It’s during Bear Cage that it hits you.
The song was not even a proper hit when it was released (number 36 in 1980) – a weird, dark, downbeat song – its dirty disco and pounding malevolence was a brooding warm up for the soon to come The Raven album. The song has never sounded better than tonight, though, where its smouldering dynamics are utilised to create a perfect tension and release with the chorus exploding with a power and menace. Few bands can take their old material out on the road and make it feel more urgent decades later but then few bands have ever been like the Stranglers.
Tonight sees the band play their now traditional last night of the tour in Manchester showcased as they should be – a sold out, huge, 3500 capacity venue seething with an audience almost as diverse as the band’s set list. It’s ribald, off its head, ioyous and full of memories of punk rock wars and beyond as well as a youthful contingent as well as a couple of punch-ups which are unusual these days at meninblack shows – apart from that it’s a huge celebration of a much loved British institution who have defied naysayers, time and the decay of long careers to get bigger and bolder as the main members of the band reach their mid to late sixties embracing their age instead of shying away from it.
The band may not be the classic 4 from the days of yore but they still retain that aura that was so much part of their appeal as well as the catalogue of classic songs. The Stranglers may have become bigger than their members – a flapping, oily, dark, raven of a band that engulfs all that is thrown at it.
The last gig on a sold out UK tour sees a band that are going from strength to strength. The room is full of true believers. Battle-hardened warriors who talk of seeing the band every year since the seventies. As ever entering this black-clad world is a fascinating experience. Like a cult. A religious gathering of outsiders high decibel monks in love with the quirk.
Being a Stranglers fan is a serious business. No-one gets here because of the foibles of fashion. The Stranglers were always a band that you discovered for yourself. They were hardly ever media pets but their music, that was both gloriously off-kilter and laced with a wonk-pop perfection is deliciously addictive and also massively influential with their dark and epic music hanging over generations of musicians far more than may other bands whose influence is pumped up.
Little of this kind of stuff bothers the band.
Every year they come through town embracing their legend and legacy with a curators eye. A couple of decades ago the band were almost dying a death. They looked and sounded bored but they are now more vital than ever. Baz Warne stepped up and gave the band a rush and his skilful guitar playing and big presence make him a perfect fit.
Jim Macauley is playing perfect homage to the great Jet Black’s distinctive drum patterns. Jet was no normal drummer and his off-kilter timings and distinctive tom tom work were ich hallmarks of the band’s sound. Jim has learnt from the master and adds a relatively youthful power to the band’s sound and is a damn fine drummer on his own terms and with his added beard resembles a less bear-like version of the great man.te
The eternal core of the band – JJ Burnel’s black belt bass and Dave Greenfield – with his superb keyboards, deliver their key corners of the band’s distinctive sound, underlining the unique creative set up of this group where everyone plays lead and every part is nailed down and vital – there are no musical passengers in the Stranglers.
The set tonight zigzags around their back catalogue, showcasing their mastery of a myriad of styles from the baroque pop of Golden Brown or the tricky to play sparse rolling piano ballad of Don’t Bring Harry of the fianlly in the set pieldriving stormy sea rush of Norfolk Coast the song that billboarded the band’s return to form to the serious wonk weird of recent songs like Mercury Rising or the classic wonk of yet another single oddity – Just Like Nothing On Earth delivered with a snarling quirk delivery by Warne who has made so many of these songs his own. The menacing bass driven mangled weirdness of Curfew opens the set with its spiralling keyboard from the black side of Black and White album and is lyrically even more timely than when it was written in 1977. It’s also, crucially, a stark reminder of this band pioneering post-punk without getting any of the credit!
There is proof that the group are still on a creative rush with newer song, Relentless with its crooned, restless melody and hypnotic, twanging cinemascope rush or new song Water – a combination of Stranglers great strengths – that bass chug, the melodramatic melody, the moody intelligence of the Burnel’s vocal – if it’s a harbinger of the long-awaited 18th album then things are looking tantalizingly tasty and proof that this band is not burned out.
The staging is immaculate with a high wattage light show that adds to the high voltage sense of occasion underlining the 3D nature of so many of the songs – a big show from a band celebrating itself.
Support comes from Therapy? whose powerful race through their own hits and back catalogue is a perfect black-clad opening to the Strangs. Therapy? have the same kind of neurotic desire to cram their obsessions and madness into three-minute vignettes as the headliners – albeit with a lot less wilful eccentricity but they work within their rock framework very well, attempting to expand its boundaries at their own will. Recently signed to Marshall records – a label set up by the legendary amp manufacturers, they have a new album soon which could be a late period triumph.
A Stranglers gig is a community. A beautifully off-kilter world and proof that, in art and music, you can make up your own rules. A post-gig JJ Burnel is upbeat – the youthful looking 66-year-old bouncing around and talking about a future for the band.
Roll on 2019 and hopefully the new album tour…