Five go to The Stranglers

Posted by Dick Playfair on Mar 24, 2019

I saw The Stranglers for the first time in June 1977 at Cambridge Corn Exchange, just after the release of Rattus Norvegicus. I saw them again this week at the same venue in the company of four good friends, the ‘oldest mates’, all contemporaries at Magdalene. A bonus was that Dr Feelgood reincarnate, originally that anarchic pub-rock quartet from Canvey Island, but sadly now with no remaining founder members, were the opening act.

The Stranglers are a great draw, even 42 years on. There was a lot of black in an audience of a certain age; black as befits the uniform of a band that was one of the grand architects of the punk/post punk/punk-gothic-nihilist era. The band, their songs, chords, lyrics, and the rat were in the fans’ blood, and inked on their arms, necks, backs and other body parts no doubt. They knew all the words.

Dr Feelgood provided a lively starter: Kevin Morris on drums; Phil Mitchell (not THE Phil Mitchell) on bass; Steve Walwyn, guitar; and Robert Kane on vocals, with great renditions of Roxette, Back In The Night, Milk and Alcohol, Down At The Doctors (apostrophe for the grammar police, or not?) and some guitar-rich, driving Memphis Blues. Good as they were though, they just weren’t quite the original (who could emulate Wilko, Brilleaux, JB Sparks and the Big Figure), but a pretty damn good tribute act all the same.

Then, The Stranglers, still menacing, hard, edgy. I thought The Stranglers were punk with intellect and musical ability, J-JB being classically trained and all, but actually it’s not subtle. It’s mostly dark, disturbing in parts, aggressive and uncompromising but it rocks like f***. Not the original line up from 1977, although Jean-Jacques Burnel on bass and Dave Greenfield on keys remain, Baz Warne who seems like he has been with them for ages is every bit Cornwell’s equal on shared vocals and guitar, and with the band’s founder Jet Black, now at 80 a non-touring member, Jim Macaulay has the drum chair. Thinking back to 1977 those original numbers still wear well – Get A Grip of Yourself, Peaches, Princess of the Streets, and Hangin’ Around. Peaches still has their best lyric and best rhyme in my view:
Walkin’ on the beaches, look at all the sunglasses.
Walkin’ on the beaches, look at all the fat arses.

And a topical new addition:
I can think of much worse places to be, like down in the street, or down in the sewer, or even hiding in Michael Jackson’s wardrobe.

More recent in the catalogue, but not much, Golden Brown (a waltz but with an extra beat in the fourth line – definitely post-punk), Something Better Change (they were shouting that 40 years ago and they’re still shouting now), the Dionne Warwick cover Walk On By, No More Heroes, and Always The Sun, and a whole lot more.

So how about comparing that night in 1977 and yesterday, in the same company – Nick, Tim, Dave, JG? What’s different, or was it just the same?

In 1977 you could cash a cheque for £3.00 at Mrs Hunt’s, which would be enough to see you through a whole evening. Last night I received 20p change from £20 for four pints at the venue, but then the price of a pint has gone up by 20 times since 1977. And The Pickerel doesn’t serve Norwich anymore!

The Corn Exchange has seats. A balcony with tiered, numbered seating. Back in the day there was no balcony, you just stood as close to the front and the speakers as you could. The floor was sticky. You could smoke – as all of us (except Dave) did. Despite Dr Feelgood and the Stranglers rocking like crazy last night we sat through the whole performance. Sat! Along with everyone else in the balcony. Baz could hardly fail not to notice and took the piss!

We were students then. None of us had jobs (except holiday jobs). Now we are talking about retiring, actually retiring, or retired.

The average age of the audience yesterday was easily 50 plus, easily. Back then no-one set foot at a ‘good doctor’ gig over 25.

Some of the lyrics are, well, just too edgy. We might have loved Bring On The Nubiles then (it was written in 1977 I think) and been singing it on the street on the way home, but now …. just look up the lyrics if so inclined.

We went for a curry afterwards. Then it would have been a kebab at the Gardenia, which would have been shut so we would have gone hungry, gone back to somebody’s room for beer and played cards.

We would have had to climb back into College.

Nobody scored (whatever that may mean).

No late-night poker.

No one was sick.

I had an early morning conversation with the College Porters the day after when I handed my key back. “Did you have a comfortable night, sir?” they asked. “Great,” I said. “Bit different from 40 years ago though. No one was sick.”

“Oh no, with the students that still happens, sir,” was the reply.

Magdalene in rude health then. So much has changed, but so much remains the same.

Rock on.