The Stranglers

TrackAlbum / Single
No More HeroesNo More Heroes
Princess Of The StreetsRattus Norvegicus
SometimesRattus Norvegicus
Walk On ByBlack And White (7" single)
Longships / The RavenThe Raven
Nuclear DeviceThe Raven
Golden BrownLa Folie
Always The SunDreamtime
Another Camden AfternoonGiants
TankBlack And White

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Contributor: Neil Waite

I love the Stranglers, but I never adored them as I did the Undertones, perhaps because they never quite lived up to their first album. Rattus Norvegicus (1977) was among one of the first punk albums I heard. Unlike some other punk albums, it had great sound and musicianship. Dave Greenfield’s fast erratic keyboards complimented melodic bass lines and deft work on lead guitar. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, during my early teens I never took much notice of song lyrics. But every track on the first album was a winner for its music. Peaches, Get A Grip and Hanging Around are brilliant but the best one is Sometimes, and despite the subject of a violent argument between Hugh Cornwell and his girlfriend, the music swept away any lyrical meaning that I might otherwise have been uneasy about. The same could be said of the brilliant Princess Of The Streets, which starts off with a flourish on solo bass that neatly drops into the main riff. I love this song with its almost comical vocal register and tuneful guitar breaks between verses.

The second album, No More Heroes, released a mere three months later, contained more songs from their live set of the time and many believe this was their finest hour. But I’ve always struggled with it. The tunes are amazing, the title track is their best song and even the artwork, featuring a wreath of carnations, is superb. But for the first time I became aware of lyrical content which I couldn’t help but notice as there seemed to be no restraint with subject matter and language. I was uneasy with the sexist Bring On The Nubiles, I Feel Like A Wog (knocking racism, but so clumsily that it was taken to be racist) and School Mam (the story of a masturbating school mistress). Yet the two singles, Something Better Change and No More Heroes, are two of the finest punk songs. It seems obvious to put No More Heroes as my number one but there’s no question about it – with that now classic bass stutter down the fretboard followed by Jet Black’s bursting drums and a weaving keyboard riff as the song kicks off, this time uncontroversially speaking of historical figures and the lack of heroes today.

Black And White appeared eight months later and was better than I expected, with a great sound again but more experimental arrangements. 5 Minutes and Nice ‘n’ Sleazy were fine singles, with the band getting into more hot water with the video for the latter in which strippers joined them on stage. But the album had equally good moments in Sweden, Toiler On The Sea and the brilliant Tank, which shows Greenfield at his best as he showers the tune with seemingly erratic keyboard figures.

Originally the LP came with a 7″ single of Burt Bacharach’s Walk On By, which became their seventh single. The opening guitar riff is joined by Jean-Jacques Burnel’s signature clunking bass guitar in a six-and-a-half minute song which had to undergo a radio edit, which was a shame, as the middle Manzarek “Light My Fire” style keyboard section is superb.

The Stranglers Black and White

The 3rd album Black And White came in Limited Edition ‘mottled grey’ vinyl

 
Next was the live album Live (X Cert). The Stranglers have released many live documents over the years but this is the only notable one, due to the vibrancy you feel from their early gigs. The songs are played faster and with more vim than on the studio releases. At the time I played this album rarely, in latter years I’ve often revisited it. You can feel the keyed-up vibe as Cornwell confronts a heckler and appeals to the crowd to stop spitting.

After a couple of solo outings by Cornwell and Burnel in 1979, The Raven, their fourth studio album, was released. I had started to lose interest in the band as this was the time of the Undertones’ debut, which hit me like a tidal wave. Initially, I wasn’t going to buy the album but was then seduced into changing my mind by the holographic image on the front cover – a great piece of marketing. But it wasn’t until late 1980 that I really listened to it properly, and I loved it. Some of the arrangements sounded bizarre but it had the heavy bass sound which I liked so much. The successful Duchess made little impact on me, as did the single (Don’t Bring) Harry, but the rest was brilliant. The short instrumental opener Longships leads into the excellent The Raven with its sliding keyboard intro and sotto voce vocal. I’m cheekily combining these two as one entry to make room for another Raven track, the catchy Nuclear Device (The Wizard of Aus). This was supposedly about the then Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, but at 13 I was unaware of this and just enjoyed the thumping melody.

The Stranglers The Raven

First pressings of The Raven came with a 3D holographic image on the sleeve

 
So after 4 out of 17 albums, 7 of my toppermost slots are taken. But that’s fine because for me the band’s slight decline began here. If The Raven was quite a progression from Black And White then the next release, The Gospel According To The Meninblack, was a world away. The ‘Meninblack’ appeared on the previous album with a track of the same name but to release a whole album based on this was just too much for me. I believed that concept albums were for prog rock bands and didn’t belong in the punk ethos. I bought the album for the weird but strangely enjoyable Waltzinblack, but this unsuccessful experiment surely signalled the end of the line.

