The ever-irksome Darius Drewe has chosen, perhaps unsurprisingly, to cover the work of his all-time second favourite band. A band who he’s seen over 35 times since 1992. So strap yourself tightly into those black leather seats, and prepare to peruse a list of old favourites, modern-day mindblowers, overlooked deep cuts, and (as is now customary) a couple you’ve never heard, as we go Live And Recorded with… THE STRANGLERS.
- THE RAVEN
ON RECORD (from The Raven, 1979): Recorded at a time when “punk” was already fast disappearing up its own narrow fundament, “The Raven” was a perfect demonstration of how the era’s more gifted composers (the Stranglers being just one of many examples) would soon find themselves adapting to the onset of the electronic 80s. More measured than their previous work, yet still buzzing (as represented by its thrumming synth and bassline) with an undercurrent of deviancy, it defined in less than five minutes the very essence of “New Wave”: its bravely experimental parent album, meanwhile, saw the band paying homage to their proggier influences whilst simultaneously presaging the soon-come New Romantic era. But enough of that: as Den Dennis once said to Vim Fuego, “I’m unplugging if we’re anything to do with the New Romantics…”
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): Once again, the band have elected to use the track as their set-opener, and as ever, it’s an incredibly effective one. Following immediately from the ominous “Waltzinblack” tape intro (a customary feature of all shows since the mid-80s) its introductory bass-and-drum duet, rapidly offset by swathes of whizzing keyboards, ably sets the scene for what follows: in contrast to its relatively genteel pace on record, its accentuated live tempo acts as an ideal establishing ground for the traditional Stranglers moshpit, and trust me, it can be intense in there. The crowd indulge in their idiosyncratic (yet by now traditional) practice of singing along to Dave Greenfield’s synthesizer riff, the extended intro permits requisite anticipatory build-up, bassist Jean-Jacques “John” Burnel’s icy lead vocal pins it to the floor with nails of steel, and we’re off: though we’ve heard the opening couplet of “fly straight with affection, find me a new direction…” a million times, its impact never lessens.
- NICE AND SLEAZY
ON RECORD (From Black And White, 1978): The lead-off single from possibly the first real “post-punk” LP- and more importantly, the song from which Glasgow’s best alternative club venue took its name.
Admittedly, it’s not necessarily the best song on the album– the progmongous “Toiler On The Sea”, the lyrics of which also inspired the moniker of Scouse new-wavers A Flock Of Seagulls, scoops that particular honour- but with its off-kilter time signature, skewed “white-reggae” rhythm, grinding bassline and discordant keyboard solo, “Nice And Sleazy” demonstrated how far in 18 months the band had already moved from the punk scene’s restrictive confines, and in which direction they would soon be heading. For those unaware, the lyrics (“An angel came from outside/ Had no halo, had no father, with a coat of many colours/ He spoke of brothers many/ Wine and women, song aplenty/ He began to write a chapter in history”) allude to several enjoyable evenings spent at at a clubhouse owned by the Dutch Hell’s Angels: like many incidents in the band’s career, this initially rewarding friendship eventually ended in tears and a truckload of what we Londoners refer to as “agg”, but at least it inspired a hit.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): With his droll North-Eastern twang, guitarist/vocalist Baz Warne makes more than a meal of this song’s reasonably brief duration: in contrast to Hugh Cornwell’s monotone or Paul Roberts’ lounge-lizard croon, the former Toy Dolls/Smalltown Heroes anchorman really does sound sleazy, and obviously derives much pleasure from delivering lines such as “like a dry tree seeking water…or a daughter” in his most lascivious, leering cackle. Though Burnel’s four-string weapon sounds both louder and dirtier here than it’s done for years, it thankfully never drowns out Greenfield’s keyboards, which seem even more demented in both tone and panning than they did on the original: true, today’s version does miss the skittering, frisping drums of Jet Black, whose age and ill-health prevent him from either live or studio performance (thus relegating his modern-day role to that of “co-writer and mentor”) but young disciple Jim McAulay does a more than fine job in his stead.
