Wednesday, 11 December 2013
The Stranglers: CD Singles 1988-2013
I realised recently that 25 years had passed since The Stranglers released their first CD Single. And I also realised that, if we ignore those oddball “possibly released without the band’s knowledge” singles from 1989, I have all of the band’s singles on that format (and I do at least have the oddball releases on 12”). Now, you might say, “big deal”, but when you consider the fact that 2012’s “Mercury Rising” was done as a 500-only run, well, it means there are only up to 499 other people who can also cite this claim to fame. The truth is, in this iTunes dominated world, actually owning these releases (even if they are scratched, or have “bronzed”, or have CD-rot and won’t play) is something to be celebrated. They may often have come in simplistic, “will this do” card sleeves, but look at them now, and they seem like major historical documents.
Although this website is in the middle of a look at the band’s compilation albums (part 4 along sometime next year I think), I thought it would be interesting to zero in on the CD Singles the band have released - there has been new material since my last “normal” Stranglers article in 2010 so it‘s worth bringing the story up to date. Given that many of the cash in comps tend to ignore the Mark 2, 3 and 4 years, it means that a lot of the B-sides that have surfaced in this period have never reappeared since, so I thought it would be worth examining them in greater detail. Plus, they are celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2014, and I love them so much, I just wanted to write another article about them.
So here we go. The article is split into sections - each detailing the CD Single releases from each “major” studio or live album or thereabouts, and in the case of the Mark 1 stuff, details of where the flipsides resurfaced again.
1988: All Live And All Of The Night
One of the band’s three shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in March 87 were taped for a radio broadcast, and this was to be used for much of the source material. In August 87, the band were due to appear at the Reading Festival - a festival going through a Metal-Headed identity crisis, and despite Hugh claiming onstage during their 1983 show there that whoever had booked them “must have a sense of humour”, four years later, they were due to return. Hugh couldn’t resist another quip midway through their 1987 set (“we’d like to follow up that heavy metal classic with another heavy metal classic of ours” - I think “Golden Brown” was one of those “classics“ from memory), and this show was also being taped by the BBC. This would prove to be the other gig to be sourced for the album.
The band had planned to finish the show with a cover of The Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night” (their one time on stage cover, “Walk On By“, had long been (temporarily) ditched from the setlists by this point), and the performance of said song would thus be included on the forthcoming live album. But the band flunked their lines, and stumbled rather shambolically through it without success. The Beeb later broadcast much of the gig, including said cover, so whilst it exists in bootleg form, the band decided they would need to record it again. Although it was performed again on stage at their next show two days later in France, there were seemingly no tape recorders (officially) in situ at that one, so the band later went into the studio to record the song outside of the live environment.
Despite the fact that a typical setlist at the time was somewhere around the 80-90 minute mark, it was to be a single slab of vinyl that would be used to document the tour. Cost grounds, I guess. There were to be twelve live recordings, appearing roughly in the order in which they got played on stage. Although at least one 1987 show opened with “Grip”, it was “No More Heroes” that usually kicked things off on the “Dreamtour” and this song was therefore used to open the album. The studio recording of “All Day And All Of The Night” was then bolted onto the end after “London Lady”, the regular setlist closer from the time.
“All Day And All Of The Night” was to be released as a single to help promote the album. The basic catalogue number, VICE 1, was a reference to a prostitute named Monica Coghlan, who had been involved in a sex scandal with Conservative MP Jeffrey Archer in 87, and the single was to be issued in a sleeve with her photo on the front - the title of the song, you see, could be viewed with an element of sexual connotations (note also, the use of a “personalised“ catalogue number - which had been started with the “Dreamtime“ releases, “Shakin‘ Like A Leaf“ for example had been SHEIK 1). It was to be designed like a “red top” tabloid newspaper, but after proof copies had been made, Epic had cold feet, and fearful of potential legal problems, the sleeve was withdrawn. Instead, a new “brothel” image was to be used, and even then, most copies of the single had to have the artwork “toned down” to avoid offence (the image on the shaped vinyl picture disc was unblemished, I do believe - I've never really checked my copies). Copies of the Coghlan sleeve were later sold through the band’s fan club.
Issued on a multitude of formats which helped it hit the top 10 in January 1988, the CD edition of the single included an extended remix of the a-side, by JJ Burnel, called the “Jeff Remix”. The b-side, “Viva Vlad!”, was the latest in a line of Russian music inspired flipsides the band had recorded about a fictitious character called Vladimir during the 1980s. Indeed, at the time of writing, it has turned out to be the last one, although a mail order only album called “Vladimir And The Pearl” was released in 1999 by Burnel and Dave Greenfield. The CD was padded out with live recordings, from the Reading gig, of “Who Wants The World” and “Strange Little Girl”. The latter was included on the album, but the former would only get a proper home when it was one of a number of bonus tracks added to the (patchy) 2001 reissue of the album, remaining exclusive to the 12“ and CD editions of the single until then. “Viva Vlad!” would later appear on the expanded edition of “10”, and the “Jeff” version of “ADAAOTN” would appear on 1992’s “All Twelve Inches”.
In some overseas territories, the live material was used as the subject for single material, with the live version of “Strange Little Girl” being issued as a single in Holland, but nothing unusual appeared on the flipside of this release.
