Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Stranglers on SIS, Coursegood - and beyond!

Perhaps it’s the current state of the record industry, or perhaps just the sign of a band wishing to cut out the middle man when it comes to releasing new material - but either way, a quick look at The Stranglers discography over the last couple of decades have seen an alarming number of audio and video releases that have NOT appeared on the band’s then-current record label. As I type this, fans are awaiting the release of a DVD taped earlier this year in Manchester on their 40th Anniversary “Ruby” tour, which almost certainly will follow previous such releases - and appear as an online only event. But this is nothing new. Because for many years, pre-Baz and pre-Paul, a number of releases had already appeared as “fan club only” records, courtesy of the Stranglers Information Service, AKA the “SIS”.

The SIS were responsible for the publication of “Strangled” magazine, which originally started life in 1977 as a punk fanzine, with a slight bias towards the band, before eventually morphing into more of a fan club magazine at the start of 1980. These “glossy” releases (Volume 2) tended to be more of a band focused magazine, but still with articles written about subject matter that the group thought the readers may be interested in - there were regular contributions by band members themselves. The second issue featured a logo adapted from the famous group logo, although it wasn’t until the first issue of 1981, Volume 2 Number 6, that this special “Strangled” logo was featured on the cover again, before remaining in situ for all future issues. The final issue appeared in 1996, before the SIS turned into an online presence known as “The Rat’s Lair”.

The SIS specialised in making available again Stranglers rarities, such as the repressings of the “Peaches” radio promo, and the “Rattus Norvegicus” freebie single, “Choosey Susie“. In the summer of 1980, they released their first “exclusive” single, when early years outtake “Tomorrow Was The Hereafter” (SIS 001) was issued as a mail order 7”, backed with the “Cocktail” version of “Bring On The Nubiles”, a ten minute long ramble in the studio where Cornwell attempted to record a “muzak” cover of said song - remember the comedy band Raw Sex? It was housed in a plain die cut sleeve, although a later repressing in 1988 was conducted, where each copy was housed in a picture sleeve instead. However, only 1000 copies of the repress were made, and as such, are now highly collectible - resulting in a curious situation where the original release is actually worth less than the reissue.

During the rest of the decade, “new” SIS releases were generally restricted to side projects, rather than proper Stranglers releases. SIS 002 was a single by a band called A Marriage Of Convenience, featuring Jet Black, which saw them having a stab at an - at the time - unreleased Stranglers tune called “My Young Dreams”. SIS 003 was a JJ Burnel solo flexidisc, and indeed, it wasn’t until after Cornwell had left that the next Mark 1 SIS single surfaced, when “New Day Today” (SIS 004) was released on a flexi in 1991. It was included inside an issue of “Strangled” magazine that introduced Paul Roberts to the readership, and so anybody who has the original magazine with the flexi, holds in their hands a piece of memorabilia that effectively shows a passing of the baton.

Having been rather quiet during the 80s, SIS suddenly became rather productive, issuing fan club videos on an annual basis. Now, these are near impossible to find, and I don’t have many of them, so I don’t want to cover them in great detail when I only know what bits of them look like. But, for the record...”Live In Madrid” (SIS 005) was the first one, issued - apparently - before SIS 004, and was a VHS detailing the band’s TV filmed gig in Madrid on November 18th 1986. Although the whole gig is here, the show was, for some reason, split into two, with each half cherry picking bits of the whole show, rather than the first section having the first half, and the second the second. In other words, to watch it in the order in which the songs were played, would require you to keep fast forwarding, then rewinding, then fast forwarding, and so on. It is available on Youtube, last time I looked - albeit still in the wrong order.

“The Meninblack In French” (SIS 006) was the official release of a “Feline” era French TV documentary, including mimed performances of “Paradise” and “London Lady”. “SIS First World Convention” (SIS 007) was exactly that, a video detailing the Mark 2 performance at their 1992 fan convention in Peterborough. “Battersea Power Plus” (SIS 008) documented, what could be found of, the band’s infamous Battersea Park gig in 1978, with a few other bits and bobs. Whilst audio bootlegs exist of the whole show, nobody has been able to track down the complete video footage, even though Hugh has confirmed the entire gig was definitely filmed. The likes of “Peaches” and “Nice N Sleazy” had already surfaced on other VHS releases, but this one is still the only (official) place to find the likes of “Grip” and “Death And Night And Blood”.