ON RECORD (From Rattus Norvegicus, 1977): The opening track from possibly the best debut album ever released- at least by any British band. Of course, they’d never get away with such a song now: even in 1976, its decidedly suspect opening gambit (“Someday I’m gonna smack your face/Somebody’s gonna call your bluff/ Somebody’s gonna treat you rough”) and equally worrying chorus (“you’re way past your station….beat you honey, til you drop” ) didn’t exactly find favour with Women’s Lib-oriented critics (even the ones the band were shagging) and, despite the irresistibility of the song’s playful keyboard line and clipped, cool drumbeat, such lyrics would probably see them no-platformed by every major promoter within the M25 in PC 2017.
However, like a lot of their early material (“Ugly” “Tits” “Choosey Susie”) the song’s predominant tone was a satirical one- not condoning such behaviour, merely acknowledging its existence and commenting on it. And besides, the final verse shows Cornwell directing equal ire at the band’s male fanbase, in particular the patrons of the London and Surrey pub-rock circuits: “Sometimes you’re gonna get some stick/ Sometimes you’re gonna get some stick/ Somebody’s standing in our way/ Somebody’s gonna have to pay”. Of course, it was in retrospect this very attitude that resulted in promoters, fans and writers alike being shit-scared of the group: perhaps even more in some ways than they were of the Pistols, for whereas Lydon’s mob tended to operate only within Malcolm McLaren’s Situationist bubble, the Stranglers always managed to get their decidedly unsavoury material onto mainstream radio and TV (even to the extent of appearing on kids’ shows like Tiswas) and in doing so, arguably achieved the greater long-term subversion. Yet conversely, that was also why the very same people always came back for more.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): Dropped into the set a mere three songs in (and thus heralding, at recent gigs, Warne’s first lead vocal of the evening) “Sometimes” is one of many songs which could be said to function as a “two-way mirror”: the band acknowledging that their hardcore fans’ appreciation stretches way beyond the hits, and the audience recognising that songs like these still crackle with as much fire and malevolence 40 years on as they did at the Red Cow or the Nashville. Again, today’s version is slightly more pointed than the original, with louder guitar work underpinning the minimalist keyboard tones of the instrumental sections: on the other hand, name me one song that isn’t faster and louder live (excluding those written by doom metal bands, who negate such principles by definition) and I’ll give you a fucking prize. Either way, it’s always a pleasure to hear: thirty seconds of that intro, and you soon remember precisely why you’re a Stranglers fan. Not that I’ve ever forgotten.
- (GET A) GRIP (ON YOURSELF)
ON RECORD (From Rattus Norvegicus, 1977): Rivalling Amen Corner’s “If (Paradise Is) Half As Nice” for the most absurd usage of brackets in any title, this galloping, thrudding, double-time monster of a tune- dominated by one of the most verbose lyrics the so-called “punk wars” ever engendered- was not only a superior album track, but the first in a series of exceptionally fine singles (backed by “London Lady”) that would ultimately cement the Stranglers’ reputation as great pop songsmiths. Aggressive yet literate, heavy-as-fuck yet danceable, rooted in electronics and boasting a vocal delivery that hinted at rap, yet still outwardly definable as rock (as further underlined by Cornwell’s invitation to “strap on your guitar and play some rock’n’roll” ) this was clearly music from a different planet, never mind lineage: moreover, it remains to this day quite possibly the only rock song to feature a 60-year-old Welsh coalminer called Eric on saxophone.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): With McAulay’s ferocious one-thud drumbeat still laying bare after 40 years the band’s obvious debt to Hawkwind, and Burnel’s grumbling full-chord basswork underpinning Warne’s scratched guitar and spitting vocals , “Grip” is a more than fair representation of the term “harder, faster”. Not forgetting, either, the swooping, juddering and shuddering keyboard sounds that introduce, decorate and conclude the song, delivered in the studious-yet-minimalist manner that’s always been Greenfield’s trademark: the only trouble is, it’s so fast live, it’s almost over before it’s even started!! Still, they do say time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. Trivia note: Allegedly, the single only narrowly missed out on a top 40 placing due to some “chicanery” by the BMRB in favour of The Police. Who knows…
- DOWN IN THE SEWER
ON RECORD (From Rattus Norvegicus, 1977): One of the earliest nods to the band’s heavy psych and prog influences (both dirty words among the insurrectionist architects of punk, although they did later grudgingly “allow” their cognoscenti to like the former) this 9-minute, four-part epic was one of the bravest tracks with which anyone could have ended an album in 1977. Still, at least that meant you’d already heard the rest of it. Deceptively complex in spite of its three-chord riff and Reed-esque vocal, and consisting essentially of one (spoken) verse, seven minutes of widdly and a neo-classical finale, this was precisely the sort of thing the oiks dahn the Nashville, Red Cow or ‘Ope’n’Anchor either ran screaming from or gobbed squarely in the face of: in Year Zero, musical proficiency was strictly for dinosaurs, daddyo. Yet, because they delivered it with such noose-toting degenerate menace (and let’s be honest, one couldn’t really deliver a lyric like “I’ll 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” in any other manner) they got away with it. Except, that is, in the eyes of self-professed “punk prophet” Jon Savage- but what genuine music lover ever gave a shit what she thought?
