The Gospel According to the Meninblack: a Retrospective of The Stranglers
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Ah, the wonderful, wondrous, intoxicating, and exhilarating world of The Stranglers. This profile will be a journey, because this band has covered a lot of ground historically, musically, and duration. They have been a favourite of mine since I first delved into non-mainstream music but, with their prolific output, I’ve never been able to explore their music fully until it has become accessible via streaming. I just didn’t have the budget to keep up with their output.
(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)
Something Better Change
No More Heroes
Toiler on The Sea
Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)
Dead Loss Angeles
Who Wants the World?
Just Like Nothing on Earth
Let Me Introduce You to The Family
Strange Little Girl
Midnight Summer Dream
European Female (In Celebration of)
All Roads Lead to Rome
Let Me Down Easy
Always the Sun
Nice in Nice
Sweet Smell of Success
Man of The Earth
Too Many Teardrops
Leave It to The Dogs
Mine All Mine
Another Camden Afternoon
As is the case with so many bands from this era, I was introduced to The Stranglers through my brother who had a few of their early singles on a cassette tape recorded from his dorm mates at university. He also had a few albums, and songs like “Duchess” and “The Raven” became early favourites on my mixed tapes. I was also intrigued with the dark, mysterious tracks like “Vietnamerica.” When their first album came out once I was fully immersed in the new music scene and buying my own records, I picked up Aural Sculpture and listened to it practically until the grooves ran out. A few years later I picked up their greatest hits and enjoyed all their great singles through to the end of the ‘80s, but never went further than that and lost their thread through the ‘90s. I’ve been able to catch their modern iterations in concert a couple times over the past fifteen years but its only been recently that I’ve gone back and explored them more fully and am unabashedly falling for them all over again. So let’s dig in.
In 1974, Brian Duffy was a thirty-six year-old journeyman jazz drummer originally from Ilford in the east end of London and who had been playing since the late ‘50s. He was making a living running a fleet of ice cream vans and a liquor store in Guildford, southwest of London. He met blues singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell through an ad in Melody Maker magazine and they decided to form a band. By 1975 they were a quartet with Jean-Jacques Burnel on bass, who had experience playing classical guitar with symphonies, and Dave Greenfield on keyboards (who had replaced Swede Hans Wärmling after a brief stint). None were from Guildford but the band worked from there out of Duffy’s store. Duffy also started performing under the name Jet Black and they called the band The Guildford Stranglers. It wouldn’t be long before they dropped the reference to their locale.
Sometimes; Peaches; (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) \ Rattus Norvegicus (1977)
Working from shared interests in psychedelic rock the band developed an aggressive, modern variant rich with keyboards (organ, electric piano, and minimoog analog synthesizer) and lively basslines. They were like a punked-up evolution of The Doors. Vocals were shared between co-writers Burnel and Cornwell whose voices were complementary and added a deep, edgy tone to the songs. The band fell into the UK punk scene in 1976, opening for The Ramones and Patti Smith on each of their first British tours.
They signed with United Artists and in January 1977 released their first single, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself).” It was one of the earliest UK punk singles to be released following The Damned’s “New Rose” in October, The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” in November, and just ahead of The Clash’s “White Riot” in March. Their first album was issued in April 1977, titled ‘Brown Rat’ in Latin since the rat had become part of the band’s iconography.
The Stranglers aggression, off-colour lyrics, and assertive brand of rock rightly placed them in the punk genre, but their look, musicianship, the sophistication of their songs, and the retro tinge of their sound with the organ set them apart. Most punk bands were led by guitars, but in The Stranglers the guitar was more often an accent instrument, adding colour or the occasional solo. Their early songs and album were a sensation, with “Grip” going to #44 and then “Peaches” reaching #8 in the UK singles chart, with the album going to #4. Their sound could appeal to punkers and classic rockers and their strong rhythm section combined with the powerful organ and vocal melodies made their songs accessible and energetic.
Rattus Norvegicus was one of the best albums of the burgeoning modern rock era and remains the band’s top selling release to this day. The opening track, “Sometimes,” already revealed the consummate Stranglers sound, running briskly on bass and keyboards (not being a musician or familiar with the instruments, it’s not always easy to tell when it’s organ or electric piano) with Hugh’s voice snarling overtop. “Peaches” showed off their irreverence and penchant for going over the line with lyrics that danced on the line between cheeky sarcasm and outright sexism. How else do you interpret lines like, “Well there goes a girl and a half / She's got me going up and down,” or the song’s main line, “Walking on the beaches looking at the peaches,” and “Will you just take a look over there (where?) (there) / Is she tryin' to get outta that Clitares?,” which referred to a brand of French cigarettes but that Hugh’s pronunciation intended to make it sound like ‘clitoris.’ The lyrics ran the risk of distracting from what an epic song it was, running on a reggae inspired rhythm that brilliantly co-ordinated the bass and organ with the guitar. While the rest of the punkers were running through two-minute sprints, all the songs on this album except one ran over four minutes, culminating with an almost eight minute medley to close the album. The album was great, start to finish, and rightly deserves its esteemed position in the modern rock legacy.
