I walk into a packed venue that is seething, bodily jam packed with the sewer sweat already dripping off the roof. There is something going on. The Stranglers have gone from being hardy perennials with a big diehard fan base to a sensation.
An 1100 sellout Liverpool seems typical of this tour as the word gets out and many who have not seen the band are turning out having heard that this band is doing the rarest of things and turning into a fine vintage wine.
A lot of the old hands are here but there is also a lot of new faces. A 16 year old girl comes over to chat- she has seen the Stranglers 4 times but has brought her dad down tonight. He says this is the first time he has ever seen the band- on the train home a fan of modern, left field, underground music- the kind of stuff that plays All Tomorrows Parties festival is buzzing on how great this gig was. The press is finally on board as the loyal freelancers are fianlly geting the chance to tell the truth with front covers of magazines, a spread in the Guardian and their music all over TV and even the radio- the Stranglers are now finally in new territory-no longer the outsiders frozen out they are getting their dues and this spring tour is becoming one of the biggest on the circuit as the band take yet another lap of honour.
There is finally a scent of victory in the air.
Finally this is no longer ‘our secret’ and the band, with one of the greatest and most diverse catalogues in British rock music is getting the recognition it deserves.
The theme of this tour is it’s their Ruby anniversary- 40 years since they formed celebrated with a set list made up of tracks from each of the group’s 17 albums. This gives a great opportunity to revisit the so called ‘lost years’ of the nineties- those patchy albums when the band seemed to be losing interest and were carried by the newbies Paul Roberts and John Ellis. This is an interesting exercise as the best songs from that period stand up especially after they are Stranglified by the sharper, leaner and meaner current line up and energised as classics that would sit easily in the mark one and current line ups. In that period, despite the efforts of the new members, the band were like a sabre tioothed tiger floudering in the LA Brea pit- still dangerous but sinking, they were like a fallen giant of football floundering with their gates down and there was a certain, detectable lack of interest from the key players but the past few years have seen them rise back up through the divisions, celebrating their veteran squad and their vintage and history as they returned to the premier league.
This sense of history is just one of the unexpected highlights of a set that travels throughout the 40 years of a brooding, majestic and powerful of this most brilliant of bands. Kicking of with London Lady we are plunged back into the youthful Stranglers of old – the awkward cousins of punk rock who had all the leering aggression of the period but arrived fully formed with an agenda and musical imagination of their own. Old age somehow suits the Stranglers and even if drummer Jet Black can only make it for the encores his presence hangs over the group for the whole set with his replacement , Jim Macauly , doing a great job of replicating those distinctive and imaginative drum fills of the master with those pounding toms and jazz tinged runs that make Jet one of the great drummers in British rock — the highly imaginative, rhythm machine who never plays the obvious when weird timings, unexpected flourishes and a real swing underline his key role in the band’s creativity and catalogue.
Of course Jet can’t play the whole set, at nearly 76 and scarred by rock n roll it’s amazing he is here at all. The relentless nature of the man and his innate toughness mean that he is here lurking backstage ready for the tough call of the encores and his presence hangs over the building as the loyal fans wait for the man whose personality runs through the band. This is a two hour set in a heaving, sweatshod building — it’s amazing that the rest of the band make it through the whole night- the longest Stranglers set for years, so long the band are worried afterwards that it might be too much for the fans but this is one of the most loved catalogues in rock n roll played to some of the loyalist fans – the black clad devotess of a religion of noise and as it zigzags through several different styles — many of them invented by the band themselves it’s impossible for it to get boring.
‘Can the Stranglers continue without Jet?” is the talking point for the fans who fully respect whatever eventual decision the band come up with as the drummer plays less songs and less gigs with the band and the fans totally acknowledge Jet’s key role in the band’s history. JJ tells some interviews that once Jet retires it’s all over but he did tell me it’s up to Jet and the fans what the band do and I think we know the answer to that question. It’s almost impossible to imagine the relentless Jet Black finally retiring and it’s totally impossible to imagine him expecting the Stranglers to stop because he can’t tour with them- for a start we fully expect him to be a creative member if he can’t tour and also we understand his determination for the band to continue and get their dues that is very much in his psyche- but then again it’s up to him and we just prey he doesn’t go to far and hurt himself in his stoic call of duty. Wherever the great man is he is kinda here if you know what I mean.
