March 30th 2013
On the 22nd night of their 2013 UK tour The Stranglers played to yet another packed house. Something is going on out there and as we watched the band our minds were racing with dark and mysterious ideas…
20 thoughts from whilst The Stranglers played a great set in Manchester…
1. Another packed venue, another ribald atmosphere…This should not be happening – at this stage of the game with a band nearly 40 years into their career, they should not be sounding this urgent, this vital and the room should not be this packed.
The Stranglers, however, don’t play by the rules. They have somehow dredged up a new lease of life that is being reflected in recent albums like Giants and 2500 packed gigs like this which are brimful of the creative aggression of yore but also full of musical contrasts in a well paced set- from the mellow baroque Golden Brown moments to the newer songs like Relentless that sit perfectly in the set and feel like Strangler classics already. Playing the full range of their multi faceted sound the band have gone up a gear and the people have come.
2. The heroic entrance of Jet Black 2/3 of the way through the set brings the house down. Like a venerable elder statesmen Jet takes the stage to his specially set up drum kit at the side of the stage and gives the crowd a quick wave and sits down for Genetix. Talk about straight in the deep end- the brilliant complex beat of the song fills the room and Jet is away, holding down the intriguing drum pattern of one of the band’s most complex masterpieces. (Although Dave Greenfield later tells us that Jet taught him the beat and it’s easier than it sounds!).
3. As we listen to Genetix we think about just how weird this song is- six minutes of strange music about DNA built around a guitar lick that sounds like genetic bubblings and that bass solo that is one of the great bass parts and is JJ at his very best- complex yet melodic. Genetix, itself, is a bizarre piece that should not work and certainly should not have a big pit of crazed dancers, some of them singing along to to Dave Greenfield’s vocoder vocal madness of ‘Gene regulation’ and other people nodding along to the songs unlikely lyrics about DNA and little nuclei. After the gig JJ talks about how a classic song should have something to hook people in- god knows how Genetix works to this theory but it does and it’s one of the band’s finest songs.
4. The segue between Midnight Summer Dream and European Female is classic Stranglers- they were always great at these joins- remember Death And Night and Blood and Do Ya Wanna and they it turns on a bass note? There’s a magical moment tonight when the songs suddenly switch from the rustic romance on strange evening with the shadowy figure who also the subject of Tramp of Dream to the perfect sexy yet still sinister Euro pop of European Female and somehow it makes sense- two contrasting moods that are somehow made whole. The two songs have never sounded better and the driving bass gives them a tougher edge which suits the current live Stranglers.
5. The two songs are also a powerful reminder of just what a great album Feline was. The common narrative with the Stranglers is that they were brilliant for those early records and somehow lost their way with the later releases in the Hugh Cornwell period but Feline is a wonderful work. Full of European flavours it is the one record where the programmed drums and new electronics really work brilliantly, merging as part of the songs and adding to the skewed flavour of the album. A great headphone album, Feline, is arguably, one of the finest release in the Stranglers idiosyncratic canyon.
6. Baz Warne owns the stage now. Joining a band like the Stranglers cannot be easy- there are some powerful personalities in there and a long and complex history that is set in stone. Somehow Baz Warne has created his own slice of Strangler history and it’s difficult now to imagine him not in the band. Baz somehow combines the Hugh parts he sings and plays with his own take on things and is very much a full time Strangler with his version of the band. He has the moves, musical chops and the attitude and also the energy and drive that woke the band up again.
7. This is a band that is going places- they could just do the annual tour and that would be enough but there all sorts of interesting plans and projects afoot as the band hit their late creative bloom full on. There is, of course, the upcoming American tour that is selling out fast but also some other really cool stuff coming up- lots of interesting ideas which we can’t divulge.
8. Why is Dave Greenfield not recognised as the finest keyboard player ever in the UK? if you don’t believe me think of someone else who comes close? I was speaking to Clint Boon from the Inspiral Carpets a couple of months ago and he told me that he was once offered the job of filling in for Dave on a tour but turned it down because the keyboard parts were way to hard to play. No-one has a sound this original and this complex and you can still jump up and down to it.
