„The Stranglers are four unpleasant overgrown bullies who think that acting nasty constitutes a threat to society“ – Smash Hits, 1979
“ I think The Stranglers are criminally vulgar, violent and voracious, and I often wonder how they get away with it“ – Gavin Martin, NME, 1979
Johnny Rotten dismissed them as „short-haired hippies“ and writer Jon Savage (and a horde of journalists after him) effectively wrote them out of punk history for personal reasons (though these writers may claim otherwise), but they were one of the most commercially successful (in Europe at any rate) of the first wavers, scoring several top ten albums in a row, catapulting them into the first division of punk/new wave stardom. Yet they were still the perennial outsiders. This was partly because of their advanced years and excellent musicianship (people accused them of bandwagon-climbing), partly because of their natural antagonism towards the music press, and partly due an incident outside Dingwalls in 1976 when bassist Jean Jacques Burnel attacked The Clash‘s Paul Simonon when the former (mistakenly) thought the latter had spat at him. This caused a wide schism between them and the Pistols/Clash/Banshees brigade, and as a consequence the band were never allowed the same patina of cool as bequeathed to their younger rivals.
Instead, the group reveled in its reputation as the bully boys of punk. They were probably the most outwardly loutish of the bands at the time, with a penchant for expressing sexist attitudes towards women (usually tongue in cheek but often just to outage), beating up reporters (or gaffer taping them to national monuments or kidnapping them), having fisticuffs with their audiences and, with great panache and style, alienating promoters, managers, record companies, journalists and other perceived parasites with a dedication that generated headlines and sales but ultimately worked against them in their bid for superstar status. Indeed, they never managed to crack the important American market and after initial widespread popularity in Europe eventually had to settle for major cult status.
Unlike most of their contemporaries, when they formed in 1974 they were well into their twenties (drummer Jet Black was well into his thirties). Also, they could actually play. Hugh Cornwell was a very competent guitarist and initially a wonderfully dour vocalist given over to a gruff, deadpan delivery and having a knack for on-stage mockery that made him a very popular frontman. Jean-Jacques Burnel contributed super-heavy motifs with his „barracuda“ bass and provided the bite to Cornwell’s bark, using his kung fu chops on anybody who passed into his somewhat deranged orbit. He also sang too, and was initially the gruffest vocalist imaginable. Dave Greenfield manned the keyboards, summoning up the group’s „dark carnival“ sound, which owed much to The Doors (although it is claimed he never heard The Doors before joining The Stranglers). He sang as well, at least on the band’s early records, and with his mad scientist/Viking looks and suspicious-looking moustache added yet more menace to the lineup. Finally, Jet Black battered out powerful yet incredibly precise drum patterns, whilst adding even more menace into the festering brew.
Yet to accuse them of being thugs was not entirely true, because they were also brainy and well educated. Cornwell had earned a bachelors degree in biochemistry and spoke fluent Swedish. Burnel was a former grammar school student who had studied history and was also a classically trained guitarist. Black was a successful businessman who ran the off-license which served as the band’s base in the early days, operated a fleet of ice cream vans and sold home brewing equipment. Their appetitive for esoteric reading matter also set them apart from the peers, as they lapped up the works of Nostradamus and obscure writings about UFOs, which lead them down some very strange avenues.
In 1974, Hugh Cornwell had returned to England after a stint as a „third rate biochemist“ in Sweden, where he’d played in a band called Johnny Sox with two Swedes (Jan Knuttson and Hans Wärmling) and two Americans (‘Chicago’ Mike and Gryth Godwin). In 1973 he suggested to his bandmates that England was the place to be to further their careers. Wärmling stayed in Sweden and the others moved to a squat opposite the Roundhouse in London. Johnny Sox recruited drummer Jet Black in early ’74 after ‘Chicago’ Mike, a draft dodger, went back home to America, and at Black’s behest they relocated to Guildford (a suburb of London), where they all moved into the off-license Black owned. This lineup fell into disarray when Knuttson and Godwin both quit, leaving Cornwell and Black without a band. Fortunately at some point Jean Jacques Burnel (a French expatriate and kung fu kicking mental-case) was introduced to the band and recruited as a bassist, abandoning his plans to become a motorbike mechanic in America. This trio dropped the Johnny Sox name and became The Stranglers that September.
