Gary Kent gets the measure of the mystery 8x10s ditty...
Since Strangled uploaded the cassette of a pre-mixed version of The Raven several years back, there have been many messages of appreciation from Stranglers fans globally: the audio quality of this mp3 conversion surpasses previous boots banded about over the years. For this, we are thankful to Strangled reader Jeff Curnock for unearthing it and generously sending it in for us to share.
I have to say that the opening of the Jiffy package - seeing the cassette stamped ‘EMI/Pathé France’ (the recording studio in Paris where the album was laid down that fortnight in June 1979,) was an exciting portal to the past. Whose copy was it? Which band member held it, played it, lost it? Around the time of the album's creation, it was quite eventful: following three heady studio LPs, the band stretch their musicality far enough for producer Martin Rushent to rush on out of the studio: he dislikes a new track - Meninblack - and has no interest working on the rest of the fourth album. Martin told me in 2008: "I went out the door. I’d just had enough of The Stranglers. They were losing it." Also, Fulham's TW Studios - The Stranglers' studio hub - closes and relocates to Putney. TW's Alan Winstanley leaves - business dives - and the new studio is shut down for good. But it's Alan who comes to The Stranglers rescue when he takes on production in Paris: "My first proper album job." He reveals when I interviewed him in 2011.
Into the cassette deck, the superior sound quality of this tape was immediately evident. But as you would expect from pre-mixed tracks, the sonic fairy-dust has yet to be sprinkled: EQ-ing, vocal-treating and cleaning up the tracks for mixing by Alan and then Steve Churchyard who continues at Air London when Alan is committed to new Ska band Madness. In comparison to the finished opus, most of these Raven tracks have a more prominent bass end, and intros such as in The Raven and Nuclear Device, have extra bass drums. Longships, with a single snare intro, Dead Loss Angeles with a count-in - to keep the band together and in-time. Nuclear Device has backing vocals throughout verse one, and a different vocal approach on Ice from JJ, as well as quite possibly, an extra vocal to be recorded to double track Duchess.
All this provides a wonderful insight into the recording of this great album. Interestingly the running order differs slightly and possibly the cassette shows the order in which they were laid down at the time. But what is most intriguing comes at the end. There is an extra track called 8x10s. This is confusing. To the tune of the Robin Hood theme, 8x10s is comical, complete with vamping organ and bum notes to boot. The vocals sound like the singer - whoever it is - pinching his nose! A hoax? A joke? Is it Dave on the synth and Hugh at the mic perhaps? Slightly reminiscent of Cocktail Nubiles - the drunken Bring On The Nubiles meets Sinatra sneakily taped by Steve Churchyard in a Meninblack session in Brussels - it is a sweet little mystery.
Sung in the style of Goon Spike Milligan, it could be a Monty Python skit. Derek & Clive, even. Maybe it was to be a b-side, like Cocktail Nubiles? Maybe there was a copyright issue on the Robin Hood theme? I doubt that. Irrespective, it’s inclusion would explain the absence of the tracks that did eventually form the singles’ b-sides: Fools Rush Out and Yellowcake UF6 – or Social Secs reversed with vocals muted – that were both already recorded earlier in that year in London with Martin and Alan.
An intrepid insider has checked EMI’s tape listings, but 8x10s isn’t logged. However, Social Secs apparently hails from December 1st 1978 with Martin Rushent and Alan Winstanley confirmed, along with Fools Rush Out and Yellowcake UF6. May 7th notes a recording session for Two Sunspots – a mooted single at the time with an acetate produced too – at Eden Studios in Chiswick. A couple of sessions in July saw Fools Rush Out and Social Secs reworked by Steve Churchyard at Air Studios in Oxford Street, with further Churchyard treatment on 15th August: no less than six versions were listed; full with vox, full no vox, halfspeed with vox, halfspeed no vox, backwards with vox and backwards no vox. No written record of Meninblack or 8x10s, though. However, there was a recording for 22nd July, but no log. But then again, the band were almost certainly still in Paris at this time, possibly returning a week later. Incidentally, an untreated Meninblack was included on Raven Roughs with it’s slowed down backing track but already with Eventide Harmoniser vocals. And the track count-in sounds reminiscent of the single mix of Shakin’ Like A Leaf, if you know what I mean? So if 8x10s was to have been a b-side, it was ditched in favour of Fools Rush Out and Yellowcake UF6 which backed the singles Duchess and Nuclear Device respectively.
While the authenticity of this Raven tape is in no doubt, information on 8x10s is scarce to the point of zilch. But what’s it in reference to? Is it the most common dimensions of a photograph? But that's 10x8 isn't it? Or is it the measure of something else? An ‘in-joke’? An in-joke that has long been forgotten?
"No, I don’t know. The only track I remember recording for a laugh was the cocktail version of Nubiles." Says JJ, and manager Ian Grant can’t shed any light either: "I was there in Paris for most of the sessions but I don’t know anything about it."
Prior to his sad and sudden death, I was in contact with former Stranglers art director and Stranglers fan, Jean-Luke Epstein. The 8x10s song crops up in a conversation which triggers his memory. He emails me back the next day:
"I loved the PDFs and I loved The Raven ‘demos’ on Strangled. But on second listening is when the penny dropped! I could be very wrong, but while I was working on the Dreamtime album in 1986, I had the privilege of working alongside a young lady who was the then girlfriend of John Pasche, art director of The Raven. She had also been John's assistant at UA. Prior to UA/EMI, she had worked at a film processing lab called Quicksilver which processed all of John's photographic work as well as mine. Her former boss happened to be a personal friend of mine. It has to be said that this young lady was very attractive, in all respects. In fact, there’s no easy way to put this, but let’s say she was particularly voluptuous!
But the real point is this: she would often recall her fond memories of working with The Stranglers and, at least twice, she related to me how Hugh would call her – wait for it - 8x10. Hand on heart. I thought it was 10x8 - the expression that comes most naturally to me - because, she said of the photo format size, and how she had worked at Quicksilver. It was only when I listened to The Raven tracks - and the speculation as to what that track might be about - that the memories all came slotting into place. Several times I imagined Hugh staring at her, dead-pan, and calling her that, whilst - knowing him - speculating on the potential wind-up or irony of the nickname. Make of it what you will!"
Jean-Luke must surely have been right about how 8x10s came about. As a result, I was just thinking whether this could be the very cassette done especially for Hugh to prank the particularly voluptuous one!? It does sound a bit like Hugh doesn't it? If you have yet to detect it, the mp3 is still tucked away in The Raven in an earlier post below. You can't miss it. Just look for the bird! But first, see how the mystery 8x10s ditty is uncannily similar to this Monty Python skit at 2 minutes 40 seconds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLkhx0eqK5w
Big thanks to the late Jean-Luke Epstein. Originally due for publication on here back in 2017, J-L had just passed away. Out of respect, it was shelved, and subsequently forgotten, until now!
30th January 2019
Semolina Pilchard: journos in jeopardy!
Gary Kent on Manoeuvre, et al...
Philippe Manœuvre is a French journalist. He has been a radio and television presenter, as well as editors for Métal Hurlant magazine and music monthly Rock & Folk. In 2008, he became a member of the jury of a reality show called Nouvelle Star on French television. But while The Stranglers were recording The Raven in Paris, the 25 year old Philippe was eager to get an interview.
"He was always bugging me," says JJ. "He was at our hotel one day demanding an interview. I said yes, providing we do it up the Eiffel Tower. Once we were up there on the first floor, we took down his trousers, gaffer-taped him to a girder and left him to be photographed by all the tourists!"
Alienation from the press is inevitable as provocation and hostility reign. Verbally mostly, but physical too. Former NME and Record Mirror writer Ronnie Gurr becomes a victim as JJ seeks his revenge. When reminded of this, JJ laughs:
"After he slagged off Euroman Cometh! Yes, we arranged to meet him in a pub for an interview and ended up bundling him onto our bus. We drove to the next gig, which was Hemel Hempstead where we took him inside and tied him to a chair. We made him sit and watch the gig. We gave him some Finchley Boys for company. A tattooed bloke called Dean from Sheffield was told not to speak to Ronnie. But Ronnie threw a can or something at him and escaped while the support band were on and ran to the police station round the corner. Next thing, the police arrived looking for me. Of course, I was nowhere to be found because I was hiding in the ladies! The police went away in the end. There wasn’t much they could do."
"After he slagged off Euroman Cometh! Yes, we arranged to meet him in a pub for an interview and ended up bundling him onto our bus. We drove to the next gig, which was Hemel Hempstead where we took him inside and tied him to a chair. We made him sit and watch the gig. We gave him some Finchley Boys for company. A tattooed bloke called Dean from Sheffield was told not to speak to Ronnie. But Ronnie threw a can or something at him and escaped while the support band were on and ran to the police station round the corner. Next thing, the police arrived looking for me. Of course, I was nowhere to be found because I was hiding in the ladies! The police went away in the end. There wasn’t much they could do."
Two years before, a new-to-London Ronnie arrives at the Roundhouse where The Stranglers will be performing later. The band come out and he approaches JJ for his autograph. JJ offers to buy him a cup of tea. He also lets him store his bag in the venue's dressing room. "You can crash at our flat." JJ tells him. Skip forward to 1979 where Ronnie is a music writer and pens a critique to seal his fate. Ronnie recalls the album being a "load of shite... indulgent." Bit harsh, Ronnie!