But the next release, La Folie, was back to normal. The songs were short and punchy as on Rattus Norvegicus. The album contained the Stranglers’ biggest hit, Golden Brown. This mellow ‘minor chord’ non-punk composition I shouldn’t have liked, especially as it made No.2 in the UK charts, but it was brilliant. The use of a tinkling harpsichord and the stumbling rhythm of the song are pure genius.

The next album, Feline, was more successful but less good. It was another concept album, which didn’t help. I’ve seen the band live a number of times and it was at this point that I found their live setup to be changing to a softer more commercial sound. Jean-Jacques’ bass was not so clunky and even the early songs had their edges smoothed off. I found Feline uninspiring. I remember thinking I wouldn’t be buying any more Stranglers albums (though naturally I was fooling myself).

The Stranglers recorded three more albums with Cornwell: Aural Sculpture, Dreamtime and 10. The single releases in this period, including Skin Deep, the Kinks’ All Day And All Of The Night and 96 Tears, were good, though Always The Sun stands out as the best. But I found the album tracks lacklustre. In 1990 Cornwell left, claiming the band was a spent force. I have to say I agreed. The split was acrimonious and Cornwell went on to follow a solo career (check out his recent Totem And Taboo which is brilliant).

The band recruited ex-Vibrators guitarist John Ellis, who accompanied Burnel on vocal duties until Paul Roberts took over on vocals. Paul remained for the next four albums: Stranglers In The Night, About Time, Written In Red and Coup de Grace. The Mk2 stranglers with Paul returned to a rawer sound, ditching the horns, but the songs weren’t up to the mark. Highlights were Sugar Bullets and In Heaven She Walks. Good songs but a mile from making my topperten as they lacked that classic Stranglers buzz.

But all was not lost and that classic sound re-emerged when Baz Warne replaced Paul Roberts in 2000. Warne took over Cornwell’s vocals in live sets and restored normality to the original songs. Norfolk Coast, released 6 years after Coup de Grace, was Warne’s first with the band. It was a refreshing disc, especially Big Thing Coming, with its razor sharp guitar intro. Their sixteenth release aptly named Suite XVI was disappointing.

But we’re finishing as we started, for the most recent release, Giants, is one of their best. The songs are tuneful and well produced and above all we return to the original sound, though more refined, with Greenfield’s brilliant keyboard lines and Burnel’s clunky bass. I could have included a few tracks from Giants but I’ll settle for Another Camden Afternoon, the instrumental which kicks off the album. Just listen to the sound of Burnel’s once more overdriven bass as it argues with Warnes’ lead guitar … Nuff said!

So the Stranglers never really became my band but I stuck with them and boy was it a mixed ride, and an interesting one.

The Stranglers website

The Stranglers Worldwide Discography

Hugh Cornwell official website

The Stranglers biography (iTunes)

Find some of Neil Waite’s other topper-posts on 70s UK bands here … The Undertones, Ruts, Stiff Little Fingers, Ian Dury, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks

TopperPost #360

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Stenton
    Oct 4, 2014

    The Stranglers have more appeal to me now than at the time. I think music was polarised in those days (maybe it still is) so you were in one camp or another, not in both. “Walk on by” remains one of my favourite bass laden tracks. Partially because it is such a contrast to the original Dionne Warwick version.

  2. David Lewis
    Oct 5, 2014

    Wot! No “Duchess’? Growing up, the local tv station used to have three clips on high rotation; Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty; Davey’s on the road again by Manfred man and Duchess. It took me 20 years to find out what Davey was. And 25 to identify Duchess. I was going on half remembered mondegreens which doesn’t help. But a great song. The Stranglers showed the way to new wave: they’re just ahead of the curve – a great band.

  3. Beat City Tone
    Oct 5, 2014

    Interesting read. Speaking both as a Stranglers fan and as a brown lad, regarding “I Feel Like A Wog”, it has to be remembered that in the 70s the word was in common usage and its use certainly didn’t mark anyone down as a racist, and as you say, it clearly ISN’T racist. Wrt the list, obviously no two fat aging punks are going to agree completely, but I would definitely find room for “Down In The Sewer” and “Let Me Down Easy”. Hard to argue with the #1 though.

  4. Peter Viney
    Oct 5, 2014

    ‘I Feel Like A Wog’ is a song about racism, and anti-racist, and I assumed it was an in-joke on co-writer’s Jean-Jacques Burnel’s French name and ancestry, while being born in London. The phrase “Wogs begin at Calais” dates back to WW1, and was in itself a joke on English attitudes to foreigners, as mainly in the 19th century it was used for people from the Indian sub-continent. I really disagree that the use of “wog” didn’t mark anyone down as racist in the 70s. The anti-racist stance of the song only makes sense because it was a racist slur. I knew it to be racist in the 60s, 70s and ever since. See the Major in Fawlty Towers for the fine points on which racist slurs refer to which people.

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