Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Stranglers - Band Introduction

You either love or you despise, there's just no time for compromise

To call the Stranglers underrated is to praise them with faint damns.  Few bands have been so reviled in their time, with the unfortunate effect that their role has been whitewashed out of punk history as if victims of a Stalinist truth comission.  The Rolling Stone Album Guide of 1991, as introduction to a string of 1 to 2 star reviews, described them as "repulsive even by punk standards," and they have the historical honour of being one of the first targets in print of a teenage Julie Burchill.  Even a pubescent Simon Cowell confessed not long ago that attending an early Stranglers concert turned him off rock music forever.  (For such small favours, we are eternally grateful.)  They didn't have the benefit of public noteriety feeding a frenzied fawning of rock journalists praising their every outrage, as did the Sex Pistols; to the contrary, while their calculated outrages caught them some press attention, the effects inspired were entirely negative - simple outrage, the critics reacting with disgust, not validation of rebel cool.  So, despite their success as the first punk band to score a string of smash singles and albums (it was they, not the Damned, who released the first U.K. punk LP in Feb. '77, contrary to punk trivia lore), they have been written out of the history books as slimy old perverts who weren't really punk and weren't really important.  Neither of which is true.

For a lot of that, the Stranglers have only themselves to blame.  It's one thing to react negatively to a harsh review.  It's another to take direct action by physically assualting your critics.  It's on an entirely different plane of beyond the pale to kidnap a rock journalist, tie him up, and leave him dangling several stories from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  That last sentence was not metaphorical.  But why all the hostility in the first place?  Well, there were several reasons, but at this point in history, over thirty years on, only one reason still bears any genuine validity. 

1) They were too old and they didn't look the part - So they weren't punk fashionistas, and they weren't bored teenagers but men in their late 20s (Jet Black, like Andy Summers of another "phoney" punk band the Police, was in his late 30s!).  These charges are totally irrelevant and can be summarily dismissed to the rubbish bin without the bother of a rebuttal.

2) They were cynical opportunists jumping on the punk bandwagon - If you're going to write off every cynical opportunist in the showbiz industry, it's going to be a mighty empty industry.  Besides, Joe Strummer started out as a hippie in a pub rock band, and so did almost everybody else in the original wave of punks.  Punk rock wasn't Year Zero.  Everybody had pre-punk roots.  The Damned had Love albums hidden in their closets and Glenn Matlock loved Paul McCartney.  So phooey.

3) They weren't really punk!  They didn't have buzzsaw guitars!  They had guitar solos, and worst of all, prominent keyboards! - If punk rock is going to be that narrow-minded, then it's not a genre worth bothering with.  Anyway, all of the original punk bands that had the talent to do so evolved beyond basic punk after a few years.  The distance between the Buzzcocks and Magazine; the first and third Wire albums; The Clash and Sandinista!!! - the difference is, the Stranglers being more seasoned musicians, started out with the musical chops to accomplish their arty ambitions from the get-go.  They didn't need to evolve so drastically.  They didn't start out as buzzsaw minimalists because it would have been stupid and dishonest for them to do so.  Besides, as far as attitude is concerned, they had nastiness in spades.  Which actually proved problematic, for their music as well as their public relations.

It's pretty clear that the reasons the Stranglers aren't included next to the Clash and Pistols in the punk heirarchies has everything to do with punk fashion-consciousness of the late '70s and very little to do with the actual music.  And as such, the blatherings of trendy rock journalists trying to fit in with their peers over three decades ago can be safely ignored, and the Stranglers can (and should) be judged solely on the quality of their music.  And here's where the final and only truly valid criticism comes in.

4) They had problems with women - It's no secret that misogyny has a long and storied history in the annals of rock and its granddaddy the blues.  The Stranglers indulged their anger at the fairer sex at times with a disturbing zeal.  I'm usually not that easily offended, but beginning your first ever album with a song that seems to advocate wife-beating is seriously getting off on the wrong foot.  You only get one chance to make a first impression, and the Stranglers did it twice - their first two albums are full of violent, sexist rantings that portray women as pieces of meat (actual lyric) useful mostly to "lick your little puss and nail you to the floor".  Yes, I know that it's at least partially an act, same as AC/DC singing about big balls and love at first feel; that the Stranglers were having a laugh and a juvenile snigger - but there's a genuine menace to their early records, a grimy nastiness that's unsettling and can be repulsive if you let it be.  But in their defense, it's 2010.  For better or worse, the Stranglers' misogyny has long since been superseded by a factor of 10x by Guns'n'Roses and Eminem and hundreds of other gangsta rap and heavy metal groups.  Just as the Stranglers made quaint the attitude of the Rolling Stones, whose nasty yet heartfelt 1960s misogyny made them the original bad boys of rock'n'roll, so the Stranglers' outrages seem quaint by modern standards.  Such is moral progress.

