The Roundhouse, London
6th March 2015
Louder Than War boss John Robb’s band the Membranes supported the Stranglers at the Roundhouse. The headline band were so good that he had no choice but to review them…
Longships, The Raven, Straighten Out…few bands can kick a set off with music as diverse, inventive and as damn powerful as that. Age becomes the menu black men in grey. It sets a theme for the night when the Stranglers revisit their extensive catalogue as well as underlining their new stuff that sits perfectly with the timeless classics.
The rarely played Longships is the first of surprises for this evening. The swirling, brooding Viking opener from the classic Raven album has lost none of its yearning for adventure and salty sea bass driven wistfulness and the imagery is as stark and strong as ever- the Stranglers as Norsemen- JJ Burnel the Norman (Normans and Norseman are the same people…)- it’s followed up by the veiled autobiographical ‘The Raven’ which has lost none of its atmospheric power over the years as JJ intones his confessional.
Underlining the stunning diversity of a decades old career the Stranglers are not running scared from age. In fact they are embracing it with open arms with a silver surliness and humour. From the cover of the last Giants album with hangman’s ropes tightly round their necks and songs that dealt with death like gunslingers on an endless last hurrah to their continued support of their totemic drummer Jet Black to their extensive indestructible back catalogue this is the band that neither fears death or seems to be able to die.
Whilst most rock ‘n’ roll cowers in fear of the hangman and the plastic surgery disaster of chasing endless youth the Stranglers have always been older and crazier and less concerned with such fripperies as fashion and being eternal Peter Pans. Ironically this gives them a very different energy that sees them remain one of the great live bands.
That catalogue is celebrated in a set that mixes massive hits with the quark strangeness and charm of their fantastically weirder moments- for every Always The Sun there is a lurking Four Horseman from the band’s magnificently weird Meninblack album, for every Golden Brown there is a the rarely visited but stridently powerful The Man They Loved To Hate from La Folie or the prog genius of Ice – the poetic ode to the Samuri code.
The Stranglers and the Roundhouse are a combination so powerful and so full of the lysergic mystique at the heart of British music culture that it wouldn’t surprise me if they owned the place. They certainly seemed to own it tonight.
I was looking at the blown up photos on the wall of the Roundhouse before the gig- the shots of Jim Morrison at his liquorice leather pomp and Jimi Hendrix oozing high decibel charisma and the naked hippie freak outs and you feel the history seeping through the venue’s walls. The Stranglers have played here and sold the venue out more times than anyone else. They have owned this place since their famous sold out run of gigs in 1977 and tonight’s sold out shebang is yet another rats rally in the Victoriana of the venue.
Here we are again for what was once again a huge nocturnal social and celebration of the ultimate outsider and has become one of the key spring tours.
The meninblack are now the men in silver and age has not diminished them. Perhaps the ultimate test of the warrior is to retain the edge into old age. The real master is the one with the steely eyed resolve in later years. The time when they add the wisdom to the fire of youth. Where they appreciate the past and the present and put meaning into those long lost moments can not only be an art but also a martial art although it is also littered with the carcasses of burn outs and that used to be celebrated but have now faded but there is something fascinating about a band that grows old (dis)gracefully.
Few bands can evolve for ever and even fewer find the key to what once made them great. The Stranglers did get lost once for a few years. No disgrace in that. Every band loses its way, it’s trying to find the path again that is the real skill. The real martial art.
Losing any of the four key members would have knocked the band out at any point but through grit and determination and stumbling over a younger guitar player who understood the band from an outside perspective they rediscovered their mojo and have stealthily rat walked into their older age with a fire and brimstone and creativity that is a latter day version of those fervent years in the late seventies when they were arguably the best band in the world.
The indestructible Jet Black is the old master who brings the house down as he enters the stage for a couple of songs towards the end where he adds the classic rumbling swing to Genetix. Jet is the venerable backbone of the band – recently described as a punk Paddington bear on twitter by Boy George after THAT Breakfast TV appearance that caused a twitter meltdown he was always an unlikely pop star. He was always there in them olden days glowering at the cameras in TV studios across the world and his projected menace that he added to the band’s profile belied his genuine warmth and loyalty to the cause, a cause that he was the key driving force. He held the band together in those tough early years and really added to their amorphous outsider image in the punk era when they laughed at the new rule book that had come to replace the old one and made it on their own terms.
Jet’s brilliant recent appearance on Breakfast TV was the talk of twitter. He sat in the sofa wrapped in the swaddling black of a dark uberlord was an internet hit and, after all those years of letting the bass player do most of the media, it was his dark sarcasm that made the TV appearance a piece of micro theatre and an epic old school encounter between the surly musician with a twinkle in his eye and the non plussed media. It was golden viewing and a reminder that it was Jet, the collector of all the band’s press clippings, who was the one who understood the media game better than anyone and how to create great story from the mundane conveyor belt of culture.
When Jet takes the stage for Genetix briefly replacing his understudy Jim Macaulay who has done a great job, he gets the audience meltdown. He then rumble into Genetix – one of the band’s glorious long set pieces from those early albums when they would stretch out for the long complex piece at the end of the albums. Those book ending pieces that were kinda like what the Doors or the Velvets had done in the sixties- stretching the fabric of their music and finding a whole new sense of space and weirdness to the sound. The Stranglers classic set pieces were of course Down In The Sewer, the rarely played School Mam(another of my favourite Stranglers songs- a brooding, thoroughly addictive, nasty masterpiece) and Genetix from the Raven a song that perfectly closed an already complex album with its rumbling sci fi and yet fantastically catchy oddness which they capture perfectly tonight with its twinkling, rumbling, unravelling of their own musical DNA.
