A science teacher, a karate black belt, an ex-ice-cream seller pushing 40, and a keyboard player who thought he was Ray Manzarek – you really couldn’t have made The Stranglers up . . .
Hugh Cornwell, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Brian Duffy (aka Jet Black) formed The Guildford Stranglers in 1974 to play gigs in Surrey, England. Two years later, the full line-up emerged, comprising Cornwell (vocals, guitar), Burnel (bass), Jet Black (drums) and Dave Greenfield (keyboards).
Courting controversy from the outset, they caused a sensation and saw their date at London’s Roundhouse cut short when Cornwell wore an allegedly obscene T-shirt.
In February 1977 The Stranglers’ debut single, (Get A) Grip (On Yourself), reached #44 in the UK charts and inexplicably dropped out after only one week.
According to the chart compilers, the sales were inadvertently assigned to another record, but it was too late to rectify the damage.
Grip saw them at their early best – bathed in swirling organ and backed by a throbbing beat, the single displayed Cornwell’s gruff vocal to strong effect. The b-side, London Lady, was taken at a faster pace and revealed the first signs of an overbearing misogynist stance that would later see them fall foul of critics.
The track was reportedly partly inspired by an “unsatisfactory” sexual liaison with Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon.
Initially bracketed with punk, The Stranglers owed as much to their pub rock background and it soon emerged that they were older and more knowing than their teenage contemporaries.
Nevertheless, their first album, Rattus Norvegicus (1977), was greeted with enthusiasm by the rock press and sold extremely well. The album was recorded in just six days but the performance was very accomplished, leading the NME to declare that “virtually every track is a little masterpiece”.
The blasphemous lyrics of Hanging Around and the gruesome imagery of Down In The Sewer seemingly proved less acceptable than the women-baiting subject matter of their next single, Peaches.
Banned by BBC radio, the song still charted thanks to airplay for the b-side, Go Buddy Go.
Rather than bowing to the feminist criticisms levelled against them, the band subsequently compounded the felony by introducing strippers at a Battersea Park concert in London (though male strippers were also present).
Journalists were treated in an even more cavalier fashion, and the band members were renowned for their violent antics against those who opposed them (karate black belt Burnel would attack writer Jon Savage after one unhelpful review).
Having alienated the press, their work was almost universally derided thereafter. The public kept the faith, however, and ensured that The Stranglers enjoyed a formidable run of hits over the next few years.
The lugubrious protest Something Better Change, and the faster-paced No More Heroes both reached the UK Top 10, while 5 Minutes and Nice ‘N’ Sleazy each entered the Top 20.
In the background, there were the usual slices of bad publicity. Burnel and Black were arrested for being drunk and disorderly before charges were dropped. Cornwell was not so fortunate and found himself sentenced to three months imprisonment on drugs charges in January 1980.
Within two months of his release, the band found themselves under arrest in Nice, France, after allegedly inciting a riot. Later that year they received a heavy fine in a French court.
The band’s uncompromising outlaw image tended to distract from subtle changes that had been occurring in their musical repertoire. Their brave cover version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard Walk On By reached #21 in spite of the fact that 100,000 copies of the record had already been issued gratis with Black And White.
Equally effective and contrasting was the melodic Duchess, which displayed The Stranglers’ plaintive edge to surprising effect. Their albums also revealed a new diversity, from The Raven (with its elaborate 3D cover) to the genuinely strange The Men In Black.
The latter was primarily Cornwell’s concept, and introduced the idea of extra-terrestrial hit-men who silence individuals that have witnessed UFO landings – an ever-vengeful music press delighted in pulling it to pieces.
For their next album, La Folie, the band was accompanied on tour by a ballet company. The album spawned The Strangler’s biggest hit, the evocative Golden Brown, with its startling, classical-influenced harpsichord arrangement. It reached the UK #2 spot, resting just behind Bucks Fizz‘s The Land Of Make Believe.
Even at their most melodic, The Stranglers ran into a minor furore when it was alleged that the song was concerned with heroin consumption. Fortunately, the theme was so lyrically obscure that the accusations failed to prove convincing enough to provoke a ban.
Another single from La Folie was the sentimental Strange Little Girl, which also climbed into the UK Top 10.
The melodic influence continued on European Female, but in spite of the hits, the band’s subsequent albums failed to attract serious critical attention.
As unremittingly ambitious as ever, The Stranglers’ 1986 album Dreamtime was inspired by Australian Aboriginal culture and complemented their outsider image.
Just as it seemed that their appeal was becoming merely cultish, they returned to their old style with a cover version of The Kinks‘ All Day And All Of The Night. It was enough to provide them with their first Top 10 hit for five years.
Increasingly unpredictable, the band re-recorded their first single, Grip, which ironically fared better than the original, reaching the Top 40 in January 1989.
Despite their small handful of collaborative ventures, it seemed unlikely that either Cornwell or Burnel would ever consider abandoning The Stranglers for solo careers. Perpetual derision by the press finally took its cumulative toll on the lead singer, however, and in the summer of 1990 Cornwell announced that he was quitting.
The lacklustre 10 was written specifically for the American market, but failed to sell, in light of which Cornwell called time on his involvement.
Burnel, Black and Greenfield were left with the unenviable problem of finding an experienced replacement and deciding whether to retain The Stranglers name. The band recruited vocalist Paul Roberts and guitarist John Ellis (formerly of The Vibrators and a veteran of Burnel’s Purple Helmets side project).
Stranglers In The Night was arguably a return to form but still failed to recapture old glories. A second set with the band’s new line-up then emerged in 1995, with strong performances on tracks such as Golden Boy, but with Cornwell’s absence felt most acutely in the unadventurous songwriting. Written In Red, released in 1997, was a better effort.
The band celebrated their 21st anniversary with a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, incongruously backed by a string section. Baz Warne replaced Ellis on guitar in March 2000.
Jet Black (Brian Duffy)