BY THE END OF 1984 THE STRANGLERS WERE VETERANS OF THE UK CHART. 21 SINGLES (15 OF THEM TOP 40, THE OTHER SIX GOING CLOSE) AND A FURTHER NINE TOP 20 ALBUMS HAD FOLLOWED THE GUILDFORD BAND’S 1977 DEBUT RATTUS NORVEGICUS AND THE PAIR OF HITS FROM IT – (GET A) GRIP (ON YOURSELF) AND PEACHES.
1982 compilation THE COLLECTION may only have been put out to fulfil The Stranglers’ contractual obligations to EMI, but it provided the perfect starting point for casual observers. It included those first two singles alongside the essential HANGING AROUND, DUCHESS, NO MORE HEROES, SOMETHING BETTER CHANGE, GOLDEN BROWN and a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned staple WALK ON BY (first made famous by Dionne Warwick in 1964). Wryly, the album’s lone ‘new’ song – STRANGE LITTLE GIRL – was a rerecording of one of the tracks from The Stranglers’ original 1974 demo tape, turned down by the label the band was now leaving. Picked up by Epic Records, 1983’s FELINE reached number four in the UK album chart, with single EUROPEAN FEMALE also going Top 10. AURAL SCULPTURE followed a year later and contained one of The Stranglers’ most enduring songs; the shimmering SKIN DEEP.
It seemed a world away from the crude proto-New Wave of the band’s early singles, but its deep-pop sophistication was not really a surprise. Though emerging during the great punk wars, The Stranglers was already an established entity and didn’t quite fit the scene. Frontman Hugh Cornwell and bass player Jean-Jacques Burnel were clearly articulate songwriters and, alongside drummer Jet Black and keyboard player Dave Greenfield, the powerhouse band possessed what Robert Endeacott (author of PEACHES, a newly published book about them) calls “the uncanny ability of creating the most stirring heavy, gritty, dramatic sounds as well as some of the softest and sweetest melodies”.
In 1985, off the back of SKIN DEEP’s Top 20 success, promotional duties for AURAL SCULPTURE continued with a tour of Europe and Australia. Personal tensions simmered – and occasionally boiled over. Cornwell would eventually leave five years, two albums and a couple more hit singles (ALWAYS THE SUN and 96 TEARS) later. Endeacott explains, in the introduction to PEACHES, that the reason for naming it after the band’s 1977 single was his near-obsession with collecting versions of one particular line from it: in concert Cornwell often altered the song’s ‘skewer’ line to comic effect. There are several examples in this exclusive extract which runs us through the events of 1985…
2nd FEBRUARY 1985: Another national TV appearance, the band appearing on kids’ Saturday morning show NO. 73. They perform live, wearing sunglasses and in all black, playing next release LET ME DOWN EASY and closing the programme with UPTOWN. The brass trio on both songs are slightly too loud and Hugh’s vocals too echoey but, all in all, it’s good quality fare. UPTOWN is quite startling in fact, with Hugh’s opening line sounding suspiciously like ‘I’m gonna grab my cock’ rather than ‘crop’, and the song being danced to not only by Jim Lea and Noddy Holder of Slade, but comedian Sandy Toksvig and Supergran too, in amongst a load of kids and teenyboppers and weirdoes, also on stage, tucking in to buffet munchies. JJ looks likely to either break in to a grim smile or break a nose or two with his guitar if anyone gets too close.
7th FEBRUARY: The band appear on Dutch TV Show SCHOOLPLEIN miming to GOLDEN BROWN, SKIN DEEP and NO MERCY.
13th FEBRUARY: A ‘packed to the gills’ audience, as Hugh puts it, at Sheffield City Hall responds to each new Stranglers’ song with generally as much enthusiasm as the older ones, occasionally more so in fact. Even with a whole range of mistakes, duff notes and off keys, there is still something rather special about this gig. SOMETHING BETTER CHANGE is followed by NUCLEAR DEVICE – someone cocks up the ending, prompting Hugh to ask ‘What happened?’ afterwards. A person in the audience offers him a drink: ‘I’ll have that later, there’s nothing like a Blue Nun to keep you … religious,’ quips Hugh.
