|The Stranglers - Photo by Steve Worrall|
"No really...I'm not joking...The Stranglers
really are well worth checking out again.", "Nah, that last singer they had...didn't like him at all, never the same since Hugh left...", "Face it, they were pretty awful in the few years leading up to Hugh's departure too, poor albums, JJ's bass hidden in the background, blimey he was even playing one of those awful basses, you know, the little body and no headstock thing - a Steinberger, that was sacrilege!", "Dave's keyboards were just typical synth stuff in the end, none of those amazing runs and none of the weirdness", "When they got in that brass section, that was time for me to kick them into touch." They are just some of the comments I seem to recall popping up in conversations about The Stranglers recently...I probably said some of them myself.
|Dave Greenfield and Baz Warne - Photo by Steve Worrall|
Although The Stranglers
were one of the most important and much-loved bands of my "youth", and JJ even inspired me to pick up the bass, I'd love to say I was loyal and stuck with the band after Hugh's departure. I mean I didn't stop supporting my team when they sold my favourite striker - but the fact is I'd kind of started losing interest even before Hugh left. I wasn't a huge fan of "Dreamtime" and "10" was even worse, despite a couple of decent tracks I felt that it was ruined by a poor production, and the fact that their biggest hit off the album was a rather pedestrian run through of "96 Tears", probably summed it up. So I can't just blame Paul Roberts, like a lot of the "Team-Hugh" fans, I had already given up a bit. I was there at Hugh's last show at the Alexandra Palace (coincidentally tonight's support band The Godfathers
were also on the bill), but it was a tired, lethargic show, evidence of which is pretty conclusive on the live video of the gig. It definitely felt like it was the right time for the band to call it a day (or night...).
|The Stranglers - Photo by Steve Worrall|
I was interested to note that JJ, Dave and Jet got a new line-up together with the singer Paul Roberts and guitarist John Ellis, and I did check out a couple of their new songs, but I didn't like Roberts' voice and just felt that the quality of their songwriting was lacking something. It took the release of "Norfolk Coast" in 2004 to pique my interest again, the reviews were good and other Stranglers-fan friends were making positive noises. I got the album and was impressed - John Ellis had been replaced by Baz Warne on guitars, who also contributed some songs, Roberts' singing seemed much better, but most importantly - the crunching bass riff on the albums' opening title track was immense...this was more like it! Dave Greenfield's trademark organ was back too and it was a really fresh and invigorating return to form. Things really took a massive upturn for the band with the release of the superb "Suite XVI" album, Roberts had left and the band reverted to their traditional four piece line-up with JJ and Baz Warne sharing lead vocal duties. Baz was a revelation, not only on the album but live too, and the gigs were fantastic. Most importantly, the new songs finally stood up to the best of their impressive back catalogue, "Unbroken", "Spectre of Love", and "Barbara" in particular were, to me at least, to be ranked amongst all their classics.
|JJ Burnel by Steve Worrall|
So, onto the gig and tonight I almost feel vindicated, I feel like maybe I'm not the only one who has had this journey with The Stranglers, not the only one to see the light since the "Suite XVI" album, after many years in a Stranglers-less wilderness. Maybe even the band themselves can understand, after all it's almost like they had allowed me to write my dream set-list. "Norfolk Coast" is the only track to be played from the Roberts'-era and, although the band run through at least one song from every other album, they miss out "10" completely. So, here we are in a packed out G-Live, in the county town of suburban Surrey, the place that first spawned "The Guildford Stranglers", a place full of Stranglers folklore - Jet's Jackpot off-licence and ice cream van and The Chokers from the leafy village of Chiddingfold.
The anticipation mounts as the familiar strains of "Waltz In Black" burst from the speakers and the band take the stage. Well, the band minus Jet, as there is a stand-in drummer who's name I don't catch - there are two drum kits set up and word has spread from previous gig reports that due to health reasons, and I guess the fact that he is after all 74 years old now, Jet will only appear for the second half of the set. They kick off spectacularly with "Toiler On The Sea" - I'm at the front, right in the firing line of JJ's amplifier and the force of his bass is like a punch in the guts and it feels great! "Goodbye Toulouse" is up next, a nice surprise choice from their 1977 debut album "Rattus Norvegicus", which was a shocking omission from the recently published NME magazine "50 Albums That Built Punk". Mind you, the fact that they featured Blink 182 and The Strokes just goes to show that whoever compiled the list knows absolutely nothing. But then again The Stranglers have nearly always been ignored by trend-makers and Punk revisionists, air-brushed out of most retrospectives, but they thrive on it. They were always far more menacing and genuinely unpredictable than the majority of so-called Punk Rock bands, and were certainly never willing to play the mutual back-slapping games of the media circus.
