Stranglers_-_Black-White_album_coverThe Stranglers
Liverpool O2
March 2016
Live Review

Rat walks, monochromatic lighting, strange yet compelling music, a jam packed venue with dark clad monks of darkness and a strange brew of an atmosphere can only mean one thing – the Stranglers annual celebration of their strange and idiosyncratic world is back in town and it doesn’t get much more strange and idiosyncratic than the Black and White album unless they dust down the later Meninblack opus…

1978’s Black and White was an album made by a band at the peak of its powers.

It showed a band playing a grinding and angular neo-prog and a 21st century non 12 bar blues post rock in the middle of punk convention and break new ground that has had its carcass picked over for decades for inspiration and, more importantly than any of this, it took this experimental madness to number 2 in the charts and was, somehow, a perfect boundary breaking pop record.

Tonight as the band revisit it decades later it is still a powerful statement. It also sees them sell out their biggest tour since 1980 and back in the big league and belies its veteran status with a music that has remained timeless and proves that when musicians gamble the results can be remarkable. The execution tonight is faultless and perfectly staged and the album played in its entirety is still a perfect statement of intent and document of the creeping fear and paranoia of late seventies UK that is still with us decades later.

It’s also an unspoken tribute to the great Jet Black who, despite still being a key member of the band, has retired from touring. His young replacement Jim Macaully steps up to the drum stool with a considered and powerful performance that leaves Jet’s idiosyncratic and crucially original beats in very safe hands.

Oddly, with its seamless collection of great songs and textures, it’s the lesser fancied In the Shadows that really sounds beyond great tonight. This strange and fantastically dislocated song is the moment when the band hits a supernatural groove with that Beefheart on dub fuzz bounce collapsing around with its own unique rhythm pattern whilst the drums collide against the barracuda bass and that slashing razor guitar that cuts across a song that drips fear and paranoia. Originally a strange, out of of place, dank yet broodingly powerful track on one of the most perfect albums ever released – in 2016 it sounds so contemporary that it hurts.

As the band deliver the whole album in order with a precision skill you are left to wallow in its timeless perfection and recognise an album so perfectly realised from it sounds to its artwork to its concept to the idea of having a black side and white side to underline the band’s schizophrenic genius to that brilliant front cover snapped by Ruan O’Lochlainn – one of about few photos he took at his Bearshanks Lodge rehearsal space in the Nothants countryside where the band had gathered xmas 1977 to write their first new material since their breakthrough. The photo, snapped in downtime, perfectly captured the band and their strange chemistry in their very body shapes. From JJ’s sullen coil-springed menace go Hugh’s head bowed enigmatic shape to Jet’s glaring at the camera as a grumpy old (40 years old then!) man to Dave Greenfield’s eccentric other worldly nature encased in JJ’s leather jacket to hide his less than photogenic shirt.

If this was Swans or even Fat White Family or even the Fall playing an album like this then this would be getting heralded as a remarkable piece of music played by a remarkable band who created their own rules as they go along but then this is the Stranglers who long ago swapped footnotes in musical history for a huge and ever increasing following.

In theory they should be battered and bruised without big Jet who is no average drummer but also an iconic presence who looms large in the band’s history and this was always a band that as the sum of its parts but, weirdly, they have never sounded so good. It’s like some kind of weird victory when a band like the Stranglers breaks through for the second time on its own terms and sounding this good. They are one of those bands that were once youthful icons, soundtracking a turbulent blip in time in the late seventies that have somehow become elder statesmen and whose songs have not only never dated but are somehow sound more relevant than ever and in the stark black and white stage set and stage lights JJ and Baz rat walk or do the surly guitar thing they are at an unbelievable late period peak.

This is a tour that sees them in the Apollos and the big halls and is almost totally sold out – where the Stranglers go from here is another intriguing question? it’s not inconceivable that they could step into the sheds and stadiums – this is getting very big and the band have earned these stripes. The next move should be a new album – the second half of the set is peppered with newer BAZ era tunes like Mercury Rising and Relentless that prove there is life in the old beast year and since Norfolk Coast their newer albums have been doing their legacy proud.

