If defiance is one of the pillars of punk rock’s ethos, no other band from Britain’s classic punk company exemplified it like The Stranglers. With England’s rebel landscape dominated by the politically-charged world-punk of The Clash, the uncompromisingly ugly and aggressive proto-noise of Crass, and the weaponized misanthropy of The Sex Pistols, the technical proficiency and sophisti-pop stylings of The Stranglers hardly meshed with the rest of the pack. Yet their antisocial attitudes, deliberately offensive songs, and often violent live shows did little to endear them to a mainstream audience — much less the critics of their heyday. Their reputation as thugs and dilettantes often led audiences to overlook their musical prowess and songwriting chops (then again, maybe you’re not exactly concerned with the popular vote when you call your band The Stranglers). It’s ironic that, for a genre that champions nonconformity and a break from conventions, The Stranglers didn’t even fit in with the other noncomformists and outsiders.
Still, that’s not to say their impact on the world of music was minimal — far from it. Their keyboard-driven brand of rock proved to be a massive point of reference for many new wave and new romantic artists. Famous fans include Franz Ferdinand, Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order, Robert Smith, and Bloc Party. Speaking for myself, before I was even interested in The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, or The Clash, the scuzzy bass grooves and powerful organs on songs like “Nice ‘N’ Sleazy” and “Peaches” caught my ear like nothing else in my parents’ catalog of classics. It wasn’t quite punk, it wasn’t quite art-rock, it wasn’t quite funk, and it wasn’t quite pop. These were songs that somehow embraced all of these elements while simultaneously spitting in their faces. My perception of what a rock band could be shifted and warped when I heard Rattus Norvegicus in full for the first time.
And with the very recent passing of the unsung core of the band — keyboardist Dave Greenfield left this earth May 3rd of 2020 to heart disease — there’s a pretty sizable gap in the world of indie rock that needs to get filled pronto. So here is a long-winded entry that serves as a short, biased introduction to one of the most seminal bands in alternative rock history.
Their classic line-up contained a powerhouse of talent. Jet Black, the drummer and oldest member of the group, had spent at least a decade playing in smaller bands before the group’s formation in 1974, jazz-influenced yet maintaining a direct simplicity crucial to propelling their attitude-heavy tunes. Hugh Cornwell’s bluesy guitar playing adapted easily to the frenetic energy of punk yet still showed off his love for 60’s psychedelia. Their Franco-English bassist, JJ Burnel, remains a force to be reckoned with even today. His signature growling tone produced by a Fender P-Bass playing through a ripped cone in a Marshall amplifier, Burnel’s lines not only provided muscle and grime to the speedy playing of Black and Cornwell but managed to create some of their best-known riffs. Dave Greenfield’s keyboard playing was perhaps the defining factor of the band’s sound. Pulling more from prog-rock than psychedelia, Greenfield often played multiple different keys at once, layering concrete-thick arpeggios and harmonies atop each other in a dizzying swirl of carnivalesque sounds: rotary organs, electric pianos, harpsichords, Roland and Moog synthesizers. Amidst the willful ugliness and bad attitudes of their songs, Dave Greenfield’s keys gave them humor and wit — a miasma of casino-lights and pinball-bell chimes plucking and ringing, baroque melodies played with a motorcycle speed. His was a sound that I don’t think could ever be meaningfully reproduced or reincorporated in any other delightfully dark context.
Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes (1977)
If there were one album I’d point absolute beginners to, no contest: Rattus Norvegicus. For a debut album to successfully stand out from the rest of the crowd, to confidently display its identity and sound, and maintain a consistent level of quality through its forty-minute run is no easy feat. Many also point to their sophomore album, No More Heroes, released a mere five months later. If for nothing else, it’s worth checking out for the title track, their first hit single that best defined the unique personality of their early era. Considering how close these albums were when conveived and released, I’ll talk about them here as two parts of a cohesive unit (partially for the sake of brevity).
