MAKING THEIR FIRST EVER APPEARANCE AT PUNK ROCK BOWLING… The Stranglers formed as the Guildford Stranglers in the southern England village of Chiddingfold (near Guildford) in 1974, plowing a heavily Doors-influenced furrow through the local pub rock scene — such as it was. Of the four founding members, only Hugh Cornwell had any kind of recognizable historical pedigree, having played alongside Richard Thompson in the schoolboy band Emil & the Detectives. According to Thompson, their repertoire stretched from “Smokestack Lightning” and the blues, through to “old Kiki Dee B-sides,” while their gigging was largely confined to the Hornsey School of Art, where Thompson’s sister was Social Secretary.
The Guildford Stranglers were confined to a similar circuit. It was 1975 before they ventured into even the London suburbs, although once there — and having shortened their name to the less parochial Stranglers — things began moving quickly. The established pub rock scene was dying and promoters were willing to give any unknown band a break, simply to try and establish a new hierarchy. Thus it was that as the first stirrings of punk began to make their own presence felt on the same circuit, the Stranglers were on board the bandwagon from the beginning.
Their early songs, too, radiated the same ugly alienation that was the proto-punk movement’s strongest calling card. Material like “Peasant in the Big Shitty,” “I Feel Like a Wog,” “Down in the Sewer,” and “Ugly” itself were harsh, uncompromising, and grotesque, a muddy blurge of sound cut through with Dave Greenfield’s hypnotically Doors-like keyboards that was possessed of as much attitude as it was detectable musical competence. One uses the word guardedly, but “highlights” of this period were included on the 1994 archive release Live, Rare & Unreleased 1974-1976.
By mid-1976 the Stranglers already had enough force behind them to be booked as opening act at the Ramones’ first London show, and Mark P., editor of the newly launched punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, conferred further punk approval on the band when he wrote, “their sound is 1976…the Stranglers are a pleasure to boogie to — sometimes they sound like the Doors, other times like Television, but they’ve got an ID of their own.” Further prestige accompanied the band’s opening slot for Patti Smith in October — and that despite most of the audience walking out long before the band left the stage; by the time the band set out on their own first U.K. tour, they had signed with UA (A&M in America) and were preparing to record their debut album with producer Martin Rushent.
“(Get A) Grip (On Yourself),” the Stranglers’ debut single, made the lower reaches of the Top 50; Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, confirmed the group as one of the fastest developing bands on the entire scene — even as the scene itself still puzzled over whether the Stranglers even belonged on board. “Old hairy misogynists” was a common accusation to fling in their direction, and it was one which the Stranglers themselves delighted in encouraging. In a more PC climate, their first U.K. Top Ten hit, summer 1977’s “Peaches,” would never even have been written, let alone recorded, while the bandmembers’ reputation as sexual bad boys was only exacerbated by other songs in their repertoire: “London Lady,” “Bring on the Nubiles,” “Choosy Susie.”
The fact that much of their lyrical prowess was built around the darkest hued of black humors never entered many people’s minds at the time, but listen again to their finest moments — “Hangin’ Around,” “Down in the Sewer,” the mindless boogie of “Go Buddy Go,” and the sheer vile joys of “Ugly” — and try to keep an even halfway straight face.
Unfortunately, though the Stranglers themselves reveled in an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern “men’s talk”), there was an undercurrent of violence that not only permeated their music, it also, inevitably, spilled into their live shows. Their fall 1977 British tour was marred by some very ugly scenes, while a trip to Sweden brought them into violent confrontation with the Raggere, that country’s equivalent of Britain’s punk-hating Teddy Boys. Hugh Cornwell’s choice of T-shirts (a Ford logo reworked to read “F*ck”) brought the band into conflict with London’s local council, while the group’s decision to line their stage with topless dancing girls when they played a concert in that city’s Battersea Park brought women’s groups screaming down on them, too.
Yet despite so much controversy, the Stranglers’ grip on the British chart seemed unbreakable. “Peaches” was followed by “Something Better Change” and might easily have been joined by a passionate cover of “Mony Mony” had the band not opted to hide behind the pseudonym of the Mutations, accompanying singer Celia Gollin on the number. (A second Celia & the Mutations single, “You Better Believe Me,” followed late in 1977.) “No More Heroes,” the driving title track to the Stranglers’ second album, was another huge hit, although the album itself was a disappointment — recorded in a hurry, with little time to write new material, it was largely comprised of older songs that had been passed over for Rattus. Within months, a new Stranglers album was on the streets, and this time they got everything right. Black and White was previewed by the hits “Five Minutes” and “Nice’n’Sleazy” (self-mythology in a nutshell), and was swiftly followed by one of the band’s finest moments, a murderously slowed-down version of Bacharach/David’s “Walk on By.”