Something Better Change; No More Heroes; English Towns \ No More Heroes (1977)
The band released their second album in September the same year, providing another collection of similar sounding songs though a little less melodic and more aggressive, burnishing their punk credentials. It was produced, same as their first, by Martin Rushent, whose past work had only been as an engineer on a wide variety of albums of varying music styles. His work with The Stranglers led to working with other punks like the Buzzcocks, Generation X, and 999 and eventually new wave bands like Human League.
The first side of No More Heroes was more to the punk form with all the songs but one coming in under four minutes and one under three. The pace was quicker and the songs more frenetic and a little less melodic than the debut. The content remained controversial with songs about racism, suicide, and sex (the song “Bring on the Nubiles” replaced the coy approach of “Peaches” with a more direct lyrical approach, which I’ll leave you to discover on your own).
The first side closed with the album’s first single, “Something Better Change,” which combined the aggressiveness of the album’s first side with a catchier, pop vibe. The second side started with the title track, which put the band back into full pop melody married with their resonant, punk mojo. The rest of the side was a little less scattered, but didn’t let up on the energy, featuring songs like “English Towns.”
The album solidified The Strangler’s position as a leading act of the new punk sounds, with both singles cracking the UK top ten and the album peaking at #2. Those inclined to the rawer punk styles are prone to appreciate this album more than the debut, but a pop fan like myself still looks to the debut as the essential Stranglers sound. Regardless, it was an impressive first year for the band.
5 Minutes \ non-album single (1978)
Tank; Toiler on The Sea; Death and Night and Blood \ Black and White (1978)
Continuing to work with Martin Rushent, the band started the next year with a single, “5 Minutes,” sung by Jean-Jacques Burnel and was about a rape that occurred in the building where he lived and his desire for justice. The sound of the song was huge, approaching a punk version of the wall-of-sound. While all the signature sounds were there, instead of any one instrument taking the lead as per usual they delivered as a whole for a powerful effect. Burnel’s angry vocal captured the punk spirit and the despair of the song.
“5 Minutes” was a precursor to the sound of the next album, Black and White, released in May to make it their third album in just thirteen months. The opening track “Tank” revealed the band in tight formation, again throwing a wall-of-sound variant of their sound at the listener. It was tougher and more powerful than their first two albums and was breathtaking. The second track was the first single, “Nice n’ Sleazy,” and reverted to their reggae-styled sound but to a less compelling result. “Outside Tokyo” offered a rare downtempo song, encouraging the prospects for the band to explore that style more, which they thankfully would. The first side finished with another lengthy (for a punk band) track (the only one on the side over four minutes), “Toiler on the Sea.” It featured a long intro that allowed the band to play out their talents with a synth sequence, a guitar solo, and the usually wonderfully organ flavouring throughout. Once the song broke into its verses and chorus, it was rolling along in a fantastic, hook-filled groove. It showed The Stranglers had the ability to craft bigger, more ambitiously crafted songs, something hinted at in their first album.
The second side lost momentum and lacked moments that developed the band’s sound or provided anything greater than what had come before – yet with their great sound was still a good listen. The song “Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)” was an exception, in which the chanted/yelled chorus and accented vocals gave it a good UK punk liveliness and something in which the punters could yell along.
Overall though the album wasn’t as strong as the first and its only single reached #18, the lowest showing since their first single. The album fared well, equalling No More Heroes by reaching #2. There was still no sign of success in North America as punk was being embraced more selectively in that market, but the band had been embraced in Japan, prompting tours and making The Stranglers one of the few English bands to succeed there.
The Raven; Dead Loss Angeles; Duchess \ The Raven (1979)
1978 was closed off by the release of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, “Walk on By,” revealing indeed that the band could deliver in epic proportions. I discuss this in volume one of my series on cover songs. It put The Stranglers in rare air, taking their sound and the punk groove to a whole other plane. The era of ‘post-punk’ was taking hold and The Stranglers evolution was right in step, easily done for them since much of their music had stepped away from punk strictures quite regularly.
The next album was released in September, a long sixteen months after the prior album due to extensive touring for The Stranglers and some side projects for Burnel and Cornwell. The band helped produce this one with Martin Rushent’s engineer, Alan Winstanley (who was also producing Madness’ debut album at the time, One Step Beyond, with Clive Langer). Alan was a last minute replacement when Rushent opted out.
Titled The Raven it marked a darker turn for the band in sound, image, and content, perhaps influenced by JJ Burnel’s experimental solo work and Hugh’s album with Captain Beefheart’s Robert Williams, Nosferatu, written as a soundtrack to the 1922 vampire film. The Raven opened with a lively instrumental, “Longships,” and then another epic song, the title track of the album. Both of the first two songs were based on Norse mythology. In “The Raven” they continued the long-form and ambitious style of “Toiler on the Sea” and “Walk on By,” and with a switch in emphasis from electric piano and organ to the synth, their sound was modernized. Yet layered on their heavier drums and usually thick basslines, along with Brunel’s raspy vocals, it still sounded very much like a Stranglers song. Its brisk pace made for a goth-disco tune that was original and thrilling.
