A mass of black has descended on London. It’s like a really strange religious cult convening on some sort of masonic Victorian temple in Euston. From all over the world they come speaking of rats and sewers and arcane references that somehow combined together create one of the best ever UK bands who survive with a self imposed ghetto mentality.
The Stranglers convention is a two day affair built around one of the longest lasting British bands whose back catalogue is an exercise in diversity and imagination and who are working up a new album, their seventeenth- provisionally titled ‘Giants’ that hints at being one of their best yet.
The Stranglers arrived during punk and never had their place in that scene defined, they had the aggression, the originality and the short, sharp songs that defined the times. The history books may not tell you this but they were the second best selling punk/new wave band of the period and countless youths picked up a bass guitar because of them. I’ve lost track of the number of bands who are influenced by the possibilities of sound they created and their sheer originality, what is so often overlooked is on full display over a series of gigs they play over their convention weekend here in London.
Being the compere I get a stage side view and I take the chance to check out Jet Black, the band’s remarkable 73 year old drummer. It’s quite stunning to watch his touch as he plays the cymbals and hi hats with a jazz swing- delicate touches and flourishes display a sublety and intelligence so rare in rock n roll. In a band of forceful personalities it’s so easy to overlook Jet Black’s drums but on the home turf of a convention gig the audience know and spend two days chanting the indestructible drummer’s name, knowing that one of the greatest things about the band is their unlikely line up. A line up that still boasts a combination of distinctly very different personalities that created something quite special. Jet grew up in a time before rock n roll and has become very much part of it and his tough, relentless spirit embodies the band perfectly.
The Stranglers convention is built around the band’s third album ‘ Black and White’ which they play in it’s near entirety. ‘Black And White’ was the Stranglers third album in a year and a ground breaking release in early 1978. Already argued on this site is the fact that the album was the first post punk release, a real ground changer. It came out of punk and explored the new territory and was dark, stark, surreal and entering a new terrain with an intelligence and an aggression that retained a punk attack but dismantled the music and created something quite new.
It also had the best bass sound ever recorded but that’s another story.
The fact is Stranglers made this into pop music and the album was a big seller in 1978.
The band occasionally still play songs from the album in their set but this revisit of the album was the first time they had played some of the other songs for years or in some cases ever. What was most striking about the set was how little of the material had actually dated and the album’s stark vision of the future remains intact.
Playing through the songs in the original order they were on the album the band is in triumphant form. Intro song ‘Tank’ sounds as belligerent as it did all those years ago- a surly, aggressive ode to the military mentality. The song like crest of the album, at the time, was a new kind of psychedelia- that’s psychedelia as a music making pictures in your mind, not in the sense of flowers and love and peace, this was a totally different psychedelia, a lysergic take on the late seventies and ‘Tank’ epitomised this. It’s metallic grind musically describes modern armoury and it ends with an explosion, it’s this kind of imagination that was rife on the album which was split between a darker black side and a so called lighter white side that still had it’s own heavy moments on it, like the dank ‘Outside Tokyo’ which is a melancholic trip and warmly welcomed by the audience who are thrilling to hearing songs not played live for decades.
The set really kicks up a gear with ‘Rise Of The Robots’ which has never been played live before but is a killer version that sounds like a long lost hit single with those soaring harmonies on the chorus rising in perfect rushing unison. It’s moments like this that justify the decision to play the whole of the album and by the time they have dealt with ‘Sweden’ and ‘Toiler On The Sea’ there a euphoric feeling in the room. ‘Toiler’ is another example of Stranglers 3D songwriting- a salt stained ode that sounds like the crashing sea and was constructed by JJ Burnel over the Christmas of 1977.
The black side is played to perfection, it has that build that the original recorded versions had. The unexpected high point is their take on ‘In The Shadows’ which is better than the original and that’s a tough call when you are revisiting a classic album from years ago. ‘Death And Night And Blood’ drips with the evil that it did all those years ago and if the band don’t play ‘Enough Time’ because the timing of it was so weird on the original it still doesn’t dent this exploration of ‘Black And White’. The pairing on ‘Threatened’ and ‘Curfew’ are perfect examples of the sort of darkness the band were exploring way before, let’s say, Joy Division and two great examples of the band’s groundbreaking style at the time. They both sound powerfully aggressive tonight and are great versions of two landmark songs.
The encores contain more high points with a tight rush through ‘Mean To Me’ and a great version of the never before played ‘Shut Up’ which is one minute of neo- hardcore, fast, snarling aggression. The swirling brilliance of ‘Walk On By’ closes the set with the meandering brilliance of it’s middle section as mesmerising as ever. It’s at that point, when all the instruments lock in together with their own individual runs, that the Stranglers really display their musical prowess and relative newcomer Baz Warne really shines underlining his guitar skill and his complementing skill of matching the original.
Warne has been a game changer for the band. When he joined they suddenly seemed to wake up again. Growing up in the same generation as the band’s fan base he understood what made the band special to their followers and the two albums he has been heavily involved in, ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Suite 16’ were marked returns to form for the band. The second Stranglers set played on the Sunday underlines this. A mixture of tracks from these two albums including the perfect slice of Stranglers rushing melancholia of ‘Relentless’ a song that stands up to any of their older classics and sounds the best I’ve heard it tonight with the bass cranked up. There is also a tough and splintered version of the punchy and off the wall ‘Unbroken’ mixed in with sprightly takes on old classics like ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ and one of the great Stranglers songs, ‘Sometimes’ that is as snarlingly effervescent as it ever was.
The real treat, though, is the four new songs that point to the upcoming Spring album, ‘Giant’, being a potential triumph for the band. The Stranglers occupy a curious position in the scheme of things- they were always great pop song writers but also capable of twisting their music into all sorts of shapes and sizes. Even now they feel they have a chance of mixing it with the pop puppets in the charts, when, perhaps, their strongest card would be to go heavy and strange but cram that into their innate knack for pop perfection. The last two albums understood this and the new one, on the evidence of the songs played tonight, sounds like quintessential classic Stranglers from ‘Freedom Is Insane’ with it’s bubbly keyboard and it’s driving neo Raven bass line, the song is already a classic. ‘Lowlands’ sounds even better, it has some genuinely off kilter weird drumming from Jet and some heavy bass work from JJ but also a catchy chorus. ‘Giant’, the album’s title track, is slower and more moody and built around a sliding guitar and a really good vocal from JJ.
They end the night with a version of ‘Genetix’ where we stand aghast at the bass work, it really is something else and great to hear the dracula on acid vocal from Dave Greenfield again. They exit to a chugging take on ‘Raven’ and the rolling blasts of ‘No More Heroes’ before the band literally leave the building.
The convention was a marked success. Along with the two sets from the band proving that they are in rude health there was also JJ Burnel giving the fans an onstage cookery lesson, an auction, band interviews and a stunningly difficult band quiz amongst the support slots from the likes of Wilko Johnson and Mike Peters from the Alarm as well as two different acoustic sets from the Stranglers themselves where they dusted down ‘Tits’ and ‘Old Codger’ from the ‘Black And White’ sessions and played another new song called ‘You’re A Swine’ that uses food as it’s central motif and will not be on the new album but to these ears, with it’s waltz feel and darkly humorous lyrics sounds lime a potential Stranglers classic and should be on the album with added Beatles style ‘Piggies’ harpsichord from Dave and some off kilter drums from Jet to create a potential off the wall hit for the band…