It was a smart move taking Black and White on tour – the album – despite being much loved by the fansinblack is not even those fan’s all time favourite favourite – that’s the marvellous textures of the Raven but for the hardcore like me and my crew it’s the apex and the stark and bleak landscapes of Black and White are when the band reached a true pinnacle and have stood the test of time.

The iconography, the sound, the songs, the experimental spirit and the fact that it is arguably the first post punk album breaking on through to the other side are all reasons to love this record along with THAT bass sound – still the best recorded bass sound ever.

Tonight they deliver the whole work with the same sort of awestruck admiration as the audience. This is a monolithic work and a work that has to be treated with respect. Like curators at a particularly unusual museum they handle these sonic artifacts with great care.

This was a schizophrenic album of two sides of the same coin – the white side with its clever inventive, 3D, late 70’s psychedelic, grunting, post punk, neo pop reflecting a time of stark, strangeness and belligerent charm. A time when the paisley swirls of the sixties were replaced with this new dark and yet still tripped out terrain – a dark terrain that was equally lysergic (believe me we tested this with magic mushrooms and it came up trippy trumps). a time when polarization was the key and reflected in the album’s title. The dark side is another thing all together – the first uneasy soundtracking of a dark and dangerous times with the hypnotic series of songs sung mainly by the then psychotic Burnel which struck a dark nerve that is faithfully replicated tonight despite the band claiming in interviews that they are enow in a different place mentally.

How do you go back there? A place do madness and confrontation… the band themselves have said it was hard to get into that mindset – a mindset that may have been throughly attractive to dangerous outsiders at the time but bad for the health of the protagonists – it maybe took the heroin era to take them out of this mindset but tonight when they revisit they do a great job of inhabiting this space.

First thing you notice is a great stage set – all painted white with black streaks, sonically there is the fact that the bass has been cranked up close to its grinding 1978 brilliance. Jim’s drums have picked the pace up and Baz Warne is more than just the man who put the mojo back into the old tigers but a powerful presence on his own terms and Dave? well Dave is Dave grinning like a maniac, waving his plastic rat at the crowd and playing complex keyboard parts without even looking.

The other thing you notice is just how prog the prime time Stranglers were and this was what they maybe did the best – making the weird into a strange brew pop, making odd rhythms powerful enough to leap around to and being too smart to ever do the obvious. A few months after watching Magma and immersing in the tripped out end of prog brings a different perspective to this work – Black and White somehow manages to straddle the fact that it’s an album that is full of punk belligerence and brimstone with a perfect pop edge and also brings a prog lunacy. There are weird time changes, counter rhythms and obtuse melodies and it’s played with a razor sharp perfection tonight.

Baz is on record that we never slag the band off on LTW but believe me if this gig had been a let down I would have been machine gunning them down but the old codgers are on fire. The live sound is the best I’ve heard them have for years and with an added clarity and also a splashing of dub effects giving the music a real movement.

They are also insanely tight, like a military unit operating behind enemy lines. The playing is impeccable – it’s been said before but JJ’s bass is virtuoso level – the runs are perfectly executed and the slides down the neck razor sharp, also the aforementioned Stranglers groove like on In the Shadows or Do You Wanna, you know that see sawing and zig zagging with a perfection that makes their complexity look simple is perfectly executed.

From the moment they hit the stage to the brutal Tank to the moment they close the album section with Enough Time – which is played this time instead of missed out like at the convention – the band don’t say a word but lay out the whole album. Black and White is serious business, it’s not showbiz. It doesn’t need the surly, leering jokes, it doesnt need a ‘good evening Liverpool’. It just needs to be played as a piece.

They enter to Tank. The bullish run through sets the pace and the sound is crisp and perfect. The song remains a popular battering ram and is one of their perfect album and set openers – setting the stall.

Nice n Sleazy is still fantastic, cryptic, neo reggae with its filthy Egyptian reggae waltz in black. The bass is cranked to max volume and JJ takes the lead line that so many learned to play bass to. At the time of release this bass sound helped to reinvent the role of the bass guitar in a band – sure John Entwistle had toyed with this kind of muscular approach before but a bass had never sounded like this before and Black and White was the album that it became the ultimate weapon – and a whole generation took their cue from this fantastic new noise.

