In 1974, the Stranglers began playing shows wherever they could find work. The band quickly earned a troublesome reputation with the press, concert organizers, and even fans. Physically, the band clad in black were a menacing presence. They actually lived the “hardcore” life that other bands attempted to wear on stage. The band’s name was taken from the American serial killer dubbed The Boston Strangler who had captured headlines around the world at the time. While the Stranglers saw themselves as a straightforward rock and roll band, they found a larger audience in the emerging punk and New Wave scene of the mid 1970s and early 1980s. The Stranglers proved themselves a durable group, touring and recording music for more than 25 years.
Hugh Cornwell, the group’s guitarist/vocalist and a graduate of biochemistry from Bristol University, arrived in London in early 1974 to put serious effort into forming a successful rock band. Jet Black, the drummer for the Stranglers, answered an advertisement Cornwell placed in Melody Maker magazine for a drummer. The band literally picked up their bass guitar player when Jean-Jacques (also known as “J.J.”) Burnel, a classically trained guitarist, was hitchhiking. Cornwell sold Burnel the bass guitar he initially played. Cornwell then called on a friend from Sweden, guitarist Hans Warmling, to complete the original foursome.
Early on the band scraped by to support themselves. Black, in addition to playing the drums, was a moderately successful businessman. He owned a liquor store in Guildford, England, and invited the band to move into the store to save money. For the band’s transportation, Black also offered the use of an ice cream van in a fleet that he owned. For the next several months, the band played around Guildford and were thrown out of pubs, were not allowed to play at certain venues, and had people walk out on the shows they did manage to find. The Stranglers’ shows would frequently include fights and the occasional riot. The band had a destructive nature, feuding with promoters, the audience, and the press.
Dissatisfied with the progress the band was making, Warmling called it quits in mid 1975. Again, an advertisement for a musician was put in Melody Maker, which was spotted by Dave Greenfield’s aunt and led to his audition and recruitment by the band. The addition of the keyboards brought a layer of New Wave pop to the Stranglers’ sound. The band was now part of the growing new wave and punk scene. They hit the pubs and managed to sign with the music agency Albion, which helped open more venues to their music. The band worked hard and stayed focused on success. “We were having a whale of a time, yeah, but it was a lot of fun like a big endless party for nearly three years. We didn’t get paid and we were broke and we were skint and we were starving, but we were still having a good time … funnily enough … at least that’s how I remember it…, “Black recalled in an interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).
The Stranglers were now able to move out of the liquor store in Guildford and into the Nashville, Hope, and Anchor pubs in London. The Stranglers’ reputation as a hard-working band helped earn their first big break, touring in support of Patti Smith in 1976. Shortly after the tour, the band signed with United Artists. In 1977, the band released their first single, “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself).” The song is basically about their struggle to be a rock and roll band and the realization that “the money’s no good!” This effort was next followed by “Peaches, “their first song to be banned by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) for its reference to female genitalia. “Peaches, “a disjointed and rhythmically halting song, shared similarities to the Fall, another British band playing in Manchester around the same time.
The Stranglers released their first album, Stranglers IV (Rattus Norvegicus) in 1977, which included “Peaches.” The song was later edited for BBC radio play. Now safe for the airwaves, it hit number ten in the United Kingdom. The band’s third single release, “Something Better Change, “was adopted by the growing punk movement as an anthem. The new wave band Oingo Boingo managed to launch an entire career with the single in the 1980s. The Stranglers second album, No More Heroes, was released in 1977. The title song provided something for rock and roll fans, and “Something Better Change” satisfied the punk and new wave fans. As for the band’s own view of
Members include Jet Black (founding member), drums, percussion; J.J. Burnel (born Jean-Jacques Burnel), bass guitar, vocals; Hugh Cornwell (founding member; left group in 1990), guitar, vocals; John Ellis, guitar; Dave Greenfield, keyboards, vocals; Paul Roberts, vocals; Hans Warmling (left group 1975), guitar.
Formed band in London, England, 1974; toured with Patti Smith, 1976; released debut album Stranglers IV (Rattus Norvegicus), 1977; released Black and White, 1978; released The Gospel According to the Men In Black, 1981; signed with Epic Records, 1982.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022.
their music, Burnell told the BFBS, “We had no pretensions, other than to be a rock and roll band.” The album also featured the song “Bring On the Nubiles, “a misogynistic song that was never intended to pass BBC approval. When Cornwell was asked by Jim Sullivan, writer for the Boston Globe, to respond to accusations of being misogynists, Cornwell responded with a snarled smile and said “We’re not misogynists, we’re misanthropes. We hate everybody.”
