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Music Review: The Stranglers – Black and White (1978)

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The Stranglers continue to provoke discussion over their exact role in the punk movement, though I’ve personally never cared whether or not punk aficionados embrace them or not. They were, in their original four-piece line-up, an outstanding band whose mature years and accomplished musicianship were every bit as important to them as their pub-rock background and provocative live shows. Their debut album Rattus Norvegicus (1977) was a vibrant example of their ability to write simple tunes, combine plenty of deadpan humour and heartfelt (even unto spiteful) lyrics, and arrange them on the well-practised rhythm section of Jet Black and JJ Burnel, and the bookend leads of Dave Greenfield and Hugh Cornwell. The same year’s follow-up, No More Heroes, was enjoyable, but in my own opinion, less consistent than the debut.

Their third album, Black and White, moved away slightly from the pub-rock sound, and allowed the four musicians to expand their sonic horizons slightly, without disappearing up their own collective backside in the studio (they managed this in two albums’ time on The Gospel According to the Meninblack).

The opening track “Tank” has been a source of fascination and mirth since I first heard it in the early 90s… a short and snappy number about a downtrodden underdog who’s saving up for a tank. Whether he’ll use it to take his revenge on the world, or keep it simply for protection is in your own imagination. In keeping with much (though not all) of the album, Dave Greenfield’s solo is performed on an analogue synth rather than an organ, so the tinkering of filters and pitchwheels are used to colour the track instead of straightforward manual dexterity. Perhaps this was deliberate response to constant Doors similes, or criticism that The Stranglers were too musical for their own good… who knows? I don’t. It sounds good though.

Hugh Cornwell’s lyrics, at least during the first five years of the Stranglers have always been one of the most, if not the most important facet of their work. They are (when not appeasing the punk journalists during No More Heroes) of a similar stable as McCartney’s stoner-humour variety, only he clearly has the broader imagination.

“Nice and Sleazy” is one of those Stranglers songs (like Peaches) that crawls and grooves along lead by Burnel’s gloriously noisy bass. Again, the lyrics are abstract to the point of being almost other-worldly, and the near-amusical synth solo here is completely devoid of melody or finess – it was apparently the result of an engineer ballsing something up during the set-up, but it could as easily be contrived. Whatever the truthful background to that moment is, it works. “Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)” is something closer to a ‘typical’ Stranglers tune – a belligerent lead vocal performance, catchy hooks, three-part harmonies, and witty lyrics. Perhaps not the outstanding song on the album, but the current CD edition features the track sung in Swedish as a bonus, for which you have to give them some applause.

This is a rare example of a legacy album being matched (or dare I say, enhanced) by the bonus tracks at the end of the CD. Their cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” is outstanding. It’s not soulful, it’s not weepy, it’s not morose, it’s just vindictive. And it features an outstanding organ solo that slowly builds, soothes, excites, stimulates, and thrusts… and finally climaxes and leaves you feeling invigorated, affirmed, and reaching for the Marlboro Reds. It is quite simply, Dave Greenfield’s finest moment in a black shirt. This particular track is a good example of the Hugh Cornwell guitar technique that I haven’t heard on more recent work. It’s not fussy or virtuoso by any means, and it’s certainly not up the technical standards of Greenfield, with whose leads he duelled wonderfully on these early albums… but neither is primitive and brutish.

It’s deadpan, direct, succint, melodic and slightly cocky. In other words, he plays exactly how he sings. In later works, when his playing was more accomplished, he simply fails to entertain me. At the moment of this album though, he is at his very peak as an engaging performer.

Additionally, there’s also the afore-referenced “Sveridge,” as well as “Old Codger” – a song about straightforward paedophilia featuring George Melly on vocals, and a live recording of the a cheerfully chauvinistic pub sing-a-long, Tits.

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