Formed in 1975, the Stranglers became enormously popular in Britain and Europe when they burst on the scene in 1977 with one of the first new wave albums, preceding both the Clash and the Sex Pistols to the shops by several months.
The first album was produced by Martin Rushent (who continued to work with them through 1979’s live LP). Rattus Norvegicus includes both sides of the awesome debut single, “London Lady” and “(Get a) Grip (on Yourself),” as well as other blunt gonad-grabbers like “Hanging Around” and “Sometimes.” The violently emotional lyrics and bitterly spat vocals are supported by Jean-Jacques Burnel’s almost impossibly deep-throated bass grunts and Hugh Cornwell’s slashing guitar, with contrasting jolly organ sounds by Dave Greenfield providing the only relief from otherwise relentless aggression. A great album. The UK edition initially included a free single, “Choosey Suzie” b/w “Peasant in the Big Shitty.”
No More Heroes continues in the same vein, but drops whatever hint of restraint may have been in force the first time around. Rude words and adult themes abound, with no punches pulled, from the blatant sexism of “Bring on the Nubiles” to the sarcastic attack on racism (“I Feel Like a Wog”) to the suicide of a friend (“Dagenham Dave”). Despite the increased virulence, the music is even better than on the debut, introducing pop stylings that would later become a more common aspect of the Stranglers’ character. No More Heroes is easily their best album.
The Stranglers’ American label then put out a colored-vinyl 7-inch, with “(Get a) Grip” and “Hanging Around” from the first album, “Something Better Change” (from the second) and that killer songs equally powerful UK B-side, “Straighten Out.”
Tricked out with gray-swirl vinyl and a limited edition bonus 45 (three tunes, including a wonderful gruff version of “Walk on By”), Black and White lacks only good songs. Except for “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy,” most of the tracks are merely inferior rehashes of earlier work, making the LP easily forgettable. (The subsequent British CD incorporates the single’s contents.)
Four gigs in ’77 and ’78 provided the basis for Live (X Cert). The material is all familiar, but the high-tension ambience and some choice bits of Cornwell-vs.-the-audience banter make it an effective dual-function live/greatest hits album. (The CD appends two cuts.)
Borrowing an old packaging gimmick from the Rolling Stones, original copies of The Raven sported a 3-D cover panel. Inside, a political consciousness (first unveiled on Black and White) flowered, permeating songs like “Nuclear Device,” “Shah Shah a Go Go” and “Genetix.” Freed from the relative mundanity of exploring interpersonal relationships, the basis of most of the Stranglers’ previous lyrics, The Raven adopts a global perspective, including the scathing put-down entitled “Dead Loss Angeles.” Meanwhile, “Duchess” pioneered a surprising new direction — catchy, level-headed melodic pop totally outside the group’s general sound.
Released near the end of 1979, the mixed-menu Don’t Bring Harry 7-inch EP (wrapped in a delightfully morbid seasonal sleeve) combines one song from The Raven, a track from Cornwell + Williams’ Nosferatu album and live Stranglers’ performances of two songs, including one from Burnel’s Euroman Cometh.
Having lacked an American label for two years, the Stranglers signed with IRS, who assembled IV, a mongrel consisting of half of The Raven and some non-LP singles, plus one totally new track, “Vietnamerica.” As a bonus, the album included a four-song 7-inch similar to Don’t Bring Harry: an actual track from Euroman Cometh, a different Cornwell/Williams selection, “Straighten Out” and “Choosey Suzie,” from the UK first album’s free 45.
The Meninblack — previewed on The Raven (and IV) by a song of that name — is a hypothetical soundtrack/concept album concerning aliens with godlike powers that is essentially an attack on organized religion. There’s a fair amount of non-vocal instrumental content, lots of synthesizers and other keyboards, tricky special effects and little of the Stranglers’ usual thrust. Although radically different, Meninblack is a departure for nowhere. (The CD adds two.)
Without abandoning their melodic pop explorations, the Stranglers returned to topicality and forthrightness on their next LP. La Folie offers a striking juxtaposition of attractive backing and scathing lyrics. Subtle, effective, mature and energetic — but no outstanding songs.
Following a change in British labels, a catalogue compilation called The Collection appeared in 1982, including almost everything you’d want from the preceding albums, plus a couple of bonus single sides. A great introduction for neophytes and a record that should be of interest to anyone not owning absolutely everything the band has done.
A worldwide deal with Epic allowed the Stranglers to free themselves of past musical baggage and gave them a consistent American release schedule. The first fruit of that arrangement, Feline, is restrained and dignified, but also lackluster and boring. (The US edition adds the appropriately low-key 1981 single, “Golden Brown,” which had also appeared on La Folie.)
Aural Sculpture is far better, containing several strong tracks: “Skin Deep,” melodic rippling-organ pop that recalls “Duchess,” and “Ice Queen,” a simpleminded allusion to cinematic irony that has lots of neat hooks and a pleasing chorus, punctuated by brassy brass. Additionally, “Uptown” melds powerful acoustic guitar to a fractured melody and comes out like a Pete Shelley song that wasn’t. Although not fully satisfying, Aural Sculpture has enough quality merchandise to make it a worthwhile purchase.
Another byproduct of their label switch was Off the Beaten Track, a thirteen-track compilation of pre-Epic B-sides and non-LP A’s. Although a lot of what’s on Rarities really isn’t that obscure, it does delve into the recesses of the Stranglers’ enormous discography for enough things most collections will be missing that it’s a worthwhile investment (especially the CD, which has half a dozen bonus tracks) for serious enthusiasts. The two-disc Singles covers the band’s early years (1977-’82) with all the A-sides (and a few of the B-sides) from “(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)” to “Strange Little Girl.”