In early ’75 Wärmling showed up on the band’s doorstep and joined on keyboards and saxophone. The band recorded a number of demos during this period (check out The Early Years 74-75-76 – Rare Live & Unreleasedfor one of them), and were offered a deal for a single with Safari Records, but that fell through, which may have been one of his reasons for Wärmling deciding to fuck off back to Sweden in May. The straw that broke the camel’s back however was being told to learn to play „Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree’. The final piece in the band’s chemical makeup was Warming’s replacement, keyboard ace Dave Greenfield, who answered The Stranglers’ advert to play in a „soft rock“ band.
ABOVE: Sniffin’ Glue review from August 1976; promotional shit; live at the Nashville
Throughout the rest of 1975 and the entirety of 1976 the lads were gigging furiously, mainly around the London area, playing at such important venues as The Nashville, Red Cow and Hope & Anchor, getting more and more aggressive and more and more popular with each passing month, building up a reputation as anti-social tough guys with a Doors fetish. It was little wonder they were beginning to get lumped in with the upcoming punk bands, as they played with some important or at least noteworthy names during this period: Deaf School at the Roundhouse in February, The Vibrators (making their live debut) at Hornsey College Of Art in March, the Sex Pistols at the Nashville in May, Patti Smith at the Roundhouse in June, and in July on the bottom of the bill with the Flamin’ Groovies and Ramones. The second of these shows is the scene of the Dingwalls incident with Paul Simonon, which put them at odds with the hipsters at the epicentre of the UK punk movement but didn’t derail them. In fact, it merely exacerbated their antagonism towards everyone, enhanced their status as dangerous outsiders, and made them very interesting. Interviews and articles in such fanzines as New Pose and Sniffin’ Glue demonstrated that, despite their protestations of not being a punk band, they were quite happy to go along with it.
Hugh Cornwell: The safety-pins were essential at the time, but it was just a transistionary phase and I thought it would subside a little and the good things emerge. So it was just a matter of watching and waiting. We just continued what we were always doing. The success of anything demands rigorous control at the beginning. Any movement at the start has got to be cliquish otherwise it will fail. Its strength lies in how definite its profile is. The higher the definition, the more distinct the movement is going to be. So it just didn’t worry me at all. I just felt like an observer watching it all happen. In a way we felt a bit insulated. At the same time, I understood that they couldn’t have included us in what was happening because it just wouldn’t have been good for them to do so. But the musicians that are in those bands now used to come to see us before they’d got it together themselves. In late ’75 and early ’76, our audience was made up of today’s punkers. They were like the Invisible Mass. They just drifted in and drifted out. And them we’d see them in their own bands. So I’m sure we some influence on the way the scene has gone – but they’d probably never admit it. (also from 1988: The Punk New Wave Explosion)
In December, the group were signed to United Artists with a record deal offering a £40,000 advance, making them amongst the first punk bands to receive such an accolade.
The Stranglers began their assault on the charts in January with the classic Grip/London Lady single, which was scuppered from entering by the Top Forty because the chart compilers assigned a wodge of their sales to another release. This would not be the last time this would happen to them.
January also saw the group battling with widespread bans on punk groups, sometimes having to gig under aliases (The Shakespearos and The Old Codgers for instance), and maintaining its rep for controversy with the banal „Fuck“ T-Shirt incident (where Cornwell came on stage at the Rainbow sporting a T-Shirt with the word „fuck“ on it, which caused such offence that it was demanded he turn the shirt around, which he did, and then proceeded to stand with his back to the crowd so everyone could see it). People were easier to shock then, you must understand.
