❉ The Stranglers are the living embodiment of how to do alternative rock that defies categorisation.
Dismissed from almost the moment they released their first album, The Stranglers have seen off all competition, to emerge as the living embodiment of how to do alternative rock that defies categorisation.
The first time I saw The Stranglers was at the tail end of 1981. Five years after they’d first made an impact on the music scene, they’d been pretty much written off by the influential rock weekly NME. In fact, the paper hadn’t given them an easy time since their first LP Stranglers IV: Rattus Norvegicus in 1977; the general opinion was that until the arrival of punk, “it hadn’t been possible to offload this shit until now.” Too old, too educated, too confrontational, too musical… no one could get a handle on The Stranglers in the three-chord year zero of punk, and the music press didn’t like that.
Apart from a few supportive journalists, that’s pretty much how their relationship with the music press continued. The general consensus in 1981 was that The Stranglers were on the way out. On the La Folie tour they played a new, slow song called Golden Brown and my unimpressed mate Lurch (a.k.a Howard) leaned over and commented, “That killed it.”
A few months later Golden Brown, an ear-worm of light psychedelia unlike any of their previous singles, was number 2 in the charts, The Stranglers’ highest ever placing. This unpredictable contrariness characterised their career from then on.
March 2017 and Nottingham’s Rock City is packed with an audience of very mixed ages, who are excited to be seeing a band over forty years old. The NME is now given away free in supermarkets, which just goes to show that some rock writers can get it completely and utterly wrong about what people want (not to mention overestimating the importance of their own opinions and the title they work for).
Despite both being propped up by walking sticks, long-standing mate Lurch and I have made the pilgrimage all the way from Lowestoft, England’s most easterly town, to Rock City. Lurch recommended the venue and I can see why: it’s like our favoured venue the Lower Common Room at the University of East Anglia. There’s the same low-slung ceiling which is great for acoustics but Rock City has an upper gallery. A considerate steward offers us both a stool propped up against the railing of the upstairs gallery, but having come this far we’re determined to stick it out right down the front, walking sticks or not.
It’s worth it. The support band, Ruts DC, are a bit like The Stranglers: they decided to carry on when, after they lost their original singer, everyone expected them to stop (modifying their name from The Ruts). Their fortunes haven’t been as consistent as The Stranglers – i.e. they haven’t been going non-stop for over forty years – but the tracks they play tonight from their latest album, last year’s Music Must Destroy, match the classic, punch-the-air call and response punk anthems like Babylon’s Burning, West One (Shine on Me) and In a Rut from their 1970s heyday. The stand out for me is Staring at the Rude Boys, which combines bassy reggae and straight-ahead rock as well as anything in The Clash’s catalogue.
The climax of the set is undoubtedly Babylon’s Burning, and behind me a crowd of young lads who might be students are bouncing around and singing at the top of their voices to every word. More evidence that punk’s rhythms and sentiments defy age and fashion.
Ruts DC are the perfect curtain raiser for a set from The Stranglers that is just shy of two hours. From the thundering bass and warbling New Wave synthesizers of The Raven, through the pop-punk of Dagenham Dave, to encores that include their oldest song, the 12-bar blues of Go Buddy Go, and their punk mission statement No More Heroes, the band attack their varied palette of music styles with a vigour that would shame musicians half their age.
“The band doing the rounds this year is the most dynamic it’s been for years, with songs whose vitality really has stood the test of time.”
There’s no complacency or going through the motions here, and if a great band is all about chemistry, you can see it in the way bassist JJ Burnel constantly exchanges grins and jokes with keyboard player Dave Greenfield, and new recruits Jim MacCaulay (drums) and Baz Warne (guitar and vocals). I say new; Jim’s been infrequently in the band since 2013 while Baz joined in 2000.
Purists still moan about the loss of original vocalist and guitarist Hugh Cornwell (who left 27 years ago) and, more recently, founder member, drummer Jet Black. I’ve seen The Stranglers a lot over the years, and towards the end with Hugh they sometimes went through the motions; towards the end with Jet, who was in his seventies when he stopped touring, inevitably the songs weren’t as fast as they used to be.
The line-up on the 2017 tour is the most aggressive, melodic and focused that I’ve ever seen. Baz is the perfect guitarist and vocalist, his sheer joy at being a Strangler evident with the enthusiasm with which he approaches every song, and the way he banters with and encourages the crowd. Jim is the perfect back up, revitalising the songs’ urgency and vigour. The stand out for me is the 1980 single Bear Cage – I don’t think I’ve ever heard them play it before and tonight’s version is utterly ferocious.
The Stranglers left us wanting more, as all great bands should, and from what I could see everyone in Rock City was clapping and shouting for more.
A cynic might say that the meninblack are getting close to being The Stranglers – The Next Generation, but with a line up this committed, that doesn’t matter. The band doing the rounds this year is the most dynamic it’s been for years, with songs whose vitality really has stood the test of time. Sometimes and Down in the Sewer, the first and last tracks on Rattus Norvegicus, sound as fresh today as they did in 1977.
Give yourself a treat and get strangled.
❉ Get tickets for The Stranglers Classic Collection tour: https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/the-stranglers
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.