Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I already had been a fan of the Stranglers when this came out, but my appreciation went atmospheric on this release, sounding nothing like anything else around at the time, a wistful harpsichord led ballad in what seemed to be waltz time. It was also quite different to the music of the Stranglers output ahead of that, previous offerings being of a more aggressive mien, barely suppressed violence and misogyny lurking beneath the surface of not only the songs, but also their audience.

In 1981, when the song came out,  I was both married and gainfully employed in my first job as a junior hospital doctor. Hardly, then, typical punk demographic, yet the UK punk explosion of 1975/6 had earlier grabbed my imagination, shortening my hair and straightening my trousers. I felt, it's true, a little too square for the Pistols and the Clash, but the Stranglers were older, uglier and, a bonus, had a keyboard sound redolent of my beloved Doors. They were the first band in that idiom I caught in a live context, on a bill with U.S. band the Dictators in support, at fabled London venue, the Roundhouse, my first and only visit. November 1977, still a student. Of course I was scared, but it was terrific, taking the opportunity to catch them whenever I could, including the infamous open air concert at Battersea Park, with a newly solo Peter Gabriel amongst the support acts. (Infamous? Well, let's say that the headline act were faithfully nice'n'sleazy......... )

But respectability and commitment had to figure in my life, so it was a couple of years before I revisited the legacy of the band, hearing the eponymous song of this piece burst out of the radio one lunchtime. I was now too 'old' for the more dance-oriented Radio 1, the youth radio of the nation, moving to the young fogey-dom of Radio 2. Lo and behold, this staider and more conservative channel had made this song, by the 'Bring on the Nubiles' hitmakers their record of the week. And they were on Top of the Pops, miming valiantly, the impossible to hum melody imprinting in my brain. What strange things could the lanky Hugh Cornwell be singing about, his voice now a croon compared to the spat out venom of yore? Well the drummer, Jet Black, one part of the melodic inspiration behind the tune, along with keyboard man, Dave Greenfield, suggested it may have been Marmite, which I have mentioned before, a yeast based spread either loved or hated. Cornwell suggested possibly a woman, but his already well-known lifestyle and habits probably gave a better idea. This was a man, after all, who had spent time in London's Pentonville prison for possession of Class A drugs, as described here. Shock and horror, Radio 2 seen to be promoting a song about the joys of Heroin.

By now the Stranglers had almost totally morphed their earlier sound into a far more refined and delicate style, described by some commentators as 'Baroque Pop', a phrase I like, and I saw them a couple of more times. Eventually the steam ran out, or possibly the elephant in the room of 'musical differences', and after a couple of lack-lustre cover versions, Cornwell left the band. The remaining 3 members lurched on, and still do, with various replacements, never quite finding their feet or their glory days. Cornwell has embarked on a solo career of mixed provenance, still the highlights of his shows being when he plays some old. Now, if one day they could patch up their differences and play together as the original band, that would be worth seeing, but the chances of that fade by the year. Somehow the spectre of notoriously spiky black belt in Karate bassist, Jean Jacques Burnel, cosying back up with Cornwell seems unlikely, not least as Jet Black, already in his 40s in their 70s heyday, has had to retire from live shows. As I said, they were already older back in the day.

But the song remains a classic and one I return to often. Remarkably, it has been covered, albeit often in spoof or post-modern ironic style, never matching the original. The version below, actually featuring Cornwell, is, however quite fun!

As a final aside, and one that gives me great pleasure, is the knowledge that Cornwell, junkie post-graduate research chemist, was actually a contemporary of Richard Thompson, guitar hero and icon, ex of Fairport Convention. Indeed, as school mates together, Thompson had included Cornwell, on bass, in his first band, 'Emil and the Detectives'. Which led to a later and somewhat unlikely reunion onstage. As Thompson regularly says, or sings, 'It all Comes Around Again'.

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