Caroline Coon: The Stranglers have handled the New Wave opportunity with reasonable honesty. They are tighter and now and more confident, but unlike The Jam or The Boys or the Vibrators who have gone through radical transformations and play at twice the speed they did nine months ago, the Stranglers have clung fiercely to their original identity. Even the most recent songs on their album like ‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’, ‘Hanging Around’, ‘Ugly’ and ‘Down In The Sewer’, owe little to the current hard-core punk stance. On the other hand, they weren’t slow to whip out their own punk fanzine-styled promo sheet called ‘Strangled’. They got as much we-were-banned mileage as possible over the G.L.C.’s ludicrous panic over the word ‘Fuck’ printed on a t-shirt worn by Cornwell at the Rainbow. And they’d froth vehemently at the mouth whenever they were mentioned in the same breath as they New Wave bands, and sulk if they weren’t. (from 1988: The Punk New Wave Explosion)
ABOVE: More promotional shit
A different kind of shock was generated when their debut album, April’s Rattus Norvegicus reached number #4 in the UK charts. It enjoyed a staggering 34 week run, hovering in and around the Top Ten for 20 of those weeks. As a measure of his immense popularity, it was held off the number one spot in its second week by Abba at #1, The Shadows at #2 and The Eagles at #3. It actually charted the same week as the first Clash LP, which only got to No 12.
Peaches / Go Buddy Go came out in May, the A-Side plucked from the LP and the flipside a Burnel opus about sex and speed. Although it was an inspired choice for a single, United Artists dropped a bollock with the picture sleeve – a corny piece of punky-looking marketing with Sex Pistols „blackmail“ lettering – which incensed the band so much that they demanded every copy of the offending sleeve be destroyed. As a result, the record was issued without a sleeve at all, and the withdrawn sleeve became one of the most expensive punk rarities ever, available now and again for anyone with about a £1,000 to spare. Not as rare but rare anyway, the single was also promoted with a special DJ copy which covered up some rude words with some nicer ones; the single you could buy in the shops was not altered, which meant some people probably got a surprise when they played it. Anyway, the single was a genuine summer smash hit, assailing the Top Ten and prompting a great piss-taking „performance“ of ‘Go Buddy Go’ on Top Of The Pops, with Burnel „playing“ a bass (with no strings on it) and Cornwell miming bar chords on a bass. It was an early example of the band’s contempt for the conventions of the music industry, and one that would eventually limit their long-term success.
Although now very popular, gigs were marked with typical shock horror punk violence: Burnel punching a punter in the face at Tiffany’s, Burnel (and a group of very rowdy and very fanatical Stranglers fans known as the Finchley Boys) taking on the Hell’s Angels at the Canterbury Odeon, fans ripping up £700 worth of seating at the Guildford Civic Hall, Dockers attacking the group in Cleethorpes and a riot at the Glasgow Apollo. Violence was avoided at some other gigs by councils, who simply refused to let them play in the first place.
The next recorded step for the band was an oddity in the shape of a version of Mony Mony, released in June under the name Celia & The Mutations. The Mutations are The Stranglers and Celia is Celia Gollin, and although the identity of the backing band is supposed to be secret, it’s obvious who it is. It was followed in July by a proper band release, Something Better Change / Straighten Out, another double A-Side, with the main song a Burnel masterpiece that seemed to perfectly capture the punk spirit of jocular hostility and mindless aggression and the flipside a Cornwell classic that displayed the first indication of a political conscience.
With album number two in the can but not yet released, September had the band battling it out on the streets of Europe, specifically Sweden, with the local teddy boy gang the Raggare deciding to destroy the band’s equipment and, truth be told, the band itself. The group fled back to their hotel and had an armed escort out of the country!
Partly recorded during the ‘Rattus’ sessions but not sounding exactly like it, album number two No More Heroescame out in September, where it was held off the number one slot by Diana Ross and the Supremes. It was even more blatantly and calculatedly offensive than the debut, with ‘I Feel Like A Wog’ (a sarcastic attack on racism), ‘Bring On The Nubiles’ (sexist nonsense), and ‘School Mam’ (an extended tale of sex, voyeurism, frustration and death, allegedly inspired by real events) just three good reasons out of eleven to buy it. ‘Something Better Change’ was included, as was one of the band’s finest A-Sides, No More Heroes, which had been issued as a single in September. The LP was promoted with No More Heroes Tour, on which they were supported at various times by Wire, Steel Pulse, Radio Stars, The Dictators, Penetration, The Drones, The Saints, The Rezillos, The Pop Group and Jonny Rubbish.