1993’s “Live At Fontwell Park” (SIS 009) was the first SIS VHS to come in a proper video case, and documents the band’s “gig in a tent” show at the Southern England racecourse on October 30th that year. 1994’s “Live At Rennes And Other Stories” (SIS 010) documents another gig from earlier on in 1993, along with footage from the second fan convention, at New Cross in London, from September 93.

I seem to remember buying 1994’s “Bodysearch” (SIS 011) in a Virgin Megastore at the time, not sure how that happened. But officially, it’s a mail order only release, documenting most - but not all - of the band’s show at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire on 12th November 1994, as part of the minitour of the same name. The missing songs were held over for inclusion on “The Parr Street Chronicles” (SIS 012), the bulk of which documented a recording session at Parr Street studios.

“Rennes Deux The Return” (SIS 014), from 1995, is a document of a gig held earlier that year at the same venue as SIS 010, hence the title. The audio from this one has also surfaced in bootleg form. “Strangled In London 1996” (SIS 015) documents the band’s 1996 fan convention, and features Mark 2 doing some obscure stuff, which makes it all the more frustrating that it’s so damn hard to find. With SIS and Strangled magazine coming to an end during this particular year, it was thus the final SIS release.

Whilst SIS were issuing these videos, they also made a slightly more hesitant venture into the world of the full blown album. 1993’s “Strangled: From Birth And Beyond” (SIS CD 001) was used to collect the material from the first four SIS singles, along with some previously unheard material by Burnel, Mark 1 (“The Beast”, an outtake from 1984) and a pair of tunes from Mark 2, including the at-the-time concert regular “Mr Big”. The front cover featured images of both line ups of the band.

SIS CD 002 was a reissue of the previously French only JJ Burnel solo album “Un Jour Parfait”, and was followed in 1996 by “Access All Areas” (SIS CD 003) - another one I seem to recall buying in a Virgin Megastore. This was a live CD showcasing, mostly, the typical Stranglers setlist from their 1995 UK winter tour, space constraints preventing the album from being a full document. Nevertheless, the songs that were included were presented in the order in which they were played on the tour, and were sourced from a number of gigs, suggesting that the vaults include the full performances from all these shows. It’s unlikely any will ever get the nod for an official unedited release though, such is the disinterest now in Mark 2 - not least from the band themselves! Other live performances from the tour, from the London Forum on the 16th December, appeared as B-sides to the 1997 “In Heaven She Walks” single, including songs that had failed to make “Access All Areas”.

With the SIS ceasing to exist, some members of the organisation decided to relaunch the fan club as an online entity, called The Rat’s Lair. For well over a decade, it operated as the band’s official webpage, detailing up to date news items, as well as having a link to the band’s online merchandising website. It was through the website that the next batch of fan club releases appeared, starting with reissues in 1998 of “Access All Areas” (Voiceprint SOF 001 CD), “Strangled” (Voiceprint SOF 002 CD) and the release of the brand new “Exclusive Fan Club CD” (Voiceprint SOF 003 CD) - all three were joint releases between the fan club and the independent Voiceprint label. The latter is another hard to find item, detailing a show in Southampton during the late 1997 tour, a tour which saw the band play numbers from “Written In Red” for the first, and only, time.

As the end of 1999 approached, the band formed Coursegood Ltd, designed as their mail order and merchandising enterprise. However, at first, any new music issued through their website was not issued on the Coursegood label, but simply appeared with scant details as to which label it was on - if any - and little detail as regards catalogue numbers (although the info was there if you looked hard enough). The first two mail order releases available through Coursegood were a pair of archive “official bootlegs” issued in 2001, “Rattus Britanicus” (Impress LVL 071 01 6) and “Forgotten Heroes” (Impress PYCD 064 036). Both these CD’s were basically band endorsed re-releases of a pair of old vinyl bootlegs, albeit in new and improved artwork. The oddball catalogue numbers seemed to have been “borrowed” from one of the earlier CD bootleg releases that surfaced in the early 90s.

“Britanicus” was sourced from a show at London’s Roundhouse in 1977. The band played there multiple times that year, and at least three shows were recorded, remaining in the vaults until selected tracks were chosen for 1979’s “Live (X-Cert)” album. “Britanicus” detailed about 40 minutes worth of the show at the Roundhouse on November 6th, but as with so many bootlegs, the issue about how you could condense an 80 minute gig onto a 40 minute slab of vinyl was resolved by simply including 40 minutes worth of material from halfway through the show! So, it starts with a faded in “Dead Ringer”, and ends with “Peaches”. Nothing on here had been officially available before, with the exception of “Dead Ringer” (which was unedited on “Live (X-Cert)“). It’s a nice release, but with tapes of the entire show now doing the rounds online, it’s impressiveness has been dented a bit.