All elements of the band’s talents are on full display here, setting the scene for the casually ugly and comical underbelly that Cornwell presents in his lyrics. Critic Dave Thompson once described the bawdy and chauvinistic content of their early work as having “ an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern ‘men’s talk’)”. Just listen to the self-pitying spoken-word tirade in the middle of “Ugly” and tell me they’re not taking the piss.
I guess I shouldn’t have strangled her to death
But I had to go to work
And she had laced my coffee with acid
Normally I wouldn’t have minded
But I’m allergic to sulphuric acid
Besides, she had acne
And if you got acne
Well, I apologize for disliking you intensely
Beyond the neon-colored keys and quick-witted guitar leads, the songs often have a certain level of self-parody and satire toward rock cliches of their era. The unabashedly sleazy “Peaches” — an ode to girl-watching on the beaches of France — maintains a charming, gruff swagger through its memorable bass riff, coupled with a goofy, drawling monologue from Cornwell that, lecherous as it may be, is never outright predatory. Even more outwardly licentious is the awkwardly titled “Bring on The Nubiles”, containing one of the most hilariously awful pickup lines ever conceived: “I want to love you like your dad and be your Superman.” Their knack for absurdist nastiness hits an outlandish high on “Down in the Sewers”, a multi-piece punk-suite where Cornwell depicts living in the sewers amidst the chaos above the streets, planning on mating with the local rats and raising a family he calls The Survivors.
An undercurrent of violence is present throughout their early material — an undercurrent that spilled over into their live-shows either from the audiences or from the band themselves. On Rattus Norvegicus, the opener “Sometimes” is a direct threat of violence against a cheating partner, spurred on from the feeling that there’s no other course of action to take than to fight. “Goodbye Toulouse”, a jaunty waltz-rock piece, is a farewell to the titular city based upon its predicted destruction (courtesy of Nostradamus) from a faulty gas line. No More Heroes has an even stronger theme of death — “Dagenham Dave” being a eulogy of sorts for a friend of the band who showed up to many of their early shows (and even mentions the Marquis De Sade) and the title track referencing historical figures who met violent ends (Leon Trotsky, Lenny Bruce, and Elmyr de Hory specifically).
The group even showed off an early ability to write ballads with some sincerity to them. Besides the aforementioned “Dagenham Dave”, the bluesy swing of “Princess of the Streets”, penned and sung by Burnel, makes for an excellent breakup song even when coupled with an absolutely melodramatic guitar solo like Cornwell’s trying to take the piss out of Clapton.
But at their best, The Stranglers conjured up marvelously carefree, high-energy pieces of gallows’ humor. Even when the world hasn’t gone to shit in, there’s almost always something fun going on. “Hanging Around” and “Something Better Change” show off their respect for groups like The Doors while “Bring On The Nubiles” pummels and rages hard enough to go toe-to-toe with The Clash any day of the week. The proto-goth comedy of “Peasant In The Big Shitty” even plays with an uncommon time signature in 9/4. My favorite song, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)”, is the closest to a straight-up punk classic about the hardships that come to those with a passion for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle — poor finances, social alienation, and uncertainty for one’s future — and a desire to stick with them anyway, reminding you to get a grip on yourself when the going gets tough.
Black And White (1978)
Hot off the heels of their first two albums, the band released Black And White the following year. Their reputation as low-lives was only exacerbated by disastrous tours and a volatile relationship with the music press. The darker and moodier atmosphere of this album seems only appropriate. The group began to experiment, trying out different styles and slowly stripping away the rush and fight of their songs for a more nocturnal sound. The leading single that preceded this was a Doorsy cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk On By”, the closest thing they’d had to a pop hit at that point and maybe an indicator of things to come on later albums in the 80s. The dichotomy of The Stranglers naturally dark and heavy sound paired with the orchestra-soul and sunshine pop of Bacharach seems appropriate in retrospect — the group always walked a tenuous line between light and dark, ugly and pretty, even black and white.
