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Big shoes to fill!-Toby interview

July 23, 2022

During a lull in the band’s summer gigging schedule, we took the opportunity to grab an interview with Toby to find out about his life, his music career, his work in Music Therapy, his love of The Stranglers and how he ended up getting the hardest gig in the keyboard world…

So how did you first start to play the keyboards and what sort of age were you?

I started as my dad was a pianist, he used to play boogie woogie and he was really good at it. That was my first introduction at about 10 or 11. I would join in and started learning the left hands and some little riffs and I found I was a bit of a natural. I was pretty rubbish at sport and I was average academically but I seemed to have a bit of a thing with music, that was my sole superpower! So I did the grades and I was taught by a piano teacher who was the organist at Farnborough Abbey. I don’t know why I kept it up because it was quite creepy in a way, because the piano lessons were in the crypt of the abbey. So that’s dedication for you for an 11 year old boy. Despite that, I did my grades up to grade six, I think, and then I got bit bored as I started finding I was playing by ear. I was never great at sight reading and I’d learn the pieces by ear rather than really read. I started playing in bands around the area and my first ever gig was with a band called the Gotham City Bluesbreakers at my school. I think we did No More Heroes because my mates got me into The Stranglers.

How did you then make the transition from doing your grades to actually appearing with bands?

Well, it was the boogie and blues that really gave me the tools again. It’d started from my dad and then I got really into it. I met an American blues guy called Big Joe Duskin and he was one of the last of the old school boogie guys. Without getting too much into boogie, the genre had three super guys, you had Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson & Albert Ammons. Big Joe Duskin had met them and he was doing a tour and came to our local art centre. I was about 14. He ended up staying in our house for the weekend and taught me Pinetop Boogie which was just so generous. He was so passionate with keeping boogie alive, he gave up his time and was a lovely man. So I was taught by a pukka American boogie guy. Boogie is a really good way to learn improvisation and blues as well. The 12 Bar format is a really good way of learning and a lot of songs are based on it. Even with The Stranglers, JJ wrote Go Buddy Go, which effectively is a bit of a 12 bar and Mean To Me was as well. So, it is kind of an intrinsic style that is very much embedded in modern popular music. So that kind of gave me the weaponry, the tools and then, around 15, I start playing in pubs.

Toby with Big Joe Duskin 1988

There was a really healthy pub music scene and a lot of pubs would have a jam session including my local, the Lion Brewery in Ash. It’s still there with the same landlord Mike Armitage who’s in his eighties, and he supports local bands. The local musos, the semi-pro guys, had had some success and many were able players who could improvise like me. So I got taken under the wing of all these guys, they were some bloody good musicians. I played in a few bands and the first was called The Hype. We were reviewed and called ‘a poor man’s Doors’, which perfectly summed us up. We were like The Stranglers, The Doors and David Bowie.

The Hype live in Ash Vale 1989

Obviously not long after that, you went on to Rialto. How did you get that break?

It was by chance. I went to sixth form college for about a month and then went off and joined a covers band, playing all the military bases in Europe. I knew that music was the thing for me and I started working in a music shop, ABC Music in Surbiton, with a drummer mate of mine. He saw an advert in the Melody Maker saying ‘signed band, looking for a drummer and keyboard player’. It was Rialto, although they weren’t called it at the time. They had a contract with East West records and it was Jonny Bull and Louis Eliott who had been in a band called Kinky Machine. This was early 1996. So we went up to the audition in Camden and I got called back and my mate didn’t, which was a shame for him. I kept getting called back but never officially got the job although it was obvious I had as they started paying me a retainer. It was an exciting time and it was one hell of an experience. I was the youngest, in my early twenties, and the rest of the guys were a bit older. We had three hits and one got to number 20 so we were on Top Of The Pops, which was always a life ambition (video here).

Chris Evans really liked us and we played his show TFI Friday three times I think. We were with East West, part of Warners and a lot of money was thrown at it, making videos. It was cool whilst it lasted but we got caught up in some record company politics and we were dropped without any genuine, really commercial reason for it. It was a bit of a vendetta between some higher guys. As part of our release, we had to sign a gagging order not to talk about it. They wrote off a lot of debts so it wasn’t really a wise commercial decision. The trouble is, although we had had some success, we weren’t big enough to weather that wound. We joined an indie label, I can’t remember the name, who had Morcheeba, but it was palpable that the whole thing was in its death throes.

Toby in Amsterdam in the Rialto days

So we drifted apart. Rialto had a very interesting sound, it’s very cinematic. Louis wrote the songs and Jonny produced it, they were Rialto. I was just along for the ride really. Jonny was really into Depeche Mode and they went into a very electronic vibe on the second album and they started using sequences.  I think I went up to the studio twice and I played like one song. We both kind of drifted apart and they went on as a four piece without keys for a little. It was a complete flop which is a shame because Louie is brilliant songwriter and he didn’t just he didn’t get the success he deserved. Unless you’re big enough to weather it and you’ve got a big fanbase who’ll stay with you, you’re vulnerable until you get to a certain level.

We were massive in South Korea! I don’t know how, I think an album promo got sent there by mistake or something. We did a tour and we went to Seoul where we were like superstars. We came off the plane and there was a national press & TV, we did a press conference at the hotel with our names and microphones. That’s the only time I’ve experienced what it must be like…

It was all a great experience and it taught me a lot about the industry. Creatively I wasn’t really able to do a lot as it was very much Louis and Jonny’s band, it was quite a dictatorial kind of arrangement in that sense. To be fair, they had a game plan, they knew what they wanted to do, they knew it was a project. We were a very styled band as well, we had had the same stylist as Pulp. I remember we had quite a gay following because we were quite stylish, that sort of Roxy Music thing. It was a fantastic experience and I was very lucky because I got to experience a lot of gigging and traveling.

How soon after that did Mungo Jerry come along?

It overlapped slightly. It’s a funny old business, the music business, because there is always an element of luck, no matter how good you are. You’ve got to be good enough to deliver the goods but there are plenty of guys who are great who never get to achieve anything. There was a band we had played with called Bennet and their drummer was involved with a project with Katrina, of Katrina And The Waves, and he got me on board to do the keys for her solo album. Through that we did a festival called Prehistoric or something in Rotterdam in one of these big stadiums. We were on the bill with Mungo Jerry and, after the show, at the hotel, I got drinking with the Mungo boys. We kept in contact and, a couple of months later, I got a call saying ‘Ray (Dorsett, Mungo main man) needs a keyboard player. Would you be interested?’ We just hit it off. This was about 2000 so I was actually still in Rialto when I first started gigging with Mungo. Rialto weren’t doing anything, we delivered the second album and there was nothing really in the diary. I played with them ever since, we don’t really do live so much  now but we recorded a couple of albums in Lockdown.

Toby onstage with Mungo Jerry (pic Philip Dorsett)

Ray’s brilliant and what it keeps coming back to for me are The Doors and The Stranglers. Ray loves The Stranglers but he’s massively into The Doors. My two biggest influences are Dave Greenfield and Ray Manzarek, and I’m very much more of a kind of Ray Manzarek vibe when I play with Ray and it’s brilliant. You’ve got the hits like In The Summertime, you’ve got to play those riffs, but he’s really a blueser at heart and it crosses with a bit of psychedelia and all sorts of things. He gives me so much free rein, it’s always a pleasure to gig with him. He had far more hits than people realise and he’s got a very big fan base, particularly in Germany and Switzerland, all around those areas. We’ve done loads of touring around Europe. He’s a force of nature, he’s absolutely brilliant. He is just on the go all the time and, live, he’s incredible (check out some live footage here). He’s like a one-man busking band, he’s got his guitar and the microphone on the stand with a harmonica and a kazoo!.

Obviously, people leave a band or the band split, and then that’s the end of it for them. But you’ve clearly picked up where you left off and carried on with Ray instead…

And that’s why I say there’s always an element of luck. I have had a bit of good fortune in that sense and I’m grateful to Patrick from Bennet, who got me on board with Katrina, that then got me sideways into Mungo.

That’s got us pretty much up to date so onto Stranglers’ type things… How did you first hear of The Stranglers?

I was doing a sponsored walk in school, I think I was 14, and my mate Anthony had two tracks on his Sony Walkman, I think it was Something Better Change and Nice n Sleazy. As soon as I heard them, something clicked. It just sounded so different, the bass, the keyboards, the sound, the energy. My older brother had No More Heroes on vinyl and I think he had a cassette with The Meninblack and The Raven on it. I always remember it took me quite a while to really process The Meninblack and The Raven. I’d never heard anything like it and I kept coming back to them and playing them. The more I played it, the more I assimilated it, I processed it and I ended up loving it. I’ve often found the best music isn’t always something that you connect with immediately, it takes a while…I loved Dave’s lines, I love the melodies of the songs, Hugh’s singing, JJ singing, the contrast with that, the energy, that aggression in those early albums. It just felt like the kind of music I wanted to listen to.

So I got into them at school, just after Aural Sculpture and the first album I remember going to the record shop and buying was Dreamtime on release. I mean I got everything that came out from that moment on. Off The Beaten Track, I remember getting that Rarities, they did a re-release of Grip, Grip 89. I had some that my dad had bought me like Just Like Nothing On Earth because he’d heard it on the radio and he thought it was so out there. I had some really rare ones obviously…

I had a band called The Men in Black, which were termed as a tribute, but we only did about four or five gigs. We were probably the first ever Stranglers’ tribute because our first gig was 1990 at the Officer’s Club in Aldershot and our drummer tipped off the Melody Maker that it was a secret Stranglers gig. We didn’t actually get to play because there were a lot of angry Stranglers’ fans turned up and security said we’d get beaten up if we played.

So what is your favourite album and single?

Before I answer that, there’s a bit of an aside, a thought just came into my head. There’s a bit of history with The Stranglers that I don’t think I’ve said in an interview before. My dad’s family home was behind Jet’s off licence in Guildford. There was an alleyway where you’d go down to a car park and there was a terrace of cottages on the River Wey. And they were number one Riverside Cottages. There’s a family story that my uncle went up there to bang on the door, tell them to shut up and turn it down because they were making a racket. They invited him in and he got drinking and they ended up having a great time listening to the music. It’s funny how The Stranglers are entwined in my life…

But, to answer your question, my favourite album, it does change but I do come back to The Raven. I know that is often a fan favourite, but there’s something about that album where it crossed over from the first three with that kind of hard edge to Dave’s more synthy sounds with the Oberheims and stuff. And in the songwriting and the production, it just that was a real moment where they kind of really grew and they also started that pattern that would be a feature where they don’t rest on their laurels musically. They just go with their artistic instincts and they’re not afraid to take risks. Commercially that can be risky and it’s easy to just milk the same formula. They could have done another couple of albums with that style. Duchess is one of my all-time favourites, I adore that song, the melody, Dave’s insanely fast keyboards.

I saw the last tour with Hugh, at Guildford Civic, and they had the brass section and it felt like it was waning and plodding. I thought Hugh didn’t look like he was really into it and you could see the writing on the wall. When Baz came in and it reverted back to a four piece, it had that edge, it had that energy. He’s a phenomenal player and he’s got a real presence, he’s a good songwriter, I’ve seen that first hand, the ideas he contributes.

Coincidentally, didn’t you meet them around then?

I met The Stranglers when they were recording at Jacob’s Studio near Farnham, I think it must have been ‘92. A mate of mine you knew someone at the studio and so I came down and met them and got my singles signed. I’ve got a photo of me as a spotty little oik with them, I was thin as a rake back then. And, yeah, I met the guys. I remember Jet, chatting with him about growing his tomatoes. That was the first time I met them, I then met JJ again when I was in Rialto. This is where the kind of connection between me & The Stranglers really happened. JJ had a friend, someone he knew, who worked at Rialto’s label and she was so lovely to me.

I remember when we did TFI, he came down and we went to have some drinks at a pub near Twickenham studios. We had some pints and it wasn’t just me as some Stranglers’ fan boy, it was me as the keyboard player of Rialto. JJ liked the band and he was just such a lovely bloke, she had obviously told him that I was a big fan. We kept in contact and he actually got me to do some demos in a studio in North London. This must have been the late nineties and I remember there were a couple of songs, there was one about Gershwin (Fred and George).

Toby in full flow…

I think he’d rented a cottage on the Norfolk coast, so it must have been around the genesis of Norfolk Coast, some of the material from that. I think he just wanted to try something a bit different, just a different player from Dave, just to see how it went but he found out I sounded a bit too much like Dave! He was so lovely. I remember if I played something that he liked, he did a karate move excitedly near my face. I thought I hope I don’t do something that he doesn’t like! He had a playful, boyish kind of side that was coming out there. That was the start of my connection with The Stranglers.

Around that time, JJ was doing some Songs And Stories solo acoustic gigs and he was playing things like Fred and George and a song about a Frog Crossing The Road, so whether he was planning to have another solo album or something like that…

We have spoken about it since then. I’m not entirely sure what was going through his mind then but it was fantastic to actually work with one of your heroes. Quite an experience.

So when you heard that Dave passed away, what was your initial reaction to it?

Shocked, really shocked. I’d grown up from my teens with Dave and Ray (Manzarek, Doors’ keyboardist) as my influences, I’d probably say more Dave, as my biggest influences. The whole Covid thing was just just a nightmare, it was an unprecedented period and there was a lot mixed up in it. It was really sad…

Clearly, it seemed that your immediate reaction, as anybody that was a fan and played the keyboards, was to actually record a tribute video to Dave…(watch the video here)

I felt that was important, actually, to do that because…I just wanted to…you know… It’s interesting that I’m struggling with my words here.

It’s an emotional topic because, as somebody that’s affected you through both your life and your playing style, you have a certain affinity to that person.

Having studied him and followed him for so long, I know how good a player he was. A lot of why I did that video was I actually wanted to show some of his techniques and really communicate what made him such a great player. He had a very distinctive style, those rapid arpeggios, he wasn’t the first to play them but just not in that way. The first time I ever had an arpeggio done in that kind of way was Ray Manzarek on Hyacinth House, one of my favourite Doors’ tracks.

I was quite humbled by the response to the video actually. A lot of people were really grateful to me just dissecting a little bit of Dave’s stuff because I’m not sure a lot’s been written about the mechanics of his style. I have asked JJ and Baz about this and I know Dave was more of a prog rocker. Apparently, he was more like listening to Rick Wakeman and he hadn’t heard The Doors, which is hard to imagine. Without meandering off topic too much, I felt that was an important personal little tribute I wanted to do and I’m really pleased that a lot of fans have enjoyed it and I’ve had some lovely comments.

Originality is such a rare thing, Dave had his sound and the instruments he used. I mean that use of the Hammond and the Cembalet, it took me ages to find out what the hell that keyboard was and it was my holy grail to get that sound, the No More Heroes electric piano sound. I later discovered it was the Cembalet and they’re rare because they were an early fifties, reed-based piano, similar to a Wurlitzer, only a cruder design and what a sound… Dave had that, he had the Hammond and the Minimoog for the first three albums and that was his set up. He had a really distinctive sound, with the fast arpeggios and his melodies, his solos. You listen to the solo on Dagenham Dave and the use of the Wah on the Hammond, I’ve never heard anyone else do that.

Did you for one minute think that you’d be offered the chance to step in his shoes?

Again, there is some overlap. I had recorded down at Louie’s studio for an album I did called Saturday Morning Pictures around 2004. We were mixing it and JJ and Baz were around and JJ remembered me from Rialto, They, jokingly, said, if Dave was ever injured, I’d be the guy, I’d be the stand in. Of course, he wasn’t injured, we lost him. There were lots of crossovers and links but, clearly, I would have thought there would be a lot of high profile guys would have gone for that gig. I am aware of a couple of key players that have been mentioned to me. Of course, it was a huge honour but also bloody scary. I can’t think of a harder pair of shoes to fill as a keyboard player actually. Even though I had a bit of a head start knowing some of the songs, there’s knowing them and then there’s knowing them.

I could play Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl, No More Heroes to a point, although I’d never really nailed the solo note perfect. Of course, because of Covid, we sat on this for over a year. It was only when I first got to play with Baz and Jim at Jim’s house that it started to feel real. JJ was stuck in France because of Covid. That was quite an emotional moment actually, particularly for Baz.  We did Hanging Around as the first tune and Baz had to stop as he was tearful because he felt Dave was in the room, his music. That was lovely for Baz and Jim to give up their time and we stayed the weekend too. We really just got to spend some time and it’s one thing being recommended, it’s another thing gelling. I was concerned that, until we’d all rehearsed, it could have gone tits up. Sil and particularly Louie were instrumental in recommending me, for which I’ll be eternally grateful to them. But it’s one thing to be recommended and another to deliver the goods and to gel. A lot of it’s chemistry but, if you don’t get on, if you’re a dick, if you know you rub someone up the wrong way, it’s an intense cauldron when you’re on tour.

Those early rehearsals must have been intimidating, especially when JJ was able to travel over from France

When we had our first rehearsals, before the European gigs, down at Sil’s studio and that’s when it was the full band with JJ. They were really lovely, they said ‘you just pick the songs you want to do’ to bed me in gently. So the first song we did was No More Heroes, and JJ… (mimmicks the intro), the hairs on the back of my neck stood up! Another thing I’ve discovered about The Stranglers is it’s no accident that they’ve been as good as they have historically and still are, they work and they rehearse more than any other band. They’re perfectionists. There’s a festival coming up and there’s a rule that if we haven’t played for a month, we rehearse. I mean, that’s why they’re so bloody good! That work ethic is drilled into the band and JJ doesn’t miss a thing. I remember early on, because trying to do Dave’s parts, you’re going to make mistakes, and JJ had this look that he’d give me, in a playful way, but kind of ‘I’ve clocked that’.

Baz is a phenomenal guitarist and a brilliant musician, as is Jim on the drums, and it’s hard to not get caught up in the energy of that band. That nucleus, the energy, the musicianship and the songs, I mean what’s not to love?! But, very quickly, the pro in you wants to knuckle down and get into the detail. I still get those moments when I look across the stage and I see JJ, Baz and Jim and I think ‘is this real? Pinch me, am I dreaming this?’ Most of the time I’m so engrossed in the work, the job of trying to fill Dave’s shoes… A Stranglers’ gig is a weird experience because 2 hours goes in a flash because I’m so invested and concentrating and there’s so much going on. Before you know it, you’re halfway through, you’re up to Golden Brown and then you’re on the homestretch and, before you know it, the show’s over. I’ve got the best seat in the house!

