So I’m on my way to Melbourne to see one of the great loves of my life, the Stranglers, and I’m as excited as a teenager on his first date.
The anticipation that is building in my bones ahead of the gig is just as potent as it was the first time I saw them when I was a bolshie, but awkward 15-year-old. It was at the Birmingham Odeon in 1985 on the Strangs’ Aural Sculpture tour – I went with my mates Johnny Mozza and Pete, whom helped nurture my first love of the band doing tapes of their early albums for me. And while Pete’s musical tastes like mine have diversified considerably – exponentially really – we still share a love of the Stranglers. At the gig I still remember, the heady and intense odour of beer, leather and patchouli oil all around us. And what a mob the Stranglers fan tribe was/is from Mohicaned pierced punks, to muscle-bound tattooed skinheads to sexy goth make-up-caked girls, to beardy bespectacled intellectuals with real ale beer guts – the ‘Men-in-black’ have always attracted an eclectic mix of fringe dwellers – a misfit tribe with whom I have always felt akin.
Lights down and the fiendishly bewitching Waltzing Black starts up through the Marshal speaker stacks sending the atmosphere into fever-pitch with the black leather-clad mass giddily singing along, clumsily waltzing and whooping awaiting the arrival of the Stranglers IV. Then lead singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell’s dulcet tones come through the speakers loftily reciting The Aural Sculpture Manifesto, “When those of committed to the construction of Aural Sculpture can no longer tolerate the prostitution of sound that is proliferating around…” it’s met with a mixture of bemusement, derision and hilarity by the crowd, underpinned by the now fervent desire that they’d just “fucking get on with it.” Then… “Behold [rising bass drum beat] the Stranglers bring you Aural Sculpture [euphoric synth fanfare]” then screaming and hollering and a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck-raising roar as the strobe starts and bass player Jean-Jacques (JJ) Burnel comes hip-swivelling-karate-kicking-pirouetting in his eight-hole Doc Marten boots across the white sheet shrouded stage with his Fender bass slung low around his waist – hammering out the opening notes of Something Better Change and all of a sudden we’re caught up in an irresistible surge forward and we’re one big bouncing, pogoing joyful mass as the snare drum snaps and the opening guitar chords rip forth from Hugh’s guitar. Pete and I, sandwiched in the melée, look at each other wide-eyed and laughing like idiots on ether at the sheer, unadulterated joy of live rock ‘n’ roll played by blokes who revel in being at odds with the mainstream for the delectation of people of the same ilk.
One of the best 90 minutes of my short life ensue as we breathlessly, sweatily wheel around in the mayhem to some of the old faves like (Get A) Grip (On Yourself), Peaches and Nice N Sleazy and some of the popier newbies like European Female, Skin Deep, No Mercy and, of course , Golden Brown. JJ gyrates, swivels and leaps looking hard as fuck (because he is!), while driving that bass hard – the guts of the band’s early sound. Jet Black is like a man-wall hefty Fagin; bearded and solid, pounding away on the skins. Keyboards maestro Dave Greenfield still looks like a porn star, despite shaving his Freddie Mercury ‘tache off, with bowl haircut, hollow cheeks and pouting along to his effortless swirling, mesmeric keys, while Hugh Cornwell is all lithe, angular disconnectedness, raking his guitar strings, gaze detached, but focussed intently on his fret-board as if he averts his eyes for one minute, it’ll all go to shit…but it doesn’t and with the blaring brass section and soulful backing vocalists that accompanied them on that tour – it’s a remarkably tight set belying a professionalism honed by one of the most prodigiously active gigging bands of their generation and genre.