Towards the end of the year the group was recorded live during a two week-long festival at the Hope & Anchor, two songs from which appeared on the compilation LP Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival. The band’s whole set from November 22nd was eventually released in its entirety as Live At The Hope And Anchor. Elsewhere, Burnel (without the other Stranglers) helped Celia Gollin out on a second Celia & The Mutations single, You Better Believe Me, which came out in October to fuck all sales.
1978 began with another brilliant single, 5 Minutes, which reached number 11 in the UK charts despite its extremely dark tone and even darker subject matter.
Hugh Cornwell, Song By Song: The song started off with this great riff I had, to which I added the other bits of music and John [Jean] wrote the lyrics. They refer to the period when we would stay at various friends’ houses while gigging in London. John had a room in a flat in West Hampstead overlooking the railway line. Wilko Johnson also lived there. One night, John came back and found the place had been burgled and one of the girls had been attacked sexually by a gang of black guys. He was very shaken up by it because he was the first person back to the house. The meaning behind the title was that five minutes from Hampstead – a salubrious and expensive area – is a very heavy neighbourhood. It’s the same in lots of big cities.
Despite the lyrics („They came on a Saturday night/They killed the cat and they raped his wife“), and despite the general anti-punk climate, the BBC actually played the video for this song on Top Of The Pops.
Next was a short tour of America and Canada, which came and went with all the usual incidents, including one of those classic Cornwell quips, after they were met with the feminist Housewives’ Movement outside a show in East Lansing, Michigan:
Hugh Cornwell, Mojo Punk Special, 2005: I wrote a very inflammatory statement: The Stranglers have always loved women for their movements and will continue to do so. That was us having a laugh at someone’s hysteria. But you do things for a laugh sometimes and then think, God, that backfired!
No wonder people thought they were pigs. Anyway, it was then back to Blightly to promote Black And White, their third LP, which would have earned them a number one spot if it wasn’t for ‘Saturday Night Fever’. However, the LP spawned two more classic singles: Nice ‘N’ Sleazy and Walk On By / Old Codger / Tank. Both singles were UK hits (although not as high charting as their earlier ones) and both earned them return visits to Top Of The Pops, where they actually made it look as if they were being professionals by miming like proper pop stars rather than mucking around.
Amidst all this, the band continued to attract attention for hi-jinks, including an infamously debauched and chaotic trip to Iceland that May, on which they were accompanied by a plane-load of music journos, most of whom didn’t seem to like The Stranglers very much (because not many of them did) and some of whom were invited possibly because The Stranglers wanted to make examples of them, such as the poor bastard who was pushed into a geyser and the one who challenged the band to a drinking contest and a result spent three days at the airport covered in puke, abandoned after everyone else had gone home. They did a single solitary show when they were there, in Reykjavik, so it wasn’t all play. Touring extensively for several months, they took in Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the USA and Northern Ireland (with U2 in support), stopping off for more journalist-baiting along the way:
Rock On, September 1978: Sounds writer Jon Savage had cause to regret writing less than complimentary things about The Stranglers. Mr Savage was reported to be nursing a black eye and severe bruising courtesy of Jean Jacques Burnel… Seems Mr Burnel throws tantrums and punches with gay and regular abandon.
Smash Hits, November 1978: The Stranglers and authority just don’t mix. The two are at odds again over an an incident at the Top Of The Pops studio. During filming there apparently Jean Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers was overcome by a sudden urge to smash down the door of a dressing room occupied by pop group Child. The BBC authorities didn’t exactly laugh it off and the word is that The Stranglers are now banned from Top Of The Pops. No-one will confirm this since the BBC don’t officially ban anybody – they just don’t extend invitations to people they don’t want and that now seems to include The Stranglers.