The rest of side one included the catchy, staccato delivery of “Dead Los Angeless” and a similarly jagged, synth-led song about ritual Japanese Samurai suicide, “Ice.” Side one was closed by the brooding “Baroque Bordello” and then the album’s second single, “Nuclear Device (The Wizard of Aus).” The first single off the album was the highlight of side two, the power-pop and thrilling “Duchess.” I’ve mentioned in my writing that I love an even-paced rocker, and this song was the consummate example. It was pop perfection delivered with a growling bass, a repeating and infectious synth riff, and unusually assertive guitar riffs for the band. It’s one of my favourite songs to this day and lifts one out of their seat with its energy and force.
Also on the album was the song “Meninblack,” an odd, plodding, synth song with affected vocals and Joy Division-like bass and guitar (it was a slowed down version of a song that would appear on the next album, “Two Sunspots”). It was a level of experimentation beyond anything the band had done before and was a sign of where they were going both with their music and style. For the time, a solid gathering had formed behind the band and was supporting the developing sound. “Duchess” reached #14 on the UK chart and “Nuclear” went to #36, while the album peaked at #4, making it their fourth consecutive top five LP. The #1 spot would remain ever elusive.
Bear Cage; Who Wants the World \ Non-album singles (1980)
Vietnamerica \ IV (1980)
The Stranglers were not generally grouped with the emerging goth genre, but their dark sound was definitely part of a group of bands developing a heavier, moodier style of post-punk music – Joy Division, Killing Joke, The Cure, The Damned, Echo & the Bunnymen, Theatre of Hate – that set themselves apart from the growing new wave and synth-pop and dance styles. The Stranglers dress and style, usually simple and black, also never placed them easily into punk or goth. Starting with The Raven they would further explore their creative side and shift their music from its punk roots through the dark, experimental post-punk sounds, and finally into a progressive pop sound.
A few years on I was discovering The Stranglers through my brother’s music collection, he had “Peaches” and “Grip” on a cassette and I loved those songs but I knew nothing else of their early albums. He also had two albums on vinyl, IV and (The Gospel According to) The Meninblack which came from this period and were, to a thirteen year-old, strange and wondrous albums that intrigued but were hard to warm up to. I was not the only one to have this struggle, regardless of age.
The Stranglers started the new decade with two singles, “Bear Cage” in March and “Who Wants the World?” in May of 1980. “Bear Cage” had a marching rhythm with a distant, twinkling synth and Hugh’s mostly spoken vocal front and centre. It was a simpler song than what had been heard on the last album. “Who Wants the World?” was similar, with the keyboards back in front and Hugh angrily asking the titular question over a pounding beat. Both songs reached the thirties in the charts but lacked the band’s hooks and keyboard and bass meatiness.
In the US the band just wasn’t making a dent, to the point that The Raven hadn’t been issued at all. That was rectified to an extent in 1980 when IRS put out an album, IV, that included five songs from the album on side one (and allowed me to discover “The Raven” and “Duchess” via my brother’s copy) while side two were the singles “5 Minutes” and “Who Wants the World?” and “G.m.B.H.,” which was an alternate version of “Bear Cage” (GMBH was chanted behind the chorus of the song, “Gee, I’m living in a bear cage” and was the German equivalent for limited company in English). It also included “Rok It to the Moon,” the B-side to “5 Minutes,” and an unreleased song, “Vietnamerica.” All of these songs hadn’t been released in North America previously.
Since IV wasn’t released in the UK, “Vietnamerica” wasn’t available other than through import, but for those who heard it there was more indication of what was coming. It was slow, atmospheric, simple, and only offered subdued displays of the Stranglers signature sounds in the vocals, bass, and keyboards.
Just Like Nothing on Earth; Two Sunspots; Thrown Away \ (The Gospel According to) The Meninblack (1981)
The new album, their fifth, picked up on the ‘meninblack’ moniker and made it the centrepiece of the record. It continued to explore themes of aliens, conspiracies around global control, and biblical references that had appeared in songs like “Meninblack” and “Who Wants the World?”
The opening track, “Waltzinblack” (were they creating hashtags thirty years ahead of their time?) wasn’t quite like anything heard before and evolved from the “Meninblack” track from The Raven and continued the subdued and experimental nature of the recent singles and “Vietnamerica.” It was an instrumental on keyboards (I don’t know the compositional rules for a waltz, but it sounded waltz-like – a style the band would utilize more than a few times, especially in JJ’s Burnel’s songs) with affected vocals that sounded like alien munchkins (or gnomes?) which gave it a whimsical feel.
The second track, “Just Like Nothing on Earth,” sounded like The Stranglers of old but mingled with the alien munchkins again, a tribal beat, tight and catchy guitar, and a new wave synth. It was almost as if Talking Heads had infiltrated their sound, but it was intriguing. “Waiting for The Meninblack” was also a beat-driven, staccato delivered song with guitar as a rare front instrument. The side finished with “Turn the Centuries, Turn,” the type of moody instrumental many alternative artists did during the ‘80s, especially when exploring the possibilities with the new keyboard and electronic technologies and made for a dark and entrancing finish to the album side.
