No.7 The Stranglers
(United Artists Records, 1977)
Released in April 1977, The Stranglers notorious debut immediately made a distinctly controversial impression on the media while selling like the proverbial hotcakes, pushing it to the number four position in the nation's album chart. John Peel, that champion of the unfashionable, had played the band's first single Grip/London Lady, quite a bit and the constant gigging the Stranglers had done for the previous two years had finally borne fruit. Calling your debut album after a rat probably wouldn't be everybody's idea of a snappy title, but then this group were never for a second interested in other peoples opinions.
When my brother and I heard London Lady on Peel's radio programme, we just had to rush out and purchase it quickly. It was scintillating stuff and the notion of an entire album of Stranglers songs was a mighty interesting proposition to us. But before I start, lets have none of this political correctness, please! As you will see in a moment, I am as appalled as anyone else at some of the bands' imagery and lyrics, but this is what young music should be like, a threat, a dangerous area, a no-go zone for the older generation.
Bear in mind that this was made nearly three decades ago and things were quite different back then. Great pop can be these things whilst being simultaneously articulate, well-crafted and thought-provoking, too. And would you believe it, we are thrown into the deep end immediately with the first track, Sometimes. No spotty teenagers these, but veterans of R & B bands for some years, subsequently they were very good musicians and had their roots firmly wedged in the sixties.
Sometimes begins with Dave Greenfield's cynical keyboard motif, alongside J.J. Burnel's trademark growling bass, a sound unique to this player and this group. 'Sometimes I wanna smack your face' is Hugh Cornwell's very first line, an arrogant kick-off for their shocking manifesto. Prior to a fine, if old-fashioned, guitar solo from Hugh, he spits out: "you're way past your station, beat you honey till you drop!" Despite even this punky bile, is this 1977 or 1967? Because the extended instrumental passages do indeed bear out those tedious Doors comparisons, swirling keyboards, throbbing organ etc.
What would The Stranglers have been like without those dominant keyboards? Probably still a fine band, but nowhere near as interesting. Goodbye Toulouse is next up, moving at a steady but fast pace, confidence gleaming from every department. Guitars roar and crackle and that bass is the mainstay, never letting up. Hugh sings the rather arch lyric with aplomb and it finishes with some slick harmonies and a bizarre engine-noise repeated in fade mode.
Seven sequenced stabs on a rock n roll electric guitar and we're away on the snarling classic that is London Lady. A fine pop structure, complete with plenty of hooks, disguise the scale of viciousness at work. The misogyny continues: 'Making love to the Mersey Tunnel with a sausage, have you ever been to Liverpool? Please dont talk much, it burns my ears, tonight you talked for a thousand years, tell me what you got to look so pleased about!' These words, and plenty more to follow, may be bully-boy vile, but the music is exhilarating, a thrilling rocket-ride on a punk thoroughbred. Fantastic fun!
A beautifully fingered bass guitar, playing a fascinating, mood-setting riff, ushers in some almost Elizabethan-like keyboards and sleazy guitar. This is Princess Of The Street, a nasty tale about a local whore. Along with Peaches, here is one of the main targets for the feminists' fury. 'She's the queen of the street, what a piece of meat, she's no lady, she'll stab you in the back...' To make matters worse, these appalling words are followed by a simply beautiful guitar solo, as fine as any from the fifties onwards. The strolling tempo brings to mind a strip-club routine, which is appropriate.
Hanging Around, a stage favourite for some time, is next. An intelligent rock song dressed up as a punk throwaway. It's too bloody good for that fate though, Hugh's vocal is spot on, belligerent and passionate: 'Christ! He's told his mother! Christ, he's told her not to bother!' he yelps, before some fine ensemble playing ensues, with the guitar and keyboards dancing around and in and out of each other like something from a Morris dance.
The notorious Peaches was the big hit single from the album, with some lyrics altered for friendly radio airplay. A leering, lascivious anecdote cleverly taken at the leisurely gait of its narrator, as he walks along the promenade, garishly popping his eyeballs at the trouser-burstingly horny women on display. Pointless to quote any of the gross and stupid (however funny) lyrics. Of course, we all have a good scan in the same situation, as most men naturally would. Let's not be too hypocritical about this! It's all biology, isnt it? Musically the track is tightly played and moderately adventurous, with trademark swirling keyboards over a mesmerising bass-riff.
The electrifying Grip is next, a fantastic punk rock classic which never fails to thrill. Hugh is the criminal in jail, arrogantly recounting his wrong-doings, but always we are reminded that his first love is his music: 'Begged and borrowed I admit I sometimes stole, but the worst crime that I ever did was playing rock n roll! Suffering convictions on a two-way stretch inside, the air in here is pretty thin I think I'll go outside, committed for insanity and crimes against the soul, the worst crime I ever did was play some rock n roll! But the money's no good...just get a grip on yourself...'
Slick backing vocals, insistent drumming, unlikely prog-synthesizer, a parping saxophone and those ceaseless Doors keyboards fill out the arrangement. Hugh sums up everything about great music when he growls out in the final verse: 'Stranger from another planet, welcome to our hole! Just strap on your guitar and we'll play some rock n roll!' Our hole, he said, right? Werent they taking this rat concept a bit far?
Ugly is frankly ordinary and lyrically hugely awful. If their intention was to use shock as a way of selling records, it worked, but perhaps it was unnecessary. They were a fine band anyway. Rattus Norvegicus ends with a conceptual medley. Hey, wait a minute, that's a bit hippyish, innit?
Down In The Sewer has four sections and is nearly eight minutes in duration. Starting as it means to go on and clearly very well rehearsed, it begins with a glorious guitar riff and a throaty scream before settling into keyboard territory. Hugh starts his absurd, exaggerated, sneering rant, emphasised by tape echo. The Doors fixation goes into overdrive, but it doesnt spoil the fun. Hugh explains his intentions to raise a whole bunch of rats down in the filth of the sewer and he sounds like he means it! Like a progressive group from about 1972 they jam on, keyboards dominant and repetetive. Some flangeing enters the mix, guitars prowl and the tempo quickens almost invisibly. Excellent musicians, for a punk band. Jet Black's snare rolls get faster and tighter, sounding like demonic guns as the keyboards and slashed guitars begin to speed up, building the tension until things are blazing at full-tilt, only to finally end with some cleverly inserted sound-effects. It really was all going on in the sewer!
Occasionally unpleasant but musically great fun, Rattus remains my favourite Stranglers album.
SJ review No.8 The Rezillos