Thursday, 8 August 2013
112 The Collection 1977-1982 - The Stranglers
Purchased : November 3 1988
Tracks : Grip - Peaches - Hanging Around - No More Heroes - Duchess - Walk On By - Waltzinblack - Something Better Change - Nice 'n' Sleazy - Bear Cage - Who Wants The World - Golden Brown - Strange Little Girl - La Folie
This was the next purchase from Britannia. The spur for this came from my time at Liverpool doing the CIPFA qualification. At lunchtimes I'd usually go down with my friend Mark to a city centre pub whose name now escapes me for something to eat. It was the first pub I'd come across with a CD jukebox but the downside was that the selection was a Patrick Bateman- approved catalogue of yuppie horrors, Genesis, Dire Straits, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen etc. Apart from The Queen Is Dead this was the only "edgy" item on there and in "Walk On By" had a particularly long track to give VFM ( I was doing accountancy after all ! )
I'd always had a hit and miss relationship with The Stranglers loving one single then hating the next which is why I'd never been tempted to purchase one of their regular LPs. This compilation was issued in 1982 to fulfil their obligations to EMI who had bought out their label Liberty. EMI had viewed them as a spent force but ironically they were departing just as they achieved their greatest success with "Golden Brown".
The vinyl version isn't a complete collection of their singles up to that date - the sound is compressed enough as it is- with "Five Minutes" the most grievous omission. Nevertheless it summarises the first phase of their long career well enough. The Stranglers started out as The Guildford Stranglers ( strangely enough I've just been writing about Guildford on another blog ) in 1974 , earned their spurs on the pub circuit then started having hits in 1977 just as punk went over ground. This leads on to the first of the two big questions that dogged the band at this point - were they really punk ? Well they owed nothing to McLaren or the NME that's for sure but punks liked them , bought the records and wore the badges so I would say they passed any worthwhile test of their credentials. The other more difficult question is whether they were as unpleasantly misogynistic as a number of their songs might suggest. One can't be sure but Hugh Cornwell was a biochemist and Jean-Jaques Burnel a closet bisexual who once took a young Steve Strange to bed so it seems unlikely that their most provocative work was entirely without irony.
The running order isn't strictly chronological but it starts with their first single and minor hit "Grip". The song is a frantic commentary on their pre-fame lifestyle as a working band delivered in matter-of-fact style by Hugh Cornwell. It displays all the elements of their initial sound namely Jet Black's less is more jazz-flecked drumming, Jean-Jacques Burnel's crunching basslines and Dave Greenfield's dextrous arpeggio-laden keyboard riffs which often , as here, leave Cornwell's scratchy guitar almost superfluous. The icing on the cake on this track is the unexpected sax blast on the chorus. As an opening statement of intent it's hard to beat.
"Peaches" was the band's second single and their first big hit reaching number eight in the summer of 1977 although it was a double A-side with the raucous but unobjectionable R & B song "Go Buddy Go" and that was the song that was featured on Top Of The Pops and Radio One until the band issued a more radio-friendly version of the other side that didn't feature the words shit, clitoris and bummer. It's the fount of all the accusations of unpleasant sexism as the whole song consists of the observations of a lecherous man looking at girls on the beach. The song is played in a queasy , lurching reggae style. Cornwell sneers rather than sings the song and it's hard to believe he's being serious - the mispronunciation of "clitoris" is the big clue here. He's playing the part of Les Dawson's contemporaneous creation Cosmo Smallpiece. Whether the band's audience got the irony is another question; I remember my 12-13 year old schoolmates being thrilled that something so rude had got in the charts.
"Hanging Around" was never released as a single but it's a stonewall classic , the highlight of their debut LP "Rattus Norvegicus". The intro is a gem in itself , eight hi-hat taps from Black, ominous stabs of Greenfield's Hammond, a spindly riff from Cornwell and then the entrance of Burnel's bass which hits like a sledgehammer. The rest of the song doesn't disappoint with Cornwell's deadpan dissections of members of their audience all indulging in some form of substance abuse leading via ascending chords to a killer chorus dominated by Greenfield's fast fingerwork and a middle eight where Cornwell and Greenfield have an instrumental dialogue that keeps the tension going. As an evocation of the febrile, dangerous world of urban Britain in the late 70s ( at least as viewed from the safety of a parental home in small town Lancashire ) it's second only to Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. It was a minor hit in 1981 as a passable cover by Cornwell's former girlfriend Hazel O' Connor who, it was speculated, may have been the "big girl in the red dress" of the first verse.
Then it's straight on to another classic in "No More Heroes" the first "punk" hit that I genuinely liked as opposed to wanted to like. Whatever the group's credentials it's the perfect hymn to the nihilism of the times although the name checked examples - Trotsky, art forger Elmer de Hory, Lenny Bruce , Sancho Panza - are certainly an electic bunch and as there are four of them one suspects that each band member got to nominate a favourite. Musically it's a thrilling ride from Cornwell's descending guitar figure at the start to the pounding finish. Greenfield's arpeggios dominate as he and Burnel intermesh leaving Cornwell a jagged solo at the start of the middle eight.