|Dave & Baz - Photo by Steve Worrall|
Next up is "(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)", one of my favourite singles, and then that crunching bass intro to "Norfolk Coast" which sounds great tonight. The catchy "Time Was Once On My Side" from latest album "Giants" leads into the underrated "Thrown Away", which at the time seemed a rather lightweight "throwaway" number, if you pardon the awful pun, but I always had a soft spot for it. I was pleasantly surprised they played it, and tonight it turns into a powerfully menacing little pop song, with it's danceable drumming inspiring JJ to throw some Saturday Night Fever shapes. Two more tracks from "Giants" follow - "Freedom Is Insane" and the quirky "Mercury Rising" - before the leery classic "Peaches" ignites the crowd and things warm up considerably. Baz Warne is so good that you do forget about Hugh Cornwell, there's no point trying to compare the two - he takes the role perfectly - the old songs are handled in a respectful manner but he injects his own, quite considerable, personality and style into proceedings. He's a great singer and guitarist and there is an undoubted chemistry and bond between him, the audience and his band-mates.
|JJ Burnel - Photo by Steve Worrall|
JJ has hardly changed at all - except for a slight greying of the hair, he looks almost identical to the karate kicking, stage stalking bass icon of 30 years ago. Dave Greenfield, grinning from behind his keyboards, treats us to a masterclass in those trademark Hammond organ style runs and yet knows how to tone it down, evident on the atmospheric "Always The Sun" which is up next. "Relentless" is the only track from "Suite XVI" to make the set, which is a bit disappointing, as I was hoping for more but I suppose that with such a huge back catalogue, somethings gotta give. I feel sorry for the girl behind me who screams out "please...Strange Little Girl...please!" in the break after every song. Her pleas go unanswered, but when you get the lecherous "Bring On The Nubiles" and sublime "Duchess" you really can't complain. Baz straps on an acoustic guitar and there is a brief respite as they play the beautiful duo of singles from "Feline" - "Midnight Summer Dream" and "European Female".
|Jet Black, JJ Burnel, Dave Greenfield & Baz Warne - Photo by Steve Worrall|
There's a flurry of activity and a figure appears behind the second drum-kit, it's Jet Black, a warm roar of approval goes round the venue and there are terrace style chants of "Jet Black, Jet Black". But there's no easing into proceedings as Jet enters to one of the band's most complex and challenging numbers in "Genetix" from "The Raven". It's almost like a free-form jazz number which shows off each band member's skill, not only with Jet's drumming but it's the chance for Dave to take over lead vocals and JJ's song-length bass solo is astounding. Again, I am blown away by the next unexpected choice, "English Towns" from "No More Heroes" with it's immense hook of a chorus. A familiar harpsichord sound heralds "Golden Brown" and the whole crowd sing along enthusiastically, it's a great moment in the set. "Skin Deep" is followed by "Nice 'n' Sleazy" and again it's the bass that gets you, that unbeatable opening riff set against the slashing reggae style chords and drumming, it has to be held up as a perfect example of a classic timeless single. "Who Wants The World" is another great choice, again like "Thrown Away" it's probably unlikely to make most fans Top 10 Stranglers tracks, but tonight it sounds fresh and powerful.
|Jean-Jacques Travolta - Photo by Steve Worrall|
They end on a wired "Straighten Out" which almost blows the roof off the G-Live and the crowd go crazy as it reaches its climax. Enthusiastic calls for an encore are rewarded with the classics "Something Better Change" and of course, "No More Heroes" but it's not over, as the band are called back yet again. This time we get treated to my all time favourite Stranglers track (I know, I know...just how many favourites do I have...?!), the blistering "Tank". Never has a song so aptly matched it's title as it positively explodes with energy and pent up anger. It is the perfect end to one of the best Stranglers gigs I've been lucky enough to see, and yes, that includes those with Hugh. So, no more pining for the old days - if you haven't yet been converted please do give the band a try, you will not be disappointed.
All Photos Copyright Steve Worrall Retro Man Blog 2013.