The second side was more accessible and resembled more the traditional sound of the band. “Two Sunspots” continued the rhythm led style of the first side, but with an upbeat, pop feel. “Thrown Away” was the album’s first single (“Just Like Nothing on Earth” was the second) and rode a catchy, pop hook on the keyboard and a more melodic chorus than most anything heard on the album. The final two tracks returned the band to the experimental, mostly instrumental and rhythm based styles of the first side.
The singles were the worst chart performances of the band’s career, and while the album kept their streak of top tens intact, its overall sales fell short of gold status for the first time in their short career (recall the band was only in its fifth year issuing music). The experimental exploration of this album had lost them some of their following.
Let Me Introduce You to The Family; Golden Brown; La folie \ La folie (1981)
Strange Little Girl \ The Collection 1977-1982 (1982)
After the success of the first four albums, The Strangler’s label, Liberty Records (the parent label, EMI, had dropped the United Artists name and switched to Liberty, which had been a label in America taken over by UA in the early ‘70s) had given the band full control over the Meninblack record, which they had produced themselves for the first time. After the relative disappointment of that album, the label was keen to see The Stranglers reassert themselves commercially and assigned producer Tony Visconti (best known for his ‘70s work with Bowie and T. Rex) to helm their next effort.
The result was La folie (French for ‘madness’), a more accessible album than Meninblack but still a different sound for the band that strayed further from their core sound to some mixed and surprising results. It was released in November 1981, only nine months after the last LP. The opening track, “Non stop” (it was supposed to be “Non Stop Nun,” as the lyrics go, but the label dropped the last word on the album), had a pop format with a return of the melodic keyboards and lively basslines, and a return to sung vocals as opposed to the more spoken styles of their recent work. “Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead” also brought back the subversive lyrics and mix of punky guitar and bass with the melodic keyboards. It lacked the energy and undeniable hooks of their earlier work, but it was looking like a renewal of the band’s earlier form with an updated sound.
Things really got interesting with the fourth track, “Let Me Introduce You to The Family,” which was about as close to disco as you were likely to hear from The Stranglers. It was a glam-punk romp, perhaps due to the guidance of Visconti? It still stands out as a unique song for the band. Side one finished with “The Man They Love to Hate,” a beat-driven song full of intriguing hooks and sounds and led to the side two lead, “Pin Up,” a new wave synth-dance track that once again had The Stranglers venturing into formats not heard from them before.
In the middle of side two was the album’s first single, “Golden Brown.” It stood out on the album as combination organ-harpsichord track giving it a Baroque sound accompanied with a lovely guitar. Echoey vocals and a beautiful melody gave the band a sublime sound never heard from them before, or really, ever again. The song, with its odd time signatures, was instantly warm and catchy and scored them their first hit single, reaching #2 in the UK singles chart. “Peaches” and “No More Heroes” had been their previous bests at #8. “Golden Brown” would be as close as they’d ever get to a #1 single, denied by The Jam’s double A-side “Town Called Malice/Precious.”
After a fun and quirky song, “How to Find True Love and Happiness in the Present Day,” the album closed with the title track, which was ill-advisedly released as the second single. It was a beautiful song and again broke new ground for the band’s sound. It sounded comfortable within the early ‘80s synth-ballad style, but with some French-spoken vocals from JJ had a more continental European feel. At over six minutes it was a bit long for the downtempo song and simple melody, but if offered a new take on the ballad from the band that was a pleasure to hear amongst their bass and drum songs. As a single it flopped, it just wasn’t right for radio. These three final songs for the band marked a new direction, shifting markedly from their bass/drums/organ-piano sound to a largely electronic one – even on this playlist the shift from the album’s first side and “Let Me Introduce You to The Family” to the second side’s “Golden Brown” is rather abrupt.
Despite the success of “Golden Brown” the band had lost too many fans after Meninblack and despite being a solid and newer sounding LP for The Stranglers, it only reached #11 in the album charts to make it their lowest charting album yet. Total sales, however, exceeded Meninblack and reached silver status.
After the results of the two prior albums it would appear relations between the band and Liberty/EMI were strained and The Stranglers chose to leave the label. As severance they agreed to release a singles collection that included a new one, “Strange Little Girl.” It was a song the nascent Stranglers had recorded in 1974 and that had been rejected by labels, including EMI. I suppose the band found it poetic justice to close their relationship with the song. It was a bit like “Golden Brown” as a subdued, synth-led track with a lovely, simple melody (which I’m sure is not how it was originally recorded in 1974). The Stranglers had the last laugh when it went to #7 in the charts, giving them their fifth top-ten single.
Midnight Summer Dream; European Female (In Celebration of); All Roads Lead to Rome \ Feline (1983)
Thanks to the hit single the band was able to field competing offers from several labels. They signed with Epic Records and were again given carte blanche for the recording of their next LP. They produced it with Steve Churchyard who had worked as an engineer at George Martin’s AIR studios (a place in which The Stranglers had recorded) and was beginning what would be a very successful producing career. The band picked up on the electro-pop style of the prior album’s closing three songs and “Strange Little Girl” and dove fully into it. The album would include acoustic guitar for the first time and Jet Black would switch to electric drums. Feline was released on the first day of 1983.
