May 7 – The Turntable Talk, Round 2 – Live Albums Encore

Today we finish our second instalment of Turntable Talk. We hope you liked the first one we ran last month which dealt with why the Beatles were still relevant. This time around, we’ve had six guest writers discuss The Live Album. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em. Some musicians put out some of their best work in live, concert recordings, others seem to use them as a stopgap to fulfill contractual obligations and little else. So we’ve asked our panelists to discuss live albums, however they see fit. Do they enjoy them? Do the records live up to the experience of seeing an act play live? What are their favorites? So far we’ve had rave reviews of live records by the likes of the J.Geils Band, Who and Aerosmith.

Today, we wrap it up with a few thoughts about the concept from me here at A Sound Day:

 

I want to thank our six guest contributors this week who’ve looked at the Live Album, and shared some of their favorites. It shows that some bands can indeed put out great records straight from the stage with a minimum of studio enhancement, and at their best they can really give listeners a sense of the excitement of being there as well as great music to listen to for its own enjoyment.

For the most part, I share the sentiment a few of our other contributors had – I’m not usually a big fan of live albums. I’ve bought quite a few in my day, and had a big percentage of them gather dust more than most LPs or CDs in my collection. I think there are several reasons for this.

One is that most are merely live sets of songs we already knew. If they play the song like it was on the original record, it rarely sounds as good … it always sounds just a bit “off” compared to what we “know” it should sound like. The vocals are off a little or the drums are too prominent, or they add in a few extra bars of the bridge that jar my ears. But then, if they reimagine the song and make it something entirely different-sounding than the song we “know”, usually it seems wrong too. And then there’s the whole fact that while being at the concert is probably fun, hearing it later doesn’t match up. We might be happy and love hearing the singer scream out “hey Winnipeg, how ya doin’? Who wants to rock” if we’re in Winnipeg in the crowd and want to rock, but after hearing it a hundred times on the record later, it tends to get a bit tedious. And all the more the singers who break in the middle of a song to tell some story. Fun in person, annoying to listen to repeatedly, yes, Gord Downie notwithstanding. Funny, unexpected, adlibs or side stories are great when you’re there…but get tiresome when you hear the same adlib every single time you hear the song. Even the crowd noises often come across as distracting and superfluous.

All that said, there have been a few live ones I’ve listened to a lot and liked. Early on, two of the ’70s biggest come to mind – Cheap Trick at Budokan and Peter Frampton‘s Frampton Comes Alive. Both were huge sellers and I loved both. One reason for that is to me, they were new artists. I hadn’t heard the originals of the songs so the live ones sounded right. To this day Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” should be the Budokan one, not the rather sleepy studio original from a couple of years earlier. Same goes for Frampton and songs like “Show Me The Way”. Plus, his talkbox feature on the guitar (best heard towards the end of that track) was undeniably cool…it would get tired fast if every guitarist decided to use it, but it was a novelty that worked.

Earlier this week, Christian wrote about a live J. Geils Band album, Full House. In the early-’80s, I became a big fan of them through their (overdue) commercial breakthrough hit albums, 1980’s Love Stinks and especially ’81’s Freeze Frame. So I quickly grabbed a copy of Live Showtime, their 1982 live album (the third of their career). It had been recorded on the Freeze Frame tour earlier in that year, and it turns out probably was a mere place-holder. Like many live albums, its primary purpose might have been to buy the band some time between releases and fulfill a contractual obligation to EMI Records. Singer, frontman extraordinaire Peter Wolf had quit the band after that and they were scrambling to come up with a new direction and new album, so they put out another live recording. But to me, it was a rather cool, energetic effort. While the versions of the singles “Love Stinks” and “Centerfold” both suffered compared to the studio originals I knew, most of the other songs were new to me – even though old, and showcased how good a live act Geils had always been. I especially took to the new single off it, “I Do”, an old ’50s R&B song, and “Land of A Thousand Dances”, a song popularized by Wilson Pickett two decades prior. To me, the band seemed almost dual-personalitied… smoothly produced, fun pop singles (like “Centerfold”, “Come Back”) in studio and high-energy, party rockers and on stage. If not for this album, I might have missed out entirely on that other part of their presence.

