WOMEN ARE STRANGE WHEN YOU'RE A STRANGLER

New Musical Express, April 30th, 1977

Phil McNeill

THE STRANGLERS IV Rattus Norvegicus (United Artists)

 

"About giving the woman some stick."

Thus begins the ecstatic review of this album (referring to the opener, "Sometimes") in Strangled, the apparently Stranglers-sanctioned free fanzine of what seems to be The Stranglers Fan Club.

Evidently the niceties of the late '60s social humanism - women's lib, gay lib, and the respectful terminology that seemed such an essential basis for their fragile advances (not calling women "peaches" of gays "faggots" like you don't call blacks "nignogs" unless you're wearing an NF armband and have a crowd of thugs around you) - all this seems to have gone by the board with the emergence of a generation seemingly devoid of self-respect and thus, by trite but true extension, devoid of self-respect for others.

It is with this defiantly oafish and thoughtlessly rebellious "attitude" that The Stranglers, visitors from another generation which may have wavered into complacency these past few years, choose to align themselves.

Not being a great C&W fan, I'd have to think hard before I could name an album as grossly sexist as this. If I've misunderstood, and someone can demonstrate the underlying "subversiveness" of the insults that fly relentlessly at the opposite sex on "Rattus Norvegicus", then I'll be overjoyed to understand, and to take back my criticism.

But don't tell me it's just The Rolling Stones and "Brown Sugar" however many years on, because that was pretty pathetic too. Permanent immaturity is a heavy price for rock to pay for permanent youth, and maybe we're the ones who are afraid of change if we're prepared to pay that price.

This is an album that can move people to tears - female people to tears of humiliation, that is. I've seen it happen. Really. Bully for The Stranglers - hey, they get a real response, those guys. They can make you feel sick, too. Take it away, boys.

"Someday I'm gonna smack your face/Somebody's gonna call your bluff/Somebody's gonna treat you rough/You're way past your station/Beat you, honey, till you drop."

That's "Sometimes". What is it? Realism? It's a godawful, vindictive reality in The Stranglers' minds then. Documentary? If so, it fails. If they are role playing then they're just a little too convincing...

"Little lady/With Dingwalls bullshit/You're so stupid/Fetid brainwaves/Little lady/What really happens/When you see mirrors/You get the shivers/Making love to/The Mersey Tunnel/With a sausage/Have you ever been to Liverpool?/Please don't talk much/It bugs my ears/Tonight you talked/For a thousand years/Plastic's real when you're sick/Plastic's real when you're real sick/Tell me what you've got to look so pleased about/London lady/Why did you lay me?/Your head is crowded/With the names you've hounded/The rings around your/Eyes they show me/You realise/The party's over/London lady."

Jean Jacques Burnel once actually quoted those words at me in order to show me "London Lady" wasn't sexist, which is pretty extraordinary as it's a nauseating putdown of female promiscuity, with all the old, subliminal, reactionary what's-all-right-for-the-man-is-wrong-for-the-woman dogma whose destruction would prove a far more radical step than destroying tower blocks - a "policy" which The Stranglers, who actually once claimed to be "too political" for my taste, don't even advocate anyway.

Burnel's defence of his putdown of the Dingwalls groupie is that "that's no way for a chick to be". No way for a what to be?

Go on, JJ:

"We were drawing lots on who was going to screw this female column writer, and someone said, 'But it'd be like chucking a sausage up the Mersey Tunnel.' Someone else said, 'Dangling a piece of string in a bucket' - it's been done before, so we decided it wasn't valid to do it.

"It's just about some chicks in a very small scene. It's not a 'retrogressively sexist song'," he concluded, quoting a phrase from a previous review of mine.

Well, you could fool me. For a start, without announcing before playing it that it's only about one person, not "London Ladies" in general, it's bound to be taken as a generalisation - and how anyone who stands around sneering at a woman in such gross chauvinist terms can deny regressive sexism is quite beyond me.

"She's gone and left me/I don't know why/She's the queen of the street/What a piece of meat." And he doesn't know why she left him? That's "Princess Of The Streets". The rest of it is a tribute to this "piece of meat's" animalistic (read less than human) sexuality.

"Strolling along minding my own business/Well there goes a girl and a half/She's got me going up and down/Walking on the beaches looking at the peaches."

Etcetera. That's "Peaches". The Stranglers patrol the beaches looking at the sex objects. "Look over there/Is she trying to get out of that (obscured - presumably a garment) /Liberation for women, that's what I preach/Preacher man."

Quite. Only a man could preach that kind of "women's liberation". It's demeaning just listening to it.