All Day And All Of The Night (Jeff Remix)/Viva Vlad!/Who Wants The World (Live)/Strange Little Girl (Live) (CD, Epic CDVICE 1, some copies pressed overseas were sold in the UK with a “numeric” catalogue number)
1989: The One Off Releases
Work on the band’s tenth studio album began thereafter, with a potential Autumn 1989 date pencilled in. But in the end, the whole process was “mis-timed”, and planned shows for the end of that year were cancelled as the band needed to carry on working on the record. It meant that the band’s now famous 4-date UK tour (one show only in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) would be the only shows the band would play that year in Great Britain, although there were a couple of shows in the Republic Of Ireland as well.
As such, the only “new” releases that appeared in 1989 were of the retro variety. The band’s former labels, Liberty and United Artists, now came under the umbrella of EMI, who put out a collection called “Singles (The UA Years)”, which featured, “London Lady” excepted, every A or AA side the band had put out on the label(s) prior to their signing to Epic. To help plug the record, EMI released a remixed version of the band’s debut single, “Grip”, to coincide. The CD single included two versions of the a side, the standard “Grip 89” remix and a longer remix dubbed the “Grippin’ Stuff 12” Mix“. Whilst the former mix has appeared on a few comps since, including 1996’s “The Hit Men”, the 12” mix remains exclusive to the 12” and CD copies of this single release.
The release was padded out with 1981’s “Waltzinblack”, the second time it had appeared as a b-side (lifted from the “MenInBlack” album, it had backed 1982’s “La Folie”) - it was included here because it had recently been used as the theme tune to a Keith Floyd TV Cookery show - and the more obscure “Tomorrow Was The Hereafter”. Often referred to as the first song the band ever recorded (but possibly not quite), it was at one point a contender to be the band’s debut 45, but instead, got left on the shelf until it was issued as a single via the Stranglers Information Service in 1980. One wonders if, having finally made it to 7” stage by this point, that it was being included on this single not just due to it’s rarity status, but due to the fact that it could be seen as a “companion” release alongside the EMI singles set.
The other single that year was the “Nighttracks” EP, often referred to as the “Radio 1 Sessions“ single. Back in 1982, the band had recorded a four track session for the BBC’s “Evening Show” on Radio 1. Rather than use the session to plug their new album, the band instead played songs mostly from their past, all of which were floating around their live set at the time. So what you got was really an edited highlights version of the band’s stage show. Only “The Man They Love To Hate” was played from their then recent album (“La Folie”), the remaining numbers were the “Nuclear Device”/”Genetix” medley, and “Down In The Sewer”. The CD, housed in a totally different sleeve to it’s accompanying 12” edition, included all four songs from the session.
The tracks got a second lease of life in 1995, when the group’s then label, Castle Communications, released “The Sessions” on their Essential Records imprint. This 12 tracker included all of the sessions the band recorded for the Beeb during the Mark 1 years - there was only three of them - and the four songs from the “Nighttracks” release were included alongside two John Peel sessions from 1977, material previously only available in bootleg form. This release has long been deleted, and is getting increasingly difficult to track down.
Grip 89 (Grippin’ Stuff Mix)/(Single Remix)/Waltzinblack/Tomorrow Was The Hereafter (CD, EMI CDEM 84)
The Radio 1 Sessions EP: The Man They Love To Hate (BBC Version)/Nuclear Device (BBC Version)/Genetix (BBC Version)/Down In The Sewer (BBC Version) (CD, Strange Fruit SNFTCD 20)
As such, the album was produced deliberately to give it a “big” sound - booming drums, blaring trumpets - which it was felt would go down well on US radio. Members of the band later came to regret the decision to release the album in this way, although Cornwell claimed he was proud of it, later stating that he felt the band could not top it, and cited that as one of his reasons for leaving. Another reason was that after a planned US tour fell through, he was upset, and thus decided the band had run it’s course.
I actually love this album, even though it is not cool to do so. Although I had been aware of the group during my youth (the copy of the “No More Heroes” 7” in the Shergold house seems to have been bought for me when I was five, as my mum scribbled my name on it in indelible ink), “10” was the first Stranglers studio album I bought myself. I have always thought that it was a better pop album than “Aural Sculpture”, which seemed at times to be slightly wonky in terms of how it sounded (“Punch And Judy” just doesn’t quite seem to be perfectly in time to these ears, as if they used a drum machine which seemed a beat out of synch) whilst “Dreamtime” seemed a bit too polished, a bit too “eighties”. But I always loved the roar of “10”, even if it did split opinion within an already divided band.
Strangely, for a band who had rarely played covers, the decision was taken to follow up their cover of “ADAAOTN” with another cover, and their take on ? And The Mysterians “96 Tears” was issued as their next 45. Two variant editions of the CD were made - one pressed as a picture CD, which was housed in a jewel case minus front cover artwork, so you could see the imagery on the disc itself, and a “normal” version housed in a card sleeve. Although the CD single was supposed to play the extended “Tearaway” remix of the A-side, as found on the 12” version of the single, and listed on the sleeve, all copies played the 7” edit of the song instead. Two new B-sides were also included, “Poisonality” and the much loved Burnel sung “Instead Of This”, later a regular opening feature of the acoustic shows the band started to play during the noughties.
Although “96 Tears” gave the band another top 10 hit, it also marked the end of the group as big hit single makers. “Punk Funk” follow up “Sweet Smell Of Success” was something of a flop, stumbling way outside the top 40. The CD edition of the single played the 7” edit of the a-side, and new b-sides “Motorbike” and “Something”. According to the excellent Stranglers Worldwide Discography side, only 4000 copies were pressed of the CD, a rather slim number if you ask me, given that some “limited edition” singles released in the eighties had been pressed in numbers of at least 10,000 each. Dance remixes of the a-side were made for a limited edition 12” version, with at least one of those mixes failing to ever appear on CD anywhere in the world, let alone the UK. All four of the b-sides from this period now appear on the expanded “10”, whilst the 7” mixes of the singles can be found on (at least) “The Hit Men”.
