Stranglers_-_Black-White_album_coverThe Stranglers
March 2016
Live review

Once upon a time there lived a nine year old boy in a village nine miles from Stonehenge.

He like to watch the telly, especially Dr Who and Blake’s Seven. One day he saw a program called ‘Jukebox Jury’ presented by Noel Edmonds. He showed videos to a panel of pop celebrities who then cast judgement upon them.

One song’s video could not be shown because it had been deemed blasphemous by the BBC censors. The reason was the video had been shot in a church. Presumably the BBC spoke with god and so knew that it would be alright to show a still photo of the band dressed as overgrown choir boys in the same church. Only if The Stranglers moved would the wrath of the patriarchal lord of public broadcasting be invoked.

The song was “Duchess” and five years later it would change that fourteen year old’s life.

Back in 1979 “Duchess” sounded a hell of a lot better than his previous favourite composers Gustav Holst (The Planets), John Williams (Star Wars music), The Beatles, Abba and Mike Batt (The Wombles).

Only five years later would he have enough money to buy a tape of “The Raven” and soon collect all ten Strangled aural sculptures that existed in 1985. The Stranglers blew the door open on punk rock and much to his poor mother’s chagrin he’d soon be blasting Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks, Wire, Killing Joke, Subhumans, Conflict, Crass, Magazine, Banshees and The Fall as loud as the stereo could go.

Burning up time, somehow years rolled on by, The Stranglers changed singers twice and the young boy became me. At 45 revelations per minute I found myself in Sheffield in front of The Alarm. They were a bit too Bryan Adams, a bit too middle of the road for my liking but singer Mike Peters had enough charisma to entertain whilst I waited for the Meninblack. When he got everyone near the front singing along to a “Na-na na-na” refrain I’m pretty sure I was the only one singing “Melt Banana.” They’re an amazing fast band from Tokyo, Japan. Check ’em out!

I laughed my head off to one side when he sang about having one guitar because he quite clearly had two: one electric and one acoustic. I didn’t give a damn as by that point I was as close to the bass amp as I’ve ever been at a Stranglers gig and they were about to play my favourite album “Black and White” all the way through.

In 1978, The Stranglers took an apocalyptic turn into the shadows, Westminster was razed down to the ground, the robots took control of dystopia and they foresaw the end of time.

Five minutes and they were almost there… how I cackled to a short “Waltzinblack” intro before they rolled on in their very own metaphorical “Tank.” Behind his array of keyboards Dave Greenfield looked the part of the commander, barking a chorus of orders into his headset mic. To the left behind JJ Burnel drummer Jim Macaulay was the tank driver. JJ Burnel and Baz Warne were the ground troops expertly dispatching explosive attacks with their SLR guitars.

They gave their old mothers and fathers something to be proud of as they did the prowl for “Nice’n’Sleazy” and Dave did the backwards lazer beam synth madness that really lifts the song. I suspect the reason this is the first tour I’ve seen them play without their almost number one hit “Golden Brown” in the set could be that “Outside Tokyo” is of a similar tempo. The end of time is arguably a more interesting lyrical topic than the pleasures of heroin or hashish anyway and it must be a more fun bass line for JJ to play.

There are actually two more common versions of “Black and White,” three including the old tape that wedged “Mean to Me” in towards the end of side one. This tour the Stranglers were using the slightly reshuffled CD reissue version rather than the original vinyl track sequence, so the robots rose before they got to tell us about “Sweden.” Dismissed by original singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell as a throwaway song, “Hey! (the Rise of the Robots)” is actually one of my favourite Stranglers songs and one of their most frenetic; arguably the last song they wrote that was full on punk rock.