The same year, writer Deanne Pearson is left stranded on the Nuclear Device video shoot in the Portuguese countryside. She says she's kidnapped by the band, abandoned, and as a result she misses the plane home. Eventually a private jet is laid on for her where she sips Remy Martin. Although Deanne is disappointed when the plane lands at Luton instead of London.
1979 seems to be a popular year for Stranglers versus the media - and not just the cricket match at Maida Vale that September! In a Sounds interview, tension is apparent in the Mishima article. Photographer Jill Furmanovsky has to leave the room following a heated debate with JJ which probably explains the absence of any accompanying photographs! JJ also turns on journalist Dave McCullough, telling him:
"I want you to know that I think all journalists are pigs. You are a pig."
How to win friends and influence people, eh? In a local library some years ago I meet well-known author Tim Lott. Tim was once at Record Mirror with Barry Cain and together they set up Flexipop magazine. Tim's smile suddenly turns sour when I mention those words The Stranglers. Taking a step back, he asks me in a tentative tone:
“You’re not an associate of the band, are you?”
"I think he’s a good writer," JJ says of Tim. "I liked his articles in the Standard. I didn’t have a problem with him, but he was like everyone else and jumped on this anti-Stranglers bandwagon or pro-Clash pro-Pistols bandwagon. We were selling more records than those guys, but he would write a nasty scene. I remember Tony Parsons came on tour with us at Cambridge, at the end of '77, and he didn’t like the whole Finchley Boys scene, and he’d managed to recruit a few musicians to the Socialist Workers Party, and we were just toeing the fucking line. So, we weren’t gonna suck up to these cunts, so it was like war, really. It’s like Jon Savage - he wrote something scathing, and one of us had a go at him, and he got up to attack me and I punched his lights out in the Red Cow in front of everyone, Rough Trade lot, Jake Riviera, Andrew Lauder, our A&R guy who was lovely, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. All these people saw what I did. In that period, we made a lot of enemies, bless ‘em, with these people who got in a lot of quite influential positions within the music industry and literature. Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill..."
Do you ne regret rien, JJ?
"I regret the long term effect it had. But on the other hand, we’re still going.... So maybe that animosity gave us the strength to fight our corner. But there were one of two journalists who took us for what we were - a band trying to make a career in music - and we gave them due respect. But a lot of people came along to talk to us with a massive chip on their shoulder because of preconceived notions about what we were, influenced very often by other sectors of the industry. There are still a few writers out there with an axe to grind with us. Especially the likes of Jon Savage who is a constant pain in the arse."
Thanks to JJ Burnel, Ronnie Gurr, Donald MacKay, C. Gassian and the Walrus
28th April 2016
INDEED IT was. During an office move, one of our readers made this amazing photographic discovery of The Stranglers on Top of the Pops performing Thrown Away. The weekly BBC show aired each Thursday and filming took place on the Tuesday beforehand, dating this image to 27th January 1981. No audience members are visible. This is because we are seeing the band in rehearsals providing acts with an opportunity to hone their performance but also for the camera men to practice their angles.
Here we see two operators with a third which will travel around the back of the set during the actual take. Having compared the image with the filmed performance, we notice that JJ’s guitar strap has been swapped. It definitely depicts a moment in time.
Blogitorial: the art of Rattus…
18th April 2016
We know, we know…the info behind the cover art of Rattus Norvegicus. Yes, It’s all in our Burning Up Times PDFs. But have you ever pondered the back cover art with the rat running across a fence bar in a glorious sunset? Doubtlessly, you too are one of those fans who hopelessly study these things in forensic detail for insubordinate amounts of time! But only now has the truth be known – a sheer twist of fate on the 39th anniversary of The Stranglers debut LP - thanks to the internet and Mark Taylor. The only problem for Strangled is to decide on an awful rat strapline…
Who let the rat out of the bag? Rattus gnaw-vegicus? All rodents lead to… Or, How now, brown rat - Or was it?
Mark Taylor has the ‘tail’ behind the rat…
Some 40 odd years ago, I had two pet rats and my mother, being a photographer, photographed one of them on a sunset studio set. I assisted her – placing the rat on a wooden fence for him to run along for the photos. Unbeknown to us, one of these photos was chosen for the iconic Stranglers album, Rattus Norvegicus. Only when I saw a friend with it painted on the back of his leather jacket did I find out about the album photo.
I don’t believe The Stranglers ever knew anything about my mother or the story behind the photo as it was chosen from our photo agent’s collection. But I always have pleasure every time I see the album, knowing I was standing just to the right, having placed the rat on the fence, when the photo was taken. I feel great pride at being associated with such a cracking album with a truly amazing photo. A while ago I wrote a small story about a pet and the link below is that story. There are more photos from the shoot of the rat on our website.
Now an additional credit can be made to Rattus: ‘Rat photograph by Jane Burton’
Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams recall the making of Nosferatu to Gary Kent. A record that Hugh says made no money.
WINTER 1979: Bedtime. I’m under cover. Beyond the callous reality of a school night beneath candlewick covers. Lights off. Next door, parents a-kip.
Koss K-6 cans cup my ears with Nosferatu, this hero of horror, on full volume from the Fidelity music centre; coiled extension between at optimum stretch. One wrong move and the jack plug will certainly flick out of the socket, sending full-on power and Peelers whistling in the distance… I slip away into the darkness, warm grip on the coiled flex, absorbing this unnerving imaginary soundtrack to a vampire-themed movie. All the same, it shits me up.
Nosferatu is a one-off album collaboration between Strangler Hugh and Captain Beefheart’s drummer, Los Angeles-based percussionist Robert Williams. Inspiration comes from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s haunting Dracula-based silent of 1922 – one of his finest, they say - and the most influential German film directors of the silent era. Murnau was at the pinnacle of the expressionist movement in 1920’s German cinema. Greatly influenced by Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Ibsen, Nosferatu is his adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Murnau died in Santa Barbara in 1931 following a car crash.
Hugh and Robert’s Nosferatu is a wonderful work. For Hugh, it is conceived post-Black And White. Cold, eccentric, doleful, haunting and melancholic... but always exciting. Drums are hard and almost metallic; bass is deep and throbbing; vocals are soporific and atonal (Hugh’s) although Robert sets the tone with the eponymous opener, strident, striding through a fog-lorn London on the run and into the shadows once more. The Stranglers sound is redolent. Although fear strikes through many teenage Stranglers ninjas at the time: the thought of Hugh becoming successful as a solo concern and leaving The Stranglers was unthinkable! JJ released his solo LP and toured with it in April, but now Hugh’s at it! Nosferatu is unleashed in November 1979, 35 minutes in length, it’s now almost 35 years on.
‘Burnel had just recorded Euroman, so I thought, why not have a go?'
‘As far as the motivation to make the record goes, Nosferatu was pure whimsy.’ Hugh discloses. 'I mean Burnel had just recorded Euroman, so I thought, why not have a go? I was a huge Captain Beefheart fan, and I took the opportunity to see Robert play in San Francisco whilst I was there after a Stranglers tour. He played three nights at a place called the Trocadero I believe. I went one night with the Blondie mob who were also huge fans. I met Robert after one of the shows and we hung out together and decided to keep in touch. A short time later I had a break in The Stranglers schedule so I rang him just before Christmas 1978 and invited him to make a record with me. As Nosferatu had been a silent movie originally, I thought a good starting place would be to try to approximate a soundtrack for it.’
Robert: ‘Hugh then called from the UK asking me to collaborate. I asked about a band and he said it would be just us two. When I asked about the songs he said we’d make them up in the studio. So I booked some recording studios - the best studios in LA - and invited an old friend of mine, Joe Chiccarelli, fresh off recording Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, as our recording engineer.’
Hugh flies out to LA and sessions begin on Boxing Day, 1978. But the recording process is somewhat laboured as studios are spread between Cherokee Studios, Sunset Sound Studios, Village Recorders and Davlin Studios. Drum kits take time to mike up. Plus, there’s the continual setting up and packing away. ‘…It’s the drum-kit I used in Captain Beefheart which I still own - a Ludwig maple finish with 2-24” bass drums, 13”, 14”, 16”, 18” toms and a vintage Rogers snare drum, currently disassembled and awaiting refinishing.’
Fleetwood Mac have an unexpected recording hiatus due to one of the band disappearing. So Lyndsay Buckingham helpfully offers Robert and Hugh Fleetwood Mac’s studio time. The pair dig in, working late nights - with a little help from their other friends, controlled and otherwise - through the graveyard shift and beyond. They rush back from the studio most nights at sunrise and fall asleep back at Robert’s place. For Hugh, recording Nosferatu is instrumental to a future sonic path; musically, this is where his spidery, almost Beefheart style of guitar playing is so evident. You’ve only got to listen to the next Stranglers album - The Raven - or Hugh’s Sons Of Shiva for that matter. Coincidentally, it’s the rare Dan Electro semi-acoustic bass that Hugh plays on The Raven track - Dead Loss Angeles – which he picks up in LA. Lyrically, Hugh’s creative force in this track is where he describes the superficial nature of the city, with a line in reference to Robert playing timpani.
