I only really became aware of The Stranglers as a musical institution after interviewing two of its members exactly one year apart. Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel and Baz Warne were both top notch interviewees – the type that look and sound threatening but when given fifteen minutes on the phone with, prove to be some of the nicest, most genuine people you’ll ever talk to. The long-standing, rebellious bassist and Hugh Cornwell’s pre-decessor gave me all of the information I would ever need to give an informed opinion on a band that outstretch my lifespan by a good three decades. After purchasing dusty 12” records from my local vintage shop and delving into the band’s endless back catalogue – which genre-hops so much you’d be forgiven for thinking that they aren’t actually a punk band – I felt like I’d become part of The Stranglers institution myself. But there was something missing, I’d never actually seen them live – an experience that Warne described to me over the phone as ‘Even more powerful than it was back in the day’. So this gig had a little bit of a legacy to live up to.
Kicking off the night was Scottish pop-punks, The Rezillos – a band that looked like age might have caught up with them a bit. Singers, Fay Fife and Eugene Reynolds looked like your parents getting up for some drunken karaoke. Nevertheless, they’re a band who can still belt an energetic and charged live performance to a slowly filling 02 Academy crowd. The packed audience was an interesting mix of middle-aged bald men wearing Clash T-shirts with Dr. Martins and teenagers, who were either their children or had walked into the wrong gig by mistake. I was squashed by chunky bloke-types into standing on the raised platform behind the PA and sound monitors after being robbed at the bar. From this angle The Rezillos guitarist looked like he was wearing a frying pan on his head – something that wouldn’t be clarified by the blurry TV screens that made you feel like you were already drunk.
After a decent break, JJ Burnel’s silver-top emerged from the side of the stage to cheers from the eager crowd, swiftly followed by Warne and keyboardist Dave Greenfield. There seemed to be no sign of the ageing founder and drummer of the band Jet Black, as a younger replacement took to the drum stool. Understandably, Black is slowly stepping down from the role due to old age (he’s 76) and therefore would inevitably be absent from a few tour shows. Although the man who founded the band whilst running an off-licence, is a vital part of the band’s living line-up, it didn’t dent my enthusiasm for the band’s set.
Not ones to waste time, the band kicked straight into ‘Longships’, a swirly fairground instrumental from their 1979 album The Raven. This is swiftly followed by the bass-driven title track that chugs along to a Ska type rhythm, with a fantastic, springing guitar line. Already, the feeling that The Stranglers are more than just a punk band was established – they effortlessly combine genres through Greenfields fast, wild keyboards, Burnel’s relenting bass. Spearheading the attack, Warne scrunches his face like an angry beast, as he flicks through guitar solos with ease, brushing-off riffs with utmost intensity. By the time the proverbial waltz chords of Golden Brown arrived, it would have been easy to accept that The Stranglers were a relatively new band, whose music has stood the test of time extremely well.
Warne eventually takes an opportunity to wipe the sweat from his shining brow to chat with the audience, ‘Back in goat’s country’ he sniggers, delivering a jibe that ignites a negative response the crowd’s majority, Geordie faithful. He may be from the wrong side of town, but it doesn’t anyone from appreciating that Warne is now the raging lifeblood of the band – a fiery continuation of the band’s incessant evolution.
Tunes flow to the roar of The Stranglers immortal sound and energy and their set eventually seems like a massive celebration. This is maintained as the band return for an encore and play their rough, but not entirely soul-less version of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ and The Kinks ‘All Day and All of The Night’. The band then returned for a second encore to play signature anthem ‘No More Heroes’ as the audience erupted into song. They might not have played all the classics but tonight will go down as one of my most memorable gigs. The Stranglers might not mean much to a lot of people in 2015, but like all great bands, they’ll persist to exist, whether you like it or not.
Reviewer: Nad Khan
Photographer: Graeme Baty