They are really lovely guys and they’ve been so generous and accommodating. With Baz, when we’re gigging, we’re kind of like the melodic section and he’ll often come over during a solo, like Walk On By. I think they appreciate that it’s a pretty tough gig and a hard pair of shoes to fill. I was actually genuinely concerned about how the fans would respond to anyone playing Dave’s parts and I did, jokingly, say in my contract that I wanted a bullet-proof Perspex screen for fear of being taken out by disgruntled fans! Nothing could be further from the truth. I think, because of the circumstances of losing Dave the way it happened, the fans just genuinely appreciated someone coming in and trying to emulate him. I think they also appreciate that I’m a fan as well and it’s important to me to get the parts as close as I can. It’s inevitable some bits are going to vary slightly because that’s just the person playing.

Obviously Dave used to stand pretty still while playing so everybody is wondering why you’re moving. Clearly, you’re a fan and you’re enjoying playing the songs! You’re actually getting into it and you can’t just stand still…

I do sometimes look at the forums as I like to get a temperature of what’s going on out there. It amused me that people were talking about my moves, the ‘Toby two step’ as someone called it, which, I admit, I’m not a natural mover, that’s just me! If you look back at the early Rialto stuff, I had a similar sort of that dad dancing thing… It’s infectious. There are some tunes where you physically have to be really planted but, when we’re doing the end, the rousing encores like No More Heroes or Tank or whatever, it’s just fucking amazing!! How can you stand still?

It’s actually the fact that you’ve come in, not only as a great keyboard player but also as a huge fan, I think people are seeing that and actually understanding that.

Something JJ said, which I thought was a really interesting observation, is that Dave’s parts, or the Stranglers’ songs, are almost like classical pieces. It would be insane to come in and think it’s time for a refresh, these keyboard parts we’ll do it this way, that would be completely insane and the wrong approach. Clearly, you wouldn’t be getting the band, the fans and what The Stranglers are about. I don’t know many bands have got as loyal a following as The Stranglers have. Looking at the success of the new album and the success of the tour, pretty much all the dates were sold out. The feedback from the vast majority of fans has been amazing. I would like to say this to the fans, I am genuinely appreciative of the support because it’s made my job a whole lot easier. You get lots of fans who wait, they queue up around soundcheck or they’ll come to see us afterwards and they’ve been really supportive. I really appreciate it. So thank you.

Were there any songs that you really struggled with when you were doing the initial rehearsals?

Plenty! Have you heard the keyboard parts?! There’s a couple of things. I never realised how much Dave did with his left hand because he comps, he fills out a lot rhythmically with his left hand on the Hammond normally, particularly on the earliest stuff. That was a bit tricky, just the muscle memory and the coordination of doing it, it’s hard enough just doing the bloody melody with the right without having to worry about what you’re doing with your left at the same time. That crept in on quite a few songs. Walk on by, I’m not going to lie, Walk On By was hard because that solo is incredible. The hardest one for the European dates was Midnight Summer Dream. It’s basically one long bloody keyboard solo and, apparently, it was Dave’s least favourite one to do live. That took me a while but I think I nailed it just about the end of the tour. There were a couple of gigs where I screwed up a little bit and I got a bit of a little glare from JJ, rightly so. High standards need to be maintained.

In his studio

How did you find the French tour last year? Obviously they were your first live appearances with the band.

It was amazing. I was quite nervous, particularly the first show, but nerves are good as long as they’re not debilitating and you’re not bent over vomiting, they keep you on your toes. I’ve got a few pre-gig rituals I do where I just try and harness those nerves a little bit in a positive way. But I was pretty terrified for the first gig!  Very quickly, it’s the musician in me takes over and, thinking of the situation, I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got a lot of passion to want to do it right. I’m quite occupied with a lot of stuff going on, not only the mechanics of playing the parts and physically there’s a lot of moving around with four keyboards. It’s quite a different vibe over there. The band are treated as more of an intellectual band and it’s more of an intellectual crowd as well, not that I’m not dissing the British fans for one second, but I think France got The Stranglers around Golden Brown onwards. There wasn’t quite that same connection with the more hard-edged early sound. It’s more of a kind of sit down and have a glass of wine kind of crowd and that’s why we do stuff like Midnight Summer Dream and Always The Sun, although that’s big in the UK. It was lovely and we were really well looked after. Clearly, we were still in the Covid thing, so there was quite a lot of masks and anxiety around making sure that we were in a bubble and we weren’t at risk of coming down with the dreaded Covid. But, that aside, it was great. I was on the bus with Jim and so I got to spend a lot of time with the crew and got to know the whole family. So it was a really cool experience.

Then, coming into the UK tour, you’d almost got the mechanics of playing the gigs out of the way and you could handle the apprehension of doing it in front of a UK and slightly more partisan home crowd…

That’s a great way of describing it, the partisan crowd. The way France happened was actually a blessing because it was almost like a soft landing, like a nice warm up, ease into it. The British tour was amazing, you’ve got that energy, the mosh pit, there’s an element of that, but there’s still people who will just sit back and watch, study and listen. It’s quite a broad church. If you want to join in that energetic kind side, you could do that but, if you want to just appreciate the music, you can do that as well. But what a tour!? It was an amazing experience. So that’s something I’ll always have with me, I don’t think we’re going to do any more big tours like that, it was like six weeks, wasn’t it? There might be some smaller ones. We’ve got some festivals over the summer and we’ve got some rescheduled European gigs that we weren’t able to do because of Covid and shut down. Then we’ll see what the future holds…

The fans were very welcoming and showed their appreciation like a huge cheer after the Walk On By solo. How did that feel?

Most of the time I didn’t hear it because we have in-ear monitor but I became aware of it and I did ask the monitor engineer to give me a bit of a feed of the ambient mics so I could hear. The trouble with in-ear monitoring is, although they’re fantastic for getting more of a detailed monitor mix, you don’t get the ambience or vibe of what’s going on in the room. So until I had that done and I did hear it, fabulous, it’s amazing and it’s lovely to get that.

There are certain times when people are waiting for an acid test, like nailing the Walk On By keyboard solo. There are those moments where fans think ‘Yeah, he’s got it’.

I don’t play it exactly the way that Dave did. I’ve done a bit of a hybrid of taking bits of the record on some of the motifs but I’ve taken some that I heard how they did it on some of the (live) mixes I had and I blended that. It took the band a little while to jam as they’re very used to certain motifs and ways. There’s a bit of interplay at the end with Baz’s guitar playing where we overlap and do some joint melodies, and that took a lot of practice. So, that was a bloody tough one and it’s nice to get the recognition and the appreciation from the fans.

You mentioned in a recent interview that, alongside the gigging, you also work with kids with Asperger’s and Autism. Can you elaborate on that?

Around the mid noughties, about 2007, Mungo wasn’t busy and I wasn’t really getting regular work as a musician. I started to think, what the hell am I going to do? I need a backup plan. Most sensible people do that first and they do a degree and then go into it. I’ve often been quite spontaneous and Music Therapy was something I was interested in, the power of using music as a communication tool in a therapeutic way. I didn’t think for a second that they’d take me on as it’s normally people from a more classical background but they did and I did a two year vocational MA at Roehampton. In the UK, we’re quite stringently regulated so you’ve got to be HCPC registered, which you’ve got to have before you can call yourself a music therapist. I qualified about 10 or 11 years ago and I did some training with some children with Autism on a placement, which I found was a really interesting area. I’ve generally worked with either older adults with Dementia or children with learning disabilities and Autism.

I work at a specialist school locally to me but I’m only doing two days a week now because of other commitments with my music and The Stranglers. A lot of my clients, in my caseload, are either non-verbal or have limited verbal acuity so it’s more it’s helping people express themselves without being able to do it verbally. If you or I have some problems, we might go and see a therapist and sit on the couch and talk about things. Some of the training overlaps, there is that sort of psychodynamic approach and there’s elements of Freud and Klein so it is therapy, not just a music activity. It’s very much using particularly improvised music to respond to or to attune to how someone’s presenting in the room at that time. So I see my clients at the same time every week in a half hour session with a certain structure, I generally start with a particular hello song and maybe finish with a goodbye song. Within that framework it’s child-led and I respond to what is needed. Sometimes, obviously I can’t go into specifics, but it might be helping someone express how they’re feeling in a way rather than presenting the challenging behaviour, just helping make sense of those feelings through playing a drum together. For a lot of people, even just being in the room with another person for half an hour is constructive, to even to manage that could be a huge thing. I can’t magically make someone’s disability go away but I can help them express how they’re feeling or getting in contact with the anger of their disability. I’ve got some clients who use equipment called an eye gaze, so even though they’re nonverbal, they can find words using their eyes and often those words might be on a ‘feelings’ page where you can pick how you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s really powerful stuff, like feeling angry or depressed or embarrassed by their disability. Imagine how frustrating that is. But also just to be in the world with these challenges, just getting through the day could be really struggling and having physical limitations.

A lot of my work is expressed around helping people maybe process and manage their feelings but, with some of my autistic children, it will be just being with another person or having a sense of other. Autism is very much on a spectrum and there’s no two people who present the same way. It’s just trying to help normalise some things, communication or interpersonal connection or just being with someone else for half an hour. Challenging behaviour is not just there for the sake of it, it’s a communication of something underlying and it’s trying to unpick what’s going on there.

I’m very passionate and I find that it grounds me because sometimes we get caught up in the bullshit of the minutiae or the drudgery of our days. I go back to school and find it’s healthy and grounding. I love the school to bits, it’s got a fantastic culture, the staff and the children, it’s just a brilliant place. I’ve been working there on and off almost ten years so I’m kind of part of the furniture there now. People don’t get what music therapy is, they think it’s more of a music happy clappy activity, but at that school, it is reasonably well embedded. I’m very lucky and, literally the week after the UK tour, I was back at school.

I’m really lucky that I’ve got two things in my life that I’m passionate about and I love so, if anyone’s interested in training to be a music therapist, the organisation in the UK is the British Association of Music Therapy (more info here). It’s a very rewarding career, it can be hard.

Did you also work with older people in a care home?

I worked at a care home for a couple of years and I found that really challenging because there were people younger than my parents in there. I had one person who was late forties, from substance abuse or alcohol, who had a stroke and was quite low functioning in some ways. With Dementia, there was a book by David Aldridge (link) which I read in my training and he describes Dementia as ‘being stuck in the sea you just get islands of connection’.  That’s basically what I would strive to do is just try and find an island of connection in that moment so, if someone is quite disorientated, to maybe connect with them with the music or a familiar song or play a rhythm together, it’s just that moment of connection.

Do you have any hobbies outside of music?

Basically, I’m a simple man, music and I’m a petrol head. I’m quite passionate about Formula One but I do love motor sports in general. Not so much football but I like a bit of rugby, but motor sports and cars are my thing.  I’ve got a little sports car thing, it’s nothing too flashy but I enjoy that. I’ve also got a racing simulator, so the inner child in me is very much catered for that. I do a bit of online sim racing with a couple of mates, we race together online and taunt each other over the microphone which is quite juvenile.

And also musical gear, I have what’s known as G.A.S, gear acquisition syndrome! I can’t stop buying things. I literally just bought a Korg CX3 organ from the early eighties, I used to have that exact keyboard in Rialto, so I’m rather pleased to have that. I’ve got various organs, I like to collect unloved things. I don’t go for vintage analog stuff as it goes for silly money, like some of the Roland gear, so I go for things like vintage Casios. I’ve got a couple of beauties, they’re analog in the circuitry but there’s a warmth in the sounds. People probably deride them as cheese machines, with bossa nova beats, but they make great sounds. I’ve got numerous bloody keyboards and I will never stop because I just love gear.

Obviously, I love music, I love listening to music, I like composing music even if it’s just for me. I’m rubbish at marketing my music, I’ve got a few albums I’ve done which I’m quite pleased with but no one knows they exist. I like to create it and then I move on to another idea. Maybe I should get someone involved who can help push it because I just like to create it.

So, with the main interview completed, we also took the chance to ask Toby some technical questions about the gear he uses and lots of other nerdy things. Slightly less techy minded people may get a bit lost from this point on… (thanks to Damian Franklin for the questions)

You are using Dave’s rig currently. Can you explain what that current spec is and if there were any mods/upgrades before the French/UK tours?

I was given the option to come in and use my own keyboards, but talking particularly with Louie, he’s generally the technical lead, we felt that because the band were used to those sounds, having a different keyboard player and then having completely different rig might have just been a step too far. I thought it was quite a sensible idea to basically use Dave’s rig, but we did tweak it. There were a few sounds that I thought could be better. We did Strange Little Girl which didn’t have much decay on the sound of the electric piano, so it was kind of like a Wurlitzer type sound, but it didn’t feel right to me. Louie is very good at sound design and we sort of listened quite closely to the original record and I think we did improve that sound quite a lot. There were some others that I wasn’t so happy with that we spent time improving. But, to Louie’s credit, considering we’re using gear that’s about 20 years old, he’s done a bloody good job and he’s sampled a Cembalet so we’ve got a really nice emulation of that. The Hammond organ sounds are OK, some of the organ sounds could be improved. I’m quite a perfectionist so we are looking at ways of upgrading it but, at the end of the day, there is an argument that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are certain elements like, if we do gigs abroad, the current rig goes into a small rack and it’s easy to transport and we can just hire the keyboards there. If we start getting new keyboards or going into other areas, the logistics can be quite complicated.

With The Stranglers, we generally have two of everything in case of redundancy, so, if one keyboard breaks, sometimes stuff does break, we’ve got a backup. It’s not just a case of having four Nord Electros, you’ve got to have eight so it’s a lot of gear. I can see the logic in continuing to use Dave’s rig, but there’s always work for improvement. So, even if we continue to use his rig, we can maybe add a couple of bits to it, maybe update a sound or a bit of the gear. What it actually contains are two Roland Phantom XRs which are rack mount Roland sample playback synthesizers. They’re what’s known as ROMplers, they’re bread and butter sounds, I’m not so keen on some of the sounds but we can improve them. The synth stuff is generally done on two Novation A Stations which are what’s known as physical modeled analog, it’s not real analog, it emulates analog using algorithms. It’s quite complicated but the long and short of it is that they sound great. That sound at the beginning of Grip, that’s a Moog, because Dave had a Minimoog, a free oscillator with a really fat sound, and that sounds really good. Louie’s done a brilliant job with that. We’re not in a desperate rush to change things, but we can always improve things. I’d like to improve the organ sounds a bit more but a lot of synth sounds are pretty good. I’ve seen some of the fans mentioning that there was a synth show in Germany recently and Oberheim are back in business and they rereleased the OB-X8 keyboard. Dave used Oberheims. The OBX8 about five grand though and I’d need two of them so, unless Oberheim want to kindly do something with us, then we’ll have the sample instead…

Oberheim OB-8

Eagle eyed fans have noticed that you are using in-ear monitoring. Is this new for you or have you used it before?

I do use in-ear monitoring, the whole band use it and they have done for a while. Dave apparently didn’t like it. He was more old school and just had a big monitor on stage. I think that there’s a general sense that in-ear monitoring allows you to get a more detailed mix without bleed from other sound sources. But the downside of that is, like we talked about earlier, it can be a bit sterile like you’re listening to music on headphones and you don’t get the ambiance of what’s going on in the room and the fan reaction. What we do to mitigate that is our monitor engineer gives us an ambient mix. We’ll have a couple of microphones positioned at the front of the stage so we can get a sense of what’s going on in the room and you can add that into the mix. There are several advantages of in-ear monitoring. One, it protects your hearing, as generally they’re moulded to your ear, so they act as a form of ear defender. Two, you get a much more isolated, detailed sound so that’s why most bands generally do. Some bands still use the old wedges. I have used them before and I’ve got some nice new moulded ones for the band, but I have used them for a while. I generally have used them just because they protect your hearing as I’m a bit paranoid about getting tinnitus. I have a little bit of it but, I’ve stuck to earplugs and in-ear monitoring for the last 10 or 15 years, so it hasn’t got any worse.

Were there any tech issues that you had on tour?

There was a bit of a glitch which we haven’t quite got to the bottom of but, occasionally, the MIDI would hang on one of the mother keyboards triggering a certain sound. I’d play a note and it would just stay ringing. We got to a point where Laurie would have a reset button and I’d give him a sign, normally like a panicked wave or something, that happened a few times. At the end of the day, because everything’s connected by MIDI, we’ve got a lot of MIDI merge boxes and leads, and it might have been a bad lead on bad merge box. Louie replaced that and improved it but it has occasionally cropped up since. If I replace the gear, it would be more for reliability reasons than anything else. It wasn’t a huge problem and the crew are fantastic so we were able to quite quickly resolve that.

You have 3 iPads at the sides of your rig. Do they replace the mixing console which is off stage now with the Rackmounts?

Well spotted! I’ve got an iPad either side. One is for changing the sounds so that’s got a program which basically sends MIDI messages to all the gear. So I’ll have the setlist, let’s say we start with Toiler, the next song’s Sometimes, I just press and it changes all the sounds. The one on the right hand side is my own and I’ve got some notes because sometimes, as a musician, you can get brain fade where you would just be in the moment, like I’d think ‘Fuck, what’s the next chord?’ I don’t really use the notes that often, it’s more of a security blanket, but occasionally it’s helpful. It might just say what the key is. Just for those moments of brain fade so I will have the setlist done and I’ll have my little cheat sheets. Early on I made a cock up where I didn’t follow JJ on Golden Brown where he walks back from the mike and that’s the cue that we resolve the passage for the ending. That one time I was just caught up in the music and I forgot that and I went by the record so I finished it before JJ walked back. It’s part of growing pains. So, basically, on my notes for Golden Brown, I’ve got a massive thing saying ‘watch JJ at the end’! The other one is like a little android tablet which, basically, controls a Behringer mixer because Dave used to have a big Yamaha mixer. We’ve now replaced that with a Behringer rackmount mixer which is much more portable so that is just the control for that.

You & Louie are looking at updating the ‘Moog’ sounds with a Behringer keyboard rack, which is a modern copy of the Mini Moog. Can you explain this and are there plans to update other sounds, for example using the new Oberheim OB-X8?

I’m looking at sampling a few sounds. I bought a Behringer recreation of the Minimoog called the Model D. I don’t know how they do this, but they’ve basically got a mega factory in China where they make all the analog components but they cloned the circuitry, they’ve effectively cloned the Minimoog and they sell it for 300 quid. It’s a little rackmount thing and I bought one and I have been programming a sound as close to that classic Dave Grip intro sound. I have sampled it and we made choose to integrate that but, like I said, that’s not the weakest part of the set. I think the A stations do a pretty decent job but that’s a good example of how we might finetune things. I would dearly love an OB-X8 but, because we have two of everything, you’re looking at ten grand! Behringer are actually doing their own Oberheim synth called a UBXA and that is ready to go but I think with the global chip shortage is holding it up. They are doing a rackmount version and I will definitely get that. That could find it’s way into the rig because two of those wouldn’t be the end of the world as Behringer is normally good value stuff.

