Duff equipment, Close Encounters and bog-wall poetry…. The Stranglers in America by SYLVIE SIMMONS
(Photos by Chris Walter)
Third of four nights at the Whisky and the audience is still dribbling in during the opening act. The Humans are on IRS and could just as easily be on the Benny Hill Show with their pop-eyed manners, ageing Knack’s uncles tough pop music, and Ronnie Corbett lookalike. By the time the Stranglers arrive at around 10.30 the crowd is still balding at the edges but ready.
Last time LA was Strangled was at the Starwood, a larger club where the kids were packed to the sweaty walls but managed to move in time to the music and the stripper like some automatic bath sponge. But that was two and a half years ago, at the height of the (what number did we get up to?) British Invasion. Since then, while others have returned to evolve through the Civic to the arenas the Stranglers in America have been pretty much buried like some mongrel that does a couple of good tricks before rolling over and playing dead, two albums in America, ‘Black And White’ their last Transatlantic breath.
Their resurrection tour (over 40 dates - Los Angeles is about halfway) is hardly the type on which conversions are made except perhaps to the philosophy of Positive Thinking. Coming over to support their latest American elpee 'Stranglers IV’ a compilation album released on IRS records. Miles Copeland’s label that offered them a one off deal of a record and tour support after the band dropped A&M two years ago with the immortal words on a telegram: FUCK OFF. They’ve had a roadie beaten up by cowboys in Texas, van tyres slashed by rednecks who’ve just learned to use cutlery and, best of the lot, a truck containing half a million dollars worth of their equipment and instruments, half of it customised and irreplaceable, nicked while they were enroute from New York to Washington only half a dozen dates into the tour.
Where others would go home and sulk, the brave band battled on with rented equipment, much of it proving merely an ability to self-destruct during shows.
At least the stuff they were using for the LA concerts (eight of them over a long long weekend) is the same they've been using for a week or so, resulting in some kind of compromise as to its moods and eccentricities. But the basic hardware still sounds very different from their own (especially, poor Dave, the synthesisers) lending them the air of a Top Of The Pops Stranglers cover band. And one with a Max Bygraves frontman at that. Hugh Cornwell having to break off to chat to the audience and fill in a few minutes while the band and crew perform quick band-aid operations on the crumbling equipment. No chance to replace any of the old stuff either, with the insurance situation up in the air and pretty much all the band's money, at least every cent they earned off their last album In England - tied up in lawyers and advisors and various people trying to make sure that Jean Jacques doesn’t get put behind bars for the France fracas.
The band weren’t happy with tonight's performance but from the ground they sounded pretty good. They performed as determined and as tirelessly as a quartet of bridegrooms on their American honeymoon. Jet Black was purposeful teaching the second rate drums a lesson, beating the hell out of them and providing the strongest sound. Dave Greenfield looked perplexed often because what he played on the keyboards came out sounding sodden, the occasional high pitch bleep breaking through the sludge for at least the first third of the set. Jean Jacques played tensely, either loping back and forth across the stage or standing on one leg glowering. Hugh's vocals, praise the Lord, his mike was a least working OK – cut through the sound that was mostly like a record player that's been dropped from a great height so often that only the bass button works with a loud, insistent buzz.
They played a couple of songs (or more depending on their mood) from the next album, 'Meninblack', due for release in Britain in February. This set started off with a new one, an instrumental synthesizer waltz Carousel-style, keyboards straining from low to fat to chirpy while the carnival sound became more and more spacey and moody before a hard, rocking bass line rescued it from the Twilight Zone. ‘Just Like Nothing On Earth’, another new one continued the interest in the little black men that pour out of flying saucers like their little green cousins (OK, Sammy Hagar, they can be little red folk too if you like) the world over.
The overall feel of the set is of long and interesting or monotonous instrumental sound punctuated by short, brilliant, gutsy rock and roll songs like 'Hanging Around' - this week, five years late almost, one of the most played songs on a local rock radio station.
The audience was stuffy though, slow to respond. Hugh asked them if they were on quaaludes? Asleep? After all, it was a Sunday night. Eventually some of the younger kids at the front obliged with a perfunctory demonstration of the dance popularised by the LA Times article on rock and roll violence, The Slam (right foot up, raise it to his groin; left shoulder forward, aim it at the chest…) in time for the last song and and encore -- 'Dead Loss Angeles', what else? Hugh added insult to injury and recited a poem of great sensitivity he found on the Men’s bathroom wall (he should have seen what Sandra of Van Nuys said of his techniques in the ladies!) which summed up LA culture for him.
The crowd wasn't sure if it was being insulted, so cheered. The press knew they were, so gave the customary bad reviews, Angry Men Of Rock stuff. We were reading them at the start of our
interview. The next and final night was their Royal Command Performance’ there being various members of record companies present to help them, one hopes, in their search for a permanent haven in the United States and a chance to do another tour that will break them something other than financially. This won't be the one to do it though not from lack of trying. When the Stranglers are good they are very good and even when they're bad through no fault of their own they’re still pretty good.