This is the band at their most wilfully oddball and a song that sounds like it is built around that bubbling tom tom groove. A groove, that according to Jet’s affable other half, Ava is not as hard to play as it sounds but she could possibly be pulling our legs. Genetix is one of those songs where the Stranglers made their music sound like their lyrics- it’s dripping genetic code from the guitar line to those iconic drums that sound like DNA and the dividing cells and science gone mad- this was a true psychedelia were sound becomes vision.
For the past few years the Stranglers have been tweaking the set. Like all the best long term bands they have become the curators of their own museum, the guardians of their own archive. These days they don’t rely on the golden jukebox set of hits but a considered romp through a varied back catalogue that is as about as diverse as it gets in British rock music. Of course it is peppered with those brilliant singles. They signpost those years for a lot of us- the twisted psyche- punk, the first shots of post punk, the plain weird and the perfect, yet dark pop.
Few bands can have mastered so many types of music from the baroque pop of Golden Brown to the grinding noise of the perfect Curfew which, as part of Black and White, opened up up the post punk door and then the noisnik scene of eighties with its best bass sound ever and deconstruction of rock music into a new form. Much as we love Joy Division we still think it’s weird the Stranglers don’t get the lauded BBC documentary.
There was the brooding electronic pop of Skin Deep and the sweeping prog rock masterpiece Down In The Sewer.
Sewer is a song that says more about the dank and mouldy late seventies UK with its smouldering undertow of dank disappointment than a whole hatful of their punk contemporaries. The revisit of the song is one of the highlights of tonight’s set- it’s been some time since we hung out with this old friend and the seven minute plus of the swirling masterpiece contains nearly everything that’s great about the Stranglers. All the hallmarks from the wonky and warped dark world view that is spat out in those leering psychotic spittle lyrics to that twanging Ventures guitar lick to the zigzag wanderer bass line in the songs main motif. A bass line that is delivered with the holy rat walk from JJ Burnel who prowls the stage with a curious balance between menace and bonhomie. It’s a great version and the song coasts along and seems to come with an added urgency tonight with the end section more strident and powerful than I can remember it from before.
Baroque Bordello sweeps in with its autumnal beauty driving along on one of those epic building bass lines that dominated the Raven album- this is a masterclass in bass playing with a great line that leads the song and yet has that really cool stop and start thing that gives the piece a whole sense of space, Baz Warne does a great job of the baroque (not that word again!) Hugh Cornwell croon as the band slither behind him delivering a perfect version of one of the great Stranglers songs.
The Stranglers greatest trick, of course, was taking the wild esoteric underground and making it into a glorious pop music. It’s hard to believe these days that this kind of music was once a top ten staple but then few bands from that period can still sell out these big old music halls all these years later and still maintain a creative edge. The set is peppered with songs from the ‘comeback’ album Norfolk Coast including the opening title track of that album – this is the song that suddenly woke up the sleeping giant and its slumbering muse as they remembered their sure touch and all the hallmarks of what made them such a great band in the first place.
Relentless from Suite 16 is another genuine Strang-classic with one of those melancholic yet churning grooves that they are so adept at- it sounds like just the sort of thing that JJ, with his almost classical music melodic touch, would have put together but it’s Baz’s finest moment as the the saviour of the Strangs and sounds enormous tonight with the perfectly crisp sound that defied the Roundhouses’ cavernous acoustics.
(Speaking of classical I wonder what happened to the Ballet In Black that JJ was talking about a few years ago – it seemed like a really interesting idea- as much as the Stranglers sound is so great, a journey into classical would suit his dark and sweeping melodic sensibility)
The set ends with Hanging Around- the third single that never was- there was such an embarrassment of riches in that first year that they simply ran out of time to release what would have been a dead cert top 5 hit with the added controversy of a song that would not have got on the radio because of that fabulous and filthily offensive and deadpan chorus as the rest of the song details the seedy street life of the steaming sewer of late seventies London. It’s the early Stranglers at their spitting gutter poetry best with driving bass lines and keyboard magic and those jazzy lead breaks on the guitar that were so magical.
They manage to end on No More Heroes tonight after the mishap in the previous gig in Guildford when Dave Greenfield’s keyboard imploded- maybe the rubber rat that sits on his keys had gnawed through the wiring or something and left the band without their calling card song.
Of course Heroes is the big moment. JJ teases out that long bass intro, building up the tension and brings the house down when they crash into another one of those perfect combinations of their sound with Dave’s keyboards bubbling baroque underlining his sheer brilliance and cornerstone importance to the band. it is odd, though, how this is THE song for nearly everyone there – even the blokes stood next to me shouting ‘play something we know…’ start jumping around.
The set is stuffed full of great music and this is the only song they know! It’s ironic that at the end of a set that displayed a stunning catalogue of great moments that for some folk this was all they needed! A set where the band make the difficult sound easy and no matter how wacky their ideas get they somehow make them make sense. A gig like this is a celebration of the Stranglers own wayward genius and of course No More Heroes is the icing on the cake- but what a cake! a dark jet black (ha!) cake of sticky treacle genius and malevolent will power that was an unlikely recipe for success at the time and has defied the poison pens, old father time and fickle fashion to become one of the great musical experiences on the circuit.
The Stranglers spring tour used to be a highly enjoyable and key ramble round the country hooked around some greatest hits package but is now one of the touring highlights of the year in its own right and a stand up experience of its own. In the end it’s not so much history as an adventure into the now.
This is a band that have somehow arrived at a point in time where they have a future. They have not even finished this year’s romp and there is a rumour that next year’s spectacular is already in place.
They are even nearly respectable these days!