Oberheims really were Dave’s sound. I have had the good fortune of playing an OB8 and an OBXA back in the day. What’s interesting is we look now at digital and analog as digital was cold and analog’s warm. Back in the day, it was very much thought that the American analog synths were much warmer than the Japanese ones. So, the Prophets, the Moogs, the Oberheims were very much the ones to have. That’s simplifying it because anyone who listened to a Jupiter 8 or a Yamaha CS80, they’re phenomenal synths and they have different merits.

Thanks very much to Toby for this interview which took most of his evening! Cheers to Damian for the techy questions too.

Check out some of Toby’s recordings:

Audio Bathers EP here

Boogie Woogie album here

© 2022 The Stranglers (Official Site)

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Hugh Cornwell – interview

By Mark Ray-September 26, 2022

Incredibly, Hugh Cornwell left the Stranglers 32 years ago. In that period, he has released eight studio albums, as well as a collaboration with Dr John Cooper-Clarke, to add to the solo album he released whilst still a Strangler, and Nosferatu with Robert Williams. Across those albums, he has established his own voice and continued his keen eye as a songwriter. In October, he releases his tenth solo album, Moments of Madness. Louder Than War caught up with him for a chat, and he remains as interesting, erudite and intelligent as ever.  

LTW: Your new album, Moments of Madness, is out 21st October.

HC: Have you heard it?

Yeah, I’m enjoying it. I’ve listened to it quite a few times. I’ve got one of the songs going round and round in my head: When I Was a Young Man.

Ah, good. That means it’s catchy then! Which is a good thing.

This is, I believe, if I’ve counted them right, your tenth solo album.

So they tell me.

Which doesn’t count Nosferatu.

Yeah, that was a collaboration with Robert Williams.

And this is the first album that, I think, you’ve played everything on and produced yourself?

It’s actually, more or less, the same credits as for my last album, for Monster. Not all the bass was played on the last album, but this one I played all the bass and the drums, which I did with my engineer Phil Andrews.

Is it a very different experience when you’re playing it all yourself, and producing it all yourself, than in a band or with a producer?

It’s what I’ve naturally gravitated towards, recording and writing at the same time. I’ll get ideas for songs and the lyrics, but I deliberately don’t finish them off before I commit it to a recording. So that leaves an element of unexpectedness about it, and leaves room for accidents to happen, or pleasant surprises to happen. Obviously, if you have players recording as well, that limits you because they need to prepare for the recording. I remember on Totem and Taboo (2012 album – LTW), the players on that were Chris Bell and Steve Fishman, who did the drums and bass, and it was all written and rehearsed before it was recorded. So, there was no element of spontaneity in that recording. Now, when I start in the studio putting a song together, I don’t actually know where it’s going to end up. I kinda like that, the quirkiness of it, the chance encounters, the things that happen totally by accident that end up being good moments.

Does it become a long process then, when you’re doing it yourself, building up the tracks bit by bit?

Now this is the second album that I’ve done like this, after Monster, it’s actually getting easier. This one we finished in a shorter amount of time than Monster.

Is this the way ahead, then? The next album will be recorded the same way?

Well, there’s the old expression: if it works don’t fix it. And Pat Hughes and Windsor McGilvray, who are my two wonderful live musicians, are quite happy to be presented with a given recording and then learn their parts. But when they’re learning those parts, they then try things out, they change things, to put their own stamp on it. And they’re very good. You know, they say, “Do you like that? I’ve put in something here.” So the live versions will be slightly different and thank God they are.

“I’m not totally anti-keyboards, but I don’t find them very rock ‘n’ roll.”

I saw you this year, a few months back, and it was interesting, because some of the songs that you did, from the Wolf period – the recorded versions from back then had a very poppy, 80s sound, but live they had a real edge to them, a really rocky sound.

Well, there you go. The thing is that on Wolf, there’s quite a bit of keyboard playing. And that might have had something to do with it because keyboards – and I’m not totally anti-keyboards, but I don’t find them very rock ‘n’ roll – as soon as you put keyboards on something you fill in all the spaces in between the notes. They’re all filled up by a keyboard wash. “Put your music through a keyboard wash and it will remove all the spaces.” It’s like an advert for a washing powder.

The first thing I noticed about the new album was the cover, which has a picture of you in Popish green garb with a wonky eye. It reminded me a bit of a Francis Bacon.

Ah, interesting. There is an explanation behind that front cover, but it won’t be revealed until one sees the back on the finished sleeve. Because it’s an interpretation of a picture. It’s a moment of madness – all will be revealed!

We then discuss the new album, song by song.

The first track on the album is called Coming Out of the Wilderness, which I think is a very strong opening track, with a 60s feel, but with a 50s guitar riff at one point.

It’s sort of like an American band with the jangly chords and a lot of echoes, and a bit of a Gothic sound. As soon as I recorded it, I said we’ve got to make it like that, because it was crying out for it.

It’s interesting because most people talk about wanting to get back to nature, connecting with nature, whereas this song is all about coming back out of the wilderness, coming back into civilization.

Exactly. It’s a bit of a nod to the lockdown situation, but with, hopefully, a more poetic way of describing it. I spent a lot of lockdown out in the country. So, it was a nice feeling of liberation to get back in the city

Did you struggle during lockdown?

Not at all. And a lot of creative people I’ve spoken to feel the same. It was almost like an enforced blessing in disguise, because if you’re creative, then being forced to be alone, helps that process. Because of the nature of what I do, and I’m a Londoner anyway, I spend a lot of time in London. But during lockdown, there was no reason to be in London because you couldn’t do anything. Nothing was open. It’s pointless to be in a city, if nothing’s open.

But obviously, also in your sector of work, you had people unable to gig and make money.

Yeah, unfortunately. When we started again, earlier this year, we went out with The Undertones. I actually got so carried away with the excitement, the enjoyment of singing again, that I overdid it and I lost my voice for the first time ever. I lost my voice for ten days and three of the dates had to be rescheduled for December.

So, I guess another plus, was a renewed enthusiasm for playing live?   

It was nice to rediscover that. It’s like: “Now I remember why I like doing this!”

“Everyone should have the piss taken out of them, because everyone suffers from self-importance.”

Talking about live gigs, I must ask you something. Particularly in The Stranglers days, you could be very droll, with a wonderful sense of humour between songs, but also quite antagonistic at times. I wonder how much of that was put on or whether you really sometimes didn’t like the crowd?

Well, no, I’m very into self-mockery. And I think everyone should have the piss taken out of them because everyone suffers from self-importance. And really, we are, each of us, very insignificant. And I think we need to be reminded of that. Part of that is I make fun of myself, and I make fun of other people and some people don’t like it when I do that. But I think they’re taking themselves too seriously. And these days, you cannot make a joke, or be flippant about anything because you’re gonna upset somebody and I think that’s a great shame.

Sometimes at gigs I went to back in the day, you made me laugh out loud because you were so funny. I thought you could probably have a career as a stand-up comedian.

I have thought about it occasionally.

Back in the early days of The Stranglers, some of the crowd could be very aggressive, so probably did need taking down a peg or two.

I remember the most profitable case of that happening was when we were playing a gig in the East End of London: some very rough bar in the early days. And they were throwing coins at us. I mean, not tossing them, they were actually throwing them like missiles at us. And a couple of coins hit me and I looked down and there were five pence pieces and pennies, so I said, “You bunch of cheapskates, five pence!” So then they started throwing fifty pence pieces instead! And we cleaned up afterwards. There was about 150 quid on the stage!

Which back then was a lot of money!

It was indeed.

The next song on the album is called Red Rose. This seems to be a fairly straightforward song about not liking tattoos.

I’d be very sad if it says that I don’t like them. My jury is out on them. It’s a muse about tattoos. I’m trying to understand in the song why people like them. I don’t want to have a tattoo. I can’t think of anything I’d like less to do to my body. But a lot of people love getting them. It all started in Canada, in Toronto, using tattoos as body art in an extravagant way, like it’s being done now. I remember going there in the middle of the 90s and seeing people on the street. A lot of women, more women than men actually, displaying these vast tattoos across their shoulders and across their collarbones, and I just could not understand it.

I guess it’s another form of body adornment. But the thing is that you can take earrings out at the end of the day; you can’t take a tattoo out. And they won’t go away, you’ve got them for life. You can go and get them removed, but it’s very painful and does it work? Do they go completely or do they leave a ghost? Imagine having a tattoo of your girlfriend and then you break up. For the rest of your life, you’re gonna be looking at it, be reminded, of that, for the rest of your life. That doesn’t appeal to me at all.

One of the lines in the song is about it being the end of memory. Is that what you’re referring to there?

Yeah, that’s what I mean.

One of the things I find interesting about tattoos, is that they were originally for people like sailors, convicts and prostitutes.

Yeah, they were alternative.

But eventually all these subcultures seem to come into the mainstream.

It becomes absorbed into the status quo. Now it’s like, ‘Hey, be different, get a tattoo!’ But that doesn’t really ring true anymore.

Whenever I’ve been tempted, I could never decide. What can I live with forever?

Yeah, what’re you gonna put: ‘mom?’ ‘I love mom’? I mean, I could live with that. If I had to have a tattoo, I’d have: ‘I still love mom’.

So it’s you just trying to understand the attraction. Because I know you really enjoy art.

Yeah, yeah, I’m an art lover. I’m just trying to understand it.

Next track is Iwannahideinsideya, which sounds like, with the world in the state it is, just looking for some respite from it.  

We just want to crawl off into a hole somewhere and escape.

When you sing a song like this, are you talking about escaping from global problems, or personal problems?

Both. Everyone’s got stuff they want to get away from. A lot of the time, I compare life to being on a boat. Who’s navigating? Which way are we going? Who’s in charge here? Who’s looking out for the water coming in over the side and who’s gonna make sure we don’t sink? These are all sort of similes, a metaphor for life. I just went to town on that metaphoric use of a boat.

Hugh Cornwell – interview

We’re all toilers on the sea.

Yeah, Victor Hugo said it well.

Next track, Looking For You, has a very Doors-like, psychedelic feel.

I have a lot of dreams. During the lockdown, I found that I was dreaming a lot. I was having some very interesting dreams and I was meeting a lot of people in these dreams that I’d never met before. I was meeting a lot of women, not dirty dreams or anything. But I was just in dreams with people that I haven’t met and I just wondered if I’m ever going to meet them. So there’s the element in that song which is about the people that you meet in dreams, and sometimes it’s people you recognise and sometimes they’re people that you don’t. And you think, who’s that? I have had that situation before where I dreamt of somebody in a dream, it was a lady, and I met her a few years later: a German girl. And we ended up dating for quite a while. It’s interesting. Do these strangers in your dreams actually exist?

The next song, which is the one that’s been going round my head, is When I Was a Young Man. It’s got a fast beat, almost like a train careering down the tracks, which may be symbolic of time passing quickly.

Oh, I like that. You’re quite poetic, aren’t you?

Was that intentional or not?

I’ll take it. It makes sense.

On the song, you do talk about not wanting to be young again, or not wanting to go back to being a young man.

Yeah, there’s no attraction. I don’t know how young people these days deal with it, especially in this almost draconian atmosphere of PC and not being open, or having no freedom of expression. I don’t know how they cope and they’re all taking it lying down. They’re all just acquiescing to it and going ‘okay, I can’t make a joke’. Where’s their fight? When you see your freedom of expression is being taken away from you, you should fight back, but they’re so acquiescent. I don’t see any attraction about being young.

“I was never a young man in rock.”

So you say you don’t want to be young now in this time, but would you like to go back to being young in your time?

I still feel young. I might not look as young as I used to, but the thing is, I came to rock ‘n’ roll late in life, or relatively late in life, after university, at the age of 25. I was no bright, fresh-eyed sixteen-year-old kid. I was almost middle-aged when I started in terms of rock ‘n’ roll. I was never a young man in rock.


At what point did you first think about being in a band then? Would that have been when you were around twenty-five?

No, I was in a band at school with Richard Thompson, who later started Fairport Convention. He was forming a band, and as he was a mate, I asked if I could be in it. And he said, “Yeah, okay, we need a bass player.” He taught me how to play bass and that’s how I started. That was at the age of fifteen or sixteen. So I got the bug early on, but then I didn’t do anything about it for ten years.

“We moved down to Guildford and started drinking all his booze and selling ice cream.”

You were teaching for a while?

Well, the time I did a bit of teaching was to make ends meet when The Stranglers were first starting. I was drawing Social Security, and they called me inside the office one day and said, “If you don’t find yourself a job, we’ll find one for you.” So I immediately rushed out to buy the local paper, this was in Guildford, and I saw an ad for supply teachers to teach Biology, and I had Biology qualifications. In those days, this was a long time ago, you didn’t need a teacher’s training certificate. All you needed was a university degree and you were qualified to teach. I guess there must have been an acute teacher shortage then, because I don’t think you could get away with that now. But anyway, it was accepted. So that’s when I was a teacher for about a year, when The Stranglers first started.

Before that you were living in Sweden for a time?

That’s right and I had a band there. We were called Johnny Sox. The guy that started all that off was Hans Wärmling, who was a male nurse in the hospital there. It was a town very famous for its hospital, called Lund, and I met him and he took me up to where he lived and he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a lovely semi-acoustic Gibson electric guitar and a microphone. I was well impressed. He played me these songs that he’d written and said, “I have all these songs that I’ve written, but I need somebody to write the lyrics.”

I was really lacking in self-confidence at that time, but I knew a guy, an American poet, who was a draft dodger, called Gyrth Godwin. So I put them together. I said, “Well, Hans! This guy – he’s a poet; you could write some songs together.” So those two started writing songs together and I became the rhythm guitarist in the band. But then Hans had an argument with the singer and he left. So we had bass, drums, rhythm guitar, and singer, and we moved to England, and started playing on the pub circuit with bands like Dr Feelgood. Then Jimmy Carter got into power in America and launched an amnesty for all the draft dodgers. So the two draft dodgers, the drummer and the singer, wanted to go back to America. So they left and suddenly we needed a drummer.

I put an ad in Melody Maker and interviewed all these prospective drummers and Jet Black, Brian Duffy back then, was the only one that made any sense on the phone. So we met him and he said, “Come down to Guildford; don’t live in this squat in Camden Town in London. I’ve got a house above an off-licence and an ice cream business.” And we said, “Yay!” We moved down to Guildford and started drinking all his booze in the off-licence, and selling ice cream.

Then the singer, who was another American draft dodger, and the bass player, who was Swedish, they got itchy feet. They decided to initially go back to Sweden, and then the American went back to America with his wife and child, which left me alone with Jet, a guy I’d only met a couple of months before, in his off-licence and ice cream business. But his heart was in the right place and he was committed, which was what I was looking for.

One day, I borrowed a bottle of wine and went around to John Burnel’s flat, whom I’d met briefly a few months before. I knew that he played classical guitar. It’s funny because he started off as a fingerstyle, classical Spanish guitarist, and I started off as a bass player, and then we ended up exchanging roles. Anyway, I said, “Come on, join our band; you can play bass.” But he said that he was thinking of saving up some money and going to California to work at the Harley Davidson factory. And I said, “Look, forget that. Join the band. Stick with me, kid and you’ll be able to buy your own Harley Davidson.” And he believed me.

And you were right!

I was right! And getting him drunk got him on my side too!

So then there were three of us: Jet Black, me and Burnel. We started rehearsing, but we realised we needed a lead instrument, that there was something missing. So I said, “I know this great guy, back in Sweden, who can play guitar, keyboard, saxophone and can write great melodies,” which was Hans Wärmling. I got in touch with Hans and I told him I’d got a great new band and to come over and join us. He quit his job the next day and came over to Guildford. It went really well for a while. Hans mostly played guitar, but some keyboards as well as sax. We started writing, and one of the songs we wrote was Strange Little Girl. I remember that it took us just ten minutes.

I’d been out selling some ice creams and came back to the off-licence. Hans was sat at the piano tinkling the ivories, and it was the music to Strange Little Girl. I told him it sounded really good and he said, “This will be a great song, Hugh! You have to write some lyrics.” So I did and that was Strange Little Girl written. We recorded it as one of our demos, because everyone loved it; it was such a strong song. We sent it to EMI, but they said it wasn’t what they were looking for. Funnily enough, about six years later, they released it is a single and it climbed into the top ten. (No7 in August 1982 – LTW)

Which was the last single you released with EMI.

Yeah, exactly. So Hans was the fifth Strangler. He was there in the beginning. But we had to learn all these cover versions, which is where Walk on By came from, in order to get gigs. But Hans didn’t like this, he thought all our songs were as good as the cover songs, so why did we have to learn these shitty songs?  And he had a point, but to do the gigs, we had to do songs that people knew, and sneak in a couple of our own. It was a necessary part of our development.

Then one day, we were going to do a gig and we had an argument about it in the ice cream van, and he said, “I don’t want to play these songs, these shitty songs, anymore. We should be writing our own songs.” He stopped the van, got out, and said he was going back to Sweden. We went off to the gig and did it as a trio, and nobody said, “Where’s your lead instrument?” And they loved it. Whenever it came to the part that was going to be a solo, we just played it instrumentally, without any lead. I couldn’t really play lead; I still can’t, but then I could play nothing. I had no confidence and didn’t know what I was doing. The crowd loved it, so we thought about playing as a trio, maybe like The Jam, but we decided to look for a replacement for Hans. We tried a few people out and ended up with Dave Greenfield, and it went on from there.

I always find these stories of how bands form so interesting because there is so much coincidence and chance involved.

Absolutely. And there’s no explanation. It just happens. It’s the beauty and mystery of life. The Stranglers could have been a band with no keyboards at one stage, because there were a lot of shows without them when Hans was in the group. And his testament is that song, Strange Little Girl, which is an absolute gem.

And the recorded version, when it eventually came out, was that very similar to the original version?

Yeah, Dave listened to what Hans had done on the demo and then did his own interpretation.

And Hans died quite young.

Yeah, he died maybe twenty years ago now (1995, LTW). And Dave, of course, sadly passed away a couple of years ago.

Onto the title track: Moments of Madness. Is this the first time, solo, that you’ve done a reggae song?