The band are wearing age well- after all they were never exactly teenage sensations in the first place and it was their already wisened and tough lived in image that we loved as teenagers as much as their music with even JJ at 25 seeming older to us 16 year olds. These days they wear their age with pride, JJ is now a silver fox with his hair cropped short staring out at the crowd as he rat walks with his bass buthe could still pass for 40, whilst Baz is one of us lot- the generation that bought into the sewer stomp in the first place but is now in the band and, despite his gruff Mackem exterior, sometimes still looks like someone who can’t believe his luck at being in one of the classic British bands- on the hand you know the rest of the band can’t quite believe their luck in getting Baz and getting his reinvigoration of the unit- it’s the perfect pact with the devil.
London Lady comes from the time when the band were about confrontation and great zig zagging riffs- it sets the stall for tonight- a romp through that classic catalogue with JJ singing a notably larger chunk of the set than before now assured in his own voice after those years when he bizarrely didn’t sing at all.
The next song is the anthemic No More Heroes-one of the great songs of its period. A misunderstood song that wondered where the heroes were in a time full of folk heroes, the song normally sits in the encores but has been returned to the front end of the set and sits there neatly cranking the atmosphere in the room. Baz looks like a fully fledged Strangler as he leers his way through the song and all those internet argument over Hugh or Baz etc evaporate- for me it’s a tale of two great bands- as a long term fan I will never run Hugh down and dig his solo stuff and mark one was a very special band but I’m not comparing the two line ups — both are great and deliver in their own ways.
Was It You? is proof of the strength of the material in the dark years and comes alive with the new surly aggression of a band reborn whilst Threatened stinks with the supposed violence, paranoia and danger of the Black and White’s dark side. This was the album that invented post punk- the escape route from punk itself and this track was the key moment on that dense thicket of madness on the black side and perhaps a peep into the fractured and strange inner psyche of the youthful JJ Burnell- the violent and dangerous yet deeply intelectual individual who was also the creative powerhouse along with Hugh that defined the bands’ strange new world of material that had already moved from psyche stained pub rock rock of their earlier to this strange and stark world of new noise in Black and White- arguably the band’s greatest triumph in a series of great triumphs.
Summat Outanowt is the older in age Stranglers rediscovering their quirk in the modern world and realigning to that aggression that is so key to so much of their sound- that intelligent, wilful aggression that many of the fans, frustrated with the way things are in the world still feel deep into their own lives. Try explaining this feeling to anyone else and they look bewildered but that innate anger and questioning smarts was part of the late seventies and came aligned with a cynicism but also a deep love of strange and powerful music that was so much part of that time as well. When the Stranglers rediscovered this creative and dangerous mojo first on Norfolk Coast and then on Suite 16 and Giants they opened up the door to their current situation with their live gigs as packed as they were in those seething and dangerous late seventies.
Peasant In The Big Shitty gets a welcome return to the frontline and it’s great to hear Dave sing again. His ghoulish voice was so much part of the early Stranglers sound and we would love to hear him sing a track on album 18 if we get one. Peasent is still the claustrophobic acid trip as a young JJ Burnel is trapped in a call box trying to make a phone call in an altered state with the bemused mother and child outside asking whats going on freaking him out – its twisted trip is very much late seventies and recreates psychedelia for the punk years — a time when acid trips didn’t bring flowers and love and peace but psychotic reactions and strange observations from the less than beatific landscape of the period.
Peaches is as surly as ever, the song is so over the top that it’s leering nature is more like piss take of the male psyche than a celebration but it can also be both. The bass riff is solid gold- one of the greatest bass riffs ever and the one that me and Mark Tilton spent weeks trying to learn in our sausage fingered youth when I formed the Membranes and when the Stranglers showed a generation that the bass guitar was the key instrument in music and the one you could write endless melodies on- ask Peter Hook- ask everyone who cranked the bass up to lead after Burnel rewrite the rule book.
Midnight Summer Dream is ample proof that the Stranglers were not just playing the aggression card, Feline is the album that is arguably the lost gem in their canyon with its multi textured approach of beautiful songs that married the bands new found love Mediterranean acoustics with touches of flamenco to the north European brittle drum machines and technology. It was a bold and brave album at the time for anyone but especially for a band who had built their reputation on tough sounding songs but anyone with an ear could hear the Stranglers always had this multi textured approach even from the start and this song with its autumnal flavours is intoxicating.
Meninblack was always the Stranglers at their most bizarre- the alien concept album and one for the hardcore fans- the fact that this charted proves how devoted the fans were and how willing we were to go on the whole trip of the black clad religion but then all the greatest bands take their fans on a trip and this album was one serious trip in more ways than one. It’s also one of my favourite Stranglers releases with its mixture of the dark side of heroin and the the band’s fascination with alien visitations and concepts. Tonight the album is represented by Thrown Away- the nearest it came to having a pop song with its euro disco beat that still retains the dank strangeness of the mothership record. Before the song JJ and Baz banter about dad dancing and give a display of the form to much laughing. The song has a great chorus and, like anything JJ touches, manages to thread in an air of menace with a cinematic tune and a tinge of regret- ostensibly a song about alien visitation it also seems to be about the then young bass player regretting something- god knows what in that crazed brawl of his youth.
