October 4 – Forgotten Gems : The Stranglers

ON  BY DAVE

Today we remember a song released this day in 1984. Is it dark new wave or punk sunny-side up or merely a very cool pop song? Whatever the definition, The Stranglers‘ “Skin Deep” was one of the best examples of Brit keyboard-based music of the ’80s.

The Stranglers had by that time been around for a decade, and put out eight studio albums which had shifted steadily from aggressive yet melodic rock that was labeled “punk” (the subject of many a music debate; the band themselves never classified themselves as that and many diehard punkers hated them for being considerably older than most punk bands and rather good talents on their instruments) through driving post-punk new wave to rather synthesizer-heavy, almost dreamy new wave on their previous album, Feline. “Skin Deep” was the lead single off their eighth album, Aural Sculpture.

The title to that eluded to a “manifesto” they’d read at the tail end of the previous album, which should have put to pay any arguments about how earnestly serious they were about being angry punkers. Should have, although some might have missed tongue in cheek nature of a “manifesto” which declared “the musicians of our times are harlots and charlatans who use science without being scientists and abuse art without being artists… the world must prepare itself to herald the advent of aural sculpture, whose presence can now be shared with the fortunate few who have ears to hear…”

While the quartet had been a democracy of sorts, with all four sharing the spotlight musically at times and sharing writing credits, by this time cracks were starting to appear in the bonds, chiefly between guitarist and main vocalist Hugh Cornwell and bassist and occasional lead singer JJ Burnel. Looking back, JJ remembers they were “being dominated by Hugh” and that “everyone seemed to think i was the pretty boy and Hugh was the talent…Hugh was playing about with American models and moving in different circles. He started to look down on our fans.” After one show the guitarist got mad over a botched move on stage and threw a glass of champagne in JJ’s face. Not a good thing to do with a guy whose one of the top karate practisers in the country. “the backstage had paper-thin walls and I put him through it, leaving a Hugh-shaped sillohuette like on Tom & Jerry,” the bassist recalls. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cornwell quit the band not that long after (he went on to have a solo career and is currently promoting a sci-fi novel he wrote.)

the Stranglers had gone through quite a few labels in their day and for Aural Sculpture were signed to CBS. The label saw untapped potential – the group had been very successful in the UK and France, but Columbia sensed the time was right for a major breakthrough in North America. They brought in Laurie Latham to produce. Latham was fresh off working on a Paul Young album. The result was as Burnel puts it, “really ’80s production…it’s no one’s fault, certainly not Laurie’s. (all things considered) I think it worked out well,” he says. Latham introduced a horn section for a couple of songs, which worked not badly, but the one thing Burnel regrets that Latham turned his bass down low in the mix “a more conventional position,” but very different than many of their early tunes where his forceful bass arguably dominates the whole song. CBS not only brought in a well-respected producer, they also commissioned a big sculpture of an ear for the cover photo…and made it attention-grabbing. “The monumental ear was transported on an unnecessarily large low loader truck around central London in an attempt to cause traffic chaos and maximize publicity,” the band’s website reports.

“Skin Deep” was the lead single and perhaps the catchiest tune on a pretty solid album, with lyrics that make a certain amount of sense… “many people tell you they’re your friend, you need them you believe them…” but “brother, you’d better watch out for the skin deep.” The song is credited to all four of them but given the state of affairs between Burnel and Cornwell, one might imagine it was JJ singing about his one-time best friend and bandmate, even though Hugh got to do the vocals. The song showcased Dave Greenfield’s keyboard skills more than anything else, and it certainly ranks among the better songs of its type from the mid-’80s. Critics seemed to like it, and the album in general, none more so than allmusic. They rate it 4.5-stars and say “the Stranglers have gone sensual, sounding sincere, serene and sensitive. And it’s perfect..you never thought they could transition to this.”

The song got to #15 in Britain, and was a top 10 in Ireland and Poland. It marked the tenth top 20 single for them in the UK – the Sex Pistols had seven in their career for comparison’s sake. Over here though, it didn’t break through like CBS expected. The album hit the Canadian top 40, and the video for “Skin Deep” was shown on MuchMusic quite regularly in 1985, after the domestic release here, but the single didn’t make much of a mark outside of Toronto. Aural Sculpture was the fifth top album of the year in ’84 on CFNY in that city, and made the top 30 the next year as well, and “Skin Deep” actually ended up getting played not only on that alt rock station but the hard rock and the easy-listening one as well!

Cornwell might have fallen out of favor with the others, but the remaining trio remained close and The Stranglers still operate, although sadly Dave Greenfield passed away this year and drummer Jet Black, now in his 80s, had to retire.

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