Close to the same time in the ’80s a couple more live albums caught my attention and hold up well to me. One was Roxy Music‘s The High Road, which was really an EP more than an album…a four-song release. It appealed to me because I was really getting into Roxy Music at that time and had seen them on the same tour (for Avalon) which was the first real concert I went to. So there was a sentimental component for me but it was a good record and it had the advantage of having a couple of “new” songs on it, their cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and the John Lennon cover “Jealous Guy.” They played both all through the tour. Now, before you British readers shout at me, let me point out that they had a #1 single there with the studio cut of “Jealous Guy”. But it wasn’t on an album of theirs and unfortunately flopped in North America, so it was pretty much a new song to us over here. Another was U2‘s Live Under A Blood Red Sky. U2 is a bit of a rarity among “new wave” bands or those labeled as such by being one who had a reputation for putting on exceptional live shows – high energy, interesting commentary from Bono. This one showcased them at their best, at least for the early part of their career, and at least one track, the singalong  “40” their traditional closer in that time period, seems to be a lot stronger and more emotional than in its studio version.

One more recent live album that I, maybe to my own surprise, like a lot and have listened to frequently is The Stranglers Friday the Thirteenth, a ’97 release. It was the ninth live album put out by “The Men In Black” which gives an indication that their fans really like their live sets. I saw them twice in concert, once in the ’80s and once in the early-’00s. Both times they were fantastic live players and a fun show. But as I’ve pointed out, that doesn’t always translate onto live records. But with The Stranglers, it often does. I think that is primarily because of the nature of the band. Unlike most rock (or punk if you prefer) acts, they’ve always been dominated by bass and keyboards rather than guitars and drums. J.J. Burnel plays the bass like a lead instrument and is wildly entertaining to watch as was the late Dave Greenfield in his jet-cockpit like bay of keyboards he spun around to play simultaneously. Often though, their contributions were muted a little in the studio mixes, but on their better live recordings they really come through front and center. This album also had a string section behind them, which added another layer to a few of their songs that worked nicely. Any fan of the band needs at least one record with their live version of “Down in the Sewer” (a possibly tongue-in-cheek “punk” anthem which has always been a standout in their concerts), for me this was mine.

That all said, there have been a number of other acts that I absolutely love, and in some cases enjoyed seeing live whose live albums really… well did very, very little for me (except at times curse myself for spending money on them.) I won’t bother to badmouth any of them, because as I said, they’re acts who do a lot of things right. Just putting out live albums isn’t one of them. So for me, my final take is, live records can be good and on rare occasions can outshine the studio originals. But it takes a certain flair and energy on stage, good recordings and perhaps a set list that isn’t merely one old hit single after enough to make them memorable or worthwhile. That’s my take, I’d love to hear yours, dear readers.

February 21 – Bassman Burnel Britpunk’s Last Man Standing

Happy birthday to the much under-rated bassist J.J. Burnel of The Stranglers. Burnel is 70 today…but you might not want to point that out to the now white-haired karate enthusiast who’s posting a pretty strong case to be considered the last man standing from Britain’s original punk heyday.

Other punk acts have racked up more critical acclaim than “The Men In Black” but few have sold as many records (to date, they’ve notched 11 top 20 albums and 22 top 40 singles in their homeland, spanning a range of genres from the snarling “Something Better Change” to the sillky-smooth “European Female” ) and none have outlived Burnel’s band. Along with guitarist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist Dave Greenfield, J.J. started The Stranglers (with drummer Jet Black, the owner of a bar they played at in the earliest days, added in soon) way back in 1974 and they’re still going to this day, although only Burnel now remains after Greenfield’s death from Covid two years back. Burnel’s inventive and thundering basslines have always been distinctive (check out their early hit “Peaches” for example) and set the band apart from most of their contemporaries; since Cornwell’s departure in 1990 J.J.’ also become the “face” of the group and frequent lead vocalist.

Burnel was born in London and studied history at university there, but his parents were from France (hence the name Jean-Jacques) so he’s proficient in French and one of his two solo albums was in that language, as was the languid Stranglers single “La Folie” that he penned. Burnel was influenced by John Entwistle (“’My Generation’ – that bassline! I thought that was bloody cool!” he recalls) and Jack Bruce of Cream as a young bassist. In turn, his style and sound – in part created by rips in the cones of his Marshall speakers that creates a bit of distortion- have influenced a number of post-punk acts and artists like Peter Hook of New Order. While he’s not had the accolades of Entwistle, or the more widely-known Sting or Paul McCartney, his talent is undeniable and Music Radar said he can “only be rivalled by The Jam’s Bruce Foxton as the new wave bass hero.” Burnel notes “we’re starting to get (credit) when we’re in the autumn of our careers.” He calls the band a “bunch of old farts” who are “not selling anything, just a good time I hope.” Fans obviously agree. Their 2014 Giants tour was the most successful of any British tour that year and their most recent album, last fall’s Dark Matters entered the UK charts in the top 10.

