The Stranglers are an English rock band who emerged via the punk rock scene. Scoring some 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums to date in a career spanning four decades, the Stranglers are one of the longest-surviving and most “continuously successful” bands to have originated in the UK punk scene.
Formed as the Guildford Stranglers on 11 September 1974 in Guildford, Surrey, they originally built a following within the mid-1970s pub rock scene. While their aggressive, no-compromise attitude identified them as one of the instigators of the UK punk rock scene that followed, their idiosyncratic approach rarely followed any single musical genre and the group went on to explore a variety of musical styles, from new wave, art rock and gothic rock through the sophisti-pop of some of their 1980s output.
They had major mainstream success with their 1982 single “Golden Brown“. Their other hits include “No More Heroes“, “Peaches“, “Always the Sun” and “Skin Deep” and the 2003 Top 40 hit “Big Thing Coming“, which was seen as a return to form.
The Stranglers’ early sound was driven by Jean-Jacques Burnel‘s melodic bass, but also gave prominence to Dave Greenfield‘s keyboards. Their early music was also characterised by the growling vocals and sometimes misanthropiclyrics of both Burnel and Hugh Cornwell. Over time, their output gradually grew more refined and sophisticated. Summing up their contribution to popular music, critic Dave Thompson later wrote: “From bad-mannered yobs to purveyors of supreme pop delicacies, the group was responsible for music that may have been ugly and might have been crude – but it was never, ever boring”.
Prior to forming the band, “Jet Black” (real name Brian Duffy) was already in his mid-30s—significantly older than the other members of the band he would eventually assemble. A successful businessman, Black at one point owned a fleet of ice cream vans, and later ran “The Jackpot”, a Guildford off-licence that would serve as the base for the early Stranglers. Black had also been a semi-professional drummer in the late 1950s and early 1960s; after attaining a degree of financial stability due to his business successes, by 1974 he decided to return to drumming, and to assemble a band.
The group that eventually formed between 1974–75 was originally called the Guildford Stranglers, and operated out of The Jackpot. Aside from Jet Black, other original personnel were bass player/vocalist Jean-Jacques Burnel, guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist/guitarist Hans Wärmling, who was replaced by keyboardist Dave Greenfield within a year. None of the band came from Guildford: Black is from Ilford, Burnel from Notting Hill, Cornwell from Kentish Town and Greenfield from Brighton, while Wärmling came from Sweden and returned there after leaving the band.
Cornwell was a blues musician prior to forming the band and had briefly been a bandmate of Richard Thompson, Burnel had been a classical guitarist who had performed with symphony orchestras, Black’s musical background was as a jazz drummer, and Dave Greenfield had played at military bases in Germany. Their early influences included pre-punk psychedelic rock bands such as the Doors and the Music Machine.
From 1976 the Stranglers became associated with the burgeoning punk rock movement, due in part to their opening for the first British tours of American punks the Ramonesand Patti Smith. Notwithstanding this association, some of the movement’s champions in the British musical press viewed the band with suspicion on account of their age and musical virtuosity and the intellectual bent of some of their lyrics. However, Burnel was quoted saying, “I thought of myself as part of punk at the time because we were inhabiting the same flora and fauna … I would like to think the Stranglers were more punk plus and then some.”
The band’s early albums, Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White, all released within a period of 13 months, were highly successful with the record-buying public and singles such as “Peaches“, “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes” became instant punk classics. Meanwhile, the band received a mixed reception from some critics because of their apparent sexist and racist innuendo. However, critic Dave Thompson argued that such criticism was oblivious to the satire and irony in the band’s music, writing: “the Stranglers themselves revelled in an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern ‘men’s talk’).” These albums went on to build a strong fan-following, but the group’s confrontational attitude towards the press was increasingly problematic and triggered a severe backlash when Burnel, a martial arts enthusiast, punched music journalist Jon Savage during a promotional event.