Plans for a follow up single, “Man Of The Earth”, were abandoned, seemingly when the US tour dates fell through. I am not exactly sure when it was planned to be released, but the promo campaign for the album thus ground to a halt. Images showing the planned artwork exist, but this may just be proof artwork for the single, as opposed to withdrawn 7” or CD copies, as no details of the planned B-sides have ever come to light.
96 Tears (7” Mix)/Instead Of This/Poisonality (CD, Epic TEARS C1, picture disc copies in sleeveless case also pressed [TEARS P1])
Sweet Smell Of Success (7” Mix)/Motorbike/Something (CD, Epic TEARS C2)
1990-1991: Greatest Hits
The show was something of a one off, the band having finished the official tour for the “10” album with a show at Brixton Academy on 21st March. The Ally Pally show was a gig celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Town And Country Club, a 1934 built venue in Kentish Town but one which had been renamed in the mid 80s. The show was filmed for a TV broadcast, but little did anyone, apart from Cornwell, know that it was to be Mark 1’s final stand.
The setlist had changed slightly from the earlier “96 Tours” shows - “Toiler On The Sea” was now the gig opener, but elsewhere, much of the material remained. Eyewitnesses suggest the band were seemingly on auto pilot, one would guess that in Cornwell’s case, it may well have been that he was distracted by the announcement he was about to make. I do actually quite like the video of this show myself though!
There was no indication to the rest of the band that he had wanted to leave, even though there had been some distance between him and the rest of the group, increasingly, during the latter part of the eighties. There had even been some discussions about recording the eleventh studio album. But the following day, Cornwell phoned each of the band members to announce his resignation - Black seemingly just replied “OK” and put the phone down, but Burnel was affected more - despite the two having had a famous backstage punchup during 1985, thus helping to cause the rift within the group, Burnel had always looked up to Cornwell as something of a father figure, and the phonecall was a lengthy and tearful affair. A live album and VHS called “Saturday Night Sunday Morning” was issued in 1993, documenting (parts of) the Ally Pally gig, it’s titled stolen from an old film but also representing the day of the show (a Saturday) and the day of Cornwell’s departure (the Sunday). I have said it before, but a “Stranglers On Video” feature is still in the planning stage for this site.
Cornwell’s departure seemed to give Epic an excuse to put out a compilation album covering the Mark 1 years, and even though a single vinyl LP was never going to fully do justice to the group, the TV advertised “Greatest Hits 1977-1990” was a huge seller, putting the band back into the public eye in a big way. Two singles were released in connection with the album, one with the band’s say-so, one seemingly issued without their consent.
First up was “Always The Sun”. Credited, upon it’s initial release in 1986, as breaking the band in Europe, it was never quite the mega hit people thought it was in the UK. Epic decided a revamped version of the song could do well as a single, and so a newly created “Sunny Side Up” remix was made, based around the original 7” edit, but with additional guitar work by John Ellis, a friend of the band who had joined the touring line up of the group for the 1990 shows. There were in fact two CD single editions. The first, the standard release, featured this remix along with a 1986 era outtake (“Burnham Beeches”, now on the expanded “Dreamtime“) and a live recording of “Straighten Out”, taped at Guildford Civic Hall on 19th March 1990, and now on the expanded “All Live And All Of The Night”.
The second CD, dubbed the “Live At Alexandra Palace” EP, did just that - four tracks, including of course “Always The Sun”, taped at the “final” show. All four songs have reappeared since - “Nuclear Device” and “Punch And Judy” are on the expanded “All Live” release, whilst the performances of “Always The Sun” and “All Day And All Of The Night” later made the audio edition of “Saturday Night Sunday Morning”. All four songs from the EP made the VHS edition of that album. Despite the multi formatting of “Always The Sun” second time around (the 12” featured a unique longer remix of the a-side), the single charted at more or less the same position as the 1986 original, in the lower region of the top 30.
In the spring of 1991, Epic decided to reissue the band’s biggest hit - cheekily reissuing the (originally released by EMI) “Golden Brown” single. The CD edition added a “10” era outtake, “You” (although the famous “Aural Fantasy” bootleg includes it, which is otherwise full of demos from the mid 80s, so perhaps it‘s older) and the 12” mix of “Skin Deep”. Also included was a unique live recording of “Peaches” from Bradford on 2nd March 1990 - as mentioned in my previous articles, all subsequent Epic era reissues/compilations which include a live version of “Peaches” play a different version from seemingly a different tour, meaning the Bradford version is unavailable anywhere else other than on this single. Given that, again, only 4000 copies exist of this single, this must make it one of the rarest officially released Mark 1 recordings.
As an aside, “Golden Brown” was later issued as a CD single with “No More Heroes” on the specialist reissue label Old Gold, in a generic Old Gold sleeve, which is probably of interest to completists but nobody else.
Always The Sun (Sunny Side Up Mix)/Burnham Beeches/Straighten Out (Live, Guildford Civic Hall 19.3.1990) (CD1, Epic 656430 3)
Live At Alexandra Palace EP: Always The Sun (Live, London 11.8.1990)/Nuclear Device (Live, London 11.8.1990)/All Day And All Of The Night (Live, London 11.8.1990)/Punch And Judy (Live, London 11.8.1990) (CD2, Epic 656430 5, unique p/s)
Golden Brown/You/Peaches (Live, Bradford St George’s Hall 2.3.1990)/Skin Deep (12” Mix) (CD, Epic 656761 2)
1992: In The Night
By late 1990, the band continued to exist as a functioning unit - I understand vocal-less demos were being taped by the new look band, and there was even a live appearance by a very brief seven piece version of the group when the band, minus Cornwell but with Ellis and the existing 3 piece brass section, appeared on youth culture/music show “The Word”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band simply played something that Burnel had originally sang on, 1977’s “Something Better Change”, as opposed to trying anything else.
