26 March 2018
Stalwart punk survivors The Stranglers have retained one of music’s fiercest followings, but they’ve also tested their fans’ loyalty to the limit. The Men In Black are still nurturing the latter-day renaissance that began with 2004’s invigorating Norfolk Coast, but even their most partisan supporter would concede that mojo-regaining record was their first mandatory LP in 20 years.
The departure of The Stranglers’ original frontman Hugh Cornwell is usually cited as key to the band’s creative decline, but the brutal truth is they were largely treading water after mellowing out for 1983’s Feline. However, now the surly punks’ legend-enshrining early titles are receiving the expanded reissue treatment, we have the ideal opportunity to examine why The Stranglers were such a big deal then, and why they still matter now.
Honed to perfection after 12 months of solid gigging on London’s toilet circuit, the Guildford quartet’s United Artists debut Rattus Norvegicus ranks highly among the Class Of ’77’s premier platters. Sometimes, Ugly and the ultra-lairy Peaches quickly established their thug-rock credentials, though the imperiously bluesy Princess Of The Streets and the exhilarating, suite-like finale, Down In The Sewer, defiantly paraded Cornwell and company’s virtuosity despite punk’s prevailing demands to dumb things down.
Released just six months later, No More Heroes followed Rattus… into the UK Top 5. Its essential status is hobbled by the puerile Bring On The Nubiles and Cornwell’s tedious School Mam, but the record claws back points thanks to the adrenalised, anti-racist message of I Feel Like A Wog and its timeless titular song.
Thrusting JJ Burnel’s belligerent, barracuda bass right up front, May ’78’s Black & White served notice that The Stranglers had already outstripped punk. With Cornwell’s sci-fi epic Toiler On The Sea and Burnel’s Yukio Mishima-inspired Death And Night And Blood among its numerous dystopian highlights, Black And White was – and is – stark, compelling and every inch as necessary as contemporaneous envelope-pushers including PiL’s First Issue and Wire’s Chairs Missing.
A decent capture of the band’s punchy in-concert prowess across 1977-78, United Artists released the raw but regressive Live (X-Cert) as a pot-boiler while The Stranglers worked up their next album. Well worth the wait, September ’79’s The Raven was a further sonic refinement, presenting a stunning breadth of material ranging from the weird, Beefheart-esque Genetix to the elegantly chilling, heroin-related Don’t Bring Harry and even the infectious pop of the Cliff Richard-baiting Top 20 hit, Duchess.
After a turbulent 12 months during which Cornwell was incarcerated for drug possession and the band were nicked for allegedly inciting a riot in France, The Stranglers returned with two LPs in 1981. Though maligned by the critics, the left-field, UFO/conspiracy theory-obsessed The Gospel According To The Meninblack still sounds futuristic and remains a fan favourite. The Tony Visconti-helmed La Folie, meanwhile, yielded Tramp, the bracing The Man They Love To Hate and the dreamy, waltz-time smash hit Golden Brown. Though more mainstream-inclined, it’s still quirky enough to merit inclusion here, but it proved to be the original line-up’s last major hurrah.
Such was The Stranglers’ work rate that many of their early singles were stand-alone affairs. Consequently, these expanded editions are fleshed out with all their key non-LP As and Bs, including Five Minutes, Bear Cage, seminal Burt Bacharach/Hal David cover, Walk On By, and even the wussy, toned-down radio edit of Peaches. The downside, though, is that The Men In Black’s archive was already comprehensively plundered for multi-disc collections The Old Testament and 2014’s Giants And Gems, so collectors seeking obscure treasure here will be left wanting.