Yeah, it is the first time. With The Stranglers, we never really did a reggae song. We did pseudo reggae, like Peaches. Nice and Sleazy had a weird sort of reggae beat with odd timing, but it wasn’t really reggae. So this was my first real stab at it.

Lyrically, it has touches of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.

That’s good that you say that, because we have got an animation film to go with that track, and it is quite Edward Learish. So look out for that when it comes out.

The track Beware of the Doll reminds me of a 50s film noir. I presume when you are talking about the doll, it’s a femme fatale figure?

Yeah, absolutely. “You’re sinking from a foot above.” It’s someone pushing you into the water, or the ground. Beware of the femme fatale.

You do the Mr DeMille FM podcasts, where you discuss movies, and I know you’re a big movie buff. Are you a film noir fan?

I love film noir. There were so many made that it’s hard to keep track of them all and some are so difficult to find. They’re not all good, but all of them have some redeeming factors: something about them which makes it worth watching. It’s a very, very creative genre in cinema. All the people that were responsible for the look of the films were Eastern European emigrés, geniuses who fled from Europe because of the war and ended up in Hollywood. They’re like works of art.

One of my favourite tracks of yours, related to film noir, is The Big Sleep off Hi-Fi, which is about Robert Mitchum. Was he a big star for you?

Oh, totally, yeah. I was a big Robert Mitchum fan.

I remember seeing him in that film Charles Laughton directed, playing a preacher. Was it Touch of Evil?

It was Night of the Hunter, which is a great film. Touch of Evil is the Orson Welles film with Charlton Heston.

That’s right, with that amazing one shot at the start.

You know your stuff! I did have the pleasure of meeting Charlton Heston. The Stranglers were on tour and we’d just played Sheffield. Heston was performing at the Crucible Theatre there. I’d gone back to the hotel to check in and Charlton Heston walked past. I watched and he went into the bar area. So I got a pen and paper from the guy behind the desk and I went and asked him for his autograph, but I had to be very careful how I approached him.

I thought, “What am I going to say?” I thought, “Let’s be honest. I absolutely love The Planet of the Apes; the first film is just genius.” So I went up to him and said, “Mr Heston, sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say how fantastic Planet of the Apes was.” He was immediately on my side and I got his autograph. I’d love to have interviewed him for Mr. DeMille FM, but it’s too late.

It’s fun to hear that someone whom I admire is just as nervous approaching someone they admire.

We’ve all got people that we admire. Like Lou Reed, who I almost met. Someone set up a meeting between us. There’s a song on Monster about it (Mr Leather, LTW). I was gonna go down to where Lou was rehearsing in New York and our mutual friend was going to introduce us and leave us to it. Apparently Lou was looking forward to meeting me too, which was very nice to know. But the day before it was gonna happen, I got a terrible, terrible flu, and I found out that Lou got terrible flu too, probably the same one.

We were both stricken and bedridden in different parts of New York. And then that night it snowed and it was the worst snowstorm in New York history. I suddenly thought, “Shit, I’m gonna get stuck here if they close the airports,” so I just got out on the last flight from Newark Airport. And the situation never arose again for us to meet, so I never met Lou. But I got a song out of it.

The other musician I remember you doing a song about is Bob Dylan.

Yeah, just being Bob – it’s a 24/7 job.

I thought it was a clever song, because what is it like being Bob Dylan 24/7?

Dylan is very clever because he’s kept his private life very private. He is the total anathema of social media. I don’t do any social media. It’s all a waste of time. And you’re sacrificing your privacy. And he doesn’t do anything. He just remains in the background, a private person. And he’s survived remarkably well. Part of the reason is because he doesn’t take part in all that stuff. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

Turning to the next track, Too Much Trash. I remember years ago reading an article you’d written in Strangled about your hatred for rubbish. I guess the situation hasn’t got any better.

It’s a pet hate of mine. I spend a lot of time in the countryside, in the West Country, and there’s a road sign I saw the other day that was very clever. It says ‘Don’t be a Tosser’, and it’s got a crunched up can. It’s a brilliant ad, but it’s too subtle. They should be fining people. I’m forever seeing cans and stuff that people have obviously just thrown out of their car windows. What the fuck’s going on? It’s awful. So I had to say something about the trash.

I don’t know about you, but when I first started going abroad, one of the first things that struck me was how clean everywhere was.

Yeah, absolutely. We’re pigs. The English population is pigs as far as trash and rubbish goes. It’s very sad.

“The English population is pigs as far as trash and rubbish goes.”

Let’s move on to happier things: Lasagne! It’s got a great 50s rock riff, like Buddy Holly, but you’ve confused me because it’s a song about lasagne and pasta in Mexico.

It’s a ‘slice of life’ song. There’s an Italian couple who run an ice cream gelateria in Mexico, and the female of the couple cooks the best lasagne that I’ve ever had anywhere in the world, including anywhere in Italy. It’s her momma’s recipe and it’s absolutely stunning. I got to know them because I go there quite a bit, and the last time I was there, pre-COVID, I said, “You know what, I’ve got to write a song about your lasagne.” And they laughed and thought I was just joking. But then I did it, and sent it to them to hear, and they absolutely freaked out! They couldn’t believe I’d actually done it. It’s one of the beauties of being able to write a song. You can write in praise of something, or someone, you know, and offer it to the outside world.

So you can go from criticising trash, to praising well-made food.

Exactly. My songwriting is my soapbox, really. And maybe I can influence people. Maybe if someone hears the trash song, they will stop and think before littering.

I guess that’s one of the best things about having quite a wide reach, that maybe you can influence people.

Hopefully in a positive way.

Hugh Cornwell – interview

There’s quite a bit of word play on Lasagne, which I think is something you like. I’m thinking of songs like Hot Cat on a Tin Roof, Do Right Bayou and Dark Side of the Room.

I think words are something you can have fun with and I enjoy it.

Can you get a whole song just from a common phrase?

Absolutely right, yes. And I’m gonna write a song about being PC, called Boo to a Goose. You can’t even say ‘Boo’ to a goose anymore.

I’ll look forward to hearing that!

Hopefully I’ll get it done.

The last song on the album is called Heartbreak at Seven. It’s got a cool 60s sound and seems to be about that moment when you’re going along quite happily, and then, boom!

Absolutely. That was the first song that I started making for the album that actually ended up being on the album.

It’s that moment of falling in love?

Yeah and being knocked out in the fourth round; you’re on the ground again.

So what is the seven?

It’s my diary. This actually happened to me, and it was at seven o’clock in the evening.

It never works out well, does it – love?

At least I got another song out of it.

So now you’re gonna take it out on the road, starting in Oxford.

Yeah, that’s right. We’re going to be playing half of the album. We’ve picked five of them and three-quarters of the set is new for us. It’s stuff we haven’t played before, which is quite an interesting thing to look forward to. It will be the new album and then some stuff from my solo albums that I’ve never played before. It’s going to be interesting. We do two sets and the second set is going to be Stranglers songs. I feel a bit like a Stranglers tribute band on that second set.

“There will be two Stranglers songs that nobody has ever, ever heard played live before.”

 So that makes two Stranglers tribute bands out there.

But the thing is I don’t have keyboards, so my arrangements are slightly different, maybe a bit edgier because there’s no wash, as we’ve talked about. We’ve got a pool of about twenty-five Stranglers songs to choose from. To make it more interesting and stimulating, we’ll pick different ones every night. But there will be two Stranglers songs that nobody has ever, ever heard played live before. That’s two Stranglers songs that no line-up has ever played live.

The minute you say that I’m wondering, “Wow, what are they going to be?”

They sound great! And not a keyboard in sight.

Playing songs live that you have never played before, solo ones and Stranglers – is that a way of testing yourself, pushing yourself?

I don’t want people to be saying: “Hugh’s out on tour again and he did those songs again. Oh yeah, expected him to do that.” I’d hate that. I don’t want to be predictable. It pushes our limits and our boundaries, makes us try a bit harder. Why should we play the same set that we did earlier in the year? Why? I mean, what for? Just convenience? No, the people deserve more than that.

When I saw you earlier this year, you surprised the crowd with some songs off Nosferatu.

Yeah, we’ll be pulling a few more of those out. It was bloody hard, too. It took us six months to learn Big Bug. They’re very, very complex songs on Nosferatu.

How do you view Nosferatu now? It sounded out of its time then, and still sounds out of its time!

It’s still ahead of its time! There were some very quirky moments making that record and it’s a nightmare to try and learn to play, because of the mix on it. I’m not that happy with the mix that we ended up with because, a lot of times, I can’t hear what the guitar is doing. That’s the same with a lot of The Stranglers stuff as well. The guitars were mixed down, and the keyboards and the bass got mixed up. The guitar lost out. It makes it very hard to work out sometimes what I was actually doing. If I had access to the multitrack tapes, I could isolate them, but I don’t. So sometimes I have to guess what I was playing, which is a shame, but it’s approximately correct.

When you listen to your old stuff, is it a strange experience?

It’s like listening to another band. When we’re learning a Stranglers song that we haven’t played for a long time, it could be anything, by any band, that I’m trying to learn. I’ve been making records on my own now for many years and become my own beast and my own brand, so when I listen back to the Stranglers, it’s as if I’m learning other people’s work. Although it’s mine, it’s very strange, surreal. It’s a surreal feeling. It’s quite odd. Unusual.

And what else does the future hold?

(sings) “What does the future hold, will he get out soon? Is there someone out there who’ll phone him this afternoon?” That’s from This Prison’s Going Down, my song about Arthur Lee. When someone mentions a line that’s from one of my lyrics, I go into the song that it’s from.

What does the future hold? I’m working on a new novel and I’m about a third of the way through that. And we are having some very exciting animation films made to go with the new album. Three are finished already, and I’m waiting for the final cut on another one that’s being made in New York, for Coming Out of the Wilderness. That is going to be the next single, just before the album comes out. So that’s quite nice getting involved in all that. And Mr. Demille FM is carrying on. It’s nice to keep busy.

I remember the animated video to Another Kind of Love, which was great fun.

Yeah, that was stop-frame animation. We’ve done a stop-frame video for Trash. He was a great filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer. He’s from Prague and is still alive and still making films.

Have you plans for any more acting?

I haven’t been invited to do any acting for a long time. But I’ve sort of swapped to the other side of the camera and started writing screenplays. It’s fun and quite involved creatively with the film-making process. If you’re just given a script as an actor, that’s what you have to do, whereas if you’re on the other side, involved with the writing, then you’re actually creating it, which is a more influential part, and by default, more interesting in a way. You’re more involved with the making of the actual production. If you’re an actor, you just turn up, do your bit, and then you go to the next job. It’s quite fascinating, all the processes that are involved in making a film.

We will keep our eyes peeled for that.

I will say, it’s a lot like paint drying. It’s a very, very slow process and COVID has decimated the film business, but it’s slowly getting back into gear.

It’s good to see you being so creative. It’s been great to talk to you and good luck with the album and tour.

It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Moments of Madness will be released on 21st October, 2022 and can be pre-ordered here.

Hugh Cornwell goes out on tour on the following dates:

Milton Keynes, Stables – Friday 4 November 2022

Hull, The Welly – Saturday 5 November 2022

Exeter Phoenix – Wednesday 9 November 2022

Southampton, The 1865 – Thursday 10 November 2022

Cardiff Y Plas – Friday 11 November 2022

Brighton, Concorde 2 – Saturday 12 November 2022

Bristol, The Fleece – Sunday 13 November 2022

Lincoln Platform – Wednesday 16 November 2022

Bury St Edmunds, The Apex – Thursday 17 November 2022

Newcastle, Wylam Brewery – Friday 18 November 2022

Leeds, Brudenell Social Club – Saturday 19 Novemeber 2022

Chester, Live Rooms – Sunday 20 November 2022

Chinnery’s, Southend – Wednesday 23 November 2022

Islington Assembly Hall – Thursday 24 November 2022

Bilston, The Robin – Friday 25 November 2022

Manchester, Gorilla – Saturday 26 November 2022

The Venue, Derby – Sunday 27 November 2022

Carlisle, The Old Fire Station – Wednesday 30 November 2022

Edinburgh, La Belle Angele – Thursday 1 December 2022

Glasgow, The Garage – Friday 2 December 2022

Lemon Tree, Aberdeen – Saturday 3 December 2022

Nottingham, Rescue Rooms – Monday 5 December 2022

Norwich, Waterfront – Tuesday 6 December 2022

Hugh Cornwell can be found online hereFacebookTwitter and YouTube.

~

Interviewed by Mark Ray, for Louder Than War. More writing by Mark Ray can be found at his author archive. And he can be found on TwitterInstagram and WordPress.

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Punk’s difficult second albums reappraised

By johnrobb-December 14, 2013

Punk was so of the moment that the second album was always going to be a challenge for the then young upstarts. Much maligned the follow up albums from punk’s first ave are full of last of gems as LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb points out.

I mean how could the class of 77 go beyond that flash in the pan moment when the energy and the culture collided and where they actually really meant to?

Whilst many of the groups would stumble at the first hurdle some were in a dash to get to that second album. It was like the rush of history was going to deny them that creative space.

Punk’s second album syndrome nearly destroyed many of its key players as they struggled to escape the straight jacket that they had helped to create, and many of their albums have become overlooked over the years but revisiting them sees a series of gems that have become semi lost in the murk of history.

Dammed ‘Music For Pleasure’
Much maligned, the Damned’s second album has been airbrushed out of history, but another listen proves that it is long due a reassessment.
From its inception, it was swimming against the punk tide- being produced by Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason was probably not the best start as the Floyd were seen as the arch enemy of the safety pin generation. The Damned had wanted the lost soul of former Floyd frontman Syd Barrett to produce the album, but he was already long gone from planet earth in mental terms and was ensconced in a hotel room watching a bank of TV’s and eating endless bag of sweets and in no fit mental state to produce an album, let along one by the Dammed, who were by now in a very manic and precarious state.
Somehow they ended up with the Pink Floyd drummer instead, whose conversation was peppered with anecdotes about his fleet of expensive cars whilst the Damned were hopping the Tube to the studio every morning trying to avoid paying the fare because they were skint.
The Damned themselves were in meltdown at the time of the album- they maybe have been the punk band that was the first to do everything- first album, first single, first tour of America and the first to get to the second album- they were living rock n roll in fast forward and with a new expanded line up with Lu Edmunds added on guitar they were moving into unknown territory.

If punk had been a culture that was in a rush then the very idea of doing a second album was out of step with the whole concept which meant that the Damned were on a hiding to nothing. When the album was released it was swiftly dismissed and the band fell apart and the record disappeared into the mists of time but as the years roll by it has become a lost masterpiece.

If the album does not have the drop dead classics of New Rose and Neat Neat Neat that matters little as it comes armed with a steady quality and loads of really great melodies that real suit Dave Vanian’s now patented gothic croon.

The opener Problem Child is one of the great Damned songs and as brattish teen anthems of doors slamming tantrums over a chugging riff that is sort of reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Astronomy Domine from the Barrett period it’s perfection. When the chorus kicks in it sounds massive and is proof that the Damned were still capable of the big punk rush. Other stand out cuts include Don’t Cry Wolf with its almost boogie slash riff,  One Way Love drips pure melody and a hooky slide guitar whilst Stretcher Case is classic sicko Damned.

Perhaps the stand out track on the album is Alone which is the MC5 and three Stooges updated and there is always Captain Sensible’s Idiot Box- an anti TV tirade and his debut contribution that rides along an insanely catchy riff and is almost a fave from the album and a big favourite of the Stone Roses.

Stranglers ‘No More Heroes’

Like the Damned, the Stranglers were a band in a rush- whilst punk was rushing around the front pages during the tabloid frenzy in the summer of 1977 the band were back in the studio finishing off the second album that they had started on Rattus where they had recorded a surplus of material that was all of Rattus and half of Heroes.

Somehow they had managed to record the second album with a slightly different sound even at the same sessions- whilst the debut was a sleazy sewer green, No More Heroes had a fiery red to its sound and even the crossover tracks like Peasant In The Big Shitty which could have just about sat on the debut sounded far more in place on the follow up.
No More Heroes was the Stranglers at their most abrasive and most directly controversial. Tracks like Bring On the Nubiles were designed to offend then and would probably offend even more now. ]

Part of the beauty of the Stranglers was their revelling in the dark side and their ability to annoy everybody within earshot but they made it work, and they managed to sneak their sickly amusing and abrasive songs through with their talent for really great melodies with singles No More Heroes and Something Better Change being hits and a clutch of other songs on the album sounding like potential big hits.

Despite the band veering further into the punk wars on this album, there is still enough of the lysergic and archaic weirdness leaking from the songs to remind you of who is at the controls, and the bass still sounds clipped and brutal. The band exaggerated all their points of reference from their debut and still managed to create a big hit album that charged to number 2 in the late days of 1977.

No More Heroes was the Stranglers as a punk band- snotty, aggressive and unapologetically in your face. From now on, though, they would be restless and moving on. With their next album Black and White they would invent a template for post punk and with the Raven they would become  baroque prog.  Never again would they sound so urgent and punky and if Heroes was a bit much for the critics of the time with the album’s lack of subtlety a bit too much for many people it mattered little as it still stands up as one of the great follow up albums.

Sex Pistols ‘Rock n Roll Swindle’

With the Sex Pistols in disarray with Johnny Rotten jumping ship in January 1978 after a disastrous American tour, the project looked over. They truly had came ,saw and conquered and changed the musical landscape- theoretically brilliant but a tad awkward if you are a musician in the band- concepts are fine for the critics and academics but what if you were Cook and Jones and want to keep doing the rock and the roll?
Manager and arch conceptualist and high preacher Fagin, Malcolm McLaren was also was enjoying his media games and his windups and his genius situationist pranking far too much to stop and quickly realised that the Sex Pistols name was the key brand- a revolutionary idea then but a normal one now with every band in the history of rock n roll touring somewhere under its battered moniker with very few original members and very little adherence to what made the band great in the first place.

The Sex Pistols second album was not really the Sex Pistols but a grand fromage of ideas from McLaren- a rag bag of situations in jokes, cheesy impressiano ideas and moments of genius foul and dark humour and flashes of genuine danger – it was ostensibly the sound track to the Sex Pistols film that was, in itself, a brilliant idea and its varying rag and bone of ideas and take downs of popular culture was a reflection of the maverick magpie manager who was now in control of the ship.

