March 8th 2013 live review
If there is one defining moment tonight, it’s when the great Jet Black enters the stage 2/3 of the way through the set replacing his young apprentice Jim Macauley who has done a sterling job until the master makes his entrance.
As Jet takes the stage, to his specially set up kit in the corner, there is a surge of emotion in the room and his name rings out across the hall but it’s barely acknowledged by the great man himself as he thuds into the defining drum signature of Genetix.
The fact that, at nearly 75, Jet can’t take the punishment of playing a whole Stranglers set with its rigorous high energy and complex rhythms is brushed aside as he plunges in at the deep end with one of the band’s most complex songs. It’s a heroic moment and typical of the relentless drive of Black that embodies the spirit of this most idiosyncratic of bands that still don’t play by the rules.
The moment is classic Stranglers, no poxy showbiz- just pure rocking business, the business of highly individual music that was somehow made commercial, the business of writing wonderful and strange songs like Genetix that has every instrument playing lead in a piece of prog punk strangeness that educated teenage minds about DNA and still sounded like it could have been a hit if someone had dared to release it as a single.
How did they get away with it?
So many bands are scared shitless of taking a chance and yet the Stranglers thrived on tearing the fabric and their stubborn, belligerent artfulness is captured in their drummer whose mere presence tonight is enough, let alone his highly imaginative drumming brilliance.
The Stranglers were always a bizarre band and that’s why we love them. They were never, ever boring and the site of the 74 year old master drummer playing that signature rolling tom piece from the song is thrilling. It’s not often mentioned but Black is one of the great drummers, he never opts for anything obvious and his of kilter drumming is so often the defining instrument in a band full of defining instruments.
It’s nearly 40 years since this oddest of groups came together in an off licence in Chiddingford and through the decades their idiosyncratic career has annoyed all the right people, their survival has exasperated the hipsters and their creativity has hypnotised their faithful.
Tonight’s gig underlines this with a set that is like a trawl through the bands back pages, back pages that are still being added to with the last three albums being worthy parts of the canon. They also play with a fire and leering belligerence that not only belies their age but has mostly disappeared from the stage in the past few years. Like many classic bands age has not withered them and only added to their power and their sense of being out of step with the herd.
Nothing about the Stranglers is normal. The original four were the most unlikely combination of musicians to ever share stage and when Hugh Cornwell left and they lost some direction on their records for a few years they still survived due to their loyal fan base and the innate power of their live music. Three albums ago there was a rebirth, when they found that dark mojo again and that continues tonight.
The current tour sees a set that is culled from all the eras of the band’s career and it’s a fantastic history lesson in the band’s plain oddness and zig zagging imagination that sees them master all styles from punk anthems like Something Better Change to the pure anthemic pop of Always The Sun, from the snarling, tongue in cheek leering of Bring On The Nubiles to the baroque beauty of Golden Brown.
Somehow the Stranglers encompass all these moods in one set switching effortlessly from one style to the next, from one atmosphere to another without ever sounding lost.
This is, perhaps, down to the band’s stunning musicianship- from JJ’s black belt bass which still sets the standard for rock bass playing (check out that solo in Genetix- wow!) to Dave Greenfield’s mind blowing keyboard dexterity- those keyboard trills and frills he lays out are so well known that you forget their brilliant creativity and complexity- a complexity that never gets in the way of their melody or in the way of him supping his pint of something strong with one hand whilst he deals out the licks with another.
Critics of the Stranglers always like to point out their so called lumpen retro nature but these fools totally misunderstand the band- few groups have managed to be so influential and to move on so many musical fronts at the same time and push the barriers and not get the credit for it.
The spring 2013 set leans slightly towards the band’s more autumnal, baroque edge and sounds fine for it- songs like Skin Deep are back in the set and a dusting down of European Female adds to this strange mixture of electro-Stranglers, with a wistful longing and sadness couched in the thudding power.
The two songs are actually some of the highlights this evening, reminding the listener that if some of the later albums may have had a touch too much eighties polish to their sound they still contained some truly great songs and the current live renditions have a toughness just below the surface that balances neatly with their complexity and sophistication that truly is one of the Stranglers’ great strengths.
