‘Oh Fuck’ came the line at the end of the phone. You see at some point last week I made the mistake of calling home and mentioning to my Dad that I was off to see The Stranglers on Friday night. He had reason to be fearful. Back when he was a student they came to The Great Hall in Cardiff, spat on the crowd, yelled that they were a bunch of student wankers and then stormed off stage. At least that’s how Dad tells it. And now his eldest son was willing to repeat the experience all in the name of Slate The Disco.
After having heard this I think its fair to say I was more than justified in touching cloth when I pushed my way to the front of the Corn Exchange. Seemingly eager for phlegm on face action. Thankfully though nothing of the sort came my way. The Stranglers are a different band from then, never more evidenced than their arrival on stage without drummer Jet Black and ex lead man Hugh Cornwell. Instead Baz Warne takes his place and though he provides a good host with witty lines and a lot of passion throughout the gig there is ultimately always that certain something missing, especially in relation to stage presence.
They kicked the night off with ‘Longships’ and ‘The Raven’ – the titular track from their 1979 album. With The Stranglers you sort of expect (and kind of want) a punch in the face but with the long instrumentals from these opening tracks they came out soft and this sadly had the effect of dampening the level of enthusiasm within the crowd. By and large this lack of energy remained for much of the gig including for a long stretch at the start when drummer Jet Black made a bizarre cameo appearance for a few songs. Bizarre as no sooner was he on than he was off again. You had to feel sorry for Jet, leaving the stage like a substitute hauled off after only ten minutes on the field. We were now half an hour in and you sensed most of the crowd felt rather envious of Jet’s escape.
However you are always aware The Stranglers hold a catalogue of hits in their back pocket perfect for times like these and nothing was more welcoming than hearing the opening notes to ‘Golden Brown’. With a one hit, two hit combo alongside ‘Always the Sun’ this was far and away the peak of the evening. With its fabulously alternating time signature and that rare beast the harpsichord running through its veins it is easily one of the most fantastically unique songs of the 20th century and it was a pleasure to hear live. Its baroque feel perfectly suited the setting of the Corn Exchange and led smoothly into ‘Always the Sun’. I don’t mind the studio version but played live it took on new life and felt as fresh as a daisy, especially against the backdrop of the long and tedious set. Well over twenty songs were played and though this must have been a real treat for die hard Stanglers the vast amount of tracks had nowhere near enough bite and this meant the crowd were often allowed to drift elsewhere.
To find a light in their performance they were as tight as could be, but it could be argued therein lies the problem – its all a little too polished, rehearsed and formulaic. In the cavernous settings of the Corn Exchange you need someone like the Sex Pistols or Kanye West to grab you by the neck and force you to listen. Going through the motions just won’t cut it and I’m afraid to say after ‘Always the Sun’ we went into banality overdrive. I went for a piss half way through the second half of the set and wasn’t even surprised to see how many people were just having a drink in the foyer rather than properly in the venue.
A strong encore of ‘Peaches’ and ‘No More Heroes’ got these stragglers back inside for a sound end to the evening but it was too little, too late. The Stranglers provide the occasional moment of perfection but have a setlist filled with way too much filler and nowhere near enough energy to keep your interest. If someone were to call me up now and say they were of to see The Stranglers tonight I like my Dad would reply ‘Oh Fuck’, but for completely different reasons.
Words from Alex Coles