Origin: Guildford, Surrey, England
Genre: Punk rock, New wave
Years active: 1974–present
Rattus Norvegicus (1977)
No More Heroes (1977)
Black and White (1978)
The Raven (1979)
The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981)
La Folie (1981)
Aural Sculpture (1984)
Stranglers in the Night (1992)
About Time (1995)
Written in Red (1997)
Coup de Grace (1998)
Norfolk Coast (2004)
Suite XVI (2006)
The Stranglers are an English rock band who emerged via the punk rock scene.
Scoring some 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums to date in a career spanning four decades, the Stranglers are one of the longest-surviving and most “continuously successful” band to have originated in the UK punk scene of the mid to late 1970s. Beginning life as the Guildford Stranglers on 11 September 1974 in Guildford, Surrey,[note 1] they originally built a following within the mid-1970s pub rock scene. While their aggressive, no-compromise attitude identified them as one of the instigators of the UK punk rock scene that followed, their idiosyncratic approach rarely followed any single musical genre and the group went on to explore a variety of musical styles, from new wave, art rock and gothic rock through the sophisticated pop of some of their 1980s output.
They had major mainstream success with their single “Golden Brown”. Their other hits include “No More Heroes”, “Peaches”, “Always the Sun” and “Skin Deep”.
The Stranglers’ early sound was driven by Jean-Jacques Burnel’s melodic bass, but also gave prominence to Dave Greenfield’s keyboards at a time when the instrument was seen as unfashionable. Their early music was also characterised by the growling vocals and sometimes misanthropic lyrics of both Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell. Over time, their output gradually grew more refined and sophisticated. Summing up their contribution to popular music, critic Dave Thompson later wrote: “From bad-mannered yobs to purveyors of supreme pop delicacies, the group was responsible for music that may have been ugly and might have been crude – but it was never, ever boring.”
Formation and mainstream success (1974–1979)
The group was originally called The Guildford Stranglers,[note 1] and operated out of The Jackpot, a Guildford off-licence run by their drummer Jet Black (real name Brian Duffy). Other original personnel were bass player/vocalist Jean-Jacques Burnel, guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist/guitarist Hans Wärmling, who was replaced by keyboardist Dave Greenfield within a year.[note 2] None of the band came from Guildford: Black is from Ilford, Burnel from Notting Hill, Cornwell from Kentish Town and Greenfield from Brighton, while Wärmling came from Sweden and returned there after leaving the band.
Cornwell was a blues musician prior to forming the band and had briefly been a bandmate of Richard Thompson,[note 3] Burnel had been a classical guitarist who had performed with symphony orchestras,[note 4] Jet Black was a jazz drummer,[note 5] and Dave Greenfield had played at military bases in Germany.[note 6] Their early influences included pre-punk psychedelic rock bands such as The Doors and The Music Machine.
From 1976 the Stranglers became associated with the burgeoning punk rock movement, due in part to their opening for the first British tours of American punks The Ramones and Patti Smith.[note 7][note 8] Notwithstanding this association, some of the movement’s champions in the British musical press viewed the band with suspicion on account of their age and musical virtuosity and the intellectual bent of some of their lyrics. However, Burnel was quoted saying, “I thought of myself as part of punk at the time because we were inhabiting the same flora and fauna … I would like to think The Stranglers were more punk plus and then some.”
The band’s early albums, Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White, all released within a period of 13 months, were highly successful with the record-buying public and singles such as “Peaches”, “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes” became instant punk classics. Meanwhile, the band received a mixed reception from some critics because of their apparent sexist and racist innuendo. However, critic Dave Thompson argued that such criticism was oblivious to the satire and irony in the band’s music, writing: “the Stranglers themselves revelled in an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern ‘men’s talk’).” These albums went on to build a strong fan-following, but the group’s confrontational attitude towards the press was increasingly problematic and triggered a severe backlash when Burnel, a martial arts enthusiast, punched music journalist Jon Savage during a promotional event.[note 9]
During their 1978 appearance at the University of Surrey on the BBC TV programme Rock Goes to College, the group walked off stage because an agreement to make tickets available to non-university students had not been honoured. In February 1978 the Stranglers began a mini-tour, playing three secret pub gigs as a thank-you to those venues and their landlords for their support during the band’s rise to success. The first was at The Duke of Lancaster in New Barnet on Valentine’s Day, with further performances at The Red Cow, Hammersmith, and The Nashville Rooms, West Kensington, in early September.
