Will The Stranglers just keep going until they keel over? It has seemed like it over the last couple of years, with the band (average age: 59) seemingly rejuvenated following the departure of Paul Roberts, addition of Baz Warne and a resurgence in interest in these menacing, funny, strange old punks.
A new UK tour less than a year after the last one suggests the band are hardly winding down and Warne notes that 72-year-old drummer Jet Black will likely die on stage and yet… and yet, is it just us or is there something of a farewell aspect to this Black and Blue tour?
Firing up with I Feel Like A Wog, a curio from the underwhelming No More Heroes album, is a strange place to start a gig. To then segue straight into Dreamtime-era oddity Was It You? seems wilfully obscure. This may leave any new fans – if there are any – nonplussed but it’s a wonderful start for those who’ve followed the band through thick and thin.
A number of unlikely tunes follow, mining the rich seam of off-beat late 70s stuff from Black and White, The Raven and The Gospel According to the MeninBlack. Songs that were never singles and not necessarily among the better-known of the rest fly by. Nuclear Device, Sweden, Tramp, Baroque Bordello, Two Sunspots and Threatened are among the tunes getting a public run out – perhaps for the first time in years – and it’s great to hear them, highlighting the breadth and depth of the Stranglers back catalogue. A second bass comes on stage for Warne. “Dead Loss Angeles,” we confidently predict.
The Stranglers are nothing if not eclectic. Their lyrics can sometimes be brutal and dripping in menace. Some are apparently misogynistic; some tongue-in-cheek; some delicate and vulnerable; some just bonkers.
“This one’s about Queensland governor Jon Bejelke Petersen,” we whisper to our companion. “This one’s about the La Brea tarpits. This one’s about, uh, tits.”
Yet The Stranglers have hits aplenty – Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl, Duchess, No More Heroes, Nice and Sleazy, Hangin Around, Something Better Change, Peaches, Always The Sun – and it’s a rich seam to mine in these gigs, in the winding down of their career.
It would be easy to read a kind of cabaret aspect to proceedings, but the band is so well-drilled, the material so strong that it still feels invigorating and fresh. JJ never appears to view proceedings with much more than a studied disinterest these days, but he still gets it up for the tracks he sings, and his party piece No More Heroes bass riff always gets the crowd going.
Jet Black, a septuagenarian and man mountain to boot, just keeps on going. He’s never going to be mentioned in the pantheon of great drummers but just try tapping your feet to the complicated time signature of Golden Brown to get an idea of how easy that is. Dave ‘Fast Arpeggios’ Greenfield looks like he could do it all in his sleep but always seems to be having fun. But it’s Baz – with his mackem banter and full-throttle performance and strong guitar work – who seems to be driving things along.
With Warne at the front the band seem younger than they have in years – and they’ve regained that mischievous sense of fun. So what’s with this gig that seems to be a gift to the loyal fans? A farewell and a trip down memory lane?
Tough to say, though there’s a circularity to tonight’s gig with Wilko Johnson (“Wilko Fuckin’ Johnson!” if you’re Baz Warne) – who was there in the old days of the Red Cow and the Hope and Anchor and the Coleherne – as the excellent, chugging, chopping ***-rock support; gliding around the stage one minute like a cockney Nosferatu and jerking like Stephen Berkoff wielding a musical machine gun the next; Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy gurning away and wigging out on bass.
It’s to be hoped that this isn’t the first leg of a protracted goodbye from TheMenInBlack because it’s fair to say that we’ve never seen them play better. The lesser-known stuff left us hungry for more: 5 Minutes and Toiler on the Sea and Bear Cage and a dozen more.
Tonight’s gig would be a suitable send-off to one of punk’s – one of rock music’s – most enduring and intriguing groups, but a world without The Stranglers, a band who sound quite unlike any other, scarcely bears thinking about.