Burnel had the reputation of being a rather hot-headed, mean character when he was young but now comes across as rather easy-going and humorous. Which is a good thing, because you can also refer to him as “Kyoshi”- an honorary term for advanced Black Belt students of karate. He’s the head of Shidokan UK and considered one of Europe’s top practicioners of the discipline, but of late has resided in the south of France, keeping himself busy enjoying local wine and taking his dog for walks in the hills. The Stranglers are once again on tour in Britain this winter, with Burnel scheduled to celebrate his 70th with fans in Bristol tonight.

November 8 – Bonus Bit : The Raven

As regular readers know, this fall I’ve been contributing to a daily event over at Slicethelife which showcases great songs. Last year I took part in a similar one, picking outstanding albums. As this event winds down, for the penultimate one, I knew the band I wanted to get to. Picking a song was trickier.

The Stranglers have long been a favorite band of mine. Not my very favorite, but amongst them. And unlike other bands that are on my “favorites” list like R.E.M., the Beatles, U2, etc, they’re not widely known over here, and even less widely understood. Of course you can blame their menacing name and early image for most of that, but still, they are a group that’s deserved better, especially outside of their British homeland (where they have had a decent run of a dozen top 20 singles and at least seven gold or platinum albums). They were rock’s ultimate outsiders…but talented and interesting ones. I knew I didn’t want to go through two different music events like this without getting them in somewhere, but picking one song was tough. They’re a band whose sound constantly changed. No one song of theirs typifies the sound of their nearly 50 year career. Similarly, to me, no one song jumps out ahead of the pack of their discography. So I went with The Raven”, a 1979 song that’s showcases a couple of their longtime strengths and is about midway through their sound’s evolution.

The Stranglers began in 1974 as the “Guildford Stanglers”, a rough and tumble quartet of guitarist/singer Hugh Cornwell, bassist JJ Burnel, drummer “Jet Black” and keyboardist Dave Greenfield. A few personnel changes came and went before Baz Warne pretty much took over Cornwell’s role permanently, but Burnel, Greenfield and in the studio, Black remained constants until recently. Obviously, with a name like “the Stranglers”, early song titles like “Nice N Sleazy” and “Bring on the Nubiles”, and it being the mid-’70s UK, they were assumed to be vile and violent punk rockers. And they were…maybe. They hung out with and fought bands like the Sex Pistols and Damned, got in brawls with “fans” and looked the part … at least the part of American punks like the Ramones. They seemed to always be lacking a hairbrush and favored black leather jackets. The thing was, they didn’t quite fit in. They certainly wouldn’t be at home beside Queen or Supertramp or other big British mainstream acts of the ’70s, and would make their fans shudder. But the punks didn’t care much for them either. They were older (drummer Black met them when he owned the bar they played at; he was a drummer in a big band in the 1950s … probably before Sid Vicious was born). They were college lads, and they could actually play their instruments. Dave Greenfield’s musical prowess on keyboards reminded many of Ray Manzarek, although he pointed to Rick Wakeman as more of a role model. Either way, not many punk rockers loved Yes and had a bevy of organs, synthesizers and pianos at their disposal.

In short time, the four began to tire of the tough-guy images and the punkish sound and ventured into various areas of well-crafted pop. They would use a horn section at times. They’d sometimes goof around on TV and in videos, recalling the Monkees perhaps more than the Pistols. All the while, their sound was largely driven by Burnel’s bass and Greenfield’s keys. Burnel – after Cornwell quit, the clear cut leader – says he’s often written songs on the bass. Not many bands do that.