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): Representing the end of the show “proper” (a task to which its climactic final stanza is ideally suited) “Sewer” still remains a highlight of the band’s set some 40 years after they first began playing it. Granted, they struggled with it somewhat in the 90s, not least of all due to the perceived redundancy of non-guitar-playing frontman Roberts during the extended instrumental section and drummer Black’s encroaching frailty, but the rejuvenated 2010s incarnation have once more breathed both life and fire back into what was fast on its way to becoming a rattus expiricus. The only trouble is, once they tear into it, you know the end of the night isn’t far away- and in Stranglers terms, that’s always a sad thing.
ON RECORD: (from Suite XVI, 2006) In 2006, after 16 years of relative stability, the Stranglers once more found themselves singer-less and in drastic need of a rethink: in retrospect, they needn’t have worried, as within months they’d written quite possibly their best latter-day song. Truly, as a representation of the transition between MK II and MK III, “Relentless” is simply perfect: melodically, it’s as moving and haunting as any of their elder perennials, and though it’s clearly evident from Warne’s phrasing (largely located in his lower range) that the song was originally penned with the outgoing Roberts’ voice in mind, the Bazster still makes it every inch his own, aided amply by the subtle harmonies of JJ. Lyrically, its subject matter is as befitting of a mature band as could be: what might be mistaken for existential angst in the first verse (“me, I always found it hard switching off my head and tuning out the noise”) is quickly revealed as fatalism in the next (“I saw my love today, she’s looking old but so am I”) before ultimately collapsing into tragic-comic human downfall (“the King sat upon his throne and waved his hand at the sea, time made a fool of him and everything he tried to be…same with me”) in the third. Meanwhile, in the background, Burnel and Black’s ceaselessly pacing rhythms provide a constant reminder of the title, right up til the track’s sudden crash-bang ending: a modern-day mantelpiece from the Meninblack, and no mistake.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): In its decade-plus of existence, “Relentless” has bounced around like the balls on a haunted Hammer Horror tennis court (V. Obscure Reference Dept): though its early outings tended to generally be during the first half of the set, it’s also occasionally been slotted in around the halfway mark ‘twixt the likes of “Duchess” “Thrown Away” or “Nuclear Device”, and on one occasion (Hammersmith 2010) they even finished with it, one of only two gigs at which I’ve ever seen them bow out with anything other than “No More Heroes” Nowadays, though, it seems to have found its home among the “final ten”: what this effectively means is that (a) the band obviously recognise how great it is, and (b) the fans (who seem to have taken it to their hearts as a contemporary classic) can now derive further enjoyment from anticipating its ominously twanging intro. In case you’re interested, by the way, the other non-Heroes finale I witnessed was at the orchestrated Royal Albert Hall show in mid-1997: perhaps aptly given the time and place, they concluded that night’s performance with a cover of the Lovin Spoonful classic “Summer In The City”.