We’re at the Tropicana motel, Dave's on the bed, Hugh's at the table, craftily perched so one eye can catch the television. Their manager's watching it and guarding the vodka bottle. Jean-Jacques and Jet have had their turn with the last customer, plus a go on the famous Rodney Bingenheimer KROQ show where he asked such wonderful things as oh wow, heard you were in jail that must have been far out etc.
Though the attitude of the kids across America seems to be changing towards the band, it’s been obvious that the media’s hasn’t.
Newspapers have either come on blasé, having no idea who they are and not particularly caring, or digging up the tough punk cliches and touching them with all the relish of a pet tarantula.
Hugh's polite, tired, clever. Dave's your basic Nice Guy, all the above, and too nice to show it. Obviously the first question is, all things considered, especially the stolen equipment, why the hell go on with it?
"Well," muses Hugh. ''it's like the Stranglers have never admitted failure. Right from the beginning we would never give up. This just makes us more determined, and it's always been like that.”
But doesn't it all get a bit silly when you're battling on with bad equipment and can't really do a good show?
"It's a case of doing the best you can,'' Dave reasons. Adds Hugh, "You've got to weigh the pros and cons of carrying on and going back, and it just seemed like there were more pros to carrying on than going back.”
The tour was Miles Copeland's idea “Why don’t you want to go to America?” he asked them “It’s not that we don't want to go, it s just that there's no one there who will help finance the tour” they answered. So Miles said "Well I've got a label and I think that your last album's really good and it's a shame it didn't come out in America, so how about putting something out on my label.'' They thought it a “reasonable idea” and packed the toothbrushes.
It's a one-off deal with the small label which runs from out of A&M's lot in Hollywood. Moving up to A&M seems to be the next step for a band that's learnt to walk on IRS, but it won't be for the Stranglers whose telegram telling them to "Fuck off “ following their last tour here over two years ago still hangs framed on a wall. All the gigs in major music biz cities have a sprinkling of A&R men in the back rows.
"If there's another label which is interested in picking us up then they'll be putting out all the future things on us.'' says Hugh.
Their last tour here, they reckon, was even more screwed up than this one's turned out to be. "They didn't know who we were or our music or anything." remembers Hugh.
We’d speak to journalists who weren't really aware of why they were there. Like “Why me? The editor sent me and I don t know who the fuck you are and I’m not really interested anyway” and they ask stupid questions and we thought thought God, A&M are supposed to be helping us. They didn't even send out info to anyone before we arrived.
But with the two and a half year gap (not to mention an IRS bio that told you as much about the Stranglers as the Statue Of Liberty’s welcome does about America) between visits, people still don't seem to know who they are. Like the newspaper concert reviews we were just reading, their reputation still seems to be as either mean and menacing jailbirds or heroic-romantic-jailbirds, depending on who's doing the reporting.
"It doesn't matter what we do," sighs Cornwell, "they're still going to say we’re like that, and that’s that.”
A dumb review in the Herald Examiner was based around the band's so-called lousy attitude towards Americans, something the band seemed to be asking for by reading out a poem that summed up American culture for Hugh.
I didn’t actually say ‘summed up’. I said I’d found an example of American culture on the wall and it really stimulated my brain cells, and if anyone had said that to me I'd have taken it tongue-in-cheek, but here they take everything so bloody seriously. It was a joke, you know.
He recites with all the flourish of a Shakespearean reject: "There once was a guy named Cram/ Who but for sucking cock wouldn't be worth a damn/Ram it up his arse, shove it down his throat/He’ll even give a blowjob to your Grandma's goat/I've seen him on Santa Monica in front of every bar/I've seen him up on Selma blowing guys in his car/So if you need a knob-job or want to pork some ham/Go to all the gay hotspots and ask for Mr Cram ."
And I read that out and they took it seriously, like I was insulting America. They're all so serious about us." They’re probably too frightened to be anything else, what with the band's image as tough boys in black.
"They're going to hate us anyway, which is what they did."
Which brings us back to the original question: why bother then?
"Well, we thought it might be a better time to come out than two years ago,” when anything with the remotest scrap of English heritage sold out shows. "And it definitely has been better. It's really surprising - we've had a large turn-out for a lot of the gigs, and they've been really into the music and they know about us and it's great. Some of the places have been really surprising, like little places where you think you're going to be a complete washout, and there they are, packed with cowboys and lumberjacks and bikers and just about everybody - like New Orleans where they're all shouting out the names of the songs and singing along with the numbers. New Orleans! It's amazing."
A regular little Rod Stewart show.
"We've got more of a following here than we thought we had when we came over,'' adds Dave, who says the whole thing reminds him of their early days in England, including the bad reviews. "It's surprising and it's refreshing really."
In England, they feel-- to a certain extent that their fans are so hardcore and loyal that they'd love them if they got onstage and blew their noses or sang Neil Young encores. "We're not scared of a challenge,'' swears Dave.
