Aural Sculptors - The Stranglers Live 1976 to the Present


Welcome to Aural Sculptors, a blog aimed at bringing the music of The Stranglers to as wide an audience as possible. Whilst all of the various members of the band that have passed through the ranks since 1974 are accomplished studio musicians, it is on stage where the band have for me had their biggest impact.

As a collector of their live recordings for many years I want to share some of the better quality material with other fans. By selecting the higher quality recordings I hope to present The Stranglers in the best possible light for the benefit of those less familiar with their material than the hardcore fan.

Needless to say, this site will steer well clear of any officially released material. As well as live gigs, I will post demos, radio interviews and anything else that I feel may be of interest.

In addition, occasionally I will post material by other bands, related or otherwise, that mean a lot to me.

Your comments and/or contributions are most welcome. Please email me at adrianandrews1@sky.com.


Friday, 25 September 2020

‘No More Heroes’ The Reception

I have reviews of the album from three of the four major music weeklies that enjoyed wide circulation back in 1977. Well, I have at least two and a half reviews, one being a little incomplete (but good enough to understand the critic’s opinion on the matter).

Reproduced below are the reviews from ‘New Musical Express’ (Angie Errigo), ‘Record Mirror’ (Tim Lott) and ‘Sounds’ (Jon Savage). The reviewers from the two former publications somehow manage to temper disappointment and/or dislike with some enthusiasm for what the band were and were trying to achieve. The latter was a straight forward panning of the album. Jon Savage’s opinions earned him a thumping from the gallic one in an incident that effectively served to write out The Stranglers’ from the history of UK punk, at least in subsequent documentaries, articles and books (not least his own ‘England’s Dreaming’ account of the events of ‘76/’77).  

Make what you will of the opinions expressed by the overseers of musical taste of the day. In some respects I have a certain sympathy with the critics. ‘Heroes’ does lack the brilliantly produced grime streaked psychedelia of ‘Rattus’ and it is less polished. All of the critics, even the soon to be bruised Jon Savage loved what came before, but somehow ‘No More Heroes’ stuck a bad chord with the critics. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the album! It is 1977 Stranglers, but I was never able to view it from a 1977 perspective, as the follow up to what is and always will be my favourite album of all time, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’. 

It is telling in JJ and Hugh’s own track by track breakdown of the album that they close with the prediction that the incorporation of more synthesizer was to be the way forward for the band and this was indeed borne out with the following year’s ‘Black and White’ and ‘79’s ‘The Raven'. In that respect perhaps Savage (and to a less direct extent Errigo and Lott) did them a favour and accelerated the rate of change and variety in the band’s sound?

Opinions are most welcome!


THE STRANGLERS
‘No More Heroes’ (UAG 30200).

THE STRANGLERS' appeal for me always lay in their dirt. Dirt on their faces, dirt in their attitudes, dirt in their music, dirt in their words.

Of course Hugh don't flob any more now and the rat on the inner sleeve of ‘No More Heroes' is nice and clean. They throw in, natch, a 'controversial' song, 'Bring On The Nubiles,' but the rest varies from too-polished pop to fake dirt. There's a couple of tracks that are good enough to have fitted onto ‘Rattus Norvegicus' – ‘Peasant In The Big Shitty' and maybe 'No More Heroes' despite its strict bass jingle -jangle keyboard formula.

The rest is either average Stranglers which is still quite good, or crappy Stranglers which is crappy whichever way you look at it. 

To stick to the positive side 'Peasant In The Big Shitty' represents some sort of 'progression' that could bode well - the psychedelics of the staggered vocals and slightly less cliched keyboard approach. Unfortunately, most rat worshippers have got it already - the live version was given away with the first album.

'No More Heroes' is lyrically a bit stupid because heroes are as rife as ever in 1977 hidden in the guise of the anti-hero - the Stranglers themselves. But Hugh Cornwell's vocals display a streak of reasonable convincing anger and Jean Jacques Burnel's on form enough to dredge up a bit of grubby magic. 

As for the rest it's not utterly disappointing, just a bit flat. Really it's a second album that might have been their first, the pitfalls are so frequent.

The bitter, gutsy choruses of 'Peaches' and 'London Lady' are re- placed with the pop harmonies of 'Bitching', 'Something Better Change' and 'Dagenham Dave'.

There's even a recycled 'Peaches' riff on Dead Ringer' and only thinly disguised. The inspiration, where it can be found, is at half-cock and new ideas are few and far between.

The more I listen to it the more depressing it gets. 'English Towns', apparently about de-based love, has zero to commend it except… except nothing. It stinks.

It's a crummy self-parody. It's a crying shame. I'm still a Stranglers' fan. I'll go and see them whenever I can get in, and their first album remains a 1977 peak.

But 'No More Heroes', is a trough, a half-hearted attempt at nothing unless some sort of compromise to a 'pop' approach. Either way I don't particularly want to hear it again. Take it away.