- ALWAYS THE SUN
ON RECORD (from Dreamtime, 1987): Unbelievably, despite being released on two separate occasions, this classic slice of AOPP (Adult Orientated Post-Punk) never climbed higher in the UK singles charts than a mere 29. No, seriously, 29!! I mean, how can that possibly be? You’ve all heard it on drive-time radio a squillion times over (in fact, Johnnie Walker still plays it practically every fourth Sunday even now) it’s been on umpteen compilations, it’s appeared on car adverts, and when the band launch into it live, it’s met with an even more boisterous, football-crowd roar of approval than “Golden Brown” (i.e. their single most popular song) Still, I guess that just goes to prove that “a hit doesn’t have to be a hit to be a hit” After all, Led Zeppelin never even released one solitary single in the UK throughout their 12-year career: similarly, “Gloria”- Van Morrison’s all-time best-known composition and the doyen of countless cover bands- was never a hit anywhere for the Belfast bluesman, either with Them or as a solo artist, and neither “I Wanna Be Your Dog” nor any other Stooges record sold particularly well until several decades after they were first cut. Nonetheless, if one song ever deserved to be a bigger success than it was, then “Always The Sun” is that very tune: put that intro, that chorus, those wistful lyrics, that lingering, floating melody, Cornwell’s mediaeval-picking solo and Greenfield’s “reverse” backing vocal together, and what results is four and a half minutes of pop perfection.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): As mentioned above, “ATS” is one of the essential moments in any Stranglers show: no matter what else might get chopped or changed, this simply has to remain. The minute Greenfield’s dive-bombing synth swirls into the song’s pulsing, jangling intro, knowing gazes sweep across the hall, heads nod, bodies sway, arms link, torsos bounce, and anywhere between 8 and 20,00 delirious punters (dependant on size of town and venue, obviously) drown the band in full chorus. Ironic, really, when one considers that it originates from their decidedly un-punk, Radio 2’n’ Wogan stadium rock period: on the other hand, that just goes to prove that a truly great song can transcend any boundary. During the 90s, it even became an audience participation number: the custom at the time was for Roberts, wielding an orchestral temple-block, to punctuate each line with a hardy “thopp” (thereby inviting the audience to respond in kind with a combination of yells and cheers) and though nowadays, the guitar-playing Warne obviously can’t do that, MacAulay still gets to “throw it in” from behind the traps to rapt applause. On the other hand, though the shaven-headed Geordie axeman definitely sings the song with the same confidence as both of his predecessors, one may possibly question whether his, ahem, slight “personalisation” of the lyric (“who gets the job of sucking my nob”) necessarily befits its mood. I shall leave it up to the individual to judge…
- NEVER TO LOOK BACK
ON RECORD (From “10”, 1990): An interesting choice, this- especially given that even those who decry the band’s entire post-Cornwell output still tend to view this song’s parent album (his final with them) as their weakest. In fairness, I myself don’t think it is: sure, it’s a little overproduced, but which mainstream rock or pop act didn’t find make at least one such record in the late 80s/early 90s? Compared to the bellicose cack U2 and Simple Minds had started churning out by then, it sounds positively lo-fi. Yet whatever your view, even a band’s lesser albums will tend to still have a few redeeming features- and this moody, bleak closer, written and sung by JJ, is certainly one of them. Again purveying the “mournful uptempo” schtick in which the band by now specialised to sheer perfection, with wintry keyboards framing the bassist’s operatic baritone and sly Beatle-referencing chorus-line (“all my loving…is not enough for that”) it throbs along, like so many of their best numbers, on an archetypically mechanoid, motorik drumbeat from Jet Black: its best feature of all, however, is its defiant lyric, aimed squarely up the hooter of every journalistic twassock who ever misinterpreted the band’s intentions. Trust me, if the line “I had a black shirt….but I wasn’t one” doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, you probably never will know.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, 24 Mar 2017): The story of “Never To Look Back” as an onstage entity is quite a curious one: barely even played by the classic lineup before Cornwell’s departure in late 1990, it then slowly resurfaced more and more during the Roberts era (usually at gigs specifically dedicated to the group’s lesser-known material) before finally springing to full life again in the eleven years Burnel and Warne have acted as co-frontmen. Now once more sung by its author, it’s a passionate performance, with subject matter that obviously lurks very close to his heart: thrown into the set five or six songs along, it can easily wrong-foot you, but once you realise what it is, its power is irresistible.
