IV Rattus Norvegicus
A&M SP 4648
Most groups today seem to lack the inner spark needed to record a compelling rock & roll album. As a result, the release of such an album would be more precious than Freddie Mercury’s royalty check.
Two recent records, however, are quite compelling. Not surprisingly, both are debuts: Television’s Marquee Moon and the Stranglers’ IV Rattus Norvegicus. It’s a rather quirky pairing, given the groups’ surface similarities but contradictory musical approaches. Both bands are forerunners of the New Wave though neither feels very comfortable within that category. Television opened up New York’s CBGB’s as a forum for the new young bands that followed; the Stranglers were among the first of England’s New Wave to play a major concert hall.
But where Television is cold, pristine and aloof, the Stranglers are manic, hyper and extremely aggressive. Television’s Tom Verlaine adapts the prose of the French Romantics he envies; Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell and Jean Jacques Burnel espouse the polemics of the street they so admire. Verlaine is a painter of aural abstractions, a rock & roll impressionist. Cornwell and Burnel have no such pretensions to the world of art. They are rock pugilists, always on the offensive with their blunt-edged perceptions. Nothing could be more blunt than their new album.
IV Rattus Norvegicus (the Latin name of the rat that is endemic to Europe — the Stranglers have a fixation on all things hideous and ugly) is a musical showcase of the quartet’s atypical sound. Burnel’s bass, mixed way up front, is chopping and lumbering, though still quite fast and rhythmic. Burnel plays a lot of notes, compensating for Cornwell’s guitar, which is prone to jagged, discordant romps around the fretboard (shades of Phil Manzanera). Though Cornwell’s vocals take some getting used to, they effectively embellish is vile lyrics. Jet Black’s drumming gives the Stranglers a machine like precision, and his versatility is what allows Burnel to take liberties on bass.
The coup de grace, however, is the eerie, carnival touch of keyboardist Dave Greenfield. His organ provides the rhythmic counterpoint to his circuslike electric piano. While comparisons to Ray Manzarek’s work with the Doors have been made, Greenfield is influenced as much by the early Animals’ Alan Price.
What gives me pause, however, is the group’s misogynist, machismo stance which rears its head throughout the record: „Someday I’m gonna smack your face/Somebody’s gonna call your bluff.“ While the words do lock in on very real and significant hostilities, the lack of any tempering perspective contributes to an overriding sense of guilt on the listener’s part. If I were female, I’d feel bullied; as a male, I feel rather mercenary.
The Stranglers feel they’re castigating only certain types of women, but that leaves them open to misinterpretation. (At a recent gig, Cornwell was forced to announce: „If there’s anybody out there who’s into beating up women, why don’t you go down to the beach and make sand castles instead?“ A small section of the crowd was not deterred, and a minor riot ensued).
Part of what makes this musically invigorating album worthwhile, though, is that it does force one to question his emotional attitude toward women; an album requiring such involvement is a rare commodity.
– Glen Fidell, Rolling Stone, 9/22/77.
Second release by this four-piece new wave English band reflects much of the same urgency and diabolical quality found in its initial release. The Doors-sounding keyboards keep thumping away as the guitar and bass supply the rhythmic drive. The lyrics are on the offensive side although there is more solid and viable material here than on most other new wave LPs. The raw gutsy vocals are defiantly delivered. Best cuts: „No More Heroes,“ „I Feel Like A Wag,“ „Dead Ringer,“ „English Towns.“
– Billboard, 1977.
These guys combine the sensitivity and erudition of ? and the Mysterians with the street smarts of the Doors and detest the act of love with a humorless intensity worthy of Anthony Comstock. You can tell by the way they discreetly bring up subjects like musicianship and education in interviews that, just as they claim, they don’t belong to anybody’s new wave. Too dumb. C
– Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide, 1981.
Rattus is hardly a punk rock classic but still is a pretty good chunk of art-punk. Hugh Cornwell’s testosterone level is very high here and the macho preening gets a bit much, but it’s still an enjoyable bit of noise that holds up better than I’m sure anyone would have guessed at the time. Still, it’s odd to think of this as a part of the punk rock era, with the exception of the fast and sloppy production by Martin Rushent, and the short songs, there’s not much that’s overtly punk about it.
– John Dougan, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995
The Stranglers stood apart from their contemporaries. For a start, they used keyboards. They were also a long time out of short trousers. In drummer Jet Black’s case, significantly so. This gave an additional twist to the undoubted anger that surfaced on their debut, originally to be live and titled Dead on Arrival. Not for them petulant abstractions about „the system“: they already had a wealth of experiences to share.
Observing the punk ethos, Rattus Norvegicus was recorded in just six days. But, while the aggression is there, the performance is also very accomplished, resulting in an album where „virtually every track is a little masterpiece,“ as NME testified.
The magazine did have reservations, condemning the lyrics as „grossly sexist.“ Accusations of misogyny were never far away, a viewpoint that „Sometimes“ and „London Lady“ did little to allay. Tongue in cheek or guilty as charged? The band defended themselves, saying they were merely commenting.
Musically, the band hit the purplest of purple patches at the midpoint. Following Hugh Cornwell’s scabrous vocals in „Hanging Around,“ J. J. Burnel uses his karate expertise to great effect for the brutal bassline of „Peaches.“ Then it is full throttle for „(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)“ and its exhortation to „strap on your guitar and we’ll play some rock ‘n’ roll.“
Controversial, yes, but what else would you expect from an album named after the rodent blamed for spreading the Black Death?
– Chris Bryans, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.