I was introduced to them around the time this song came out, when one of my high school friends was the town’s first punk rocker…or fashioned himself that way. He had the Billy Idol hair and snarl, and a shelf of records by the Pistols, Clash, Diodes, you name it. I liked some of it, but it was the Stranglers records that really grabbed me. They were different and wrote songs that became earworms…even if not slamdancing in a club. Which I never did since I was barely in my teens! I saw the band twice. Once in 1986 or ’87, in a large theatre in Toronto they sold out three nights in a row. I had great seats- fifth row I think. They were LOUD. I rather thought they might have brought their whole UK sound system used in arenas over there, here. But they were also good. I couldn’t stop watching JJ and his bass-playing, handling it like a lead guitar as he bopped around, karate kicking the air. Greenfield was wild. He was surrounded by a veritable jet cockpit of keyboards on three sides, swirling around deftly going from to another, playing two at a time and somehow finding a way to have a dash of brandy along the way. I caught them again about 20 years later in a large bar, also in Toronto, in their Paul Roberts phase. Once again, Burnel and Greenfield amazed and lo and behold, the old punks seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. I smuggled in a little digital camera (totally against the rules…worth noting though, when I did that I always had the flash off and a high ISO to allow existing light photos, so as not to piss off the musicians trying to play) and got to the front. Burnel posed and grinned for me. If you believed the stories about them, he’d have more likely jumped off the stage and kicked the camera to smithereens.

Sadly, Dave Greenfield died of Covid last year, but they were already largely done putting together tracks for a new album, which finally came out this fall, Dark Matters. It’s very good, very mature and even hints at…prog rock. I recommend it. But for this take, I’ll go with the title track of their fourth album, The Raven. A jaunty little ode to vikings and their favorite birds, hinting at the new wave/synth rock that they would concentrate on for several years. A sound, Burnel notes, that earned them widespread scorn from critics and their many of their fans…but soon sounded like the absolute blueprint for bands like the Human League, OMD and Eurythmics. A Flock of Seagulls liked them so much back then they got their name from a Stranglers song. “The Raven” is a great little song that sounds ok if you’re dancing, or driving or just sitting at home with a drink. Like the best of The Stranglers stuff, it puts JJ and Dave right up front in the mix.

It’s folly to try to be the same person you were 45 years ago, JJ Burnel’s told interviewers lately. I’m sure not, and neither is he or his band. But my fondness for them…that is the same.

September 28 – Fresh Spins : Dark Matters

We’ve all seen the old guys with toupees bombing along in convertible sports cars, rap music blaring for all to hear trying so desperately to defy time. Thankfully that’s not The Stranglers.  If not the best of the myriad British punk bands of the 1970s, The Stranglers certainly are the most resilient. “We’re a bunch of old guys now,” bassist and clear leader J.J. Burnel told Uncut. “And I wanted out music to reflect that.”

Old; perhaps not, but certainly a good deal more mature than the brawling, leather-jacketed lads who sang about being “Down in the Sewer” or “walking on the beaches, looking at the peaches” over 40 years ago. The result is Dark Matters, their 18th studio album, out this month, one Burnel has said is “our first ‘grown-up’ record.”

That too is an over-statement; the band has clearly been maturing and expanding their musical boundaries since the ’80s. But Dark Matters does feel different. And no wonder. It’s been eight years since their last record, and a lot has happened since then. Jet Black, their sinister-looking drummer went from being the full-time pounder to a guy who’d play a song at encores if they were playing close to home to a fully-retired, ailing 80-something the rest now look at as a sort of Yoda, a wise senior statesmen advisor. More significantly, of course, the world has changed in the past 18 months with the pandemic, and one of its first celebrity victims was the band’s ultra-talented but…odd…keyboardist Dave Greenfield. His odd ways and haircuts are revealed by Burnel to be attributable to his being autistic, innocent and blissfully unaware of much of what was going on around him (think a pleasanter version of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.) Thankfully, this record had been in the works for years and many Greenfield keyboard bits were already taped and ready to go leading to his eerie posthumous presence on most of the tracks. The one exception to that was the tribute “And If You Should See Dave” they did after his death, with the sad “here is where your solo would go” at the end.

Dark Matters lives up to its name. The 11-song effort isn’t cheery in feel. It is however, well-played, eclectic and full of earworms that catch you whether you want them to or not. What it is not is a load of ’70s snot-nosed punk revisited. At first listen, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the overall feel is one of British prog rock (!) aiming to not lose touch of the pop world altogether. Greenfield’s swirling keyboards add to the oft-anthemic seeming songs that at times seem almost reminiscent of early Rush or like something which might have been written for Queen late in its Freddie years. Of course there are exceptions; “The Lines”, is startling for its directness and simplicity, a spoken-word poem about aging with minimal acoustic guitar and organ accompaniment. There’s still a lot of anger and hostility barely below the surface, but unlike the Meninblack of 45 years back, now it’s a focused rage against dictatorships (“No Man’s Land”), rallying freedom-fighters (“Water”) and questioning the ever-burgeoning space race. That in the very proggy “Last Men On The Moon” (Canadian fans might think they even detect a hint of Prism in it) which contains one of the most laugh-out-loud lines we’ve heard in a long time : “with all the things you can chase/ they’re putting geckoes into space”. Which is deeper than it might seem at first glance, but does highlight the album’s weak link, which is the lyrics. While not bad anywhere in the album, they do seem rather basic in places and under-written; the bombastic “White Stallion”, for instance (about the American “ceding of moral superiority in the world” according to J.J., with China waiting in the wings to take over) gets bogged down in a nonsensical “kissing in the rain” chorus.

