“I think the Stranglers are really good. I wonder if they think I’m not so much square, but whether they think… ah, square…sort of oblong.”
— Kate Bush, Melody Maker, 1978
A little singular appreciation of The Stranglers, in tribute to Dave Greenfield, one of the most distinctive keyboard players of our times, who died on Sunday after testing positive for coronavirus. He was 71.
The band’s bassist Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel paid tribute to Greenfield as a “musical genius,” who had passed away as one of the victims of “the Great Pandemic of 2020”.
The tributes are plentiful because Greenfield’s playing was the Stranglers’ signature sound: with the greatest of respect to Hugh Cornwell’s gruff, growly vocals, or Burnel’s fluid bass playing, when you think of the Stranglers’ most famous songs – from Peaches and No More Heroes to Golden Brown – you think first of Greenfield’s keyboards. And I can think of no better tribute to the man than highlight the brilliance of the majestic Golden Brown, the band’s undoubted signature song, with lyrics by Cornwell and the music largely penned by Dave Greenfield, with minor additional input from drummer Jet Black.
With its soft and warmly enticing melody, Golden Brown was also first Stranglers song that made on impression on me. Though at the time, aged just twelve, I deemed it “too grown up” to spend my hard-earned pocket money on, especially when my own father said how much he liked it. Though I doubt he had the foggiest about the “controversial” lyrics. In his book The Stranglers Song By Song (2001), Cornwell admits that “Golden Brown works on two levels. It’s about heroin and also about a girl.” Essentially the lyrics describe how “both provided me with pleasurable times.”
The transitory theme of the song and the hypnotic harpsichord always mesmerise me to the point I feel as though I’m in a trance. It’s that the kind of blissful escapism that offers a sense of detachment when one wants to sooth their weary soul.
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that by the end of 1981, The Stranglers were already six albums old. While many alumni of the punk explosion of ’77 had been forgotten, The Stranglers continued to pump out albums and singles, both band and solo.
Despite the marked change in tempo, La Folie, released that November, reassured and reasserted. The Stranglers were not only still going strong, they were willing to move in different directions.
Whereas their earlier records succeeded in direct proportion to their venom, the group pushed against the limits of cynicism and bile. Now they balanced their output: the nice with the sleazy, the obscure with the easy, kicking off in fabulous style with the gnarly new wave of Duchess in 1979. It’s the moment where Greenfield’s organ arpeggios are no longer a striking embellishment, but appeared to have consumed the band’s sound entirely.
Once they discovered that gruff melodies and spat-out vocals weren’t the only way to deliver serious lyrics, The Stranglers began exploring more accessible settings for their satire and political commentary. The Guildford four-piece now used deceptively simple music to make their statements. Little of their old heaviness remained, except in Cornwell’s deliciously sarcastic lyrics. Whether their loyal following appreciated this was the test and it seemed that many were willing to go with the flow.
The critical groans accorded La Folie hardly reflected calamitous decline in public interest. The Stranglers’ regimentalising of punk attributes and their peculiar crossover appeal had made their legions dogged in their faith, though live-wise the less than pogo-inducing La Folie canon was difficult and required the concerted concentration of any audience. Nevertheless, the approach added depth to a fine album from a band that always liked to rattle the cage.
The cheeky illustrations that accompanied La Folie’s lyrics on the inner sleeve telegraphed the punchlines in a way the songs themselves scarcely intimated. Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead didn’t seem about anyone in particular, except that pictures of Che Guevara and the recently murdered John Lennon clarified its intent. For the completely innocuous It Only Takes Two To Tango there was a doctored photo of a waltzing Reagan and Brezhnev.
That Golden Brown, La Folie’s second single, didn’t really fit in with anything else in their oeuvre was very apt: for the story of The Stranglers has always been defined by their unwillingness, or inability, to fit in. It was their singular disregard for the accepted notions of how to conduct a career, as well as an attuned collective pop brain, which accounted for their enduring myth.
In February 1982 Golden Brown went to No.2 in Britain (held off, ironically, Town Called Malice by fellow Surrey almost-punks The Jam), their biggest hit by far, and Top 5 in a further five countries and has since become their universally recognised signature song.
Only five years before Golden Brown and The Stranglers were one of the most controversial, outspoken bands of the punk scene, and here they were, scoring a top ten hit with a 3/4 (with every fourth bar in 4/4) harpsichord-based baroque waltzy-but-can’t-waltz-to-it number, and one that their completely disinterested record company, the EMI-controlled Liberty, were initially loathe to release.
Alas, A-listed by BBC Radio 2 all the same.
This wasn’t a totally unprecedented move, though, as they’d marked this path already (ish) on 1981’s sinister Waltzinblack, but it’s still an odd song to get as high as runner up position in the British charts. A total leftfield classic, of course. But to put that into perspective, La Folie, Jean-Jacques Burnel’s six-minute French language led synth-art-pop follow-up (a song about a cannibal no less) only peaked at 47.
Funny that. Adieu Dave.
BONUS BEATS: Somewhere in the closing months of 1982 I had struck up a friendship with an older lad called Steve Day, who lived in nearby Springfield and liked Adam Ant, Dexys Midnight Runners and Wham!… in that order.
One day he suggested we try our hands at writing lyrics, and I hastily cobbled together some scrawl that I can still remember the opening line to, chiefly because he ripped the piss out of me for plagiarising The Stranglers’ most recent single, Strange Little Girl, their contractual obligation record after La Folie.
“Hey big boy, we’re a comin’ / hey big boy, we’ re a goin’’
It’s cringy crud, but then he was hardly immune to ‘influences’: one of his lines went
“Strawberry fields forever / these boots are made of leather’’
So who’d have thunk I’d end up a published author and he a garage mechanic. Mwah.