An outdoors gig in Battersea Park featured strippers and a fan getting a blow job:
Record Mirror, December 1978: The Stranglers have received an official caution from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police after appearing at Battersea Park in September with six strippers! In a letter to the Stranglers the police stated: „While a group of musicians known as the Stranglers were performing six females appeared on the stage and danced a routine which could be considered as an outrage to public decency contrary to common law“. However no further police action will be taken in this case, although the Commissioner warned: „If a similar occurrence should be reported in the future police may well consider that proceedings should ensue“.
ABOVE: Press adverts and a standard-issue slagging off from Steve Clarke in the NME (May ’78)
They also decided it would be quite a wheeze to re-record ‘Sweden (All Quiet On The Eastern Front)’ in Swedish (Cornwell was fluent) and release it in Sweden: Sverige (Jag Är Insnöad På Östfronten) was the result and it inspired a response song by Swedish punkers The Rude Kids, entitled ‘Stranglers (If It’s Quiet Why Don’t You Play?)’.
Finally, there was a cracking end to the year, with a BBC ban (because of frequent and very obscene language and protracted hostility during the filming of a show for Rock Goes To College, mainly because the BBC broke a deal with the band to split the concert tickers 50/50 between students and people in the nearby town and gave all the tickets to students instead) and the group parting ways with their generally unamused and very much fed-up American label A&M. Not only was the band failing to shift records in America, the band seemed to delight in winding them up and being unreasonably aggressive. The label thought Stranglers album Number 4 should be a compilation, seeing as how few copies the first three sold. The band faxed the label a terse message – „Get fucked, love The Stranglers“ – and A&M put an end to it by dropping them instantly. As a result A&M plowed all their money into The Police instead.
1978 was also the year of the band’s adopting their now trademark all-in-black dress-code, partly because Jet Black had been reading about UFOs and the mysterious Men In Black who were supposed to be visiting people who seen UFOs, and partly because they were keen to „let the music do the talking“ and figured that if they dressed in black then everyone would concentrate on the music rather than the image. However, the black clothing added to the band’s menace and ironically became their image, and one they ended up embracing anyway.
1979 kicked off with a tour of Japan and then Australia. In Australia there was a riot, with JJ going briefly on the run after allegedly punching some cops, followed by some typically funny interviews and another journo incident (this time they left some hapless female reporter stranded in the desert). Live (X-Cert) was released in February, followed a month later with Burnel’s first solo album, ‘Euroman Cometh’, both of which had healthy sales and damning reviews.
Jean Jacques Burnel, NME, February 1979: It’s the end of a period as far as we are concerned musically, so we thought it would be to have a compilation of the period of the first three albums. And rock’n’roll’s about live stuff.
In the summer the group repaired to the studio for another bout of recording, as usual with Martin Rushent, who had been at the helm for all of their records so far. That ended when he came back to the studio after having popped out, to find that the group had taken the tape of the projected single, the very poppy ‘Two Sunspots’ and slowed it down to half speed. Burnel had then added weird harmonised vocals about carnivorous aliens harvesting humans for their „porky meat hee hee hee heeeeeee“. This touch of the avant garde was too much for Rushent, who quit and never came back, leaving the production chores on what became The Raven to The Stranglers and long-time assistant Alan Winstanley. (Rushent was also not keen because Cornwell and Burnel were by now dabbling in hard drugs, initially cocaine but heroin later on.)
Jean Jacques Burnel: I named that album. The raven was a very potent symbol in Nordic mythology. Odin, the King of the Gods, had two ravens and they were his eyes and they would fly out to the world and back and report to him, and it all fitted in with the subject matter of the album. The raven was a symbol of flight because the Vikings used ravens aboard ships to find new territories.
Hugh Cornwell, Mojo Punk Special, 2005: We were intensely involved with the idea of the Men In Black – probably not to our good. It made us terribly depressed. We were reading Nostradamus’ predictions about the Shah Of Iran for example, and wondered if the world was going to end, every day. You know, when you’re taking a lot of mind-expanding substances and you’re high most of the time, it affects the way your mind works. We were having drug-fuelled paranoid visions.
