The first time I saw my favourite band live, it was with a mixture of fear and excitement. There was also the strange smell of sulphur which always accompanied the English group. Fights, drugs, arrests, provocation, strippers on stage… although I can assure you that the concert went off without a hitch, with no more danger than was to be expected when punks, skinheads, and rockers came together in the mid-80s. The Stranglers' reputation was built through their dark and aggressive rock and nourished by esoteric references to religion, the Vikings, Charles Manson, and extraterrestrials. ‘Meninblack’ would become their very apt nickname, although they themselves avoided dressing in this colour. The Stranglers weren't like the rest, something that made them very attractive and intriguing.
In the mid-70s the group’s four members were a little older than all the 20-year-olds playing punk. They had played plenty of pub rock before setting up the group, and from the start had a maturity that many rivals never achieved. Their charismatic singer Hugh Cornwell seemed to have emerged from a medieval epic with his lyrical and earthy voice. Alongside him the Franco-English bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel delivered carnal, monstrous performances that raised him to the premiere league of new wave performers alongside Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Simon Gallup (The Cure) and Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited). The only difference being that Burnel studied karate. When riled up by an audience, the stage was the ideal place for his elastic and brawny physique, though was another good reason not to risk standing in the front row of one of their gigs. Alongside these two were Jet Black, already 35 in the 80s, who provided some thumping drums, whilst the mustachioed keyboard player Dave Greenfield made his presence felt on a variety of instruments as diverse (and sometimes as obsolete) as the Hammond organ, the electric piano, a harpsichord and synthesizers. If the Sex Pistols were the Stooges of punk, the Stranglers were like The Doors. And that’s thanks to him.
After a whirlwind beginning (three albums between 1977 and 78) the group quickly went down some fascinating but confusing roads, such as composing instrumental waltzes and experimenting with pop. You could be forgiven for thinking that when they landed a hit they’d settled on a sound, but all this was all a way of evolving out of the clichés of punk without ever having to compromise. All of their greatest songs (“Golden Brown”, “Strange Little Girl”, “Always the Sun”) have something frightening about them and definitely shouldn’t be listened to alone in the dark. But for those who could pick up on it, there was a sense of humour too. “Nice in Nice” was written about a night they spent in the police station having begun a riot during a gig at the University of Nice. As proof of their range of influences, they’ve released magnificent covers of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By”, “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians, and the Kinks’ classic “All Day and All of the Night”.
In 1990 Hugh Cornwell left and, despite the quality of their musicians, the Stranglers haven’t strangled much since. In 2015 Jet Black went into well-earned retirement – a well-earned rest for his drum kit too – and in 2020 Dave Greenfield’s name was sadly added to the growing list of artists who’ve succumbed to coronavirus.
For some time now, The Stranglers have been recognised as one of the craziest adventures English punk has to offer.