 +++ TIM LOTT




THE STRANGLERS
No More Heroes (United Artists)

Depending on your reactions to the Stranglers in the first place, “No More Heroes” is either verification that they are the most capable and intense of the current exponents of dirty driven, mesmerizing urban English rock ‘n’ roll, or that they are full of shit.

I lean towards the former. If you found “Rattus Norvegicus” objectionable and loathsome, then you’ll find this even more so – its unarguably more sophisticated in subject matter than the first album.

At least two- criticisms or comments that invariably arise when the Stranglers are discussed get a miss from me this time out. First, although a considerable portion of this material was recorded at the same time as "Rattus Norvegicus", both the newer numbers and the total hard energy treatment complete their metamorphosis into a group with its own unmistakable sound and character.

The Doors analogies have become redundant; only Dave Greenfield's consistently appetising, rolling keyboard style recalls that perfectly legitimate influence. Second, "No More Heroes" is no more sexist than most rock. While I am all for fingering grossly offensive contributions to kids' kultural influences (why d'ya think they got a girl to review this, hmmm?), and while I was very glad to read Phil McNeill making a stand against what I agree was extremely nasty on "Rattus", it’s not fair to say that the Stranglers have subsequently borne out the charges of male chauvinist piggery leveled at them.

"Bring on the Nubiles" is the jeans creamer here, with lyrics like "I've got to lick your little puss / And nail ya to the floor / I go crazy for ya, crazy for ya / Lemme lemme fokkya fokkya / Lemme lemme fokkya fokkya" which, while scarcely rivalling Johnny Donne or Hideous Bill Shakespeare for inspired literary eroticism, are more conciliatory than anything else. I like it. 

The two outstanding tracks are by now familiar: the last hit single, "Something Better Change", and the new climber, "No More Heroes".

"Something Better Change" is conclusive evidence that they have consistent pop suss - it's timely in its impatient frustration as well as damned catchy. 

The title track is frantically appealing for its verbal ironies and a dizzying instrumental climax centred, as usual, on keyboards and spun out by Hugh Cornwell's and Jean Jacques Burnel's blistering guitar-bass interplay. 

"I Feel Like a Wog" and "Dagenham Dave" are also well known as two of their stage faves. "Wog" is pumped out at full throttle with Cornwell’s rapid-fire vocals convincingly aggrieved: " Golly gee, Golly gosh / Don't call me your gollywog".

"Dave" comes on with a verse hook like that of "Gloria", infectious and rather heady despite its sympathetic treatment of the sobering experience of a fan's suicide. 

Of the remaining six tracks, "Bitching" is a splenetic mid-tempo workout distinguished by its assured guitar break and amusingly Turtles-like vocal harmonies. "Dead Ringer" sounds an awful lot like a leaden "Peaches" and "Burning Up Time" is no more than a speedy filler. 

The dramatic "Peasant in the Big Shitty" has Cornwell in scary and menacing mood via his stinging vocal swoops out of a feverish instrumental spiral.

"English Towns", written after some of the aggro encountered on their last tour, is bitter and incisive to a strong melody and muscular playing: “There is no love inside of me / I gave it to a thousand girl / We build towers of sand and ivory / In our English towns”.

"School Mam", the longest track, is the most adventurous and vaguely reminiscent in conception  to "Down in the Sewer".  It's a real bile bomb, furious , brutal, dominated by Burnel’s relentless bass and Jet Black's violent percussion – a bit hard to take unless you're on downers in which case it's dangerously depressive.

The major flaw of "No More Heroes" is that the group's obvious progression presented here resembles the implosion of a neutron star as it becomes ever stronger with an ever greater pull as it becomes smaller, denser and darker.

The imagination and scope of "Rattus" - even if it was derivative - have narrowed musically. The comparative lack of light, shade and colour makes "No More Heroes" heavy, seldom relieved and
tense listening.

I can't listen to the whole album in one anymore without triggering a headache, and my guess is that it’s unlikely to elicit that wide response of the quarter-million selling debut. But as I said at the outset, this is a consolidation that the strangled will get off on and it will be verrry interesting to hear what develops from this.



The Stranglers
'No More Heroes'
(United Artists UAG 30200)

AHH….But these are testing times … now the very real euphoria has subsided, the scales have fallen from my eyes, not recantation, but re-evaluation. Timely sift and sort. Now I’m blinded I can really see…

Oh, the Stranglers, such nice boys. But they need to be nasty, no squalid. And they do it so well. Look at Hugh Cornwell, standing onstage, posture saying ‘C’mon man, c’man get me, g’wan…. I dare ya…’. They want to get up your nose. They want to shock. They want to confront you with the seamy white underbelly…

OK, OK, OK. So why did ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ sell so well, then? Because they’re bright and talented enough to translate their aggression and studied venom into direct musical terms, an instantly recognisable sound (which’ll be hard to break away from) that scrapes under your skin and lodges there, even better as an irritant. You can’t escape it. And of course they’re heavy metal macho cross-over…. Perfect for the times when there wasn’t much punk product and most were unconverted but… curious. And it was brilliantly produced, and their constant playing payed dividends and it was right in there with the then zeitgeist… all that stuff about rats and angry, suitably ‘change’ orientated lyrics…