During their 1978 appearance at the University of Surrey on the BBC TV programme Rock Goes to College, the group walked off stage because an agreement to make tickets available to non-university students had not been honoured. In February 1978 the Stranglers began a mini-tour, playing three secret pub gigs as a thank-you to those venues and their landlords for their support during the band’s rise to success. The first was at The Duke of Lancaster in New Barnet on Valentine’s Day, with further performances at The Red Cow, Hammersmith, and The Nashville Rooms, West Kensington, in early September.
In the later half of the 1970s, The Stranglers toured Japan twice, joining the alternative music scene of Tokyo, which was evolving from the punk sound of Kyoto-based band 村八分 (Ostracism), whose music influence spread to Tokyo in 1971. The Stranglers were the only foreign band to take part in a landmark scene focussed around S-KEN Studio in Roppongi, and The Loft venues in Shinjuku and Shimokitazawa from 1977 to 1979. The scene included bands such as Friction, and they became friends with the band, Red Lizard, who they invited back to London, where the band became known as Lizard. In 1979, while still in Japan, Burnel also became close friends with Keith, co-founder and drummer for ARB.
At the end of 1983, ARB’s bassist was imprisoned, leaving the band with a problem for their forthcoming tour. Burnel took time out from The Stranglers to fly out to Japan at short notice and join ARB to cover the tour, including appearing at the ‘All Japan Rock Festival’ at Hibaya park, becoming the first non-Japanese to ever appear at the festival. Burnel toured with ARB for 5 weeks and played on two studio tracks, “Yellow Blood” and “Fight it Out”, both of which appeared on the RCA Victor ARB album Yellow Blood.
In 1979, one of the Stranglers’ two managers advised them to break up as he felt that the band had lost direction, but this idea was dismissed and they parted company with their then current management team. Meanwhile, Burnel released an experimental solo album Euroman Cometh backed by a small UK tour and Cornwell recorded the album Nosferatu in collaboration with Robert Williams. Later that year the Stranglers released The Raven, which heralded a transition towards a more melodic and complex sound which appealed more to the album than the singles market. The songs on The Raven are multi-layered and musically complicated, and deal with such subjects as a Viking‘s lonely voyage, heroin addiction, genetic engineering, contemporary political events in Iran and Australia and extraterrestrial visitors, “The Meninblack”. The Raven saw a definite transition in the band’s sound. The Hohner Cembalet – so prominent on the previous three albums – was dropped and Oberheim synthesizers were deployed on most tracks. A Korg Vocoder was used on the track “The Meninblack” whilst acoustic piano was used on “Don’t Bring Harry”. The Raven was not released in the US; instead a compilation album The Stranglers IV was released in 1980, containing a selection of tracks from The Raven and a mix of earlier and later non-album tracks. The Raven sold well, reaching No.4 in the UK Albums Chart, although it is believed it could have made No.1 but for an error in the chart. The Police hit No.1 despite their album not yet being released, leading to controversy that the Police album was mis-credited with sales of The Raven. The Raven spawned one top 20 single, “Duchess“, with “Nuclear Device” reaching No.36 and the EP “Don’t Bring Harry” reaching No.41. This was followed by a non-album single, “Bear Cage”, backed with “Shah Shah a Go Go” from The Raven. A 12-inch single, the band’s first, containing extended mixes of both tracks was also released, but “Bear Cage” also only managed No.36 in the charts.
We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em.— Hugh Cornwell, NME – November 1979
Following the success of The Stranglers’ previous four albums they were given complete freedom for their next, The Gospel According to the Meninblack, a concept albumexploring religion and the supposed connection between religious phenomena and extraterrestrial visitors. It was preceded by a single “Who Wants the World”, which didn’t appear on the album, and only just made the top 40. The Gospel According to The Meninblack was very different from their earlier work and alienated many fans. It peaked on the UK albums chart at No.8, their lowest placing to date, and in 1981 was widely considered an artistic and commercial failure. The track “Two Sunspots” had been recorded during the Black And White sessions in 1978, but was shelved until 1980 when it was rediscovered and placed on The Gospel According to the Meninblack. The “Meninblack” track from The Raven is the “Two Sunspots” soundtrack slowed down.