The album’s lead track would be the second single, “Midnight Summer Dream.” It picked up right where “Strange Little Girl” had left off, providing another subdued electro-pop song with spoken vocals and with the new acoustic flavour. It was a pleasant song but hard to believe it was The Stranglers, the same band that had snarled the likes of “Something Better Change” only six years prior. If this was a new band the songs on this album might have enchanted a little more and shown promise as an up-and-coming new wave synth band, but for fans of The Stranglers this continued to be a strange adjustment.
Fortunately for the band the first single and closing track of side one was “European Female (In Celebration of),” which took their new electro sound and brought back some of their resonant bass, harmonies, and a nice little Spanish flavoured acoustic guitar. It was melodic, light and airy, and had a warmth and charm to it that won fans over. The song reached #9 on the singles chart. After “Midnight Summer Dream” wasn’t able to crack the top thirty, a third single was released, “Paradise,” that didn’t sound like The Stranglers at all and was a mess. It charted poorly.
The second side returned more forcefully into an electro-pop sound, reminding at times of Gary Numan but with subdued vocals. I’m not sure why the band was so reluctant to sing during this period, perhaps because the lack of energy in the songs didn’t allow their usual snarl and anger of their earlier vocals to be utilized, and they fell back to mumbling through songs as an only recourse to accompany the lighter, pop-synth sound? This was exactly what you heard on songs like “All Roads Lead to Rome.”
Feline can be commended for experimentation and for a legendary punk band trying to reinvent themselves into a new wave, synth-pop band. It was a sound that went over well in Europe and the band enjoyed more success there than they had before. I am, given my ambivalence towards it, a little startled that it reached #4 in the UK albums chart to make it their sixth top ten and, deservedly or not, their last to reach that threshold.
Skin Deep; Let Me Down Easy; No Mercy; Souls \ Aural Sculpture (1984)
Their next album only reached #14 on the album charts, their worst showing yet, but showed more signs of life internationally than any of their prior albums (especially down under), though would not yet get them onto the American charts. For me, this was the first album I bought of theirs and at fourteen, fawned over it like a lovestruck teenager. The local alternative station in Toronto, CFNY, had always been a Stranglers supporter and this album would come in at #25 for 1984 (all their albums since The Raven/IV had placed in the top 35 in the station’s annual chart), but for me it deserved to be higher (it was a very strong year for modern music). At least I can take solace that this album reached #35 in Canada, the best result for The Stranglers ever in my country, so that at least aligns to my memory of this album’s success. Otherwise, it’s hard for me to look at Aural Sculpture objectively given how big it was in my life, nor to come to terms with how much less successful it was for the band compared to its prior work.
It’s understandable that for fans that had liked the punk edge of the early albums or the experimental and quirky aspects of their evolving electro-pop sound, the new wave pop sound of Aural Sculpture could have been very off-putting. Similar to EMI, Epic Records brought in a producer when it wasn’t happy with the album’s demos. Laurie Latham had done albums for Paul Young, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Squeeze, and was given a directive to create hits.
The opening track, “Ice Queen,” was another tepid electro-pop song but at least had a nice little melody over the minimalist rhythm tracks. Sadly, there was little sign of JJ’s signature bass but there was the introduction of a three-piece horn section for the first time, bringing a jazzy-soul blast into the middle of the song. Horns would feature often throughout the album, shifting the overall tone towards R&B and soul.
However, things got a lot better over the rest of side one starting with the album’s first single, “Skin Deep.” From the opening notes and the shimmering guitar and synth line to the closing groove, riding a rolling bassline and solid beat and marked throughout by Hugh’s resonant and melodic vocal (it was back!), it was a triumph. I don’t think the band had ever produced such a polished, perfect pop song. It also came with a great extended version that rode the wonderful melody and hypnotic synth line for a greater stretch.
“Let Me Down Easy” was the next song and the third single and again carried the pop vibe through a graceful melody and catchy synth riffs. It was as if the band had abandoned all aggression and dalliances with dark, experimental compositions and said, ‘fuck it, let’s do a new wave pop record.’ The truth likely had more to do with Hugh asserting more control over the band’s song writing, leading to increased acrimony with Burnel. This song was as much evidence as anything else on the album that it was firmly into pop band territory. Despite the potential, it didn’t chart very well as a single, reaching #48 (same as “Paradise” from the prior LP).
“No Mercy” saw the grateful return of JJ’s bass front and centre, Hugh’s assertive vocals, a wonderfully catchy, tight little guitar riff, and a bouncy beat that energized the whole concoction. It also had a superlative extended mix with that exhilarating bassline and guitar riff extended through the intro. I’m surprised it only reached #37 on the charts because I thought it was as good as “Skin Deep” and together represented the best pair of singles the band had released from an album since “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes” from the second LP.
“North Winds Blowing” completed side one and was another breezy, atmospheric, electro-pop song filled with hooks and a broad, synth-symphonic sound. It was the only song to make the album from JJ. It was as if you could feel the winds blowing through the song and completed a very strong album side that was as accessible, fun, and catchy a set of tunes as they’d ever produced. Fans of the first few albums were likely turning up their noses, but for new fans coming on board such as myself, it was wonderful.