That said, the songs largely lend themselves to singing along and at their best do indeed make you think about this world we live in. Mostly though, The Stranglers demonstrate they can still play. Thankfully, J.J.’s booming bass really power through songs like “No Man’s Land” and Baz Warne drops in some very nice, Chris Isaak-y, almost flamenco guitar hooks here and there, and Greenfield was still as stellar upto his final days. They also still rock and as much as ever, and mostly have a great ear for a catchy chorus and hook. My bottom line is that while nothing here rises to all-time greatness, almost all of the songs are worthy and it’s an album that bears repeated listening.

A good mature rock album that looks forward while giving a nod to the past. I’m happy to report it’s already hit #4 on the UK album charts. I give it 4 flying lizards out of 5.

 

(Early purchasers get a bonus CD of live performances dedicated to Dave Greenfield. It’s worth grabbing if you’re a fan, but not their best live record and inexplicably, the man it pays tribute to – the keyboardist – seems mixed rather low in the balance.)

August 18 – ‘Driver’s Seat’ Was Given The Green Light

There was no need to shed a tear for Sniff N The Tears 42 years ago – the Brit band lobbed their hit “Driver’s Seat” into the U.S. top 40 this day in 1979. It was the first, and only hit record for the band which had first formed in 1973, split, and reformed in 1977, when Paul Roberts, presumably “Sniff,” reassembled them after moving back to England from France. And seeing the Sex Pistols, with the Stranglers opening.

There was no doubt the record industry was open to change,” he recalls. “One of those rare seismic moments when creativity rather than commerce is allowed to flourish.” They recorded their first album, Fickle Heart in that seismic year of ’77, but with difficulties with their label and distribution, had to wait two years for it to see the light of day. Thankfully, it did, and it still sounded fresh at the time.

Although Roberts is mostly a guitarist (although he’s one of those musicians who seemingly can play about any instrument thrown at them), the song was very futuristic sounding with its spacy Moog synthesizer bits from Keith Miller. The multi-talented frontman though not only wrote the song and sang it, but even painted the album cover. Despite the title, Roberts suggests the song was more about being in the “drivers seat” of a relationship than a car. It was about “the bewilderment felt in the aftermath of a breakup, and the need to stay positive,” he says. No word on if it was based on a real-life breakup with a gal called “Jenny” (referenced in the song) … or if her phone number was 867-5309 to reference another one-hit wonder from that era.

Staying positive was probably easy for Paul back then. The great single hit #13 in the U.S. – one of the highest-charting “new wave” songs there at that point – and was a top 20 in Canada and Australia as well. It was also a minor hit in the Netherlands, but when Pioneer Stereo used it in commercials in Europe around 1991, it suddenly jumped back to #1 in that country. Oddly, it wasn’t as big a hit in his Britain, possibly because of a foul-up in distribution of the record. Fickle Heart sold decently and made the American album top 40.

However, two less popular follow-ups and a revolving door of members (18 besides Roberts to date) led to them breaking up around 1987. He re-formed them after the Dutch resurgence in ’91 and since then has kept the band active periodically. Curiously, while they were on hiatus, he took a job with one of the bands which inspired him to record the hit in the ’70s… The Stranglers. He took over from their original singer, Hugh Cornwell when he quit in 1990 and worked with that band until 2006.

Driver’s Seat” has been kept in the public’s ear since its Netherlands revival with use in movies like Boogie Nights and Anchorman 2. A one-hit wonder that has wheels and keeps on rolling…that’s “Driver’s Seat.”

May 8 – Bonus Bit : Stranglers Raise A Glass To Dave

Every once in awhile A Sound Day highlights something new and notable, and this one seemed to have our name on it. Literally. For those who don’t know, this site is run by me, a guy named Dave. But today we look at another Dave. Just a few days after the anniversary of keyboardist Dave Greenfield’s untimely passing away from Covid, his band The Stranglers have put out a single in his honor: “ And If You Should See Dave.” It is the first song released from what will be their 18th studio album, but first in nine years.