UPTOWN gets a really good response, more so than old favourite DEAD RINGER despite Dave’s vocals being superbly manic, as ever. NO MERCY, then NICE ‘N’ SLEAZY which is accordingly brilliant, Hugh and JJ weaving splendid guitars. THROWN AWAY, LET ME DOWN EASY, MIDNIGHT SUMMER DREAM, EUROPEAN FEMALE (with a sublime segue, though JJ really struggles to hit the song’s higher notes), SHIPS THAT PASS IN THE NIGHT, GOLDEN BROWN, PEACHES ( ‘… she trying to get out of that Mercedes Benz?’ and ‘Like getting stuck in Sheffield, without a bloody prayer.’).
DEATH AND NIGHT AND BLOOD is cracking and THREATENED even more cracking! PUNCH AND JUDY, the finale where they all sing, is very ropey. Hugh makes fun of the audience about their having no taste ‘even when we play it wrong’ to which JJ says ‘You’ and he laughs and retorts ‘No, you got it wrong …’ and then they all go and louse up the beginning to HANGING AROUND and Hugh gets one of the choruses wrong too! Then, I FEEL LIKE A WOG and SEWER with Hugh in good spirits (when the first ‘survive’ in the lyric is due, someone shouts it from the audience, he responds ‘No it isn’t!’ without disrupting the song). Before NUBILES, Hugh invites requests from the audience and pretends to hear someone ask for this. The Cocktail version is rubbish but then it’s straight into TOILER splendidly. The inspiring encore track THE RAVEN closes the gig.
16th FEBRUARY: LET ME DOWN EASY is the new single, and that’s exactly what it does, only making it to No.48 in the charts.
25th FEBRUARY: The first of five consecutive nights for the band at London’s Dominion Theatre.
26th FEBRUARY: Tonight’s PEACHES has, ‘Is she trying to get out of that Mini Metro? Liberation for women, that’s what I preach…’ and ‘I can think of a lot worse places to be, Like being stuck in a traffic jam on Tottenham Court Road on a Friday afternoon.’
27th FEBRUARY: And tonight’s PEACHES features the stunningly profound changed lyrics of ‘Like … anywhere … you can think of … where you didn’t like it.’
15th MARCH 1985: Some of the tracks from the band’s Oslo Ice Stadium gig are televised, and JJ thoroughly enjoys Hugh’s impersonation of The Muppets’ Chef during PEACHES with him ‘Waherder durder werder gerder scurder-ing’ instead of the usual ‘mmm mmm-ing’ ejaculations.
24th MARCH: To avoid causing another riot, The Stranglers regretfully cancel the gig scheduled for Bielefeld PC 69 in Germany due to an inadequate power supply there. All very disappointing, especially as the gig has sold out. Other gigs do take place in Germany during the coming weeks though, as well as in Belgium, France and Italy.
25th MARCH: In Germany, at Cologne’s Stadthalle Muelheim, Hugh spots a miscreant in the crowd, ‘This chap here is gonna get his bum smacked, he’s playing with matches, aren’t you? He’s playing with matches’. Someone shouts a suggestion involving a banana and inserting it up the man’s ‘behind’ but there is no evidence such a procedure takes place.
His worse places to be on PEACHES is ‘like stuck in Cologne in the summer’ and before NUBILES he lets rip: ‘Everyone down here is smoking cigarettes … You’ve got a lot to say for yourselves, haven’t you?’, which prompts shouting from the audience and someone throws a cig onto the stage. ‘All I’ve said was you seem to be smoking a lot. That doesn’t mean I want a cigarette,’ Hugh says. There is a pause before his charm offensive, (well offensive, anyway) continues: ‘So what’s been happening in Cologne? I’ve got to say this is the best gig we’ve done so far in Germany. But no, what I’d like to say is it is the worst, it really is the worst. Never seen such a bunch of ugly people in my life. Yeah that’s what I’d like to say, in fact I have never seen a bunch of uglier people, not even in America have I seen a bunch of uglier people! You’re a bit plain, aren’t you? You’re a bit plain. If you let that wind you up then you gotta be really plain. You’re full of shit, you should go to the toilet more often’.
