The Stranglers…what can I say about them? One of my first favourite bands, and although I rarely buy their new material they’re still a considerable live draw.
I first heard their music I was 13, which was a very formative age to hear them. At the time they were a little too ‘adult’ to my kiddie ears and compared to the other chart hits of 1986, I found “Always the Sun” plodding and boring. Now I hear it as a wonderful song which rewards far more than the average S/A/W record.
Next I heard their punk/pub rock style debut Rattus Norvegicus and it’s follow up No More Heroes, and I was sold. What was great about them is they had many stylistic faces, yet undoubtedly sounded like the same band. JJ Burnel’s grinding bass and Dave Greenfield’s energetic keyboards were great contributors to this success- few of the punk and New Wave bands sounded like them. They were obviously talented musicians, but had a lot of attitude as well. Their work into the 80s became more and more subtle and sophisticated, and their range was a welcome attraction (with the exception of the disappointing 1990 album 10). Hugh Cornwell and JJ Burnel were two extremely cool guys, and myself and my mate Ian used to revere them somewhat back in the ‘80s (along with Dave Greenfield the keyboardist and Jet Black the drummer). When Hugh announced he was leaving the band in 1990 it was the end of an era, and coincided with my first forays into clubbing and an expanding music taste, so it was an end of an era in a personal way as well. I bought the Mk II line-up’s first album in 1992, but it wasn’t the same, and I’d resist buying anything by the post-Cornwell years until very recently when they seem to have found a return to form.
Anyway…you get an idea how important The Stranglers were to me., not least because they introduced me to other types of music at quite an early age, which was slightly outside the mainstream.
But what about the albums?
The Stranglers debut album is Rattus Norvegicus, followed by No More Heroes (both 1977) and Black and White (1978). These discs were originally released at the height of British punk rock, and although The Stranglers were never a ‘true’ punk band they were a big part of it all, and many tracks can be categorised as such, despite the obviously more sophisticated music and diversity. It’s worth mentioning that these three albums sold by the shed load and made their initial popularity. Plus they contain their early top ten hits like “Peaches, “No more heroes”, and “Something better change”. They are considered their best albums by some!
Black and White is a real re-visiting for me, as I played it constantly during 1988, when the album was already ten years old. Now that is 25 years ago, and it takes me back! It’s a very distinctive album, concerning itself with some interesting subject matter, and many of the tracks have a typically misogynistic slant. It is quite punk rock, but also very prog as well, and many of the lyrics are shouted (by J J especially on “Curfew”). The song arrangements are very unusual (in odd time signatures) and the lyrics are fascinatingly ambiguous. Some of the subject matter definitely includes the idea of machines taking over and curfew following the government being taken over…all cheery dystopian stuff! A minor masterpiece of its kind I’d say, and certainly one of their highest charting albums (no.2, as was No More Heroes) but much darker in tone.
Live (X Cert) comes next in ‘79, but as it’s a live LP, I’ll hold back on that for now, but well worth a listen.
Next up is The Raven (1979), which is one of my favourites (and a fan favourite in general). Some remnants of the punk style in there and the odd hit (the ‘60s style single “Duchess”), but the rest is quite experimental and ecliptic (almost bordering on prong rock and techno). Some of it is quite atmospheric too. It also contains the track “Meninblack”, which might well be one of the creepiest pop songs ever recorded…the ideas behind it obviously inspired the band as they lost the plot completely and used it as the starting point for their next LP:
(The Gospel according to) The Meninblack (1981) is a concept album; one of those albums that comes at a point where a band has achieved some critical and commercial success and their record label allow them to ‘do their own thing’. It stems from the band’s interest in the mysterious meninblack and UFOlogy, and is about alien visitors to the Earth in the planet’s remote past…you know the drill. I used to dislike it as a teenager, as it wasn’t full of instantly catchy tunes, but it’s actually one of their most experimental and aurally rewarding albums in my more mature opinion. J J Burnel describes some of it as “techno” (before such a genre existed). I didn’t like it very much when I first heard it at 15 years old, but reappraising it recently I have to say I do really like it. It’s a grower (although I still think “Turn the Centuries, turn” is a tedious drone.) Love the sound of a spaceship landing near the beginning of the record (“Just like nothing on Earth”), and taking off towards the end. It’s full of little quirks like that. “Second coming”, “Thrown Away” and “Two Sunspots” are all quite catchy, but took me ages to appreciate. A bit of a bonkers album though, admittedly (and the lyrics to “Just like Nothing…” are semi-gibberish, which is perhaps the point).
La Folie was released at the end of 1981, and was a blatantly commercial product (to please EMI after the commercial failure of Meninblack). It’s full of great tunes, not least the huge hit “Golden Brown”. It’s also a concept album again, this time about love, but this being The Stranglers, it’s not all romantic love…each track is about a very different aspect of it. I’ll let you decipher the meanings behind the songs.
They left EMI in ’82 and signed a new deal with CBS/Epic. Their first album on Epic is Feline, a very European album (almost acoustic in places). Not a personal favourite, and probably the one I’m least familiar with (I didn’t even own my own copy of it until recently). It contains the top ten hit “European Female”, and seems to have pretentions to a more sophisticated sound, but it’s never quite gelled with me so far. “Midnight Summer Dream” is good though (in my opinion of course!)
1984’s Aural Sculpture introduces a brass section and is one of my favourite ‘80s albums. The album also contains two of my favourite Stranglers singles- “Skin Deep” and “No Mercy”. Very glossy production and deserved to be bigger than it was (although “Skin Deep” was a big hit).
Dreamtime (1986) is, for me, a brilliant and rewarding album, especially in its quieter moments. Epic had high hopes for “Always the Sun”, and all the signs were that is would go top three in the charts. Sadly, after some inept ‘work’ from the promotions dept, after the band had done their part, it stalled at 30. Arguably The Stranglers finest song, and one that I like more as the years go by. This album also has “Nice in Nice”, which is another great single (and a cheeky reference to when the band were jailed briefly in 1980 for inciting a riot in Nice). Some interesting inspiration behind the album as well, with Australian aboriginal shamanism rearing its head on some tracks.
The live album All Live and all of the Night comes next, but and is a fuller more sophisticatedly produced live set than ‘X-Cert’.
The next studio album is also their last with Hugh Cornwell, and for a lot of people the band were never the same again. 10 (1990) was blatantly aimed at the American market and it shows. I kind of like it, but it’s far too cheesy in places and the brass section take too much prominence. You could be cruel and call it the sound of band now past their prime, but there are some worthwhile moments (I personally like their version of “96 Tears”, which became their last top 20 hit in 1990). Personally 10 reminds me of summer 1990 and getting ready to go out on a Tuesday night to student Ritzy, as I used to play it a fair bit back then. Ironically, that was about the time Hugh quit the band- in August 1990.
…and there the output of the original line up ends, which seems a good place to end an introduction!