The Stranglers are an ace rock/punk/new wave band from Britain that never really cracked the States. The sneering vitriol of singer Hugh Cornwell and their keyboard-rich, guitar-heavy sound, compelled by the primal bass rumble of Jean-Jacques Burnel was just a bit more than U.S. new-wave audiences could get with.
In addition to JJ Burnel on bass, backing & lead vocals, The Stranglers classic lineup included Jet Black on drums, Hugh Cornwell on guitar, lead & backing vocals, and the late Dave Greenfield on keyboards, backing & lead vocals. I consider their classic period to be from their mid-70s beginnings to the departure of Hugh Cornwell in 1990.
I learned about the Stranglers from a friend of mine who went to school in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He had a show on the college’s radio station called Dave & Eric’s Coffee House Death Camp. This guy once put on side two of The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus during his set and went out to the bathroom for a dump. “I wanted to play ‘Peaches’ then I started to crown,” was the explanation I heard. He went on to mix in “Golden Brown,” “Bitching” and “Nice n Sleazy,” among many other Stranglers tunes.
Some years later, my boy laid an old mix tape on me of Stranglers jams he’d assembled while jocking the UP airwaves. It inspired me to acquire an almost-complete set of vintage Stranglers vinyl (there needs to be a Stranglers CD box set). Here, I recreate that Coffee House Death Camp playlist, plus a bonus track from their 2021 release Dark Matters, their first new recording since 2012 (spoiler alert: it slaps!).
Now, spread these 10 bitching tunes all over your peeling skin. Yeah, that feels real good…
from Rattus Norvegicus (aka,The Stranglers IV) released 15 April 1977
This is the second single from The Stranglers’ debut, and it’s where the journey starts for most people digging into their catalog. The verse strikes one of the great balances of guitar, bass and keys. Dave’s B3 solo on the recording provides a little respite from Hugh’s lecherous leering and groaning. This here is a great live version from 1985, featuring the horns that had become a fixture at that point. Hugh changes the “is she trying to get out of that clitoris” line. Wudhesay?
from Rattus Norvegicus
On the recording, this one is all about Dave’s keys and the backing vocals. It’s cool how Hugh sets the rhythm as if he’s showing it to Dave who picks it up on the keyboard. I love Hugh’s tasty Tom Verlaine-esque solo; he doesn’t solo much, but he makes the most of it. This live clip is from the Rock Goes to College series on BBC. They’re at University of Surrey in their hometown of Guildford in 1978.
“I Feel Like a Wog”
from No More Heroes, released 23 September 1977
This is another seek & destroy bass line from JJ. But Jet’s quarter-note snare drives this thing like a diesel engine at 155 beats per. This live clip is from the DVD Rattus At The Roundhouse, a live DVD of their 2007 song-by-song reenactment of the same concert they played at The Roundhouse, Camden, London, exactly 30 years prior. By then, Baz Warne had replaced the long-departed Cornwell on vocals and guitar.
from No More Heroes
When I listen to the recording, I’m musing to myself, “What if Mr Mojo Risin’ was a punk? What if The Stranglers were The Doors?” But watching this live clip from that ’07 DVD, I’m like, “What if JJ Burnell’s bass destroys the building?” I love the backing vocals on this tune too — Bar Bitching! JJ is telling us the gospel truth on this one. More Baz, backing JJ’s vocal.
“Bring on the Nubiles”
from No More Heroes
From the opening line, “I want to love you like your dad,” I think this is the tune that finally enticed me into The Stranglers’ lair. There is a very not-so-subtle misogyny at work here. This ’96 remaster really slams, and enhances Dave’s expressionist keyboard spasms. Do you dare probe deeper?
from Black and White, released 12 May 1978
Dave Greenfield ultimately is the spiritual center of The Stranglers. “Tank” is a great example. Without Dave’s relentless keyboard riffing, they might’ve been just another group of dyspeptic punk bangers. This looks to be a fan-made video, but it’s an appropriate montage of war shit to accompany this act of subversive irony.
“Nice n Sleazy”
from Black and White
The first single from the band’s third release, JJ’s bass is dominant, at least until Dave’s sleazy space-age bloopity electrono thing fucks the whole thing up. And, while Hugh’s seductive baritone is hard to resist, I can’t pretend to have any idea what he’s talking about. This clip is from a ’78 appearance on Britain’s Top of the Pops.
from The Raven, released 21 September 1979
The intertwining keyboard intro sets the tone here. The lyric is inspired by Norse mythology, so this here fan video featuring Vikings is pretty appropriate. Some great cheesy, farty keyboard sounds from Dave. He could noodle the phone book and I’d dig it; that’s probably why he stands out the most to me in band photos, with his floppy lid and porn stache.
from La folie, released 9 November 1981
This was the second single from ’81’s La folie, and it was a huge song for them in Britain. I dare say it’s their signature tune, and one of my favorite waltzes. This shit ain’t baroque, but it is one of the great harpsichord grooves. This restored video for it is pretty interesting. What is it about brown?
from Aural Sculpture, released 5 November 1984
The Stranglers started experimenting with a more sophisticated layered sound with lush backing vocal arrangements. “Skin Deep,” the lead single from this record, is a fine example. Still, Hugh can’t help but be subversive. Even when he’s trying to be smooth, there’s still a dark foreboding. “One day the track that you’re climbing gets steep.” This little confection bubbles and chugs like light rail (or a-Ha).
from Dark Matters, released 14 May 2021
I don’t know what Nottingham Forest futbol legend Stuart Pearce is so tensed up about, but I do like this new track. Recently released as a single, it would seem to be bankable in a Smithereens kind of way. I’m sure it’s Baz sneering the vocal, and Jim Macaulay filling in admirably for Jet on drums. And as long as there’s Jean-Jacques Burnell bringing the thump & rumble, it sounds like The Stranglers (sorry Hugh). The album is dedicated to Dave Greenfield who died of Covid-19 during its recording.
I know these geezers are touring Dark Matters in Britain and Europe, but I don’t think they’re allowed into America (for a variety of reasons). I never did see the classic lineup play live, so maybe I’ll have to paddle over to Cambridge and hit up their gig at the Corn Exchange next February. In the meantime, I’ve got Stranglers vinyls and the Coffee House Death Camp mix tape in the cassette deck of my ’83 Dodge Omni. Now… why don’t you all go get screwed!