The Stranglers, a unique musical case

Several events have surrounded this work, such as the death of its keyboardist, Dave Greenfield by coronavirus last May. Or the fact that, for the first time, his legendary drummer, Jet Black, does not appear in the credits replaced by the young Jim Macaulay. But focusing on this new work, you can see how The Stranglers is right now, more than in a group, an artistic concept that exceeds fashions, topics and times. And that destroys those two maxims of rock consisting of believing that musical beginnings are always the best, or that age is a handicap to contribute new or stimulating ideas that revitalize your legacy.

But for those who do not know The Stranglers, and before analyzing this last jewel, it is necessary to review its trajectory. The Stranglers emerged as one of the four flagships of the punk movement, alongside the Sex Pistols, Damned and The Clash. In fact, the band then led by Hugh Cornwell always rivaled Joe Strummer’s group over which was the favorite of British youth. In these early days the quartet produced three fascinating works that have remained for posterity as head works of this movement, such as Rattus Novergicus, No mores heroes and Black and white. These three masterpieces already conveyed an irreverent, original and provocative character together with a demystifying attitude contrary to all rock stars. On the one hand, the texts were as crude as they were accurate about the reality of Tatcherian England with a tendency to misogyny (“my ears are going to explode, today you have spoken for a hundred years” reads in London Lady), the genetic aberration before a nuclear debacle in the middle of the cold war (“I will make love to several water rats and form a family called the survivors. My dear, today we have dinner in the sewer”, he declares in Down in the sewer), cannibalism (“There is a sentence that says that human flesh is sacred until there is no more food, “they say in Straighten out). And, on the other hand, in his concerts, Cornwell laughed at his audience, and sometimes even insulted them, ending many of his performances in pitched battles, if not literally in jail. But the curious thing about all this is that, despite their reputation for quarrels, what separated The Stranglers from the other groups of their time was their intellectual training since Cornwell was a biochemist and the bassist, Jean Jacques Burnel, an economist. And because he had a marvelous musical preparation that can be seen in the exquisiteness of his compositions. One of his songs, No more heroes, became from the first moment one of the great anthems of punk. Always misinterpreted, the song is not that it denied the heroes, far from it, but rather that it underlined what the spirit of the youth of the late seventies was like, which was up to the bow of the pathetic Beatlemania and the mass concerts of stars like Led Zeppelin or The Who. The lyrics in question defended the idea of ​​not admiring anyone, not having idols, and burying shameful teenage clichés to the bottom.

In addition, the group managed to capture the essence of punk in an accurate way in their Live X-cert live, an album with an apparently raw and visceral sound, but which contained an enveloping and mysterious darkness thanks to the dark keyboards of Dave Greenfield that reach its pinnacle of perfection in the mesmerizing Dead ringer, the song that best defines the sound of the London quartet.

This concert shows what the hectic environment was like at the time when the group had to deal with an uncontrolled audience, when not literally alienated, in the midst of an economic recession. Cornwell stops a moment of playing and asks “who has shouted wanker? Come up on stage and clarify it for me in an instant.” Or they are victims of their own cuteness when the singer asks the audience to please stop spitting on them, as the ritual of throwing liquid substances from the mouth onto the stage during punk was something that Cornwell himself created indirectly. It arose because the singer, during the performance of Ugly, imitated a strangulation victim who ended up spitting out his mouth, a ritual that the audience later ended up repeating towards the helpless artists. The title and the cover referred to a scandal that the press fanned about strippers at their concerts. They always defended themselves with an argument that demolished the topic of the weaker sex, arguing that those strippers were actually “street girls”, that they asked them to please, and that they “did not refuse because then they would have ended up killing us ».

