❉ The passing of the Stranglers’ keyboard wizard is the end of an era, writes Robert Fairclough.
The Stranglers are my favourite band. They’ll always be my favourite band. While Mansuns, Manics and Wedding Presents have come and gone, The Stranglers have been a musical constant in my life for 45 years. I’m 56 now, so that means their music has been in my head for most of the time I’ve been alive.
The passing from coronavirus on Sunday night, May 3, of Dave Greenfield, the band’s keyboard player, is the end of an era. He was their musical constant, the creative bedrock amid the personnel changes that saw original singer and guitarist, Hugh Cornwell, eventually make way for vocalist Paul Roberts and guitarist John Ellis, who were in turn succeeded by singer/guitarist Baz Warne. In 2012, the band’s founder member, drummer Jet Black (older than Dave by ten years), passed his touring sticks on to the considerably younger Jim Macaulay. But Dave was always reliably, stoically there; not for nothing has his distinctive keyboard warble been hailed in tributes to him as The Sound of The Stranglers.
In 1977, while Cornwell and feline bassist Jean Jacques Burnel were every inch the scrawny punk anti-heroes, and Jet Black glowered menacingly from behind a beard from behind his drums, Dave’s visual vibe symbolised why the band were so out-of-kilter musically with their punk contemporaries: a decidedly progressive rock hairstyle – long hair, swept back – complemented by unfashionable facial furniture, immediately set them apart. The Stranglers’ early anthem Down in the Sewer even had four distinct ‘movements’, a prog rock conceit if ever there was one. It was a startling, complex, early classic, driven by Dave’s “massive, swelling organ” (as Cornwell so delightfully put it).
One of the great things about The Stranglers is that they never stood still musically (even between the first two albums, Stranglers IV: Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, often seen as a pair because they were released only four months apart in 1977, you can hear several musical steps forward). I think Dave’s interest in new musical technology was a large part of that constant progression. The crazed synthesiser solo on 1978’s Nice and Sleazy put the band in a colder, more nihilistic place, a sonic feeling that marbles all of that year’s album, Black and White. As JJ dryly put it in 1987, “people have been saying we haven’t sounded like The Stranglers since the third LP.”
This might not be a popular choice, but I think Dave’s greatest work in The Stranglers – and arguably their greatest work, come to that – is the 1981 album The Gospel According to the Meninblack. Going, in five years, from songs about sun-tanned bathing beauties to a concept album about alien interference in human evolution, was bound to mystify and upset some people. At the time, I was the only one among my New Wave friends who didn’t hate it. Somehow, that made me like The Meninblack even more.
The opening swirl of Waltzinblack is nearly all Dave; a sinister fairground waltz, gradually building with layer after layer of keyboard refrains, made all the more strange by harmonised, choral voices and giggling spacemen. In a typical example of the perversity that characterised the band’s career, it was adopted by TV chef Keith Floyd as theme to his cooking series, Floyd on Food.
From there, we go into what can only be described as a New Wave Rap with Just Like Nothing on Earth. Other highlights include Manna Machine, characterised by Dave’s aural sketch of an extra-terrestrial device, realised through looped ticks, clicks and burbles, and the anthemic Thrown Away, which has one of the catchiest synth riffs Dave ever came up with. Needless to say, The Meninblack was a commercial disaster, but arguably it has stood the test of time better than anything else in The Stranglers’ catalogue, largely because it was so ahead of its time.
The supreme irony of The Meninblack was that it indirectly contributed to the band’s biggest commercial success. The Number 2 1982 single Golden Brown, bathed in glorious, sunny harpsichord, was based on a piece of Dave’s music, an unused section of The Meninblack composition Second Coming. Golden Brown accomplished what that LP had failed to do: convince people that there was more to The Stranglers than quirky, thundering alt-rock. And, once again, that sea change was largely down to Dave.
I reckon I’ve seen the band over fifteen times through the years, more than any other rock group. Even if I wasn’t keen on the LP they were promoting at the time, The Stranglers never disappointed live, in whatever line up was performing. Surrounded by his machines, Dave always came across as more of a boffin with a wicked sense of humour than a rock star. A stuffed rat perched on his top keyboard, his party piece was to down a whole pint of beer during the keyboard solo on No More Heroes, which he played one-handed. He delivered every time to cheers from the audience, and he’d often grin back. The only time I saw him angry was when his keyboards kept packing up during the 30th anniversary Rattus at the Roundhouse gig in November 2007. That was totally fair enough, because he (and the band) never took their audience for granted.
In March 2019 I finally got to meet him. Myself and my friend Lurch decided, on the spur of the moment, to hang around by the tour bus after the gig at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He was happy to sign autographs and pose for pictures, grinning all the while, content to be doing what he was doing. I had no idea that he was 70.
This autumn – COVID-19 permitting – Lurch and I would have been seeing The Stranglers on what they’d already decided would be their last tour. It seems they knew that the time had come to call it a day, and wanted to go out with dignity and one last hurrah. With the best will in the world, I can’t see that happening now, even if they want to modify the tour into a tribute to Dave. The band’s heart has gone.
Over the last 48 hours, REM, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Primitives, The Adicts, Ian McNabb, Wilko Johnson, Tim Burgess from the Charlatans, Clint Boon from the Inspiral Carpets, Captain Sensible from The Damned and, most poignantly, Dave’s old partner-in-crime, Hugh Cornwell, have all made their tributes online. On the one hand, it’s nice to think that Dave would have been delighted with all this praise; on the other, it’s sad, because he never got the recognition he deserved when he was alive.
I am very sorry to hear of the passing of Dave Greenfield. He was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band. His musical skill and gentle nature gave an interesting twist to the band. (1 of 2)
— Hugh Cornwell (@HughCornwell) May 4, 2020
Dave’s music will live on, of course, and thank God for that. But in the grimmest of grim times, the world is a little darker today. To paraphrase a line from ‘The Raven’, on which he somehow got his synthesisers to imitate the cries of wheeling seabirds: Fly straight, Dave – with perfection.
❉ David Paul Greenfield (29 March 1949 – 3 May 2020)
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity’. 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’. All photos taken by Robert Fairclough.