Well here we are with new product, all tarted up in a hideous – successful indeed as kitsch – chintzy chocolate box style sleeve. Inside on cue a rat arrives – very reassuring. The themes of utter negativity, seediness, sleaze inputs continue, only, by the great law of Alice Cooper, a little more hysterical, more strident, just nastier. Oh look, more titles for ‘liberals’ to get fussed about; ‘I Feel Like A Wog’, ‘Bring On The Nubiles’ and some creepy-crawlies; ‘Peasant In The Big Shitty’, ‘School Mam’. Sort of like ‘Plague Of The Zombies’.

Oh, you guessed, I don’t like the album. I’ve tried very hard (really, for all the right reasons) but I still think it sucks. No, this isn’t a critics Set-‘Em-Up-And-Shoot-‘Em-Down exercise, nor a virulent manifestation of putative – new album elitism – the Stranglers convinced me that they had something when I heard ‘Grip’ thundering out over the Portobello Road and couldn’t rest until I found out who it was.

I got no axe to grind – but what I hear now turns me right off.

It’ll sell. Half the album is full of very strong material, songs which are ridiculously catchy and well-constructed, and, oh yeah, they stay in the head… ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Dagenham Dave’, ‘Bitching’ and the best, ‘Burning Up Time’. The rhythm section is simply very tight, relentless, whilst the organ that fleshes the sound out (and does bring to mind Seeds/Doors at 45 comparisons) holds some kind of magical power with its hypnotic swell, sinister undertone. Oh yes, they can do it…

But it sounds so assembled somehow. And the material isn’t as consistent as last time around; some of the songs, ‘Dead Ringer’, ‘School Mam’, ‘Peasant In The Big Shitty’ are plain awkward, embarrassing in parts…. A problem is Cornwell’s lyrics/stance, and the band’s intrinsic and deep coldness. No amount of ‘intellectual’ rationalisation can get around the fact that too many lyrics are dumb. Dumb – and Cornwell patently isn’t. Like at the end of ‘Burning Up Time’ , he goes into this ‘Hello little girl, want a sweetie… routine, and blows it. ‘Bitching’, with its ‘Why don’t you all get screwed’ refrain. Or the platitudes of ‘Something Better Change’. Or the end of ‘School Mam’… The rest of the band meshes so closely that his voice is given more prominence, under close scrutiny, it seems forced, trying to be tough, macho, too hard.

And the subject matter. ‘Wog’, ‘Nubiles’, ‘Bitching’; point taken. Holding up a mirror, confrontation etc. (although ‘Nubiles’ comes over most as being adolescent) – but who needs them as moralisers? Agreed that having your face rubbed in a cess-pit can, on certain occasions be salutary (shock/emetic). Beyond a point, reached on this album, it seems more redundant, self-indulgent. I mean I knew already that England’s ‘going down the toilet’, we’ve been told often enough. What to do about it? Because the Stranglers offer nothing positive, not even in their music. Look, the Pistols tell you we’re being flushed too, but their music has a kick, a bounce, a tension that gives you energy, makes you want to do something. Some sort of life out of decay…

The Stranglers rumble along relentlessly, rombold, with sledgehammer blows driving their message home… they move, but they can be so wooden. Like a skimming coffin lid.

I suppose they got up my nose, didn’t they? So they win in the end. Some pyrrhic victory, though. The music’s powerful enough to get some reaction (always better than none) but what comes off this album, with its deliberate , unrelenting wallowing is the chill of death. No life force, nothing vital. Not so that it’s frightening, just dull and irritating, ultimately. And it doesn’t make it as a statement, even though it’s all taken so seriously.

Oh well – you can take it or leave it. They need this review like a hole in the head, so do you – no doubt you’ll all but it anyway. I know it isn’t aimed at me, but it sounds as though everyone’s intelligence is being insulted, yours, mine, and that of this record’s creators… - JON SAVAGE.






3 comments:

  1. Thanks for these reviews... to be honest, threy're not wrong. Heroes was the first of their albums I got to know so always loved it... but wow when i heard Rattus and B&W a few years later I stopped playing it. It's the weakest of the first four for sure. Like you say, it's hard for us to feel what it was like to have Rattus and then this come out so soon after. But assuming if we were going to gigs we'd know most of the tunes anyway. so maybe not much of a shock. Even Savage, like you note, is complimentary... just being honest I guess.
    Givemn the way the band operate now, thank god they did release it, or it would still be in the EMI vaults!

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    1. Thanks for the full Canterbury BTW I will post tomorrow.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Dom. Indeed I think that it is painful when each of those reviewers appreciate the band and yet struggle with the material on the album. To my mind that speaks volumes about the quality of Rattus (always my No 1). Black & White was far better received as the closing chapter of The Stranglers, the punk band. But I still fucking love NMH!!

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