"Dirty grey morning in 1978"... The Stranglers' first North American tour starts in Philadelphia. Hugh is almost immediately stopped at the airport by the FBI, because he looks "suspicious". Hugh tells them that he spotted them before they spotted him... they are not amused.
Unlike everyone else on the plane Jet has not wound back his watch to USA time, and it remains set to Greenwich Mean Time for the whole four weeks. He might be in America but he doesn't have to keep their time.
The first thing that can be said before a guitar is strung is that The Stranglers arrive without the in-built need of so many British bands who have arrived in the colonies: to win/crack/woo the Americans or their market. In short...they are not house hunting. Prior to their departure they had been hard at work recording their new LP "Black and White". The tapes were to be mixed in New York and LA following an initial week of gigs ending at the Rat Club in Boston. I joined the tour on the first gig after New York, which turned out to be at the Agora Club, Cleveland, Ohio.
I arrive at the club at around 8.30. The band is back at the hotel. I pick my bags up and within fifteen minutes I am downing my first screwdriver in the hotel bar.
Cleveland was described to me as being the Bradford of the States, run by the black Mafia. Very dull really when you're used to Lewisham shopping centre. Jet and Dave are in the bar along with Martin "Namecheck" Rushent, their producer. To their left are two would-be coke dealers and across the bar a bevy of hookers, waiting to be picked up. As I said, very dull.
Another screwdriver and I get filled in on the goings on. Jean is not feeling too well - a gig was knocked out due to it - and he has to part with several dollars before things get better. I meet Ed, the tour manager, who is apparently to talk anybody into doing anything as Hugh pointed out later on.
"Ed could fly to Mars and within a week he would have opened up a brothel".
The band travel across the country in a converted Greyhound bus that acts as a bar/hotel room/dressing room. In command of this is Gus from New York. Complete with Zappa moustache and Fonda shades, he later gets to be called "Gus the Bus". Waddya think of New York then Gus? "It's a toilet, a f¾in' toilet mate." He impersonates the English accent real good.
Down at the club is the other half of the band, the road crew: Sheds, Alan, Jeff, Graham, and the US truck driver, Shakey Jeff. The big problem for them on this tour is the fact that US electricity is different to UK and things can go wrong if there isn't an electrician in the house.
The Cleveland gig sets a pattern for the rest of the tour: set gear up at around three, soundcheck at six, return to hotel for food etc, return to club at 10.30 for eleven o'clock and if there is no dressing room use the bus. Tonite we use the bus. The band play a set for the whole tour with numbers from their LP's. Hugh usually tells the kids straight away to get off their arses and they launch straight into 'Grip'. New numbers are 'Threatened' and 'Tank'. During '
Down In The Sewer' Hugh sings: "Picking up a lot of empty Coca Cola cans...cos this is where you make em." They encore with a couple of numbers, the last being the incredible new song 'Toiler On The Sea'.
After Hugh finishes singing he leaves the stage; a few bars later Jean leaves, Dave sets his synthesizer to explode with electronic tidal noises and then departs with Jet still keeping the beat. Then Jet leaves, the noise is turned down and seconds later a tape of Hugh saying robotically "Thank you. Goodnight. Thank you. Goodnight. Thank you..." is played over the P.A. to a stunned audience. Some had walked out early, others had just stared with their fingers in their ears, some had interpreted the pogo. American kids ARE different. They seem to be very aware of volume, more so than in the UK. The kids here want all the raunch and power without the volume, and that poses problems. If some walk out...what do you do? Besides, it leaves the kids right up front feeling more of an affinity with the band. Jean said to me that in the early days they used to get up on the stage and say: "We know that you hate us but you don't hate us as much as we hate you." Well, I'm still with them and I guess you are too. The next day we leave early for the four hundred mile trip to the Manchester of the US, Chicago. ("it's so corrupt it's thrilling".)
On the way I am designated by Hugh as the tour cameraman, armed with Hugh's 8mm sound home movie camera. "Great, a punk photographer," suggests JJ. I just shoot him. On the way sleep is caught up on, chilli beans and chocolate milk establishes itself as the number one food, even though as Hugh eats his chilli he muses that it is odd that the stuff you put in one end looks just the same as the stuff that comes out the other.
By the way you can now put your clocks forward an hour. This is Eastern Standard Time pal and we are in Chicago, OK?
JJ is still a bit under the weather the next day and Ed takes him to the hospital to spend some money on some pills and an injection. Hugh has seen the Untouchables on late nite TV and for the rest of the tour we are all talking in a croaky Godfather type accent. By the time we hit Canada this had developed into a slick sales talk patter that we imagined came from the mouths of faceless executives across America. Eg: Hugh: "Hi, TM, I've just spoken to BG in LA and he wants to know if you've spoken to DF in TO?"
Me: "Well to be frank HC I have and he says that it is your ball game..." And so on.