But that’s enough of the Melody Maker wank – when they close out the encore with the raucous turbulence of Duchess it ‘goes off properly mental’ – bodies careering around everywhere, fans going down hard on the deck, only to be scooped up and righted back on their feet by the same punters who are deliriously shoving each other around with manic glee. We’re being buffeted around like a pair of baby ducks in a stormy sea of black – loving every last second of it – yessir, scrawny little 15-year-old fuckers we may have been – but that night we held our own with the wrecking crew up front (in the ‘mosh pit’ in the modern parlance). I watch wide-eyed and mesmerised as a muscular topless bloke, shrouded in a raven banner, leaps up on stage fearless and starts singing along to the chorus with JJ who obligingly makes room for him at the mic stand with a mischievous grin on his face. Then in a keystone cops moment a bouncer races on stage to attempt to remove the stage invader – but he’s too quick and he plunges headlong into the writhing crowd below – banner fluttering like a superman cape behind him. A huge cheer goes up as he is caught by a multitude of arms held aloft like some kind of giant centipede. To his clear delight he is passed around the crowd like so much baggage before they tire of the game and the last we see of him is a pair of monkey boots disappearing beneath the waves of black…
Sodden with sweat, euphoric and aching, we traipse back to the bus-stop babbling on about what we had just participated in. I knew then, this was the start of a lifelong love affair.
The first sparks had come when I was just nine years old and I saw the video of Duchess with the unshaven band dressed in cassocks and reflector sunglasses singing along with feigned fervour to the track in a darkened church – the BBC twats later banned it due to it supposedly being blasphemous, which was as ridiculous as it was hysterical. But I already felt drawn to the driving energy of the band’s music and their defiant irreverence. Being the youngest in a very intellectually-minded family, I already felt on the fringes and here was a band with a fiercely independent streak whom appeared to be of the same outlook as me in wanting to stick my fingers right up society’s nose.
It was three years later that like so many others I found myself bewitched by the mellow harpsichord-infused melancholy of Golden Brown with its haunting lyrics:
Golden brown, texture like sun,
Lays me down with my mind she runs
Throughout the night, no need to fight
Never a frown with golden brown
I didn’t know at the time it was an ode to heroin – I later found that all the band had dabbled with the drug, in fact Hugh spent some weeks banged up in Pentonville at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for possession of the golden-brown stuff. If anything, its opiate orientation merely adds to the haunting depth of the band’s only near-number one that never was. As I became more aware of the band’s experimentation with mind-altering substances, it merely increased their outlaw stock in my mind and added to my own inclination to gingerly step into the drug world. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but that’s what happened; their music chimed with my experimental inclination and worked on a visual and cerebral plane taking me to new places in my head, if not the real world – although that would come later.
When I was about 14, I heard my brother play No More Heroes on his turntable – it was one of the most pugnacious, yet melodic tracks I have ever heard and it talked about Trotsky and Sancho Panza whoever the fuck he was. The disaffected sentiment behind the song seemed to capture the post-miners’ strike Thatcherite fug the country had fallen into – even though it had been written nearly a decade previously.
Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?
He got an ice-pick that made his ears burn…..
…Whatever happened to the heroes, all of the Shakespeareos
They watched their Rome burn.
As a result of the song and the increasing disaffection I was feeling towards society as I saw it, I thought being a Trotskyist would not just be a cool thing to be, but a way of actually changing the world, and a couple of years later I became one – although initially only having an inkling of what that fully entailed. This music was thrilling, aggressive, and intellectual (unlike a lot of the Stranglers’ punk contemporaries) and melodically sophisticated (ditto). It really began to take off from there, I bought The Collection on cassette to play on my cherry red stereo tape-deck with all the classic Stranglers standards including Grip with its bubbling Hammond keyboard and thrumming bass:
Stranger from another planet, welcome to our hole
Just strap on your guitar and we’ll play some rock ‘n’ roll,
But the money’s no good, just get a grip on yourself.
Hanging Around (about scoring heroin):
Big girl in the red dress
She’s just trying to impress us
And she’s got the barely fever
But her eyes are on the ground
She’s just hanging around
and Peaches – a song that honestly and humorously captured the grasping essence of male swinging-dick sexuality – it was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘clitoris’ let alone understood what one actually was, naïve little wanker that I was (and I mean that term descriptively) .
Strolling along minding my own business, well there goes a girl and a half, she’s got me going up and down…
Will you just take a look over there. Where? There.
Is she trying to get out of that clitoris?
Liberation for women that’s what I preach, preacher maaaan.
Again, as a now testosterone fuelled 15-year-old these early Stranglers songs spoke to me like no others of the time and I was enthralled with the black, the leather and the Docs – the uniform of the devoted Stranglers fan. It wasn’t long before I was walking around in faded black stretch canvas jeans, eight-hole docs, an itchy, hot black mohair jumper my nan had knitted me (best gift she ever gave me), a black t-shirt emblazoned with the Stranglers logo and the Rattus Norvegicus insignia in toxic green, along with a black boot lace tied around my neck (my best attempt to mimic the black leather choker Hugh used to wear around his pulsating Adam’s apple). The ensemble was of course topped off with a black leather biker’s jacket with black lining.