It was fairly obvious that a new singer was required, and it was Paul Roberts who was invited into the fold. A fan of the band, he was famously noted for being an “unknown” singer, the band preferring to head down this route rather hiring ’a name’, and various sources seem to either suggest he approached them, or “their people” approached “his people”. Either way, he was in, and the Mark 2 lineup made their debut in February 1991, with the first UK gig taking place at the Windsor Old Trout on the 25th.
Although there were reports of at least one audience versus band fracas during the UK tour that followed, a large number of fans stuck by the band as this huge change took place, and you will hear some supporters of the group talking about how Roberts revitalised the group. Now shorn of the brass section, and with some interesting choices with the back catalogue when it came to putting together the typical setlists of the time, the idea of having Roberts as front man changed the dynamic of the group. He started to adopt an Iggy Pop style persona on stage, and the rest of the band seemed to be energised by the actions of their new front man. Whilst some later claimed The Stranglers never worked with a frontman, reports at the time suggested the five piece version of the band worked brilliantly, and was an improvement over the sometimes workmanlike performances the band had reportedly trotted out during the “96 Tours” shows.
Work on the new album continued in earnest during the latter part of the year, and in March 1992, the band held their first ever fan convention in Peterborough, which included a 40 minute “new material” set, later issued on an SIS Fanclub Video (another subject worthy of an article in it’s own right). As I understand it, the album was pretty much done and dusted by this point, and yet there seemed to be some inactivity by their new label, China, with the album not finally scheduled for release until September 1992. The title, “Stranglers in The Night”, was another play on words (Sinatra‘s “Strangers In The Night“). Although the album did quite well, continuing the run of top 40 albums, the singles released failed to dent the top 40 - the first time a Stranglers album had spawned nothing but “flop” singles since “The MenInBlack”. Indeed, it seems not even the band knew what the label were up to - during a show in December 1993, Roberts introduced “So Uncool” as a “brand new old song”, as “In The Night” had recently been released in overseas territories with bonus tracks including this song, and he was thus seemingly unaware that had it appeared on the “Sugar Bullets” single a year previously!
“Heaven Or Hell” was released as the first single, and appeared on two CD editions. The first one, housed in an elaborate overzealously designed digipack sleeve (to enable the disc from the second edition to be tucked inside), featured a new studio B-side “Coffee Shop” (dating demo-wise, at least, I believe, from the immediate period after Cornwell’s departure) and a live version - by Mark 2 - of “Hanging Around”, taped on the 1991 UK tour. CD2 featured an edited mix of the a-side, another b-side (“Vicious Circles”) and another live track, this time “Brainbox” from the same tour.
“Sugar Bullets”, allegedly, was rush released after Radio 1 DJ Simon Bates claimed it was a hit in waiting, and the CD Single release included the radio edit of the A-side and the aforementioned “So Uncool”. The “In The Night” album was reissued a few years back, with all of these studio B-sides tagged on as bonuses, with the album itself housed in a white cover, as opposed to the original dark grey hue.
However, the live B-sides have never resurfaced since. Other formats of “Heaven Or Hell” included another new studio b-side, “Disappear”, which has also never appeared on CD in the UK (although it has in some overseas countries) and has failed to resurface anywhere again since. Over 21 years have passed since this album came out, and whilst the Mark 2 lineup would later be dismissed by many, and thus seemingly denting the overall desirability of this material, it’s still quite strange to think that whilst you can’t move for the re-emergence every few years of the EMI era B-sides, these “newer” ones are a lot harder to track down.
Heaven Or Hell/Coffee Shop/Hanging Around (Live, 1991) (CD1, Psycho/China WOKCD 2025)
Heaven Or Hell (Edit)/Vicious Circles/Brainbox (Live, 1991) (CD2, Psycho/China WOKCDR 2025)
Sugar Bullets (Edit)/So Uncool/Sugar Bullets (CD, Psycho/China PSYCD 002)
1993-1995: About Time
But whenever I read internet articles about the Mark 2 years now, it all seems to conjure up scenes of doom and gloom. Stories of band members failing to turn up for studio sessions, Burnel temporarily quitting the band, new boys Ellis and Roberts wishing to shoehorn large chunks of new material into the set, partly to try and earn some royalties from songs they were actually involved in, Roberts’ eventual departure greeted like the (ahem) Second Coming, the period is viewed now as a lengthy set of “wilderness years”.
Was it quite that bad? Well, there are certainly some interesting events that may or may not mean something. Another UK tour in Feb 93 saw performances of songs that would never make it onto a “proper” Stranglers album, “Mumble Jumble” and “Mr Big”. Never before had the band played something onstage that would then get ditched - was this a sign of material being deemed not good enough? The December 93 tour saw outings for “This God Is Mine”, another song that went AWOL although Roberts’ (at the time) side project, Soulsec, ended up releasing a version of it instead.
