It’s been a particularly full on build up to this year’s Stranglers tour, and I don’t think I’ve missed one since the 1980s. I achieved a lifetime ambition to interview bassist JJ Burnel, and also read a newly published book on the band, by long-time fan Phil Knight. The book, Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and the Stranglers, together with the interview really helped me think afresh what The Stranglers are about and why they are probably the most important group of musicians in my life.
Knight’s book is essentially two complementary essays respectively focussing on Hugh Cornwell and JJ Burnel (although Dave Greenfield and Jet Black do feature prominently in both) begins in a rather dry academic manner as he sets up his ideas, but once he delves into the band’s story I found it difficult to put down. He is basically arguing that the band were unfairly ignored in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and continue to be in retrospectives of that era. He puts this down to the basic fact that they refused to play the game in all sorts of different ways; be it by pissing the media off both with their behaviour and their intelligent commentaries on life, and their refusal to exist in the London-centric bubble. The Stranglers, he suggests, existed on the margins (in the shadows?) in all sorts of ways that other bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols did not. Despite all the hype, he argues, these other bands were much more traditional in the way they were set up (central front man, no keyboards, bassist and drummer somehow down the hierarchy) and, in my view, he’s right because when The Stranglers band had a ‘traditional’ front-man in Paul Roberts they lost their way.
This was something that I brought up with JJ (I hadn’t read the book at this point) who agreed that the band never got their due from the critics, but that they had plenty of fans who ‘got it’ and as a result The Stranglers had success despite this, and he acknowledged that maybe they should never have been a five-piece.
What cannot be denied is that since the band went back to being a four-piece they have undergone something of a renaissance, especially live. The crowds have got bigger and the shows seem to have got more intense and, with Baz Warne, the old swagger is back. That swagger is part of what makes The Stranglers a great band because it is that ‘fuck-you’ attitude that meant that after the first two albums (strong in their own right) the band embarked on a journey of experimentation. Knight argues at one point, and I agree, that if the likes of the Gang of Four or Wire had come up with the run of albums from Black & White through to La Folie, then the critics at the time would have been creaming themselves at the audacity and sheer innovation of their sound. Instead The Stranglers were ignored, and even their management and record label were ready to give up on them until the unlikely success of Golden Brown was pulled out of the bag. In talking about this album by album, Knight’s book helped me to look at a lot of the tracks from the Cornwell era afresh and meant that I was looking forward to the gig with even more anticipation that usual.
The first thing to say was that in all my 35ish years of seeing The Stranglers I have never seen them so happy on stage. They were clearly having a ball up there and that came through in the music which was a brilliant combination of professionalism and swagger as they ripped through 26 tracks from one of the best and most eclectic back catalogues in rock.
There are far too many highlights to go through them all but the opening of salvo of Lonships, The Raven, Straighten Out and Grip were a fantastic mixture of power and melody, and were viscerally exciting. Hearing Four Horsemen, Nice in Nice and Curfew for the first time in years was great and I was so happy that they played the amazing Baroque Bordello. Elsewhere, and showing the band’s increasing confidence, there were some storming post-Cornwell tracks, especially I’ve Been Wild, Norfolk Coast and Lost Control, all of which sit well with the older stuff; but the highlights for me were an absolutely storming ‘I Feel Like A Wog’, the ever amazing ‘Walk On By’, and finishing the main set with an overdue ‘Down In The Sewer’ which was as good as anything I’ve seen the band do over the years, and any words I use to describe it here aren’t going to do it justice. You know those moments at gigs when everything just absolutely clicks…well that was me during Sewer…phenomenal.
The Stranglers seem to go from strength to strength and they are one of only three bands originating in that era who I would habitually go and see (Killing Joke and Magazine being the other two); but it is The Stranglers who I admire the most and who have somehow come through forty years of gigging and releasing records with an integrity that few can match and while they are inevitably playing the game a bit more these days they are still ploughing a fairly unique furrow away from many of their peers.
Roll on next time!
GALLERY: just click on any pic to see full size. All photos bystAn
Set List: Longships/ The Raven/ Straighten Out/ Grip/ I’ve Been Wild/ Four Horsemen/ Relentless/ Baroque Bordello/Golden Brown/ Always The Sun/ Freedom/ Time To Die/ Nice In Nice/ Norfolk Coast/ I Feel Like A Wog/ Skin Deep/ Dead Ringer/ Peaches/ Time Was Once On My Side/ Duchess/ Lost Control/ Curfew/ Down In The Sewer
First Encore: Walk on By/ All Day and All Of The Night
Second Encore: No More Heroes