February 22 saw the release of "Retro Rockets," the brand new single from The Stranglers, taken from their forthcoming Decades Apart album, which will be their 17th (!) album since their 1977 debut, Rattus Norvegicus. But The Stranglers have actually been going for longer than that...
The band started off in the early 1970s as The Guilford Stranglers, and made their initial mark on the British Pub Rock scene. As early as 1974, the band was shocking audiences with their ragged-edged gutter-level songs focusing on the uglier side of life. Hugh Cornwell's gutteral growl was murky and animalistic, and their misogynistic lyrics and sometimes violent themes set them apart from their contemporaries. When The Ramones made their first highly influential first tour of England in 1976, it was The Stranglers (with their newly cropped name) who opened for them. Resultantly, The Stranglers found themselves shunned by the fading Pub Rock scene and lumped in with the swiftly growing Punk Rock crowd. While that tag may have helped them find their true audience, it was at best an ill-fitting label. Many of the UK kids following The Sex Pistols and The Damned and The Clash around saw The Stranglers as a bunch of old geezers trying to jump on the punk rock bandwagon. They played keyboards like The Doors for heaven sake!
Over 17 albums, The Stranglers' music has evolved from the early gritty, ugly, vulgar world of "Peasant in the Big Shitty," "Bring On the Nubiles," and "Down in the Sewer" to a more refined, in fact beautiful, pop sound (see "Skin Deep," "Always the Sun," etc.) The pop sensibilities were always there, though, audible from the first single, "(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)," whose burbling keyboards and sing-along chorus helped The Stranglers begin a long string of British chart hits.
As their sound evolved, so did their popularity. 1984's Aural Sculpture helped them become a commercial success throughout the rest of Europe, and charted well in Australia; in the US it saw considerable airplay on college stations but could not cross over to mainstream appeal. By 1990, they were clearly aiming for the US charts by covering The Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night," but they remained a cult band here. At that point, founding member and co-lead-singer Cornwell left the band.
The other singer and co-founder of the band, Jean-Jacques Burnel, soldiered on under The Stranglers moniker through some lean years, until the band returned to the British Top 40 in 2004 with "Big Thing Coming." In the ensuing years, the band has enjoyed something of a resurgence. The early records have been discovered by a new generation of fans, and though most of the band is pushing 60, they are still churning out some great music. The new album is highly anticipated; "Retro Rockets" sounds as good as any of the finest Stranglers tunes.
For this week's NW4NW, we look back to one of my favorite Stranglers singles, 1977's "Straighten Out." In many ways, it is the epitome of The Stranglers' sound: harsh yet melodic, ugly yet catchy, with clear ties to punk, pop, new wave...and even those Doors-like keyboards.
Over the course of this week, additional Stranglers clips will be posted on That's What I Was Going Say's Facebook page...become a fan today so you don't miss out!