Bassist JJ Burnel, now the only original member still active in the group, said they’d been working on the record for over a year before Greenfield became sick and the pandemic locked everybody down. “Dave was vulnerable, he didn’t have much lung capacity in the months before his death,” he told one interviewer this week, “I could see he wasn’t in good health (but) we decided we’d book one full, final tour for the band” . That tour is now scheduled to go ahead early next year, but needless to say will be lacking their talented keyboardist.

“When you’ve known someone for 45 years, and then they’re not around, it leaves a gaping hole in your life. With the way Covid 19 hit, there are thousands and thousands of people experiencing a similar loss. My heart goes out to all of them.”

As for the record, it’s a surprisingly breezy one Louder than Sound consider “reminiscent of the Byrds”. Burnel says “we wanted to celebrate Dave’s life and hopefully people can hear our love for him in it.” Also needless to say, it’s one of only three tracks on the forthcoming record that Greenfield didn’t play on; he’d done his keyboard bits for eight tracks before he became sick. He added that “And If You Should See Dave” isn’t necessarily typical of all of the forthcoming album; it will reflect several years work and a variety of moods as many of their post-punk era albums have. While many of the new songs were recorded normally in studios, the new single was done largely remotely and mixed in JJ’s home studio in France.

As for the band’s future, while the tour is billed as their last, Burnel, pushing 70 years old, says “have you ever met a musician who wants to quit while they’re capable of making music? I’m not knackered yet!” We hope not.

Look for a review of the new one, Dark Matters, here when it’s released late this summer.

April 15 – Stranglers Hit The Ground Running

If 1967 was dubbed “The Summer of Love” and made a mark in music history with the emergence of The Doors and the new psychedelic-sounding of The Beatles, a decade later was big too. Some dubbed 1977 “The Summer of Hate”, since even though the soft rock stylings of The Eagles and Andy Gibb were dominating sales charts, a whole new breed of rockers were making their mark, especially in Britain. ’77 was the year punk left the grimy bars and hit the streets.

One of the more impressive acts to come from that scene made their debut on this day. Not quite as audacious or outrageous as the Sex Pistols, not as politically-driven as The Clash, The Stranglers always marched to the beat of their own drummer (a very old one at that!) and amazingly, are still hobbling along today. They put out their debut album, Rattus Norvegicus 44 years ago today. By that time, they’d been around for three years and were a popular act in the London underground scene, at times sharing the stage (and fisticuffs) with the Pistols. Although they had their legion of fans, not all “punkers” adored them. Some found them too old to be real punks, others noted that their bassist had a degree and the drummer – Jet Black, who was already pushing 40 – had a successful alter-ego as a businessman. But that made little difference to the record-buying public in Europe who loved the brash, in-your-face sound. They’d recorded it quickly at the prestigious Olympic Studios in London (a studio used by the Who’s Who of British rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s including The Beatles, Stones, Eric Clapton and Moody Blues) , trying to make a record that came close to the energy and raw sound of their stage show. They succeeded.

It might have been hard to tell if they were genuinely angry and disillusioned or satirically mocking their fellow punkers with songs like “Grip” (the first single) or “Down In the Sewer with its talk about picking up empty Coca-cola cans ,but there was no denying the infectiousness of the bass-heavy sounds with the swirling keyboards, or the new dimension they added to the sounds of the day by mixing the primitive energy and anger of then-current punk with the musicianship of some of the better prog rock or psychedelic bands. “Grip” charted in their homeland and was a top 40 in New Zealand, but the record’s real showpiece was the tongue-in-cheek, if a tad sexist “Peaches.”

Journalist Chris Bryans relates how singer Hugh Cornwell told him he got the idea, while, yes “Walking on the beaches, looking at the ‘peaches’” Meanwhile, bassist JJ Burnel said he heard reggae over a powerful PA and thought” ‘I’d never heard bass so dominant…I’m going to write a song like that.” He did that. The bassline is one of the greatest, and most well-known of the ’70s and helped the song become a top 10 hit in the UK, despite being banned on the BBC for the use of the word “clitoris” in the lyrics. It would be their biggest-hit until the decidedly more soothing-sounding “Golden Brown” five years later.