Never To Look Back is another song of regret and is another great lost song from the band-if the early years are much heralded and documented with endless loved classics, its the back end of the Hugh years and into the nineties that is dotted with lost gems like these- it’s like some kind of archealogical dig discovering these songs and the underrated Ten album is full of them. Long looked on as the band’s disappointing farewell to the Hugh era, the album actually has some great songs on it but, like their subsequent nineties work, is marred by the wrong production- a series of great producers could not grab the elxixir of the band’s brillianceand were quite not right for the group who seemed to be forgetting what they actually sounded like themselves- maybe with all those stylistic changes across that flurry of early album releases they almost lost track of themselves, at the same time they never lost the knack for great melodies and that sniff of menace but they lost a lot of the other classic hallmarks of their sound but now with the band as alive and vibrant as this these songs sound alive.
There is a big cheer for Tramp- the song that would probably get the fans vote as the greatest Stranglers single to never get released. It was slated as the track to come out after Golden Brown but it was moved aside after JJ insisted on releasing his all French La Folie- six minutes of divine and atmospheric and melancholic meldoic madness which actually, in hindsight, sounds far more like a pop record than it was decreed at the time. Tramp, though, was like a reminder of the classic three minute Stranglers of the bands early days and Baz gives Hugh’s idioansycatic vocal a powerful twist as the song identities with the romantic notion of the outsider.
Skin Deep is one of the band’s later day hits and they play a great version of it with JJ’s bass ringing out high up the neck perhaps in tribute to the post 12th fret workouts of one of his bass dojo pupils Peter Hook who is often on record as quoting the Stranglers bass man as his prime inspiration. The song is one of the a clutch of great tracks that open up side one of Aural Sculpture the last album when the band felt like unit in the Hugh era and there were still the feint echoes of the sound that made them great albiet given a polished and modern sheen. The song is classic Strangler pop- lets face it they were also a great pop band and really mastered the high tech of the mid eighties pop sound and those glowing vocals still give the song an edge without the aural combat of their earlier work. It’s hard to believe that this song came out thirty years ago now- in a weird mind trick it still feels modern!
Fast forwarding to the nineties the band deal out Time To Die- complete with its great twanging signature riff and an added urgency as they reclaim that lost decade yet again. It really does make you think that it could well be time to maybe re-record the best of this period and do some of these songs justice, on the other hand it’s probably best to move forward with new material but there is that frustration that some of the great songs from that maligned period could well be lost due to their less than chunky recording. The same goes for Valley Of the Birds that they play a couple of songs later in the set.
Lowlands in Baz’s diary song of the band on a European promotion tour with its tongue in cheek lyrics that hark back to the band’s reports from the front line songs from the early days which, aligned to a scratching, scrapping riff and the sly melodic chorus rush are like classic Stranglers and proof that all these decades into the adventure the band are still really capable of dealing out a classic yet distinctive Strangled anthem.
Nice N Sleazy has one of the greatest bass lines ever written-the zig zagging karate chop that defines the song and put the icing on Burnel’s reinvention of the bass guitar-when you listen to the original recording now you hear something so stark and powerful and brutal and something so perfect- for me Black and White is the best Stranglers album by a shade and still one of the greatest albums ever released. The bass sound on that record is unmatched even by the reborn band of now. Sleazy documents a mini tour of Holland by the band back in the day when they brushed with the Hells Angels and all sort of madness ensued- these adventures are part of the mythinblack, the Stranglelore. Of course backstage these days it’s a tad more sedate.
Northwinds was mildly criticised by Hugh in the Song by Song book for JJ’s operatic vocals- I guess he didn’t mean it in the polarising sense you get in the black and white of print because its one of the bassist’s finest moments and another melancholic song of longing and rootlessness and war and famine and maybe even a nod to the vikings and their ganglore and raiding mentality that is kinda parted of the rock n roll psyche and lore. The songs seethes with that salty sea motifs that JJ has returned so many times in his song writing from The Raven to Norfolk Coast to the next song in the set, Freedom Is Insane – all the songs that have the crashing of the waves of finality of everything and the sense of adventure of the open sea, and maybe, a harking back to JJ’s Norman-the Francophile take on the word Norseman- roots.