‘It’s a tribute to Robert who, as a friend had shown sensitivity. Robert was just as isolated in LA as I was.’ Hugh recalls the writing and recording modes: ‘I had a cassette tape full of guitar ideas for songs and I took it with me to work on. As it was such short notice, we moved around from studio to studio every few days around Christmas and New Year and it took longer than necessary because we were moving around so much. We’d sleep during the day and work most of the night, picking a guitar idea from the cassette and then work it into a song which I then wrote the lyrics for. Each song started with a click track as a template, and we were starting more or less from scratch.’
Robert: ‘Hugh and I made the songs up in the studio usually starting with the drum track although we usually created a click track to keep everything in time and off we went making it up as we went along. Hugh did not have a demo before starting Nosferatu but he had a few little riffs on guitar for just a few songs that we both fleshed out. Then we would bring home cassettes from the sessions to study and come up with subsequent parts. We spent daylight hours sleeping and worked throughout the night, very much like vampires.’
Hugh: ‘Robert suggested inviting various guests in to play from the LA area, and he was in contact with Ian Underwood, Devo’s Mothersbaugh brothers and his guitarist friend Dave Walldroop who played on White Room. I was happy for Robert to organise the Mothersbaugh’s session for Rhythmic Itch and Robert and I prepared the backing track and they wrote the lyrics and added some bits. Robert wrote the track Nosferatu and recorded it in my absence.’
Robert: ‘Recording went on for a few weeks as I recall. We hired instruments and experimented with them. Like the calliope in Wrong Way Round and the waterphone for the intro to Irate Caterpillars. There was one night where the entire studio was filled with percussion instruments like tympanies, tubular bells, tamatoms, gongs, bongos, congas, and timbales, etc. Hugh suggested we do White Room and the arrangement was my idea. I invited Ian Underwood and David Waldroop to participate as well as Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh. Devo had moved from Ohio to LA. I had dinner with Bob and Mark and they were keen to contribute. They were big Beefheart fans. I knew Ian Underwood through my Zappa connections and Dave Walldroop was a mate of mine and an excellent guitarist. I remember that The Tubes’ Fee Waybill was supposed to be singing on Wrong Way Round originally but then Ian Dury became available and once Hugh’s management got me Ian’s number, Ian did it instead.’
The Nosferatu sessions then shift from LA to London in April 1979; Mothra is recorded at Eden Studios with Alan Winstanley and mixing begins at Air Studios with Steve Churchyard shortly after. Hugh: ‘Ian Dury (that’s Duncan Poundcake to you and me…) did his fairground rant for Wrong Way Round while we were mixing. The Clash were also mixing at Air and we invited them in to sing backing vocals on Puppets but when we did it, only Mick was around. (Or Various People – crowd, shall we say…) and Puppets is about record company manipulation of artists.’
Sounds like The Clash (Remote Control) but also a tucked-in reference to Clash manager Johnny Green: ‘Greeny pays the bills, Greeny gets the pills… ’ What about the other tracks on Nosferatu?
Hugh: ‘Irate Caterpillar began as an instrumental originally but it’s about Fred Frith who I had seen in concert with Henry Cow. Big Bug was about Leon Trotsky’s war train. Nosferatu, by Robert, is self-explanatory. Losers In A Lost Land is about struggling actors. Wrong Way Round was about a girl built upside down. Rhythmic Itch was written by the Mothersbaughs. Wired is about being on Cocaine. Mothra we thought sounded like the machinations of a giant moth, so we named it in memory of a Japanese myth.’
I can’t help but wonder if there is an exclusive Nosferatu out-take… Perhaps there is..! Of course there is, but it’s hidden within these very pages! (- Ed.)
Meanwhile, an old NME clipping ahead of Nosferatu’s release talks of a track listed called Bacteria Cafeteria. A track which is mysteriously errant from the finished product and I am inquisitive. I ask Hugh, who suspects that this is the original title for a song that started off as an instrumental – ‘though not sure which – but could be Irate Caterpillar.
JJ’s Euroman Cometh scrapes into the UK Top 40 earlier that year and has since gone on to sell quite well, according to JJ. Whereas Nosferatu failed to make any impact on the album chart at the time, JJ is eager to point this out when the subject is broached! Hugh:
‘It was an extremely expensive record to make and has never made any money. The record company knew nothing of Nosferatu being made: UA had no idea I was making the record until they started getting the invoices sent to them from the studios, but they paid them all. The costs were so huge there was no possibility of me getting an advance, either from the record label or for the publishing as the deals I had in place with The Stranglers which covered solo works too. Robert did not have a publishing deal at all so he managed to get an advance out of Virgin in the UK.’
Robert: ‘His [Hugh’s] publicist then went on to announce the project as Hugh’s solo record. Is it a duo album or a solo album? Anyway, I listened to Nosferatu a few months ago and the sound and production still holds up to today’s standards.’
I can’t help play Nosferatu. But I wait till after dark. The Koss K-6’s and the Fidelity music centre are long distant memories, as is the coiled headphone extension, however warmly gripped. I stick the Nosferatu CD on and play. It still shits me up.
Special Strangled thanks to Robert Williams and Hugh Cornwell.
Joe Goes To Hollywood...
It is worth mentioning the young engineer responsible for those Nosferatu sessions in Los Angeles; Massachusetts-born Joe Chiccarelli starts out as a bassist in 1970’s Boston before turning to studio engineering and heading out west. A lucky break while at Hollywood’s Cherokee Studios comes when Frank Zappa’s engineer is delayed in London with visa problems. In an interview with HitQuarters, Chiccarelli says: ‘I was 20 years old working as an assistant engineer in a studio, and Frank booked in. His engineer couldn’t make the session and he took a chance on me. I’m so thankful ever since that day because he gave me a career.’
Subsequently, Chiccarelli is now an eight times Grammy recipient responsible for capturing the sounds of many of the best acts around. As a producer-mixer-engineer he has worked with an impressive array of artists including: Elton John, Beck, U2, Tori Amos, Oingo Boingo, Rufus Wainwright, Carole King, The Cult, Bon Jovi, The Bangles, Herb Alpert, Al Stewart, Jonathan Richman, Brian Wilson, Joan Baez, Counting Crows, Etta James, White Stripes, The Raconteurs and Jamie Cullum to name a few. Oh, and of course Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams! Chiccarelli still uses Sunset Sound Studios these days while Cherokee closed in 2007 to become live-work units. In Beatles producer George Martin’s autobiography, Cherokee was named the best studio in America. Joe Chiccarelli is presently working on Morrissey’s album in France.
In a White Room… Chris Gabrin
Ice breaker single White Room is a cracking redo of the Cream track from 11 years before. The brilliant expressionist promo video is by Hugh’s pal, Chris Gabrin:
‘We filmed it at my studio in St. Pancras Way. I shared half the attic with a sculpture called Denis Masi and his studio was painted white - sculptors want light - while my studio was black because a photographer needs dark. We filmed it in the white room which had that unusual semi-circular window with the round windows each side. It was an old Victorian building owned by the Post Office. It’s long gone now, though. I moved out soon after: my lease was coming up, and I was always expecting it to get knocked down for redevelopment. A friend moved in and ended up staying there another four years. The video was done in the Nosferatu 1920’s style using German expressionist lighting. It was very visual, and with my photographic background, I came up with some new tricks. Do you remember that shot of the snails, with the shadows? I really wanted snails - and this was before the Internet and everything, don’t forget. We managed to find somewhere where we could get snails, so we picked up the phone and ordered them. It was someplace in Truro or something. Anyway, they sent them. By mail! We unpacked them - and surprisingly - they were all still alive.’
Paul McGuire in… Nosferatu!
‘The pairing of Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams was truly inspired musically, not to mention certainly the most black-eyebrowed duo. Just recently I picked up Nosferatu on CD - vinyl always needs a back-up - this evening Nosferatu comes alive during a long drive as the gorgeous blue LA skies turn to blackness.
The opening title track evokes a Transylvanian nightmare that Bram Stoker should be proud of. Robert’s frenetic double-bass drum-fuelled workout and Hugh's unmistakably weird guitar and vox mesh with sinister keyboard washes unlike anything off Dave Greenfield's dextrous hands, which is saying something. A furious, haunting track suggesting a cinematic chase - the title tune builds, peaks and fades like a runaway horse-drawn wagon.
Following on from the rapid die out is a much slower number, Losers In A Lost Land. Hugh Cornwell’s melancholy vocal is punctuated by his evocative six-string work as Robert Williams' restrained accompaniment frames his gurgling moog backdrop. An unexpected version of Cream's White Room is next, a monochromatic take stirred by Robert's powerful kettle drums. The - one of the greatest song titles ever - Irate Caterpillar with Hugh’s spoken word leads to Rhythmic Itch, a genius collaboration with Devo's Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, the former's distinctive singing elevating the track next to Williams' bass marimbas and a driving fadeout propelled by Mark's Prophet synth.
Wired is twisted and asymmetrical, abetted by Mothers of Invention stalwart Ian Underwood whose talents at soprano sax and moog are on full display. Great stop and start finale. And who can forget the turkey-taloned EP sleeve? With many songs in pop and blues history about trains, Big Bug stands alone as the strangest. Inspired by Trotsky's infamous locomotive, the song is dominated by Williams’ multiple talents. Truly one of a kind. Mothra is based on fabled Japanese terror and is another bizarre, complex and ultimately fascinating piece of work. Carnival barker Ian Dury (Duncan Poundcake) winds up Wrong Way Round to places even The Stranglers never venture. Puppets closes the album, with jungle drug chants and more alchemic genius from Williams and Cornwell.
