The Picture House, Edinburgh
1st March 2013
Words: Mark Fleming
Pic: Jenny Hardcore
Instead of the customary ‘The Stranglers’ logo emblazoned on a giant banner, the moments the lights dimmed at Edinburgh’s Picture House for the opening night of the band’s latest UK tour, the packed audience were faced with a vast electronic display. As ‘Waltzinblack’ blasted from the PA, the backdrop counted forward each year of one of the most potent and consistent careers in rock – 1974 to 2013 – from humble pub rock origins to becoming one of the most influential and internationally acclaimed bands on the globe.
As the stage lights came on JJ Burnel’s opened proceedings with the thunderous bass intro to ‘Toiler on the Sea’, from 1978’s seminal ‘Black and White’ album. Unfortunately time has finally caught up with Jet Black (aged 74). Despite his admirable refusal to grow old gracefully, an understudy occupied the stool for the first half of the set. When the grizzled maestro finally appeared, rattling the toms for the intro to ‘Genetix’, the reception from the rammed auditorium was rapturous.
The Stranglers have spent years and countless gigs honing their craft. Although the loss of lead vocalist and co-songwriter Hugh Cornwell in 1990 might have dealt a body blow to many a less-committed band, The Stranglers have always thrived on facing adversity. Baz Warne has been an integral Strangler since 2000, and it is testament to both his own stage presence and the others’ dedication to their cause that Cornwell, genius songwriter that he may have been, is not remotely missed. Warne performs the vocals on all-time classics from their earlier days, such as ‘Peaches’ or ‘Straighten Out’, with his own inimitable style, capturing the gruff rock n’ roll essence of the songs, always delivering with a glint in the eye. He is also a much more accomplished guitarist.
Their second song was ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ from 1977’s ‘Rattus Norvegicus’. As the set wore on, they dipped backwards to plunder gems from their timeless archive, blending them with more recent masterpieces, including a string of hit singles such as ‘Always the Sun’ and ‘Thrown Away’. Their ability to thrash out tunes that are over 36 years old (‘Grip’ or ‘Something Better Change’) and make them sound as uplifting and fresh as tracks such as ‘Mercury Rising’ from their most recent album, ‘Giants’, demonstrate exactly why The Stranglers remain a vital, important and incendiary live act. They may have come to prominence as a punk band – and the punk ethos remains their core driving factor – but they have always refused to be straightjacketed by any one genre. Their 17 UK top 40 albums have covered a dizzying array of bases, from punk to post-punk, goth to Euro-pop, but what they have consistently achieved is taking supremely-crafted songs with catchy melodies, and giving them a dark twist.
With such an awesome back-catalogue, not to mention recently-penned songs that are up there with anything they’ve released, The Stranglers’ biggest headache must be deciding on their set lists. Last night’s opening stint of their 25-date 2013 UK tour (sub-titled ‘Feel it Live’) saw them tearing through ‘Grip’, ‘Peaches’, ‘Bring on the Nubiles’, ‘Nice n’ Sleazy’, ‘Genetix’ and ‘Duchess’, through to the post-Cornwell highs of ‘Relentless’ and ‘A Soldier’s Diary’ from Suite XVI, to the title track of ‘Norfolk Coast’ and the aforementioned ‘Mercury Rising’. The latter (despite a shaky start when Baz Warne’s guitar played up) illustrated why the band can still pack theatres. They refuse to rest on past laurels – despite having an embarrassingly rich stream of these to rest on. They still strive to experiment with new sounds and explore different musical avenues. (That was always one of the most important aspects of being a punk band, anyway). Their songs can veer from dense, heavily-textured baroque rock to adrenaline-pumping punk to insanely catchy pop. ‘Golden Brown’ and ‘European Female’ were both aired last night, the choruses and hooks from either trouncing any of the chart pop acts that were granted a so-called ‘Brit Award’ at that meaningless and utterly non-rock n’roll corporate back-slapping event last week.
The only factor hampering the performance were occasional problems with the sound mix. Baz Warne spent a fair amount of his time gesturing furiously at the engineers off-stage to tweak his Telecaster’s sound. Dave Greenfield’s flourishes are integral to the sound. But overall the pluses far, far outweighed the minuses.
The first night of The Stranglers’ latest UK tour was triumphant.