Saturday, June 1, 2013

Show Review - The Stranglers, Danforth Music Hall

This was the first time I got to see the Stranglers and they played a lot of material from their back catalogue to keep a fan like me happy. I was nervous because the band was over here promoting their new release "Giants" which has some elements of their early material but has a lot more aurally sculpted pieces that would make them at home with fans of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed.

There was a lot of things to be excited about. The first was that this was at the Danforth Music Hall. As a kid the Music Hall had become a rundown movie theatre where the "Song Remains the Same" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show" would play late night on Saturday night and became a place to drink and get high. In more recent times the theatre had been upgraded be a second run theatre in the festival chain and I will never forget it for being able to catch "Gummo" at. But the Danforth Music Hall does have a punk past. The Viletones played there for some CFNY Thursday Night Live simulcast where they came out as a rockabilly band following in Teenage Head's footsteps. I believe this was the show where they opened up for Gang of Four and the Buzzcocks and the original screening of the Last Pogo ( Have a look at the show flyer found at Punk had a life at the Music Hall and seems to be making a comeback in recent times with shows by Ceremony and Hot Water Music also recently playing here. The place is pretty nice looking.

But I was more anxious to see JJ Burnel who is one of the only original members in the line up. And I have to say he was pretty reserved except for when he moved to center stage and started pounding on his bass for the introduction to "No More Heroes" at the end. It makes sense. In an interview I did with them earlier in the day JJ had been holding his knee. It was bothering him. He explained that he had surgery on it recently and I wondered if it had been years of his martial arts training catching up with him. The band explained earlier about how this was a song about anti-heroes, which made me think of Glenn Friedman's book "Fuck You Heros". In some ways this is the same work.

The Stranglers started out with three songs in a row and then Baz, the singer made a comment about that lead him to talk about how beautiful the women were in Toronto. It made me think of how I prefaced the question to "Peaches" in that interview. Baz turned it into a warning for the crowd that if they were to call him on a comment like that for being sexist, they should realize they have come to a Stranglers gig. But they didn't play "Peaches" until later in the set.

They did play "Nuclear Device" early on and I had forgotten just how popular a song this was. It was great to hear it live but I do remember the song getting FM airplay when it had come out in 1979 on "IV". The song was re-purposed for an awareness compilation in 1981 called "Life in the European Theatre" which also had commercially successful bands on it like Peter Gabriel and Madness and this was seen as the band selling out. Or perhaps taking an important message to a bigger audience. But hearing the song so many years later it reminded me of that piece that Michael Moore had put together of the U.S.'s nuclear programming being stripped down and sold for parts to citizens who in turn were selling it to countries possibly not so friendly with the US. A case of giving them enough rope to hang themselves and even made it as a scene in his film "Canadian Bacon". Regardless, I had been given a second chance at hearing just how great and catchy this song was.

But I grew up the first two albums by the Stranglers. That's where I find meaning in the Strangler's body of work. I have given up on the band by "Black and White". So I was happy when they launched into "Get a Grip" and how I had not had a chance to ask them about this song in the interview earlier that day. There was no saxophone for the live performance, which is just as well. And when they band broke for a breather after this song they did so to a rousing applause. It was like Hugh Cornwell wasn't even missed. Baz was very animated and doing a great job as a frontman. And I was thinking there was no reason for him to be re-living "Mercury Rising" which is a song off the new album written about being pushed by the audience to not fill Hugh's boots. I think he did a great job, but I never got to see Hugh Cornwell before. Ad they did get to that number but without the explanation. There was no need for one.

As I was awash with what seemed like a Stranglers Greatest Hits set I was trying to figure out what songs I should try and include in Sunday night's broadcast. Lots of the material would come from the discussion. I had never worked up the nerve to ask about "Bring on the Nubiles" and thought maybe I could work it in by playing it as an opening song. Eventually I went with "Down in the Sewer" because it had the rat innuendo and the song is a metaphor for an underground music scene. "Down in the Sewer" also has some reggae upstrokes with guitar parts which would work better as a transition song from a jungle show which is based around reggae. I had also contemplated "Something Better Change" which was great in the live setting.

Midway through the set I noticed that the band was all dressed in black in keeping with their espionage theme of the Men in Black.

Dave Greenfield is the oner surviving member of the band. He no longer sports a full head of hair that would be his trademark mushroom top look. Nor does he sport the moustache that would make the Stranglers such a mismatched look. But he can still play or maybe program because there was times when he was playing with one hand something that sounded impossible to play. He was even showing off how he could drink with one hand while playing stupidly difficult parts in his amped up version of psychedelia. But no one seemed to think they were being cheated like people did when Pete Shelley came here for his "Homosapiens" tour and played in front of a big reel-to-0reel machine by his loansome. That had the daily papers writing a headline of "Is it live or is it Memorex', which was the slogan of a audio cassette brand at the time. I guess in an age where music is portable they are just impressed with people being on a stage behind some equipment.

The band did some mellower numbers like "Golden Brown" which was controversial for the band's admission of heroin use. They also performed "Baroque Bordello" which made me think of Jean Jaques' French background and how he has brought this into the Stranglers work. In the interview he made reference to the Rites of Spring riots in Paris and he even explained a misinterpretation of "Peaches" with a French saying that I had him explain. It made me wonder if I should have asked more about his french influence on the band. It might have given me the opportunity to ask about "Goodbye Toulouse".

My thoughts continued to go back to the interview earlier that day. In it JJ said they were;t a punk band which is a ludicrous statement to make. I should have challenged him on this. The first two records have all kinds of references that became iconic images to punk like Rattus Norvegicus, which is the taxonomical name for Rat. Rats became the adopted mascot of punk. The pogo beat is defined by that up and down bounce found in the rhythm of "I Feel like a Wog". Although the live set built a case for the band being more than a punk band with songs like "Walk on By" and "Always the Sun". They reminded me more of the style of punk that Ian Dury and the Blockheads played or even Shreikback.

The set included "Hangin' Around" and "Burning Up Time". They also got to do an encore which started out with "Bring on the Nubiles" and finished with "Nice 'n Sleazy" which made me think of the Battersea Park show story that JJ explained earlier where strippers took off their clothes as an expression of empowerment that was missed by the tabloids when they originally reported on it. It was a great show. Some friends of koine who have seen the band countless times said it was the best show they had ever seen by the Stranglers. Impressive to my ears given how much people talked about how musically proficient the band was and how they ripped through sets back in the day. If the Stranglers play a town near you go see it.

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