Monday, December 20, 2010

The Stranglers - IV Rattus Norvegicus

The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock'n'roll

IV Rattus Norvegicus (1977) *****

It takes at the maximum fifteen seconds into the album to realize that unlike most of the other 1977 vintage U.K. punk rockers, the Stranglers were not interested in 1965 Who/Kinks revivalism as their basic musical template.  Their Rosetta Stone of roots was clearly the Doors, as Dave Greenfield's keyboards trip up the stairs in an ascending, repetitive swirl that foggily conjures the ghost of Ray Manzarek (who wasn't then and still isn't dead, but might as well have been since 1971).  Ah, but the Doors did not possess as a weapon in their arsenal a throbbing, menacing bass line carrying the heavy rhythmic thrust, making this more danceable than any tune in the Lizard Kings' canon.  "Sometimes," as potent a musical brew as it was, earned the band a bit of 'copyist' grief from critics due to the obvious similarities to a heralded '60s band, but it's a misleading impression, because that opening track is by far the Doors-iest number in the Stranglers' ouvre.  The lyrical message is anything but peace and love: "Someday I'm going to smack your face, beat you honey till you drop!"  Based on a real incident of guitarist/singer Hugh Cornwell striking his girlfriend after discovering he'd been cuckolded, the good, bad, and just plain ugly sides of the Stranglers are laid bare on the opening track of their first album:  powerful, pungent music delivering a morally ambiguous message.

But lest you prepare to settle in for an entire album of rousing punk anthems, the second track already throws a curveball.  "Goodbye Toulouse," is melodic, level-headed pop that combines churning, Velvets-style guitar'n'rhythm riffage to an almost Roxy-esque elegant vocal melody concerning the demise of the southern French city in a catastrophic earthquake.   "London Lady," boogies along punkily, however, and brings back the misogyny as well in a savage put-down of a punk scene groupie (Caroline Coon, to be specific, rock journo who did snag her own rock star boyfriend, Paul Simonon of the Clash).  With its slashing guitar riffage and bubbly bass lines, it's musically speaking the closest to traditional punk on this particular Stranglers record, with the keyboards uncharacteristically shoved to the background.   Even more misogynistic is the album's nadir, the bluesy "Princess of the Streets," an attempted love ballad of all things.  I say 'attempted' because any self-respecting lady would be showing her man papers if he tried to serenade her with these lyrics:  she's real good lookin', in high heels and leather, "what a piece of meat" - and Jean-Jacques Burnel, apparently oblivious, wonders, "She's gone and left me / I dunno why".  Why, indeed.

That slow one works as a breather as the album sets up for the trio of A-sides that form the centerpiece of the record.  "Hanging Around," boasts mildly blasphemous lyrics imaging Jesus floating above a seedy inner-city drug market and a beguiling guitar-keyboards point/counterpoint on the mid-section solos.  "Peaches," sets out to prove the point that an artist's dumbest song will be his biggest hit, and while this Benny Hill interlude is one of the weaker tunes musically, it's not that bad, and can be highly enjoyable if you give in to the stupidity of your inner grunting male chauvinist.  After all, Hugh isn't doing anything but describe how your average heterosexual male with a working set of testicles feels when he goes down to the beach.  And it's not as if hot girls don't realize that when they dress skimpily they're going to get a lot of slobbering male attention, right?  Really, I don't understand why they get so upset when I'm staring at her ass and licking my lips and moaning,, "Work it, baby!" as encouragement.  Can't she appreciate a compliment to her feminine beauty?  Women.  Will never understand them.  Anyway, after "Peaches" arrives the band's first single, "(Get a) Grip (On Yourself)" which was almost certainly the only Top 40 U.K. hit to boast not one but two parentheticals.  Lyrically it's a standard number concerning the travails of working musicians living hand to mouth and redemptive power of good old rock'n'roll.  It mentions aliens in the final verse, which foreshadows an ominous direction in the band's near future.

JJ Burnel swabs another vocal spotlight on the next number, "Ugly," which serves as the album's vocal lowpoint and lyrical - well, not exactly highlight, but certainly the most interesting.  Like a lot of the beautiful people, JJ's mind from time to time ponders philosophically what it must be like to be unnattractive to the opposite sex.  Burnel develops some quite novel theories, such as "It's only the children of the fucking wealthy that tend to be good-looking!" that he absurdly bellows as the track's melodramatic show-stopper (I hesitate to call it a "tune") as well as more banal observations from evolutionary psychology such as, "An ugly fart attracts a good-looking chick if he's got money," complete with a bizarre aside about Jews and backing vocals harmonizing on the word "fart".  And for the coup de grace the album closes with the four-part prog epic, "Down in the Sewer," about being stranded underneath the gutters and reduced to fucking rats to breed and survive.  Greenfield's jolly keyboards make parts of it sound like baseball music.  Appropriately, it ends the album with the sound of a flushing toilet.

The reissue comes with three bonus tracks, all worth the time.  "Choosey Susie," is a bouncy pop A-side, a little overly basic in structure and simple melodicism, with lyrics about JJ staying up all night with his girl and fucking until they're weak and she bleeds.  Nice lad.  Comparing her to Lot's wife is a nice little touch.  "Peasant in the Big Shitty," was the B-side, a live version of an eerie Greenfield-sung number that would turn up in barely differential studio form on the next LP, but it's nice to have anyway.  Finally there's a throwaway rockabilly number left over from their pub rock days, "Go Buddy Go," which keeps it dumb and simple and catchy and was unsurprisingly another hit, if not exactly their most musically adventurous tune.

In sum, this is a perfect debut in that it not only drops hints of great musical ventures and directions to come, but already fulfills all those promises with perhaps the band's best-ever batch of tunes.  It's arguably their best album, and I love it enough to remember all the words without skipping a beat.  Well, except for "Princess of the Streets," but you can't win'em all.   Humorless feminists should naturally give this album a wide berth, but hey, by my count a good 50% of these songs deal with matters non-sexual/sexist.  If you can get past that and are looking for elements of pop, punk, prog, and psychedelia shredded together with a dark, '70s street-grit flavor, then this is a mugging right up your alley.  Sleep tight and don't let the rabies-infected sewer rats bite.

1 comment:

  1. I love wriggling and writhing in the shadows