“Through mutations and lineups and 40+ years, The Stranglers are always The Stranglers; Always present, still moving, for better …Or worse.”
I got a hard lacquered greaser quiff on a good day, set in a cast by a thick sluice of pomade and stiffened to bombproof by more layers of spray than Dante’s own hell. I’m vibrating from sculpture to scalp… I’m a full venue back and a floor above stage and yet still the Strangler’s rusted bass rumble unloads through my bones like a coil.
The Stranglers are an oddity; a one-off combination of punk’s grind and scorn with prog scented jams, synth pop and Doors-esque pianos. They’re a hit ‘n’ miss hit machine with a decades-long track of deeply loved singles, genuinely ingenious covers and skits, 17 top 40 albums and some more that are best kept forgotten. “Always different and always the same” was a phrase John Peel applied to The Fall, you could argue The Stranglers too. Through mutations and lineups and 40+ years, The Stranglers are always The Stranglers. Always present, still moving, for better …or worse.
Tonight they play Nottingham, their ‘Back on the Tracks’ tour, and I’m not sure quite what to expect but I know what I’m wanting to hear… ‘Peaches’, ‘No More Heroes’,’ Walk on By’, ‘Always the Sun’,’ Nice N’ Sleazy’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Skin Deep’,’ European Female’, list goes on and I don’t even call myself a fan.
And we begin the set on a high. Those rusted spring bass strings and piercing synth-keys punctuate, pummel and press. Those roadrunner fingers on three stacks of keys are a thing to behold and admire; ten digits dancing at blistering speeds, they go spitting out spiked sounds and swirls. Cannons of light fire off strobes and white heat and we’re built up for something unique.
Instrumental intro into ‘(Get a) Grip [on yourself]‘ and I’m already hearing well knowns. We’re thrown this way and that way from decade to decade, I grin each time I recognise something. But from early on I see I’m not alone… Although it’s packed out and swarming with logos and tour dates on t-shirts, there’s a cool common state to the crowd; fired up and riled when the best songs get played and complacent at tracks in between.
I’m drawn into Stranglers based bingo, everyone’s crossing off numbers, waiting impatiently for their favourite song to come barrelling out of the stage. ‘There’s too much new stuff’ I hear someone say as chatter rises and falls with each track. But when those songs come through, we light and ignite with sweat, fists and shouting along.
‘Peaches‘ comes early and satisfies all, it’s repeated guttural slugging almost strips the walls and it’s mean and it’s thick in its swells. We shout, we applaud, and we get back to chatter and rest in the heat of the noise. These new songs aren’t bad, they just don’t have the texture – they don’t have those dividing spikes. And they ain’t even boring but middle heavy mash ups of half snarls and barks pale when compared to their best. Even in their synth-pop soaked hits like ‘Always the Sun’ there’s separation and space in a song….
Then each time a patience gets thin? Out comes another. ‘Golden Brown’ hangs off its harpsichord waltz and lets twist in its heroin haze. And just as I write the above about texture, ‘Always the Sun’ gets it’s airing. Vocal parings, ashamedly cute, a Depeche Mode sway of an easy breeze track that bounces without an apology. It’s the closest you’ll get to punks swooning, we swing, sing along, hit all the high notes the new singer can’t as we tackle those awkward A-Ha ‘Take On Me’ notes that carry the last line of the chorus. So OK, the singer is new, as is the drummer, but the line always different and always the same can be stretched to the new full time members.
‘Walk on By’ follows, all patience rewarded. All patrons sated and willing to wait through a few more unknowns ’til we get the next set of still-dirty gems.
I’m rewarded as often as not, best kept for the ending and encore. And I’m still the same level of fan that knows more than I should as a just passer-by, but not swayed to sift through it all. Should I feel bad for cherry picking? Maybe …But when The Stranglers have so many sweet spots to pick from (and more than one or two to avoid) it’s hard to feel too bad about it.