Side two, alas, wasn’t as strong. “Uptown,” “Punch and Judy,” and “Under the Name of Spain” were lightweight and hard to take seriously, with blues rhythms and horns and, while catchy in their own way, not songs that begged to be heard again. My fourteen year-old self enjoyed these songs, but my adult self gets why these need to be taken down a few pegs. “Laughing” was a better entry, a slow synth-ballad with nice phrasing, a style of song the band hadn’t done enough of. The best track on side two was the album’s closer, “Souls,” which was like “North Winds Blowing” with an expansive feel and echoey vocals, a shimmering synth track, and even-paced beat.
Amazingly The Stranglers had transformed from a guttural, edgy punk band to a new wave pop band. The results were good but very different from what had come before. It wasn’t translating into the same level of success in the UK and didn’t advance their cause in the US, but did elevate their status in Australia.
Always the Sun; Dreamtime; Nice in Nice \ Dreamtime (1986)
It was two years before The Stranglers issued their next album, the longest gap of their career (at twenty-three months between albums, it was one month longer than the gap prior to Aural Sculpture so a trend was developing). It was their ninth album released in their ten years of recording.
On this album they backed off the electronics considerably and returned more to an instrumental sound, though the horns remained and played an even bigger part. Perhaps because of the album’s themes of the Australian aboriginal people and the environment, it made sense to move back to a less synthesized sound.
The lead track and second single was “Always the Sun,” one of their most sublime songs. It was like the music on Aural Sculpture and fit nicely with “Skin Deep” and “Let Me Down Easy.” It reached #30 in the UK singles chart, same as the first single from the album, “Nice in Nice.” That single had more edge and combined their new pop sound with a little alternative touch. Perhaps the strongest song musically on the album was the title track, which rode a synth bass into a nice, forceful chorus. Its bouncy rhythms and catchy keyboards made it a solid tune.
A third single would be “Big in America,” which fell flat for me, lacking melodies and any alluring sounds, pestered with an annoying beat and horn-like synth. Hugh also put on an exaggerated American accent which fit with the content of the song but sounded gimmicky – something I never would have associated with The Stranglers. It might have been better if it had been a sarcastic send-up on their lack of success in the US, but instead it was just a sarcastic commentary on oversized American lifestyles.
Dreamtime was emblematic of the times. The infatuation with the emerging technologies rendered many a good band into bland, electro-pop acts. Whether it was pop songs, blues, R&B, rock, or alternative, everyone by 1986 was littering their music with vapid electronic beats, weak and lightweight keyboards, and either minimal or overwrought vocals depending on the genre. Horns were also everywhere, for better or worse. Everything was starting to sound the same and led to one of the weakest periods in modern music. By leaning into these sounds, The Stranglers had their one and only taste of success in America, negligible as it was. Dreamtime reached #172 on the album chart. In the UK, it peaked at #16 to make it their worst showing yet.
Sweet Smell of Success; Man of The Earth; Too Many Teardrops \ 10 (1990)
The Stranglers had lost their way. After ten plus years together and nine albums, the band had travelled through several genres and remained relevant and inventive, but by Dreamtime their sound had been watered down and it wasn’t clear who they were in the artistic landscape. Were they aging punk rebels with an acerbic edge and profane and controversial lyrics? As champions of a keyboard-led, post-punk sound were they to be the pioneers in a new age of electronic rock? Or as experienced, maturing musicians, were they to be refined and respected elder statesmen, ready to show a new generation how it was done? As things progressed, it would be a jumble of all of those, but not enough of any for them to make a mark in the coming decade.
The first sign of the band lacking direction was its turn to cover songs. In 1988 they released their first-ever live album, recorded over the past two years supporting Dreamtime. The single supporting the album was to be their live version of The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” Unsatisfied with the recordings from their shows, the band opted for a live version done in studio. It was a straight-up cover, almost indistinguishable from the original other than the natural updating of the production and fullness of the sound. The Stranglers’ harmonies made me think of The Kinks. It was a good cover, done very well, but for a band that had reinvented “Walk on By” it was disappointing to see them do such a tried and true song and be so loyal to the original.
However, the single did provide fans a rocking Stranglers for the first time in a long time, which was welcomed. The single went to #7 in the UK, giving them their first top ten hit since “European Female” five years prior. The live album, All Live and All of the Night, went to #12 on the album chart, beating their last two releases.
Next up in 1989 was a greatest hits collection issued by their old label, EMI, covering all their singles from 1977 to 1982 (yes, such a collection already existed). Their first single, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself),” was remixed and released as a single, this time beating its original #44 showing with a #33 spot. The album only went to #57, despite likely having a natural advantage of being the first collection of their singles issued on compact disc.
In 1990, the band finally released their tenth album, appropriately titled, 10. If twenty-three months had been their longest gap between albums before, this was a verifiable chasm at forty-one months. If there was a hope for the band getting their mojo back the results were mixed when they released the album’s first single and it was another cover from the ‘60s, the 1966 classic “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians. Like their Kinks cover it was a great rendition done straight-up and had the band rocking. It was especially nice to hear organ in their sound again. It reached #17 in the UK charts.