ABOVE: Lyrics from Smash Hits; the „Meninblack“ tour of 1979, paving the way for 1981’s concept album
This paranoia was no doubt confirmed over the next year, but before then there was something of a highpoint for the group when they supported The Who at Wembley and scored a No. 14 UK hit with the extremely poppy Duchess. Still, even this pleasant ditty attracted controversy, with the BBC banning it because of its supposedly blasphemous promo video (with the group dressed as choirboys).
Things started going wrong when ‘The Raven’ was finally released in September: it suffered the same fate as ‘Grip’, with a hefty chunk of the sales figures being misattributed to another band. This time it was the fucking Police who benefited: 15,000 sales were credited to the Police’s as-yet-unreleased LP ‘Regatta De Blanc’, which meant that when the Police album came a few weeks later it entered at Number One. Still, with initial pressings in a superb 3-D sleeve, ‘The Raven’ did okay, peaking at at number four instead and enjoying an 8-week run in the UK charts. Nuclear Device (The Wizard Of Aus) – a diatribe aimed at their Australian arch-nemisis Joh Bjelke-Petersen (the massively corrupt Premier of Queensland) – made it to a lowly No 36 in the UK and the E.P. Don’t Bring Harry faring even worse than that when released. (A French-language version of ‘Don’t Bring Harry’, entitled N’emmènes Pas Harry was issued in early 1980.) Equally as dispiriting was the lukewarm reaction to Hugh Cornwell ‘s extra-curricular album Nosferatu, recorded in L.A. with Beefheart drummer Robert Williams, which came out in November.
Things got worse when, after a second tour of Japan, they were paid with a dud cheque, and worse still when Cornwell was nicked on the way home from a in gig Cardiff. He was with tour promoter Paul Loasby and three teenage French fans (all girls). Their car was stopped and searched by the police, and Cornwell’s bag was found to contain drugs the he had collected as gifts from fans during the tour. And with all this hanging over their heads, the guy who designed the group’s logo – Kevin Sparrow – died of a drugs overdose on Christmas Day.
1980 was not a good year for the band, but it was not a dull one.
‘The Raven’ had not been issued in America, chiefly because they were no longer on A&M, having been dropped after refusing to consent to a compilation album. Ironically, their new American label IRS (whose records were distributed by A&M) chose to do just that, and released IV, mixing half of ‘The Raven’ with a few-non album cuts, including the previously unheard ‘Vietnamerica’, which had been recorded during the sessions for ‘The Raven’ and which later turned up as a UK B-Side. (IRS promoted the LP by releasing Duchess over in the States, a year after it had come out in the UK.) Neither broke them in America.
Only two other proper Stranglers records crept out otherwise: Bear Cage / Shah Shah A Go Go and Who Wants The World?, the lowly chart positions of both suggesting that the public was getting bored with the meninblack, or they were not being marketed properly. This was despite the fact that ‘Who Wants The World?’ was their best single in ages, and should have gone into the Top Ten, and that ‘Bear Cage’ came in a limited edition 12″ version that was the dog’s bollocks (unlike the 7″ mix, which was a bit weak).
In addition to this, the band was spending many months and a great deal of money toiling away recording what would be their one of their strangest, most misunderstood and least popular releases. They had also been dabbling in production work, with Cornwell working on the single ‘Runaway’ by Ouida And The Numbers and JJ doing stuff with crappy French new wave bands Lizard, Polyphonic Size and Taxi Girl. Burnel also had to deal with United Artists deciding to release one of his songs, ‘Girl From The Snow Country’, as a single without telling him. United Artists then had to deal with an infuriated Burnel, who only found out about the it when he showed up at their offices one day and found boxes of the single sitting around waiting to be shipped.
There was worse stuff however.
For being nicked in possession the previous year, Cornwell was sent to Pentonville Prison in March to serve an eight week sentence (eventually reduced to five for good behaviour).
