Monday, January 23, 2012

The Stranglers - Coming Your Way

The Stranglers, Punk Rock

If ever you had counted the centuries you threw away
and all the lies that you had started
and all the chances thrown away...

In the quarter century I have been living here in London there are three concerts I deeply regret having missed. Two of these were at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank around about 2003/2004 - the late Arthur Lee and Love's full performance of the classic Forever Changes album and then Irish folk legends Planxty. The third was The Stranglers gig at Alexandra Palace in the summer of 1990 which would be the last performance of the group with Hugh Cornwell as vocalist after ten studio albums together. This was the same North London venue where the Small Faces played their final concert in 1968 before Steve Marriott left to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton.

The style, political incorrectness, attitude, dark presence and humour of The Stranglers in their original incarnation define the albeit fleeting power and passion of the punk era for me alongside The Skids, the various components of Ulster's shellshock rock and the music of The Ramones from Beat on the Brat right through to Joey Ramone's solo Maria Bartiromo which was released shortly before his death in 2001.

There was always something cool yet fundamentally unsettling about The Stranglers' image - not unlike the American garage band The Music Machine who they were often associated with alongside The Doors. The Music Machine performance of Neil Diamond's breezy Cherry Cherry to be found on youtube by the way - with the lead singer resembling a Hammer Horror satanic cult leader and the group dressed like mid-Seventies paramilitaries in Northern Ireland - is three minutes of total off-the-wall peculiarity.

Following Cornwell's departure The Stranglers produced six more albums with two different vocalists - and with a seventh Giants to follow shortly. Cornwell is also due to presently release his eighth solo album Totem and Taboo and his first novel Windows on the World. My knowledge of the respective later outputs are limited despite seeing both parties live in concert in London but listening recently to the pounding Spectres of Love and Barbara from the 2006 Suite XVI album by The Stranglers - and also Hugh Cornwell's antipodean history lesson The Story of Harry Power and Under Her Spell from his solo Beyond Elysian Fields - suggests significant contributions of worth.

My personal favorite track of all since the 1990 split has been Cornwell's Torture Garden from the 1997 album Guilty - the lyrics based around the filming of the Marilyn Monroe movie The Mistfits as opposed to Mirbeau's 1899 French novel or god forbid the Amicus horror portmanteau of 1967. As for The Stranglers a b-side of the Long Black Veil single from 2004 is absolutely sublime - Life's Too Short.

The first three albums by The Stranglers were released in 1977 and 1978 - Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White. I remember a clip of celebrity chef Keith Floyd (who used the later Waltz in Black as the theme tune to his cookery programmes) walking along the beach at Deauville in Normandy for an episode of his Floyd On France series and interrupting an accordion-driven Gallic dirge in the background with a comedy vinyl scratch to replace it with the wonderful Hanging Around - this track name checking the infamous Coleherne gay pub near Brompton Cemetery which is now dearly departed like the soul of Old London itself.

I also recall a BBC play - which may or may not have been part of the Play For Today series - using the No More Heroes title track to a clip of some teenage tearaways zooming down the road on their Raleigh Chopper bikes. But it is perhaps the Black and White album in its entirety that holds its own with the best of the Sex Pistols or The Clash by way of the sheer quality of tracks such as Nice n' Sleazy (as associated with an infamous onstage Hugh Cornwell neck manipulation), Sweden/Sverige, Toiler on the Sea, Curfew and Do You Wanna/Death and Night and Blood.

Aside from The Stranglers' debut album and Black and White, it is fourth album The Raven in 1979 that would appear to be most highly regarded to this day by the existing fan base and the musically informed alike. This album - as available in an exciting limited edition 3-D cover at the time and which I remember buying in Manchester - provided the group with the commercial crossover success of Duchess and expanded the lyrical content of their songs to take on board the Iranian revolution and the controversial Governor of Queensland Joh Bjelke- Petersen alongside a sweeping vista of brothels, suicide, Los Angeles, genetics, aliens, heroin and the Vikings.

A recent and very entertaining Kinks biography by Nick Hasted looked at some of the lunatic career dynamics of that group in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stranglers in turn would replicate the same bizarre pathways in 1981 by way of the decision to follow up the success of The Raven with the utterly uncommercial The Gospel According To The Men In Black album . Any listening of the single Just Like Nothing On Earth will instantly confirm the rank strangeness afoot. The same year, and with Golden Brown becoming their most successful release of all, the group decided on the ponderous six minutes and eleven seconds title track of the album La Folie (sung in French) as a subsequent single release as opposed to the sublime Tramp, Non-Stop or Pin-Up. Golden Brown was a number 2 hit - La Folie made it to number 47.

A move to the Epic label from United Artists heralded a distinctly mellower sound for The Stranglers in the mid-to-late Eighties as arguably captured to just as good (if not better) effect in my opinion, on Skin Deep, Ice Queen and Laughing from 1984's Aural Sculpture as compared to the previous year's more widely recalled Feline with its its beautiful trio of singles in European Female, Midnight Summer Dream and Paradise.

The last two albums by the original line-up of The Stranglers brought further hits in Always The Sun and the 96 Tears cover though are not regarded that positively in hindsight despite the wonderful Latin execution of the lengthy Too Precious on Dreamtime and another lost hit single opportunity with Man of the Earth's reworking of the suburban mundanity archetype from 10 - the band having broke up before its scheduled release.

If one considers other non-album singles of the quality of Five Minutes, Bear Cage, Walk On By and particularly Strange Little Girl alongside magnificent b-sides such as Here and There, Cruel Garden, Vietnamerica and especially the filthy and degenerate Old Codger with Soho jazz legend George Melly this surely underscores the worth of reinvestigating this massively talented, utterly unique and criminally underrated great British band.

...when all is said and all is over
when all is just a memory
our ships will stay for just a moment
leaving false gods and hypocrisy.