Of course they were the masters of the punk anthem- you can’t argue with Something Better Change for its to the point genuine aggression- an aggression and anger that so many other punk bands were faking at the time and that the Stranglers genuinely had.
Oddly in the debate of who and who wasn’t punk the Stranglers always get dismissed first but they had all the correct credentials for the form as if it matter anyway. Maybe we were lucky in our punk generation to have them there as well- the misfits’ misfits- the band who would not play by the rules of movement that apparently had no rules, they had the air of brooding menace that, even in their autumnal years, they have never lost. If JJ spends most of the night grinning at the moshing throng and getting smiled at by women decades younger, he still has that hint of menace about him that defines the Stranglers.
The opening trilogy of Toiler On the Sea, Goodbye Toulouse and Grip set the stall- tough, bass driven classics that come from the band’s commercial golden era when they were effortlessly knocking out classic albums every six months with an astonishing work rate that seemed so natural at the time. These were songs that had that driving edge and spindly aggression so loved by punk but with a sophistication and that brooding melancholy of their own like on Toiler On The Sea’s swooping Ventures guitar break which is so JJ- the black belt psychotic who had a knack for writing sophisticated musical pieces giving him that fantastic, artful contradiction that always made him a fascinating and dangerous individual.
They then revisit Norfolk Coast, the song that announced them back as a creative powerhouse nearly a decade ago, when Baz Warne kicked the band up the arse and finally awoke them from the nineties slumber and saw them pull off this great comeback. For a few years the song has been out of the set but it’s back now and sounds fantastic, with Baz taking the vocal from JJ (who sang the demo) so the bassman can get on with playing the bass line that so defines the tune.
There is a great run though of Thrown Away- the neo disco near hit from Meninblack, the song still has those really cool melodic changes and that fantastic bridge just before the chorus- a moment of mind melting, melodic beauty and it oozes regret mixed in with its UFO terminology- the Stranglers were always great at singing about the esoteric but also, somehow, about themselves inside the songs.
The only real criticism is that tonight there are not enough songs from last years fine Giants album, with just time the punchy Time Was Once On My Side and the brilliantly Strangleroid Mercury Rising representing the band’s best album since the Raven.
It would have been great to hear more of the album’s tracks or a run through of Another Camden Afternoon, which is played over the PA when the band finally end their set. But we do get a great version of Freedom Is Insane which is like a collection of all the great Stranglers motifs from their early period swept up and given a 21st century makeover. It’s a song that not only defines the album but also has that semi trippy feel of their best work, where the music seems to describe the songs atmosphere. Freedom has all those great windswept, stormy sea narratives that are so much part of much of the Stranglers great works- that yearning for escape, a dark romance and respect for the power of nature.
Relentless from Suite XVI, sounds fantastic- driving and twisting, it’s title sums up the band’s attitude and its hypnotic twanging power is classic Stranglers and yet more proof, it was needed, that Baz Warne is the perfect find for the band. Relentless is his song and would easily into any set from the band’s early years.
It’s followed by a great Bring On the Nubiles, the morally amusingly unsavoury yet musically fantastic song from the band’s No More Heroes period when they set out to piss everyone off with an intellectual baiting and sniggering nastiness that was part of the band’s attraction.
The song’s zig zag riff still packs a raw power and its musical construction is faultless, a real gem from the second album that was so quickly dismissed at the time but really stands the test of time decades later. Like English Towns played a couple of songs later it represents a much underrated period in the band’s history a period when they were fresh from the mass success of Rattus and about to invent post punk with Black And White but a period that has its own flavour and was, with its aggressive running bass and brilliantly nasty songs, the band’s genuine punk period.
It’s a period they dig into several times tonight with the anthemic No More Heroes doing is annual blow the roof of the venue bit and a fantastically sharp and crisp Straighten Out sounding as fresh as ever.
The spread of songs from the band’s 17 albums is breath taking and somehow they combine a sense of their own history with a bizarre sense of going forward. Custodians of their own strange and dank museum, they are exploring their own history with a relish but with that hat trick of recent back to form albums they are living proof that there are certainly still not dead on arrival.
Pics: Dod Morrison