Nosferatu is not easily accessible. On first hearing I can’t fault its power and beauty, but it is clearly a strong piece of work by two acolytes of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart, may he rest in piece. It is also extremely well produced and, to me, it is the best solo Stranglers work in league with JJ and Dave's Fire And Water. Tonight it sounds better with age and I hope someday Cornwell and Williams revisit it for a one-off live soundtrack to the classic German film that inspired it. In that respect it is also quite reminiscent of Lou Reed and John Cale's Songs For Drella, written and performed quickly in honour of recently deceased Andy Warhol (if you haven't heard it, A Dream alone is worth the price of admission, as powerful as anything either man has done together, apart or with The Velvet Underground).
It amazes me that Nosferatu was cut in 1979, sounding fresh and far more interesting than just about anything I hear elsewhere today. I may be stuck in my ways but there is simply no new music that compares to The Stranglers collective work. Those like me who were there from the first bars of Grip and beyond along with Hugh's magnificent body of solo work are indeed lucky.’
Big Strangled thanks also go to Chris Gabrin, David Fagence, Paul McGuire, and Adam Neil.
The future is black: but was it really make-or-break for the Meninblack?
Change is in the air. The producer walks out and management want the band to call it a day. Yet somehow The Stranglers create an album that to this day, is the one that fans hold closest to their hearts. Gary Kent explores The Stranglers’ evolution from the rat to…
THE PADDED ENVELOPE sits on the doormat. It’s shaped by the tape I’m expecting. A product of The Raven sessions. It’s no demo, nor the less superior Raven Roughs. This is a supersonic cassette - clear as a crystalline – cool as fuck. Off the desk at Pathé-Marconi Studios is where the sound quality is, no hiss, at least not much. I send an email of thanks to the Strangled reader who sent it and tune into that fortnight in June 1979.
It gets me thinking. Wondering how Black And White’s follow-up begins. With a meeting - and a bombshell - from Albion Management. Dai Davies and Derek Savage look for a new direction:
‘They said, “It’s been a great 18 months, but now what?”’ Hugh recalls in Song By Song.
‘We didn’t understand what they meant, but it turned out they wanted us to split up. They said it would be counter-productive for us to carry on. You must remember by this point, the Pistols had split up, so the force behind punk had disintegrated and everything was moving into new styles. So Dai and Derek thought the best thing would be to split up and possibly reform down the line.’
‘We were suspicious and dug our heels in and it started a period of distrust between us, from which we never recovered.’
Find me a new direction…
Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes, Black And White… In Britain’s post-punk haze, The Stranglers already emerge as true survivors; that triptych of top-selling LP’s plus a stream of hit singles seal their standing in not just the charts, but hearts and minds of kids like me. But The Stranglers are still the band literati and cognoscenti mysteriously omit from history books and TV docs. Surely a travesty considering they must be somewhere on the radar of British popular culture?
Of course, the ritual goading and provocation of music hacks never helps them much and two years of press pejoratives start to stick: misogynists, bullies, too aggressive, too old… So in the summer-autumn of ’79 there’s a surprising buzz upon the release of The Raven, the fourth album of The Stranglers. Duchess is the pop single that August proving they’re still a chart force despite a twelvemonth hiatus. Nonetheless I get pilloried by the diminutive hippy in a bean hat called Pete perched behind the counter of Small Wonder Records. Maybe commerciality has usurped punk? The Stranglers will never be Crass old bean.
It’s in the bag! In the third week of September, I proudly walk out from Stratford’s WH Smiths with my 3D cover of The Raven along with 19,999 others across the length and breadth of Britain who help the LP land at No. 4. It’s a new direction: The Stranglers swap rat for raven. Hugh explains the significance to Melody Maker at the time:
‘We like symbols and for us the raven is much more symbolic of what we are now than what we were a year or two ago. At that time, we were really in the sewer. The raven is more like an element of going ahead in one direction. It's a guiding navigation for a ship - and it’s also very European’.
The Raven album is certainly a sonic, yet progressive departure from their early barrage. If you are like me - initiated in punk’s year zero with Jean-Jacques Burnel’s barracuda bass, Dave Greenfield’s lysergic organ, Hugh Cornwell’s snarling bite and Jet Black’s no-nonsense drums - then you might have been just as disorientated and fascinated on first play. Few clues exist before, with Rattus and Heroes tripped out psyche-punk and spikey Black And White’s unforgiving forebode. The Raven is grandly epic (could Toiler On The Sea have been a secret portent?) and psyche punk trades for timbre, fluency and something that alludes until now. That coolness. Pub gig edge and metered menace is now unfettered poise. Intricate musical passages weave and mesh. Lyrics are wordy, and smart: laid out like a foreign affairs journal, claustrophobic parochial is worldly and creative. A world away from the previous. Coincidentally, it’s two years to the day from No More Heroes. And Black and White is now widescreen Panavision.
That dazzling 3D cover - made of three shots of the Viking’s favoured landseer – is a treasure, and expensive. Those not as swift or lucky as me settle for a lesser 2D portrait, and in view of JJ’s Red Cow retribution at journo Jon Savage (he slates No More Heroes and says the cover art is ‘chintzy, chocolate box’…) sauvage adjectives aimed at The Raven are muted. Gothic font, Men-in-Black, and a Viking longship – the very same one Jet visited on a school trip back in the Dark Ages – all round up the Nordic tone. The opening brace of tracks - Longships and The Raven - jangle and boom, oars and rollocks à go go, a segueway… or cross-fade... I forensically explore the cover of the first Stranglers studio album to feature The Stranglers logo on the front.
Dead Loss Angeles, Ice, Baroque Bordello… a multitude of themes exist within reportage: American ostentation, Japanese seppuku (chop-suicide, says Hugh), a brothel. Nuclear Device, Shah Shah A Go Go, Don’t Bring Harry… The Shah, Nostradamus, Heroin. Meninblack, Genetix… UFOs, a lesson in biology. Quatranes, seppuku, gerrymandering… the verb ‘to secede’… La Brea Pits – a mammoth of a discovery - Meninblack, Gregor Mendel… exciting, enthralling, alluring, keeping me off the streets as I reach over bedclothes for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (it was the OED when I bought Peaches) to explore what the fuck they were on about. Or quite simply, just ‘on’.
There’s even a mental track – Meninblack - palimpsest to Two Sunspots. It’s also the track that sparks a major division in the studio. Sounding like the Laughing Gnome and Pinky & Perky (my first record!), lead vocals are squashed through a harmoniser with the effect of singing on helium with your balls in a vice. It comes by accident when Two Sunspots 2” tape is played at the wrong speed.
Musical inspiration isn’t far: Fools Rush Out ascribes to band-management friction; Social Secs alludes to the BBC Rock Goes To College walk-off at Guildford University where they declare they ‘won’t play to elitist audiences.’ However, in a matter of weeks, Hugh will be recording his first solo LP with ex-Captain Beefheart percussionist Robert Williams. The band’s affairs are now handled by Ian Grant who forms Modern Management from an upstairs flat in Covent Garden’s downbeat James Street. By now TW Studios, the highly successful subterranean recording hub and home to engineer Alan Winstanley, is facing closure. The band shift to Eden in Chiswick - Alan and Martin engineer and produce – but the latest songs are not impressing everyone:
‘I detected that they were running out of steam a bit in the writing department.’ Martin remembers sucking on a Camel cigarette. ‘All the original songs they’d written as street people, they’d run out of. Now they were writing songs as pop stars and it wasn’t the same’.
Before Social Secs gets the reverse treatment, a Euroman bass line is detected. ‘Do The European or Social Secs? I can’t remember which came first…’ offers JJ, but it has to be said two or three half-songs do not measure up to a magnum opus in anyone’s book. The band need an album, but first they need a single. It’s while mixing takes place on hat mooted single, Two Sunspots, things come to head between producer and artist: the Ampeg 2” tape is on the wrong way round on the Studer when Martin arrives. They vari-speed it slower and add toms. They lose the bass, they lose the vocals… and then they lose the producer. As drum loops echo round the room, Martin spots the writing is on the wall:
‘I went out the door. I’d just had enough of The Stranglers. They were losing it.’
The Stranglers were losing it…
Two Sunspots mix is neither finished nor released. With Alan’s assistance, it is now (another) reversed track now called Meninblack, an omen to a darker, more sinister trajectory for The Stranglers. As odd as it is, it’s remarkable for its distinctiveness. Jet’s UFO reading at Bearshanks in between writing tracks for Black And White make their way into song; Human flesh is porky meat hee hee heeeeeeeeeeeeee… go JJ’s high-pitch harmonised vocals. Dave’s new Wasp synth covers the bass line, augmented with ethereal synthesizer washes. The drums are mixed to sound like no other track they’ve done before as Hugh picks out Spaghetti Western-style on his Telecaster. The band are engulfed in the mysteries surrounding the Men-in-black, extraterrestrial visitations and alien abductions. But as the winning Rushent-Winstanley partnership hangs in the balance, Martin is due to hop on a flight to France to record the rest of the album. At the eleventh hour, there’s a hitch:
‘The thought of being in Paris with Jean Jacques for three months or whatever it was gonna be, just didn’t appeal. Plus, I was starting to get into electronic music at that point in time – I was talking to Visage, I was talking to Joy Division – and doing another Stranglers album when I didn’t have any new ideas and I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute… I suddenly got up one morning and said I didn’t want to do this record. They’ve got Alan. Alan knows everything they’ve ever done. I phoned Ian Grant and said I’m not doing it, I don’t think I should be doing this album. I’ve made the decision. He said they’re gonna be really fucked off. I went: yeah, but I’m telling you, Ian - I said - it’s the best thing. He said: now you’ve put it that way, you’re right. But they’re still gonna be fucked off. I went: okay. But it was the right thing to do. I really felt I didn’t have anything to contribute. And if I’d done The Raven, It would have sounded rubbish.’