In the later half of the 1970s, The Stranglers toured Japan twice, joining the alternative music scene of Tokyo, which was evolving from the punk sound of Kyoto based band 村八分 (Ostracism), whose music influence spread to Tokyo in 1971. The Stranglers were the only foreign band to take part in a landmark scene focussed around S-KEN Studio in Roppongi, and The Loft venues in Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa from 1977 to 1979. The scene included bands such as Friction, and they became friends with the band, Red Lizard, who they invited back to London, where the band became known as Lizard. In 1979, while still in Japan, Burnel also became close friends with Keith, co-founder and drummer for ARB. At the end of 1983, ARB’s bassist was imprisoned, leaving the band with a problem for their forthcoming tour. Burnel took time out from The Stranglers to fly out to Japan at short notice and join ARB to cover the tour, including appearing at the ‘All Japan Rock Festival’ at Hibaya park, becoming the first non-Japanese to ever appear at the festival.[note 10] Burnel toured with ARB for 5 weeks and played on two studio tracks, “Yellow Blood” and “Fight it Out”, both of which appeared on the RCA Victor ARB album “Yellow Blood”.[note 11]
Second phase (1979–1982)
In 1979, one of the Stranglers’ two managers advised them to break up as he felt that the band had lost direction, but this idea was dismissed and they parted company with their then current management team.[note 12] Meanwhile Burnel released an experimental solo album Euroman Cometh backed by a small UK tour and Cornwell recorded the album Nosferatu in collaboration with Robert Williams. Later that year the Stranglers released The Raven, which heralded a transition towards a more melodic and complex sound which appealed more to the album- than the singles market. The songs on The Raven are multi-layered and musically complicated, and deal with such subjects as a Viking’s lonely voyage, heroin addiction, genetic engineering, contemporary political events in Iran and Australia and extraterrestrial visitors, “The Meninblack”. The Raven saw a definite transition in the band’s sound. The Hohner Cembalet – so prominent on the previous three albums – was dropped and Oberheim synthesizers were deployed on most tracks. A Korg Vocoder was used on the track “The Meninblack” whilst acoustic piano was used on “Don’t Bring Harry”. The Raven was not released in the US; instead a compilation album The Stranglers IV was released in 1980, containing a selection of tracks from The Raven and a mix of earlier and later non-album tracks. The Raven sold well, reaching No.4 in the UK Albums Chart, although it is believed[by whom?] it could have made No.1 but for an error in the chart. The Police hit No.1 despite their album not yet being released, leading to controversy that the Police album was mis-credited with sales of The Raven.[note 13] The Raven spawned one top 20 single, “Duchess”, with “Nuclear Device” reaching No.36 and the EP “Don’t Bring Harry” reaching No.41. This was followed by a non-album single, “Bear Cage”, backed with “Shah Shah a Go Go” from The Raven. A 12-inch single, the band’s first, containing extended mixes of both tracks was also released, but “Bear Cage” also only managed No.36 in the charts.
“ We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em. ”
— Hugh Cornwell – NME – November 1979
Following the success of The Stranglers’ previous four albums they were given complete freedom for their next, The Gospel According to the Meninblack, a concept album exploring religion and the supposed connection between religious phenomena and extraterrestrial visitors. It was preceded by a single “Who Wants the World”, which didn’t appear on the album, and only just made the top 40. The Gospel According to The Meninblack was very different from their earlier work and alienated many fans.[note 14] It peaked on the UK albums chart at No.8, their lowest placing to date, and in 1981 was widely considered an artistic and commercial failure.[note 14] The track “Two Sunspots” had been recorded during the Black And White sessions in 1978, but was shelved until 1980 when it was rediscovered and placed on The Gospel According to the Meninblack. The “Meninblack” track from The Raven is the “Two Sunspots” soundtrack slowed down.[note 15]
After a slow start, the Stranglers recovered their commercial and critical status with La Folie (1981) which was another concept album, this time exploring the subject of love. At first La Folie charted lower than any other Stranglers studio album, and the first single taken from it, “Let Me Introduce You to the Family”, only charted at No.42. However, the next single was “Golden Brown”. The song is an evocative waltz-time ballad, with an extra beat in the fourth bar. Cornwell said the lyrics were “about heroin and also about a girl. She was of Mediterranian origin and her skin was golden brown.”[note 16] It became their biggest hit, charting at No.2 in the UK Singles Chart. It remains a radio staple to this day. Following this success, La Folie recharted at No.11 in the UK albums chart. “Tramp” was originally thought to be the ideal follow-up single to “Golden Brown”; however “La Folie” was chosen after Burnel convinced his bandmates of its potential.[note 17] Sung in French, it received negligible airplay and charted at No.47. Shortly afterwards the Stranglers left EMI. As part of their severance deal, The Stranglers were forced to release a greatest hits collection, The Collection 1977–1982.[note 18] The tracklisting for The Collection 1977–1982 included the new single “Strange Little Girl”, which had originally been recorded on a demo in ’74 and rejected by EMI. It became a hit, charting at No.7 in July 1982.