There was disco versions of Pistols songs, nursery rhyme doggerel, some swearing and a cut and paste of information and ideas and yet in the middle of all the mess there was some quintessentially brilliant moments like the Sid Vicious covers section of C’mon Everybody and My Way- brilliant ideas and proof that Sid really was the solo star he believed himself to be before he drowned in a vat of smack and self loathing topped of with a dash of falling for the rock n roll lifestyle. Steve Jones pitched in with the great Silly Thing- a superb rock n roll song and also a touching lament to his bass player who was fast sliding the slippery slope onto skid row and even Paul Cook got to prove he could deliver a good value vocal as well.

Rock N Roll Swindle is not really the Sex Pistols second album, it’s not even really the Sex Pistols- it’s more like ‘punk rock- the musical’ – either a knowing self serving and cynical cash or a brilliant pastiche and situationist prank or punk’s ultimate folly- in all probability it’s probably all of those mixed together.

Buzzcocks ‘Love Bites’

Buzzcocks were not messing around when they released Love Bites hot on the heals of their debut album. It saw them attempt to move to the side of punk and develop their natural ability for pure pop genius with an undertow of experimental nous.

This was a new era and even the photo of  them on the front cover saw the band dressed down- looking fantastically downbeat and hungover like the punk party was now over and their road worn faces full of underfed M Way service food or too full of crisps and bad lager to be a real pop band underlined their outsider status as it encased an album of buzzsaw rushed love songs of heartfelt longing and laments.

The song writing is of curse top notch with Steve Diggle and Peter Shelley writing song after song that even the Beatles would have killed for. The production by Martin Rushent is perfect as ever and the playing is razor tight and also brilliantly off kilter spot on. The band had managed to avoid the traps of punk and release a clever, thoughtful and, I shudder to say it, grown up album that had lost none of the zip and bite of their debut from the year before.

The Clash ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’
There is one maxim in rock roll and it’s that of your debut album is the game changer and your whole life compressed into 45 minutes of perfection. If you get it really right it can also be the template album to a generation and seriously change the world. The Clash managed this with their debut but if you change a generation you will always be doomed to try and follow it.

A life changing album can make a seriously great album pale in comparison. And that’s the problem.

The Clash’s Give em Enough Rope has been much maligned for being too over produced and lacking in focus and whilst the man at the controls Sandy Pearlman does knock of a lot of the rough edges off the band their rampant rock n roll cannot be denied. Mick is stepping up to the plate, stretching out the Clash template with great guitar work and finding space in the song rushes to really stretch out.

Lost in the Clash neon where the debut and London Calling are ever venerated Give Em Enough Rope had some seriously great moments on it- songs that were even more anthemic than the debut- Safe European Home sounds fantastic when the needle hits the groove and the interplay between the two guitars is as perfect as it gets, English Civil War is still proof that the punk could write a great punk anthem, Tommy Gun’s intro is worth the price of the album alone with new drummer Topper Headon showing he was a different class, Stay Free is how to write a sentimental song and Last gang In Town is the anthem of  a generation fast growing up from punk rock’s year zero.

This was the beginning of the Clash stretching out into the world beyond their locale and it was going to a fascinating journey and fully deserves another listen

23 COMMENTS

  1. Neal Wright The Damned’s 2nd LP still stands the test of time. How MFP was overlooked is anyones’ guess
  2. Neil W Its interesting to note that the two albums with so-called “dinosaur” producers were, as you say on a hiding to nothing. I remember reading the Sounds review of Give’Em Enough Rope & its two-star rating was mostly focused on the choice of Sandy Pearlman as producer as anything else.
    Back then, it was the musical-broadsheets where you found all your info about what was happening & I think that has maybe contributed to the continuing overlooks. Bar the Pistol’s “Swindle…” I think all the above are both fascinating & forward-looking. Borne out by the brilliant releases of London Calling & Black & White later in the decade, game-changers indeed both.
  3. James Beech The song “Idiot Box” by the Damned was in fact written about Tom Verlaine & the band Television.
  4. John Murray Nice work John – I’ve always rated Music For Pleasure, but you seem to skirt over the main point of ‘Idiot Box’ – ie that it was an attack on the band Television, who they regarded as pretentious and aloof – just check out the lyrics!Now there is a potential theme – songs which slag off other bands as overly as Idiot Box does!
  5. Mr Shippen Although Johnny Rotten wore a ‘I hate Pink Floyd T-shirt, and the fact that Nick Mason produced ‘Music for Pleasure’ didn’t bother me even as a Punk because I always felt that Pink Floyd had more of an edge than say Genesis, ELP or YES – and not really aligned with prog in the same way. I thought No more Heroes was superior to Rattus Norvegicus as it was faster and consistent, Rattus was a crossover album with only half of the album housing the classic punk style. I liked Sex Pistols ‘Rock n Roll Swindle’ and ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ great in places but like you said to overproduced.
    • Paul Hanley What you have to bear in mind re: Johnny’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt is that he obviously didn’t buy it just to write ‘I hate’ on it. It was a Pink Floyd t-shirt he’d previously worn without irony. The ‘year zero’ attitude that punk brought, while possibly necessary, lead to some embarrassing blots on people’s copybooks, e.g. punks cheering the death of Elvis, Joe Strummer telling Weller he hated Chuck Berry, not to mention the thousands of brilliant albums (temporararly) consigned to the dustcart of musical history. ‘No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones’? Really?
      • Mark Fettes 1977, the year Elvis died, the Beatles split up and the Rolling Stones announced they would never tour again, lying bastards!
  6. Henry Scott-Irvine Succinct, apt, accurate, contextualised, and well written. A period in time nailed. The Punk follow-up LP’s are utterly defined here. Read no further.
  7. Steve Arrogant Great journalism and memory jerkers. I love every one of the featured albums and it gets you thinking about those that never released a follow up (Eater, Suburban Suds etc), those that got it wrong (999, Adverts etc) and those that got it spot on (The Boys, Vibrators). Give ’em Enough Rope was superb but had an impossible task of following up the The Clash which actually said it all in one moment in time. I Wish It Could Be 77………. All over again!
    • johnrobb Lots of interesting ideas for other articles there!
      • Paul Hanley Baggsy writing ‘The 3rd album – where the original punks really showed what they could do’ article! Promise not to include The Fall (though ‘Grotesque’ certainly fits the brief 😉
  8. Rocker Rosehip Best of the bunch: Ramones Leave Home.
  9. Kev Mob I’m surprised to see The Jam’s ‘This is the Modern World’ wasn’t included.
    • Dan. Only ever owned their first two LPs & always preferred the 2nd one, myself, despite the bad mouthing it gets from critics & even the band themselves.
      Yeah, it was a rushed affair but the 4 classic tracks that Derek mentioned are, for my money, arguably better than any of the tracks on the debut LP (title track excepted). TITMW has a more moodier, pensive, afternoon-ish feel to it but it more than hints at the greatness to come with it’s more mature take at song writing; not as adrenal as In The City, but more developed.
      All subjective, I know, but just another opinion.
  10. Derek Yes, The Jam ‘ Modern World was the poster – boy for ‘difficult second albums’. Although it has some classics -Standards, I Need You, In The Street Today, Life From A Window – Weller’s distraction with his love life leading to sub-standard songwriting from him and a reliance on second division Bruce Foxton tracks meant a rushed album that gave no clue of the brilliance that was to follow.
    • Step TITMW is a great album (fourth best Jam one in my opinion with Gift and City below it).
      Real move on from City and well thought out track. Brucey’s Sane should not be dismissed either.
  11. Patrick Always loved ‘No more heroes’ and ‘Give em em enough Rope’, as mentioned above precursors to the mighty 3rd albums, Black and white + London Calling.
  12. Mike Adamson Great article, thanks for writing it. I’ve always loved Give ’em and No More Heroes and I’ve even warmed up to Music For Pleasure. Modern World is the one that’s always baffled me as I much prefer it to their debut. Takes all kinds I suppose. Again, great piece.
  13. Swear Fox Give ‘Em Enough Rope is my most listened to album ever.
    However, I always skip past Stay Free.
    I’ve never liked that maudling dirge of a song from first hearing the album on the day it came out until the present day.
  14. Paul Kilford Difficult seconds must surely include Valley of the dolls by Generation X which whilst housing some genius singles doesn’t quite flow or live up to the Hype expected of having Ian Hunter in the producers chair. Vibing up the senile man by Alternative T.V. was slated as pretentious upon release , confused the hell out of Punks at the time , sadly hasn’t aged well.I would argue quite strongly that V2 by the vibrators wasn’t really all that ! The music was trying to evolve one way but the audience had mutated in age , geography and class over less than two years moving from London “fashion ” to provincial obsession.
  15. David Wells I thought the Banshees second album may have got a mention here. After the scream, Join hands was a bit of a disappointment but listening to it the other day I have to say the first side is definitely worth a look. Always loved Playground Twist on side 2, but mother and the recorded version of the Lords Prayer – no. Mind you the band split down the middle soon after, so I always regarded this as a farewell album and the Banshees came back with the superior Kaleidoscope.

https://louderthanwar.com/punks-difficult-second-albums-reappraised/

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Hugh Cornwell: Interview About That Controversial Video and New Album

By johnrobb-July 11, 2013

No stranger to controversy, former Strangler Hugh Cornwell has been baiting the critics and courting trouble and debate with the artfully naked video for his new single ‘God Is A Woman’.

It seems like no-one is being left out of this one as Hugh has created, what he feels, is an artistic film clip for the song with a clip that is full of naked women that is based on surrealist paintings to extend the song’s idea that women are the superior gender. Naturally, with the context of being a former Strangler, this has led to cries of sexism from the doubters and Hugh has left himself wide open to the critics- a position you get the feeling he somewhat enjoys as it creates a debate and makes people question things.

The song itself is one of the superior cuts from his recent Totem and Taboo album, his best collection of songs since leaving the Stranglers in 1990 and also the best sounding- with Steve Albini’s raw live sound recording techniques combined with his perfection engineering and great mics really suiting the stripped down songs and returning Hugh to the kind of abrasive atmosphere that really adds to the potency of his highly melodic songwriting like back in the days of the early Stranglers.

The provocative  subject matter of many of the songs is as raw as the music and it’s this side of Hugh that has always been the most fascinating, especially when it’s balanced with his romantic, artful nature. Willingly misunderstood, creating debate, causing trouble and celebrating art all inside the three minute rock n roll song- it’s a tough trick to pull off and one that will always be misunderstood in such a fast medium where the subtleties are ignored.

Hugh is adamant that this video is a positive celebration of womanhood.

‘The song is a celebration of women, and how God is really a woman. I found out a while ago, that the concept of god was originally the female concept rather than the male concept because in religions prior to christianity, woman was the god figure which was interesting. Apparently one of the main reasons for woman being considered the god was because there wasn’t a realisation of the connection between the sexual act and birth nine months later. When the baby was born everyone had forgotten about the sexual act and out pops a human being from a woman and people thought this was a god like act from the woman.

Starting with this concept Hugh took the song with its powerful lyrics and it’s addictive melody and created a film around it, touching on the songs themes, incorporating art references and creating something celebratory but also easily misunderstood..

‘I wrote the song as a celebration of this realization of god really being a woman. I also had a realisation that women are in control of the world in every possible way. Men have tried to dominate and crush woman throughout time but have failed. The song is a celebration of that fact. I realised as well that we live in a time where women are considered almost artless and a naked woman is not looked on as an art-from. So when I came to make the film for it, I wanted to make a statement. I tried to make something that celebrated the fact that throughout the history of art woman was celebrated in naked form- like in classical paintings, that was so beautiful and I wanted to do that in a filmic way.’

The context has shifted a lot from the classical paintings to modern pop culture and film.

‘It’s odd when you see movies these days because it reinforces this thing about male domination- that it’s alright to see a woman full frontal in a movie yet you very rarely see men’s parts because that’s not the done thing. I know we didn’t make the film for God Is A Woman with men with their dongers out but that would have got away from point of the song. I wanted to celebrate women not men. I find it very disingenuous that people have taken offense to the film and yet as a society we are allowing kids computer games full of killing people and full of violence and when someone like myself makes a film to celebrate beautiful woman with nothing gratuitous in it it causes a problem.

I don’t understand how it offends. I don’t think the film is patronizing. None of the women in the film are doing anything demeaning, if anything it’s discriminating against men.  I think if I had put myself in there that would have been gratuitous and offensive!  A lot of the women are grouped together in the film- I was trying to show a solidarity. The song, in a sense, is a modern day Peaches. When Peaches came out, it was very shocking to people and banned from the radio for being misogynistic but there has been a change in  the state of mind of since then and I meet many young women who were actually empowered by that song and that;s a very refreshing to find out.’

The current album sees a return to the old Hugh of songs that confront and create situations.

‘I’m glad its provoking comment. With my whole album I wanted to promote discussion about things. In repressive societies there are things that you are not allowed to talk about. It’s a really changed landscape now, it changed with the internet which showed that anything is possible but in the end the basic mindset of society has not changed at all. People look at the film clip and miss the subtleties. There are two points in the film when a woman’s vagina is placed on another woman’s back which was a homage to Manray who did a photo collage called Le Violin d’Ingres. It was something that happened by chance and I thought it was a beautiful image and there was also a homage to Rene Magritte and the way his images have become world famous images for sale on postcards.’

Hugh is very adamant that he is not in the remotest a misogynist.

‘Misogynist means hater of women. If I hated woman I wouldn’t put them in my videos would I?  People say I bet you had really good ogle making that film, but i used women who were all different shapes and sizes and I find that comment shallow

There is a great quote from one of the the founders of surrealism Andre Breton who said in 1929 ‘woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.”

The album seems to be pushing a lot of buttons…

‘Gods Guns and Gays is about freedom of speech and America, It was going to be called God, Guns and freedom Of Speech but when I changed it to gays it underlined what the song was about and was a better title. I like the idea that in America that whatever you believe in you have the right to say it.’

I once read that you were the last of the Angry hippies! someone who was let down by the sixties..

‘Freedom of expression is what I’m after.  I hate repression of any sort. There are societies in the world where women are not allowed drive cars and not allowed to go to universities . In the case of my film people taking offence at hopefully beautiful images of women is baffling- they are not all slender Vogue models in the film, they are all shapes and sizes. It’s just highlighting the complete bigotry and hypocritical views of people and it has always  interested me that some things are acceptable and  other things are not and that has always been a  highlight in my work.’

It’s interesting that people are still saying the same things as when you first started.

‘Thats the paradox, Nothing Has Really Changed which may be  a song title on my next album (Hugh references the Stranglers big hit Something Better Change). The mindset of society had not gone through many amazing shifts in the last 30 years. You may remember when  Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland came out the cover was nude woman sitting in a photo studio and the cover was pulled immediately- the cover not allowed.  I have done a similar thing, this is a film version of the sleeve  40 years later. Hopefully I’m challenging people and making people reassess their views which is essential in a society.’

The album has seen a bit of a break through for Hugh with more acceptance in the USA.

‘The album has just come out in America last week and I’ve lined up to dates over there this autumn. It was fascinating working with Steve Albini. I hadn’t worked with him before , I had not even met him. He was very direct and forthright and he doesn’t suffer fools. He also vehemently denies the title of producer- he sees himself more of a facilitator, a studio engineer and mixer who will try his best to convey the artist’s ideas as close as possible to what they are trying to achieve onto tape. We did a very quick session with him, he records quickly and we were very well prepared when we went in. It’s so good to have people who know what they want.

There are very little effects on anything. There are very few overdubs on it. It’s very raw with very little going on and to play it live is like a dream.  I would love to  work with him again, it depends on his schedule or mine, he’s very gifted.

With a wealth of solo material to choose from, Hugh is gradually moving away from the Stranglers back catalogue whilst acknowledging his illustrious past.

‘As time goes on I’m performing less of the catalogue but I like to acknowledge my past but it’s very satisfying to play the new material. I change the arrangements of the old songs though and make them different and play unexpected songs, like we are playing Skin Deep now. It’s interesting having that past, it can be an advantage or a millstone sometimes to have that history. It’s a double edged sword. I’m an older version of the same person I was then. I have the same basic personality traits, which like most people don’t really change from when I was a late teenager. The Stranglers was great but later on I found it frustrating and that’s a reason why I left because  being solo is great fun- I like the freedom..’

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Classic Singles Part One Of An Ongoing Series : THE STRANGLERS : ‘Five Minutes’

ByAlan Moore-April 2, 2022

The reason why pop music is such a wonderful experience is very simple. There is room for the weird and wonderful, there is room for the romantic and sublime and there is room for the angry and opinionated.

There is room for a novelty record such as Shuttup Your Face and there is room for Also Sprach Zarathrustra, Nellie The Elephant and Anarchy In The UK. This space where anything goes is the single most defining factor in my appreciation of this sprawling magnificent art form.

Let’s have a mini-history lesson, pop kids. Here’s one section of the ride. In 1975/1976 something started happening pretty well simultaneously in the UK and the US. It was a thing the rock press christened punk rock. The first punk records to my knowledge were by Pere Ubu (Final Solution) and The Ramones in the US whilst in the UK Peter Hammill had created his Rikki Nadir character and the Doctors Of Madness were building their template for change which were both building blocks for what would happen in 76.

The experts will always say that Iggy and The NY Dolls were the godfathers of punk and there is a basic truthful sonic link but Hammill and Kid Strange are always mysteriously overlooked. I was a pop kid at this crucial time and watched with great interest as the thing blossomed.

The Ramones first album sounded catchy as hell to me and I fully expected Beat On The Brat, Blitzkreig Bop and so on to be top 30 records. I expected New Rose by The Damned to be number one. It all happened slower than my fevered pop-punk brain had conjured up. However, the first Britpunk singles to enter top 50 land were Anarchy in The UK followed by Grip in late 76 and early 77 respectively.

The Stranglers were something of a punk oddity in that they had been going since 1974 and were gig hardened veterans by 77. There were elements of much older bands in what The Stranglers did. A bit of Ray Manzerak keyboards, a bit of psychedelia creeping in but punk cred defined by JJ’s vocals and Hugh’s guitar and attitude. The over-driven bass gave punk it’s go to bass sound and JJ invented that to all intents and purposes.

Older boys they may have been but thoroughly saturated into the zeitgeist, you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with them, they looked tasty. The first two albums Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes were always going to do well as the band’s fanbase was pretty well established by their release dates but the jukebox Stranglers emerged with Peaches and continued with No More Heroes, Something Better Change/Straighten Out – all great exciting singles, all Top Ten in the UK. It was always great watching them on TOTP because you always had the feeling they were going to do something which the BBC would take umbrage with, there was always a definite edge to their TV appearances.