In 1978 the band took a different direction and released the single “Five Minutes.” The techno/new wave sound was lessened, and the band revealed a hint of a hard rock soul. The band’s third album, Black and White, was released next, and the Stranglers had their first hit song, “Nice ’N’ Sleazy, “which became a chart topping success all across Europe. The Stranglers left their ice cream van behind as they began a tour that would take them around the world. The dark image the band projected on and off stage was that of their hard living—the fights, drugs, and menacing relationship with the press. Angry with a French music critic, the band tied him up to the Eiffel Tower. To say the least, the Stranglers’ reputation with the press was filled with conflict. Desperate to play in venues where they had previously been banned, the Stranglers assumed alias names like Oil and the Slicks, Shakespearo’s, Bingo Nightly, and the OAPs in order to find work.
The Stranglers produced a steady stream of work through the 1980s. While punk and new wave bands came and went, the Stranglers endured. Many other acts and critics alike, however, considered the Stranglers outsiders from the start. Musically, they were difficult to label. Later, songs and albums by the Stranglers would find their way into a variety of classified collections—among them pop, punk, rock, and new wave. The Raven, released in 1979, achieved chart success with the single “Duchess.” But the supporting video was banned by the BBC because the band dressed up like choirboys.
In 1980, Cornwell was arrested for possession of heroin and went to prison for two months. The band continued to play and invited friends like Ian Dury of Joy Division to the stage and to put on shows. Cornwell again found himself in jail later that year when French police arrested the band for allegedly starting a riot at a show in Nice. Later, Burnel would write a book about the incident, Much Ado About Nothin’. In the same year while touring in the United States, the band had all their equipment stolen in New York, an event that caused the group to wonder whether the act was the result of coincidence or alien intervention. The band was on the verge of a new decade and new musical perspective.
The Stranglers would come to be known by fans as “The Men In Black, “so named because of the band members’ black fashion sense, and a fascination with UFOs and the supposed government agents dressed in black suits and wearing dark sunglasses swooping in to cover-up any landing sites or alien abductions. The group released The Gospel According to the Meninblack in 1981. The album revealed the band’s dark humor about alien influence on our religion and society. La Folie was released in 1981, and the single “Golden Brown, “a song about heroin, was played on the mainstream BBC Radio 2 and reached number two in Britain. A new sound was emerging for the Stranglers, and it revealed a degree of depth for the band. It was a great departure from the youthful angst of the band’s first three albums.
EMI had purchased the band’s record label, United Artists, in 1980, and the Stranglers provided their new label with a single hit, “Strange Little Girl, “before signing on to Epic Records in 1982. With Epic, the band went on for the next five years, releasing a steady body of work that was becoming more soft in tone. The band added a brass section and shed many of the hardcore influences of their earlier work. The band never again reached the success they attained with their previous work, and Cornwell told the press that he felt the band had reached its end. Consequently, he decided to pursue a solo career. The remaining members replaced their frontman with Paul Roberts on vocals and John Ellis of the Vibrators on guitar. The Stranglers second stage has yet to produce a blip on any hit charts in Britain or elsewhere. Without Corn-well, the Stranglers strategy seems to rely on reissues of previous hits and live recordings.
Strangler IV (Rattus Norvegicus), United Artists, 1977.
No More Heroes, United Artists, 1977.
Black and White, United Artists, 1978.
Live X-Certs, United Artists, 1979.
The Raven, United Artists, 1979.
IV, IRS, 1979.
The Gospel According to Meninblack, Liberty/Stiff, 1981.
La Folie, EMI, 1981.
Feline, Epic, 1983.
Aural Sculpture, Epic, 1984.
Dreamtime, Epic, 1987.
All Live and All of the Night, Epic, 1988.
Singles, EMI, 1989.
10, Epic, 1990.
Greatest Hits 1977-1990, Epic, 1990.
In the Night, Viceroy, 1992.
About Time, Fuel, 1995.
The Hit Men, EMI Gold, 1997.
Written in Red, When, 1997.
Access All Areas, Voiceprint, 1998.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Billboard, January 16, 1999, p.p. 15-16.
Boston Globe, October 28, 1999, p. C, 18:1.
Melody Maker, October 18, 1986; September 25, 1999, p.38.
Record Mirror, September 7, 1985.
“Band History” http://www.stranglers.net/b_ground.html (November 6, 2000).
“JJ/Jet BFBS Interview” http://www.stranglers.net/int_cyprus.html (November 6, 2000).
“The Stranglers,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (December 22, 2000).
“The Uno-fish-ial Who, What, When and Where Page for-The Stranglers” http://www.ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/kev_fish/s_who.htm (November 6, 2000).