More importantly, Black and White was the last Stranglers album to even flirt with the socio-sexual shock troop imagery that fired their first records; with the live X Cert album (their first for IRS in America) rounding off 1978 with a final flurry of gruffness, the band was now free to experiment beyond even the most indulgent fan’s wildest imaginings.
1979’s The Raven saw them moving toward both psychedelia and radio-friendly pop — “The Duchess,” Top 20 that summer, was a classic tune by anybody’s standards and, while a flurry of solo activity from Jean Jacques Burnel (The Euroman Cometh) and Hugh Cornwell (Nosferatu) raised rumors that the band was reaching the end of its lifespan, in fact it was their non-musical activities that came closest to bursting the bubble, after Cornwell was sentenced to three months imprisonment for drug possession in January 1980.
The band regrouped following his release and banged out two albums in a year, the concept Meninblack and the extraordinarily ambitious La Folie — home of their biggest hit single yet, “Golden Brown.” It reached number two in Britain, although two other singles from the same album, “Let Me Introduce You to the Family” and “La Folie” itself, contrarily proved among their least successful so far.
“Strange Little Girl,” specially recorded for the hits compilation The Collection 1977-1982, returned the band to the Top Ten the following summer and, having moved from UA to Epic, the Stranglers rounded out 1982 with the “European Female” single and Feline album, defiantly pop-heavy albums flavored by the group’s own special take on the then-prevalent synthesizer sounds. This phase of the band’s development reached a nadir of sorts with 1984’s Aural Sculpture, the least engaging of their albums to date, and the least successful — it faltered at number 14, with the exquisite “Skin Deep” single drawn up one place lower.
Two years of near silence followed, punctuated only by a succession of under-performing British 45s — American releases were even rarer. “Nice in Nice,” a commentary on a six-year-old misadventure in the French city of that name, “Always the Sun,” “Big in America,” and “Shakin’ Like a Leaf,” drawn from the 1986 album Dreamtime, ensured the band remained very much a sideshow into the late ’80s, but 1988 finally brought a massive turnaround in their fortunes. That January, a wildly churning cover of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” powered the Stranglers back into the Top Ten, to be followed by a new live album of the same name.
Another long silence followed but, sticking with covers, the Stranglers were back to their best with ? & the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” in early 1990, a taster for the album 10. A second hits collection, Greatest Hits 1977-1990, stuffed stockings across Europe that Christmas, but any serious attempt at a lasting revival was stymied by the departure of Cornwell for a solo career. He was replaced by John Ellis, a former member of fellow pub-to-punk graduates the Vibrators, and Sniff ‘n’ the Tears frontman Paul Roberts, and the new-look Stranglers re-emerged on the China indie in early 1992.
A new album, Stranglers in the Night, appeared that fall, together with the minor hit “Heaven or Hell”; by year’s end, however, drummer Jet Black, too, had departed. He was replaced by Tikake Tobe and, in this form, the group recorded yet another live album, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, before Black returned for 1995’s About Time. The group’s studio set Coup de Grace was issued in 1998, after which Ellis left the band, to be replaced by Baz Warne. Their next album, Norfolk Coast, was a surprise success in 2004, spawning a Top 40 hit in “Big Thing Coming.” After this record, Roberts departed and the group released Suite XVI in 2006. Six years later, they put out their 17th album, Giants.
Each of their UA/Epic albums was reissued with generous helpings of bonus tracks, while 1992 saw the release of a classic 1977 live show, Live at the Hope & Anchor, together with a collection of the band’s (surprisingly inventive) 12″ singles and a fabulous box set drawn from the 1976-1982 period, The Old Testament. Further live albums have since appeared, as has a remarkable document of the band’s three BBC sessions, from 1977 and 1982.
That it is those earliest years that remain the Stranglers’ most popular is not surprising — from bad-mannered yobs to purveyors of supreme pop delicacies, the group was responsible for music that may have been ugly and might have been crude — but it was never, ever boring. That people are still offended by it only adds to its delight — if rock & roll (especially punk rock & roll) was meant to be pleasant, it would never have changed the world, after all. The fact that much of the Stranglers’ message was actually hysterically funny — as they themselves intended it to be — only adds to their modern appeal. And the fact that their fans are still called upon to defend them only proves what humorless zeroes their foes really were. ~ Dave Thompson, Rovi