“Forgotten Heroes” documents, sort of, the now famous 1978 tour, where the band, having just released “Black And White”, often took to performing gigs more or less split into an opening half of old stuff (“Black”) and a second half of new songs from the album (“White”), sometimes joined by the stand alone single “5 Minutes”, issued after the “No More Heroes” album and before “Black And White” (this explains why you can hear Cornwell shout “Black And White!” before “Curfew“ on “Live (X-Cert)”). This CD was taped in America, at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on 3rd April 1978, but seems to be heavily biased towards the earlier material - I guess this is because this particular show was conducted a month or so before the LP came out, so perhaps new material was being "held back". Much has been made of how, with the exception of the edited Battersea show, no mixing desk quality releases from the tour have ever been made available in full through the official channels, so this is the best you’re gonna get.

With still no physical fan club imprint in existence (post SIS) towards the end of 2001, “Live In Poland 2000” was effectively released with no label details, and no catalogue number at all, after receiving it‘s “movie premiere” style preview at the September 2001 convention. It is, as the title suggests, a VHS release of an early period Mark 3 gig, sold through the band’s website. It has been made available more widely now, as a commercial release on DVD in a new sleeve and with the title “Euro Live”, with a 2002 copyright it may have thus actually turned up on the website in 2002, rather than 2001 - I can’t fully remember. Late 2001 did see the release of the web only “Laid Black” (Coursegood CGTSM 001CD), a CD which saw Mark 3 have a crack at bits of the old back catalogue in an acoustic form. As you can see from that catalogue number, the Coursegood imprint was now being used for fan club style releases. “Laid Black” was also issued commercially in 2002, in the same sleeve but on the Zen record label with a new catalogue number. “Euro Live” was also issued on Zen - and given I could find no “Coursegood 2” release mentioned anywhere whilst researching this article, it is possibly safe to assume the original “Live In Poland” was in effect the second Coursegood release, ie. CG2.

Or maybe it was this one - 2003’s “Live At The Apollo”, another release with no label details and no catalogue number, just a CD in a nicely designed sleeve. This is another album with a story. At the end of 1981, the band toured the UK in support of “La Folie” and played a show in Glasgow on 23rd November. It was recorded by Radio Clyde, and in 2003, independent label Alchemy decided to release the show as “Apollo”. For reasons I can’t fully understand, another label - the affiliated Burning Airlines - issued a longer version of it almost immediately, called “Apollo Revisited”. As I understand it, these labels were able to release the show without the band’s permission because, being a radio broadcast, it was the radio station that owned the rights to it, and they could license it to whoever they wanted. The band then arranged to release their own, edited, version of the same show as “Live At The Apollo”, which had the band’s logo intact - thus giving it a more official look - but had four songs missing from the original broadcast. Why? You tell me. The official release meant that, unusually, the band had now given the nod to two official releases from the same tour, as the band’s Jan 82 show at the Hammersmith Odeon on the same tour had been released by the BBC in 1996.

At the time, Mark 3 were working on “Norfolk Coast”, without label support. The album was completed, and the group were seemingly prepared to release it on Coursegood, before managing to get a distribution deal in the UK with EMI. The copyright on the album remained with Coursegood. A follow up mail order live CD documenting the resultant tour was issued via the indie label Absolute, but with a Coursegood style catalogue number - “Coast To Coast” (Absolute AMD CG 3). This partnership seemed to remain in situ for each subsequent Coursegood release.

In 2007, the Mark 4 lineup played some wildly different shows in November 2007, which spawned two mail order only releases. The first was the DVD “Rattus At The Roundhouse” (Coursegood RATTUS 07), filmed during the band’s ‘30th anniversary’ gig at the venue, where they performed a set identical (ish) to the set they played there when last at the venue in 1977. A few weeks later, and the band played one of their acoustic shows in Brugge, as documented on a CD called “The Meninblack In Brugge” (Coursegood CG 004). Both releases have since been given more wide scale commercial releases on the European-based Ear Music label, and whilst both reissues have appeared in new covers (both using similar typography and design approach), it is only the latter that has been retitled second time around, now known as “Acoustic in Brugge”.

