Sexism and the Stranglers

By mid 1977 punk really was setting the woods on fire. It wasn’t just people liking punk it was also people hating punk, it was something that no one was ambivalent about, there was a lot of anger around coming from all directions.

And as John Lydon would tell you, anger is an energy, and energy was one thing everybody needed. Punk was forcing almost everyone to up their game.

One band that benefited hugely from the energy of punk were The Stranglers. They were a rock band but they were aggressive and played short punchy songs. Everything about them visually suggested they should be playing country rock in a pub in Kentish Town, only bass player who sported the decidedly unpunk name Jean Jacques Burnel looked contemporary. The drummer was well on his way to 40 and had a beard, the keyboard (keyboard!) player had longish hair and a moustache, they had, at least dispensed with flared jeans.

The band was indeed a complete mismatch, formed by Guildford businessman Jet Black in 1974, the band was a chance for Mr Black to move away from business and back into playing the drums after a ten year break. He was joined, on guitar and vocals by Londoner Hugh Cornwell who had actually played bass in the early 60’s with guitarist Richard Thompson and future music journalist Allan Jones. On bass was classical guitarist JJ Burnel and a later arrival was Dave Greenfield a jobbing keyboard player.

Cornwell could write decent songs, Burnell was on his way to becoming a decent bass player but what marked him out was the tone and aggression of his playing. In the punk world where the bass player was there to make up the numbers and had probably only picked up the instrument a month a go, JJ really stood out. He was a major influence on many fledgling bassists. The thing that really set the band apart was the use of keyboards notably the Hofner Cembalet. for those of you who care about these things. There were a lot of comparisons with the Doors which were inevitable as Greenfield essentially soloed over everything just like Ray Manzererak did.

Being proper musicians the band were ready and waiting when punk was still crawling out of the primal swamp, they secured support gigs with the Ramones and Patti Smith, they played everywhere.

And so, The Stranglers became a punk band for people who didn’t like punk. To be fair that’s not what they set out to do, its likely they would have been a successful band whatever happened, there is no doubt that the band benefited hugely from punk. In interviews they came across as having a particularly ungrateful moan about media conspiracies against them but in reality the punks were having the smoothest career pace of anyone ever since the days of Tommy Steele, record companies were desperate for anyone they could market as punk and the band were soon signed and released their first record ‘Rattus Norvegicus’.

I had heard the band on the radio, their first single ‘(Get a)Grip (On Yourself)’ didn’t really convince me but the b side ‘Go Buddy Go’ was more my cup of tea and easy enough for me to play on guitar.

I read the NME review of Rattus of course where the reviewer lambasted the band for sexism but I wasnt too bothered, misogyny was a staple of rock lyrics, I could cope with that.

So I purchased the record, I had more money now I was working or claiming the dole.I played it a few times and enjoyed it quite a bit.

But something wasn’t quite right.

Firstly it was just to do with the band itself, for lack of a better definition they were boorish. From the early days they had been adopted by a bunch of football hooligans who they were now using as their own private army. There was an air of violence associated with the band which was not helped by Burnel continually proving that he had a black belt in judo or karate or origami or whatever. The lyrics of the album were beginning to seem a little uncomfortable.

There are nine track on Rattus Norvegicus out of which four have lyrics which are derogatory to women. This was the 70’s though, The Stones had just decided to promote their ‘Black and Blue’ LP with a picture of a beaten woman tied up, it was advertised all over the media until feminists started to point out that actually this was pretty awful. Dedicating almost 50% of your record to misogyny seemed quite a statement of intent however, it took real effort to be that sexist. It also felt like a challenge, in fact journalists who confronted the band were subjected to verbal and sometimes physical aggression.

I’m aware of the risks of judging the past by the standards of today but here’s the worst offender from the opening track, ‘Sometimes’

Someday I’m going to smack your face
Someday I’m going to smack your face
Somebody’s going to call your bluff
Somebody’s going to treat you rough
Sometimes there is only one way out
I’ve got to fight
Sometimes I get to feel so mean
Sometimes I get to feel so mean
Sometimes you look like you’re too clean
Sometimes I see the in-between
Sometimes only one way
I’ve got to fight
You’re way past your station
Beat you honey till you drop
You’re way past your station
It’s useless asking you to stop
I got morbid fascination
Beat you honey till you drop
Sometimes you’re going to get some stick
Sometimes you’re going to get some stick
Somebody’s standing in our way
Somebody’s gonna have to pay
Sometimes there is only one way
I’ve got to fight

And the track was otherwise brilliant. Musically it was a fantastic opener and possibly a contender for one of my all time favourite songs if I could have stuck with the lyrics, likewise ‘Hanging Around’ which ends side one or their next single ‘No More Heroes’ were wonderful songs.

The band is still with us today although without Cornwell who left for the most hopeless solo career ever. Jet Black is now something like 102 and can only play the drums for a few minutes but no one can deny that the band have been successful commercially and artistically.

Interestingly events like this were sorting out my own politics, I decided didn’t want to be like the Stranglers.

Something Better Change.. indeed

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