“I tell you, if you were half a man I’d punch your lights out,” says Jean-Jacques Burnel, gesturing out into the audience. All of a sudden it’s gone a bit 1977 in the O2 Academy.
Stranglers bassist Burnel has been on the receiving end of a pint of what’s hopefully lager. Then again, at almost four pounds for a pint it does seem like a bit of a waste of cash. Burnel finishes the closing bars of No More Heroes, beckons the guy over and thwacks him twice on the head. Following a few choice words he then invites the pint-thrower on-stage; he wisely declines.
There can’t be many 60-year-old musicians who could legitimately flatten virtually any audience member, but punk’s notorious hard-man is one of them. Looking at lead singer and guitarist Baz Warne – and even septugenarian man-mountain drummer Jet Black – The Stranglers don’t look like a band to mess with, even in their autumn days.
The promo material for this UK tour, to promote 17th studio albun Giants, is classic Stranglers. The front cover of the album has the band dead and hanging from nooses strung from playground swings, as a young girl looks on. Another image has the band glaring at the camera while Black covers his face with an oxygen mask. It’s this blurring of the sinister and the humourous – with a healthy dash of shock value and give-a-fuck nonchalance that has defined the band for close to 40 years.
It’s evident in the set-list tonight, which includes another group of oddities from the fearsome Stranglers back catalogue. They open with Burning Up Time, detour to ludicrous Black And White effort Hey! Rise of the Robots and manage to round off the gig with Tank, an aggressive but rather disposable runabout – Warne changes one of the lyrics to “it can blow a man’s cock off at the count of three” in the latter.
Stranglers lyrics are frequently amusing, witty, tough, vile and obscure by turn. “Beat you, honey, til you drop” is certainly difficult to listen to, but the brilliance of a Duchess, Strange Little Girl or Hangin Around can’t be faulted. But hearing these songs again it’s actually the musicality of all the songs – even ones as daft as Tank, Sometimes and …Robots – that is interesting.
JJ’s chugging bass, Dave Greenfield’s arpeggio runs and Hugh Cornwell’s scratchy guitar riffs – reproduced by Warne with better technique than Hugh used to display – drive all the older songs along at a right lick. They’re totally irresistable as a result – and an extended run-out of their classic cover of Walk On By is sublime.
Alas, few of the new songs display this urgency and menace, though they’re not all bad. Warne even sounds a little apologetic when introducing another new song from Giants; a few people drift away to the bar. (Edited to add: I’ve since listened to Giants a few times and it’s pretty bloody good – My Fickle Resolve is one of their best new songs for a couple of decades).
But when charging through some of the nuggets of gold from the past The Stranglers are untouchable – and the detours to less obvious songs always welcome. It would be great to hear Bear Cage once in a while though.
In the end Burnel backed off from what seemed like the very real possibility that we would cheerfully knock someone out on a packed O2 Academy’s stage. Age seems to have mellowed the Strangler somewhat. But although the band have clearly moved on from beating the snot out of people, they turned back the clock again with another blistering live performance.
These old punks, like badly-behaved but loveable uncles, may be one of the oldest touring groups around, but they’re surely one of the best live outfits in the country – fisticuffs or not.
Images courtesy of Matt Thomas