But when punk begins to succumb in England, The Stranglers make another masterful move with their next trilogy, anticipating after-punk or gothic rock with the wonderful The Raven, The gospel according to the meninblack and La Folie. Here, and from the point of view of the writer, is his most impressive and hypnotic time. At this moment, The Stranglers puts aside the previous ferocity to be shown in a tune closer to that of Joy Division, The Cure or Siouxsie and The Banshees. The theme of the songs is also more cryptic and elaborate, addressing from Norse mythology to the vision of the gospel as if it were an extraterrestrial message. But they still retain their irreverent character in songs that deal with more tricky topics such as the ban on music in the regime of the Shah of Persia (“Did you hear about the man who lived in Iran, he was a fan of lust and people ate of her hand “they sing in Sha Sha a gogo), religion (” she is a nun with no return and will never be your wife because she has the best love of all “, they sentence in Non stop), or the lies of fame (” to In the end you will be appreciated in your grave because everyone loves you when you are dead ”, they recall in Everybody loves you when you are dead). But at this time they also publish their most famous song, Golden brown, a magical litany interpreted with a harpsichord that seems to speak of the drug to which the title alludes, although the group has always denied it by admitting that it is simply about a girl.

To the trilogy we should add Off the beaten tracks, a work that is not in his official discography, but that collects unreleased or b-sides of singles with such great quality that it can be considered one of his best works.

And we reached its third stylistic turn at a time when electronic pop, soul and synthesizers, in the midst of the new wave, began to predominate with figures such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or the Human League. And, of course, The Stranglers embroider it again this time with another equally successful trilogy formed by the albums Feline, Aural sculpture and Dreamtime. But it happens that Feline, together with the album that they just released, is the great masterpiece of his career. And it just so happens that the two have placed at number 2 on the UK charts. Just for Feline, The Stranglers should already be in the Olympus of great creators. An elegant, emotional, exquisite album, full of fascinating mid-tenses where there is no longer any of the sarcasm that characterized them. Now the group talks about love insecurity (“Your love has gone with some friends, sister, dry your tears, you know that I always worry about you,” they sing in Blue sister), the wisdom of age (“I He spoke of the beauty hidden in our foreheads and the ugliness that we show in its place », they relate in Midnight summer dream), or the little faith in man after reviewing the history of Europe in the 20th century (« I wish I were a believer, not I’d be so sad ”, they speak in the devastating Northwinds blowing). Also from this time is his second great success, Always the sun, one of the most balanced and healthy songs ever written that conveys the message of not losing hope no matter how bad things go.

Also to this time we should add the album of faces b Here and there which, among other wonders, includes the communist-themed saga, as a Russian musical serial, about Vladimir and Olga.

The fourth trilogy of the group, already in the nineties, is made up of discs 10, In the night (Already without Cornwell) and About time. And, on this occasion, the group also brilliantly anticipates that garage and psychedelic rock that was beginning to emerge with groups like The Cynics, Fuzztones or The Lyres. In one song they address those who accused them of treason for their changes in styles (“The truth is the truth, but this never existed”, they sing in Never to look back).

The second decade of the nineties, with the records Written in red and Coup de grace, may have been the weakest time with a versatile and forceful pop but lacking the identity of the previous times. Even so, both works would not cease to be fascinating for any other group to use.

And we come to the current, last and fundamental era that begins with the incorporation of the singer and guitarist Baz Warne, formed by a tetralogy formed by the records Norfolk coast, Suite XVI, Giants and the current Dark matters. They are songs elaborated to the maximum, full of interesting details that gain with each new listen and that show how the group’s journey through the last two decades has generated samples of talent such as Mine all mine, She’s sleeping away, or Adiós where Burnel sings in Spanish . But, focusing on the current Dark matters, it must be said that the album houses some of the best songs that the group has composed so far, with a couple of ballads decided by his former partner Dave Greenfield. Thus, and as soon as it begins, the forceful and overwhelming This song concentrates all the best of the classic energy of the bands. The first surprise comes with the wonderful If something’s gonna kill me (It might as well be love) in an atmosphere between psychotropic and academic that invites you to immerse yourself in a parallel reality. The listener is once again surprised by the fascinating No man’s land with its elegant structure but with its controlled chaos in an almost noise wave at one point. But the last five songs are the most impressive moments. Thus, a piece like Payday perfectly defines the impudence and subtlety with which the group has moved after the entry of Warne. But even more surprising is the intoxicating The Last Man on the Moon, a veritable lesson in rhythmic and melodic dexterity to the entire horde of current Brit-pop. Although the best theme is, without a doubt, the shrewd White stallion, with a dark atmosphere, almost religious choirs and orchestral arrangements. Too on an album that confirms The Stranglers as something different from everything that surrounds him in the current musical universe.


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