A GUEST POSTING FROM JONNY THE FRIENDLY LAWYER
What to make of The Stranglers? The band came to prominence during the first wave of UK punk, but didn’t exactly fit the ‘young, loud and snotty’ mold. Drummer Jet Black adopted a suitable moniker, but he was nearly 40 when the band started releasing records. Singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell held a university degree in biochemistry and did research in Sweden towards a Ph.D. Bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel was a classically trained guitarist. And what the hell was Dave Greenfield doing onstage behind a fucking Hammond organ? Old, educated, musically adept—plus a Dylan-era keyboard into the mix—no wonder Johnny Rotten sneered them off as “hippies with short hair.”
Live, the band were tremendous, if unfriendly and antagonistic. Burnel was a menacing figure—a muscular black belt lurching around as if he’d jump offstage at a moment’s notice to kick some ass. He had a great sound: a Fender Precision with the tone knob dimed, played with a pick directly over the bridge. This gives the bottom end a nasty growl that typified the ‘Gers early recordings. (Example: ‘Dead Ringer’ from No More Heroes.) Black was an unflashy but perfect time-keeper, comparable to, say, the Bunnymen’s Pete De Freitas. Cornwell did the talking for the band, what little there was. True to punk form he didn’t play extended guitar solos. Untrue to punk form, his songs were filled with tight, well-arranged vocal harmonies. Greenfield’s organ, it must be admitted, provided a signature musicality that distinguished the band from their contemporaries. I always thought he was kind of a prat, though, because in concerts he’d sit a full pint prominently atop his keyboard which he’d ignore until it was time for a complicated organ bit. Then he’d reach for the glass and take a pull to show off that he could play the hard part one-handed. Loser.
The Stranglers got off to a great start: their first five albums all were top 10 UK hits; three went gold and one platinum. They weren’t slowed down by Cornwell’s imprisonment for a drug bust, the whole band’s jailing for inciting a riot in Paris, or repeated accusations of misogyny and violence (Burnel infamously socked Jon Savage during an interview). They began the 80’s as an established post-punk act. Their sound grew more complex, and the group began to experiment with longer tunes with odd time signatures. In fact, their biggest ever single, 1982’s ‘Golden Brown’, is written in waltz time. The song made it all the way to number 2, and was only kept out of the top spot by The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’.
The band continued to make great records until…they stopped making great records. I can’t explain it. For no apparent reason, Stranglers music got weaker, sappier, more commercial but less appealing. The energy and aggression dissolved. “European Female”, from the 1983 LP Feline, was the last top 10 single the band wrote. It was also the first song on their new label, Epic. Later songs that did manage to chart couldn’t come close to the quality of the band’s earlier album tracks, or even b-sides. Cornwell hung around for 3 subsequent LPs, then bailed after 1990’s unmemorable 10. Unbelievably, the Stranglers are still a going concern—Wikipedia tells us they’ve released another 7 studio LPs and are actively touring, albeit without Black (now in his late 70’s).
This imaginary compilation focuses on the band’s tenure with United Artists and EMI, from 1977 to 1982. It goes chronologically, taking a song from each of the band’s albums on those labels, with some non-album tracks and a couple of tunes from the later Epic albums for the sake of completion. If I was just picking favorites I might not have made it out of the 70’s. And I’m completely discounting anything the band did after Cornwell left. (The Doors released a couple of albums after Jim Morrison’s death; post-Cornwell Stranglers merit the same level of attention.) So, without further adieu…
1. (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)
The band’s first single, from 1977’s Rattus Norvegicus. This is the quintessential Stranglers song: if you don’t like this track you can pretty much skip the rest. Melodic, snarled vocals, tight harmonies, punchy drums, driven by the bass and the ever-present swirling Hammond—this is the band’s blueprint.
2. No More Heroes
Title track from the second LP, also released in 1977. The band were considered a pretty scary bunch, but I always thought their stance was a tongue in cheek act, and that there was a sense of humor behind the angry stares. Dunno, a band that rhymes “heroes” with “Shakespearoes” never struck me as one that took itself too seriously.
3. 5 Minutes
A non-album single from 1978. Lead vocals on this one by Burnel, with nasty lyrics about rape, knives and revenge. (Okay, maybe there was something to the violence accusations, but it’s still a great tune.) At this point, the band still had more good songs than could fit onto their albums.
Leadoff track from 1978’s Black and White LP. Also a b-side to a free single given away with the UK version of the album. (The A-side was a cover of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune ‘Walk On By’, a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1964.) Everyone had a song they played before going out for the night, and this was mine. Never mind that it’s about how much fun it would be to drive around in a tank, or the corny artillery explosions—that’s what teenage kicks are all about!