I have a somewhat dubious relationship with this album. There’s never really been a perfect Stranglers album since Rattus in my opinion and from Black and White onwards, the track record starts to get pretty spotty. It maintains a special place in my heart for being the first Stranglers album I’d heard and my own introduction to their work, though I can’t sit here and act like I think every song is as good as that of Rattus and Heroes.
On the one hand, it’s first three songs are undeniably killer numbers that belong on any worthwhile greatest hits compilation. “Tank” is possibly their greatest opening track, one of the speediest in their discography with phaser-heavy electric pianos whirring and revving up its engines; a straightforward post-punk thrasher about saving up to own your very own tank — in fact, throw in another guitar and make the synths more primal and you’d have a dead ringer for a Devo song. I could probably write an entire article about why “Nice ‘N’ Sleazy” is probably the best song The Stranglers ever wrote — this infectious dance-punk beast driven by one an instant classic of a bass riff, lyrics that veer into colorful self-mythology, rife with zapping synth hits and an unhinged electro-noise solo in its middle. To save us some time, let’s just acknowledge how criminal it is that “Nice ‘N’ Sleazy”’s riff isn’t practiced in guitar stores as often as “Money” or “Billie Jean”. This whole album could serve a testimony to the skills of JJ Burnel who was sharing songwriting and vocal duties with Hugh Cornwell in equal measure. And “Outside Tokyo” is a remarkably different track up until that point in their discography — a lilting waltz piece, carousel-like and somber, meditating on the invention and destruction of time, proving they were capable of more than what they’d achieved with Rattus and Heroes.
On the other hand, this is where the tracklist starts to fall out of favor for me. While none of the songs are bad, most of what’s on this album feels like a somewhat moodier rehash of what we’ve already heard prior to this album. It comes as such a letdown around “Toiler On The Sea”, especially after the band ventured into new territory on “Nice ‘N’ Sleazy” and “Outside Tokyo” and stuck the landing. The majority of its second-half feeling like The Stranglers dipping their feet in the murky waters of post-punk. “Threatened”, for as cheery as its verses are, is a genuinely disconcerting, off-kilter listen that almost recalls Siouxsie and the Banshees were it not for the caveman vocals and brassy synth riffs. The darkness cranks up even harder on “In The Shadows”, sparse and eerie for the majority of its runtime till it shimmies in on that jazz-heavy bass like something off of a horror-punk tune — gothic suggestions with a smirk and a wink. The snarl of their sound is still present but has receded into a darker place, growling at us from a distance.
The Raven (1979)
The diversity in songwriting continued on The Raven, a considerably more cohesive and rewarding listen than its predecessor. Though one would assume its title is derived from the famous Edgar Allen Poe poem given the gothic direction of Black And White, Cornwell has stated the influence for the title, artwork, and its first two songs came from Norse Mythology. Right out of the gate, their musicianship still manages to impress and inspire on the instrumental “Longships” — a polyrhythmic freak-out aboard a seasick shipwreck, tossing and turning over rough waters — and the title track — a new wave song where Greenfield’s reedy synths and Cornwell’s echoing guitar counter each other as the latter rasps over top, its fluid movement and steady pace keeping everything afloat as the ship sails towards its destination. Some of its passages even recall the synth-symphony work of Ultravox or even the occasional interlude of a New Order album, especially on later tracks like “Shah Shah A Go Go” and the penultimate track “Meninblack”.
Though far from a perfect album, it’s a markedly more interesting and almost psychedelic experience than their last. Its worst songs perhaps being the rather uninspired and unengaging “Duchess” and the mild-tempered “Dead Loss Angeles”, both of which lack many of the new sounds the band were employing and seemingly lacking any real direction. And while one could argue some of the other songs on this album similarly meander, allowing the band to jam over ideas, the palette of sounds and the musical dexterity more than makes up for it.