The first gig in Chicago is way out of town in Schamberg at the Beginnings Club which is a dead ringer for one of those Midlands disco clubs that we have over here. The gig goes well and the next night promises to be a good one, which it is. This time it's at the Phoenix Club in the centre of Chicago. JJ is feeling a bit better by now, Hugh is Al Capone, Jet and Dave are in the bar. A local club called The Mother Viper has been playing The Stranglers' music since they first heard it so The Stranglers are known by the kids and it turns out to be more like a great UK gig. Kids on the stage but no hassles from rented thugs. After the gig we go down to the club until it closes. We set off in the morning for that night's gig in Milwaukee, famous for Schlitz beer, and that's about it. We check in at the hotel which looks exactly the same as the previous two. Soon it is time to go to the gig, which is a large hall like Woolwich Poly which is OK but still manages to look empty even with three hundred punters in it. Plus the fact that Sheds and co are having some problems with the electricity and if things blow up that's the end of the tour. It goes ahead OK, the kids enjoy the music, standing pretty still. It is the size of the hall that kills it. A few familiar faces are beginning to crop up on the way now: the kids all seem to have cars and they get around. American kids are different. Straight after the gig we head out for Minneapolis, a very open, flat town with really weird classical music being piped through into the bus shelters like a scene from 1984. Dave points out keenly that it is the farthest west that we go. Tomorrow we swing in a homeward direction. Again there are power problems before and during the gig: at one stage they leave the stage for it to be sorted out. A guy right at the front is screaming at the top of his voice: 'White riot, come on maaaan, we want a riot." The atmosphere is so electric though that the kids bear with it, the band returns to the stage with people crushed to the front and standing on chairs at the back. During the set a guy continually annoys Jean who eventually leaps off the stage and deals with him. The matter ends.
I have never seen a club with so many kids so completely drunk as this place: even before the gig kids had been staggering around and after there were even more hanging around on the pavement outside. Again it is an overnight drive to Madison. More chilli, lots of drink and sleep. This was the typical on-tour view of the States really. None at all. Any impressions could only really be gained by speaking to Gus and Ed, or by watching the TV on the road. Otherwise it's one hotel with bad service after another. More impressions later. The Madison gig was the most anonymous gig on the tour, the band didn't even do an encore the reaction was so flat. Once again it is straight into the bus for an overnight drive to East Lancing in Michigan. We check in at the hotel at six in the morning: a shit, shower and shave. When we go to the gig later on we are greeted outside by the local women's lib housewife movement all with placards and giving out anti Strangler duplicated sheets. On the way out Jean and Hugh flash their Anglo French tools. A newspaper report the next day informed a startled mid America that it was not sure whether bassist JJ Burnel was in fact wearing any underpants.
It was not to stop there. Once on the bus a snap decision is made to kidnap one of these women. Gus the Bus swings the coach outside the club. Jean, Hugh and Jet leap out on an unsuspecting protester. She goes into hysterics. Dave and Ed are acting like well seasoned press photographers. Jean is hit over the head. Jet just escapes from a full bust-up. Hugh jumps aboard. Gus swings the door shut and we escape. When we return later the police have broken up the demonstration. At the start of the set Hugh reads out a carefully worded statement which ends: "The Stranglers have always loved women and will continue to do so..." The gig goes ahead.
At this point in the tour everything is running well. The band are unimpressed with the States and are planning what they are going to do first when they reach England. Jet fancies some roast beef, Yorkshire pud and spuds along with some drink that has no ice whatsoever. Dave has worked out the time to take off in seconds. But we are having fun. The on-tour private jokes are flying around. Ed is told to "shutup" every time he opens his mouth, followed by a smart ass
"come on Ed, get your shit together!"
And so it goes. We all get our shit together for a short drive to the last US gig in An Arbor, just outside Detroit. We have a day in hand to look around. Hugh buys himself eight million dollars in toy money and goes into bars with piles of it, slaps a bundle on the bar and says in a loud voice: "OK, drinks for everybody!" The Ann Arbor gig comes and goes.
The next day we drive through a short tunnel and pop up in Canada. Will it be different? At the hotel we meet up with Martin Rushent who has just returned from LA with the final LP mix. He says that quite a lot of people are talking along the West Coast about the band. No one seems to be impressed. Europe is their patch. And Europe means - Britain. JJ likes Canada, though: He can speak and sing in French. The Toronto gig goes well, a lot is promised for the last two at Ottawa and then Montreal. Ottawa turns out to be very good, it is at a high school and the only seated gig on the tour.
Montreal was to be the best...but a lot of equipment hassles creates a bit of tension, the band play to a predominantly English audience (rather than French as had been expected) and after the main set Jet collapses with a temperature in the dressing room. No encore is possible and the applause turns into aggression as the stage is pelted for about five minutes with bottles. On stage Alan and Graham can only crouch behind the cabs. After a while Shed asks me to say something over the PA: "Jet's got a temperature of 103 degrees..." They don't believe it, but quit throwing glass. The tour is over all of a sudden.
The Stranglers are to return to America later on in the year. The main thing that came across on this tour was that American kids can't react in the same way to the sentiments expressed under the banner of British New Wave. In fact the sentiments probably mean nothing to them and never will. British and European kids demand different things from a band like The Stranglers. American New Wave or whatever has a great deal of energy but it lacks the sentiments and this is the main difference. American kids seem to be into getting their money's worth time wise and visually. They don't all go over the top, pogoing till they drop. They are not used to being told to get up and to stop gawping. So what do you do?
For a great industrial country the USA seems to be on a very short fuse: you can see it around you. A top speed limit of fifty-five miles an hour, propaganda on the TV telling you to save this and that, yet on the other hand the great big cars and adverts telling you to buy products that you can't figure out what they are for, let alone need. This was the backdrop that we drove across. Carter toyed around with the neutron bomb, Betty Ford admitted that she had "overmedicated herself". We checked in at another Holiday Inn. That was our background. It is the everyday background of the kids that The Stranglers played to, probably the same kids who put Aerosmith, Frampton and Fleetwood Mac up where we put The Stones and Rod Stewart...what are they going to do about it?
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