❉ The Stranglers’ debut LP is forty years old and still unassailable.
“It hadn’t been possible to offload this shit until now.” – NME
Greatest Hits (Abba), 20 Golden Greats (The Shadows), Rumours (Fleetwood Mac), The Sound of Bread, Animals (Pink Floyd), A Star Is Born (Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson).
That was the best-selling line up of LPs in 1977: accomplished Swedish disco rock, vintage guitar compositions, stadium soft-rock, stadium prog-rock workouts and the soundtrack to a 1976 remake of a film made in 1954. To coin a phrase, most of it said nothing to me about my life.
Things were slightly healthier in the singles market, where new styles and novelties could be tried out without too much financial risk. I was at that awkward age where I was beginning to loiter nervously at the back wall of school and youth club discos, determinedly tapping a foot: I wasn’t ready to look good/or not on the dance floor. Singles that caught my attention were Fanfare for the Common Man (hardly a disco certainty, but those who liked it made a good fist of boogieing along), I Feel Love by Donna Summer – I liked how the electronic backing swooned and swayed – and the other electronica novelty hits Magic Fly and The Crunch by Space and the Rah Band. Elsewhere, I was entertained by Elvis Presley going Way Down and the always dependable David Bowie’s Sound and Vision.
Looking at those titles, it’s amazing to think that, Donna Summer and Bowie aside, so few register in the legacy of 1977’s music forty years on. The music that does, and which turned my musical tastes around, was punk.
The movement’s impact was out of all proportion to its chart placings: The Damned’s New Rose, the first British punk single released in October 1976 on the independent label Stiff, didn’t chart. The iconoclastic Sex Pistols’ mission statement Anarchy in the UK fared better, reaching number 38. What gave punk such cultural power, though, was the band introducing the nation to teatime profanity on Thames’ Today show, presented by Bill Grundy. The media immediately leapt on this “rock cult filth”, generating pages of newspaper copy, concerned regional news reports and introducing punk to an audience who might never have heard of it. For this 12-year-old, music was suddenly fun and upset your parents.
I think I first heard The Stranglers courtesy of my friend Paul Howard, who brought round tapes of punk songs as I didn’t have a record player. He delighted in playing me the album version of a song called Peaches, where instead of Hugh Cornwell’s laconically drawled ‘Oh, no!’, we delighted in the more inflammatory ‘Oh, shit!’; hearing ‘clitoris’ instead of ‘bikini’ was even more luridly exciting. Looking back, Peaches was part of my enjoyably grubby entry to adolescence, along with those porn mags that always seemed to materialise in tatty piles in the most unlikely places – by the side of the road, in railway sidings, on wasteland we used to frequent.
When I finally heard Stranglers IV: Rattus Norvegicus, the album Peaches came from, I was struck by how different it was to the three-chord, three-minute thrashing of the Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks et. al. This was a prowling, sleeker sound, with the emphasis on a rumbling bass and – a first for a so called punk band – plaintive keyboards and swirling Hammond organ. The packaging was different too: there wasn’t a safety pin in sight on the black, minimalist cover which featured an arty shot of the band in a gloomy country house. On the back, though, tying in with the last song on Side Two Down in the Sewer, was a silhouette of a hunched, furtive rodent – the genus Rattus Norvergicus which became The Stranglers’ enduring emblem.
The Stranglers didn’t look like a punk band, either. On the Rattus picture sleeve, French bassist Jean Jaques Burnel affected a lean, asexual allure that hinted at Roxy and Bowie: next to him, unfashionably bearded keyboard player Dave Greenfield could have been touring with heavy/prog rockers Uriah Heep. Behind them, drummer Jet Black (unfashionably old for punk at 35) and guitarist and vocalist Hugh Cornwell loomed like two faces who wouldn’t have been out of place working a London crime firm. On this form, The Stranglers skilfully implied danger rather than bellowed it.
The themes were as dark as the LP sleeve and sometimes verged on the misogynistic. The narrator of the opening track Sometimes sneers to his partner that ‘one day I’m gonna smack your face’; the waltz – yes, waltz – Princess of the Streets eulogises a girl who’s ‘a piece of meat’ and London Lady smirks about ‘making love to the Mersey Tunnel with a sausage.’ The liberal rock press – primarily the NME – jumped on the sexism but, in the context of the late 1970s, it wasn’t much worse than you’d hear on a variety of other contemporary records, films or TV (which, of course, doesn’t excuse it). Forty years later, rappers like Eminem and Snoop Dogg should know better.
It’s the artistry – and I use the word deliberately – of the stand-out tracks Hanging Around, Goodbye Toulouse, Ugly and Down in the Sewer that show why this band still inspires such a devoted following. A stealthy, haunting prowl down mean streets that builds and builds; a rocking swing of harmonised choruses celebrating a French town; an electronic buzz of bass and keyboards with distorted vocals that might be about a sex killer; then the climax, Down in the Sewer, The Stranglers’ greatest achievement at this point, a fusion of punk and prog rock – broken down into four movements, all listed on the sleeve – that follows the journey of the luckless narrator into ‘the sewer’, a metaphor for London, where the rats have ‘sharp teeth, deep breath and lots of diseases’. It’s immaculately paced and constructed and comes to a rousing finale in Rats Rally, which, as the title suggests, sounds like a hundreds of rattus norvegicus stampeding out your speakers. It’s as impressive on stage at Rock City in 2017 as it would have been at Dingwalls in 1977.
Perhaps that’s why Rattus Norvegicus retains its power and relevance forty years later: the people who made it, older and wiser than their contemporaries, were already ahead of punk’s posturing and aimed to deliver something unexpected.
The proof that they did can be heard in these blacker than black grooves.
❉ The Stranglers IV: Rattus Norvegicus was originally released on 15 April 1977 by United Artists Records. It’s been reissued by EMI several times, including as a digipak with bonus CD-EP in 1995, with extra tracks in 2001, and as a 2-CD set with ‘Black and White’ in 2003. It is currently available from Amazon and other retailers on mid-price CD and digital download.