All journalists are pigs…
The start of 1979 sees the band embark on a wildly successful Japanese tour but here, the effects of hack-baiting come home. Proof lies in my dusty archives, where tension is apparent in Sounds; in the Mishima article, February 10th, freelance snapper Jill Furmanovsky has to leave the room following a heated JJ-exchange which explains the absence of any photographs from the day. Then it’s time staffer Dave McCullough who learns life’s pecking order, and JJ is there to educate:
‘I want you to know that I think all journalists are pigs. You are a pig.’
To quote JJ. The rest of the article is peppered with aide-memoirs from the Black Belt how the band endured ‘two years of being constantly slagged off by the press’. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me… Calculated wind-up? Tongue-in-cheek? Post-irony? You bet, but what a read. But there is a lot of truth in what JJ says considering the mindless actions of pigeon-fancying hipsters, The Clash, who rifle around on rooftops blasting innocent birds of grey and duly exalted by the hacks. Add the Sex Pistols too if you like. Press darlings, The Stranglers were not. Over to Jet who’s rehearsing in the West Country:
‘Well there were one or two [journalists] who took us for what we were - a band trying to make a career in music – and we gave them due respect. But a lot of people came along to talk to us with a massive chip on their shoulder because of preconceived notions about what we were - influenced very often by other sectors of the industry.’
Jackie magazine certainly had no hatchet in hand: in the January 6th issue, Dave’s secret talent is exposed as painting! That’s painting - and decorating. How sweet? Another sympathetic publication is relative newcomer, Record Mirror. Music writer Barry Cain is a close ally of the band back then:
‘I remember going on that Japanese tour with the band. The fans loved JJ’s look. It was around then that Frank Warren, the boxing promoter contacted me - Frank grew up in the same flats as me and he was putting on unlicensed boxing matches at Finsbury Park – and he knew I was into The Stranglers. He got in touch to find out if JJ would box at one of these matches down at the Rainbow. So I took JJ down to meet Frank at Vic Andretti’s, the ex-world champion boxer who had this flash burger bar down the bottom of Hackney Road, the Shoreditch end. We all had lunch there together and talked about this match. Frank had it all lined up, and JJ was interested, but it didn’t happen. Interestingly enough, Frank was promoting Lenny MacLean (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) for the fights. I often wonder if JJ was to have fought him. That would have been some match.’
Having flown straight with perfection – well, via Moscow for refuelling – Tokyo customs dismantle Dave’s organs. Major headaches for soundman Sheds Jackson, but the tour itself is an unmitigated success. The crowd are hungry for this New Wave, especially being the first to play there. JJ’s iconic image (and love of all things oriental) is embraced, and female attention is rife. Barry is there to capture it:
‘They don’t think of us as idols,’ says Jean Jacques in the back of a cab on the way to a hotel where another gang of honeydew peaches are waiting to pounce. ‘They are really into what the band say. They understand.’ To back this up, JJ produces female fan mail thrust into his hand at various points of his journey, all anxious to identify with his admiration of the writer Yukio Mishima… ‘to provide a few enlightening anecdotes on the subject of his disembowelled, decapitated felo de se.’
Then at the Osaka hotel, JJ spoils for a fight with leathery band Judas Priest who play the same night. ‘The evening culminates in manager Ian Grant insulting a concrete-arsed groupie, with tour manager Tom playing a tray toon and Ian banging nails in the ceiling.’
‘It’s amazing,’ says Jet the following day on the Bullet Train. ‘Girls are everywhere.’ In Tokyo, they wear surgical masks to help detain the spread of Jap flu. A static, polite crowd awaits the first of three nights and backstage at Korakeun Hall, JJ tells Jet and Dave: ‘you two keep playing while Hugh and I jump into the audience and start wrenching up chairs. If that doesn’t get them up, nothing will.’ They did. And they did. Result – the most immaculate Stranglers show this side of the Nashville.’
‘Live X Cert – it wasn’t my decision…’
The Stranglers may be stars in the Land of the Rising Sun, but not so in the Land of Oz where controversy reigns throughout their stop over. A prime-time ten-minute telly slot is arranged by Festival Records, but the anchor man opts to taunt the band. He asks what they think of drugs. ‘They’re great!’ is the correct answer and the one given, but media outcry ensues. ABC’s Countdown show decline The Stranglers for the following night’s show. And when shenanigans erupt onstage, officials are quick to ask the band to leave Queensland and Australia.
Back in Britain, it’s a Stranglers famine. Years have passed (well, six months) since the Walk On By, Tank and Old Codger EP – a marvellous sleaze of a track that should have impressed my jazz-fan Uncle Billy but doesn’t. And now Live (X Cert) falls short upon its release at the end of February.
‘It’s an inferior product, don’t buy it…’ says JJ in the press; ‘End of an era…’ adds Hugh, speaking through United Artists, although not specifying this LP or the band continuum.
I take nothing for granted anymore, just in case they split. Live (X Cert) is flat, lacking live resonance and resolution. As the bands debut live output, Hugh’s inter-song quips are revealing: ‘Did someone say wanker?’ stalling the start of Dead Ringer is high drama, but ‘can you all stop spitting please?’ is crowbarred from elsewhere in the gig, and sounds like it.
Mixer Martin confirms the truth three decades on:
‘The whole thing was a bodge.’ He says, fist on table. ‘I hated the thing. Write this down: ‘Martin Rushent hates X-Certs and should never have been released. It wasn’t my decision. And lurking somewhere in the vaults are much better live recordings of The Stranglers… a very early Red Cow gig… I don’t know where the fuck it is… Maybe EMI has them?’
Nonetheless Live (X Cert) attains a thoroughly creditable No. 7 in the UK album chart. Smash Hits magazine reviews it:
‘I know we toads are supposed to like slugs but this is too much. The Stranglers are four unpleasant overgrown school bullies who think that acting nasty constitutes a threat to society…. boring.’
Unpleasant? Mmm. Overgrown bullies? But boring??!!! Reviewer Red Starr gets off light, considering Harry Docherty’s review of Black And White resulting in threats of violence from JJ. Interestingly, the abduction and gaffering of journo Ronnie Gurr is just weeks away after dissing JJ’s Eurotour… so is that of Philippe Manœuvre, tied to the Eiffel Tower… and writer Deanne Pearson will be left stranded in the middle of Portuguese wasteland during the filming of Nuclear Device. Today, with so many cheesed-off hacks now in meedja echelons, there’s talk of JJ’s Jon Savage retribution in the Red Cow back in 1977 to have been pivotal in this present Stalinist history-book revision.
‘JJ swears blind he’s never forgiven him for it and that’s his version of the story,’ Jet reckons in retrospect. ‘I mean, why the rest of the band had to be dragged into it, I don’t know.’
With publicist Alan Edwards’ assistance, the band return like wizards from Oz. JJ’s Euroman Cometh LP is out - produced and engineered by Messrs Rushent and Winstanley – all before the Meninblack track and The Raven I add - and there’s a brief, under-attended UK tour of Euroman. By now, the band have aired Genetix and Dead Loss Angeles live, but not in the UK. But behind the scenes, the two Stranglers front men are conceiving solo albums. The days of living in each others pockets are long gone and not to return, as are the memories of laying down albums in a matter of days. They once strummed in their Surrey back garden. Black And White had the isolation of being written in a remote, snowy, run-down Northamptonshire farmhouse in winter, so where could the band convene to this time? Tour manager Tom comes to the rescue JJ recalls:
‘Well we all went to Italy for a week. Tracey’s dad (Tom) knew a lady in Umbertide, Perugia who had a mountain top house and we were invited to stay there for a week. Dave and I drove in Dave's Jag and Jet and Hugh flew down to Florence where we picked them up and continued to Umbertide.’
In Song by Song, Hugh says much of the album was written in Italy, although contrastingly, JJ states otherwise:
‘We just wrote one song there which turned out to be Baroque Bordello.’
The Mediterranean must an inspiration; north of Umbertide lies Ravenna, popularised in Wilde’s ‘Ravenna’ where there are ‘cawing rooks’. Poe penned ‘The Raven’, taking inspiration from the talking raven in Dickens’ ‘Barnaby Rudge’. The Raven is a keen contributor to the arts it seems, but oddly enough, Dickens’ raven was called Grip. Nevermore, to quote the bird, strange. Especially considering the two Stranglers releases whose sales are believed to be have been subject to clerical errors; debut single Grip reaches No.44 in ’77 despite being left off the charts for a week and replaced with Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Love by Silver Convention; in 1979, initial sales of The Raven are wrongly accredited to Regatta de Blanc by The Police - an album which had yet to be released. Fly straight with… chart anomalies, a gaffe that keeps The Stranglers at No. 4.