Rise Of the Robots may have been a throwaway track in the Bearshanks Lodge sessions for the album – a track that the band have always claimed to be a filler but it really rocks in the set with that chorus being the closest to punk rock we get and the mosh pit grabs the opportunity to cut loose.

Sweden is the single that never was with its darkly funny lyrics and that bubbling keyboard solo in the middle – and its weird structure is typical of the album. Nowhere on Black and White do the Stranglers do the obvious thing – there are no 12 bars on here, no conventional solos or middle eights in the correct place. This was a genuinely new music, a new way to construct songs with the instruments the wrong way round and yet all making sense. Where else would you find a strange waltz about the end of time like on Outside Tokyo – a song that conjures up a dank and wonked atmosphere with its rolling bass line and that funereal keyboard part and the intoned almost monosyllabic vocal cutting across and Jet’s swing beat drums? Toiler On the Sea is a salty chugging epic, Baz’s guitar is on fire – he really does sound great tonight from the Ventures twangs to the skull scraping rhythm – this is the black cat at his very best.

It’s the black side where you get drawn deep into this dark world. The Stranglers at the time were one of the most truly dangerous bands- probably not in an all that pleasant kinda way but that whiff of cordite danger was necessary to create this masterpiece. The black side is full of songs of the end times- songs that sound as urgent now unfortunately as they did then with their stark warnings of political collapse. The Stranglers were never a wear it on your sleeve political band but it’s in the mix…Curfew is musically thrilling with its bubbling keyboard flurries and convincingly deranged vocal from Burnel whilst Threatened still has the dangerous stink of its original- that stripped down, grunting claustrophobia that makes this such a compelling song. The previously mentioned In The Shadows is a real highlight and we pause to salute Jet Black for many of these drum patterns – totally bizarre rhythmic pieces in strange quixotic timings that our young feet used to jump around to – pogoing to 13/8 time or other weird jequations – who was weirder us or the band?

Do You Wanna is another example of Jet’s fantastic collapse drumming – and that bass clip is at its sonically most perfect- those riffs that teeter on collapse but somehow makes it as it segues into Death And Night and Blood and the Stranglers at their most mystic with a song in salute to Japanese author and psych philosopher Yukio Mishima and his key Confessions Of A Mask book. The song is dusted off tonight with its chugging danger and funereal warrior code still intact.

They end this part of the set with Enough Time which they had not played at the convention because of trouble capturing its strange timing – but they return to the song with all guns blazing and the song that was released a full year before Joy Division and a decade before Big Black with its stark and deadly bass to the front sounds great. A truly special and dangerous piece of work and one of those weird album enders that they were so good at back in the seventies. Listening to it tonight I can can now hear the link between Black and White and The Raven – the proto prog, the almost mechanical keyboard bleeps from this is like a raw and scary precursor to Genetix.

With barely a pause for breath the stage lights switch from black and white to green and the band crash into Grip and the release is palpable. The mosh pit ignites as the feet take over from the hypnotic awe of Black and White. This is the rat walking end section of the two hour set that is peppered with hits like Always The Sun, the great Relentless from the Baz era that, as ever, easily holds its own against the ancient classics. Walk On By is an obvious choice being part of the Black and White era and showcases those impeccable bass runs and the whole band’s consummate musicianship, likewise Five Minutes – the single that hinted at the oncoming change when it reached number 11 in early 1978 – I still remember hearing it for the first time with it’s dense wall of sound and surging malevolent power.

This was an album that took a real chance and broke barriers. Arguably the first post punk album, paving the way for the likes of Joy Division and others, it broke out of punk’s conventions like a battering ram and saw a band so confident in their abilities that they took a real chance and cranked up the volume and the extremities of their sound to create a wonderful artifact that was perfect conceptually, musically and art-wise.

They even play Go Buddy Go tonight in the encore with the pick n mix off the cuff rush of songs and triumphantly end with the now traditional curtain closer No More Heroes.

As the bass player’s preferred mode of transport states….a triumph…

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


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