6th APRIL 1985: A gig at the Messepalast in Vienna, Austria. SKIN DEEP replaces NUCLEAR DEVICE, otherwise it’s the same set list as Cologne. After SKIN DEEP, a woman in the audience screams and Hugh remarks in deadpan voice, ‘Oh someone’s getting a bit excited here’. The PEACHES worse places to be is … ‘on the Messepalast roof, I can’t see where the fuck it is’. A toilet roll lands on the stage, prompting him to state politely, ‘Someone’s thrown a toilet roll there. None of us need to have a shit now, thanks very much for the toilet roll, we might need it later’. Before NUBILES he asks, ‘I hear Vienna has the highest suicide rate in the world, how come? And Vienna is named the lesbian city? What came first?’ And amidst lots of shouting from the audience, he tries to have an argument with them: ‘When we were here six, or, no, seven years ago … Does anyone remember?’ (Replies from the crowd). ‘Bollocks! I don’t believe you, you’re all a bunch of liars. It’s terrible! I didn’t see you, I didn’t see you, you got some proof you were here? We did WALK ON BY? Anyone can say that!’
11th APRIL: At the Planeta Tienoa in Rome, tensions between Hugh and JJ turn physical. Although it might seem relatively minor, it is significant to the future of the band. The exact circumstances have never been clear – Hugh has disputed JJ’s claim that he had thrown some champagne at him after they had left the stage – but what is not in question is that JJ pushed Hugh against a wall, which was so thin he went through it. It startled Hugh sufficiently enough to worry about his well-being in JJ’s company due to such unpredictable behaviour. It had come about over a disagreement regarding which one of them mistimed their jump during HANGING AROUND, but their relationship was cooling considerably by now.
JJ never denied or excused his actions, he just seems to regard them as less serious than Hugh does. That said, JJ is quite distraught about the incident and apologises profusely to Hugh soon after. The apology is accepted but the whole affair strengthens Hugh’s resolve to forge a professional existence away from The Stranglers.
12th APRIL: At the Palasport in Bari, Italy, serious problems are caused by the police’s abrupt decision to limit the crowd capacity for the venue to 500 … after more than 2500 official tickets have been sold. The band won’t play until the police get their act together, which they eventually do, letting all ticket holders in. Stupid police or just a few crooked gobshites after backhanders?
29th APRIL: PEACHES at Le Zenith in Paris has a new line from Hugh: ‘I can think of a lot worse places to be, Like being stuck at five in the morning in Paris looking for some frogs legs’.
9th MAY 1985: A tour of Australia begins at Canberra University, with further gigs due in Sydney (three separate dates), Brisbane, Newcastle, Melbourne, Adelaide and finally Perth on the 18th.
10th MAY: It’s a full house at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney to see the band in good form and enjoying themselves, even with the unwelcome attentions of one phlegmy idiot who Hugh later rebukes for giving him AIDS to take back to the UK. His PEACHES line is ‘I can think of a lot worse places to be …. can you? Thought you could’ and his NUBILES cocktail version contains wooing in wonderfully bad Aussie accent: ‘Let me fack ya, and if you don’t want it, do you mind lying down while I do?’
On 11th MAY, events, or rather non-events, at the Festival Hall gig in Brisbane (Queensland’s state capital) convince one Strangler to quit the band. It isn’t Hugh, it’s Jean-Jacques, disillusioned at a missed opportunity to have a public dig at the current Queensland governor, their old friend Joh Bjelke-Petersen. JJ wants to stir it up onstage with some wry observations concerning the warped politician, but Hugh disagrees as he wants to avoid controversy. Thus, to JJ, Hugh had ‘sold out’ and probably lost his nerve too, while Hugh sees JJ’s behaviour as immature and needlessly rebellious.
The gigs go ahead as planned, with little evidence of unrest in the band, but once the tour is over and they return home, Hugh flies out to Nice to visit JJ and persuade him the band is still a worthwhile cause. It works, JJ decides to carry on – in truth he doesn’t need much cajoling – and the foursome remain intact, albeit with cracks slowly widening.