Come early 78 and Five Minutes was released at the end of January. From the initial stomp of the beat accompanied by JJ’s strident DM in the video Five Minutes was a different feel altogether. It was a surging wave of rage, indignation and brutal power that echoed the lyric about a rape that had happened just five minutes away from safe upper-middle-class London.

The culprits were black guys, so certain elements of the rock press accused Burnel of racism but he was at pains to say he wanted to get “those guys” for what they did, not because they were black. London is a great melting pot of multiculturalism and it was back in the 70s so it would be churlish to suggest the band who comprised of intelligent guys would be unaware or ignorant of other cultures.

This was pure getting even stuff because the Met cops were pretty certain to conveniently ignore a situation that involved a white punk girl being abused by these guys. As far as I know the case has never been resolved.

So, taking the subject of the song away we were left with, musically, a massive sonic high point for the band. It only reached number 11 on the chart so was a “lesser” hit than it’s predecessors but even back then I felt they’d have to go some to top a song like that. Five Minutes is the closest song to pure punk – in terms of the actual sound of the record – the band ever got to. in between the layers of audio assault, there is a melody too so nothing was sacrificed in FM terms. F(requency) M(odulation) was the bland adult term for commercial but slightly challenging radio back in those days.

I have always thought if you had something to say that you thought was genuinely important you use the Trojan Horse method rather than the battering ram – although perhaps Five Minutes is an example of a band using a Trojan Horse as a battering ram.

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The ultimate Stranglers interview- JJ Burnel opens up

By johnrobb -March 3, 2011

The Stranglers on tour in March 20111…Check the dates on their official website

The Stranglers and me go back a long way.

When we grew up punk hit us like an avalanche of ideas. Many of which we already felt. There was an aesthetic and an idea that matched the way we felt about the world and there was regular procession of bands.

And there was also the Stranglers.

In the middle of an outsider music scene they were the ultimate outsiders. Quirky, weird and thrillingly aggressive. I remember hearing their first single, Grip, and it’s b side London Lady and being captivated and then Rattus came out with that intriguingly off kilter album cover- the psycho with the make up staring at the camera, the weird dude with the moustache and then ten feet behind them the impassive face staring impassively at the camera. They looked, well, oily and heavy and had that genuine aura of danger and cool that other bands were working on and they had the music to match.
The Stranglers are an enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside, well a totally unique sound.
Emerging uninvited at the dawn of punk, their highly original bass driven, aggressive sound upset the new consensus and provided a template for a generation of musicians.

Overlooked by the media the band were one part pioneers and one part huge influence on bands. They copyrighted that gnarly bass with Beefheart guitar shrapnel that the Fall get so much credit for. They invented the lead bass that Peter Hook took to Joy Division, they were toying with the dark side before Goth and were post punk before anyone else worked out how to get there. They re-invented the role of the bass guitar in rock n rill, they had a genuine aggression that so much punk talked about but so few could deliver with any authority.

They were a genuine bunch of misfits not created by a manager and they wrote great songs, lots of them.

Releasing their first three albums in an eighteen month blitzkrieg they went from punk pioneers to inventing post punk- third album Black and White preceded Joy Division and it’s obtuse darkness and angular genius was about a year ahead of the game.

Somehow this has been edited out of the music narrative because the band didn’t play the media game but the truth is the truth and the Stranglers impact cannot be denied.

33 years later they are back out on the road and still deliver onstage.
”ËœI’m moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me, And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground’ spits Baz Warne singing Hugh Cornwell’s claustrophobic and quite brilliant lyrics to the 33 year old Strangler classic, ”ËœHanging Around’.

The atmosphere is electric, the band are in their third encore and the place is going old school mental. The Stranglers are on stage, more than three decades in and a celebration of this band that is more of a strange cult than a mere group. A religion in black with a massed rank of dedicated followers.

I travel a lot and everywhere I go I get the Stranglers conversation.

That hushed intense talk of esoteric lyric matter, suicidal career decisions, karate chopping bass ruffs and awesome songs that for several years made the band the best selling band to come out of the punk scene in the UK.

Meeting the band’s iconic bass player JJ Burnel in West London in January I asked him about the band’s lyrical weirdness and fan fascination.

”ËœThere’s lot’s of nooks and crannies in the output and our way of thinking and a lot of people subscribe to it. Sometimes it’s a bit too obtuse and they want to find out more. I’m not blinkered yet and I want to stay that way, stay interested and so does Jet, for as long as possible. You suck in lots of influences and you spit them back out again in a song. And maybe an awful lot of people who like Stranglers also subscribe to that way of thinking, not the given way of thinking and remain interested in things, Surely that’s a genuine reflection of what you are and our output is a reflection of who we are.”Ëœ

For me, like many a bit too smart, intense misfits The Stranglers have been an important part of our lives and their covert, strange, weird and wonderful world has become a fascinating enclave in rock music.

They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars ever and easily the sleaziest, most dangerous, most off the wall band in the whole punk rock canyon. If you were taking magic mushrooms and getting off on punk rock and living in Blackpool like I was then, they were as near as damn perfect. Punk Floyd- The music was a brutal slab of angry, snarling punk rock psychedelia served up as three minute slices of pure pop magic- every song constructed from great riffs with unexpected melodic flourishes and an intro and outro that was another great riff. Most bands manage one good riff in a song if they are lucky! the Stranglers outros had riffs in them that most bands would kill for!

Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.

They talked and sang about aliens, karate, motorbikes, Yukio Mishima, Leon Trotsky, heroine, Nostradamus, rats, ravens and alienation.

This was no average band.

The Stranglers – Roma – Antwerpen – Belgium – 1978 Hugh Cornwell; Jean-Jacques Burnel; fans on stage Photo gie Knaeps

History has remembered The Clash and pushed the rest of the punk bands away; retro features now re-write the history of the punk era around the Westway wonders. But as much as anyone who grew up with punk loves The Clash, it’s a crime to see The Stranglers pushed aside. Their influence has been enormous and overlooked. They have to be re-evaluated like Lemmy and Wilko have been in recent years.

Maybe The Stranglers didn’t help themselves. They always antagonised the press and flew in the face of the curse of fashion. Their utter originality and influence has been largely ignored by the media but acknowledged by a rabidly loyal fanbase and a generation of musicians who were in thrall to this creative unit who had wilfully defied fashion to carve out their own distinctive niche with a moody, belligerent bass and keyboard driven pop that was a great mixture of melodic, snarling rock n roll and sometime beautifully baroque.

There has never been a band quite like The Stranglers.

Denied credit by the media and rock snobs they relished in their outsider status and quirky line up of a black belt karate kicking bass god, a 40 year old ex ice cream selling drummer and a moustache bearing psychedelic warlord keyboard player working with the suitably eccentric, laconic, lanky Cornwell- whose rich vocals are still one of the best signature voices in British rock n roll and were, with the Sex Pistols, the most commercially viable of all the initial punk new wave bands.

Burnel was the closest the band had to a punk rock figure but on his own terms.
How was punk for you JJ?

”ËœWe had a good time of course. I’m a completely different person now to what I was then but I had a great time. I exploited my situation to the maximum. It was would be pretty sad if I was trying to be the same geezer. If anything you acquire knowledge and learn to disseminate it. You learn what to like and what to not like and how to react and not react in certain situations. You learn to negotiate with people differently, you get smarter and hopefully develop a sensibility and develop certain responsibilities towards other human beings.’

The punk era Burnel was a dangerous figure. The stories are of endless of punch ups and ”Ëœincidents’. His band were a key part of the fabric of the period.

In the late seventies they soundtracked the times better than everyone else. I loved the Clash and the Pistols like anyone else did at the time but the Stranglers’ bass driven punk Floyd weirdness, aggression and sheer melodic nous hit a raw nerve like no other band.

Their inventiveness, originality and their surly attitude was perfect for my chemically stained punk upbringing. That the way the band were obviously not fashionable and existed with their own set of rules was perfect as well. The way that you could get into arguments with punk purist snobs just by owning their records made them even better!

The Stranglers were ahead of everybody musically. Their whole composite sound was perfect- four lead instruments with Jet Black’s neo jazz pounding drums, Hugh Cornwell’s idiosyncratic guitar work that hinted at Beefheart before switching to scratching, scraping Telecaster scouring and Dave Greenfield’s amazing bubbling keyboards that were such a signature sound. Meanwhile JJ Burnel invented that bass sound- dredging the bass up to lead instrument with tough sounding, gnarled bass epics that a generation learned to play bass from. You can hear echoes of his bass sound in any band that cranks the bass up.
No-one has ever got the bass as good as the sixth dan four string master- not even Steve Albini’s Shellac. And Burnel’s hunched on stage shapes with the bass- where he becomes one with the instrument- has been copped by so many other musicians- step up Peter Hook (a Stranglers acolyte incidentally).
JJ Burnel the best bass player ever?

”ËœWell I’m one of them! Flea is great, I heard through a few people that he rated me. They must have listened to Black And White- Americans are very knowledgeable about music.
I also rate John Entwistle and Jack Bruce- I thought he was pretty good. I like the bass player from Muse as well, he’s ambitious, Muse are interesting, their last album sounds so much like- seriously good.’

Peter Hook?

“I don’t know if he’s brilliant but he’s good and seems like good bloke, he took his pose off Simonon.’

The Stranglers released a series of massive hit singles and tough sounding, leering albums in the late seventies that were stuffed full of songs that could also have been singles. Their melodic suss has been unrecognised by many- taking the likes of Pete Waterman to call them the most melodic British band apart from the Beatles!

Their image was bizarro- grumpy old men who could stand their ground, they were charismatic, deadly and took everybody on and won.

And they looked cool- dressed in black, like rock n roll ninja assassins come to cause trouble in the prissy corridors of pop.

They made the angriest punk albums with their debut, ”ËœRattus Norvegicus’, detailing the sewer life of their underground, steaming London of the late seventies and its follow up, ”ËœNo More Heroes’, perfectly capturing the juvenile outrage of punk. In 1978 they swerved into a sort of avante garde and invented post punk a full year before Joy Division on their stark and bass heavy ”ËœBlack and White’ (which features the best bass sound ever!). They then came on all weird-punk-prog-pop with ”ËœThe Raven’ before going really bizarre on their aliens come to earth epic, Meninblack.

It was the two punk era albums, Rattus and No More Heroes that set the band up.

”ËœHeroes and Rattus were recorded at almost the same time. There was a definite weeding process going on.’

Heroes was more upbeat and shinier and Rattus was darker and more melancholic?

”ËœI don’t know if that was intentional. I never thought about that. No More Heroes was not written till that summer. I got that riff that summer, and Something Better Change as well, both songs were reactions to punk in the summer of ’77.’
For Burnel life has been built around his passions.

”ËœMotorcycling, martial arts, karate and the Stranglers are what my life is about. I call it my 5 passions – The 5 Ms which I developed as a teenager – motorcycling, martial arts, music, marijuana, and masturbation. (chuckles)’

JJ Burnel is in full flow. The charismatic bass player who reinvented the instrument in the punk era and is still touring with the band for another series of sell out shows round the world is still a dangerous individual. Only these days he’s letting his mind be the weapon and not his fists.

The Stranglers were a bunch of charismatic, toxic, amorphous individuals and totally unique. No other band comes close to this eccentric outfit whose brilliant records are just part of a story that involves karate, violence, riots, lots of drugs, prison, arcane philosophy, bizarre lyrics, sex and a f@@@ing great soundtrack for anyone who was broad minded enough not to believe everything that they read.
Burnel ponders.

”ËœRecently someone I knew from twenty years ago died. On the day of the funeral I was meant to be rehearsing with the Stranglers and I was confused. Should I go to the funeral or shouldn’t I? I hadn’t been in touch for 20 years with the person and I had to think what’s got priority, the Stranglers or the funeral?

So I decided to rehearse.

On their last album, ”ËœSuite 16′, the Stranglers band and particularly Jean Jacques Burnel. Nearly 40 years in, the band is as misunderstood, provocative, awkward, belligerently difficult and yet brilliantly original as ever.

No one ever seems to know what to do with the Stranglers. They were the outsiders of the outsider generation- the real, raw deal in the partly manufactured punk scene. They had the aggression and imagination with their tripped out, Beefheart influenced, twisted songs that were also brilliant pop epics and tough bass driven vignettes to the chaos of the late seventies.

They were intellectuals who played dumb when it suited them, tough guy punks with a 40-year-old drummer who were the biggest selling band of the punk generation.

The detractors claim that the Stranglers were bandwagoneers unlike the Clash who had also had their own pre punk history, it’s a mistruth that need to be addressed. JJ nods.

‘ 36 years on and we still feel inspired. I need to play. I need to express myself. It’s very basic. It’s probably the challenge to me to try and prove the Stranglers are the greatest band this country has ever produced and people will only realise this when I’m dead.’

The Stranglers have never got the full respect they deserve. Locked out of the punk inner circle and never press darlings the band have influenced countless musicians and are still loved by a fervent, black clad, fan base who treat the band like some sort of amorphous religion. It’s a respect that goes two ways.
”ËœNot so much emotional but you have a duty to care. People pay good money to see you and you don’t want to f@@@ them up. When we started, for two years we didn’t have any fans, so when they turned up we nurtured them. The first bloke that walked down the stairs at the Hope and Anchor we gave him a beer and played our set to him . If you have success suddenly from nowhere maybe you haven’t had that apprenticeship, to know what it means, to know what it’s like to have no audience. If you haven’t had it hard you take it for granted. It must be demoralising having ten people instead of 500 at your gigs and you appreciate it that these people actually come to see you- it’s a bond.”Ëœ

It’s also a bond that has also never been with the press. It’s a process the band started themselves with their aggression towards the media and their falling out with the punk in crowd at the ‘Dingwalls incident’ in 1976. An incident where Burnel single-handedly took and the Clash and the Pistols on in a punch up that typified his combative stance at the time- a stance backed up by his own black belt karate hands. The 1976 punch up at Dingwalls which saw the Stranglers, or more specifically Burnel, take on the Pistols and the Clash in a street brawl (although the normally placid Dave Greenfield held Johnny Rotten by his throat up to the side of Jet Black’s ice cream van which was the band’s mode of transport to gigs).

Following that the Stranglers were excised from the punk story- a process that continues in the media to this day. It was the great schism and a Stalinist revision that hurts.

”ËœWe were as punk as the Clash. They were just wussies and still are (laughs) and we are not.
Them and the Pistols were like the Monkees. They were put together by their managers and controlled by their managers and we were quite definitely not. Joe Strummer was always lovely and sweet to me. Steve and Paul from the Pistols were great, also and you might disagree the Pistols and the Clash were no better than Take That (laughs). They were fabricated music, they were exciting of course, there is no question of that but the Stranglers were organic. I mean you would not fabricate a bloke who was 15 years older than the rest of the band, Dave is well, Dave, and Hugh, you can’t invent someone like that and also a frog immigrant with a chip on his shoulder- who is a psychopath, educated and plays classical music- you don’t fabricate bands like that. You just can’t.’

The band had no traditional frontman.

”ËœThere were two front people- Hugh and I had a bit of ascendancy because we sang most of the songs.’

Was there a sense of how weird you were as a band.

”ËœNo not atall but now when I look back on it I do realize. When I see how homogenised bands are and fabricated with a certain image in mind with no rough edges and everything fits, everything makes sense then I realize but no matter how different we were we were a band.’

You looked like a band.

”ËœWe were. There will never be another band like the Stranglers, We were not fabricated”¦’

The misfit band arrived at the dawn of punk and quickly built up a rabid fanbase. They also quickly fell out with the punk in crowd after that Dingwalls stand off when Burnel thought that Paul Simonon had spat at him. The two iconic bass players hadn’t spoken to eachother since that fateful night but a few months ago there was meeting.

”ËœI bumped into him a few months ago and we shook hands after thirty years. I was with my first born on back of my bike. At the traffic lights I stopped and looked over just by Baker St and there was a nice triumph Bonneville next to me and a bloke with open face helmet. I had full-face helmet so he couldn’t see me. At the next lights I thought I know who f@@@ that is and lift up my visor and said, ”Ëœare you Paul?’ and he said, ”Ëœyeah’ and he said ”Ëœnice bike’ and I said ”Ëœpleased to see you riding with a Triumph’ and we chatted about motorbikes.’

Maybe you can be punk elite club now!

”ËœNo. I don’t want to be in that. Dingwalls f@@@ed it, it polarized opinion- it was the night after we were the British band that got to play with the Ramones and that kicked it all off with the press on the side of the Clash and the Pistols and that did it for us.’

The Stranglers were cast as the punk rock outsiders whilst being loved on the street and it’s only in the last few years that there has been a noticeable thaw in relations with the band appearing at Glastonbury and their last two albums getting great reviews.

At 58, Burnel has mellowed out but still retains the deadly aura of a six dan black belt. Affable, polite and highly intelligent, he is great company for an afternoon but there is still that hint of danger about him.

What’s going on with the band?

‘There are three things. We are preparing a new album that will come out in 2012. We’re preparing a set for the spring tour with songs that we have never played before and we are preparing an acoustic set because we will be doing acoustic shows in Belgium and Holland this year. I love to do the acoustic shows. We do them in small theatres and it gives a great feel to proceedings, far more intimate.’

Burnel was a classically trained guitar player before picking up the bass in the Stranglers, it was this background that gave the band’s songs those wonderful, dexterous, signature bass runs that became the band’s signature.

The March tour will see new songs from the band as they prepare their seventeenth album. It will be interesting to see where the band goes. Their first six albums are perfect classics, each one completely different from the one before but full of highly original distinctive music.

Their later period of the original line up, whilst still capable of great moments, was about diminishing returns and when guitarist and vocalist Hugh Cornwell left in 1990 there was another handful of albums that never thrilled as much as their initial output.

But with new guitarist Baz Warne joining nearly ten years ago they fiercely returned to form with the Norfolk Coast album- with the title track being acknowledged as one of the classic songs of their canyon, follow up Suite 16 continued the good work.

The next album could go anywhere.

”ËœThere is nothing really formulated yet. We have a lot of bits and pieces. I have about 10 pieces and Baz has a few. I have not one written on the bass yet but I will have a session writing stuff on the bass. The bass drives a lot of the Stranglers songs, I get melodies on the bass, it’s one of the keys to the sound. John Entwistle’s bass didn’t drive the band in the Who but he was a f@@@king great bass player.

I have written this ten minute epic, it’s got lots of bits and pieces and I’ve been adding more bits and pieces to it all the time, I need to take a rain check on it.’

JJ pauses, adding.

”ËœOne song has developed into a tango- a metallic tango, not heavy metal though, the Stranglers are not heavy metal even if they tried! We have some different angles on stuff, even if it’s just a love song really..’

