The Stranglers: “We outsold The Clash, we outsold The Sex Pistols”

The Stranglers may lay claim to one of the most commercially successful songs about heroin ever, but their legacy runs deeper than their 1981 hit single ‘Golden Brown’, writes ANDREW P STREET.

The news that the Stranglers were coming our way for shows with Blondie might seem weird on the face of it, but it actually makes a surprising amount of sense. Both bands emerged from the vibrant mid-’70s punk scenes in their respective metropoli (London for the Stranglers, New York for Blondie), both featured a more immediate pop sensibility than their contemporaries and both enjoyed early success that alienated them from the scene that spawned them.

Blondie had the hits while Talking Heads and Television continued to chug through sets at CBGB, while the Stranglers struggled for credibility partially for reasons of jealousy and partially because of the way UK punk’s anything-goes ethos soon solidified into orthodoxy. The Stranglers’ ages (especially that of drummer Jet Black, who was well into his 30s when the band formed) and the presence of keyboardist Dave Greenfield was viewed with disdain. Pistols, Buzzcocks, Damned, Clash: That was punk. Bands that dared get artsy like Wire or Siouxsie and the Banshees were suspicious enough – but bands that also had actual hits?

“Very early on there were all these bands that we knew socially and musically because it was a small circuit when it started off,” explains co-founder and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, “but as a result there were a few things that happened. We were kind of ostracised for two reasons: we were the first band to be chosen to play with Patti Smith in Europe, and the first band to play with the Ramones. That put a lot of people’s noses out of joint.”

The Stranglers might have had cred with the US underground but they also had commercial success in the UK. And the cooler bands were not happy about either fact. “In ‘77 all the bands released their albums and we outsold everyone, all these people who’d been mates of ours previously,” Burnel laughs. “We outsold The Clash, we outsold The Sex Pistols – but they were getting all the front covers. It was a kind of musical apartheid. So we developed a siege mentality, which allowed us to evolve separately, which was a good thing.”

It must have stung, though?

He sighs. “It became a new form of Stalinism. We were accused of being traitors because we were using synthesisers,” he laughs. “Seriously. Who creates these fucking rules in the first place? There was quite a lot of that short of bullshit at the time. But it allowed us to not live to any stereotypes and evolve our music, which allowed us to explore a lot of different musical ideas.”

That’s clear just looking at the music they were making. While debut single ’(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)’ was perhaps not the most characteristically punk record imaginable, the rockin’ ‘Something Better Change’ and ‘No More Heroes’ certainly were (even when Elastica all but re-wrote the song as ‘Waking Up’, reportedly resulting in an out of court settlement over the royalties). And of course there was ‘Peaches’, with that bassline.

“Funnily enough, about two years ago it was voted the most identifiable bass riff in history by some bass magazine,” he laughs. “So there you go!”

However, the band were soon exploring stranger corners and making some seriously odd albums. 1979’s The Raven was highly political (and included a song about Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson in ‘Nuclear Device (The Wizard of Aus)’), while 1981’s The Gospel According To The Meninblack was a concept album about alien visitation – and sold miserably. But then, with EMI putting pressure on the quartet, they hit their commercial pinnacle that same year with La Folie which contained the baroque-sounding masterpiece ‘Golden Brown’: The band’s biggest hit, and possibly the most commercially successful song about heroin ever written.

“We were accused of being traitors because we were using synthesisers.”

However, while the band’s strong personalities – particularly Burnel and singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell – gave the band focus, it also eventually tore them apart. Cornwell – the voice and face of the band – quit acrimoniously in 1990, declaring the band “a spent force”. The rest of the band soldiered on, releasing four albums in the ‘90s to diminishing returns before the release of 2004’s Norfolk Coast signified a second dawn with great reviews, strong sales and the addition of new singer/guitarist Baz Warne. So the post-Cornwell-pre-Warne years were something of a transitional period?

“Well, it was a long transition – 16 years transition,” Burnel chuckles. “By 1999 I’d had enough, I had to go to Norfolk by myself and just write – something which I hadn’t done for a long time – and I came back with tonnes of stuff and a renewed vigour for the creative process – and that became Norfolk Coast. And from there I developed a very good relationship with Baz: Finally I had found someone after many years without Hugh that I could actually bounce off musically, and the result is the last two albums – [new album] Giants is the best critically received album we’ve done since the beginning of the Stranglers.”

And their current success is a testament to their freakish level of stubbornness: After all, they could very easily have been forgiven for calling time on the band when Cornwell left.

“Absolutely, yeah, I and I did think that,” he admits, with a laugh. “But Jet and Dave had other ideas – and now this 2012 has been our busiest year in 35 years. How many other bands can say that?”

FasterLouder presents Blondie with The Stranglers and The Saints

Saturday, December 1 – Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart

Monday, December 3 – Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne

Tuesday, December 4- Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide

Thursday, December 6 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Monday, December 10 – Townsville Entertainment Centre, Townsville

Thursday, December 13 – Brisbane Riverstage, Brisbane