The songs that return to the darker tone of Black and White manage to bring back a bit more color from the early days as well, every song helped out by the wider variety of sounds that Greenfield brings; no longer just flanging organs and chiming Wurlitzers, we now get more complex synth sounds (from the 8-bit plucks on “Ice” to square-wave arpeggios on “Nuclear Device”), acoustic piano (the somber ballad of addiction “Don’t Bring Harry”), and harpsichord (“Baroque Bordello”). Hell, “Shah Shah A Go Go” starts off as a straightforward if somewhat sickly synthpop disco before Burnel’s bass and Burnel’s come in as its bodyguards to toughen it up. Perhaps I’m biased as a synthesizer nut myself, but the colors and effects that these sounds leave on the longer compositions bring an atmosphere and intrigue that was sorely missing from the longer tracks of Black And White. Case in point: “Meninblack”, an eerie mood-piece that floats over warbling sci-fi synths and Twilight Zone-y guitar fills, all the while an alien-child voice (presumably one of the members using a very unique vocoder) calmly assures us of our doom:
We’re not here to destroy
We are here to employ
We have come to make you function
So we can eat you at our functions
The album esaves its best for last with the “Genetix”. A rumbling, winding, and wacky-as-all-hell dance number about genetic engineering (glad to see Cornwell keeps the subject matter interesting throughout as well), “Genetix” is the album’s most overtly psychedelic number and one of the most unique and underappreciated songs in The Stranglers back catalog. Full of the turbulent polyrhythms from “Longships” but now brought to a controlled and well-oiled performance with some of Cornwell’s best guitar playing. Overall, what The Raven lacks in the immediate and violent jolt of energy that Rattus and Heroes offered, it makes up for in a newfound musical complexity and artistry.
La folie (1981)
By 1981, The Stranglers managed to garner some attention as a serious new wave act in Britain despite the commercial failure of The Gospel According To The Meninblack — an esoteric concept album about alien visitations and their relation to biblical stories, fueled by the band experimenting with heroin; not one that I’d recommend listening to save for the glorious darkwave synth-circus that is “Waltzinblack”. EMI paired the group with longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti in a conscious effort to produce a commercially successful record, giving him a brief to “produce every song as though it were a hit single”. It seemed the band themselves were consciously trying to make something that’d appeal to a larger audience as well (albeit on their own terms), embarking on a concept album about love and its different facets and faces. The end result was La folie.
Mostly gone is the growl and shout that Cornwell employed on early records, more often than not giving a withdrawn croon. The palette of synth sounds are still present but are submerged in watery, reverb-heavy effects. The musical complexity now serves to promote a sophisti-pop style you might find in new wave groups like Simple Minds or even XTC. Yet for as commercially driven and radio-friendly La folie is, The Stranglers still know how to deliver cheeky transgressiveness and subversive subject matter into nearly every song. And for as questionable as his choices can be, Tony Visconti’s production is a big factor for why this album holds up better than it ought to and a part of why later pop-oriented Stranglers albums don’t.
Even the first track “Non Stop”, its organ already cheerier and more sedate than on previous records, delivers its smile with tongue-in-cheek cynicism and snark. The song presets the secret frustrations of a nun who’s devoted herself to a life of chastity. You can’t help but imagine Cornwell giving a quiet smirk as he speaks.