New label and sound (1983–1990)
Following the Stranglers’ return to commercial success, many record companies lined up to sign them. Virgin Records was the most likely choice but Epic Records made a last minute offer and secured the Stranglers’ services. The Stranglers once again had complete artistic freedom and in 1983 released their first album for Epic, Feline, which included the UK No. 9 hit “European Female”. The album was another change in musical direction, this time influenced by European music. It was the first Stranglers album to feature acoustic guitars, and it was on this album that Jet Black began to use electronic drum kits.[note 19] It gained much critical success but fell well short of La Folie in terms of sales and failed to produce another hit after “European Female”. Nonetheless Feline broke the Stranglers in Europe and reached No.4 in the UK chart in January 1983 (their last studio album to break the UK Top 10).
1984 saw the release of Aural Sculpture which consolidated the band’s success in Europe and established them in Oceania. It included the UK No.15 hit “Skin Deep” (which also reached No.11 in Australia and No. 19 in New-Zealand, and Top 30 in the Netherlands). This was their first album to feature the three-piece horn-section which was retained in all their subsequent albums and live performances until Hugh Cornwell’s departure in 1990. Aural Sculpture was only a moderate success in the UK album charts, peaking at No.14 in November 1984.
Their 1986 album, Dreamtime, dealt with environmental concerns among other issues. Its signature track, and another radio staple for many years to come, was “Always the Sun” (a No.15 hit in France and No.16 hit in Ireland, No.21 in Australia, No.30 in the UK, and No.42 in the Netherlands). The only Stranglers album to chart in the US, Dreamtime was again only a moderate hit in the UK, reaching No. 16 in November 1986.
The Stranglers’ final album with Cornwell, 10, was released in 1990. This was recorded with the intention of building on their “cult” status in America. Following the success of their cover of The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”, a UK No. 7 hit in 1988, The Stranglers released another ’60s cover, “96 Tears” as their first single from 10; it reached No. 17 in the UK. Despite this success, the follow-up single “Sweet Smell of Success” only reached No.65. “Man of the Earth”, which the band had high hopes for, was due to be the third single from the album, however Epic Records decided against it when The Stranglers failed to secure a tour in America. Since 10 was recorded with the intention of breaking America, this was a major blow.
Post-Cornwell era (1990s)
In August 1990, founding member Hugh Cornwell left the band to pursue a solo career. In his autobiography, Cornwell stated that he felt the band was a spent force creatively, and cited various examples of his increasingly acrimonious relationship with his fellow band-members, particularly Burnel. The remaining members recruited John Ellis, who had had a long-standing association with the band. He had opened for them in the 1970s as a member of The Vibrators, filled in for Cornwell during his time in prison for drug possession in 1980, worked with Burnel and Greenfield in their side-project Purple Helmets, and been added to the Stranglers’ line-up as a touring guitarist a short time before Cornwell’s departure. Burnel and Ellis briefly took over vocal duties (for one television appearance on The Word) before enlisting Paul Roberts, who sang on most songs live, even those originally sung by Burnel. This line-up recorded four albums: Stranglers in the Night (1992), About Time (1995), Written in Red (1997) and Coup de Grace (1998).
2000s resurgence and reversion to a four-piece
In 2000, Ellis left the band and a new guitarist, Baz Warne, was recruited.
The Stranglers achieved something of a critical and popular renaissance in 2004 with the acclaimed Norfolk Coast album and a subsequent sell-out tour, together with their first Top-40 hit (No. 31 UK) in fourteen years, “Big Thing Coming”. In 2005, Coast to Coast: Live on Tour was released, the live album contained songs recorded during their tour the previous year. On their sellout UK tour they were supported by “Goldblade”.