New material continued to get tried out onstage in 1994. I saw the band supporting The Kinks at Wembley Arena on March 26th, where “Cool Danny” was played. Soon after, I seem to recall somebody shouted out “play the hits”, and eventually, the likes of “All Day And All Of The Night” were duly rolled out. By the time the band hit the festival circuit in 1994, a sizeable chunk of new songs were being played alongside the oldies, and most of these songs were ones that would successfully make it onto the next studio effort, 1995’s “About Time”. There was still time for a November tour before the new record was ready to be released, dubbed the “Bodysearch” tour (the band had played a recent show in a prison, hence the name, and I think one of the support acts consisted of ex-cons), and at least four new songs were hauled out during each of the shows.
The overall problems with China Records led to the band looking for a new deal, and signed to Castle, with the band lined up to have their material released on a new imprint they were launching, When! Records. “About Time” was issued in May 1995, with the band conducting a series of instore mini gigs to help promote the album, some of which were followed by a record signing, and some of which weren’t. I was always confused by this, because initial copies of the LP and CD editions came with a free signed print each - I bought it on Cassette so can’t answer this question myself, so were the signed prints just prints with a “printed” signature? If not, then why would you want your album signed, authentically, twice??
Anyway, the main issue to note here was that, for the first time in their lives, no single was released PRIOR to the issue of the LP - even though this was pretty much standard industry procedure. It was almost as if the band had been dumped into a has-beens pile by their new label, and just figured the hardcore fan base would get it into the charts, and that no amount of pre-release hype could result in anything different. A promo video was filmed for spiky album opener “Golden Boy”, but there was no single for it. “About Time” did still go top 40, and is regarded by many as Mark 2’s greatest (two thirds of an) hour, but you can’t help but think, what did the old boys in the band think about this promo approach by the label? Nine years on from having their major label bosses fill up their Wembley Arena rider with alcohol, they had almost gone backwards, a sort of indie band on a label unsure how to get them back into the big time.
A single was eventually released from the album afterwards, when the waltz like “Lies And Deception” turned up as a 45. It was issued on two CD editions, the first of which included new b-sides in the form of “Swim” and “Cool Danny”. The image on the front was of Roberts hung on a cross, taken from the “Golden Boy” video, with the band logo printed on the cross, and the image housed inside a black border. The second CD was done as a numbered limited edition, and was issued in a big box, which included the CD inside it’s own slim line jewel case, with enough space for the CD1 edition to be tucked in alongside. There was also a poster, which seemed to feature the front men lineup of Burnel, Roberts and Ellis, but with Dave and Jet more or less hidden from view! The slim line case had a “negative” version of the image used on CD1, inside a white border (the image above is of the slightly different 12" pressing). New b-sides in the form of “Kiss The World Goodbye” and “Bed Of Nails” were included. Quite how many were made I’m unsure, the numbering system is of the 4-digit variety, so I can’t imagine any more than 9000 copies were pressed, if that many. Not one of the four tracks that appeared across the CD’s have appeared anywhere since in the UK, so I would argue the two tracks from the numbered CD2 edition must stand up as premier Mark 2 rarities.
Lies And Deception/Swim/Cool Danny (CD1, When! WENX 1007)
Lies And Deception/Kiss The World Goodbye/Bed Of Nails (Numbered CD2, When! WENX 1008, unique p/s + poster)
1995-1997: Written In Red
Much of 1996 was spent seemingly out of view - aside from a third fan convention in London in September (the second had taken place in September 93), it was mainly shows overseas, where new material was again being tried out.
In January 1997, “Written In Red” was issued by When!. It became the first Stranglers album to fail to hit the top 50, and although you will find dissenters of it’s predecessors, it does seem to be the major point at which the Burnel/Ellis tensions really seemed to impact on the music. Generally, what you will hear about this record, is that Burnel’s bass isn’t growling enough, Dave’s keyboards aren’t swirling enough, and that this is the most “pop” album the band ever made. But I listened to it again recently, and I really enjoyed it. Even that slightly oddball go at “Summer In The City” is quite entertaining. Mark 2’s “Dreamtime” maybe. But there did seem to be something going on behind the scenes - Ellis, in particular, was determined to move the band forwards, and was prepared to do so by writing songs that didn’t necessarily tick all the “trademark sounds” boxes. Burnel, possibly worn out by the record company situations, simply took a back seat and let him and Roberts take major control of the band. One theory is, had neither of them bothered, then The Stranglers may well have ceased to exist during the 1990s.
I once stumbled across an online interview with Burnel from late 97, where he was asked about why he was no longer singing either onstage, or on record (early Mark 2 gigs saw him retain the mic for “London Lady”). He mentioned something about simply not wanting to sing anymore. But I think I also saw a comment, from the Mark 1 days, that if he generally came up with a song entirely on his own, he would get to sing it. So maybe, if you add two and two together, then alter the answer a bit, then factor in another quote I think which mentioned “writers block”, then maybe Burnel’s seemingly reduced involvement in “Written In Red” was a combination of all of the above.
A week after the album had been released, promoted again by more in-store shows, the majestic “In Heaven She Walks” was issued as a single by the label. As before, it generally fell on deaf ears. Two CD editions were released. CD1 was issued in a mostly black sleeve, and is notable for not featuring the band’s famous logo on the cover (see also “5 Minutes”, “Walk On By”, etc for more examples). The album had gone down a similar path, with the logo used as part of the overall artwork, rather than being used as part of the main cover (it was near the spine of the CD edition, but not on the CD inlay which formed the album’s front image). Anyhow, CD1 included a live version of “Golden Brown” from a Kentish Town Forum show (the former T&C) on 16th December 1995 (I was there) along with an extended mix of the a-side - the band surely being one of the last to still be doing 80’s style extended mixes (as opposed to what everyone else was doing, which was heavily revamped dance reworkings). CD2 used a still from the video on the cover, and featured more live tracks from the same show, namely “Grip” (Mark 2 do Mark 1’s debut) and “Something Better Change” (Mark 2 with Roberts on vocals, do a Mark 1 tune that was sung by Burnel).
