2021 Song Draft- Round 9 Pick 13- A Sound Day selects- ‘The Raven’- The Stranglers.
As this event winds down, it’s clearly been two things – incredible and frustrating. Incredible because it’s given us a chance to share some music that’s important to us with others and because I’m pretty sure each of us has heard some great new (even if recorded 60 years ago!) music we weren’t aware of but want to hear more of. So thanks Hans, for running it. The frustrating part is because with only a couple more rounds left, there are so very many great songs that haven’t been touched yet. I personally have a list of at least ten strong candidates for my final choice, could multiply that by ten easily, and may end up spinning a wheel of fortune to pick it. But for the penultimate one, I knew the band I wanted to get to. Picking a song was trickier.
The Stranglers have long been a favorite band of mine. Not my very favorite, but amongst them. And unlike other bands that are on my “favorites” list like R.E.M., the Beatles, U2, etc, they’re not widely known over here, and even less widely understood. Of course you can blame their menacing name and early image for most of that, but still, they are a group that’s deserved better, especially outside of their British homeland (where they have had a decent run of a dozen top 20 singles and at least seven gold or platinum albums). They were rock’s ultimate outsiders…but talented and interesting ones. I knew I didn’t want to go through two different music events like this without getting them in somewhere, but picking one song was tough. They’re a band whose sound constantly changed. No one song of theirs typifies the sound of their nearly 50 year career. Similarly, to me, no one song jumps out ahead of the pack of their discography. So I went with “The Raven”, a song that’s showcases a couple of their longtime strengths and is about midway through their sound’s evolution.
The Stranglers began in 1974 as the “Guildford Stanglers”, a rough and tumble quartet of guitarist/singer Hugh Cornwell, bassist JJ Burnel, drummer “Jet Black” and keyboardist Dave Greenfield. A few personnel changes came and went before Baz Warne pretty much took over Cornwell’s role permanently, but Burnel, Greenfield and in the studio, Black remained constants until recently. Obviously, with a name like “the Stranglers”, early song titles like “Nice N Sleazy” and “Bring on the Nubiles”, and it being the mid-’70s UK, they were assumed to be vile and violent punk rockers. And they were…maybe. They hung out with and fought bands like the Sex Pistols and Damned, got in brawls with “fans” and looked the part … at least the part of American punks like the Ramones. They seemed to always be lacking a hairbrush and favored black leather jackets. The thing was, they didn’t quite fit in. They certainly wouldn’t be at home beside Queen or Supertramp or other big British mainstream acts of the ’70s, and would make their fans shudder. But the punks didn’t care much for them either. They were older (drummer Black met them when he owned the bar they played at; he was a drummer in a big band in the 1950s … probably before Sid Vicious was born). They were college lads, and they could actually play their instruments. Dave Greenfield’s musical prowess on keyboards reminded many of Ray Manzarek, although he pointed to Rick Wakeman as more of a role model. Either way, not many punk rockers loved Yes and had a bevy of organs, synthesizers and pianos at their disposal.
In short time, the four began to tire of the tough-guy images and the punkish sound and ventured into various areas of well-crafted pop. They would use a horn section at times. They’d sometimes goof around on TV and in videos, recalling the Monkees perhaps more than the Pistols. All the while, their sound was largely driven by Burnel’s bass and Greenfield’s keys. Burnel – after Cornwell quit, the clear cut leader – says he’s often written songs on the bass. Not many bands do that.
I was introduced to them around the time this song came out, when one of my high school friends was the town’s first punk rocker…or fashioned himself that way. He had the Billy Idol hair and snarl, and a shelf of records by the Pistols, Clash, Diodes, you name it. I liked some of it, but it was the Stranglers records that really grabbed me. They were different and wrote songs that became earworms…even if not slamdancing in a club. Which I never did since I was barely in my teens! I saw the band twice. Once in 1986 or ’87, in a large theatre in Toronto they sold out three nights in a row. I had great seats- fifth row I think. They were LOUD. I rather thought they might have brought their whole UK sound system used in arenas over there, here. But they were also good. I couldn’t stop watching JJ and his bass-playing, handling it like a lead guitar as he bopped around, karate kicking the air. Greenfield was wild. He was surrounded by a veritable jet cockpit of keyboards on three sides, swirling around deftly going from to another, playing two at a time and somehow finding a way to have a dash of brandy along the way. I caught them again about 20 years later in a large bar, also in Toronto, in their Paul Roberts phase. Once again, Burnel and Greenfield amazed and lo and behold, the old punks seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. I smuggled in a little digital camera (totally against the rules…worth noting though, when I did that I always had the flash off and a high ISO to allow existing light photos, so as not to piss off the musicians trying to play) and got to the front. Burnel posed and grinned for me. If you believed the stories about them, he’d have more likely jumped off the stage and kicked the camera to smithereens.
Sadly, Dave Greenfield died of Covid last year, but they were already largely done putting together tracks for a new album, which finally came out this fall, Dark Matters. It’s very good, very mature and even hints at…prog rock. I recommend it. But for this take, I’ll go with the title track of their fourth album, The Raven. A jaunty little ode to vikings and their favorite birds, hinting at the new wave/synth rock that they would concentrate on for several years. A sound, Burnel notes, that earned them widespread scorn from critics and their many of their fans…but soon sounded like the absolute blueprint for bands like the Human League, OMD and Eurythmics. A Flock of Seagulls liked them so much back then they got their name from a Stranglers song. “The Raven” is a great little song that sounds ok if you’re dancing, or driving or just sitting at home with a drink. Like the best of The Stranglers stuff, it puts JJ and Dave right up front in the mix.
It’s folly to try to be the same person you were 45 years ago, JJ Burnel’s told interviewers lately. I’m sure not, and neither is he or his band. But my fondness for them…that is the same.