- WALK ON BY
ON RECORD (Originally released as non-album single, 1978: subsequently added to CD version of Black And White): Not counting the umpteen dodgy rock’n’roll /country numbers the band had to slip into their early sets as the Chiddingfold (aka Guildford) Stranglers in 74/75, this was the lads’ first real, bona-fide cover version: it quickly set a precedent, too, climbing to no 21 in the UK singles charts and thus becoming the first in a series of other people’s songs (“All Day And All Of The Night” “96 Tears”) with which they would subsequently (much to the consternation of writer Cornwell, and eventually prompting among other factors his eventual departure) enjoy success. Obviously in 1978, the idea of a “punk” or “new wave” band tackling something as left-field as a Burt Bacharach tune (first recorded in 1964 by Dionne Warwick) was unheard of: however, thanks to their trademark juxtaposition of deadpan menace and florid psychedelia, they not only turned the track squarely on its head (the end result sounding more like a take on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” than anything even vaguely relating to the original composition) but created a fan favourite which remains a staple of the set to this day.
LIVE (Brixton Academy, Mar 24 2017): For once, the live rendition of “WOB” doesn’t differ greatly in tempo from its vinyl counterpart: maybe somehow, the fact that they didn’t write it to begin with has ensured they always perform it at more of a set pace than they would their original material. That said, I do seem to remember certain unplugged performances during the Roberts/Ellis era taking on a distinctly “Latino” flavour- but nowadays, the apart from the addition of some newer keyboard sounds, we’re more or less back to business as usual. Nonetheless its popularity has never waned- the minute Warne slings out the jazzy intro, the hall still erupts, and much enjoyment can still be gleaned, even after all these years, from watching a roomful of punks, Goths and crusties attempting to mosh to a mid-paced lounge number with a six-minute prog interlude. Once again, it’s all down to the unique power the Stranglers, and the Stranglers alone, exert over their audience: great though they are, I can’t imagine people doing the same for the Chameleons or the Comsat Angels.
- MIDNIGHT SUMMER DREAM
ON RECORD: (From Feline, 1983: single version differs from album recording) For every hit the Stranglers have ever enjoyed, there have always been two or three others that “got away”: this romantic, prancing number, though much beloved of the band’s hardcore fans, is precisely one such escapee. Considering it came inbetween two massive chart successes (“Strange Little Girl” and “European Female”) its lack of chart action is frankly rather baffling: OK, so the vocals on its first half (or indeed, the entire song on the album version) are spoken rather than sung, but that never stopped “Peaches” from being a huge success, and besides, you’d have surely thought that by the time of their seventh sodding album, audiences and programmers alike would have grown used to the band’s unique sound. But, no, outside the top 40 verily did it stall. A great shame, as its misty European flavour (very much in keeping with their direction at that time) nifty acoustic licks, quasi-classical keyboards and electronically programmed drumming (representing Black’s first forays into many such experiments) create a highly unique combination : of equal note is the melancholic, pensive lyric, which though reminiscent of Love’s “Old Man”, was actually inspired by the prelude and comedown to an acid trip Cornwell took ten years earlier with an eccentric ex-millionaire named George. Evidently a rewarding experience in more ways than one…
LIVE: Sadly, this track currently languishes in the “far too long neglected” category, and as such, represents this feature’s first foray into the area of forgotten (or at least under-appreciated) Stranglers greats. The last time I can (possibly) recall them playing it was at Cabot Hall, Canary Wharf, 2003: other than that, my only definite recollection comes (as the “Friday The Thirteenth” DVD will confirm) from the 21st anniversary Albert Hall show, where its sombre mood was given extra piquancy by the massed strings of an all-female orchestra. Perhaps because it represents – like most of Feline – a softer, gentler side to the band than explored on recent releases, it’s been deliberately avoided of late: then again, several shows during the last ten years have featured numerous surprises from the same era (“No Mercy” “North Winds” “Tramp”) so you never know…
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