Perhaps JJ Burnel is the descendent of the viking with all the wonderlust and the warrior mentality intact- maybe he is the last of the long line of vikings…
Freedom Is Insane is one of the bands great tracks from the current Giants album and if that is to be the last album it’s as good as place as any to sign off with its attractive world weary quality and the air of death and finality hanging over many of its songs and the album’s fantastically gruesome artwork-a return to gallows humour of the band at their best. Freedom Is Insane is also another one of those long Burnel creations-the swooping, operatic neo classical type of things he has been creating for the Stranglers since Down In The Sewer- the tying together of the many pieces as the songs twist and turn to a shuddering climax.
The band then launch into the much missed Hanging Around which has been rested for a few tours- it was going to be their their third single but they were so rich with songs at the time that Something Better Change came out instead. Hanging Around would have been a dead cert top five even with the zero radio play that the lyrics would have endured but its musical perfection would have ensured success. It’s the early band at their effortless best and they still slip and slide through all those overplaying solos with casual ease that so few bands have- the so called communal mind that was part of the appeal of bands like the Doors. Yet again Baz is on top form as he delivers Hugh’s parts and adds his own northern leer to the song.
Only Five Minutes can top this and with a dextrous display of bass playing from JJ on that building intro adds to the tension that explodes in one of the most violent and brilliant songs to gate crash the top ten. Its paired up to Norfolk Coast which has a similar structure with an added windswept build up that yet again revisits JJ’s fascination with the sea motif. This was the song that heralded the band’s return to top form. I can still remember the thrill of getting sent this months before the album came out and the excitement of realising that the Stranglers will still capable of this sort of stuff. It’s been out of the set for a few tours- something to do with the multi layered keyboard parts being too hard to play for anyone with a mere two arms – somehow, though, Dave is bang on top of it tonight and the song is arguably the highpoint of the set. It’s welcomed like an old friend now- a new classic to add to the band’s biggest hits and welcomed by the fans as the moment when their band got returned to them and going to see the Stranglers stopped being a duty for the black clad faithful but a celebration of this most idiosyncratic and original bands.
With the house brought down the band split the stage and with the huge chant of ‘Jet Black’ resounding round the hall they return to the stage with the heroic drummer taking the salute for his mini set of drumming for the encores. It’s noticeable that Jet is playing less songs this year than last year but the fact that he is here is a thrill for the fans and there is a huge roar as he take his place at the second drum kit.
The band break into Baroque Bordello with its long and mysterious bass intro and those lugubrious builds that were so much part of the Raven era when they broached the tricky subject of prog rock and allowed their musical dexterity to stretch way beyond the limitations of what was considered punk or whatever at the time. Some of the bass licks are divine and the song ebbs and flows in an unnatural way. Golden Brown is the big hit and its baroque flavours sound timeless and its less than full on drumming gives Jet the chance to see out another song in the glow of adoration from the packed hall whilst its creator, Dave Greenfield, plays that keyboard lick thats saved the band’s career. They fluff the song up but there is a huge roar of joy from the audience who are in a celebratory mood with a cup final atmosphere. Strange Little Girl is a similar affair-a jazzy pop song and one of their biggest hits whilst Always the Sun is the another great Strangled ballad that was a hit single- the way its greeted you would think they were playing a top 5 hit instead of what was perhaps the greatest single to never be a proper top 20 hit. By the time they get to Genetix the band are shooting Jet concerned looks and even if he doesnt make it to the end of the whole set proper the fact he makes it through this rhythmically complex song is testament to his stoic toughness that any whinging younger band should take note of.
They end the set without Jet and a vicious run through Tank-whether Jet was meant to play in the two drummer assault or not is a moot point but it’s a great version. We can only hope that Jet is not harming himself pushing himself through this gruelling tour out of a sense of devotion to the fans. Of course everyone wants him up there- but no-one wants him to fuck himself up and fully understands whether he can make the show or not. I still think he should just sit on an armchair and glare at the audience from the stage if the drumming gets too much now and then- all we need is for him to be in the building. I think the fans just want to show their appreciation to one of the architects of this remarkable band.
As Tank explodes iat the end as the two hour set draws to close- we slip backstage and JJ wonders if the set is too long for the fans- we assure him another hour would be about right and as the band wind down we talk about Jet who is already back at the hotel relaxing. The band, as ever, are affable and any sense of triumph on this tour, a tour that is shaping up to being their best selling scince the seventies is kept in check. I can find little flaw in tonight’s set- the great charge through some of the obscure corners of that killer catalogue, the faultless playing and the surly passion-it’s all there. The Stranglers, as we have said for years, are one of the great bands- the only difference now is that our secret is finally out…