Its early 1978 and I’m standing in the horrible brutalist Ryemarket Shopping Centre in Stourbridge, a copy of ‘Sounds’ in my hands (well all over my hands such was the nature of ink in those days) and the proceeds of my paper round in my pocket. I was thirteen and was deep in the thrall of punk which had begun thrillingly for me the year before.
I had jumped at the chance to get into all these new bands that seemed to be springing up, and sneered at the vast majority of my classmates who seemed to be constantly arguing about who the best guitarist was (Page, Blackmore, Howe, blah, blah…). As now, music even then was primarily about how it made me feel, what it evoked in me, and punk bands appealed to something very basic. They spoke of rebellion in a way that I was only just coming to appreciate.
The first ‘punk’ record that I bought was The Stranglers double ‘A’ side ‘Peaches’/ ‘Go Buddy Go’, which also appealed to my immature teenage self due to it’s inherent ‘rudeness’, something which these days seems to be a very English ‘seaside postcard’ sort of filth. Two albums had followed and The Stranglers were pretty much my band at the time. Sure I liked the Pistols but there was something about them that seemed what I would now describe as ephemeral (and actually PiL would be far more interesting), and The Clash were beyond my experience somehow.
Which brings me back to my standing outside the long gone Studio Musica record shop in Stourbridge. Two days earlier I had seen The Stranglers video for ‘5 Minutes’ on Top of the Pops, a thrilling track played with a counting down clock, which seemed to give fresh impetus and urgency to a band who clearly sets out its state of mind in the very first verse:
I need a dream where I can live what I said
I need a place where I can make my bed
I need a hole where I’ll find darkness now
And if you hassle me mister I might just loose my head
The Stranglers were angry, they had a chip on their collective shoulders. They were on the edge and were seeking an outlet for all this pent up frustration and resentment at being ostracised by the music press and other bands, something with which the band had itself colluded. Of course my thirteen year old self didn’t pick all of this up, but by the same token I did have a sense that ‘5 Minutes’ was a special record for me, and one of the few where I can remember exactly where and when I bought it.
I played that single to death, along with b-side ‘Rok It To The Moon’, and I remains a track that I turn to when I want to shed some aggression. Then, when the band’s third album, ‘Black and White’, appeared I took it very much in my stride and did not at the time think it to be anything out of the ordinary. However, ‘Black and White’ is one of those records that has developed with me over time and I have never become tired of it.
If ‘5 Minutes’ set out The Stranglers psychology at the time, ‘Black and White’ is a full realisation of it. Setting out to reflect how the band had polarised opinions they really went for it and broke out of their Pub Rock past, creating an album that is a lost classic despite being a commercial success (listen to it and then imagine that it charted at number two).
There can be very few albums that start with a statement of intent as powerful as ‘Tank’, a track that sounds just as it’s named; the sound of a band pile driving its way through its critics and emoting a massive ‘fuck you’! ‘Nice N’ Sleazy’ is a track that at the time got caught up with the Battersea Park gig, during which the band had strippers on stage. This has somewhat distracted us from the song itself which is far from a re-hash of ‘Peaches’, as was seen at the time. This is a track in which we begin to see changes to The Stranglers sound with JJ Burnel’s bass playing in the foreground and Dave Greenfield’s keyboards alternating between the sinister and the fairground; while Hugh Cornwell’s vocals have a new focus and urgency to them. Underpinning all of this are Jet Black’s drums which are at the same time solid, holding everything together, but have a certainly liquidity to them which help give the track its squalid nature.
With the band’s trademark pre-occupation with violence and feculence established The Stranglers now seem to be freed to explore some very dark places and, although the album is split into the ‘white’ and ‘black’ sides, the overall narrative is of the latter; with a focus on what goes on at the edges of society. ‘Outside Tokyo’ is a case in point with its deep and short bass riff and off-kilter rhythm, a meditation on time and existence every bit as profound as that of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, but not one that is dwelt upon.
