Gig review: THE STRANGLERS – Hammersmith Apollo, London, 8 March 2014

The Stranglers - Hammersmith Apollo, London, 8 March 2014

Something very strange must have happened. Having managed to sadly miss most of Nine Below Zero’s set for reasons best undisclosed, I’m secreted daahn the front at good old ‘Ammasmiff, waiting for the Stranglers to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the place is full of beautiful women.

Everywhere I look- blondes, brunettes, young, old, small and tall. OK, I’m not suggesting for one minute that their gigs have ever been exclusively male environments, but tonight, there appears to be at least one stunner for every group of three punks, bootboys, ageing Goths or balding black cab drivers.

The one stood directly behind me, in true blonde fashion, is constantly berating hubby every time the band dare to play something that WASN’T a top ten hit, but such developments are to be expected, I suppose, from a band whose appeal is still, four decades on, as wide-ranging and diverse as theirs has been. And tonight’s mammoth set- an incredible 30 songs in two hours- is a testament to that.

With the Stranglers, the joy is always a mixture of knowing exactly what you’re going to get coupled with an element of total surprise: tonight’s show features at least one song (sometimes two or three) from all 17 of their albums, plus a few non-LP singles that remain perennial favourites.

The stops have also all been pulled out- there’s a HUGE bank of video screens and projectors across the rear wall this time, showing footage of every era of their career, including the legendary Battersea Park Festival of 1978 (complete with its infamous strippers), assorted arrests, court cases and bust-ups, and recent montages of band and fans in full interaction mode. Fuck, there’s even a picture of Hans Warmling.

35 years ago, stadia beckoned and TOTP appearances were regular: 15 years ago, a mile up the road at Shepherds Bush Empire (where I saw them over 12 times) this wouldn’t have even been possible.

Now it seems things have come full circle again, and I for one, as a lifelong fan, am incredibly proud of them, even if it does mean I have to endure the chavvy-moustached teens in front of me doing that irksome finger-waving dance that, to their parents’ generation (ie mine), was so beloved of raves and Madchester gigs, and is now endemic of anywhere twats congregate en masse.

Luckily, after one complaint, a swift look at my Harrington and extremely short haircut is enough to make them cease and desist tout suite: ironically, I’m not a fighter of any kind, whereas, at 61, bassist/vocalist JJ Burnel still looks likely to tear several strips off anyone who fucks with him.

Guitarist/vocalist Baz Warne, now frontman for almost ten years and in the band a fair while before that, exudes a similar air of detachment and menace, more so than a certain Mr Cornwell or another certain Mr Roberts before him, thus completing possibly the most ideal pairing this band has seen.

The customary ‘Waltzinblack’ intro is even twergled with and sped up this time, as if to suggest that, while this may be a celebration of their past, they still have enough venom and attack to suggest some kind of future, and refuse to stand still.

So where better to start than at the very beginning? They launch in with a vicious ‘London Lady’, and then, as if by way of getting it over and done with in order to make way for the real show, quickly whip through and discard well-overplayed former set-closer ‘No More Heroes’, something which I for one am glad of.

Third song in, they immediately destroy everyone’s expectations by playing the Roberts-era stomper ‘Coup De Grace’, which probably hasn’t been aired since the tour promoting the album of that name in 1998: from that point on, everything is possible and often happens.

Some numbers, such as the rococo, florid ‘Midnight Summer Dream’ ‘Threatened’ (living up to its title) a bouncily morose ‘Thrown Away’ and ‘Was It You’ have made sporadic appearances in the set for years now, and there’s obviously no escaping singalong hit favourites like ‘Skin Deep’ ‘Hanging Around’ ‘Peaches’ and the closest they ever came to an arm-waving AOR anthem, ‘Always The Sun’, but others haven’t been witnessed live (at least not by these eyes and ears) for over a decade, and are all the more welcome for their return.

‘Valley Of The Birds’ and the ultra-tragic wartime love story ‘Still Life’, spaced at opposite ends of the set, are surprise enough, but the icing and cherry are the Beatlesque spine-chills of ‘Never Too Look Back’ (possibly the only great song on the otherwise weak 10 album) and the epic, icy sweep of ‘North Winds’: both feature Burnel and Warne in perfect harmony, something that reminds you just how much of a quintessential pop group they can be, and how much of the last 40 years of music, from punk and goth to indie and even prog, has been shaped by their influence.

Of course, we always knew: it just took the self-appointed arbiters of Trendy Street that long to catch up. What’s more amazing is that, disgruntled milfs aside, the audience seems happy to ride every time change, rise and fall, and content to stand in the pit through both fast and slow numbers, relishing moments of introspective whimsy like ‘Tramp’ or ‘Time To Die’ every bit as much as the full-on aural aggression and spit of ‘Something Better Change’ ‘Summatouttanowt’ and ‘Five Minutes’

And while we’re on the subject, name me one other band that can deliver both of those emotional extremes so convincingly anyway? Off the top of my head, I can only think of The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, and they split up in 2011.

Anyone who knows the band well enough knows full well (it’s near Teddington isn’t it? 33 bus from this venue, I believe) that it isn’t all about the front line either: sure, Burnel’s bass still grumbles, grinds and punches you repeatedly in the stomach like it’s meant to, and Baz’s guitar convincingly replicates the timbre of knives scraping crystal, but without the twisted, carnival keyboard sound of Dave Greenfield, there would be no Stranglers sound as we know and define it.

His organ, synth and piano flourishes, often still delivered with pint in hand, decorate every song from the fast to the slow, the old to the new: he’s also still adept at a lead vocal or two himself, as delivered over the askew signatures of ‘Peasant In The Big Shitty’ and ‘Genetix’ And then, providing the distinctive backbeat to that song and at least four others, there’s Jet Black.

At  76, which makes him after Bill Wyman surely the oldest musician still touring regularly with a rock band, Jet is a legend: nowadays, he’s only well enough to play on four or five tunes a night (some of which, like ‘Golden Brown’ obviously dwell at the lighter, jazzier end of the band’s repertoire).

New boy Jim McAulay, by now a fully integrated cog in the machine, handles the majority of the set perfectly – but Black, the heavy with the heart of gold, is still such a symbol of the very nature of the Stranglers, and again, their offset betwixt roughhouse and romance, that whilst he still wants to, and can, play, it would be ridiculous not to indulge him.

Not only that, but the sheer exultation with which the audience greet the mere arrival of his name on the screen, let alone his presence on stage (behind a much smaller kit than before, flanked by a roadie who must surely be bricking it nightly as to what would happen if ever his charge fell backwards) is confirmation enough of his respect and status.

Review by Darius Drewe

Setlist: London Lady/ No More Heroes/ Coup De Grace/ Was It You/ Threatened/ Summatouttanowt/ Peasant In The Big Shitty/ Still Life/ Peaches/ Midnight Summer Dream/ Golden Brown/ Always The Sun/ Genetix/ Thrown Away/ Never To Look Back/ Tramp/ Skin Deep/ Time To Die/ Lowlands/ Valley Of The Birds/ Nice And Sleazy/ North Winds/Freedom is Insane/ Duchess/ Five Minutes/ Hanging Around/ Norfolk Coast/ Something Better Change/ All Day And All Of The Night/ Tank


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