The Stranglers’ steady march towards total blandness continues on Dreamtime, an unfocused time-filler that randomly touches areas that resemble Ultravox, Fleetwood Mac, Shoes, Glenn Miller and Johnny Cash, all with little enthusiasm. Accomplished but bereft of ideas or concept, Dreamtime is a soporific, characterless nightmare. There’s hardly an identifiable trace of the once-great band in these grooves.
The subsequent live album — recorded at three gigs in 1985 and 1987 — underscores the Stranglers’ paradox. Despite their recent wimpo work, onstage — banging out such classics as “London Lady,” “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy” and “No More Heroes” with a horn section — they can convincingly revive the grungy electric power we used to know and love. The lengthy All Live draws heavily from recent albums; fortunately, these concert renditions improve on the songs, providing them with a little context. (Still, the notion of the Stranglers performing with acoustic guitars is not easy to accept.) Capping things off is a hearty but economical UK-hit-single studio version of the Kinks’ song which the LP title paraphrases. (The CD version of the All Day and All of the Night EP adds a remix, two live tracks and something called “Viva Vlad.”)
Although Roy Thomas Baker produced the rock’n’rolly 10 (indeed the band’s tenth studio LP), things didn’t turn out all that bad. As horrifying as it is to hear this once-dynamic group reduced to covering “96 Tears” (and then penning a tune called “Too Many Teardrops” on top of it), the originals that otherwise comprise the record are pretty lively (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Someone Like You”). Except on “Man of the Earth” and “Out of My Mind,” where he sounds like Robyn Hitchcock, Cornwell applies traces of the group’s old rugged personality to simple pop melodies, as Greenfield stacks on colorful keyboard fills and a three-man horn section chips in occasionally. (Burnel is utterly out of the picture, stylistically speaking: he sings a couple of songs, but anyone could have played these bass parts.) With that album out of the way, Cornwell left the group in August 1990.
There’s something to be said for Greatest Hits 1977 — 1990 — namely, it’s the first bona fide Stranglers compilation to be issued in the US. Otherwise, it half overlaps the Singles collection, proceeding from the often brilliant UA years into the paltry Epic era, as the group succumbed to commercial temptation with its rote covers and boring originals. Still, the liner notes are good and the selection of singles — at least a third of them solidly great — is evenhanded enough to make it a fair starting point for new arrivals.
Solo work: Burnel’s gravel-bottom bass and guttural vocals played a crucial role on the group’s early, maximum-aggression records. For his own 1979 album, Burnel made a self-indulgent political statement, complete with historical maps, slogans and polemic songs like “Euromess” and “Deutschland Nicht Über Alles.” Using a rhythm box and playing almost all the instruments himself, Burnel invests the pedantic Euroman Cometh with neither musical direction nor engaging ideas, making it about as much fun as sitting through a lecture.
Teaming with bandmate Dave Greenfield, Burnel then made an album that “forms the musical basis for the film ‘Ecoutez Vos Murs’ by Vincent Coudanne.” Fire & Water takes two approaches — typical soundtrack ambience, relying on doomy keyboard effects, and songs, some with vocals. “Rain & Dole & Tea” is sung in Phil Spector fashion by a multi-tracked female vocalist; “Nuclear Power (Yes Please)” actually quotes Albert Einstein in a remarkably clumsy science lesson; “Detective Privée” is a sensuously murmured French number. It’s not heinously awful, but few are likely to give it repeated spins.
For his first extracurricular outing, Cornwell co-wrote, co-produced and co-performed an album with American drummer (and former Captain Beefheart sideman) Robert Williams. The collaborative compositions on Nosferatu offer substantive lyrics, but the atonal performances sound even more dour than the early Stranglers. Two members of Devo put in guest appearances, and there are some Devo-like effects worked in but, if not for an incongruous cover of Cream’s “White Room,” there wouldn’t be any light relief at all. While it’s nice that the pair (with some assistance from Ian Underwood) has the instrumental prowess to do it all themselves, Nosferatu requires more from the listener than it deserves (or returns).
Nine years later, Cornwell took a dull stab at playing lightweight dance-pop outside the Stranglers’ sphere with Wolf. (Langer and Winstanley garishly co-produced two songs, which don’t work at all.) Other than affording Hugh the audibly meaningless opportunity to play keyboards, escape his usual company and fool around in the studio with the likes of Jools Holland and ex-Tears for Fears drummer Manny Elias, Wolf stakes out no significant musical terrain and contains nothing the Stranglers couldn’t have done just as well. (The EP adds three non-LP tracks to the album’s lead-off song.)
Whether the result of, or the impetus for, the Stranglers’ penchant for covering rock’n’roll standards (or just an indication of artistic burnout), Burnel and Greenfield launched a just-for-kicks sideband with Stranglers’ saxman Alex Gifford, ex-Vibrators guitarist John Ellis and Manny Elias. On two similarly titled but totally different albums, the Purple Helmets (nice name…) do nothing but relive the songs of their misspent youth. Whether they’re playing “Woolly Bully,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and “Not Fade Away” (on the live Ride Again) or “She’s Not There,” “Money” and “First I Look at the Purse” (on Rise Again, a slightly more accomplished studio concoction), the Helmets approach their chosen jukebox classics with the enthusiasm of teenagers and the skill of seasoned professionals.