I like to sing my own version of “The Rise of the Cylons.” Instead of “Versatran, Series F” I sing “Leoben, Caprica Six.” This will only make sense if you’ve seen the remake of “Battlestar Galactica.” Now Jet Black is too old and tired to drum, his former drum tech Jim Macaulay can rev the Robots up as fast as they can rise. There was no saxophone, but maestro Dave Greenfield was capable of compensating with keyboards. He also had some slight embellishments on the arpeggiating run that raises “Sweden” from its hypochondriac tombstone blues. If ever there was a Stranglers song that should’ve been a single it was “Sweden.” If it had been released everywhere and not just in Sweden I think it would have been a much bigger hit than “Nice’n’Sleazy” and could’ve gone all the way to number one. The Swedish single “Sverige” was sung in Swedish by Hugh Cornwell as he lived there in the early seventies before he got Strangling with Jet, JJ and Dave.

Every song from “Hey!” through to “Threatened” is a number one for me. “Toiler on the Sea” is probably a bit too long for a single, even if the Shadows style twangy guitar riff is a fine hook for an epic Norse saga that prefigures their next album “The Raven.” They took her back up north and lost her in the fog…

Not much time to think before “Curfew” fell. Based on chords that are supposedly the devil’s music and recounting visions of nuclear war and martial law in Britain, the title track with a different title is probably my favourite Stranglers song. JJ Burnel almost spoke the lyric, without the venom he furiously spat out like an exterminating Dalek back in ’78. Every night this March tour JJ Burnel has sung, “Westminster is razed down to the ground, the government has fled into thin air.” Meanwhile the current Tory scum administration is fleeing not from invading men from the Steppes but from each other. Maybe their mean spirited cuts program has been “Threatened.” I always thought the keyboard intro to “Threatened” was purloined as the basis for the Associates’ “Party Fears II” but no one I’ve ever mentioned that to can seem to hear the similarity. Liverpool had been a great big singalong with everyone near me singing all the songs in tune which sounded fantastic. Sheffield seemed a bit less vocal, but most people joined in on the “Bring me a piece of my mummy” drop away. The threatening prowling bass heaviness of “In the Shadows” soundtracked my trip to the bar to refuel on rum. Sheffield 2016 was the first Stranglers gig I’ve been to where they didn’t play “Peaches”. They did play it in Liverpool, but as “In the Shadows” is a song of similar tempo and style it seemed a suitable substitute. Dave asked us “Do you wanna blow your mind?” looking like a priest preaching from his pulpit and of course that segued into the night’s best shout along “Death and Night and Blood.” Surely the most challenging song to play is “Enough Time” as the disruptive guitar is so at odds with the bass line, and the slowed down grinding halt ending was executed admirably. “What if there’s no way of moving back?” I guess you just get pulverised by that jolly old JJ Burnel bass rumble apocalypse.

One album down but just over half a gig to go. The Stranglers always give their fans a nice long set, maybe playing longer than any other band I go out to hear. Barely a pause for breath before they reminded us that the only crime they ever did was playing rock’n’roll with their first classic single “Grip.” Fan favourite “Walk On By” preceded a small surprise. They hadn’t played “Norfolk Coast,” “I Lost Control” or “Freedom is Insane” in Liverpool and the last of these was especially welcome as its my favourite Stranglers song since Hugh Cornwell left the band. I could gladly swap “Princes of the Streets” and her piece of meat for “Sometimes” or “Down in the Sewer” but I guess a few slow numbers are necessary in a two hour set when half the band are in OAP land. Whilst “Always the Sun” has been a a set staple for years, we never tire of singing along. After all we’re all made from sun, and in that context ancient sun worship makes a hell of a lot more sense than organised religions whose primary purpose is social control. The song’s more of a Bob Dylan kind of protest ditty than anything to do with sun worship or a shitty newspaper, and really should have been number one. Two heavy apocalyptic singles “Nuclear Device” and “Five Minutes” fit right in with the “Black and White” album. The last four songs all tripped back in time to 1977 when feeling like a wog meant “Something Better Change.” The encore was “Go Buddy Go” but it wasn’t quite time for an exit because there were still “No More Heroes.” Then we spilled out into the night, down the car park ramp and into a pub where the friendly DJ was playing the Stranglers every other song.

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  1. Great review Billy. Saw them twice on this tour -Brixton & Bristol – what a classic, influential album Black and White is. A real treat to hear it in it’s entirety. Hope themeninblack will be hanging around for a few years yet.


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