‘The idea of The Raven comes from JJ, who was very firm on the idea of having an album named as such.’ Hugh says. ‘Because it was a black bird and we were the Men in Black.’ Coincidentally, The Kinks were The Ravens in a previous incarnation. JJ recalls his inspiration:
‘I came up with the song and the title, as well as the concept. Being a fan of history and mythology, I thought that the symbolism of the raven was strong. Odin, king of the Norse gods, had two ravens, one on each shoulder. I think they were called Huginn and Muninn - they would inform him of what was happening in the world. I thought that this was appropriate considering the subjects on the album took us further from our home shores than previously. This was in great part due to our increasing touring abroad and specifically our experiences in Australia.’
June 14th sees the band recording in Paris recording for the first time abroad. The Rolling Stones are in the same complex: they will be gathering moss a year on when The Stranglers return to record tracks for their next LP. Alan Winstanley is in the chair. I play the tape stamped EMI- Pathé France. Overdubs are yet to be done. Mixing too. That will be done back in Blighty. As Longships fades, The Raven kicks off 4/4 drums in solo. Ice is vastly different with a harder Sprechgesang vocal. Whether or not it’s a guide vocal, it’s quite Euroman in its delivery. Nuclear Device simply blasts in with a full band vocal harmony on verse one instead of leading up to it in the second verse; Duchess comes across as another guide vocal track, with the highly polished mix errant. Naturally, the tracks dome in London are absent. But suddenly there’s a mystery track! Just keys and vocals, this is 8x10s. The comedic vocal comes courtesy of a pinched nose as you would expect Pete ‘n’ Dud to sing ‘Goodbyeee…’ only this track bows to the tune of the Robin Hood theme. Sonically, the piano synth resembles Dave’s rig, although vamping is more in the style of Les Dawson. Out take? Or piss take? For mixer Steve Churchyard, 8x10s fails to ring any bells. Manager Ian Grant can’t shed any light on it either – ‘I was there in Paris for most of the sessions but I don’t know anything about it.’ Maybe JJ has the answer?
‘No. I don’t know. The only track I remember recording in Paris for a laugh was the cocktail version of Nubiles.’
Who knows? It just might well be The Stranglers…
Bully boys pretending to be Vikings…
Steve Churchyard mixes Duchess at Air Studios Oxford Street in the first week of August. JJ Karate kicks either side of his head. Alan Winstanley is on to his next project and Steve will be The Stranglers studio stalwart from now on. Plus Nosferatu which has yet to be released. August 10th sees the coming of Duchess - the first Stranglers single in over a year – surely a suicidal singles hiatus for any other band back then? Eighth single, seventh hit Duchess attains a very respectful No. 14 in the UK charts. This startling achievement is due largely to having an extremely ardent fanbase, as well as being a highly polished commercial-sounding song. While unmistakably Stranglers, it is vibrant and punchy and even Smash Hits serves up some backhanded complements:
‘Can’t suss this one out at all. Hugh Cornwell actually sings. Yeah, a bit shaky maybe, but it’s proper singing. And the song’s quite nice. But it’s also repetitive and lacks any real substance. The B-side, which is more like The Stranglers we all know and hate, is equally insubstantial.’
S-Hits publish the Duchess lyrics the week after, more creatively than accurate. A month on, they’re reviewing The Raven. Red Starr awards 6½ out of 10:
‘Side one sees the bully boys pretending to be Vikings (tee hee) and visiting the world being unpleasant (ho hum) about everyone else. Good, punchy riffs and songs, however, with fine contributions from Cornwell and the underrated Greenfield. Side two, though, is distinctly ropey with tedious self-indulgence creeping back in. But overall, their best since Rattus. Best tracks, The Raven and Duchess.’
Music rag Sounds gives a handful of stars despite the reviewer being at the sharp end of JJ’s porcine Weltanschauung earlier in the year; ‘All journalists are pigs.’ But back in Martin Rushent’s local, there’s a different take:
‘It’s Jean Jacques bass sound. They never got it again. That’s what I don’t understand. Alan Winstanley sat beside me through three albums and knew how to get Jean Jacques’ bass sound. He knew the technique of how it had to be done… I can’t remember how I did it… there was a formula how to get Jean Jacques’ bass to sound like that on record. And yet on The Raven, he failed. He forgot it, yet he knew what had to be done.’
Hugh reveals what makes a good producer in NME after releasing The Raven:
‘We’re never going to use one again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em…’
Don’t Bring Harry…
Fly straight with perfection, find me a new direction… and against some odds, The Raven turns out a masterpiece. My album is slightly bent from the packed eastbound train. My heart is slightly racing from the station to the front door. Inside my room, I’m overwhelmed with Black And White’s startling follow-up. I just hope when I take my trusty Raven to the posh girl with the gorgeous legs who studies music at the Royal College, and lift her stylus onto my vinyl for the first time, and the crackle becomes Strangloid cacophony, I hope she feels a fraction of what I feel. Yes, I know she’s into the classical guitar, the viola, John Williams, Julian Bream, classical fusionists Sky and finger-picking blues rockers Dire Straits… But that Sunday afternoon, I am The Raven - the Sultan of Swing - and the Deer Hunter… all rolled into one.
The Rodneys queue up, my Duchess is baptised. The Stranglers trade power for poise, sonically - swap rat for raven, symbolically – speed for Coke, pharmaceutically. Heroin too. Flying with enough perfection to get themselves out of a hole, they find their new direction. The Raven Tour in the autumn-winter of 1979 proves to be an unadulterated success and the future is looking good. There’s even talk in the air of conquering India the following year to be the first Western band to perform there. Hugh is doubly excited as he’s on the verge of seeing his dark cinematic collaboration with Robert Williams come to fruition. On the penultimate date of The Stranglers tour, he leaves Cardiff for the capital in a hire-car driven by promoter Paul Loasby. It’s 3am, November 1st, when they hit Hammersmith Broadway. There’s a police stop-check.
A search through Hugh’s belongings reveals a near chemistry set; one and a half wraps of cocaine; ninety milligrams of heroin; half an ounce of dope; resin; and some grass wrapped in tissue paper. Five charges of drug possession (two packets of magic mushrooms are ignored) and a prison sentence looms for Hugh. India is cancelled. Somewhat fittingly, this honour goes to The Police - the band, that is - those peroxide-blond purveyors of white reggae who stalled The Stranglers from the No. 1 spot in the UK album chart in September.
Like a bad omen, the Meninblack period looms just around the corner; and The Stranglers are about to slip into the blackest period ever.
The Raven: still flying straight with perfection… 30 years on.
21st September 2009
Gary Kent looks back on a ravenous soundtrack…
AT THE START of the school summer holidays of 1979, I make sure the poor denizens of east London become acquainted with The first Stranglers live LP, the faintly flawed Live (X-Cert) and the fairly leftfield Euroman Cometh by JJ Burnel. Both albums blast alternatively out of my bedroom louvre windows. Black And White – as amazing as it is, treading bravely in music where no band dare – is last year’s model, and as Leytonstone’s Number One Stranglers fan, I want more please! Meanwhile, a multicoloured myriad of New Wave classic 45’s help plug the hiatus: you can’t help but indulge in three-minute pop heroics, such as Milk And Alcohol, King Rocker, Oliver’s Army, Into The Valley, Sound Of The Suburbs, My Sharona, Babylon’s Burning, Hersham Boys and Masquerade (Gangsters too) set the (two-) tone, alongside Up The Junction, Pop Muzik and even Girl’s Talk. New Wave took many guises.
Meanwhile bands I grew up with implode all around my ears: Sex Pistols expire in America the year before after one album; The Clash are sonically stifled for their second, thanks to American producer Sandy Pearlman who compresses the life out of the band; and Fulham Fallout’s finest, The Lurkers, lose it with long hair, hats and no songs for their follow-up opus; and talking of violent gigs, Sham 69 split due to err, violence at gigs. With the forthcoming Ska phenomenon – and The Jam’s nuclear explosion on the charts - about to go ballistic, I can’t help wondering if The Stranglers will weather the storm. Is there enough room for Meninblack? Suddenly, in August, there’s a heart-stopping jolt in the jukebox: the first Stranglers single for over a year is out, and how. Duchess royally goes where the band have not been for a while - on Top Of The Pops and in the singles chart - arrogantly boasting pop sensibility through unshaven grins and gritted teeth. There really are Reasons To Be Cheerful this summer. My band are back. Now, where’s my album?
But first, The Stranglers play Wembley in mid-August. My pocket money is at an all-time nadir - so I stay in like a sad biff – my biggest regret in the world of Stranglers. Promotion includes a radio interview fresh in the memory of fan Gary Bridge:
‘Just before The Stranglers played Wembley with The Who, DJ Tommy Vance interviewed the band. Both The Raven and Genetix were aired for the first time on radio. Jet and Hugh were in the studio. Tommy asked them: ‘How are you guys gonna approach this gig?’ To which Hugh replied: ‘Through the back entrance.’ There was lots of laughter.’