It is worth pointing out that numerous shows on that December 95 tour were recorded, and a fan club album called “Access All Areas” was issued in 1996, which featured the typical setlist from the tour, sourced from multiple shows. There were no recordings from the Forum gig, and aside from another version of “Grip” taped in Nottingham, the remaining songs did not “double up” with the b-sides from the single (space constraints really). It should not be confused with the 1998 “Exclusive Fan Club CD”, which although sharing a similar catalogue number, was actually a 15 song set from the 1997 “Written In Red” tour.
In Heaven She Walks/Golden Brown (Live London The Forum 16.12.1995)/In Heaven She Walks (Extended Version) (CD1, When! WENX 1018)
In Heaven She Walks/Grip (Live London The Forum 16.12.1995)/Something Better Change (Live London The Forum 16.12.1995) (CD2, When! WENX 1020, diff p/s)
1997-2004: Coup De Grace and Mark 3
I guess, as with anything, perception can play a part whenever you are looking at something in particular, and for me, The Stranglers did seem to become even more of a cult band in the years that followed. I started to see the band less frequently, although this may simply be because the band themselves weren’t playing as much - the “Written In Red” tour, conducted in the fall, included no dates in London (which was where I was living at the time, so the RAH gig was the only one for the year), and the band thereafter began to settle into playing the UK on an annual basis and no more. The days when I had seen them play four times a year (93 and 95) now over.
1998’s “Coup De Grace” really seems to divide people. Issued seemingly without warning by Eagle, it charted somewhere around the number 171 position, a quite shocking chart position for a band once so immensely popular. People moaned about the muddy production and the general quality of the songs. I saw the band play the (seated) Brentwood Centre in the fall, and it all felt a bit “unexciting”. Perhaps it was just the set up of the venue. But I do seem to recall hearing them play a song off the new album called “Tonight”, and it seemed dangerously MOR.
I didn’t buy the album when it first came out. Every so often, I will deliberately let an album go, with a view to getting it more cheaply sometime later. I eventually saw a cheap copy of “Coup De Grace” on sale somewhere. Eagle hadn’t even bothered to release anything from the LP as a single by this point. It felt unloved. It looked like the artwork had been created as some form of Powerpoint presentation, the songs titles on the back in a fancy (but tacky) font. I played the album - and fell in love with it.
It’s regarded as the album where Burnel suddenly woke up, and concerned with Ellis’s ongoing takeover of the band, decided to wrestle control back. The band had always been a democracy - the decision to credit all band members with song writing duties on all their records, even if somebody hadn’t contributed anything to said song is an example - but Burnel figured he had to take charge. He ended up not only writing a sizeable chunk of material for the album, but made the decision - just like the old days - to sing them as well. OK, so the worst song on here was actually one of his (“Known Only Unto God”), but he helped to create a fascinating, and quite varied, LP.
It’s a strange one though. Only four numbers from the LP made it onto the setlists of that 1998 tour, suggesting a lack of confidence in the new songs, but some of these tunes were glorious - the keyboard overload of the title track, the mad techno bounce of “God Is Good” - and a tape of the Hanley Royal show that is doing the rounds from the time sounds quite thrilling to these ears. Roberts later admitted some dissatisfaction with the album, because he had had less input than on previous albums, but to me, it’s Mark 2’s very own “MenInBlack” - arguably patchy, occasionally inspired, and the calm before the storm. After “MenInBlack”, we got “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. What came after “Coup De Grace”? The remarkable “Norfolk Coast”.
After an EMI era hits album, “Hits And Heroes”, was promoted by a 1999 tour in which little from the actual album was played on stage, Ellis left the band in early 2000 to be replaced by Baz Warne, specifically head hunted by the band who were determined to recruit somebody who they thought would fit into the band - one of his former bands, Smalltown Heroes, had supported The Stranglers on tour twice, and he had become friends with Roberts. Warne’s first duties were to play festival shows in the summer of 2000, but new material of a sort appeared in 2001, with the release of “5 Live 01” (seemingly mostly a Mark 2 gig from 1995 at Shepherds Bush, but with Ellis’s guitar parts overdubbed by Warne) and the mail order only acoustic outing “Laid Black”.
The band showcased new material at their fourth fan convention, at Pontins in Minehead, in September 2001 (following on from the performances of “Big Thing Coming” and “Norfolk Coast” on a Burnel solo tour conducted during 2000), when the likes of “Dutch Moon” and “I’ve Been Wild” were featured amongst the varied sets the band played over the weekend (both acoustic and electric). The electric set seemed to be an excuse to try out a “new” cover version, when the band had a stab at The Stones’ “Out Of Time”. This period of the band seems to be shrouded in secrecy, and although at the time of writing, a bootleg from this show is the only release upon which I have the band’s version of the song, I really don’t know if it was played again before or after, as the internet doesn’t seem to have much detail about the early part of the Mark 3 years at all.
New material was tried out during gigs in 2003, with the likes of “Mine All Mine” and “Tuckers Grave” now getting outings, and at the end of the year, the band decided to try and show people they were still alive by accepting a support slot on a UB40 arena tour. By now, the new album, “Norfolk Coast”, was completed. The band had recorded the album without any label support, and just as “In The Night” had been released on their own Psycho label with marketing help from China, the band were prepared to put it out themselves if need be - they had formed a company called Coursegood, who dealt mainly with merchandising, but several other mail order only albums had been issued as part of the new set up (the “official bootleg” releases, “Rattus Britanicus” and “Forgotten Heroes”, along with “Live At The Apollo”, all seemed, in theory, to be Coursegood associated releases. Again, another part of the band‘s past worthy of a more in depth look in the future).