Burnel says ”Ëœlove song’ in a different kind of way than a normal musician would. This is a band that once did an album of love songs called La Folie that were about cannibalism, nuns who wanted to f@@k as well as tramps and death.

Burnel laughs.

”ËœWell the tango is meant to be sexy , the dance to the Argentinean tango is sexy as f@@@.’

The interview with JJ was over shadowed by the death the day before of the genius Captain Beefheart who was a key influence on the band.
‘Beefheart was hugely influential on the Stranglers and no one has ever realised that. One of our earlier songs, Peasant In The Big Shitty, is in 9/4 time. The Down In The Sewer riff is from Beefheart and loads of other stuff-= like on In The Shadows’ where we both tried to emulate Beefheart’s Howling Wolf voice. You can tell Hugh’s voice more than mine because mine is out of its register!’
Burnel was a classically trained guitar player who ended up in a band by mistake. Saving up to go to Japan to became a black belt in karate he was working as a van driver. One day gave a lift to a hairy youth standing at the roadside near Guildford.

‘My father forced me to be a musician and to play the guitar. A musician is one thing- everyone can be a musician if they play an instrument but to be in a band is different. It was a complete accident, I stopped to give a hitchhiker a lift. I wanted to go to Japan and get a black belt and got side tracked and delayed by a few years. I gave a lift to the hitchhiker and he was in a band called Wonderlust which was Hugh and Jet’s band at the time. Hugh had just come over from Sweden with the band. I dropped the hitch hiker off and must have been introduced to the rest of the band because about three weeks later Hugh came knocking at my bedsit door looking very down, the band had f@@@ed off and gone back to Sweden leaving him living at Jets and with no band.’

The lanky and eccentric Hugh Cornwell, looking like a psychotic geography on acid and the big and burly off license owning, ice cream van driving Jet Black must made an unlikely looking duo!

Burnel smiles.

”ËœWell it looked even more unlikely when I joined!
I had a shaved head in those days. No-one else did unless they were a skinhead, squadie or a police man and people thought I must be a cop because of the Doc Martens I wore- because no on else really wore them then. I had my karate crop- everyone else had very long hair in 1974. unless you were the Mahavishnu, Jon McLaughlin, who I rated immensely at the time incidentally. He played with Miles Davies who we were really into as well. He had a track John McLaughlin on Bitches Brew were we nicked the riff from for one of our own songs, (Burnel sings and its Bring On The Nubiles and laughs). We took it to a different place which is the beauty of music.’

The Stranglers were certainly stretching the creative influences a lot further than the Stooges/Dolls/Bowie template of their contemporaries.

”ËœWe nicked from all over the place but when it goes through your hands it comes out a different colour.’

For a couple of years the band toured around anywhere that would have them. Adding Dave Greenfield on keyboards they started to hone down that classic sound whilst being roundly ignored at the best and treated with hostility on a regular basis as they played the pre punk pub circuit. It was an hostility that Burnel, with his psychotic temperament and his karate training, was more than happy to sort out.

”ËœThere was blood every night for a period of eighteen months. If there was no blood it was not a proper gig which was a weird mindset for a period. If something happened I refused to let it go. When we played bigger gigs when we made it I refused to allow bouncers to get involved. We sorted it out for ourselves. The violence turned a lot of people off- I don’t want to go to a gig where it kicks off!

If you instigate you got to control it. What I found really shitty was some bands try to act tough and instigate physical confrontation and as soon as it kicks off they hide behind bouncers and walk offstage.’

It was only when punk started to accelerate in 1976 that the Stranglers found, if not a very willing punk hierarchy and attendant press, but an audience of similar outsiders who instantly recognized their zero bullshit quotient, great tunes and dark charisma.

”ËœIf the Woodstock generation and west cost music was primarily American then punk was primarily British and we were very much part of that. The other bands came to see us. We were part of a long tradition of bands, though, that were a bit arty and a bit aggressive. Punk had limitations- four piece bands- punk was defined quite a lot by instrumentation and for some reason it was considered quite uncool to have a keyboard.’

Punk made a big noise about having no rules but was riven with the damn things and the Stranglers quickly found themselves on the outside of the ‘movement’. But their eccentric creativity saw them as the biggest commercial success of the first wave of punk regularly hitting the top ten whilst the Clash struggled to get into the top 40. The Stranglers may have been brilliantly bizarre misfits but they had a dark charisma, smoldering anger and a knack for writing great songs that captured the real spirit of the times. The fact that no-one knew what they were was all the better.

‘The Stranglers were a prog. band, a rockabilly band, a punk band, a west coast band, a psychedelic band, an arty band or we were just the Stranglers. In the long term it’s been a good thing that no-one could box us in. Most people are into music in not a tribal way, unless they got into music with a certain fashion. Surely you take elements from everywhere you come from unless you came in from the moment which we never did really.’

Burnel knows what he wants.

”ËœI don’t want acceptance I want respect. Musical and artistic respect. Respect it something that you want from your peer group journalists or punters or bands. I want people to respect the Stranglers and not deride them like in the past. If you say the Stranglers fans treat the band like a religion well I treat the band like a religion as well.’

The band were massive in 1977. Their debut album Rattus Norvegicus was in the top ten for six months, the follow up albums were huge and loads of hit singles.
”ËœAt one point we were the biggest selling band in the UK, bigger than the Clash and the Pistols. Those bands did the smart thing- like the Police and a few other bands like Flock Of Seagulls, all these bands decided to go round America until you break it. The Clash started wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, but we could never sound American. We had American influences, I mean one big influence was the Doors of course- a blues band with an edge but we were very much a British band and America didn’t suit us. I’d love to ask Ray Manzarek what he thought of Dave Greenfield. For me Dave is a much better keyboard player (laughs), no! Ray is a great player, he would play the bass keyboard lines at the same time.”Ëœ

The Stranglers had a great sound. Working with producer Martin Rushent who was also one of the key punk producers, from the Stranglers he went on to work with Generation X and Buzzcocks before moving on to Human League, the engineer was Alan Winstanley who is still one of the key sound sculptors in the UK.

”ËœWe instructed Martin to Alan, we did our first demos with Alan so when we wanted to do our album in same place as the demos in Fulham.’

The band’s first demos were actually at Foel studios in Llanfair Caerneinion near Welshpool in north Wales in 1975.

”ËœI remember we want there. I remember Ian Gomm owned the studio. He was in Brinsley Shwarz. We recorded Down In The Sewer, Go Buddy Go, Bitching I think. We hadn’t added the ending to Sewer. It hadn’t been written at that time- we kept sticking little bits on the songs.’

The demos paved the way for the band. They were startlingly original and the band progressed quickly. It was a progression that went unnoticed in the press.
How come the Stranglers were so underrated?

”ËœI think probably politically we f@@@ed it up. We made so many enemies we screwed up a lot of people.’

They missed your sense of humour.

”ËœI thought it was funny! Maybe people didn’t have the same sense of humour!’
And there was the sexist tag the band got stuck with.
”ËœI never got the sexist thing nor did any of our girlfriends. People had a strange lack of a sense of humour. The first time I encountered political correctness was when Peaches had been banned by the right on Rough Trade shop because they thought it was disgusting. All these wankers take things literally. They didn’t know we were smarter than any of them and not one dimensional. We hit a few nerves. We covered so many points. It reflects more on the people who were offended by the Stranglers.’

Some people like to be offended.

”ËœIt was easy then and we played up to it. The fuss was pretty pathetic and eventually pretty detrimental to the band’s career.’

What do you think look back?

”ËœObviously I was at an age with lot of issues and the success helped get those issues out in the open. Sometimes that is good and that’s why we still talking here after thirty odd years. I still think that the Stranglers are a viable band.’
The Stranglers had this dangerous image.

”ËœBut we were adorable but don’t push us. We couldn’t be dictated to unlike the Clash and the Pistols- the boy bands of their times- the fabricated bands.’
The band also made intense weird music that matched this dangerous image. Their 1978 hit single, Five Minutes, could be arguably the most mentally powerful hit of all time.

”ËœWhat’s mental about about that!’ wonders an offended JJ, adding, ”ËœI see it as a pop single.’

No-one ever had hits that sounded like that, even the Stranglers don’t sound like that any more.

”ËœWell I hope not. You can’t stay in the same place. You have to move on. Especially if you are successful then you have to move on. There is so much to write about. If you have an opinion you express it the best way possible and through songs. Loads of different things to write about still- like on the new songs- there are references to Sharon on life support, stuff about Alexander the Great and poor old Socrates drinking all the Hemlock because he was perverting young men but he wasn’t really- he was just shagging them! I think before we wrote these songs we just re-read our charter which states that it is our duty is to inform the British public of these things or is that the BBC’s job!
I’ve written lot of lyrics we haven’t made final selection yet. Even if we play a few new songs on tour they might not get on to the album which will be good for bootleggers and these days if you play a gig at 10 it’s online at 2 in the morning!’

The band’s early days were dominated by extremes. Extremes in ideas and attitude and in drugs, after the initial acid phase they switched to heroin.
When Hugh and you got to heroin in 1978/79 did it change you as people.

”ËœThat’s what we did it for. The whole band was meant to take heroin for whole year and see what we would produce at then end of it. Jet and Dave were smart and they got off after a couple of weeks whilst Hugh and I got into it for whole year and it wasn’t that easy giving up but we did eventually. Heroin anaesthetizes you. It desensitizes you so you become less considerate towards other people and a lot more introverted because the only thing that is important is more heroin. Your world becomes smaller and smaller instead of bigger and broader. Once you give up heroin and you are out of that world you become bigger again. On it and all you care about is you and your own selfish little needs and you start losing the ability to love and feel for other people. Raven and Meninblack were the heroin albums.’

Before heroin, acid had been the key drug in their canyon.

”ËœIn the early years, when we had a day or evening off we took acid recreationally. I remember one Bonfire Night with indoor fireworks and I was taking acid- eventually I hid in a telephone kiosk and these kids were trying to get in with their mother and that became the inspiration for the song ‘Peasant in the Big Shitty’. I was stuck in this old red telephone box and this kid and mother were waiting impatiently and I just there tripping and looking at this kid pushing at the glass and the lyrics tell the story ”Ëœevery digit at my face, whose the man with the smile mom, do you like it like that, the cows go moo, is everything alright’ because when you hear these sounds on acid they stretch out. You hear weird sounds and people’s faces look weird. There were a few other Stranglers psychedelic songs that were written on acid at the time as well.’

Do you do drugs now?

”ËœI don’t smoke any more, or very rarely because it doesn’t really work anymore. I have very fond memories of getting very stoned. I’ve done it, I’ve been there. Acid? I don’t think tripping all your life would be that positive! I stopped a long time ago. I can’t remember the last time I tripped. It was about thirty years ago and I used to ride my motorcycle tripping which is pretty weird. Mind you in Surrey when I was growing up we would not think twice about driving around a pub crawl really drunk. It’s amazing- would anyone consider dong that now? I still feel invincible and I would take a trip and ride my motorcycle in that early Stranglers period.’

The Stranglers were no holds barred and there are lots of stories about their adventures. There were no boundaries. In the punk period JJ explored everything including his sexuality. A few years ago Steve Strange claimed to have a fling with JJ. Any truth in that story?

”ËœI shagged the arse of him literally and it was great from what I remember. I didn’t make a habit of it. But it was there so I took it. He told me he was from Wales so I thought that’s fine and I put my wellies on and away you go.
Well you know, at the time, and I speak for myself, if it had a pulse I shagged it, it’s as simple as that and I’m definitely sure he had a pulse and was offering so I took advantage of it. I can’t remember much about it. I thought it was pleasant at the time. Don’t knock it till you have tried it is what I have always said!’

Were the rest of the band exploring or heterosexual?

”ËœI can’t speak for them rest of the band. I think if the fans of the Stranglers find it a problem then they are not listening to the right band. I think most people are pretty cool about all that stuff. Tough shit if not. You have got to be true to yourself- that’s the bottom line.’

Even though he is one of the few rock stars who is genuinely hard and back it up with his black belt and oozes a casual machismo there is also a graceful femininity about JJ when he prowls the stage.

”ËœAbsolutely. I’m in touch with my feminine side, (laughs) I don’t have problem with it.’

Any regrets from the more fist friendly days?

”ËœPeople say you should never regret anything but there was one kid whose lights I punched out during the No More Heroes tour. At that time we refused to sign autographs and one kid insisted over and over backstage. We would always let people backstage and hang out and he kept on insisting on an autograph and I went boff and punched him and I felt that was maybe was a bit unnecessary. At that time I was on a short fuse and drugs- maybe speeding.

I also regret hurting my girlfriend at the time, Tracy. The song, The Man They Loved To Hate is about her. We all regret being cunts to people in the cold light of day. Otherwise commercial or artistic regrets? No, none atall. I’m blowing my own trumpet now but what other band has got such a discography as the Stranglers with its range. From Rattus to La Folie to Raven to Meninblack those first six albums’

Those initial six albums (and JJ’s brilliant solo debut album, ”ËœEuroman’ which, again was ahead of its time) really stand the test of time. There is a wealth of brilliant ideas in there for young bands to discover. Tight, economical, imaginative playing, Songs that have intros and intros that are good enough to make into tunes of their own, great choruses and really exciting tough playing.

After that the band was not pulling in the same direction.

  1. n Golden Brown was in the Top 5. Growing up near Guildford and being a big Doors fan as a teenager, I always felt a real affinity with the band and its music.Anyway, I went to see them as a four-piece last year(?), not sure whether I could get over the missing Hugh Cornwell, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, EVEN some of the new material. I am of course aware that I might just have eaten (at least some of) my words about the ‘nostalgia trap’! So you ain’t read this, right?!Toby.Reply
  2. Stu Great read.
    In Lemmy’s book it says he got back off tour and someone had been savagely murdered in his flat, wonder if it’s the same one JJ composed 5 Minutes about.Reply
  3. video! Great new Stranglers song, ‘Freedom Is Insane’ – live : Louder Than War […] in depth JJ Burnel interview HERE […]Reply
  4. JeremyS/The Disappeared Really interesting and comprehensive interview. I hoep you enjoying talking to JJB as much as I just enjoyed reading it.
    Thanks.Reply
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  6. It’s 34 years since the Stranglers’ debut album- Al Hillier celebrates this great record : Louder Than War […] and ultimately change the course of our young lives. A few weeks after our first meeting the Stranglers were in TW studios in Fulham Palace Rd and in an incredible five weeks they had recorded the whole […]Reply
  7. the first band I really loved was – possibly unusually for a teenage girl in the mid 80s – The Stranglers- a blog : Louder Than War […] first fix. Many try for years in vain to replicate that high; I\’m lucky, I\’ve been able to. The Stranglers were not the first band I saw live, but they were the first band where I felt that pleasure and […]Reply
  8. james chi i enjoyed reading this. as aan american stranglers fan having discovered them about 9 years ago. this is cool. many things jj opened up about i didnt know about.hopefully one day hugh will join back. stranglers will live on as the greatest band to me. they beat the pistols, clash, ramones, etc. stranglers are far more intellctual than your average punk band.hugh is a nice bloke to. i spoke with him over the phone and signed a cd for me/:)Reply
  9. Peter Hook plays Joy Division – live review : Louder Than War […] that\’s the second conundrum of the night. Here we have one of the great bass players and he hardly plays the damn thing all night, just using it as a prop before occasionally cutting […]Reply
  10. DavidC Enjoyed this thanks. Stranglers are now the best they’ve been for years – even including some of the Hugh years. They’re amazing to see, and the new material is great. Long may this continue. I only wish they’d played some acoustic sets in the UK!Reply
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  15. alex hutton what a great interview.
    thanks .Reply
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  17. classic albums: the stranglers – black & white « punkdaddy […] \’Well I\’m one of them! Flea is great, I heard through a few people that he rated me. They must have listened to Black And White – Americans are very knowledgeable about music. I also rate John Entwistle and Jack Bruce – I thought he was pretty good. I like the bass player from Muse as well, he\’s ambitious, Muse are interesting, their last album sounds so much like – seriously good\’ – from Robb’s interview with JJB - Louder Than War […]Reply
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  20. noelito flow my own eyes cute pop song Thanks , I’ve just been looking for info about this subject for a long time and yours is the greatest I have found out till now. However, what about the conclusion? Are you positive about the supply?|What i don’t understood is in fact how you’re no longer really much more neatly-favored than you might be right now. You’re so intelligent.Reply
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  23. punkdaddy | jean jacques burnel […] had fucked off and gone back to Sweden leaving him living at Jets and with no band” – JJ to John Robb, Louder Than War  JJ showed up for his first rehearsal with a bandaged hand, courtesy of a karate tournament […]Reply
  24. The Stranglers ‘Giant’ : album review | Louder Than War […] world of the charts, free from expectation, free from any constraints the rat pack in black of the Stranglers have cut their finest album for years. An album that will put this big cult band with its […]Reply
  25. Voyetra Eight I get it. The Stranglers were “Punk Floyd” outsiders with an attitude and Burnel was classically trained on the guitar. This interview could have been much better if you had simply cut out the fluff. How many times do I have to read the same thing written another way? You repeat yourself too much.A few cases in point:“Burnel was a classically trained guitar player before picking up the bass in the Stranglers.”“Burnel was a classically trained guitar player who ended up in a band by mistake”“They were the outsiders of the outsider generation”“In the middle of an outsider music scene they were the ultimate outsiders.”“The Stranglers were cast as the punk rock outsiders.”“They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars”“Overlooked by the media the band were one part pioneers and one part huge influence on bands.”“Their influence has been enormous and overlooked.”“their surly attitude was perfect for my chemically stained punk upbringing”“Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.”“Extremes in ideas and attitude”“a rawness and attitude”Reply
  26. megaspiritualwarrior I praise the Lord for The Stranglers….you saved my life!Reply
  27. Hanging Around- the Stranglers relentless invention wins again – live review | Louder Than War […] that are there for one tour and cause a rush to the bar, these songs sound like they will sit in the Stranglers set for a long time. It would be great to hear the whole album live, a rule wrecking move for sure […]Reply
  28. Clare I really enjoyed reading this, but I’m with Voyetra Eight; it would have been even better with a bit of editing. I think you mean ‘canon’ rather than ‘canyon’???Reply
  29. Jo I really enjoyed reading about JJ Brunel – I fancied him very much back in the day! First heard them on the old Double J in Sydney in the late 70s and rushed out to get “Rattus Norvegicus” on vinyl import. Still love those songs – and totally agree that the band’s importance and influence is totally overlooked.Reply
  30. Hugh Cornwell
: Totem and Taboo – album review […] it\’s been 22 years since Hugh Cornwell left The Stranglers. With his former band he released 10 studio albums in 14 years & with Totem and Taboo he is […]Reply
  31. The night that punk went overgroundJuly 4th 1976an oral account – Louder Than War […] was that incident with Paul Simonon at Dingwall\’s, which didn\’t help with us and the punk elite. The other bands were a bit pissed off that we had […]Reply
  32. Kent Thanks for the interview and insights. Yes, it could use some editing, but this isn’t a polished, fully staffed magazine now is it? : )I’ve loved the Stranglers since I was in high school here in the States in the early 80’s. My brother would see them in Boston and bring me issues of Strangled. I’ve never seen them myself and probably never will. Too many close calls to count but it seems to be fate!Black and White is my favourite album of all time, and yes, I too learned to rock and play bass from (listening to) JJ! Now I hear Hugh’s old guitar lines and am continuously amazed. The more I learn about music over the years, the more I come to appreciate what they were doing and how easy they made it look.Can’t thank them enough for the pleasure their music brought me at a time in my life when I very much needed ‘something cool’ to call my own.Reply
  33. Clare Coleman ‘The lanky and eccentric Hugh Cornwell, looking like a psychotic geography (teacher?) on acid’.Can’t help thinking that if my geography teacher had borne even a passing resemblance to Hugh Cornwell, I might have turned up to a few more classes …..Reply
  34. Tim Still a cock….still trying to explain why they were better than The Clash all these years later…..comparisons with Take That are as far-fetched as they are childish.Otherwise…great interview and thanks!Reply
  35. True confessions | The Clash Blog […] why he is still trying to convince people otherwise 35 years later as you can see in this overall great interview with him on the Louder Than War website. As always he laces his comments with the caveat of ‘I liked some of them’ while at the […]Reply
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  38. Freddy As others have mentioned this could stand a good editing, but nevertheless it still lives up to its claim of being ‘The Ultimate Stranglers Interview’ thanks to JJ’s candid responses.Reply
  39. Tim Walker Love the band, been a fan since the release of Grip and seen them a few times, including the night Hugh was arrested – following the gig at Cardiff in 1979. A criminally overlooked and under-rated group although things may actually be changing a bit on that front. I sometimes wonder whether they would be considered for the R&R Hall of Fame and, if so, would they consider accepting. Even their poorer output (issued on Epic after 1982) is a million miles better than any other group making music during the eighties. You can scrap the days of Paul or Pete Roberts, Robins (whatever the hell his name was), apart from about three songs this was a dire period in an otherwise unblemished career. Pity Hugh left, of course, but everyone involved seems happy with the events as they panned out…or are they? Whatever, I’ve some terrific memories of a fabulous band with a great catalogue and an intensely loyal fanbase, Long live The Stranglers and thanks so much to them.Reply
  40. Vicky Great interview, apart from the obvious grammatical errors.
    I used to be friends with JJ and I can still see the ‘old’ JJ in his words.
    He was always a bit arrogant but at the same time self-depreciating (he once told me he couldn’t sing) but nevertheless managed to pull it off.
    Always defensive and with good reason, the Stranglers are a great band (even their “easy listening” albums are pretty good hearing them now)
    Hugh and JJ were great friends but as JJ said, there was a bit of competition going on, always trying to get one over on the other I thought. It was sad their alliance ended so bitterly, it would be nice to see them shake hands again.
    I hope they decide to tour Australia again, it would be great to see them!
    March 22