I loved that jacket like no other piece of clothing I have ever possessed. The smell of it…the way it moulded around me…the cool zips everywhere, where you could stash…things…and even better when one of my artistic, musically-minded mates, Jason, painted the Stranglers logo on the bottom of it in blood red with the stem of the ‘g’ going off the bottom of the jacket. By anyone’s standards it was cool as fuck…I did everything in that jacket….everything! As JJ sung in Death and Night and Blood:
Home is a black leather jacket fitting sweetly to my brain.
A number of years later after I’d moved to Manchester, some bastard broke in and burgled my flat when I was out doing my washing. Out of all the things they took, including the stereo my parents had bought for my 16th birthday, the one thing that went that really crucified me was that battered old biker’s jacket, which I’d spent some considerable time fixing up with strips of leather I’d bought from Affleck’s Palace. The jacket arms by that point were dropping off the arm holes as the stitching had given away and my crude needle point in lashing them back on with the leather thongs made the jacket even cooler, at least in my mind. For months after it had been taken from me, anytime I saw anyone wearing a black leather biker’s jacket around town, my heart skipped a beat and the adrenaline surged in case there was a blood red Stranglers logo on the back of it. I would have committed murder to get that battered old jacket back.
Back to the music, the deal was sealed when I heard the album, and more importantly the eponymous track, The Raven. This song, my favourite of all time by any band, is indelibly stamped on the cultural map of who I am, as is the raven symbol stamped on the skin on my left arm in black ink. The song, the bird and what it represents has a special personal significance to me, which I will explain in another blog – but suffice is to say the song’s effect on me has been profound and is my go-to track if ever I need to hear something spiritually transcendent or elevating. It’s the track that lights my way, constantly showing me a new direction and it’s the one track that will definitely be played at my funeral.
From there the band’s hugely diverse range of music followed me throughout my life – there was a period where I left them for a while – when I was going through my rave phase in Manchester and after I’d seen them around 1990 perform as the support for Simple Minds at Maine Road – Manchester City’s old football ground – even I had to admit they were pretty woeful. It was the last time I saw them perform with Hugh – a rift had been brewing between him and JJ – and musically they had stagnated. But even then I’d still drop their earlier stuff I had on vinyl on my turntable from time to time, including, of course, The Raven. But I really picked up the thread a number of years later when as a journalist a review copy of Norfolk Coast – the band’s new album – landed on my desk with a media release promising a renewed energy and a return to the band’s earlier rawer bass-driven sound. From the opening stanza of the opening eponymous track with Dave’s mad swirling keys, JJ’s juggernaut bass and new lead guitarist Baz Warne’s soaring riffs, I knew it was no PR bollocks – they were back alright.
I got to interview JJ, which was a fantastic experience; he was generous with his time, expansive, funny and seemed genuinely interested when I told him about the book project I was working on which involved doing an amateur boxing bout from a standing start – being a black belt karate instructor with his own karate school, he even offered me some training tips. And he was wholeheartedly approving and appreciative of my lifelong attachment to the band and their music. He said he’d sort me out a couple of guest passes for the gig they were playing at the Manchester Academy and invited me to join the band afterwards for a drink. So there was a few of us who waited expectantly in a cordoned off part of the bar for their arrival after a barn-storming gig, but for whatever reason they never materialised. I was gutted.
But I got to meet JJ a couple of years later, after I’d done another interview with him ahead of a solo gig he was doing at Salford Uni ostensibly to promote the brand of bass guitar he had swapped his old Fender for. Really though, he seemed to be just up for a bit of fun, a strum and a yarn with the small audience whom he invited to chuck questions at him in between songs. I’d asked him how was the wine he was drinking – the bottle of which was perched by his side – and he told me to go ahead and help myself. In response, I couldn’t have been more of a giggling, flushed groupie if I’d tried. But he earnestly answered my question about the symbolism of the raven and what it represented, giving me a fascinating new perspective on it. At the end of the gig, he signed my bass and posed for a pic with me and was very amicable and indulgent of the fawning fans like me who mobbed him.