9. The venue is packed, more packed than ever. There was a time in the mid nineties when these venues were half full for the band but now they are packed. Stranglers ticket sales are 10 per cent up whilst almost everyone else is down- something is happening out there. Perhaps it’s the last three albums culminating in Giants, perhaps it’s the successful festival appearances, perhaps it’s the fact that everyone knows that the Baz line up is firing on full cylinder but something special is going on here and the band have become major UK circuit players in an unnoticed way.
10. As they play a great version of European Female my mind wanders to the big changes in the band’s sound in the early eighties- from the punk snarls to the more subtle later period- could the big change have occurred with JJ Burnel’s spooky and futuristic Euroman Cometh album? an album where the sound was paired down and the vocals were less shouted in parts- was this the harbinger for the Raven and Meninblack and a ground breaking album in its own right on release that was missed by the media who already had the band wrongly pigeonholed.
11. A thundering version of Tank with two drummers ends the set and is a reminder of the stark and amazing Black and White album which I will still argue was the first post punk album. It tore up the punk template and started again, inventing a whole new terrain to listen to whilst everyone else was trying to work out what to do. Joy Division was a year later, Magazine’s debut album a month later and the first Public Image album was released December 1978. Black and White beat all these traditionally accepted ‘first’ post punk albums. It was certainly not a punk record and was taking music somewhere else- post punk by my book…
12. That Light show is pretty damn good. It gives the band a modern air and is a reminder that the band are more than a trad meat and potatoes rock group.
13. The Stranglers are now going international- the time has come to break America and they seem ready to do it. The US tour is getting added to and Chicago sold out in minutes and other gigs will follow- America doesn’t operate under the rules of fashion and the band could still make an impact there after their mid eighties heyday in the USA when they became a big cult band.
14. Mercury Rising is a great song with its collapsing see saw bass line and sense of paranoia is a welcome return to the ‘weird’ Stranglers that somehow makes sense as a single.
15. The songs played from the first three albums tonight remind you that the Stranglers documented the dark and dangerous seediness of the late seventies far better at than any other band at the time. Punk was full of great bands but some get more credit than others for being the sound of the time. The Stranglers had a genuine aggression and a dark intelligence and were living on the frontline whilst many bands talked about it. Their seething fury and weird sense of humour and misfit intelligence was soaked into those early songs and reflected the dampness of the times without wallowing in it.
16. From the current album, Freedom Is Insane sounds great- a full blown, multi part epic with a bubbling keyboard that is close to the original classic keyboard sound and armed with a driving bass, it’s like many great Stranglers moments rolled into one and has that 3D thing they were always so good at- that trick of making songs that sounded like the subject matter. You can smell the salt air and hear the rolling waves in the track as JJ croons over the top. It’s one of the highlights off the recent Giants album and a reminder that, despite the set being studded with career spanning greatest hits, there is just not enough of Giants being played.
17. Jim Macauly is doing a great job of keeping Jet’s drum seat warm. Jet is no 4/4 drum merchant and his drum parts have always been full of unique rhythms and twists and turns and young Jim never drops a beat from the big master. Turns out the band’s newest recruit was once in a punk band that supported my band, Goldblade at some long lost gig in his home town of Birmingham.
18. The band maybe darkly serous but they have not lost that leering humour of the past (it didn’t go astray…). It’s that humour that always got them into so much trouble in the old days. At one moment someone throws a bra at Baz and it somehow lands on the end of his guitar and hangs there- visions of the infamous Battersea strippers fill the room and as the road crew run onto the stage to remove the bra, Baz runs off laughing before changing the lyrics to Peaches to describe the incident with an old school ad hoc Stranglers ad lib.
19. JJ is doing the one legged strut thing again- the rat walk has also returned with both frontman criss crossing the stage hunched over like the pack rat that is symbolic of the Stranglers. For a few years JJ had stood there playing the bass but now those mixture of karate kicks and shamanic dancing and bass strutting have returned as he reconnects with the music.
20. Lets not forget this was a 23 date tour…hardly any bands do these month long jaunts these days. This harks back to those old school long tours that were such a staple of the punk period. Look at the old tour dates online from the seventies- bands played hard in those days. The Stranglers made their name by playing every fucked up town in the UK that the rest of the bands didn’t dare tread, it honed their craft to perfection and also built them up a grass roots following that has never left them and got them through the bad years and is the foundation of where they are now. Oddly the times have come back to favour the live band and the Stranglers are laughing darkly at their triumph in the good cities…