Thoughts on my story in Andrew Hook’s new anthology punkPunk!
Black & White… there is something about this album – some combination of grit and sweat, of synthesizer and melody and rumbling bass, of scratchy fuzz-loaded guitars and metronomic drumming – that makes it special. Released at the back end of the punk explosion, the three decades and more since its appearance have done nothing to reduce its impact. It seems to be from no particular time, have no particular set of references. It amazes and enthrals in equal measure.
I remember listening to the album under the bed sheets – John Peel played it in its entirety on his radio show. He was great at doing things like that.
The Stranglers were swept along by the punk phenomenon, but they were hardly punks. The first two albums, culled from their live repertoire, were edgy, science-fictional songs with lashings of Doors-style organ and twitchy guitars – and of course Jean-Jacques Burnel’s rumbling bass (which acquired its distinctive sound because of a faulty amplifier speaker). But nothing in those two albums prepared the listener for the third album, Black And White. The album to this day stands alone as a brilliant work of gothic futurism, like some hellish report from a dark, alternate future.
The opener, Tank, is a full-blooded meditation on the possibilities of owning this item of warfare. Nice’n’ Sleazy follows – it was the first single – with its bizarre, bubbling keyboard solo. Outside Tokyo is one of many Stranglers’ waltzes, and then we are into the stark Sweden with its images of Cold War borders and interesting skies. The production of these two tracks are marvellous; tender and brooding at the same time.
Hey! Rise Of The Robots is a strange little tune, and then we are into the majesty of Toiler On The Sea, surely one of this band’s most remarkable songs. Musically it allows them to shine – no punk band, not even The Damned, could be this good – as a series of riffs and melodies whirl around the listener’s mind. The lyrics – all fog and lost ships – are the stuff of science-fictional nightmare. A unique track that to this day sends shivers down my spine.
So much for the white side of the album. Yet this side is dark. What of the black side?
Curfew, with its 7/4 time signature, is a freakish evocation of future social meltdown: governments falling, population shifting away from England. The brutal Threatened is as twisted as a David Lynch film – perhaps Eraserhead – with a fantastic vocal from Jean-Jacques Burnel. Great keyboards, too.
Then we are into Do You Wanna and Death And Night And Blood, which show once again the musical genius of these four men (and their producers, Martin Rushent and Alan Winstanley, who must have some compelling tales to tell) as these tracks segue into each other. In The Shadows is almost dubby in its nightmare sonic landscape, while the simultaneously hopeful and hopeless Enough Time closes the album.
I know of very few albums so unique, so out of their time, so brooding and so masterful as Black And White. It’s almost a concept album. The combination of Hugh Cornwell’s guitar sound and Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bass give the music a tourniquet-tight intensity unmatched by similar bands. Jet Black’s drumming is a perfect foundation, while Dave Greenfield’s weird synths make the album shine with malevolent light. This album will stand forever as the masterpiece of the band. As my favourite album from this era, I treasure it.
The punkPunk! anthology is available now from various outlets…