12th MAY: Newcastle Workers Club, Australia. Even with a less than 100% well Hugh, this is another lively, much appreciated gig. After the second song of the night, DEAD RINGER, he greets the audience warmly with ‘G’day, g’day, g’day’ but after NO MERCY complains about having ‘a fucking awful throat’. NICE ‘N’ SLEAZY is performed well but it’s clear Hugh is taking it nice ‘n’ easy with his tender vocal chords. PEACHES follows GOLDEN BROWN and receives an even louder reception from the audience; the altered line is ‘… like being in a police van in the Sunshine State and it’s pouring with rain all fucking day’.
27th MAY: The Pink Pop Festival takes place in Geleen, Holland. Appearing along with The Stranglers are Steel Pulse, King, Jason & The Scorchers, China Crisis and Chris Rea, and the compere is John Peel. Fan Eric Vonk explains that: ‘Pink Pop is the oldest music festival in the Netherlands. The Stranglers’ set was very short and no encores were played. The stage was then bombarded with fruit. Organiser and presenter Jan Smeets came on stage to tell the audience to apologise and to advise them to travel to London if they wanted to complain. Apparently The Stranglers were the most expensive band they had booked so far, paid 100,000 guilders in cash. The band flew back with suitcases filled with money’.
13th JULY 1985: The Live Aid dual spectaculars take place here and in America. The Stranglers are far from the only notable absentees, but they are probably the most successful UK chart act not to be even invited.
26th JULY: At the Pansthinai Panathinaikos Stadium (also known as the Kallimarmaro Stadium, venue of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896), the band are third on the bill behind Depeche Mode and Culture Club on the first day of the Rock In Athens festival. The next day’s Rock In Athens bill includes The Clash and The Cure. It’s a big cultural occasion for Greece and thus much of it is televised, with SOULS, LET ME DOWN EASY, MIDNIGHT SUMMER DREAM and EUROPEAN FEMALE (both superb), and SKIN DEEP and GOLDEN BROWN (both not superb) aired.
Jet and Hugh are interviewed by a female reporter before their performance. Interviewer – ‘Welcome to Athens and the first big rock festival in Greece. How did you decide to come to Athens?’ Jet expounds: ‘Well, we decided to go because we were offered a proposition which enabled us to go at a time – I think for the first time – when we are free to go. We did try to go to Greece once before and we were stopped somewhere in the south of France …’ Hugh chips in, ‘It was about five years ago’.
22nd AUGUST 1985: STRANGLED mag tells us that Dave Greenfield weds his fiancée today, Pam Leatherbury, at Cambridge Registry Office. Frankly, Dave doesn’t look right in a grey suit and wearing a tie and carnation, but at least his good lady wore black.
27th AUGUST: Portrait Records release Hugh’s solo single ONE IN A MILLION on 7” and 12”. It’s a charming, catchy song deserving of a chart placing if not massive commercial success. Alas, it doesn’t get anywhere near it, peaking at No.78. Hearing the strong bass line spine which makes the vital hook, combined with Hugh’s soulful, enchanting vocals, one could easily assume it’s a Stranglers’ song, a strong one at that. Hugh is guest reviewer of the morning’s newspapers on BBC BREAKFAST TIME with Nick Ross and he’s keen to tell the audience, ‘The Stranglers haven’t split up by the way … a lot of people are assuming, just because I’ve got something out, that the band are splitting up’.
31st AUGUST: With Jet Black on drums and Chris Twomey on lead vocals, a ‘new’ band, christened A Marriage Of Convenience is formed, to release a cover of the very early Stranglers’ track MY YOUNG DREAMS. Tonight is the launch party, arranged by The Stranglers Information Service, at Ezee Studios, King’s Cross, London (the single is out on the band’s SIS label). Jet and Dave attend, along with around 400 Stranglers’ fans.
19th DECEMBER 1985: In a surprising Stranglers-related guest appearance, JJ Burnel takes part in an event at the Heaven nightclub in London today. Carol Aid is another fundraiser for the Band Aid Trust and JJ sings O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL with a couple of Page 3 girls, an unnamed fella and another unnamed fella who, we’re told, was singer with Tight Fit. I can’t be arsed looking his name up, sorry. Other pop stars there included Cliff Richard, Chris De Burgh, BA Robertson, Junior, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Anita Harris, Flying Pickets and Jim Diamond. And Snowy White and Captain Sensible.