Stranglers PhotoFORMED: 1975

As were their contemporaries the Vibrators, the Stranglers were faux-punks; grimy, slightly arty rockers that found the notoriety surrounding punk bands too irresistible to ignore. So armed with short haircuts and reticent about revealing their true ages (drummer Jet Black was a certifiable old fart when the band formed in 1975), the Stranglers became stars of Brit punk's class of 1976-77, garnering headlines for their sexist posturing, drug use, occasional arrests, and oh yeah, their music too.

Truth be told, the Stranglers became a far less interesting band immediately after they stopped acting like a punk band. At least on the first two albums (IV Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes) there were plenty of taut, guitar-driven songs, rife with urban doom, gloom and paranoia. With the nasty vocals and slashing guitar of Hugh Cornwell setting the pace, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel added his distorted grumbling to a mix that also featured Dave Greenfield's cheesy organ fills. Usually dressed in black, always unsmiling, and rude to their audiences (listen to Cornwell's between-song badinage on the LP Live (X-Cert)) the Stranglers worked very hard at being difficult and unlikable. They also made no bones about the fact that women were good for sex and little else, making their feeling clear on such transparently chauvinistic doggerel as "London Lady" and "Bring on the Nubiles."

Rock critics at the time were suspicious of the Stranglers motives: although they ran in "proper" punk circles, and gigged at "proper" punk clubs, they always seemed slightly out-of-place musically with the London-based punk scene dominated by the Sex Pistols, the Damned and Clash. The Stranglers offered no sense of outrage (despite being outrageous) or unpredictability, every moved seemed calculated, as if it were an approximation of a punk aesthetic. Consequently, with each passing record, the Stranglers seemed more and more intent upon distancing themselves from the movement that had provided them their initial career momentum.

After 1978's Black and White failed to generate interest beyond their somewhat rabid fan base (moreso in Europe than in America), A&M dropped them, but unlike many bands of the time that became trivia questions, the Stranglers soldiered on and focused their attention on their devoted Euro-fans, a wise move considering their records were no longer consistently released in America. In 1982, the band signed with Epic and began a lengthy relationship that lasted through the decade and into the '90s. The music, never really compelling in the first place, suffered greatly during this time. Prisoners of their own careerist impulses, the Stranglers turned to covering older rock classics in a desperate attempt to win American ears. Trying twice, first with the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" and then ? and the Mysterians "96 Tears," the Stranglers sounded as if flogging a dead horse was the best they could do. Gone also was their characteristic gritty and grimy sound replaced by a pop sheen that smelled of adult, new wave marketability (eventually Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker was brought in to help). There were plenty of mostly lousy solo records by everyone but Jet Black, and some fairly good compilations, but the saga of the Stranglers is one of a band hanging around far too long.

That it is those earliest years which remain the Stranglers' most popular is not surprising from bad-mannered yobs to purveyors of supreme pop delicacies, the group was responsible for music which may have been ugly and might have been crude but it was never, ever boring. That people are still offended by it only adds to its delight if rock & roll (especially punk rock & roll) was meant to be pleasant, it would never have changed the world, after all. The fact that much of the Stranglers' message was actually hysterically funny as they themselves intended it to be only adds to their modern appeal. And the fact that their fans are still called upon to defend them only proves what humorless zeroes their foes really were. ~ John Dougan, All Music Guide