The Stranglers ‘Black And White’ was the first post- punk album
It’s December 1977.
The year of punk.
Music is moving fast but there is one band that is ahead of the game. They have already one of the highest selling bands in punk with only the Sex Pistols bigger, they have their own sound – a genuinely aggressive and totally original take on punk and oddly they never seem to get any credit for it.
They are now about to invent post punk.
The Stranglers are in Bear Shank Lodge in the snowbound Northants countryside writing songs for the third album. Their work ethic is astonishing. They have already released two albums in the year of punk, two of the best selling albums over the year- only the Sex Pistols have out sold them in the punk/new wave corner, they are one of the biggest bands in the country and have already been ostracised by the press who claim they are too old- despite the Clash front man Joe Strummer having two years on JJ Burnel.
The Stranglers had already stormed punk.
The surly outsiders had gate crashed the party and instantly made a connection with Britain’s musically disaffected teens. The ‘experts’ had tried to deny their presence but the band were genuinely breaking all the rules and were getting the utmost respect for it from the new generation. They were as influential as the Pistols or the Clash, paved the way for bands as diverse as Joy Division, the La’s or even the Stone Roses as well as signposting goth and releasing the first post punk album.
The ”Black and White’ album released in 1978 that is, arguably, the first post punk album. And in these days when post punk has been re-examined and re-evaluated with certain bands like the Gang Of Four getting suddenly elevated to godlike status with new bands who sound nothing like them getting compared to them- it’s sometimes good to look back and see who got in there first.
This was 1978 remember, punk was staggering and there was nothing else, Joy Division were still in a formative stage, Public Image’s ”Metal Box’ was not yet releases and bands like the Stranglers were leading the way.
While bands like Wire and Joy Division rightly get credit for taking punk into new areas it seems strange that the Stranglers who were a far bigger and, in real terms, a far more influential band get left out of all the histories. ”Black And White’ was as easily bold and brave as any of the hipper bands and it turned far more of that generation onto something weirder and freakier in music.
The Stranglers were so far ahead of the pack it was outrageous.
The ”Black and White’ period also encompassed the early 1978 ”Five Minutes’ single, the next single, ”Nice n Sleazy’ charting with the proto US hardcore rush ”Shut Up’ on the flipside. That bass run at the beginning of ”Sleazy’ is arguably the best bass sound ever and there was also the band’s classic mugging of Dionne Warwick’s ”Walk On By’ for the freebie single with its scratchy Telecaster intro and JJ’s growling bass stealthily coming in and that long middle section half inched from the Doors ”Light My Fire’ and made all modern and tough for us the punk rock kids!
The Stranglers had arrived at that dark hued period that came after punk- the time of the depression, the cynicism and the darkness that hung around after the glorious failure of the punk revolution. It was a time when nuclear war seemed to be more than a bad nightmare and a horrible reality, a time when Britain still looked shabby and the charts were still full of shite. It wasn’t for no reason at all that The Stranglers were dressing in black- these were dark times, there was a pessimism and a cynicism in the air the Stranglers caught this flavour in their new set of songs. There was a certain journey into a heart of darkness here, a whiff of the nihilistic cordite of 1978.
The Stranglers had already created a whole new sound, for sure there was a sniff of the Doors and the Seeds and all sorts of American underground rock in their initial recordings but surely it never sounded as urgent as the new material. The bass is revolutionary and cranked to the max- it makes such a great sound, lifting up the instrument to the lead role, reinventing it’s position in rock and a whole generation who never even noticed what a bass was before had now got their grubby mits on one . They were now feverishly learning those Stranglers bass lines and a whole raft of bands for the next thirty years will cop that sound and never give credit to where it came from.
The bass is not the whole story though, Jet Black is an amazing drummer- off kilter rhythms. 7/8 timings and jazz flavours mashed up with the meat and potato muscle. Jet Black is one of the great rock drummers, consistently imaginative but also easy to jump up and down to- crucial in a year of amphetamine dance floor madness like this. Dave Greenfield’s lysergic keyboards are a revelation, he had never heard of the Doors and his bubbling runs are a whole new sound. Hugh Cornwell plays these bizarre runs and twanging off kilter Shadows leads on his guitar before going back to this incessant scratching, scraping sound. Cornwall is also a damn fine singer and his twin lead vocal attack with the deliciously over the top Burnel is a real hallmark of the first two albums.