When all was said and done, the album named for a rat got to #4 in Britain and earned them a platinum record right off the bat. Time has treated the release quite kindly. In 2009, the BBC said it was a “distinctive combination of lyrical anger and organ-driven sleaze (which) was both deeply confrontational and musically accomplished.” Meanwhile, Allmusic retroactively graded it 4-stars, noting they were “more polished than some of their rawer brethren” and they dished up “stripped down power pop played with a hardcore sensibility.” To put it simply over four decades later, as the seemingly prophetic Cornwell did in the lyrics “We’ll be called the survivors…y’know why? ‘Cause we’re going to survive!”

January 1 – ‘Feline’ Was One Smooth Cat

The music world was changing by 1983 and even the most hardened rockers could feel the sea change happening. A new wave was sweeping the world, and it was eminating from Britain. A band veering towards a more melodic, pop-sound released an album on that New Year’s was The Stranglers. Their seventh studio album Feline was recorded in Belgium and drew more heavily on Dave Greenfield’s synthesizers and all things European than previous efforts, a departure which won them new fans but also disconcerted many old punk fans.

Even many of the titles reflected the recording input : “All Roads Lead To Rome,” “Let’s Tango in Paris” and their last UK top 10 single, “European Female.” The album’s breezy, almost hypnotic at times, feel won mixed reviews. AllMusic gave it a middling 2.5 stars finding it boring in places but adding that it “does repay repeated listening.” Years later, Britain’s Liverpool Sound and Vision reviewed it at length. they called The Stranglers “one of the finest bands to have come out of Britain” but noted “the adrenaline was about to leave the band,” leaving “even the most dedicated of Stranglers’ fans …surprised by the direction” it took, swinging “away from their punk rock/progressive roots.” It was certainly a more new wavish record than most expected. However, they still liked the record and suggested it “gave the group a much needed new lease of life.”

“European Female” was not only a top 10 hit in the UK but an underground hit in North America and with that the album, helped perhaps by significant airplay in Toronto on CFNY and a big advertising push from retailer Sam the Record Man, was their first one to chart in Canada. Meanwhile, their hypnotic “Midnight Summer Dream” also made the top 40 at home and inexplicably was a #1 smash in Poland. The North American version included “Golden Brown”, a major hit in Europe from the year before.

The Stranglers are still at it with a teaser of a new song played on the BBC last week, but alas only bassist J.J. Burnel is among the original members still on stage after the Covid-related death of keyboardist Dave Greenfield last year. Drummer Jet Black is still an “advisory” member but at 80-something, doesn’t have quite the energy needed to sit behind the kit anymore.

Now, New Year’s Day seems an unlikely day to release a new record but it was a big one in ’83 – the same day, U2 put out the ultimate single for the day, “New Year’s Day”!

October 4 – Forgotten Gems : The Stranglers

Today we remember a song released this day in 1984. Is it dark new wave or punk sunny-side up or merely a very cool pop song? Whatever the definition, The Stranglers“Skin Deep” was one of the best examples of Brit keyboard-based music of the ’80s.

The Stranglers had by that time been around for a decade, and put out six studio albums which had shifted steadily from aggressive yet melodic rock that was labeled “punk” (the subject of many a music debate; the band themselves never classified themselves as that and many diehard punkers hated them for being considerably older than most punk bands and rather good talents on their instruments) through driving post-punk new wave to rather synthesizer-heavy, almost dreamy new wave on their previous album, Feline. “Skin Deep” was the lead single off their seventh album, Aural Sculpture.

The title to that eluded to a “manifesto” they’d read at the tail end of the previous album, which should have put to pay any arguments about how earnestly serious they were about being angry punkers. Should have, although some might have missed tongue in cheek nature of a “manifesto” which declared “the musicians of our times are harlots and charlatans who use science without being scientists and abuse art without being artists… the world must prepare itself to herald the advent of aural sculpture, whose presence can now be shared with the fortunate few who have ears to hear…”

While the quartet had been a democracy of sorts, with all four sharing the spotlight musically at times and sharing writing credits, by this time cracks were starting to appear in the bonds, chiefly between guitarist and main vocalist Hugh Cornwell and bassist and occasional lead singer JJ Burnel. Looking back, JJ remembers they were “being dominated by Hugh” and that “everyone seemed to think i was the pretty boy and Hugh was the talent…Hugh was playing about with American models and moving in different circles. He started to look down on our fans.” After one show the guitarist got mad over a botched move on stage and threw a glass of champagne in JJ’s face. Not a good thing to do with a guy whose one of the top karate practisers in the country. “the backstage had paper-thin walls and I put him through it, leaving a Hugh-shaped sillohuette like on Tom & Jerry,” the bassist recalls. Perhaps not surprisingly, Cornwell quit the band not that long after (he went on to have a solo career and is currently promoting a sci-fi novel he wrote.)