The rocking covers were okay in an era of ascendant guitar-rock, so the chance existed for The Stranglers to dive in with their retro-keyboard sound and deliver something contemporary that fit with their pioneering sound, now come round to a new generation of listeners. In a year in which The Charlatans released “The Only One I Know,” a wonderful, organ-filled retro-rock song issued just two months after The Stranglers’ album, it was a serendipitous time for a band that pioneered that sound in modern rock and was looking to get its legs under them again.
The next single was the lead track on the album, “Sweet Smell of Success,” which was a pretty good song and with a tight delivery of drums, bass, and organ, seemed like a good shot to score success with new listeners. It wasn’t to be as it only reached #65, their worst showing since “Just Like Nothing on Earth” from Meninblack nine years prior. It was too bad, because it was a great song that returned to some of the band’s sound from the era of The Raven, tempered with the pop sensibilities of their latter albums. There was some consolation in that it reached #5 in the US Modern Rock chart, though as a recent invention focusing on less popular music a good appearance on that chart had little bearing on a band’s broader success in the US market.
The band had hopes that the third time would be the charm with the next single, “Man of the Earth,” but the label decided not to release it. It was a solid song, capturing the band’s new pop-rock sound, but it was probably true that it wouldn’t have been a hit. The Stranglers were fighting an uphill battle and the perception that they were relics of another era. Dreamtime wasn’t a bad album, but its tepid success, their changing sound, the gap of over three years between albums, and fans being reminded of their older work thanks to EMI’s singles release, had seen their core audience move on and no one new come to replace them. I was a perfect case in point, being unaware they’d even released this album and during a period in which I was closely following music.
Overall, 10 was a pretty good album. I like it better than Dreamtime though it lacks songs as catchy as “Always the Sun” or “Nice in Nice.” “Too Many Teardrops” was indicative of the album’s deep track strength, offering a modern take on the band’s consummate sound. 10 would still do okay, charting at #15 in the UK and beating Dreamtime by one spot to avoid it being their weakest showing. They would be dropped by their US label (CBS) and also end their relationship with Epic.
In August of 1990 Hugh Cornwell announced he was leaving the band to pursue a solo career. The viability of the band looked questionable and I’m sure after seventeen years together, there was enough baggage to make carrying on a dubious prospect – it certainly seemed there was no love lost between Cornwell and Burnel. It was impressive that the original quartet had held together that long – sixteen years by that point. It was amazing still that the remaining trio would carry on.
Southern Mountains; Leave It to The Dogs \ Stranglers in the Night (1992)
It was hard to conceive of The Stranglers without Cornwell fronting the band. Not many acts can survive such as a loss, especially given the characteristic sound of his voice and his songwriting contributions had made. Regardless, Burnel, Jet Black, and Dave Greenfield seemed to have no inclination to end The Stranglers.
The first hire seemed an easy one. Guitarist John Ellis had played with the band since 1980, usually as an extra hand during tours. He came on and like Hugh, shared the vocal duties with JJ. Eventually the band brought on Paul Roberts to sing, giving the band a dedicated vocalist and making them a quintet, both for the first time in their career. In shows Roberts assumed the vocals not just for the songs sung by Cornwell, but Burnel’s too.
The first work by the band was 1992’s Stranglers in the Night, released on the label, Psycho. For the first time The Stranglers were now an indie band, a common fate for bands of their vintage. The result was not good. The band seemed willing to get back to its harder rocking roots, but also delivered some pop sounding ballads. Gone were the baritone vocals, and though Roberts was a smoother and more capable singer his voice lacked character. Oddly, there was a notable absence of keyboards, with them pushed well into the mix on most songs. Perhaps it was the presence of the new guitarist, evident out of the gate with a not-too-bad western-surf styled instrumental to start the album, “Time to Die.” However, the album also had terrible songs like “Brainbox” and “Sugar Bullets,” which lacked any hooks or bite. The album’s saving graces were a couple of slower tunes deep in, “Southern Mountains,” in which Roberts managed to catch a bit of the Stranglers vocal essence paired with a nice synth track and acoustic guitar, and “Leave it to The Dogs,” the album’s closing song and again in which Roberts’ voice was effectively used through a melancholy offering with subtle instrumentation.
The album would chart at #33, more than double their worst showing before (#16 for Dreamtime), and while the first single, “Heaven or Hell,” would chart weakly at #46, the second single, “Sugar Bullets,” didn’t chart at all, the first of the band’s single to ever suffer that fate.
This line-up would release three more albums, 1995’s About Time, 1997’s Written in Red, and 1998’s Coupe de Grace. The first two were released on the When! label and the third by Eagle Records. None are available on streaming services other than YouTube. The first two charted the same or worse as Stranglers in the Night while the third topped out at #171, the first time they’d not even cracked the top 100. So let’s jump ahead to the 2000s.
Norfolk Coast; Lost Control; Mine All Mine \ Norfolk Coast (2004)
In 2004 I heard The Stranglers were coming to Toronto. It had been a long time since I’d given them much thought, though their songs were still regularly played in my home and car. I was a little surprised to hear they were still together, and the thought of seeing them gave me a thrill. I’d missed the chance in their heyday.
