The first thing we see tonight is the great artwork from the new Stranglers album, the review copy I was sent had the empty nooses but the final version is the pleasingly dark shot of the band swinging from the rope. The inside of the gatefold sleeve has the rather too well done shots of the band as cadavers- it’s a powerful picture and perfect for an album that touches on mortality and the sort of classic dark joke that the band always specialised in.
The band themselves are anything but dead, the current Stranglers defy the years with a live set that is full of twists and turns and the creativity of a unit that is still very much alive.
The Stranglers are suited to being veterans, they were always built with this in built resilience and it’s paying off now.
The band are on a creative high. At this stage of the game this should not really be happening. There are rules in rock n roll and this deep into a career a band should be coasting on the hits but the Stranglers have only just gone and released an album that equals their classic early work. ‘Giant’s works because they have got their sound exactly right by simplifying the mix and re-establishing the lead bass with the inventive guitar and lysergic keyboard and jazz drum mix that is the hallmark of their sound but doing this for the 21st century with a crisp, perfect production.
The album is getting great reviews and should re-establish them as a critical force, live they take this onto the stage in a set list that is one of 4 different ones they have worked out for the tour and works perfectly, pulling off the near impossible task of finding a song balance from their 38 year run.
There is a lot of stuff to choose from and the balance between massive hits like Golden Brown and No More Heroes and a great version of Strange Little Girl and obscure cuts like (Hey) Rise Of The Robots and Shut Up is perfect. The band have a fan base that is devoted- the black clad, cult feel of some strange religion- and its tricky to keep the balance between the big hits for the casual listener and the kind of songs like the one minute long, proto hardcore rush of the rarely played Shut Up, a b side that is cherished by the superfan.
There are also lots of new songs and they sit perfectly in the set, they don’t sound like the ‘new ones’- the kind of tracks that are there for one tour and cause a rush to the bar, these songs sound like they will sit in the Stranglers set for a long time. It would be great to hear the whole album live, a rule wrecking move for sure but something an idiosyncratic band like this could get away with, bands these days play the classic old album and the Stranglers did it themselves with Black And White last November- a set that seems to have influenced their current live set and the balance of live sound the the Burnel black belt bass in full force. One day someone will just go and play the whole of the new album and 17 albums in the Stranglers seem perfectly placed to do this.
Tonight we get the catchy and pleasingly dark album title track with JJ singing of the ‘little men with little hearts’ referring to last year’s riots with the kind of world weary darkness that the band were always really good at- the song is one of the key cuts from the new album, ‘Time Was Once On My Side’ is classic snarling Stranglers as Burnel rails against the rush of time, Mercury Rising is proper off the wall Stranglers, all time signatures, great collapsing riffs and a great chorus, it’s one of those songs were the riffs just about hang together in a deliberate shape shifting way, in a recent interview JJ said that the Meninblack album was his favourite Stranglers album and its genuine weirdness flavours this song.
The gig also sees one of those ‘incidents’ that used to pepper Stranglers gigs in the old days. Someone decides they should throw a pint of beer at JJ, god knows why people bother doing this, if the gear gets full of beer the gig is over and a room full of pretty pissed off people is the result. Add to this that throwing beer at Burnel is a deadly persuit and he has the hapless victim locked in a dark stare till the song ends when he calmly puts the bass down and climbs off the stage. The whole room takes a deep breath, and at the front the beer thrower is pushed forward by the annoyed and a pretty nervous section of the crowd, in the old days JJ would have taken the assailant down but the self control he has picked up from years of karate sees him deal out a playful wacking of the cowering beer chucker. There is an attempt to get the attacker on the stage to mop up the floor swimming in beer but frozen with fear he remains in the safety of the crowd and the bass player mops up the stage himself in a powerful display of humbleness and control before taking the mic ‘if you were half the man you never could be I would have taken you out’ the crowd cheer.
From the start the band set the stall opening with a fierce and infernally dark Burning Up Time, followed by Sometimes – one of their finest musical moments- with its running bass and also great keyboard work from Dave Greenfield and then the powerful shots of Lowlands from the new album that fits in perfectly with the older tunes but updates the sound to the now. Then just to really slap you awake it’s Rise Of The Robots and the classic Hanging Around- the top 5 single that never was. the set is full of twists and turns and a reflection of an inventive and classic canyon of songs, they even find time to play a rare mark 2 era song, Time To Die which sound far better given the proper sound from the band who sound totally different from their nineties incarnation- there were some great songs in that period but they were recorded badly- maybe a re-recoring of some of this material would make an interesting side project?
The Stranglers have pulled off the near impossible trick of sounding classic and current- trust me I see a lot of current bands and the meninblack are right in the 21st century mix.
After the gig JJ thanks me for the positive review of the album on this site- the reality is that it’s a great album, we could be cool and sneer at the record or brush it aside with a journalistic flick of the wrist but it’s a great work and been played over and over here and most people agree with the review’s sentiments now the album is out, he also grins about the band’s commercially suicidal decisions but in many ways it’s this instinctive decision making that saw them put out a zig zagging run of singles and avoid the obvious choices that was their real strength. It has kept them fresh and innovative for decades, operating outside the rule book. They have never become bogged down in that career by committee that makes the likes of U2 a distinctly average proposition. The Stranglers operate beyond the rule book and by their own force of nature and as the close the set tonight with a brutal version of ‘Tank’ they sound as fresh and fired up as they did when that song was first played live decades ago and that’s some achievement from a band that refuses to sit still.
Burning Up Time
(Hey) Rise Of The Robots
Time Was On Our Side
Strange Little Girl
Walk On By
I’ve Lost Control
No More Heroes
Something Better Change
Time To Die
All of the Day And All Of The Night