Not only was 1979 arguably the greatest and most eclectic year for British music, it was also the most prolific year in terms of activity emanating from within The Stranglers' camp. Amidst circulating rumours of the band's imminent demise, The Stranglers, Hugh and JJ released no less than four albums in that 12 month period as well as a significant clutch of singles. These albums too were very different animals! The live album 'X-Certs' effectively dropped the curtain on The Stranglers, the punk band, whilst 'The Raven' unveiled a much more melodic side to the band's character, an album on which the two principal vocalists sang the material rather than bellowed it through inferior equipment. However, like 'Feline that was to follow, 'The Raven' derailed a few fans of the band at the time and yet with the passage of years, it is 'The Raven' that is cited by many as being the pinnacle of their long career! But producing a career best was not enough for these men.
Jean-Jacques flew the flag for Europe with 'Euroman Cometh', an experimental work that nodded to the earlier direction of Kraftwerk and the Kraut rock scene. A troubled tour and poor reviews all round rather took the wind out of our gallic hero's sails and he took himself away to lick his wounds. But once again, some 41 years after its release the album is looked upon very favourably, a real stand out post-punk statement. In fact last year's 'Wonky Bus 7', a near annual fan based jaunt to Europe, revived the 'Euroman' theme on it's tour shirt, in part to mark its Ruby anniversary and in (most) part a deliberate ploy to wind up Brexiteers! Oh the fun of it all!
But what of Hugh. Along with Captain Beefheart's drummer, Robert Williams, he had put together a soundtrack for an unmade film. In fact the film had been made a couple of times, but not by Hugh and Robert. That film was Nosferatu, a classic of the silent era that laid down the blue print for the horror film genre. The original version, released in Germany in 1922 was directed by F.W. Murnau and started German actor Max Schreck as the genuinely terrifying Count Orlock. The plot is a very thinly disguised adaptation of Dracula (which would not come to the screen for another nine years (1931)), so much so that the wife of the late Bram Stoker sued the producers of Nosferatu. Of these two closely related films, Nosferatu is far more atmospheric and cinematographically sophisticated than the somewhat hammy Dracula (an early 'talkie' for which Hungarian born lead, Bela Lugosi, had to learn his lines phonetically due to his limited command of English at that time). As is the case with Dracula, Nosferatu has been given the modern make-over and in fact a new version was in the cinema in 1979.
The album sleeve (pictured above), a grainy and moody still from the 1922 original version of the film, showing Orlock in a boat approaching his newly acquired abode in the fictional German town of Wisborg, visually sets the tone of the album..... dark and claustrophobic.
Back in 1978, after a Stranglers' US tour, Hugh took in a couple of gigs by Captain Beefheart's Magic Band in San Francisco where he fell in with drummer Robert Williams.
Something in the relationship clicked and Hugh asked Robert whether he would be interested in a musical collaboration. Luckily for us Mr Williams concurred and recording sessions commenced in 'Undead' Los Angeles (a veiled apology for the band's snipe at the city that appears as 'Dead Loss Angeles' On 'The Raven') on 26th December 1978. According to Hugh the bulk of the material was laid down in a period of 22 days, one in a stretch of 10 days with a second session of 12 days. Some of the studio time was given over by Lindsey Buckingham who was recording with Fleetwood Mac in this period..... they took a break and the darkness moved in. Additional material and mixing was carried out in London.
Like method actors, the two musicians adopted a working schedule of which any self-respecting vampire would approve i.e. sleeping during the hours of daylight only to emerge to record at night. Whether or not Hugh bedded down in the damp comfort of London Clay is unrecorded though!
Over the years, it has become apparent that there has been some needle between Mr Cornwell and Mr Williams when it comes to credit in the first instance and royalties in the second. I'll not add to this topic but only add that originally in the spirit of the film soundtrack 'for a film that will never be made' the two musicians appear as equals in both title and prominence on the artwork.... enjoying equal billing on the film poster that never was. One more point, I would also say that the musical contribution of guitar and drum on this album are equally potent!
