Stranglers sui generis

The Stranglers: Not only did they match a confluence of styles – prog rock, punk rock, psychedelic, art rock, New Wave – to their four highly idiosyncratic personalities, but they juxtaposed various elements of these styles in the most bewildering of ways, with many of their prime tracks pairing prog chops and metric twitches to psych/punk sonorities. More confounding were the ways in which their stylistic detours subverted the central tenants of a given idiom. How might one define “Peaches”: a funk song with the rhythm track wiped in favor of a metronomic beat approximated by drummer Jet Black? Is “Nice n’ Sleazy” supposed to be a reggae track, with Black forgoing that idiom’s side-tom taps to mimic guitarist Hugh Cornwell’s choppy 1/3 roll, above which bassist JJ Burnel and keyboardist Dave Greenfield sweep the proceedings into a steamy, sonic haze at the virtual gap betwixt the Doors and concurrent (Barry Andrews era) XTC?

Vocally, the Stranglers often forwent singing in favor of ‘play-acting’ the lyrics verbally, such as with Burnel’s drunken, lecherous tone on “Princess of the Street” and Greenfield’s snarling dark-alley drawl on “Do Ya Wanna”. Surely all these topics had been sung about by other bands before, notably the Rolling Stones. But Mick Jagger always sounded like Mick Jagger, whether he was shagging a tramp in the first person, or singing about a seedy nightwalker in the narrative tense. This play-acting of the words would have been dismissed as “goofing off at the mic” by earlier bands, because no one had theretofore succeeded in presenting such vocal characteristics in a musically solvent way, free from mawkishness and self-effacing irony (ala Frank Zappa.)

Furthermore, the Stranglers’ ensemblic interplay made for unique inversions to the lead vs. rhythm section norm. At times, the sinewy slabs of Burnel hammered down the front while Greenfield and Cornwell walked around them. In other instances, Burnel and Greenfield would interlock at the melodic mainframe whilst Cornwell splashed shapeless shards of sound from sideways, analogous to Eno. A chord was seldom strummed, but formed instead by the tonal sum of their arpeggiated, ensemblic interplay. Harmolodically speaking, the Stranglers were the most vertically-rich band this side of Yes and Gentle Giant.

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