https://louderthanwar.com/the-ultimate-stranglers-interview-jj-burnel-opens-up/

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Twenty years of endless Strangling

Music/ men in black go grey

Cole MoretonSaturday 15 April 1995 23:02

AGE CREPT up on rock and roll stars, then on the hippies, and now it is finally catching up with punks.

Anniversary tours have long been popular with the faded heroes of the Sixties, but the latest band to go back on the road in celebration of 20 years together are The Stranglers – hard men of punk known for dressing entirely in black and liking a fight.

„I’m an ageing punk rocker.I’m not ashamed of it,“ says Jean-Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers’ bassist. „We’ve been touring non-stop for all this time. We’re well past our sell-by date.“

But when punk erupted in 1976 its slogan was „No Future“ and the movement’s enemies were dinosaurs like Rod Stewart who had been around for years.Surely punks were not supposed to grow old? „Tough. They did,“ he says. „Anyone gonna contest that?“ Since JJ – as he is known to fans – is a black belt and teacher of karate, arguing seems a bad idea.

Not even JJ could dispute that punk images are mainstream now. There have been exhibitions of punk fashion in museums and a punk season at the National Film Theatre. New bands such as Elastica and Oasis owe obvious debts to the energy and sound of a movement their members could only have been dimly aware of in their childhood. Elastica more than anyone, since their own song „Waking Up“ was so much like The Stranglers’ hit „No More Heroes“ that they had to pay the band’s music publishers 40 per cent of all royalties from it.

„When we’re all dead, people will actually start saying nice things about The Stranglers,“ says Mr Burnel. „Maybe one day they’ll think The Stranglers were a great British band rather than just survivors. The people who have got any courage to say that are the younger bands. Maybe they don’t have that peer group pressure saying, `You can’t like them, they’re thugs’.“

Thugs The Stranglers certain-ly were. According to legend they once tied up a female New Musical Express journalist and left her to sweat in the Portuguese sun after a bad review, and bound a French reporter to the Eiffel Tower. The entire band was arrested in Nice in 1980 and fined for inciting a riot after their concert had been cancelled.

„We took on a whole audience once,“ says Mr Burnel. „They were booing us, and there was no way we were going to bottle out and walk off. We challenged them and started fighting from the stage. In the end it was a stalemate. One of our road crew ended up with a broken leg.“

Jean-Jacques is now 42, and the drummer Jet Black over 50, but old habits die hard: last year in Portugal they tackled two fans who had been heckling Paul Roberts, who replaced Hugh Cornwell as lead singer five years ago. „I felt this rush,“ says Mr Burnel. „I should be more controlled now, I’ve got a better threshold, but one of them pulled the lead out of my guitar. I put the guitar down and just took them out.“

Punk was the last great musical movement, believes Mr Burnel, who says its iconoclastic attitude inspired many of those who are now involved in campaigning for political and environmental issues.

Others were less permanently inspired. „A lot of the punks of yesteryear are now prospective Tory MPs or bank managers,“ he says with disgust. „We have got an admiral on our list of fans,“ – no amount of probing can elicit a name – „a mountain climber called Ron Brown has named climbs after Stranglers songs and Nigel Kennedy plays on the new album.“

Another famous fan of the band is Stuart Pearce, defender with Nottingham Forest and former captain of the England team. „We get letters from 15- year-olds who say: `I heard your records through my mum or dad’s record collection.’ It’s fantastic to see them at the front at concerts. As you go further to the back of the venue the audiences get older, being cool.“

Originally called The Guildford Stranglers, the band were turned down by 24 record companies before signing to United Artists. Their biggest punk-era hits were „No More Heroes“ and „Peaches“, but their best-selling single in Britain was the much softer waltz „Golden Brown“, in 1982. Released against record company advice it got to number two in the singles charts, despite allegedly being about heroin. Hugh Cornwell had been imprisoned for three months in 1980 for possession of the drug.

Jean-Jacques Burnel was born to French parents but brought up in Notting Hill Gate, west London. He was a grammar school boy with a degree in history from Bradford University and a taste for socialising with Hell’s Angels. In France he is seen as an intellectual and a regular contributor to television shows. Here, he is seen as a laddish biker.

„The British music press has a problem with thinkers and people of action. If you are a rock and roller you’ve got to be completely debauched. The loser is the hero. If you’re a thug you can’t think: if you’re a thinker you’ve got to be precious and delicate. We’re quite physical, so they don’t know how to classify us. I love wearing my leathers. I’ve ridden motorcycles for ever – my dad bought me a leather when I was 13 – but I had an education, so where does that place me? People just don’t understand that.“

He lives in „a bit of a folly“ with land attached in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. „You don’t have country squires in the fens. If it was in the West I would be a gentleman farmer and a rock and roll person. I’ve got a good pub nearby, and the people are really good. It’s L’Angleterre profonde, it’s England, not something cosmopolitan. I’ve got an orchard. I make jams, I fiddle with my Harley-Davidson. Mark my territory. Plant trees.“

Dave Greenfield, the band’s original keyboard player, lives nearby. Jet Black is in Gloucestershire, where he designs and builds wooden furniture. Paul Roberts is a keen amateur footballer who used to sing Stranglers songs in the mirror when he was a boy and pogo-dance at the front of their gigs. John Ellis, the guitarist drafted in when Hugh Cornwell left, used to be press officer for the anti-M11 link road protesters. None of which sounds very punk.

„We’ve had a couple of punch-ups,“ says Burnel. „We’ve got nothing in common, really, apart from the band. We don’t even like the same music.“

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/twenty-years-of-endless-strangling-1615868.html

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Concert Review: The Stranglers and Blondie

Despite the passing years, Blondie can still get the crowd going.

By KAYLA J. ADAMS

Published: JULY 8, 2008

Blondie 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The Stranglers / Blondie Ra’anana Amphitheater July 3 Deborah Harry, bursting into our living rooms singing „Denis“ in her strategically ripped red-and-white T-shirt, was every adolescent male’s dream. But that was more than 30 years ago. By the time she made it to the Ra’anana Amphitheater last Thursday night, she was 63 years old, and she’d lost half of her band along the way. Indeed, two half-bands were rolling back the years – all 30 of them – at this concert. Yet both delivered reasonable arguments against going gentle into that good rock night. The Stranglers, who opened the show, have labored for almost two decades without former frontman Hugh Cornwell, and now also lack founding drummer Jet Black. Nonetheless, they’re a revived force with guitarist-singer Baz Warne, though friendlier and far less sleazy and dangerous than in their late-’70s heyday. They played an hour or so’s greatest hits package with real zest, evidently undeterred that the place was only gradually filling up. Warne had even bothered to learn some Hebrew – displaying a vocabulary that included not only the predictable „Todah“ and „Shalom“ but also the exuberant „Yala balagan!“ Sexist, possibly even racist, and thoroughly unlovable when they emerged at the same time as punk, The Stranglers’ advantage was that they were gifted musicians – Cornwell a blues veteran; bassist JJ Burnel a classical guitarist; keyboardist Dave Greenfield a genuine innovator – who wrote truly memorable songs. Thus, when punk and new wave had run their course, The Stranglers were able to make an improbable transition to purveyors of delicate pop numbers like „Golden Brown,“ „Strangle Little Girl“ and „Always the Sun,“ all of which were given outings here. Greenfield’s keyboards were so low in the mix as to be almost inaudible, but Burnel’s seemingly effortless bass-playing was as consistently dazzling as ever, and Warne, quite unfazed to be mimicking Cornwell’s vocals and many of his guitar solos note for note, added humor and a sense of enjoyment to the Stranglers’ performance – qualities with which the young Men in Black were never associated. Blondie’s current tour includes a run-through of the complete Parallel Lines album that made the band a household name 30 years ago. But when Harry made her very slow way to stage-front, in a tight black dress that did her few favors and atop apparently painful stilettos, one wondered if we’d all have been better off not reliving the glorious past. Yet the voice – sometimes seductive, sometimes empty, sometimes angry – was intact. And when she tossed those shoes into the audience a few numbers in, Harry looked a whole lot happier and her performance loosened up. The new band members, some of them young enough to be her kids, reinvigorated the old hits. Longtime partner Chris Stein, blessedly recovered from a life-threatening illness, now has to stretch past his paunch to his fretboard, but played with quiet dexterity, and original drummer Clem Burke was a whirl of frantic energy and high-flying sticks. In the later part of the set, the chart-toppers came thick and fast, and as Harry turned her black and white scarf into a bandana and glided about the stage, a fortyish woman to my right was heard to exclaim, „I hope I’m as groovy as she is when I’m in my 60s.“ By now an admirable mix of middle-aged nostalgists and young converts had packed the arena, dancing sweatily in the heat and singing along with the choruses. A couple of high-spirits even got carried away and rushed the stage. Plainly undeterred by the previous day’s bulldozer terrorism, Harry said she’d toured the Old City and hoped to visit again soon. „Tel Aviv!“ she declared loudly, and almost accurately, at one point in the proceedings. „Crazy country,“ she said later. Spot on there.

https://www.jpost.com/arts-and-culture/music/concert-review-the-stranglers-and-blondie

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The Stranglers Sunderland Mayfair 17 July 1980!

Posted June 10, 2014 by vintagerock

The Stranglers Sunderland Mayfair 17 July 1980

The Stranglers were persona non grata in Newcastle after a riotous gig at the City Hall in 1977. It was almost three years before they appeared in the North East again, this time at Sunderland Mayfair (aka The Mecca or, previously, the Locarno). A lot had changed in the intervening years. By 1980 The Stranglers had released four albums, the latest being “The Raven”, and had 10 singles in the UK singles charts, including top twenty hits with “Something Better Change”, “No More Heroes”, “5 Minutes”, “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy”, and “Duchess”. Disaster also struck for the band in 1980 when Cornwell was arrested and convicted for drug use and sent to prison for three months in Pentonville.
This tour was to promote “The Raven”. I remember the Sunderland show as a good gig, but also being a little disappointed that many of the early songs had been dropped in favour of more recent tunes. A young Baz Warne was apparently in the audience that night. He would, of course, join the band some 20 years later. The programme from the show folds out to make a large poster of the band.

Based on setlists from that period the concert is likely to have gone something like this: Shah Shah A Go Go, Ice, Four Horsemen, Toiler On The Sea, Duchess, Thrown Away, Hanging Around, Hallow To Our Men, Waiting For The Meninblack, Down In The Sewer, Who Wants The World, Princess Of The Street, Just Like Nothing on Earth, Tank, Nuclear Device, Genetix, Baroque Bordello, The Raven
“Duch of the terrace never grew up
I hope she never will
Says she’s an heiress sits in her terrace
Says she’s got time to kill
Time to kill
And the Rodneys are queuing up
God forbid
And they all want to win the cup
God forbid” (Duchess, The Stranglers, 1979)

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The Stranglers Newcastle City Hall 12th October 1977!

Posted June 9, 2014 by vintagerock

The Stranglers Newcastle City Hall 12th October 1977

I have already written about the first couple of times I saw the Stranglers in concert which was at gigs in early 1977 at Newcastle Poly and the City Hall. Well it wasn’t long before they were again, once more headlining at Newcastle City Hall. I think that support on this occasion came from local punk heroes Penetration (or maybe that was the City Hall gig earlier in the year); it is all, I am afraid, a bit of a blur…. I saw the Stranglers quite a few times over the next 7 or 8 years and I’ll blog a little about those gigs over the next few days. The Stranglers live was always guaranteed to be wild, with the crowd going absolutely mental, goaded on by Hugh Cornwell and Jean-Jacques Burnel.

By late 1977 the Stranglers had just released their second album “No More Heroes” and were massively successful with punks and rock fans. These were one band which seemed to be able to bridge the two camps, and thus drew massive crowds to their concerts. They were in the UK singles charts 4 times in 1977, first with “Grip”/”London Lady”, which was a minor hit early in the year reaching No 44, then with “Peaches”/”Go Buddy Go”, which made No 8, “Something Better Change”/”Straighten Out” which reached No 9, and their final hit of 1977 “No More Heroes” which got to No 8.

The October 1977 concert was a pretty wild gig with some trouble as I recall, Hugh and Jean-Jacques arguing with the bouncers (I think Jean-Jacques may have tried to kick one of them at one point), and Hugh encouraging the crowd to push their way past the bouncers and climb up on stage. By the end of the gig the stage was completely full of pogoing fans surrounding the band. All of this resulted in the Stranglers not being welcome in the City Hall for some time. Indeed the next few Stranglers tours missed out the North East completely, and it was 1980 before they returned to the region for a gig at Sunderland Mayfair, which I will write about tomorrow. I believe one of the band (either Jet Black or Jean-Jacques Burnel, depending upon which report you read) was arrested after the 1977 Newcastle gig.

_DSC3130b [CROP][LR]

But then the band were used to controversy at the time, not least because of their very non-PC songs and lyrics and their attitude towards the press. I would always buy a copy of “Strangled” magazine at each gig, as these were often on sale in place of a programme. This was a regular fanzine type mag; one of my early copies is pictured here. Based on setlists at the time the Stranglers set will have been something like this: No More Heroes; Ugly; Bring on the Nubiles; Dead Ringer; Sometimes; Dagenham Dave; Goodbye Toulouse; Hanging Around; Five Minutes; Bitching; Burning Up Time; I Feel Like a Wog; Straighten Out; Something Better Change. Encore: London Lady; Peaches; (Get A) Grip (On Yourself); Go Buddy Go

Updated 13th of June 2020. Pictures of Hugh Cornwall of the Stranglers and Pauline and Rob of Penetration added. Many thanks to Mark for providing the pictures of the gig!

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Neil Thompson on June 9, 2014 at 6:37 pmWire supported the Tubes a few weeks later at the City Hall (6th November 1977) so they wouldn’t have supported on this night – it’s news to me that Penetration played the City Hall before the Buzzcocks gig in May 78 also but I might be wrong on that one.
    • Posted by vintagerock on June 9, 2014 at 6:44 pmAha I knew I saw Wire at the City Hall sometime around that period. I think the support for the Stranglers was probably Penetration; I know I saw them supporting the Stranglers at one of their 1977 City Hall gigs. Many thanks. I’ll update the entry. Cheers Peter
    • Posted by neale cooley on January 11, 2018 at 11:56 pmthey definitely did support The Stranglers.I was there.
  2. Posted by Kieran McPeake on June 10, 2014 at 1:52 pmHi PeterThe gig definitely had support from Penetration and sadly not Wire.Kieran
  3. Posted by vince haley on August 24, 2014 at 7:29 pmI was there. went on stage got their drum sticks ( my mate still got them) penetration did support . saw the tubes they did a great set lasted nearly 2 hours, i missed last bus to blyth
  4. Posted by John Downing on January 15, 2015 at 5:53 pmvaguely remember London supporting the Stranglers (77/78?) at the city hall, also saw Penetration there sometime, also strangely at Peterlee leisure centre!
    • Posted by vintagerock on January 15, 2015 at 5:55 pmHi John Many thanks Yes you are right. I was at all those gigs and have reviews on my site. If you search under Stranglers and Penetration you should find them. Happy days. Cheers Peter

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