Then the album jumps forward to 1979's "Duchess" their last Top 20 hit until 1982 heralding a troubled start to the new decade with Cornwell getting himself banged up for heroin possession and their singles struggling to make it into the Top 40. It's clear that they've turned down the aggression a notch; Burnel's bass is a bit lower in the mix as if his solo album earlier in the year got something out of his system. The song is a swipe at the English class system with the titular woman a working class girl with pretensions holding out against the working class "Rodneys" who want to take her out. Greenfield again dominates this one achieving a harpsichord tone as he piles on the arpeggios but for me the song doesn't really go anywhere.
The full version of their cover of "Walk On By" is a strange inclusion given its six minute length could have alternately accommodated two of the omitted singles. Perhaps the band wanted this testament to their musical abilities to take centre stage. Cornwell sings it straight but the real point of the track is the four minute instrumental break introduced by Cornwell's memorable "just go for a stroll in the trees" ad lib. All four musicians excel in a passage which does call to mind The Doors' Light My Fire though of course there was no equivalent to Burnel's relentless bass in the earlier group's music.
"Waltzinblack" is another curious inclusion , an instrumental preferred to either single release to represent their poor selling 1981 LP " The Gospel According To The Men In Black". It is, as the title suggests , a sinister fairground waltz where the others take a back seat to Greenfield ( in fact it's not clear if there' s anyone else on it ) giving him room to blend synthesisers with his previous electronic organ sound. The Mr Punch laughter noises in the second half don't quite work for me, recalling that Several Furry Creatures... nonsense on Pink Floyd's Ummagumma but it's an interesting diversion.
Side Two starts by taking us back to 1977 for their second big hit "Something Better Change" which is a three and a half minute "fuck off " to their critics sung with yobbish relish by Burnel particularly the climactic line to the second verse "Stick my fingers right up your nose". There's a nice swelling organ intro and a spiky guitar solo from Cornwell to keep things interesting but the chanted chorus is weak and compared to the rest of their 1977 material it's a bit disappointing.
"Nice n Sleazy" is another gem from the early summer of 1978. The song describes the band's European tour in 1977 and in particular their ( it seems, enjoyable ) encounter with the Hell's Angels of Amsterdam. It's hung on a fat melodic bassline from Burnel and Cornwell sings it in an odd robotic manner. What really catches the ear is the startling middle eight where Greenfield cuts loose with screeching atonal synth noises that even now you wouldn't expect to hear on a chart single. The song is still notorious for its performance at Battersea Park that year when they were joined by half a dozen strippers on stage; it's notable how little of the band you see on the video.
The rest of the album deals with their early 80s output. "Bear Cage " was released with brilliant timing just as Cornwell went down to Pentonville in the spring of 1980 but actually describes the experience of living in the island that was West Berlin during the Cold War. It's not one of their better songs with its dull chant of a chorus and Cornwell sings it like he was addled at the time.
"Bear Cage" stiffed in the thirties and its follow-up "Who Wants the World" did no better. A Hammond-heavy R & B ( in the original sense of the term ) number it concerns aliens dropping in on the world and getting out again damn quick. Cornwell's shaky vocal is bolstered by the others coming in halfway through each verse. It's passable but you do get the sense of a band losing its way.
Then they brilliantly resurrected themselves with "Golden Brown" their biggest hit and the most likely Stranglers song to be heard on the radio. I can't imagine any reader not knowing it pretty well - a dangerously seductive paean to heroin set to Greenfield's rolling harpsichord patterns with the rhythm section barely audible. Utterly timeless and an object lesson in how to restore your fortunes in one fell swoop with the right song.
"Strange Little Girl" is the obligatory "new" track for release as a single but it's actually a re-recording of a track they submitted on an unsuccessful demo to EMI back in 1974. It's a brief little Syd Barrett-ish ditty about a young girl leaving home and getting lost in the big city set to a fuzzy but still slightly menacing keyboard melody ( with slight echoes of Sparks' This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us ). It gave them another Top 10 hit.
At this point I usually lift the needle off the disc because I can't abide the final track " La Folie", the title track of the album that spawned "Golden Brown" and in a decision that took contrariness beyond the point of lunacy , released as its follow-up. It got to number 49 on the strength of, I'm assuming, buyers not having actually heard it beforehand. A tasteless resume of a recent Parisian murder case where the victim was actually eaten afterwards it's mumbled in French by Burnel with an Air-prefiguring neurasthenic synth backing which also owes something to Vienna ( a debt made more obvious by the video which has the foursome mooching about the streets of Paris ). It always seems a lot longer than its four minutes.
Surprisingly for a good value hits package the LP only got to number 12 in the charts. Perhaps EMI didn't really get behind it given the circumstances which seems a shame since it contains some of the best music in my collection.