There is a raging debate over whether the Stranglers are punk or not. Of course they didn’t shop at Sex and that 1976 incident at Dingwalls where there a punch up between the Stranglers and the Clash/Pistols made sure they were never going to be in the inner circle. For some though, the Stranglers genuine anger, snarling menace and brooding dark sense of humour are more punk than most of their contemporaries.
And now? In the snow of early 1978 a new album was being readied…¦
The Stranglers are busy moving to the next step.
There has been a lot of talk about post punk and the big debate over whether it was Public Image or Joy Division who got their first but whilst either of these bands were scratching round in their formative stages the Stranglers were already exploring a stark new soundscape.
”Black and White’ is the first post punk album. It made the big jump from the punk era into the starker and darker world just beyond. This was the early eighties of nuclear bomb fear and apocalyptic commentary. It created a whole new sound that took the aggression of punk and pulled it inside out. The Stranglers took their whole sound and pulled it in every direction possible and created a whole new way to play music.
The album’s very title was perfect. These were black and white times. There was no space for being in the middle. Everything was polarised. The cover of the album summed it up, the band scowling- they never looked cooler, more menacing. Dressed in black and white they were making as stark a sartorial statement as their music was.
Ostensibly the album was split into the white side for the lighter moments- with the music written by Hugh and lyrics by JJ and the black side with music by JJ and lyrics by Hugh. Of course it never ended up like that but the white side was less dense than the flipside and even if the lyrics were not split side by side they certainly had a continuum as the two frontmen never worked closer.
There had been hints of what was coming with the ”Five Minutes’/’Rok It To The Moon’ single. Dense and aggressive ”5 Minutes’ was a brilliant single- one of the heaviest songs to ever grace the charts. I remember very clearly the day it came out and been totally blown away by its ever increasing paranoia and aggression as it built up to its climax. It was a full on take on JJ’s psyche at the time- the darkest of the punk musicians with an infernal rage bubbling up from his soul like the keyboard solo at the beginning of the song. The b side was the fab ”Rok It To the Moon’ with its crazed bass riff driven menagerie of madness, the two accompanying video clips were the band at their peak as well, the sheer malevolence in JJ’s eyes and Hugh’s drop dead cool surliness made them look like the two coolest beatnik freaks on the scene. Fans noticed that the bass was now cranked up and the music was darker and more intense and looked forward to the upcoming album with a sense of excitement.
The fist listening was when John Peel played the whole thing one night. Peel was not one for following media fashion and had still stuck by the band. I remember being hunched over the radio with mounting excitement at the band delivered their perfect statement. It’s very rare for any band to peak on album three, normally the best stuff is piled up for the early records and the creativity runs out when the third album has to be made up from scratch. The band took the chance to experiment and came up trumps. Whether by accident or design they kicked down the doors and were moving in fast-forward.
Opening track ”Tank’ is as punk and belligerent as it gets. The song is perfect Stranglers psychedelia- a song that conjures up images- not images of flowers and peace but of out of control soldiers and a tank piledriving down a road with weapons blaring- relentless, like the band themselves.
”Tank’ was the single that never was- and yet another example of The Stranglers knack for writing songs that sounded like their subject matter with the hanging ending that sounds like a falling bomb and is timed beautifully and a stunning example of the band’s sheer musical prowess and dark imagination.
Already here was a new darker Stranglers, great for fucked up young psychos from the suburbs cranked up on magic mushrooms and debates in long meandering walks around boring seaside towns. This record was big for me and my small coterie of dark clothed friends.
Next track ”Nice n Sleazy’ is a neat rat walk of a thing with those incessant scratching chords hammering out the B minor over that weird beat- the bass kicks in- perhaps the ultimate bass moment, the bizarre quadrille sounds like some sort of Doc Marten take on Jonathon Richman’s ‘Egyptian Reggae’ except this was Stranglers reggae. ”Nice n Sleazy’ is a sort of ”Peaches’ revisited with the Stranglers detailing their trip to America as well as also documenting the Hells Angels in Amsterdam as Hugh intones the lyrics over that zigzagging bass line. The chorus is pure hammer down. Another really strange and powerful single that it had already lodged itself in the top 20.