Next up is the dystopian ‘Hey! Rise of the Robots’ which on the face of it looks like a prescient view of the encroachment of technology on society, but can also stand as a foreboding toward the rise of Thatcherism in the 80s. Here the addition of X-Ray Spex’s Laura Logic on sax gives the track a suitably otherworldly feel that takes the band further away from previous expectations. ‘Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)’ is arguably Cornwell’s mordant and biting lyrics at their most effective. Based on his time in Sweden, prior to The Stranglers, in which he was drifting and isolated he finds just the right balance between humour and attitude.
Ending the so-called ‘white side’, ‘Toiler on the Sea’ is a great example of what makes this album different from its contemporaries in that it shows how the band do not adhere to hitherto accepted rock structures. This was a group of four people who musically had an equal voice, four strong characters that were all fighting their corner; while at the same time fighting The Stranglers corner. The internal tension is what, for me, gives this album a unique sound…after the punk tsunami but now re-building and creating something new and different.
The ‘black side’ of the album kicks off with ‘Curfew’, setting out the bleakness to come, but also reflecting an insecurity that is every bit as much relevant today as it was under the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1970s. When you listen to ‘Curfew’, and the rest of this side, you have to remind yourself that this was made before anything by Magazine (‘Real Life’ came out the following month), Gang of Four, The Pop Group, Joy Division or Wire. Indeed, Peter Hook has declared that The Stranglers, and Burnel in particular, were a huge influence.
‘Threatened’ is about our rights and abilities to be offended and the extent to which we should feel vulnerable from verbal aggression, and how on the other hand have the right to say what we think. Like ‘Tank’ it is a track that sounds like it is named, placing the onus on the threatened. The real threat for me comes in the spareness of the music, it’s not what is said but what is not said here…it’s The Stranglers at their most aggressive while at the same time showing that force and stupidity are not two sides of the same coin. This might be a forthright album, but it is also an intelligent one.
By the time ‘In The Shadows’ starts you already get the impression that the record has been playing for ages. This, for me, is one of the centrepieces of the album with its dark and sinister bass/ synth beginning: this is where the band truly begin to go off piste. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was nothing like this at the time and while the lyrics have been dismissed as simplistic in some places, the atmosphere that is created here is redolent with violence and discomfort…we are really being taken outside our comfort zones and it ain’t gonna be pleasant.
While the Pistols has seemingly cornered the market in anti-royalist rhetoric, made into a mere gimmick by Malcolm McLaren; here The Stranglers come up with a far more biting attack on the establishment and prevailing values of the time…this time from the outside. The Stranglers didn’t need to get onto a boat to prove their point, the did it intelligently and wittily with ‘Do You Wanna’
Do you wanna marry a company director?
Do you wanna go to work?
Do you wanna be a beauty queen,
And rule the kingdom?
Let out all the prisoners
Cause that’s a jubilee
‘Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)’, is possibly the most clear congruence between Burnel’s two passions of music and martial arts. He has described this as a warrior’s song and if you listen to the bass on this track it is front and centre driving the track, not as part of a rhythm section but almost as a second vocalist; you get the feeling that it is his weapon of choice. This is like a duet, with the rest of the band a consistently and menacingly backing him before Greenfield’s keyboards emerge near the end like a rallying cry.
Returning to the nature of existence for the final track ‘Enough Time’, which I find to be as disorienting as anything on the album. This is a track that is extremely unsettling with is irregular beat and piercing morse code half way through. It’s a track that seems to signal the later ‘Meninblack’ theme as the vocals are speeded up while the instrumentation is slowed down. Is this the end? The final moments for out species and we move even faster towards destruction? Have we got enough time? Probably not!
This is a suitably apocalyptic end to an extraordinary album which has not only stood the test of time musically, but philosophically too. It is an album that has something to say on the major issues that affect our lives today, in a world that politically is once again becoming increasingly black and white.
Buying ‘5 Minutes’ as a thirteen year old I would not have imagined that some thirty eight years later I would still be finding meaning in that song and the album that, followed it. ‘Black and White’ continues to amaze me to this day and, if anything, I become more convinced that it is a stone cold psychedelic classic, an album that it of its time and out of time. Whether or not it was the first post punk album I neither know nor care; for me it was the moment that both punk and my musical taste began to grow up.
The Stranglers will be touring the album ‘Black and White’ during March and April, further details here.
Report with loads of photos of the Birmingham gig here.