In May 2006, Roberts left the band, and The Stranglers were now back to a four-piece line-up: Burnel, Black, Greenfield and Warne, with the lead vocals shared between Warne and Burnel. In concert, Burnel returned to singing the songs he originally recorded as lead vocalist, and Warne sang the numbers originally led by Hugh Cornwell.
Suite XVI, the follow-up album to Norfolk Coast, was released in September 2006 (the title is a pun on “Sweet 16” and also a reference to the fact that it was the band’s sixteenth studio album) and continued the band’s resurgence. Although partly a return to the band’s heavier punk roots, the album featured a typically idiosyncratic mixture of musical styles which included a country and western style Johnny Cash pastiche/homage “I Hate You”.
In 2007 it was reported that drummer Black was suffering from atrial fibrillation, an ailment which subsequently forced him to miss a number of shows, particularly where extended travel was required. On such occasions Ian Barnard, Black’s drum technician, deputised.
On 4 November 2007, the band (with Black) played a sell-out gig at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London, marking the thirtieth anniversary of their headline run at the same venue in 1977. The set list was the same as the 1977 concert, with the addition of a couple of more recent songs as a final encore. The event is recorded on the DVD Rattus at the Roundhouse.
In mid-2008, The Stranglers played various major festivals around Europe. Barnard again filled in for Black at several gigs while Black continued his recuperation. However, Black was back with the band for their UK tour later in the year.
In 2008, Jean-Jacques Burnel has made comments in interviews which indicate that the band could be heading into semi-retirement after the completion of their European tour in 2009.
He said: “Our drummer Jet Black is 70 now. It blows me away, the fact that he continues to play 90-minute sets. He’s been unwell a couple of times and his drum tech has stood in at a few festivals, but if he was permanently out, well, I don’t know what I’d do, actually. We could still record, but this is our last big tour, I think.
“I think all things have to come to an end at some point, although we’ll do one more album. I would love to think it will be the most beautiful album we’ve done.”
In 2009 the band played at the biggest open-air festival in Europe (400,000 – 500,000 rock fans every year) – Przystanek Woodstock in Poland
Fifth decade (2010–present)
2010 for the Stranglers continued their recent resurgence, starting with an extensive UK tour, including a sold-out return to the Hammersmith Apollo in March, their first visit there since 1987. They were supported on the 16 date UK tour by Max Raptor from The Midlands.
A new double CD compilation album, Decades Apart, containing a selection of tracks from the full career of the band, including at least one from each of their sixteen studio albums and two new tracks, “Retro Rockets” and “I Don’t See the World Like You Do” was released in February. The download version of Decades Apart included an unreleased recording from 1978, “Wasting Time”, inspired by the band’s ‘Rock Goes To College’ experience earlier that year; this track, originally titled “Social Secs” was never released, and the music ended up being reversed and released as “Yellowcake UF6”, the B-side to “Nuclear Device” in 1979.
Across the summer the band played a number of festivals, including Weyfest and Glastonbury and T in the Park in the UK and Oxegen 2010 in Ireland, and concerts in Japan, Greece, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria. The band also released a new live album and DVD, recorded at the Hammersmith Apollo in May 2010. In March 2011, the band completed another UK tour. Burnel’s long term friend, Wilko Johnson, was invited to bring The Wilko Johnson band on the tour. In April, the band began touring Europe, with many gigs and major festivals lined up for the entire year.
Jim MacAulay, the touring drummer
On 23 September 2012, the band returned to Looe, Cornwall, fronted by Warne and Burnel. The band had originally spent time in Looe writing Suite XVI.
Giants was released in 2012, consisting of the first instrumental on an album since “Waltzinblack” on The Gospel According to The Meninblack. The “deluxe” version consisted of a second disc containing tracks from the ‘Weekend in Black’ acoustic session in November 2011.
2013 saw the band play a full UK tour, with Black playing the second half at most gigs (Jim Macaulay taking the first half). Several festivals were booked for 2013, including a session at the BBC Proms on 12 August. For the North America tour, Black is no longer touring with Macaulay playing the entire show.
In September 2014 the band can celebrate the 40th birthday as a band. Their big Ruby tour throughout the UK (22 dates) and Europe (16 dates) starts on February 27.