My brother and I still talked music but didn’t go to shows together much. I was thirty-four and he was hitting his mid-forties. He paid much less attention to new music and I had followed the new music scenes in the early ‘90s closely, so we’d drifted apart a bit on what music we were listening to. However, we still had the music of the ‘60s to ‘80s in common in which he’d played such a huge part in forming my tastes. We’d seen a great Springsteen show together the year before. The Stranglers show was going to be a great chance for us to share some memories once again.
The show was at The Mod Club in Toronto and was great. John Ellis had left the band and was replaced with Baz Warne. Paul Roberts did a good job up front. At that point he’d been singing for the band for fourteen years, almost as long as Hugh! He’d definitely grown into the job and was full of energy. Amazingly, Jet Black was still on the drums at age 64. Likewise, JJ Burnel and Dave Greenfield were at their respective posts at bass and keyboards, still part of the original trio in their thirtieth year together. I remember the show fondly and dancing with my brother and his wife to "Walk on By," which remained a favourite for all of us and had been a peak dance hit at their wedding ten years prior.
A week later my brother called me and said he’d picked up copies of The Stranglers new album, Norfolk Coast, which they’d been promoting at the show. “It’s pretty good,” he informed me, and had bought me a copy. I picked up the CD from him and listened to it quite a bit, and he was right, it was good. A year later my brother passed away. The Stranglers show would be the last one we’d seen together, and the CD was the last music he gave to me. This album has, therefore, a sentimental attachment even if musically it’s not high on my list of must listens.
What was good about the CD was a return to the band’s early sound with a modern take. The first song, the title track, roared with the bass and drums of their first album and the organ flavoured it just like the old days. Paul even had a young Hughishness about his vocal, though his voice would never be able to get as deep. “Big Thing Coming” was the single and did OK, reaching #34 in the UK charts, though even by 2004 charts were starting to lose their meaning in the age of file sharing. It was a solid song but a little too polished for my liking. The band had found their groove, combining the old joie de vivre with their new century vibe in songs like “Lost Control” and “Mine All Mine.” The band even threw in a new, muscular studio version of “Peaches” to complete the nostalgia effect. Norfolk Coast is a bittersweet listen for me, mixing the sweet nostalgia of old Stranglers with their later sound and the memory of my departed brother, Aaron.
Another Camden Afternoon; Lowlands \ Giants (2012)
Paul Roberts left The Stranglers in 2006, a sixteen year stint with the band that matched that of his predecessor, though in output of volume and quality it was not even a conversation. The band was back to a quartet comprised of the original trio and Baz Warne, who now teamed up with Burnel to cover the vocal duties. JJ returned to singing his original songs. This line-up released two more albums, 2006’s XVI (yes, it was their sixteenth album), and 2012’s Giants.
I saw The Stranglers in concert again in 2013 with a group that included two of my brother’s high school friends, so the association for me between the band and him remained. Once again it was a good show, though the sound was a bit muddied, a problem at times at the Danforth Music Hall venue. Pleasingly, this was a much larger venue and the show was packed, indicating more people were remembering The Stranglers since I don’t think it was the new albums that were bringing them out. Fortunately, the band was sure to play a lot of good ol’ tunes including some unexpected ones.
Giants continued the band’s modern mix of their traditional sound. “Another Camden Afternoon” was the opening track and it had a classic JJ bassline, bringing you right back to the first few albums. “Lowlands” had a fantastic, rocking groove of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums all locked together. The rest of the album had solid tunes, but admittedly not anything that got you rushing back for more. I don’t know if it’s just that the magic was gone without Hugh – though that had already been happening when he was still in the line-up – or it’s that aging acts just can’t keep the sound fresh enough when carrying all the baggage of their history, good and bad. It’s a conundrum all bands their age face, and few, if any, have found a way to avoid it.
In 2007 Jet Black started having health issues and missing shows. In 2008 he announced a retirement from shows outside the UK. He missed gigs or played partial gigs through their shows in 2012 through to 2014, continuing to stick to the British shows only, so it wasn’t him on the kit when we saw them in 2013. In 2015 he announced his retirement from performing altogether. He is now eighty years-old and it seems doubtful we’ll hear him play again, even in the studio. The band still tours regularly in the UK and Europe with Jim Macauley now on drums. They have, at the moment, 27 shows booked for 2019 across the UK, Ireland, Germany, and a festival in Las Vegas. The Stranglers can’t be stopped, forty-five years after their formation.
The Stranglers are one of the most important, distinctive, longest lasting, and thrilling bands of the modern rock era. They are one of the very few that were there in the beginning and are still going. They have only been able to achieve that through experimentation, reinvention, perseverance, and clearly a love for their music. They started as a unique sounding, keyboard-driven punk band, one of the first and most successful of that genre. They then moved into a darker, post-punk period and helped pioneer another genre. Next was a new wave, synth-pop band that was met with mixed results but still produced a lot of great songs. For the past thirty years they have mostly combined their earliest version of themselves with a modern pop-rock sound and with minimal line-up changes (though a significant impact with Hugh’s departure), and always thrilling their fans young and old and never stopping to remind people what a special and significant presence they have been in modern rock history.