"I was there/She was there/We did the only/Thing possible."

That's "Ugly". I don't think they talked about Heidegger, do you? There's only one thing "chicks" are good for, eh? (Yes, I know insults like "chick" and "yummies" are horribly frequent in this paper - if I were you I'd write about it).

"I guess I shouldn't have strangled her to death/But I had to go to work and she had laced my coffee with acid."

Ah, the surrealist bit. Actually, he strangles her because her acne assumes massive proportions while she's tripping. The not unreasonable moral of the story, which Burnel rather overstresses by bellowing it out all unaccompanied, is:

"Only the children of the fucking wealthy can afford to be good looking!"

For once the grossness is in context as they end with JJ yelling "MUSCLE POWER MUSCLE POWER..." But compared with The Clash's lyrics, this album is drivel. There might be some kind of justification if it were mixed with a vestige of the humanity which, as Nick Kent pointed out about The Clash, identifying it as "a sense of morality", is conspicuous by its absence from this scene. There might even be some justification if The Stranglers' sexism were tempered with the least iota of political drive. But their "political stance" is just that - a stance and nothing more, on the evidence of the songs. And the only thing they are anti- is women.

Sad thing is, the joke's on us because this album is just so damn brilliant musically. The most playable record I've heard in ages, virtually every track is a little masterpiece. There isn't another new wave band within several leagues.

Not that The Stranglers are astounding technicians:(Tell me you arent being serious-G.S.) sure they are compared with their peers, but follow them with a Bobby Womack LP (first in the pile, is all) and their efforts sound mighty stilted. What The Stranglers have is the aggression that's today's currency, particularly Burnel's snapping bass, and a knack of stringing together great series of melodic, compelling riffs.

"Down In The Sewer" is the archetype, launching from a glorious warm peak into the riff that best conjures up Burnel and Hugh Cornwell's great patented sneakered Groucho walk, seesawing like some inane grin, before building to that weird sub-Ventures bubblegum psychedelic lick from Cornwell's twangy guitar. As Cornwell (a far better singer than JJ) spits out his crazy tale of life in the sewer, the band seethe monotonously behind him, Dave Greenfield rippling off into genuine archaic strangeness on his organ. And so on - an ever-shifting, disciplined, tough version of the danker psychedelic days (the strange ones, sure), perfectly arranged in a blunt, linear fashion - no coming back and finishing where you started for these blokes, once you've hammered a riff forget it - that rings weird and very refreshing: tangible music, with just the right immediacy on Martin Rushent's production.

They may sound a little like... But The Stranglers have somehow managed to find a place in rock that hasn't been overkilled, that is instantly comprehensible, yet it is totally absorbing.

The same claim could possibly be made for a handful of other recent arrivals, here and in the States, but for nobody can it be stated as strongly as for The Stranglers.

And they do have good songs, too - "Hanging Around" and "Goodbye Toulouse" and "Grip" all have words that at least do not detract from (and with "Hanging Around" positively enhance) the music which flows so splendidly throughout the album.

The cloud nine lizard propulsion of "Sometimes" drags you in, those twisty guitar/organ lines cushioning it so well and the chords soaring and skydiving.

"Toulouse" is a ridiculously thundering ¾, like an army running as they re-envision Nostradamus' prophesy of the city's destruction; the subsequent Velvets bludgeoning and less than inspired individual shots of "London Lady" are a let-down.

"Princess Of The Streets" is amazing, a deliberate (as in robotic) Scots jig-meets-the-underworld, with sinuously wild-eyed, real lead guitar played real good by Cornwell. As for "Hanging Around", well, it's just truly wonderful.

"He's alright in the city 'cause he's high above the ground/He's just hanging around.../I'm moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me/And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground/They're just hanging around."

Why can't they keep up to that standard elsewhere? Anyway, it's a gas musically. Flipping, we get "Peaches" - a real violent riff devalued by the wanky would-be Charles Atlas lyrical posturing until finally a really good line comes up: "Oh shit, there goes the charabanc/Looks like I'm gonna be stuck here the whole summer/Well, what a bummer."

And for a few bars the riff changes completely, vanishing and coming in backwards like stubbing its toe. Great.

"Grip", the single (next one's probably "Go Buddy Go", which explains its absence), chugs along okay. "Ugly" is, I think, Burnel's only vocal apart from "London Lady", and that's not the only reason they're the worst tracks - it's a noise; and finally the ecstatic look-at-me-I'm-a-bad-guy West Side Story underground saga of "Down In The Sewer".

A big tick for the music, an emphatic cross for the words - but words don't sell records. Perhaps sadly, they don't stop people buying either.

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