“Live At The Apollo 2010” (Coursegood APOLLO 10) is another hard to find DVD, taped on the 2010 tour at the now renamed (former) Hammersmith Odeon, documenting the typical set the band played on their “Decades Apart” tour. Initial copies included a free CD showcasing highlights of the DVD, but even CD-less copies are nearly impossible to find.

My December 2013 blog explains the reasoning behind 2012‘s “The Weekendinblack” (Coursegood CGCP 001), a triple disc mail order set including the band’s (then) new studio album “Giants”, and some bonus discs of audio and video footage from the recent band convention. The deal with EMI by this point had seemingly come to an end, and the standard CD release of “Giants” (Absolute CG 005) was another joint release between the band and Absolute. Different formats exist, with a similar catalogue number, such as a vinyl pressing, a double CD edition and the promo copy sent to purchasers of “The Weekendinblack” as an apology after delays in production of the set. The single issued to plug the album later that year, “Mercury Rising” (Absolute CG 006), was also issued by Coursegood through Absolute.

As also mentioned in that blog, was the fact that several shows on the tour were recorded for a new live album, highlights of which were condensed into 2013’s “Feel It Live” (Coursegood CG 007). Initially released as a mail order CD, it was later sold in the usual retail outlets, with no changes to the catalogue number or basic packaging. The same could not be said of the other 2013 release, “Never To Look Back: The Video Collection 1983-2012” (Coursegood CG 008), a glorious DVD release that is still only available via the band’s merchandising website. Essentially, this was an update of Epic’s 1983-1990 VHS video collection “The Meninblack In Colour”, bolstered by (virtually) all of the band’s promos from the Mark 2, 3 and 4 lineups, thus bringing the story up to date. The sleeve excitedly makes reference to some 16 bonus clips - these are a mix of previously available clips from releases like “Apollo 2010” and “SIS World Convention”, done to either document a single where no promo clip was made (“Sugar Bullets”), highlight one lineup of the band doing a version of a song recorded by another (Mark 3 previewing Mark 4’s “Summat Outanowt”, from the “On Stage On Screen” DVD), or simply to just show something interesting (Mark 3 doing an acoustic “Instead Of This” from the same gig). Also included are promos for singles that never were (“Golden Boy”) along with some previously unseen footage from the band’s Isle Of Wight festival appearance in 2012.

The 2014 tour saw the release of “Here And There: The Epic B-Sides Collection 1983-1991” (Absolute/Coursegood CG 009) on the band‘s merchandising stall. As the title suggests, this was a double CD trawl through the band’s flipsides of the period, following earlier flawed (major label) attempts which either missed half of them out (2013’s “Skin Deep - The Collection” on Music Club Deluxe) or never got off the ground (Epic had planned their own one in the early 1990s). Disc 1 deals with the standard studio B-sides, with the exception of the “Chronicles Of Vladimir” material, which are placed separately at the end of disc 2. Not only do you get all four of the Vlad related flipsides the group issued in the 80s, but you also get the second installment, “Vladimir & Sergei”, which was released only on the JJ Burnel/Dave Greenfield “solo” album “Fire And Water” in 1983, and the previously unreleased - in physical format - “Vladimir And The Pearl” (part 6), a track which never got beyond being recorded by JJ and Dave in anything other than demo form, and was made available - aurally - some years before if you phoned the SIS Telephone Hotline, before later surfacing as a stream-able audio clip on The Rat’s Lair.

The rest of disc 2 includes the “Riot Mix” version of “Hot Club”, and all of the live tracks that appeared as b-sides during the period - along with a couple that were actually issued as limited a-sides, namely “Shakin’ Like A Leaf” from 1985 and “Always The Sun” from 1990. All that is missing is the not entirely musical “An Evening With Hugh Cornwell” and the remixes of “Sweet Smell Of Success” that appeared as B-sides on the remix 12” edition of the same single. It is also worth mentioning that the live recordings are not the “revamped” mixes that were spread across the 2001 expanded edition of “All Live And All Of The Night”, but are the original mixes, meaning you get to hear snippets of “Dead Ringer” and “Down In The Sewer” in some of the fades, along with some long lost things like the “Bradford” version of “Peaches” for the first time in 23 years, and the “Madrid" version of “Was It You” in audio form for the first time in even longer. Nice.

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