their age, being older than their peers (Jet Black was in his late thirties when Rattus was released) and musically different. Their sound was unusually melodic (helped by the fact they were ‘relatively’ musically accomplished); their lyrics could be clearly heard (!) and even solos were allowed (!).

The band certainly took advantage of the musical zeitgeist but never truly embraced the punk culture. They did adopt the aggressive and abrasive punk attitude on stage; they delivered their lyrics with snarling brute force. Their dealings with the musical press were notorious leading to JJ Burnel punching a music journalist. Some of their lyrical output reflected the punk-spirit. They exhibited a total disregard for political correctness at times, highlighted by bringing strippers on stage at the Battersea festival in the summer of 1978 (strangely the main support act was a man by the name of Peter Gabriel !).

Led by two charismatic front men, Hugh Cornwell on lead guitar and Jean-Jacques Burnel on bass, they delivered an incredibly varied output over the years. From the simply arranged punk anthems of ‘No More Heroes’, ‘5 Minutes’ and ‘Something Better Change’; through the reggae-inspired ‘Peaches’; to the dark more complex and experimental ‘Black’ side of the Black and White album; and they even wrote the 4 part and 8 minute long ‘Prog-structured’ classic, ‘Down in the Sewer’.  They broke away from the punk scene totally in 1979, their early success giving them the confidence to release their avant-garde fourth album, The Raven. They followed this with the unusual but ultimately disappointing concept album, The Gospel According to the Men In Black (which lost me and many others as fans for a while). The Stranglers were definitely not derivative and did not want to be pigeon-holed. Their musical and lyrical diversity on a track by track basis is rare and a testament to their originality and innovative skills.

Their signature sound was driven along by the ‘rough’ and a chest-filling bass lines of Jean-Jacques Burnel, usually followed by the swirling Hammond organ and mini-moog keyboards of Dave Greenfield. Unusually the guitar melodies were shared between lead and bass and there are an astonishing number of catchy riffs in their early output. Dave Geenfield’s psychedelic keyboards are hugely inspired by Ray Manzerek of the Doors, particularly on their brilliant cover of Bacharach and David’s ‘Walk on By’. Jet Black’s drums ties everything together nicely with competent drumming. Martin Rushent’s production on the early albums superb.

Their musical style and structure was initially quite basic  but over time became more intricate with the use of complex time signatures; effects to slow and speed up sound and, from Black and White onwards, the more frequent use of synthesizers to create weird vocals and soundscapes.

The band’s lyrical themes were hugely diverse. Songs about boring lives, disenchantment, alienation, and the breakdown of political and social order were laced with biting political and social comment and par for the course at the time. But they were also inspired by the writings of Nostradamus, Japanese and Viking culture and even by a Victor Hugo novel.

Their lyrics quite often pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. ‘Peaches’ is the only song I know that has the word ‘clitoris’ in it (changed to ‘bikini’ for the UK’s Top of the Pops). Clearly their lyrics were at times sexist and whilst unacceptable they were tame compared to today’s rap music and I believe ignore the playful irony and satire inherent in much of the band’s output. Most controversial was the misogynistic ‘Bring on the Nubiles’, about the obsession of older men for younger girls. The song comprises ‘in your face’ vulgarity and alludes to incest. Were they serious or just exploiting the times? What we do know is the band was deliberately antagonistic and courted controversy to increase their profile and this was indirectly supported by their record company who saw no reason to censor their lyrics or curtail their behaviour (it sold records for God’s sake!!!).

Here are some of my favourite lyrics:

From the punk anthem ‘No More Heroes’, the witty:

Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?
He got an ice pick
That made his ears burn

From ‘Grip’ the truly memorable:

Stranger from another planet welcome to our hole
Just strap on your guitar and we’ll play some rock ‘n roll

Visceral social commentary from ‘Hanging Around’:

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
They’re just hanging around

(The Coleherne was an infamous gay leather bar in Earls Court, London in the 70s and 80s frequented by many famous clientele).

Here’s a typically aggressive live, albeit shortened, version…

Acerbic criticism of the educational system in ‘School Mam’:

In the free-form, abrasive and controversial ‘Ugly’, only the Stranglers could juxtapose a reference to Ozymandias, a poem by Shelley about folly in the pursuit of power, with the shallowness of mankind’s attitude towards aesthetics:

I Could Have
Read A Poem Called
To Her Instead
I Lived For The Moment
It Was A Futile
Gesture Anyway
I Was Here
And She Was Here
And Being Broad
Of Minds And Hips
We Did The Only Thing Possible

I Guess I Shouldn’t Have Strangled Her To Death But
I Had To Go To Work And She Had Laced My Coffee With Acid

Normally I Wouldn’t Have Minded
But I’m Allergic To Sulphuric Acid
Besides She Had Acne
And If You’ve Got Acne, Well,
I Apologise For Disliking It Intensely,
But It’s Understandable That Ugly People Have Got Complexes
I Mean It Seems To Me
That Ugly People Don’t Have A Chance

It’s Only The Children Of The Fucking Wealthy Who Tend To Be Good Looking

An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money
An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money
An Ugly Fart
Attracts A Good-Looking
Chick If He’s Got Money

It’s Different For Jews Somehow.

I’d Like To See
A Passionate Film Between
The Two Ugliest
People In The World.
When I Say Ugly
I Don’t Mean Rough Looking
I Mean Hideous.

Don’t Tell Me That
Aesthetics Are
Subjective You
Just Know The Truth
When You See It
Whatever It Is

Powerful stuff indeed.

In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left the band and it appeared to be the end of an era. Over the subsequent years they continued to release albums with little mainstream success but were (and still are) supported by a fanatically loyal fan base. However, with the addition of Baz Warne, whose energy and snarling aggression making him a worthy replacement to Hugh Cornwell, they have become a superb live act. Their latest album ‘Giants’ released in 2012 is a huge return to form, echoing their halcyon period of the late 70s. It seems ironic that I saw them headline a predominantly ‘Prog’ festival, Weyfest, in 2010 but it’s a clear indication of their popularity amongst a wide cross-section of music lovers.

The Stranglers are arguably the greatest and certainly the most enduring band to emerge from the punk era. I look forward to another brutal encounter with them later this year in Guildford, their spiritual home and fortunately only a few miles away from chez moi.

Final words though must go to Hugh, JJ, Dave and Jet from the epic ‘Down in the Sewer’

I tell you what I’m gonna do
Gonna make love to a water rat or two
and breed a family
they’ll be called the survivors
You know why ?

Coz they’re gonna survive

Nearly 40 years on and they are surviving remarkably well 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Stranglers, A Retrospective

  1. Nick

    Excellent, Ian!

    I think The Stranglers were probably my favourite band before I ventured into hard rock and eventually prog. I’ve retained a fondness for them ever since.

    I remember buying 3 or 4 of their early singles (back in those days I was only dimly aware of those bigger, more expensive things called ‘albums’). That excellent cover of “Walk On By” was (and still is) a particular favourite.


    1. Hi
      i didnt listen to MIB again when i wrote the article as i was focussing on the first 3 albums. I’ve only got a vinyl version but i think i will dig it out and give it another chance this weekend


  2. Pingback: The Stranglers, A Retrospective | stranglers (serbia)


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