However, the album was hawked around the labels to see if anybody would help with the distribution of the record, and it was EMI who got hugely excited when they heard it and promptly re-signed the band. It may not have got the group back into the top 40 (indeed, “About Time” still remains their last studio album to dent the top 40), but it was the subject of ecstatic reviews, many citing it as their best since “Aural Sculpture”, released some 20 years previous.
Two singles were issued to help promote the LP. “Big Thing Coming”, the band’s first top 40 hit since the Mark 1 days, was issued on two different CD editions, both using the same “Norfolk Coast” band image, but in different coloured sleeves. CD1 included a live version of “Tucker’s Grave” and an enhanced CD Rom section which did not, strangely, include the video for “Big Thing”. Story goes, after the video was completed, the band figured the sections in which they featured had been filmed “too darkly” and the video was unofficially disowned. As such, the CD Rom played the Electronic Press Kit footage for the album, and the video was left to rot, before appearing on the likes of YouTube. Even the recent “Never To Look Back” mail order DVD collection of promo clips doesn’t feature it (although a live version is included instead). CD2 featured a re-recorded version of “Peaches”, dubbed “Peaches 2004” - although it was actually taped back in 2002, and even turned up on a promo CD that year, where it was dubbed “Peaches 2002”! A video was also filmed, and can also be found on “Never To Look Back”.
Follow up 45 “Long Black Veil” didn’t do quite so well, and was issued on only one CD edition. This includes the radio edit mix of the a-side, “Waltzinblack” (yet again!) and a new Burnel sung b-side called “Life’s Too Short”. Aside from those mentioned, none of the b-sides from these singles have appeared again since.
Big Thing Coming/I Don’t Agree/Tucker’s Grave (Live)/Big Thing Coming EPK (Video) (CD1, EMI 548 0690)
Big Thing Coming/Peaches 2004 (CD2, EMI 548 0692, diff colour p/s)
Long Black Veil (Radio Edit)/Life’s Too Short/Waltzinblack/Long Black Veil (CD, EMI 548 9062)
2005-2006: Suite XVI
Warne recently mentioned in an interview that at some point, Roberts began turning up late for rehearsals, which suggested a man unhappy with his role in the band. As work began on the band’s sixteenth studio effort, Roberts continued to contribute songs for the album, only for all of them to be rejected as “not good enough”. The situation was worsened when Burnel and Warne began working as a pair without him, which Roberts, as front man, felt undermined his position in the band.
With “Suite XVI” more or less complete, but with little song writing involvement from Roberts, the band sensed that he was feeling ostracised. Even though the artwork was finalised (a forthcoming EMI best of scheduled for a summer 2006 release was to feature a plug for the new LP), the band held a meeting where Roberts was asked if he wanted to leave. He admitted that he no longer felt part of the band, and the group parted ways with their singer who by this point, famously, had been in the band for as long as his predecessor.
With Warne having sung with his previous bands (and at the 2001 convention), Roberts’ vocal parts were re-recorded by either Burnel or Warne, dependent on whose voice suited the music better. Roberts was to be credited in the sleevenotes for the album, whilst history would show his involvement in other ways when a DVD was released from a late 2005 show, in which “Suite XVI” material had featured.
Warne, by default, was now the new front man, and just as the new compilation hit the shops, the new 4-piece line up debuted at a gig in Weston Super Mare on June 3rd 2006. The original plan had been to open the show with the Burnel sung “The Raven”, with the expectation that Roberts’ arrival would then be anticipated by the crowd for the second song. But then Warne would sing the second song, and the “Mark 4” lineup would be revealed onstage. But internet rumours got out, and by the time the band took to the stage at Weston, Roberts’ departure had become common knowledge.
The return to a 4 man line up was seen by many as a return to the “Stranglers of old”, with Warne able - at times - to do a snarling, Cornwell-esque, vocal on occasions. Many fans seemed happy that Roberts’ departure had removed the “front man” stylings of the Mark 2 and 3 lineups, but I do wonder if this is, at times, a rewriting of history - there are plenty of gig reviews from the so-called wilderness years knocking about which suggest that the shows these lineups of the band played, were routinely described as performances of “another classic gig”. Nonetheless, listening to some of the tapes of the Mark 4 shows that followed, does suggest the sound of a band firing on all cylinders, even if the days of bad banter by Cornwell and then Roberts had by now been replaced by little interaction with the crowd instead. Warne would occasionally manage a bad joke or two when inspired enough to do so.
“Suite XVI” was the subject of sometimes slightly overexcited reviews, almost as if the move back to the classic 4-man lineup had to be marked with “return to form” statements. For some, I guess, it was seen as being one step nearer to making it easier to get Cornwell back in the band. There are some good songs on this LP, but I still can’t quite give a thumbs up to the shabby Johnny Cash ’tribute’, “I Hate You”, despite it becoming a live fan favourite. But lead 45 “Spectre Of Love” revealed that the band had lost none of their melodic spark, and even though Warne’s elevation to “lead singer” was seen by many as a glorious return to the olden days, he himself admitted he had actually been sorry to see Roberts leave, and on occasions, his approach vocally to some of the older material seemed to be based on Roberts’ earlier interpretations, rather than making any attempt to sound like Cornwell (see the live renditions of “Strange Little Girl” or “Golden Brown”). In my opinion though, the next Mark 4 album, "Giants", was a superior beast.