Typical Hugh. Back at school, it’s a new form, and even more boring than the year previous. By lunchtime – on one very special Friday – a handful of us spotty teenagers make our escape. Two stops eastbound on the Central Line and we’re at Stratford Shopping Mall. Our milieu is a branch of WH Smith where our 3D copies of The Stranglers’ fourth studio album await. The Raven is out and the eagle has landed!
What other band would/could write a song with Gerrymander in the lyrics?
Back on the Tube, we truant students compare our newly acquired birds in hand. Inside, I devour layer upon layer of prose as my eyes dart like a flibbertigibbet from gravestone to gravestone from song to song. Although that may have been attributable to the wonky tracks between stations. But there it is, the wordsmithery is really reportage: Viking mythology, Middle Eastern Tyranny, English aristocracy, Australian skullduggery, Japanese ritual suicide, American synthesis, space visitations, illegal pharmaceuticals, genetic experimentation, Gregor Mendel’s peas, the Karma Sutra and the prophesies of Nostradamus.
What brought these wondrous titles and extraordinary topics? Was it the tap-tap-tap of the credit card on the mixing consul? These smart seeds are nothing to be sniffed as mercurially impress Biology Professor Martin with my awareness of one Austrian geneticist, thanks in turn to Hugh’s degree in Biochemistry. And what other band would/could write a song with Gerrymander in the lyrics? And how many would/could/dare release it as a single I ask?
‘What’s a Gerrymander, Jet?’ I pose as soon as I start work on Strangled Magazine at New Hibernia House the following year. Following up with: ‘What’s the La Brea Pit?’ And so on. Intelligence and eloquence comes with each considered response, after all, Jet and Co. are guys are incredibly sharp. Maybe too sharp for us impressionable sixteen-year old kids. I mean, you never need an encyclopaedia next to your turntable when you play Smash It Up and I Just Can’t Be Happy Today. Nor Tommy Gun, English Civil War or I Fought The Law. Nor David Watts, Strange Town and When You’re Young… It was just like when I first deciphered the word clitoris in Peaches... and flick the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary to discover its meaning. I’m still none the wiser. Fly straight… over my head?
September 21st is the big day and excitement is crippling, getting it home and playing it over and over, marveling at the change in pace, admiring their quiet menace. No other band sounds like The Raven. Early references to The Doors are firmly slammed in the visages of the critics. The punk influence on the bands pub rock gene pool is traded for near proggishness, (Genetix, intro to Ice), with a slice of irony (Duchess, Nuclear Device), plus a splash of clever lyrics, (Dead Loss Angeles, Nuclear Device, Baroque Bordello), and a chunk of ice-cool instrumentation (Longships, intros to Ice, Baroque Bordello, Shah Shah A Go Go and Genetix plus of course the eponymous track). Despite The Raven uniqueness, it is The Stranglers’ album that most fans hold the most closest to their hearts three decades on.
Opener Longships raises the bar, by first of all launching the LP in instrumental form, but secondly having the crispest, jangliest guitar sound we’ve ever witnessed so far. You can feel the salt spray sting your cheeks and smell the old rotten oars rocking in the rowlocks as the guitar line falls between spider-like and surf-like, and other clichés. And then of course, there’s the Burnel bass twang – the twang’s the thang – according to yesteryear’s headline. And it’s back. It’s busy, less boomy, more trebly, and of course I already know by track one that I shall be learning each and every bass note on the entire album within the next few months. Raven bass lessons are free… for the price of a pint! I’m besotted with Burnel’s bass and whispered vocals on The Raven, Don’t Bring Harry and Ice - or Just Won’t Do if I believe Sounds’ review – and head over heels with Hugh’s cool atonal crooning elsewhere. I’m drawn to Jet’s tight-sounding imaginative drumming. I’m smitten with melody as all the instruments entwine, spliced together with Greenfield’s gorgeously good synthesizations. These villains are my heroes once again like they’ve never been away. The vibes are fantastic, and against what you think, the band step up a gear. By the closing track, Genetix, I’m spent. I’m usually on my bedroom’s drum kit for this: two comfy cushions for toms, a quilted bedspread for the snare and a pair of bent silver-grey knitting needles (don’t tell Mum!) so I can fill in for Jet when he retires. You have to think ahead, don’t you? Even in 1979.
Fast forward thirty years to now, and the titular track is the stand-out. Returning to the live set for the non-existent 4240 Greatest Hits compo, any gig that contains The Raven is going to be special now that JJ is singing, following Paul Roberts’ 2006 exit. Shah Shah A Go Go is both lyrically smart and unique sounding, especially in the end run up instrumental where Dave’s keyboards surpass all previous noodlings. It’s an extremely close second. Oddball Meninblack is, strangely enough, third. I love the sound, the groove, and also the Eventide Harmonizer on the vocals. I also love backward tracks, like Nuclear Device’s flip, Yellowcake UF6. Then there’s Hugh’s alliteration in Dead Loss Angeles, alongside hallmark Hammond vamps, plus not one but two bass guitars – JJ’s Fender P and Hugh’s Hofner – making it a unique track on a unique album: I can only think of The Cure’s 1981 single Primary with binary basses.
I’m amazed The Stranglers came up with the goods so well. But I’ve since seen Hugh talking in a TV interview from the mid-90’s saying that he listens back to Stranglers songs and hears four musicians performing separately playing different songs at the same time - as the audio features Duchess - two-and-a-half minutes dedicated to Hugh’s Chelsea girl squeeze. It’s seven hits in eight singles and a worthy achievement after such a lengthy gap in releases. I can’t forget the excitement in my belly hearing it on the radio: so cleverly pop, almost European-sounding. but tongue-in-cheek, nevertheless. Hugh’s voice in Fools Rush Out too, as well as the lyrics. This cool b-side, according to Hugh’s Song By Song, tells of management hassles bubbling behind the scenes at the time.
1979 is make or break for The Stranglers. No change there. In February, they spread their wings across America and Japan (and air Dead Loss Angeles and Genetix) and then onto Australia amid controversy on Aus TV. In the UK Live (X-Cert) is out – an amalgam from the record-breaking of Roundhouse gigs of November 1977 and the Battersea Park alfresco stripperthon in September 1978 - where I lose my gig virginity at fifteen. The mix is stripped down without frills (or frillies if you were there!). With Hugh saying they won’t be performing these songs again; ‘it’s the end of an era…’ and JJ bemoaning the flat mix, suggesting fans don’t buy it, producer Martin Rushent vocalises his take on Live (X-Cert) when I meet him at his Berkshire base in 2007:
‘It was a bad idea, a management idea. The demand for The Stranglers at that time was huge. Best thing since sliced bread. They said we’ll do three nights at the Roundhouse. What they should have done is one night at a massive venue and brought ‘em all in. Can you imagine keep playing at the same venue – it’s like work. So I was asked to record it live, and the band was pissed off, everybody was pissed off. Crap vocals, the recording was shit, everyone was in a bad mood, the band didn’t wanna do it, I didn’t wanna do it, it wasn’t my idea. I did the best I could. The whole thing was a bodge, I hated the thing. Write this down: ‘Martin Rushent hates X-Certs and should never have been released. It wasn’t my decision.’ But lurking somewhere in the vaults are much better live recordings of The Stranglers but I don’t know where they are. Maybe EMI have them? I know there’s a very early live recording of them at the Red Cow – I don’t know where the fuck that is.’
An EP featuring four of the live excerpts is subsequently shelved, as is new track Two Sunspots where Martin walks out after three LP’s. It’s June when the band head for Italy where the father of JJ’s girlfriend’s has a house they can work in. The band travel separately: JJ and Dave go by car whereas Hugh and Jet let the train take the strain. In a Notting Hill diner in 2005, Hugh recalls the train stopping at every station throughout the night, and compares the writing of Black And White to The Raven:
‘Swapping snow-filled Northamptonshire for sun-drenched Tuscany?! After Black And White - and it had been a disaster - we’d have been even more nervous going abroad. But because it had worked for Black And White, we knew we could try it again. The house we were renting in Italy overlooked a pond with loads of frogs in. At night, all these frogs croaked all night, and it was amazing. At night we used to sit outside with a glass of wine and a joint and listen to the frogs. It was an amazing cacophony of noise coming from this pond, all these frogs mating away in the warm evenings.’
Jean Jacques throws karate kicks at me…
New songs flow like Orvietto on the veranda - Little Choirboys becomes Duchess – and the band start recording them at Pathé-Marconi Studios in Boulogne-Billancourt, southwest of Paris. With TW Studios recently closed, this is the first time the band record away from home turf.
Alan Winstanley produces the tracks and remixing continues in London at Air’s old Oxford Street Studios. Due to an overrun in Paris, Alan is booked elsewhere. At Hugh’s suggestion, Steve Churchyard is drafted in to replace Alan. Steve also succeeds Martin during Nosferatu and becomes The Stranglers producer for the next few albums. In a Transatlantic phone interview for the second Burning Up Times, the soft-spoken producer has fond memories of the bands antics:
“I was halfway through mixing when suddenly the door bursts opens and the band all file into the control room. They’ve all got sunglasses on – and dressed in choirboy outfits - white cassocks, the lot! They’d just finished filming the Duchess video. So I’m sitting there mixing, when the next thing I know, Jean Jacques is throwing these great karate kicks all around me, missing my head by a whisker. What did I do? I make sure I don’t move – I kept my head down! Otherwise I would have lost my head!”