Generally speaking, they say, things have been going pretty well for them in England even though "We're hardly ever there . We've always had a basic die-hard following,'' says Hugh, "that has always been there, and adverse press reports that makes them even more diehard and makes them distrust the press even more. Basically we get less and less airplay as time goes on and Just get to be completely ignored. It's like they've got the philosophy in the media of, well if we ignore them they might go away, but here we are and here we stay …I think because our music appeals to a wide cross-section, no fashionable cliques.
"We started out playing everywhere where other groups feared to tread. We'd go to all the tiny corners in England where there were pockets of kids and they'd say 'Wow, we've never had a group out here, you're the first to come here' so they remembered that and when the record came out they all rushed out and bought it and it suddenly went into the charts without us being 'fashionable'. We're getting a cross-section audience out here too which is great, very healthy."
Not too many women though?
"I don't know, I see a lot of women at our gigs, loads."
The manager suggests they're cowering at the back while the slammers slam away at the front'. As for their not so-good reputation among females in the past, Hugh sighs and says, ''We've
always been misunderstood''.
So clear up the misconceptions then. The Stranglers are just four nice clean boys trying to earn an honest penny?
"Yeah, we always have been, it's just that people always took us the wrong way. An example of that is me reading out that poem and everyone thinks I'm anti-American just because I read out some filthy poem that I saw on a wall that titillated me. We just get misinterpreted. Maybe we just don't speak plain English enough or something. We got to be less subtle, more direct. Shall I commit suicide now or wait until after the last set?" he recalls with the words that upset the audience doing their little best on opening night.
What with Hugh's well publicized spell in prison, 1980 hasn't exactly been The Stranglers' favourite year.
“There's always been problems before’" says Dave, "but this year certainly had the worse. The years before kind of pale into insignificance beside it, but I think it’s changing now slowly. The crew have got that feeling as well, I don't know why. Things are starting to pick up again, I feel. Our luck will get better".
There’s one big hurdle first, the trial resulting from the so-called 'riot' in France, an expensive and frightening fiasco, the general feeling over there being that Jean-Jacques as a Frenchman should know what he was doing. Quite understandably this isn't the band's favourite topic of conversation. ''It's just like living day to day at the moment,'' says Dave.
After this tour and the court case they'll sort out the equipment problems somehow, "then another tour, England and Europe maybe''. They've chosen not to work in Europe for some time, feeling that the old homeland is “a bit more paranoid than it was, a lot of people out of work, so the music's getting more desperate with imminent destruction right on the doorstep''.
It would seem that the Stranglers music is getting more escapist in comparison, their next album 'Meninblack' being the nearest thing to a concept album they've done with a UFO-ish theme. ''This album'', says Hugh, "is the first one where all the tracks have a cohesion about them. They're all dealing with strange phenomena."
Dave: "And alternative ways of looking at religions through these extraterrestrial phenomena. The nearest we've done to a concept album."
"We're not the men in black'', says Hugh, reminding us of the MIB on the cover of 'Rattus' standing at the window in the back of the photo, and the song 'Men In Black' on 'Black And White'.
"The men in black are a phenomenon that occurs all over the world, people seeing UFOs and sighting strange phenomena and getting visited by men wearing black suits and hats and open-toed sandals and drive around in Fifties cars and enter people's houses and speak to them and after half an hour or so they leave again and they put these people into trances with thought implantation or whatever…”
Dave: "Hypnosis. They impart information that if the people are saying too much about what they've seen, they won't say anything any more."
Hugh: "There's been lots of reports in the journals all over the world. They're sort of Close Encounters really. These guys have no facial hair and they sort of resemble human beings but aren't the bona fide thing.'' Sounds like the Knack to me. "These people never see flying saucers again, or they die or disappear afterwards or strange things happen to them. It is (he adopts a mysterious Doctor Finlay accent) a strange occurrence."
The music is appropriately spacey. "It's not just a collection of songs. It's very moody music and a lot of it's very spacey and more varied in style. You can't really talk about your music.''
As for solo albums. "We haven't got much time at the moment. If we have we'll do them. I think Jean's been working on a few tracks,'' says Hugh. "I've got loads of ideas but there's no time, and we've got a lot of new Stranglers material to work on, so all of your ideas go into that. You only do solo stuff if you've got spare time and spare ideas and we've got neither.'' Dave will do one at the end of the tour once he's got new keyboards all in the right working order.
No plans to produce any local bands, though they've been given several tapes along the way, all the band listen to while in America "I listen to very little American stuff,'' says Dave. "It's usually too dated culturally and musically.''
Adds Hugh, "I've heard some nice things when guys come up to you and say, 'Hey I've got a band too' and give you tapes. The Lobsters (from San Diego) are pretty good.''
They can't afford to be patrons of the art and support new bands either with everything that's gone on, despite their gold LP success in England which one would have thought would have given them at least some financial security.
"Charity begins at home,'' shrugs Hugh. "Of course it would be nice to help the whole world but we've got a lot of problems of our own at the moment and we have to sort those out first. Success in England doesn't mean money because of the taxes. Success in England just means success."
So what kind of success are the Stranglers after?
''The success that means buying some new fucking equipment. We'll deal with the rest as it comes.''