The Stranglers: A Sole Band

12th July 2018

I was at University at the time, in Liverpool around the early eighties. The local commercial radio station, Radio City, had sponsored a series of intriguing concerts strung over a few nights but in a single location, the Royal Court Theatre. 

The Royal Court was a large venue, approaching the size of the competing theatre across the road, the Empire but lacking in the finer aspects of decoration. In short, the Royal Court was scruffy. Despite the place being the location of the best concert I have ever seen – an appearance by Kraftwerk to promote their album Computer World (one of the few concerts on that tour not to have been cancelled) It was stunning. I was stunned. It was that kind of evening.

So I was back, at the scene of the crime, as it where. 

This Radio City sponsored series of concerts would feature three bands at a time over, I think, three evenings and included outfits such as The Icicle Works, The Damned, The Housemartins and The Stranglers. 

For most of my visits, I sat up in the circle but, for The Stranglers, I was down in the pit. Standing with the hordes. It was a sobering experience.

Partly, it was the chatter and the shouting. The exhortations of some of the most horrendous and indecent insults at lead singer, Hugh Cornwell in one breath and then an aside to a colleague brimming with praise and compliments. 

Hence, “Oi, Cornwell! You f*****g t**t, s**thead,” with a quick turn of the head to a friend, “Great band, really looking forward to seeing them.”

It was the oddest behaviour I’d ever witnessed by any fans of any musical artist. This example of barracking was not an isolated incident either. 

Neither was the shoe.

It occurred during the middle of a song, early on in the concert. I saw the empty vessel appear out of the corner of my right eye and turned in time to follow its arc as it headed, with an assassin’s accuracy, towards the head of Hugh Cornwell. Hitting him square in the face, the great man paused – as you would, of course – and then stop. He spat on the stage in disgust. No doubt after ingesting a portion of the size ten. Throwing his microphone onto the ground, he swore and stormed off. 

The rest of the band continued. 

And then continued a bit more.

Looking around, ever desperately, for vocal assistance…they played on.

Relief was heard across the venue when Cornwell marched back on stage. No doubt after some form of liquid refreshment and, who knows, maybe even medical assistance and a massage, for all I know. 

He picked up the microphone and sang. 

No more footwear was seen after that point. But, oh, the tension. The tension remained.  

But, you see, when the band’s bassist, Jean-Jacques Burnel, says the likes of this to The Guardian, you really shouldn’t be surprised at all, “In 1976, we played with the Ramones. In those days, [Clash bassist] Paul Simonon had a nervous tic: he used to spit on the ground. He did this just as we came off stage at Dingwalls in London, so I thumped him and it all kicked off. We were thrown out by the bouncers and it continued in the courtyard. On one side were the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and a load of their journalist friends. On the other side was us, a few of our fans and me, nose to nose with Paul. Dave [Greenfield, Stranglers keyboards] had John Lydon up against the ice-cream van.”

The ice cream van belonged to the band’s drummer, Jet Black. The band couldn’t afford a proper van. So they used the ice cream van, a relic of Black’s former business life.

Parlophone has recently released a host of Stranglers albums on CD which retains the tension and the edge that the band were famed for. So you can find the likes of IV (Rattus Norvegicus) (1977), No More Heroes (1977), Black and White (1978) and Live (X-Cert) (1979), The Raven (1979), (The Gospel According to) The Meninblack (1981) and La Folie (1981).

Typically Stranglers, despite the inclusion of extra tracks on each CD (i.e. B-sides, live cuts, alternative mixes and edit mixes) the band call all of these ‘associated recordings’. I’ve never seen that before. It sounds…politely confrontational. Even dismissive. As if they’re there because the choice is nil, “But don’t expect us to smile about it. Or really care.” That kind of thing.

And there is that aura about them. Burnell had a fit of drama at one point, wrote a suicide note, took lots of Heroin, was unconscious for three days and the band never even realised that he wasn’t in the studio. You see? 

The Stranglers are a wonderful yet very odd band. Even back in 1977, they were older than most punk outfits and polished too. Unusual. Their music was more ‘pop with anger attached’. Just listen to Hugh Cornwell, during Live (Cert-X) insulting the audience and taunting them terribly.

Which brings that earlier Royal Court experience into focus. It all makes sense now.

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