the Stranglers had gone through quite a few labels in their day and for Aural Sculpture were signed to CBS. The label saw untapped potential – the group had been very successful in the UK and France, but Columbia sensed the time was right for a major breakthrough in North America. They brought in Laurie Latham to produce. Latham was fresh off working on a Paul Young album. The result was as Burnel puts it, “really ’80s production…it’s no one’s fault, certainly not Laurie’s. (all things considered) I think it worked out well,” he says. Latham introduced a horn section for a couple of songs, which worked not badly, but the one thing Burnel regrets that Latham turned his bass down low in the mix “a more conventional position,” but very different than many of their early tunes where his forceful bass arguably dominates the whole song. CBS not only brought in a well-respected producer, they also commissioned a big sculpture of an ear for the cover photo…and made it attention-grabbing. “The monumental ear was transported on an unnecessarily large low loader truck around central London in an attempt to cause traffic chaos and maximize publicity,” the band’s website reports.

“Skin Deep” was the lead single and perhaps the catchiest tune on a pretty solid album, with lyrics that make a certain amount of sense… “many people tell you they’re your friend, you need them you believe them…” but “brother, you’d better watch out for the skin deep.” The song is credited to all four of them but given the state of affairs between Burnel and Cornwell, one might imagine it was JJ singing about his one-time best friend and bandmate, even though Hugh got to do the vocals. The song showcased Dave Greenfield’s keyboard skills more than anything else, and it certainly ranks among the better songs of its type from the mid-’80s. Critics seemed to like it, and the album in general, none more so than allmusic. They rate it 4.5-stars and say “the Stranglers have gone sensual, sounding sincere, serene and sensitive. And it’s perfect..you never thought they could transition to this.”

The song got to #15 in Britain, and was a top 10 in Ireland and Poland. It marked the tenth top 20 single for them in the UK – the Sex Pistols had seven in their career for comparison’s sake. Over here though, it didn’t break through like CBS expected. The album hit the Canadian top 40, and the video for “Skin Deep” was shown on MuchMusic quite regularly in 1985, after the domestic release here, but the single didn’t make much of a mark outside of Toronto. Aural Sculpture was the fifth top album of the year in ’84 on CFNY in that city, and made the top 30 the next year as well, and “Skin Deep” actually ended up getting played not only on that alt rock station but the hard rock and the easy-listening one as well!

Cornwell might have fallen out of favor with the others, but the remaining trio remained close and The Stranglers still operate, although sadly Dave Greenfield passed away this year and drummer Jet Black, now in his 80s, had to retire.

August 26 – A Vintage 1930s Jet

Happy birthday, ol’ boy! Jet Black of the Stranglers turns 82 today- yes, 82!

Black was born Brian Duffy and did some jazz drumming before rock & roll was even a thing. Put another way, Jet was on the scene when Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were young and happening! By the early-’70s, he was running a chain of ice cream trucks and a bar in Guildford, England. It just happened that place, the Jackpot, was where Hugh Cornwell, JJ Burnel and Dave Greenfield were playing. All they needed was a drummer – and presto, Duffy was in and The Stranglers (back then, The Guildford Stranglers) were a go. They even had a tour van – one of his ice cream trucks!Although his age drew derision from some punk fans, the band never much cared for their opinions and along with bassist Burnel, they formed one of the tightest and most strident rhythm sections in rock. Through the years as their contemporaries kept falling by the wayside, The Stranglers rolled on, constantly changing sounds and running out quite a string of hits in the late-’70s and ’80s…in Europe at least. Major North American success was always elusive to them.

Jet Black has officially been their drummer for the 40+ years but health complications from a heart condition and diabetes have taken him out of the picture lately for live shows. In 2014, he only came out for the band’s encores and he wasn’t on the stage for last year’s tour. Baz Warne of the band says “he’s a massive hard worker, and he’s never shirked away from anything but you just can’t cheat old age.” Black is still considered a member of the group and JJ Burnel said they never release any material without running it by him first. Jet recently completed his second book about his time in one of the UK’s premier punk outfits.

Sadly and arguably surprisingly, Black is still alive but keyboardist Greenfield died recently of Covid. Burnel says the album will release one more album that they were working on prior to his death.