The Raven mix is less ‘in your face’ as Rattus, Heroes and Black And White. Maybe the mix is following the new direction but there is a distinct lack of boom to JJ’s bass end. Martin Rushent on the post-Black And White bass sound:
‘They never got it again. That’s what I don’t understand. Alan Winstanley sat beside me through three albums and knew how to get Jean Jacques’ bass sound. He knew the technique of how it had to be done… how I did it. There was a formula how to get Jean Jacques bass to sound like that on record. And yet on The Raven, he failed, he forgot it, yet he knew what had to be done.’
Hugh’s picks a church in Savernake Road, Hampstead for the Duchess shoot, and gets his photographer pal Chris Gabrin is the snapper:
‘I remember how difficult it was finding the place and drove round and round trying to find it,’ Chris remembers, ’The photo came first - they wanted a photo session at first - but I think they liked the shot enough to choose the same location for the video. I wasn’t involved for the Duchess video, but I did direct the Nuclear Device video. We did it out in Portugal. The band previously cancelled a gig out there, and they arranged to return to do another. I mean, the band would turn up with a huge lighting rig, and the promoter would show them to a solitary 13 amp socket! Anyway, because they were so ruthlessly true to their fans, they booked this other gig – and there was some spare time. So we went and filmed the Nuclear Device video down there. But because the gig had a big fireworks display, I wanted fireworks for the video. Bloody huge fireworks. So we got this dodgy-looking firework guy who had scars all over his face to drive down with these explosives over from England on his truck!’
The Raven spawns three singles and gets them on Top Of The Pops from Duchess in August until December’s Don’t Bring Harry EP. Nuclear Device is their first singles flop but Duchess gets the first video ban by the BBC, no doubt assisted by JJ’s antics with fellow TOTP act Child: it is deemed blasphemous due to its ecclesiastic setting. Rumour says the decision came from ‘in the shadows’. Meanwhile Auntie Beeb sails unadulterated with religious flagship Songs Of Praise.
The Raven is a substantial piece of work, marking The Stranglers IV trajectory from pub gigs, speed and LSD to Cocaine-fuelled brilliance. This ravenous collection of songs forms the ideal link between the claustrophobia of the previous and the experimentalism of the future. It might be worth considering Toiler On The Sea with Hallow To Our Men and Four Horsemen when we marvel at The Raven’s fluent instrumentation and melody, especially on tracks like The Raven, Baroque Bordello and Don’t Bring Harry. Band quirkiness came in the form of the Korg Vocoder on Baroque Bordello and Genetix first trialed by on Euroman Cometh earlier in the year and later used on Aural Sculpture’s North Winds; the Eventide Harmoniser is also premiered, distorting Meninblack vocals just like in Waltzinblack. The Raven’s oddity and melody continues to maintain the bands public status and expand margins to not only form their finest and most fluent moment in vinyl, but to forge the framework to The Gospel According To The Meninblack… and a new drug called Heroin.
Social Secs/Nuclear Device demo HERE Nuclear Device/Genetix radio sesh HERE The Raven live in 2008 HERE
What The Raven Means To Me
‘The Raven was a mature direction - no frenzy, no anger - just intelligent, observant and musically challenging. Dave’s Oberheim sound surpassed the Hammond organ. Hugh’s intricate, weaving, spindly guitar lines moved away from fuzzy chords. Jet’s drumming became more complex and Burnel’s bass top was toned down. Each instrument danced and meshed to create tracks like Genetix, Baroque Bordello and Ice. Many of the songs feature strong instrumentals that transform into a separate song in an instant – like Shah Shah A Go Go, and The Raven - 5 minutes and 12 seconds of perfection. Lyrics of bleak romanticism, keyboard and guitar interplay, the driving bass and the final minute of ethereal swirling synthesizer magic of the raven’s flight is just breathtaking. A Stranglers' masterpiece. As a 16 year old, I marveled at this new maturity and I felt as if I was coming of age too. This cosmopolitan collection of songs made me think bigger - away from the Cornish countryside – perhaps to embrace new lands, cultures and ideas. Nowadays I live in Los Angeles - not Dead Loss Angeles – but one teeming with complexities and cultural riches and The Stranglers played a small part in bringing me here.’
‘My first experience of The Raven was at university. I had arrived with a working knowledge of No More Heroes, Rattus and Live X-Cert. One cool guy there had the Stranglers IV US compilation (vinyl of course). It started with The Raven itself, then Baroque Bordello, Duchess, Nuclear Device and Meninblack. I was blown away by what I heard, but it was some weeks before I discovered that a whole album of this lunacy existed. I didn’t have a turntable in my room, so I bought the cassette from the local record store. I still have it. I listened to it on my spray-painted matt black ghetto blaster through a crappy pair of headphones one lonely night, and by the end of Genetix I was close to tears. This music can make you trip. When I went home to Finchley, a mate who was studying music at Dartington College in Devon asked me if I’d heard of a song called Baroque Bordello. I replied: “Fuck, yeah. Why?” He sipped his beer and said; “Cos my room mate is writing a thesis on it.” The album is that good.’
‘The opening lines of the title track say it all. ‘Fly straight with perfection, find me a new direction’. The Raven casts aside the former punk tag while exploring new areas both musically and lyrically. Remarkably, many of the album’s songs have no true chorus to speak of and yet the album is choc full of melodies and hooks. The sound of a band at the peak of their powers. Catchy three-minute pop songs (Duchess), totally off the wall-ness (Meninblack), something sinister wrapped in a beautiful melody (Don’t Bring Harry) and going for the jugular (Nuclear Device).’
A new direction…
‘And here’s the new single from The Stranglers…’
It’s daytime Radio One – and The Stranglers’ first new track of the year- and what a wait it’s been. I should be jumping for joy but my excitement is accompanied by frustration, as I can hardly hear the damn thing. I’m straining my ear at the end of a production line packing seasonal frozen raspberries, away from home. The fuzzy medium wave signal over the Tannoy struggles to penetrate the incessant din of refrigeration and packing machinery, supplemented by the sweary banter of my workmates.
After my ‘shut the fuck up I need to hear this…’ I can soon detect a surprising change in the sound of the band. Duchess has a less raucous, warmer, melodic and poppier sound than before. The singing is more conventional, less shouty – real singing! The bass is lower in the mix and less trebly. It gets well promoted on Radio One, so I hear it several times in it’s first week. Although catchy, it takes a few listens to fully accept the new sound. I like it, though it makes me wonder if the upcoming album will be too poppy for my liking. It charted fairly well considering the BBC decided that viewing the hilarious video would not be good for us, and banned it.
Back home in time to buy The Raven on release day although no 3-D sleeve for me. My town has no chart return shop so I get the normal LP with the cover I prefer… predominantly black, distinctive, intriguingly well shot photo on the back to boot. Inner sleeve lyrics with fantastic graphics and symbols that keep me interested for hours as I ingest the new work, over and over. The album ads in the music papers are clever, as they show different songs and graphics throughout the paper though the Meninblack track throws me for a while, it’s oddball but musical enough to merit continued investigation. Standout track is The Raven: a wondrous, inventive, multi-faceted piece of music. I love it. Longships is an epic prologue and the whole album brims with ideas, full of intricate interplay without going over the top. In every case, the instrumentation serves the song; it’s never showy or overblown. The sound has moved away from any lingering punk connotations to a sophisticated, groundbreaking approach. With no strong producer to impose his views, the band are free to experiment with their already considerable studio experience, and come up with a truly unique set of songs; a complete work. Dave has evidently got some new toys, which he uses to produce some weird and magical sounds and textures. The bass is restrained but the lines are brilliant. Guitar work is inventive as never before, and the voices are used as instruments themselves and Jet’s drumming is clever and sometimes astounding, like in Genetix. All in all, musical perfection.
After the monochrome claustrophobia of Black and White, The Raven themes are in Technicolor, exploring new horizons with an outward looking world view. New thoughts and new sounds. Travel has broadened their minds, although the commentary is often scathing. An outsider’s view of cultures and regimes: the artificiality of LA, dictatorship in Queensland, revolutionary forces in Iran, Norse invaders, Samurai rituals. We also have stories about the lure of women and heroin, genetic engineering and an introduction to our favourite aliens.
For me, The Raven is The Stranglers finest hour. I never tire of hearing it, and often pick out new parts that I’ve never noticed before. It is so varied that it can never bore. Ironically, this album lost the band a lot of fans, those who preferred to keep their idea of the band as punks, and thus they no longer fitted with this narrow minded view of music. It is amazing how important image is in the music industry, so the band said: Stuff you, we have no image now, we wear black.
Crucially, however, the band also picked up a lot of new fans with their new, more sophisticated approach. It is precisely this reinvention that always kept me interested in The Stranglers. Most bands begin to repeat themselves after a couple of albums, which I find really dull and move on. The Stranglers kept changing and kept things fresh and interesting. I remember talking to a long hair from a record shop who said at the time, ‘The Stranglers are passé.’ He hadn’t heard The Raven. Chatting with a punk pal I described their music as innovative and he laughed. After Iplayed him The Raven, he changed his mind. Here’s to my favourite album of all time: The Raven. Incidentally, I now have eight different releases of this album, plus the T-shirt, poster, mug, sticker and mobile. So yes, I’m pretty sure I like it!