Hugh Cornwell: I could have got done for a lot worse in those days ‘cos I used to think I was immune from prosecution. I thought I could never get busted but suddenly the truth caught up with me. The funny thing is that I hadn’t actually tried heroin at that point. Somebody had given it to me after a show and I put it into my bag, being diligent and thinking, ‘I won’t take this until after the tour’s over, cos it could make me sick and fuck up the gigs.’ Then I got busted for it. But I’d never even tried it, it was a gift from a fan. So when I got sent down I felt a bit hard done by. And when I came out I thought, ‘Well, I’ve been done for it. I’ve served time, I might as well try it now!’ So then I started on heroin. Ridiculous. And for about 18 months or two years I smoked and snorted it. Until I got bored.” (as told here)
The unfortunate side effect of Cornwell’s arrest was that a projected tour of India, Egypt and Greece had been cancelled. The gap needed to be filled, and so instead the band that went there and consequently conquered the world was, you fucking guessed it, the poxy Police!
Shortly after his release the band was in trouble with the law once again after supposedly provoking a riot during a gig in Nice. Cornwell found himself again behind bars, this time with Black and Burnel for company. It was only for a few days but it can’t have been any fun.
Jean Jacques Burnel: We were booked to play Nice University but unknowingly walked into a war between the students and the authorities, who wouldn’t let us use any of the power points on campus. We ended up having to run elevated cables from generators outside the university, because the authorities wouldn’t let them touch the campus grounds. It was ludicrous. Every time we went on stage, the power failed. In the end, we gave up and told the crowd: „We’re really sorry. Just remember it’s not our fault.“ All hell broke loose. A full-scale riot ended with us being put in prison, where I shared a cell with two murderers.
Jet Black: We were facing 10 years. In the end, a large fine was split between us and the university, but we laughed all the way to the bank. Before that, we were unknown in France. From then on, we played to packed houses.
ABOVE: Left: The band in 1980, after the Nice arrest. This image was used on the cover of their 1985 single ‘Nice In Nice’ (which actually had nothing at all to do with the Nice arrest). Right: How Smash Hits reported it in July 1980.
Later that year all their gear was stolen in the middle of North American tour and nobody had insured it, so they lost out on £46,000.
There was also some consternation when United Artists was bought by EMI and changed its name to Liberty.
Hugh Cornwell, Smash Hits, August 1982: We weren’t perfectly happy with Liberty. You see, we’d originally signed to United Artists and later they sold out to EMI, giving the artists no way out of their contracts. There, at the bottom of the list of United Artists acts, was The Stranglers, in very small type.
For LP Number Number Five, The Gospel According To The Meninblack (released in the US by Stiff America), The Stranglers had lavished a huge fortune on the most expensive studios in Europe and went all esoteric, deciding to create a concept album based around the aliens introduced in the song ‘Meninblack’. These sinister carnivores come to Earth in the opening tracks (‘Waltzinblack’, ‘Just Like Nothing On Earth’) and exit by the end of the album, „leaving false gods and hypocrisy“. Allegedly an attack on organised religion, the album is marked by a major reduction of guitar noise in favour of extensive synth deployment, and songs with nursery rhyme tunes and beguilingly simple lyrics. A very far cry from their punky beginnings, and also their last wholly satisfactory album, this is great from start to finish. Yet, it’s no wonder it dropped out of the charts within just a few weeks.
ABOVE: Smash Hits January-February 1981, and press advert for ‘The Gospel According To The Meninblack’.
The two singles from the album also flopped, Thrown Away shuddering to a halt outside the Top 40 and Just Like Nothing on Earth earning some acclaim as the band’s worst selling single so far, failing to chart at all.
However, maybe it was the unmitigated disaster of the LP, along with the manifold disasters of the previous year that prompted the band to get their shit together and get, sort of, well, boring, in order to salvage their career. Well, getting its shit together did not mean stopping the hard drugs – Burnel and Cornwell carried on doing that for a good few years more – but from this point on the displays of violence and antagonism dropped off sharply, the group would appear on music shows and not take this piss, would be much more polite to the press, and the music became much more mainstream, less exciting, and less visceral.
Jean Jacques Burnel, Mojo Punk Special 2005: People said, They have disappeared up their own arses. But after we purged ourselves of our Men In Black obsession we moved on…if you think negatively, negative things will happen. And we stopped doing that.