After a slow start, the Stranglers recovered their commercial and critical status with La Folie (1981) which was another concept album, this time exploring the subject of love. At first La Folie charted lower than any other Stranglers studio album, and the first single taken from it, “Let Me Introduce You to the Family”, only charted at No.42. However, the next single was “Golden Brown“. The song is an evocative waltz-time ballad, with an extra beat in the fourth bar. Cornwell said the lyrics were “about heroin and also about a girl. She was of Mediterranian origin and her skin was golden brown.” It became their biggest hit, charting at No.2 in the UK Singles Chart. It remains a radio staple to this day. Following this success, La Folie recharted at No.11 in the UK albums chart. “Tramp” was originally thought to be the ideal follow-up single to “Golden Brown”; however “La Folie” was chosen after Burnel convinced his bandmates of its potential. Sung in French, it received negligible airplay and charted at No.47. Shortly afterwards the Stranglers left EMI. As part of their severance deal, The Stranglers were forced to release a greatest hits collection, The Collection 1977–1982. The track listing for The Collection 1977–1982 included the new single “Strange Little Girl“, which had originally been recorded on a demo in ’74 and rejected by EMI. It became a hit, charting at No.7 in July 1982.
Following the Stranglers’ return to commercial success, many record companies lined up to sign them. Virgin Records was the most likely choice but Epic Records made a last minute offer and secured the Stranglers’ services. The Stranglers once again had complete artistic freedom and in 1983 released their first album for Epic, Feline, which included the UK No. 9 hit “European Female“. The album was another change in musical direction, this time influenced by European music. It was the first Stranglers album to feature acoustic guitars, and it was on this album that Jet Black began to use electronic drum kits. Hugh Cornwell stated, “On La Folie there were three tracks – ‘Golden Brown’ … ‘La Folie’ and ‘How to Find True Love and Happiness in the Present Day’ – that sort of pointed us away from what we had been doing. It was strange doing those tracks, because we’d never really attempted that quite minimalistic recording technique. And when we started writing for Feline, things were coming out the same way.” The album gained much critical success but fell well short of La Folie in terms of sales and failed to produce another hit after “European Female”. Nonetheless Feline broke the Stranglers in Europe and reached No.4 in the UK chart in January 1983 (their last studio album to break the UK Top 10).
1984 saw the release of Aural Sculpture which consolidated the band’s success in Europe and established them in Oceania. It included the UK No.15 hit “Skin Deep” (which also reached No.11 in Australia and No. 19 in New-Zealand, and Top 30 in the Netherlands). This was their first album to feature the three-piece horn-section which was retained in all their subsequent albums and live performances until Hugh Cornwell’s departure in 1990. Aural Sculpture was only a moderate success in the UK album charts, peaking at No.14 in November 1984.
Their 1986 album, Dreamtime, dealt with environmental concerns among other issues. Its signature track, and another radio staple for many years to come, was “Always the Sun” (a No.15 hit in France and No.16 hit in Ireland, No.21 in Australia, No.30 in the UK, and No.42 in the Netherlands). The only Stranglers album to chart in the US, Dreamtime was again only a moderate hit in the UK, reaching No. 16 in November 1986.
The Stranglers’ final album with Cornwell, 10, was released in 1990. This was recorded with the intention of building on their “cult” status in America. Following the success of their cover of The Kinks‘ “All Day and All of the Night“, a UK No. 7 hit in 1988, The Stranglers released another ’60s cover, “96 Tears” as their first single from 10; it reached No. 17 in the UK. Despite this success, the follow-up single “Sweet Smell of Success” only reached No.65. “Man of the Earth”, which the band had high hopes for, was due to be the third single from the album, however Epic Records decided against it. In August 1990, Hugh Cornwell abruptly left Stranglers, following their failure to attain a tour in the US. After his sudden departure, CBS-Sony dropped Stranglers from their roster.
80s Studio albums
- Rattus Norvegicus (1977)
- No More Heroes (1977)
- Black and White (1978)
- The Raven (1979)
- The Gospel According to the Meninblack (1981)
- La Folie (1981)
- Feline (1983)
- Aural Sculpture (1984)
- Dreamtime (1986)