5. The Raven
Another title track, this one from 1979. By now the band is stretching out and flexing their musical muscles; it’s over 5 minutes long and the vocals don’t kick in for a full minute. Atypically for the band, Cornwell gets in a lot of guitar work—some very interesting figures on his battered Telecaster. The song and album loosely implies Norse mythology, and is a precursor of sorts for the group’s subsequent concept LPs.
6. Just Like Nothing On Earth
And the first concept album would be 1981’s The Gospel According to the Meninblack. To be charitable, it was an interesting diversion from their previous work. To be honest, it was half-baked unintelligible sci-fi conspiracy nonsense about some wack-ass alien visitation that influenced Christianity. Okay. No one really got whatever the boys had in mind, but this is a fun song that features all the band’s strengths, with a few weirdo elements (pitched up vocals, mostly) tossed in.
7. Golden Brown
The favorite of many a Stranglers fan. Is it about heroin or a woman? Both, according to Cornwell, who wrote the lyrics. Originally released on 1981’s La Folie, another concept album theoretically about love or, literally, the madness of love. Very few pop songs to compare this one to, by anyone. Still beautiful and unique today.
8. Strange Little Girl
The follow up to ‘Golden Brown’ was actually one of the band’s earliest songs. Stranglers were leaving EMI and owed them a single, so they offered this track, a demo of which EMI had ironically rejected in 1974. Co-written by Hans Warmling, a friend of Cornwell’s from his student days in Sweden and an original member of the band. EMI put it out as a single and as part of a compilation album titled The Collection 1977-1982. Many Strangler’s fans’ own ICAs would likely be drawn from that same collection.
9. Skin Deep
By the time of 1984’s Aural Sculpture, Stranglers’ second LP for Epic, the band could still produce a good single or two, but the rest of the album was filler. It was a toss up between this one and ‘No Mercy’, the other album single. This one has the nicer vocal melody, but either represents which way the band was limping along. (You might have notice I passed right by 1983’s underwhelming Feline without stopping.)
10. Always The Sun
Arguably, this is the last ‘good’ Stranglers tune. Leadoff track and single from the band’s 1986 LP Dreamtime. It’s okay, I guess, but not a patch on tracks from the first 4 LPs that are much better. ‘Goodbye Toulouse’, ‘Nuclear Device’, ‘English Towns’, ‘Nice ‘n’ Sleazy’ all come to mind. Most discouraging (for me anyway) is the once terrifying Burnel playing a muted pump bass throughout, as if the band hired in Adam Clayton for the session. Dreamtime was followed by 1990’s 10, which featured a boring cover version of the 1966 Farfisa number ‘96 Tears’ by ? and the Mysterians as a single, and nothing more of note.
1977 B-side of the UK-only ‘Something Better Change’ 7”. Also released as the b-side to the ‘Choosey Susie’ single given away free with Stranglers IV, a compilation LP made for the US market of tracks from The Raven (which didn’t get a US release) and some earlier songs.
Sverige (Jag Är Insnöad På Östfronten)
Swedish release of ‘Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)’ from Black and White.
N’emmenes Pas Harry
French release of ‘Don’t Bring Harry’, another reference to Heroin, from The Raven.
A weirdo track appearing on the ‘Walk On By’ single. Features some geezer called George Melly and harmonica from Lew Lewis, of Eddie & the Hot Rods, who went on to record on Sandanista! tracks ‘Version City’ and ‘Look Here’.
Looking back on what I wrote, I wonder if TVV’s audience realizes just how unnoticed The Stranglers were in the US. Despite their massive UK and European success, only Dreamtime charted in the States, barely making a scratch at number 172. None of their singles charted at all. To this day, I never once heard a Stranglers song on the radio.
mp3 : The Stranglers – (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)
mp3 : The Stranglers – No More Heroes
mp3 : The Stranglers – 5 Minutes
mp3 : The Stranglers – Tank
mp3 : The Stranglers – The Raven
mp3 : The Stranglers – Just Like Nothing On Earth
mp3 : The Stranglers – Golden Brown
mp3 : The Stranglers – Strange Little Girl
mp3 : The Stranglers – Skin Deep
mp3 : The Stranglers – Always The Sun
mp3 : The Stranglers – Straighten Out
mp3 : The Stranglers – Sverige (Jag Är Insnöad På Östfronten)
mp3 : The Stranglers – N’emmenes Pas Harry
mp3 : The Stranglers – Old Codger