Although “Unbroken” reached the promo stage, it was only “Spectre Of Love” which was released as a single, and nothing more. Just one CD edition was issued, backed with a live version of “Instead Of This”, lifted from the “On Stage On Screen” DVD. Given that the 7” edition of the single opted also for another song from the DVD, this meant that “Suite XVI” became the first Stranglers album, along with the single-less “Coup De Grace”, to spawn no “proper” b-sides. Both tracks were added as bonuses to the Japanese edition of the LP, but this seemed a bit academic really.
Spectre Of Love/Instead Of This (Live London Shepherds Bush Empire 2.12.2005) (CD, EMI 375 0342)
More UK one offs and festival shows were conducted in 2008, before a fall tour of the UK was scheduled to coincide with a planned compilation by Sony called “Forty Two Forty”, a reference I think to the number of singles the band had released (although I can only make it 41 up to this point, and quite a few of these didn’t dent the top 40 at all). The album got no further than the promo stage, before the release was cancelled by the record label. The tour continued through Europe during the start of 2009, these shows seemingly having already been booked before the cancellation of the shows (the stage design of these gigs was based around the artwork for the album, which was a bit embarrassing).
EMI Gold managed to get a best of together in 2010, when the excellent “Decades Apart” appeared, the first proper career spanning release the band had ever put out (material from all sixteen albums, plus some non-album singles and two new songs). The band did come in for some stick by featuring the current line up on the cover, given that most of the material actually came from the Mark 1 days. Another UK tour was conducted to coincide, with the band’s first ever appearance at Glastonbury occurring later that summer. A mail order only live DVD from the Hammersmith show was later released as “Live At The Apollo”.
By now, the band were starting to do a regular “February/March” UK tour, and they returned again in 2011 with the “Black And Blue” tour. It was 33 years since the release of the much loved “Black And White” album, and I seem to recall that there was some discussion about the possibility of playing the show in full, or perhaps I imagined that. But the tour name did suggest the album was in the forefront of the band’s thoughts, and several songs from the LP did make it into the setlist. The tour was followed by a European acoustic tour, something that the band were starting to do on an increasing basis. Another mail order acoustic album had been released by this time, “The Meninblack In Brugge”, which also received a proper full blown release in 2012, repackaged and retitled as “Acoustic in Brugge”.
During the fall of 2011, with a new album now very close to release, the band held their fifth fan convention in London in November. Aside from an acoustic set, the band also played two electric sets, one where they did (almost) play the whole of “Black And White” in full (“Enough Time”, a struggle to get right in Mark 1 days, was still traumatic and so wasn’t attempted), before finishing with a few “related” songs from the period, such as “Mean To Me” and “5 Minutes”. The other setlist was more of an oldies and “new material” set.
The shows the band played that weekend were filmed, and a mail order only package called “The Weekend In Black” was scheduled for release early in 2012. It was to be issued as a triple disc set - consisting of a DVD featuring the “Acoustic” and “Black And White” sets, with a CD also featuring the “Black And White” set. Disc 3 was to be a copy of the band’s new album, “Giants”.
The original plan was for the set to be released before “Giants” was due to receive it’s full scale commercial release, but due to various technical issues, the set got delayed - so delayed in fact, that copies were not due to be shipped out until the actual proper release of the album. As an apology, everybody who ordered the set received a free promo copy of “Giants”, which was housed in a “censored” sleeve.
I am not quite sure when it happened, but the band were now no longer on EMI. Instead, the release had the “Coursegood” legend all over it, but seemed to have been distributed by an indie label, Absolute. Aside from the standard CD in the “uncensored” cover, there was a 2-CD edition released with the “Acoustic” set from the “Weekend In Black” release included in audio form only on a bonus CD.
The aforementioned “Mercury Rising” CD Single was issued later on in 2012. It included the radio edit and instrumental mixes of the a-side, along with live recordings of the a-side and “Sometimes” from the 2012 tour conducted in support of the LP (which included UK dates in the spring once more). The live tracks were lifted from the, at the time, untitled “new live album”. This album was eventually released in early 2013 as “Feel It Live”, and the band toured the UK - again - to promote it. The album was initially released as a mail order only release, and featured most of the songs that had made up the typical 2012 setlist. “Walk On By”, taped on the tour but unable to be included on the CD due to space constraints, was later offered as a free download from the band’s website for a short period of time. “Feel It” was later given a full release, although the artwork used seemed to involve photographing the sleeve of the mail order release, and was thus severely lacking in quality. A European release was conducted, housed in a superior “rat” picture sleeve, whilst “Giants” was later issued in 2013 in the US by Fontana North, with initial copies coming with the “Feel It” album as a free bonus disc.
The 2014 tour seems to be nothing more than an excuse to celebrate the formation of the earliest incarnation of the band way back in 1974, and it remains to be seen what happens thereafter, as Jet Black’s sometimes ailing health problems have been cited as a possible reason to throw in the towel. He is still appearing (even if only in part) on many of the tour dates the band play, although rarely for shows outside the UK anymore. The critical acclaim lauded on “Giants” does seem to have helped maintain the interest in the band, with many of the opinion that the problems associated with the latter-day Mark 1 gigs and subsequent “wilderness” years, have been well and truly put behind them.
Mercury Rising (Edit)/Sometimes (Live 2012)/Mercury Rising (Live 2012)/(Instrumental) (CD, Coursegood CG 006)