”Outside Tokyo’ sounded like it has escaped from the black side of the album, the song was a downbeat slice of delicious melancholia, those funeral keyboards and the chugging bass run dominate as Hugh sang about the end of time.
”(Hey) Rise Of The Robots’ is a rush of noise with a wall of sound that threatens to collapse but never does, ex X Ray Spex Laura Logic is perfect on the sax, squelching and bleating as the band thunder towards the chorus which is a great rush of harmonies, ”Sweden (All Quiet On The Eastern Front)’ is beautifully sardonic and comes chugging in on a tough, riffing stub toed bass line, the keyboard soars and bubbles and you can see why the track was briefly considered for a single. Hugh’s lyrics are darkly funny and sung with that word twisting weirdness that he was so good at as they detail a Sweden where Hugh lived pre Stranglers and where the band had run ins with the local rocker culture, the raggare.
The white side ends with ”Toiler On The Sea’ with its chugging intro that could only be played by a black belt karate pair of hands, ”Toiler’, with its wacky twanging guitar break, its descriptive music and Hugh’s first real crooned vocal was a quick favourite and a typically swirling symphonic JJ song.
Flip the album over and things got a whole lot darker- at least a year ahead of Joy Division and the new dark the Stranglers were wandering into some very black territory here.
Side opener ”Curfew’ was a manic and compulsively ugly look at an apocalyptic future with music to match, ”Threatened;’ just stank with a weird paranoia and an obtuse lyric and delivery from JJ, ”In the Shadows’ was a hint at JJ’s soon to come solo album that was getting recorded at the same time (the solo album, by the way, is genius, but that another history) the barracuda bass and Jet’s awesome off beat drumming took the band somewhere else on the song.
”Do You Wanna’ was another in that grand Strang tradition of Dave vocals and he sounded suitably vampiric as ever as the band jolted and lurched around a crazy riff behind him, and fuck, the bass sound on this is phenomenal- crunching, jagged, bizarre! The way it segues into ”Death And Night And Blood’ is powerfully effective and JJ’s paean to Yukio Mishima and warrior hood is as about as weird as Strangler music gets, the song oozes the strangest of atmospheres, its clipped verses collapsing into the most evil sounding chorus.
The stark riffs of ”Enough Time’ are beautifully jagged, the sound of bass carnage and a fantastic horror (and whilst I can understand why Hugh would be pissed off with the sheer volume of the bass in this track, somehow it works, it sounds like the gnashing of angry teeth and Hugh’s jagged guitar part counterpoints it perfectly, listen again Hugh- the lop sided mix of ”Enough Time ” sounds like perfection now)
”Enough Time’ had everyone spending weeks trying to decipher the morse chord section at the end and it’s another great Strangler album finisher with more weird timings, collapsing drums and a black, black bass sounds.
Everything about ”Black and White’ is perfection from the songs, to the sound, to the artwork to the simple brutal concept- even to the idea of doing a press launch in Iceland because of that country’s amazing landscapes that somehow looked like what the album sounded like to how cool the band looked at that point.
”Black and White’ was a superb slice of post punk psychedelia- all twisted landscapes and weird song structures, it was the Stranglers at their most obtuse and yet you could still file it under pop, and certainly a lot of people did as the album hammered into the charts at number 2.
This was a band at the peak of its powers, their best album, their greatest moment (and that’s a tough call in a career stuffed full of genius moments) and with the sheer bloody nerve to stretch their sound to a vicious extreme. Just listen to that bass sound again, its total perfection, never has a bass ever sounded that good on a record. Heavy, rounded and ballistic and perfect it realised every note- a black Doc Marten imprinted on the song and yet it is so damn melodic and with the whole band on form with every instrument was playing lead, no note was wasted and a whole new atmosphere was being created”¦
”Black And White’ was the first post punk album…¦