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Sunday, 8 January 2012

~Kitten Wine#31~: An Outbreak Of Solo Asphyxiation

If, as I claimed in a previous Blog, 1979 was a strange year for the Sex Pistols, then it was an even stranger, and infinitely more prolific year for The Stranglers. Not only did they release what many consider to be the best album from the original line up, 'The Raven', there were also albums from both front men, Hugh Cornwell and Jean Jacques Burnel; both quite different from each other, and both a million miles from The Stranglers.

So let's take a look at those two solo albums, both out of step and under appreciated at the time, yet now strangely modern and even relevant....

'The Raven' was a widescreen technicolour vista housed in a 3D sleeve which dealt with subjects as widespread as Nordic sagas, American imperialism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Mishima, alien abduction, the chinless wonders of the upper classes, human genetics, nuclear weapons, whores and heroin. The two solo albums were both, in a sense, concept albums; Hugh's 'Nosferatu' had a theme of horror movies and olde worlde freak shows running through it, whilst JJ's 'Euroman Cometh' was celebration and critique of his own European-ness and of modern Europe in general.

'Euroman Cometh' is an odd album which flummoxed a lot of people, including Stranglers fans, at the time because it sounded so removed from what was occurring within music at the time, and indeed from the music his parent band were creating. One of the most instantly noticeable elements of the soundscape is the use of what sounds like the most primitive drum machine imaginable. This is quite odd given that The Stranglers had been blessed with one of the most reliable drummers of the Punk/New Wave era in Jet Black whose laser guided precision rhythms were a major facet of their sound. The drum machine hisses, clicks and pops with an almost amateurish lack of subtlety.
Also removed from the mix is the driving top-heavy bass sound that really propels The Stranglers' early records. The bass is mixed well into the background with scratchy, scribbly guitars and skronking keyboards giving the album a very trebley sound; unusual for such a thundering bass player.
Vocally, JJ seems a little recalcitrant and unsure of his voice's qualities, seemingly employing a different vocal technique on each song, even using vocoders to distort his voice on certain tracks.
This may make it sound like I'm being overly critical of the album, but all of this makes the album sound better these 30 years down the line than it probably did at the time. The album has a lo-fi, Post-Punk, Artrock vibe that chimes more cohesively today.
And the subject matter of some of the songs is incredibly relevant in 2012; take for instance 'Euromess' or 'Euroman' both of which could apply to the dissolving European Union or the current financial cataclysm Europe has gotten itself into. Then there's 'Freddie Laker(Concorde & Eurobus)' which could easily appertain to the lack of people travelling abroad and the collapse of travel firms all over the world. And being half French and half English, JJ has always had his suspicions of the Germans; in the film 'Punk In London'(a documentary filmed in 1977 by a German film crew), JJ snubs an impromptu interview with the crew before lambasting their arrogance and getting in a dig at their Germanic attitudes....this also comes across in the track 'Deutchsland Nicht Uber Alles'.

Of course, this being a Stranglers related album, there are moments of masculinist machismo thrown in that are often misinterpreted as sexism or misogyny, like for example 'Pretty Face' or the quite preposterous(though almost certainly humorous) 'Crabs'.

The album was housed in a sleeve that set out JJ's agenda pretty broadly, being a shot of him posing black-leather-clad-rock-god style in front of the Pompidou Center. It's an odd, sometimes too experimental work that clearly jarred against other contemporary music of the time, but which now sounds more in tune with today's lo-fi electronica and indeed with the thinking of our messy Eurocentric times....

Hugh Cornwell's 'Nosferatu' is a different beast entirely.
Not so much a solo album, more of a collaboration with Captain Beefheart percussionist Robert Williams, and with the Mothersbaugh brothers from the band Devo. William's jazz inflected offbeat time signatures and Devo's jerkiness combine to create an off-kilter bedrock upon which Hugh builds his discordant soundscapes.
Unlike JJ's album which dealt with contemporary issues of the times, Hugh sculpts an album built around old folklore, expressionist horror, giant monster movies, and freakshows. The album is dedicated to the actor Max Schreck who portrayed Count Orlok in the titular German horror masterpiece, and it's a fantastic shot of Schreck/Orlok that houses the album.
The title track opener also lets us know that this is no Stranglers album; over a hurricane of pattering drums and seething synths, Hugh delivers a frantic guttural vocal far removed from his Stranglers growl.

That growl does return for some of the songs but the music is an eccentric deviation from that which usually accompanied it, and again is quite incongruous with other music of the era.
Tracks like 'Big Bug' and 'Mothra' move in unfamiliar rhythm patterns, whilst 'Wired' and 'Rhythmic Itch' have more in common with the New York No Wave scene than with British Punk inflected New Wave.

We can forgive unwelcome Cream cover versions('White Room') when doomy atmospheric pieces like 'Losers In A Lost Land' sound so majestic, but it's the last two tracks on the album that are it's two strongest moments; 'Puppets' moves like a typical Stranglers composition fed through a broken calliope and makes a rather broad comparison about people who can't think or do things for themselves with the tangled string operated creations of a puppet show. And final track 'Wrong Way Round' takes us into a Victorian freakshow to gawp at a girl who has been created entirely back to front. The track features a splendid cameo from Ian Dury(under the alias of Duncan Poundcake) as a fairground barker which gives the track a wheezy carnival authenticity.

Despite 'The Raven' reaching number 4 in the British charts, neither solo album sold in a great quantity; 'Euroman Cometh' scraping to number 40, whilst 'Nosferatu' simply didn't chart. Clearly out of sync with the music of the times, and too offbeat for their casual Stranglers fans, the albums have actually dated well. I liked them both at the time anyway, but now find them satisfying and challenging curios from a band more talented than their critics at the time would admit. Contrary to the popular belief, The Stranglers didn't jump on Punk's bandwagon looking for fame, they were simply adopted by punks who found their aggressive playing and bullshit-free stance welcoming in the wasteland of the mid-70s.

I would have liked to have offered both albums as free downloads but The Stranglers appear to take such actions pretty seriously so I don't want to get the Blog into bother, but if this article has piqued your attention then I'm sure both albums are out there in cyberspace somewhere.


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