The Stranglers
The Stranglers.

Much maligned, often ridiculed, regularly dismissed as sexists, ostracized by fellow punks, castigated by the age police: the lot of a Strangler was rarely a happy one.

A career spanning 3 decades, a succession of Top 20 45s, a line up that remained unchanged until the early 90s, a small pile of gold discs: The Stranglers never needed anyone’s permission.

The Guilford Stranglers were born in the leafy Surrey village of Chiddingford sometime around the autumn of 1974. The original line up featured Jet Black (Brian Duffy) on drums, Hugh Cornwell on gtr & vocals, Jean Jacques Burnell on bass & Hans Warmling on gtr. The group played the Surrey pup & club circuit throughout 1974 before shortening their name to The Stranglers in early 1975. Not long afterwards, Warmling quit & returned to Scandinavia - at which point The Stranglers recruited Dave Greenfield on keyboards, & The Stranglers line up was complete.

The Stranglers signed a deal with Albion Management in the winter of 1975 & began to pick up a few more interesting support slots around the Capital. In autumn of 1976 The Stranglers were confirmed as the support act for Patti Smith’s tour of the UK. This meant gigs at some impressive venues including the Roundhouse & the Hammersmith Odeon. The Stranglers recorded their debut demos (“Grip”, “Bitchin’” & “Go Buddy Go”) soon afterwards before undertaking their own headline tour in October & November of 1976 - utilising Jet Black’s ice cream van as tour transport. The Stranglers duly signed to United Artists Records in December of 1976.

The Stranglers debut 45, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)”, was released in February of 1977. Produced by Martin Rushent, “Grip” fast-established The Stranglers as one of the prime groups of the 1st wave of the Punk Rock explosion that was sweeping the UK at the time. The single was purposely promoted as a Punk record by UA & airplay suffered as a consequence – “Grip” eventually spent 4 weeks on the charts & peaked at number 44.

On 3rd March 1977 The Stranglers recorded their debut session for the BBC’s John Peel show:

“Something Better Change”, “Hangin’ Around”, “Goodbye Toulouse” & “I Feel Like A Wog”

The Stranglers debut LP, “Stranglers IV: Rattus Norvegicus”, was released in April 1977. The LP’s striking sleeve was as mysterious as it was iconic. The Stranglers were catapulted into the hearts & minds of the nation’s youth almost overnight as the group’s second 45, “Peaches”/”Go Buddy Go”, became a hit single & ruled the summer (“well, what a bummer”) of 1977:

“Is she trying to get out of that clitoris?
Liberation for the women, that’s what I preach”

“Rattus Norvegicus” scared the shit out of me in 1977 – the individual Stranglers scared me too. Jean Jacques Burnell had a bass sound like I’d never heard before – it was so thick you could almost bite chunks out of the sound (if you stood directly in front of the speakers). He also had a reputation for being a bit tasty (with both his fists & his feet) due to a Black Belt in Karate (rumour/myth?) – as members of The Clash eventually discovered one night outside Dingwalls in Camden Town. Hugh Cornwell was no pussy either: barking his rough toned vocals from behind the mic, neck veins bulging, eyes on stalks – he was a natural, compelling front-man & a not unconvincing psycho. Jet Black, slouched behind his kit like a great bear in a bad mood, hammering 14 shades of shit out of his drums in the process, could only be described as a man-mountain. Dave Greenfiled was just plain weird – like some mad professor constantly experimenting with his keyboards – forever looking to drag some new, tortured sound or other from his bank of futuristic looking instruments.

Musically, The Stranglers mined their influences from fairly obscure cloth. There were elements of The Doors in Greenfield’s keyboard sound, as well as shades of 60s US Garage Punk, The VU & a hint of psychedelia in the mix too. Being slightly older than most of their new-found audience meant The Stranglers could borrow from the past from time to time without getting caught out.

In July 1977 The Stranglers released their 3rd 45, “Something Better Change”, which reached number 9 on the charts & cemented the group’s status as doyens of the Punk Rock scene. In September the group recorded their second session for John Peel:

“Dead Ringer”, “No More Heroes”, “Burning Up” & “Bring On The Nubiles”

Controversy continued to stalk The Stranglers wherever they went: they were constantly criticised for the lyrical content of their songs (“Peaches”, “Bring On The Nubiles”, “London Lady”, “I Feel Like A Wog”, “Ugly”, “Peasant In The Big Shitty”), slated in the press for appearing on stage at Hyde Park with a group of strippers & berated by a judge for a t-shirt that read either ‘Ford’ or ‘Fuck’ – depending on who you believed.

“No More Heroes” was released as the 4th Stranglers 45 in September 1977 & marched straight to the number 8 slot. It remained on the charts for 9 weeks & established The Stranglers as a mainstream act for the first time.

As 1977 began to die on it’s feet, The Stranglers released their 2nd LP, “No More Heroes”. Initially dismissed by many as a pale imitation of the 1st (the same criticism would plague The Jam’s “Modern World”), it stands the test of time very well. Opening with the anti racist “I Feel Like A Wog” (a wonderful example of the extent to which multi-culturalism & political correctness has changed the way we speak in the UK) & fighting all the way to closer, “School Mam”, “No More Heroes” was the last word in attitude in 1977. The Pistols may have had the fury, The Clash the anger & The Damned the chaos – but The Stranglers had the rest of us by the balls & they sure as hell weren’t letting go.

As Punk fragmented, The Stranglers diversified. They pre-empted the forthcoming 80s Gothic revival, dressing in black as a matter of course long before in became de rigour down at The Batcave. “Nice & Sleazy” became their biggest hit to date in 1978 & the subsequent “Black & White” LP secured their position as one of the UK’s most successful mainstream rock groups. The Stranglers were well on their way to becoming a pop group – a position they would enjoy for the best part of the next 15 years.

There are box sets & collections on the market that will adequately compile The Stranglers career for you, but to be honest the old quality control meter wasn’t always running up to speed from 1980 onwards. I’d start with “Rattus Norvegicus”, “No More Heroes” & “The Singles Collection Boxset 1”, if I was you, & see if you can work your way forward from there. If you can handle “Black & White” then you may be able to go all the way – I never made it past that point, apart from the obvious later hits like “Golden Brown” (a sublime homage to heroin) & “Strange Little Girl”.

The real beauty of The Stranglers lies in the power & the mayhem of those early years. 1977 belonged to The Stranglers as well as the Pistols, The Damned & The Clash - & don’t ever let any revisionists tell you different. Cornwell & Burnell were as equally Punk as Rotten, Vicious, Strummer, Jones, Scabies & Sensible - & that’s something that will never change.

The next time someone tries to tell you The Stranglers were a bunch of aging, pub rock tosspots - you know exactly where to hit them. Make sure you hit them hard.

Jean Encoule – tMx 11 – Aug 2003

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