My experience of JJ flew in the face of the band’s reputation of being the scourge of all journalists – admittedly predicated on the legendary Eiffel Tower incident in which the band kidnapped one persistently critical journalist, removed his trousers and gaffer-taping him to a girder on the first floor of the Parisian monument – a mere 400 feet off the ground.
It’s all part of the lore that surrounds the band and in my mind and soul merely adds to their caché.
They still bring out the rebel in me too. I was giddily delighted to learn the band were touring Australia in 2012, but a little disappointed to learn they wouldn’t be coming to WA – but fuck it, if the ravens won’t come to the ‘sand-gropers’ (Western ‘Strayans)… I figured. So I went on a solo mission to Melbourne to see the band perform on a bill with Blondie and The Saints at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl. I’d been enjoying myself mightily in Melbourne on a one-man bar and pub crawl meeting some interesting characters along the way, and I was a bit charged up when the band strolled on stage. I couldn’t believe there was only three of us at the front as most of the punters sat back seemingly indifferent in the rows of seats behind us. What was the matter with these idiots? Did they not know who they were witnessing?
The band opened by launching into a blistering aural assault of Five Minutes, Burning Up Time and then Hey! (Rise of the Robots), before pausing for breath. I’ve never heard the latter track live before and it’s an absolute rip-snorter. I was so pumped up, I vaulted up onto the fence in front of the stage at the end of it, but I had no intention of getting on to the stage. I guess I just kinda wanted to get on the same level as the lads to show my appreciation – after all, by now, canny Mackem (Sunderlander) Baz Warne, Hugh’s eventual full replacement, was one of the family – a welcome addition who’d helped breathe new life into the band and to take it in new directions. I roared my approval at him and JJ while briefly up on the fence – I think to their amusement – and jumped straight back down again on the auditorium side.
Inevitably, this crazy, anarchic behaviour – that’s sarcasm, by the way dear reader – was too much for the gorilla-pinhead Kiwi bouncer – who rushed over to me. “Right you can puss off back up to the seated area up there now!”, he growled at me in a Kiwi brogue with a look like he’d got a pool cue shoved up his arse.
“Ah come on mate, I was only pussing…I mean pissing about. I’ve not done any harm and I won’t do it again.”
“If you don’t go quck smart back up those stups, I’m gonna throw you out.”
“Ah, for feck’s sake, come on mate….”
He began to talk into his mouth-piece presumably to get some of his goon mates to come and chuck me out and I could see he wasn’t going to change his mind anytime this century. Bloody pig-headed pin-headed Kiwi bouncer!
So ashen-faced I acquiesced and walked back up the seven or eight rows of steps to the seated area. But I was fucked if I was going to sit down and when the meaty bass intro of Peaches started up, I started doing my own version of a hip-swinging-karate-kick gyrating JJ dance up and down along the aisle with my shades on and carrier bag with freshly bought tour t-shirt in hand – much to the onlookers’ around me bemused amusement. I could see the Kiwi bouncer giving me evils , but I just smiled back at him with a big shit-eating grin plastered on my face. But the fun-police were out to piss on my cavalcade and I was told to sit down in the seats by one of pinhead’s mates. Sitting down at a Stranglers gig? As if! By now the band were really getting into full swing drawing a more sizeable crowd down the front. It was then that I had a brainwave. I got out the newly purchased red tour t-shirt tossed the placcy bag and pulled the shirt over my black raven one. I walked over to another part of the arena, put my head down and walked down the steps towards the stage. After my amazing changing colour t-shirt trick, none of the eagle-eyed bouncers recognised me or stopped me and when I joyfully returned to where the action was a few people had seen what had gone on with the Kiwi prick of a bouncer and a bit of a cheer went up for me – I took a bow. From there…the band absolutely rocked it and the picture below says it all…one of my happiest nights in this hemisphere.
And they’ll always be a place for the Stranglers in my raven soul; for what they stand for, their sound, their attitude, their look, their energy, their intelligence and damnit just for being the stubborn, indefatigable and endlessly interesting bastards they are – it makes them and their followers my passion and my tribe. And they still do the business live…
No more heroes anymore? I can think of at least IV of them.