The first indication of this new-found maturity was the single Let Me Introduce You To The Family, which matched some impressively precise drumming and some scrabbly guitar with Cornwell’s most melodic vocals and least interesting lyrics to date. It peaked at No 42, a fate which did not bode well for their sixth album, La Folie (a concept album based around the theme of „love in all its guises“), which came out that November. ‘La Folie’ entered at No. 14 and over the course of the next four weeks slid rapidly out of the charts.
Fortunately, this commercial all-time-low was salvaged by Golden Brown. Taken from the album, this rather lovely waltz number was both a great choice and an odd choice for a single: it was obviously a brilliant song which could have widespread appeal, but it was also very much unlike anything the band had released before (mind you, some said that was also a good thing). The single eventually became one of the biggest selling records of 1982, being kept off the number one spot by The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’. It might have done better and actually topped the charts if EMI hadn’t accidentally issued some copies in December, if EMI hadn’t then failed to press enough copies to keep up with demand, and then if Burnel had not let it slip that the song was actually about heroin. A number of embarrassed DJ’s around the country stopped playing it immediately.
The popularity of ‘Golden Brown’, however was undeniable and it ensured that ‘La Folie’ re-entered the UK charts, where it climbed to a much more respectable number 11. And having achieved that, the group opted to scupper everything by lifting the title track of the LP as a single. La Folie was a beautiful track, but it had some things going against it if you were a typical singles-buying member of the public: it was over six-minutes long, the verses were not only spoken but they were spoken in French (as was the chorus), and it bore very little resemblance to rock ‘n’ roll. It was not the soaraway success anybody was hoping for (number 47 in the UK charts was as high as it got), and by this time relationships between Liberty and The Stranglers had soured to such an extent that the group and had actually signed a new deal with Epic prior to the release of the single.
Hugh Cornwell, Smash Hits, August 1982: [the single La Folie] wasn’t a mistake though. It might have been misguided but it wasn’t a mistake. Anyway, did you know it’s the most played track in French gay discos? Maybe that’s because it’s sung in a sexy French voice.
The final Liberty single, however, was July’s Strange Little Girl, which was probably their most sedate single ever, the song pre-dating their UA days, having originally been recorded in 1974 when Hans Wärmling was still in the band. This version was very similar to the demo: soft rock with vague psychedelic undertones, some similarities to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and an extremely melodic vocal from Cornwell. It got to Number 7 in the UK.
The Collection 1977-1982 was a last-gasp cash-in by Liberty Records.
The Rest of the 80’s and Beyond
Although the last few releases were not punk, the change of label marked the end of an era, so that’s where I’ve stopped.
The rest of the 80’s was spent moving farther and farther away from punk and into pure-pop/soft rock territory. ‘Feline’ (1983) and ‘Aural Sculpture’ (1984) came and went with varying degrees of success, but after an incident in 1985 when Burnel attacked Cornwell relations in the group soured, and the rest of the decade was marked by just two studio albums – ‘Dreamtime’ (1986), and the appalling ’10’ (1990) – and one live LP, ‘All Live And All Of The Night’ (1987)’.
Cornwell had been trying to kickstart a solo career since 1985, issuing a handful of singles and, in 1988, a really naff hoping-for-the-mainstream solo LP (‘Wolf’). In 1990 he made his move, quitting the group altogether in a not-very-amicable fashion, and going on to a low-key and fairly boring solo career. The remaining three members recruited a new singer (Paul Roberts) and a guitarist (ex-Vibrator John Ellis) and spent the next 15 years or so making awful records and causing many people to turn up at their shows and ask themselves: „Who is this cunt on vocals?“. After this there were some more lineup shuffles, whereupon a new singer (Baz Warner) was employed, and yet more crap records followed. (Actually, some people rate ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Giants’ highly – I do not.)
Subsequent studio albums: Feline (1983), Aural Sculpture (1984),Dreamtime (1986), 10 (1990), Stranglers In The Night (1992), About Time (1995), Written In Red (1997), Coup De Grace (1998), Norfolk Coast (2004), Suite XVI (2006), Giants (2012).