Friday, 28 March 2014

THE STRANGLERS 40th Anniversary tour review


G Live, Guildford, 25 March 2014

Outliving just about everyone on the alternative music scene, on Tuesday The Stranglers continued celebrating their ruby anniversary in the town where their enduringly misanthropic sound was born.

'We have come to make you function...' (Image: Vanguard)

Me and The Stranglers go back a long way. They're the musical equivalent of Doctor Who, as they've been going so long that I can map different stages of my life with the release of their albums and singles. In the punk days, the Sex Pistols might have been the iconoclasts and The Clash might have had the political cool, but The Stranglers had that wonderful, unfashionable keyboard burble, bass rumble and snapping drums, which I loved from the moment 'Something Better Change' cleared the floor of my frightened class mates during a 1977 disco at Lound Middle School.

'Unfashionable' is a word that defines The Stranglers. Even during their punk heyday they were considered too old and bandwagon jumpers by the music press. This mutual enmity between the band and journalistswhich admittedly the group didn't help by beating some up and tying one to the Eiffel Tower, several hundred feet uphas endured since the release of their first LP. Once punk dissolved and The Stranglers started releasing concept albums about flying saucers (Thegospelaccordingtothemeninblack) and offbeat, mellow singles ('Midnight Summer Dream', 'Skin Deep' and 'Always the Sun' to name a few) the press derision grew even louder. Arguably the nastiest, and funniest, press put-down was one that described the band as 'the Status Quo of punk.'

JJ: threatened. (Image: Seven Street)

Yet, forty years since The Stranglers first played a gig, they're still here. People have forgotten the almost continual bad press and reviews. Over time, the band's diverse, determinedly idiosyncratic and uniquely brooding canon of songs has doggedly outlived musical trends, maturing into one of the most impressive back catalogues in rock. They survived the departure in 1990 of singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell, the man some commentators believed was The Stranglers, and a decade in the record label wilderness to become for some, if not all, the elder statesmen of British alternative popular music.

What's striking about this 40th anniversary tour, witnessed in the band's home town of Guildford thanks to good friends Zoe Ridey and Mike Kenwood, is that The Stranglers played at least one song from every one of their seventeen albums and they were all great. In real terms, that meant a staggering twenty-eight powerhouse versions of their songs from a group whose members are all 50 or over, sporting white hair or no hair at all – the audience sang happy birthday to guitarist/singer Baz Warne during the encore – touring drummer Jim MacAulay aside. Ah yes, the touring drummer. Dear old Jet Black, the band's founder member and original sticksman, is now well into his 70s and although his spirit is still willing, sadly his body isn't so much these days. The first time he appears is eleven songs in, to warm and welcoming cheers, fittingly to play on the band's biggest hit 'Golden Brown'.

Dave: still life. (Image: Wikipedia)
JJ Burnel (bass/vocals), Dave Greenfield (keyboards/vocals), Warne and MacAulay kicked off with two crowd pleasing punk standards in 'London Lady' and 'No More Heroes', but what really impressed me was that for their third number, they piled into the title track of The Stranglers' worst album by a continent Coup de Grace with the same freshness and attack. That's always been the great, and frustrating, thing about this band: if the production on the middle-period albums sometimes let the songs down, live they always had that distinctive Stranglers punch. That's also true tonight of 'Was it You?', 'Never To Look Back', 'Valley of the Birds' and particularly 'Still Life', which I never thought I'd hear them play live again. That’s the one I was still humming a couple of days later.

Baz: hanging around. (Image: R Goodgroves)
Several glasses of red wine to the good, I greet every song, from New Wave classics like 'Hanging Around' and 'Genetix' to less well known but equally deserving gems like 'Time to Die' and 'Freedom is Insane' with the same enthusiasm and don't-care-if-I-look-daft dancing. Judging by the lack of recognition on some of the faces around me, I wondered at times if I was the only guy in the place to have bought and listened to every Stranglers LP. I suppose it must be like supporting your favourite football team when they slide from the premier league to the fourth division and back again. There's a great satisfaction in being able to say 'I told you so!' about a team you've loved for so long being on terrific, celebratory form.

Jet: never to look back. (Image: Stevo Musician)
Just before we had to get the train back to London, The Stranglers play 'Something Better Change' and I'm leaping around down the front and singing (OK then, shouting) along to every word like I'm back at Lound Middle again. I lost my glasses, but then it wouldn't be a Stranglers gig without some minor chaos. There might be more families in their audience now than moshing punks – quite a lot of them, by the look of it – but an enthusiasm for music that now crosses generations is just another twist in the singular Stranglers story.

The Smiths, Blur, The Pogues, Bowie, Oasis, Jesus Jones, Pulp... they've all come and gone, and come back in most cases. I've loved them all, but The Stranglers – as Mike K drolly pointed out, the only band to have ever split up while successfully staying together – apparently go on forever. For a group that have always been self-styled outsiders, that's somehow very reassuring.

Happy 40th, Meninblack. You can count on me being there the next time round.

Set list:
London Lady
No More Heroes
Coup de Grace
Was it You?
Summat Outanowt
Peasant in the Big Shitty
Still Life
Midnight Summer Dream
Golden Brown
Always the Sun
Thrown Away
Never To Look Back
Nuclear Device
Skin Deep
Time to Die
Valley of the Birds
Nice and Sleazy
Walk on By
Freedom is Insane
5 Minutes
Hanging Around
Something Better Change
Norfolk Coast
(There was at least one more, but by then we were running for the train. Which is how it should be.)


  1. Never a truer word. Even though half of the words aren't in my vocabulary. Misanthropic and iconoclasts, for example.
    The set list is different to the Nottingham gig. We weren't treated to Walk On By, or Genetix.

  2. brilliant review :-)

  3. Think I was standing next to you at the start...downstairs by the side story JJ......yup, brill gig eh....

  4. Errr...I mean " by the side of" !!!!

  5. When I seen them the last song was Tank. Slight change to playlist but not much. Amazing gig in Inverness.

  6. Hi whilst I am flattered you used my picture of Baz, two things I would like to point out. Firstly the picture was taken in Oxford and attaching it to a Guildford review gives a misleading impression. Secondly it's copyright theft and just crediting me does not absolve your responsibility. If you want to use other people's images you either have to get permission and/or pay! P.S. Great review btw. Roger Goodgroves