Claims she waited her life for her man
Loves to pray every day
Says she’s not frustrated in any way
And she gives up her whole life
And she’ll never be your wife
‘Cos she’s got the best lover
Better than any other
While subversive and unconventional topics were nothing new to the world of pop music in the early 80s (Elvis Costello and Talking Heads come to mind), few bands had experience and wisdom of the grimier, seedier parts that songwriting world like The Stranglers. And with La folie, this was Cornwell and Burnel’s opportunity to mature those ideas into potential pop standards; its vileness is still present but no longer front-and-center, no longer confronting you head-on with incest, murder, aliens, bestiality, and psychotic episodes. With La folie, many of the ideas come from a more introspective and romantic place of darkness, the madness of love disguised in charming singles for BBC to promote. “The Man They Love to Hate” and “Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead” are perhaps more overt about their subject matter than other songs, though the musical quality still lends value to them — the former combining its nocturnal jogging drums with melancholic Wurlitzer piano in something that could’ve been written for The Police, the latter paired with vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
That isn’t to say their over-the-top side doesn’t show up on occasion. The rumbling dance-grooves of “Genetix” show up again (or at least their offspring) on “It Only Takes Two to Tango” and “Let Me Introduce You To The Family”, the album’s first single and a memorable one. A disco beat that propels a frantic, hyperactive, and possibly drug-fueled bop about the overwhelming influence family has on one’s life. As it closes out, the hyperactive nature eases down to deliver a cascading, buzzy synth lead while the band chants “I Love the Family” over top — a peak moment for the band utilizing their musical economy.
Still, the album’s production is occasionally dodgy, some songs marred by heavy amounts of reverb over the drums and synths that leaves the band sounding oddly distant. On previous records, their presence and power were undeniable, refusing to let you look away. La folie’s watery echoes and nocturnal sheen (perhaps best represented by the album art of the band’s reflection in a pool of water) sometimes offers a refreshing and unique atmosphere to their moodier tunes, yet the more straightforward songs like “Tramp” and “Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead” put a wall between me and the music that irritates more than it enhances.
Of course, one can’t talk about this album without bringing up its most prominent single, “Golden Brown”. The band’s biggest hit and the furthest removed from what had become their signature sound, it still impresses and amazes me that the band who wrote something as lascivious and wicked as “Bring on The Nubiles” managed to produce this gentle, melancholy piece of baroque pop about the memories of an addiction. That famous shifting time signature, its harpsichord and guitar ambiance providing a ghostly and beautiful experience. Like a dream, its meaning is hazy and shifts back and forth between a former lover and a drug addiction.
Every time, just like the last
On her ship tied to the mast
To distant lands, takes both my hands
Never a frown with golden brown
As the title track brings the album to its close, I can think of no better ending for this gloomy yet charming pop album. The reverb finally brings atmosphere and warmth to the ice-cold synth strings and guitar melodies, JJ Burnel softly speaking french as he muses on love — still managing to get some of the grotesque in as he details the horrific story of cannibal Issei Sagawa, just for a bit of dark humor on us non-French speakers. It’s a gorgeous piece of dream pop that could share the same garden as Cocteau Twins or Julee Cruise; the shadows and monsters finally seem welcoming and inviting, a winter night on the stone steps of a Parisian museum, signaling the end to an overlooked pop album and perhaps the end of an era for The Stranglers.
The group has continued to release records since then, though hardly any of them have captured the magic, the murder, and the madness of these five albums. La folie‘s success may have led the band down a path of more pop-focused albums that, unlike La folie, feel more and more sanitized, conventional, and inoffensive — the solitary exception maybe being “Midnight Summer Dream”. Cornwell remained the frontman of four more albums until 1990, leaving on less-than-friendly terms with the other members. Replacements have filled in since then over the years, with Baz Warne being the current and most solidified member to fill in the spot. I obviously bare no ill will towards Baz Warne and commend the man for filling in a spot left by a uniquely charming anti-socialite — his musical skillset certainly equals Cornwell’s, though I can’t say he matches Hugh’s switchblade-sharp wit. Yet even when Cornwell was in the group, from Feline onward, each release has only felt more and more dated, each one an album that feels like it came from a band that is a pale imitation of its former self. And with the death of Dave Greenfield — a loss that, unlike Cornwell’s, is irreplaceable — it may very well spell the definitive end of The Stranglers. Then again, as the world gets darker and the days grow uncertain, we may just need a reminder to get a grip on ourselves.