And to add to the defense, the misogyny only really infects the first two albums, which were calculated punk shock tactics.  There's still a bit of the old women-as-sex-objects hangover on the third album, but by 1979 it - and punk - was for all intents and purposes gone.  The problem with that is, you see, that their musical legacy rests mostly on those first three albums (but certainly not entirely, as they continued to release excellent singles for several more years).  So their best albums are also their cruellest and most twisted.   There's a considerable drop-off in quality from their first three albums to their later work, but in truth, they didn't really start to stink up the joint until well into the '80s.  Their worst crime was carrying on far too long (jesus, they're still around, and no, I'm not reviewing any of their post-1990, post-Hugh Cornwell albums - I've heard them, alright, only to confirm that they are indeed as awful as their reputation).  But you can say that about a lot of rock bands.....most bands, it seems, these days.

So let me introduce you to the family.  One other reason that I'm not reviewing any '90s or '00s Stranglers albums, aside from the fact that they stink, is that the Stranglers are one of those bands where every member is a distinct and crucial musical personality: take away one and the the results are like the Who minus Keith Moon.  Even drummer Jet Black, who born in 1938 is certainly the eldest punk rocker still in existence as a working musician.  While his drumming was never splashy enough for me to pay any special attention, I am again no conisseur of drummers and my ears can only tell when a drummer is bad, which he ain't.  The Stranglers always had a great rhythmic drive and as 1/2 of the rhythm section, I have to give Jet some credit.  Besides, he wrote their biggest ever hit, "Golden Brown," which kept the band solvent at a low ebb when they considered breaking up.  His fleet of ice cream vans kept the band solvent and employed when they were struggling in the pre-record contract days, too.  So huzzah, though I've heard reports that he may well be retiring (and the band with him) at his advanced age sometime in the near future.  

The keyboardist, Dave Greenfield, may or may not have an actual personality; he keeps so mum during interviews, and like Jet Black, writes virtually no lyrics, so it's hard to tell.  But the old hippie-looking fellow with the handlebar mustache provides the musical color for the band and his prominent keyboards are the Stranglers' most instantly identifiable sonic feature.  While every instrument in the quartet is a lead instrument that's mixed equally with the others, his keyboards are more equal than the others.  Greenfield sang about three or four numbers in the early days, but gave up singing lead pretty quickly; his voice has an eerie, sinister quality to it, but that's it - nothing special.

That leaves us with the two frontmen.  Jean-Jacques Burnel could be the Evil  Mirror Universe twin of Sting:  a dark-haired English bassman of French parentage who is far too pretty for his own good and knows it, a karate black-belt obsessed with motorcyles, Japanese warrior culture, and European Pan-Unionism (not necessarily in that order).  Possessed of an obnoxious arrogance beyond belief, that I suppose comes naturally when you're young, intelligent, extremely good-looking, and can kick the ass of all the members of the Sex Pistols, Clash, and Pretenders in a drunken barfight without breaking a sweat, Burnel's "barracuda bass" is a wonder of nature.  Well, of modern technology at least, and it's a wonder why more bass players haven't imitated that sound.  Maybe because most other bands wouldn't allow the bass player the ego room to crank it up that loud and grungey?  More's their loss.  He also sings about a quarter of the songs, more so on the early records, less so on the later records, and of course more so on the post-Cornwell records, but I already said that I wasn't going to review those.  Anyway, he's a horrible singer, mildly effective as a thuggish shouter, and the less said of his vocals, the better.

Lastly but not leastly is Hugh Cornwell, alternately lead and rhythm guitarist depending on how much give and take there is between him and Greenfield's keyboards.  He sings the lion's share of the songs and seems to split the lyric writing 50/50 with Burnel (the music writing sounds like a four-way split between the band members, and that's how the songwriting royalties are billed).  He actually is in care of an effective singing voice, a gruff conversational bark that well suits the blunt, street-level lyrics of the early Stranglers.  Later on, he learned to actually sing as the band grew softer and more pop, and did a fair if not exceptional job of it.  A former biochemist and Phd. candidate who manages to come across as a down-to-earth bloke without either hiding or showing off his brains, he's a charismatic frontman; he comes across as a rather likeable chap swilling ale and having a pub discussion about politics, religion, UFO conspiracy theories, and whatnot down the local.  After band tensions had simmered to the point where Cornwell suffered the fists of fury of Burnel, he quit the band in 1990, leaving the Stranglers as headless as Mott without Ian Hunter or the Floyd without Roger Waters.   Yet limp on they did, well unto the present day.   Anyway, I'm only going to review the ten albums released by the classic lineup, from the brilliant bile of the early days to the awful eighties.

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