Neither Hugh or Robert entered the studio with any fixed idea of the tracks that they were intending to lay down. Some riffs and outline ideas were worked up in the studio.
In considering my thoughts on this album I have read some on-line reviews that seem to resonate with a recurring theme of 'too indulgent', 'without melody', 'discordant' and 'off-kilter'. Thinking about it these are my plus points for the album. Robert's sharp and edgy drumming style, in marked contrast with Jet's solid style (once referred to within the pages of 'Strangled' as being akin to 'hammering on a tin roof' by Mr Scabies), coupled with Hugh's strange time signatures and general playing style are the elements that make this album stand out as something different again in the vastly diverse musical environment that existed in 1979.
The album takes off at a frenetic pace with the Williams' penned title track 'Nosferatu' which sees our bald, dentally compromised anti-hero pursued through the streets of pre-dawn London, pursued by early representatives of the capital's law-enforcement agent's ('Peelers'), in a desperate attempt to reach safety prior to the fatal rising of the morning Sun.
'Losers in a Lost Land' concerns the lives of faded actors.... interesting since this is an area of the performing arts that Hugh subsequently dipped his toes in in subsequent years. On a vampire theme, this subject matter could apply very well to cinema's most famous screen vamp, Bela Lugosi, who sadly became something of a one trick pony.... he eventually was reduced to comedy cameos on The Abbott and Costello Show and was ultimately buried in his Dracula cape.
Hugh out-vamps the 'Vampire-in-Chief', Dave Vanian, 1979.
'White Room' is a deeply atmospheric cover of the 'Cream' original and was supposed to represent a sanctuary for Nosferatu. More banally, the original was written about the 'green rooms' of television studios that were invariably painted white that played host to Messers Bruce, Baker and Clapton prior to their numerous TV appearances.
At this point it is necessary I think to point out that whilst Hugh Cornwell and Robert Williams are this leads in this film that never was, there was always going to be a supporting cast and this included on many of the songs Ian Underwood, a very well respected Zappa collaborator who fitted in perfectly with this somewhat left-field project.
'Irate Caterpillar' is a brilliant off-beat piece and one that Hugh has revisited live, most recently on the 'Monster' tour.
Possibly my favourite track on the album is 'Rhythmic Itch' which takes on board the musical and vocal talents of the Mothersbaugh brothers. Mark also contributed to the lyrics which gives the song a distinctly Devo sound albeit with brilliant backdrop of Williams' percussion skills!
'Wired' is one of the more straightforward tracks on the album and perhaps the most immediately accessibly to a Stranglers audience (which may be the reason why it found itself sitting with JJ's 'solo 'Crabs' track on the 'Don't Bring Harry e.p..
'Big Bug' is so dark. Inspired by the progress of Leon Trotsky's armoured train throughout pre-Soviet Russia post 1917 taking the revolutionary message to the Russian front lines. Trotsky's efforts culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a peace treaty signed on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers that ended Russian involvement in the war and allowed Germany to refocus her efforts on defeating the Allies on the Western Front.
'Mothra' takes its inspiration from a fictional Japanese monster of early 1960's.
Another stand out track is 'Wrong Way Round' which conjours up all of the exploitation of the Victorian freak-show. The track's 'Fairground barker', a chap going by the name of Duncan Poundcake' creates a highly authentic scene... as a listener you can almost visualise the bearded lady and the strongman behind him!
The final track is perhaps to my ear is the track that is most evocative of the early Stranglers (if you ignore Robert's closing percussion). Among the vocal choir on the track was one Mick Jones of The Clash.
Critically poorly received upon release for me this album will always be the best of the solo bunch... and don't get me wrong here, the level of the competition is very high! But 'Nosferatu' pips the others to the post for its ambition, bold collaboration, not only between the two main actors but also in the supporting cast. Whilst it may have fallen on deaf or unreceptive ears 40 years ears 40 years ago its a joy to listen to now!