Whether you love it or loath it, Black And White signalled a more ambitious future for the Stranglers post-punk. Roger Kasper delves into the album that divided opinion.
Black And White, The Stranglers third album, polarised opinion. But for many of their fans, it’s their finest. And that’s saying something. Following on from the incredible debut Rattus Norvegicus and the follow-up No More Heroes (which was brimming with the extremely rich leftovers from the creative burst they had honed over years of painstaking gigging), the band suddenly found themselves ‘dumped’ in a remote location under pressure from record label United Artists to produce more “chart-friendly” goods. And they almost fell short. More of this later.
Black And White hit the shelves on 12 May 1978. Just four months earlier, as a gig at the San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom finished, Johnny Rotten uttered those now immortal words: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” And punk was dead! (Copyright: everyone who believes the Sex Pistols were the be-all and end-all).
Indeed, there were even rumours of The Stranglers following the Pistols’ lead – with bassist JJ Burnel said to have quit and lead singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell predicting the band wouldn’t last the year.
The Stranglers, of course, were never punk. Or were they? The debate may never end.
They were catapulted into the headlines thanks to punk’s notoriety, and the band certainly made the most of it to get exposure. But musically and lyrically, they were streets apart from the punks who told us there was ‘no future,’ ‘No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones’ and ‘Be a man, can a mystery man…’
They also had the energy that the Pistols, The Clash and The Damned certainly had in spades. The small punk scene was incestuous, with bands checking out their rivals – sometimes as mates, other times with violent outcomes.
The Stranglers always stood out from the crowd. No tartan trousers. No overt political sloganing. Their humour was subtle and, sadly, overlooked by those who focused on the alleged misogyny and macho status of the members.
“The Stranglers always stood out from the crowd. No tartan trousers. No overt political sloganing.”Tweet
Roger Kasper, Punktuation Mag.
With a keyboard player in Dave Greenfield, who had a moustache, ponytail and wore a sheepskin jacket; a drummer in Jet Black who was old enough to be the young punk rockers’ dad; Hugh Cornwell fresh out of university in Sweden where he studied chemistry (not the sort that would later get him into so much trouble) and a classically-trained guitarist called Jean-Jacques Burnel who would put the bass guitar at the centre of the song and inspire so many greats like post-punk’s Peter Hook, they were already the outsiders on the scene.
The first album was part pub-rock (Grip), part pomp-rock (Sewer), part rock-reggae (Peaches), part-ballad-poetry (Princess). So many parts – but actually very little punk. London Lady for sure, and maybe Ugly if only for its naughty language and its subject. For me, Ugly has grown into one of the finest moments of a defining album. But I digress.
Then No More Heroes was unleashed on to an unsuspecting public in the same year, spawned two classic punk hits – Heroes and Something Better Change – had more naughty words including a reference to ‘wogs’ for which many miss the anti-racism irony. Bring on the Nubiles was their ‘first love song’ with the classic refrain: ‘Lemme, lemme, fuck ya, fuck ya.’ And that’s just the printable part!
So, following a whirlwind year in which they released four singles, two albums, toured constantly, were barely out of the papers or not on a Top of the Pops episode, and when punk had ‘officially’ died, where did the Stranglers go next?
The answer? Iceland, via Northamptonshire.
With the album in the can in February 1978, the band headed off with a media entourage to launch it in that obvious place, Reykjavik.
While Freddie Mercury and Queen had dwarves serving cocaine for their album launch, the Stranglers went pony trekking and visited volcanic springs in a 48-hour adventure.
As Sounds photographer Jill Furmanovsky wrote in the foreword to ‘There Goes The Charabanc – The Stranglers in Iceland,’ it was a ‘bleak but striking landscape.’
The same could be said about the Black and White album cover, probably one of the most striking and simplistic LP covers.
Taken by Ruan O’Lochlainn during the recording session at his Bearshanks Lodge studio near Oundle in the middle of England. It was an isolated farmhouse where the band spent two “snow-swept months during the white winter of 1977-78” according to The Burning Up Times online fanzine.
And Hugh adds: “I seem to remember the whole period in my head seems to be covered in snow. It was winter…it was very bleak, like Russia or somewhere. It was like we’d been sent to Siberia”.
The cover tells the story, visually. It’s bleak, stark, menacing. Isolating.
Your eye first catches the large figure of Jet Black in his black overcoat; to his left is keyboard wizard Dave Greenfield in black leather jacket and Mod two-tone shoes; Hugh Cornwell has his head bowed – again dressed all in black. At the far left is JJ Burnel, crouched down with a white right sleeve contrasting with the rest of his black outfit.
There’s no reference to either the band or the album title on the front cover.
John Robb, friend of the band and creator of Louder Than War explains the album cover: “The album’s very title was perfect. These were black and white times. There was no space for being in the middle. Everything was polarised. The cover of the album summed it up, the band scowling – they never looked cooler, more menacing. Dressed in black and white they were making as stark a sartorial statement as their music was.”
“The album’s very title was perfect. These were black and white times.” John RobbTweet
We haven’t even discussed the music yet!
It was the first Stranglers album that they had planned – Hugh’s musical ideas and JJ’s lyrics on one side and JJ’s musical ideas and Hugh’s lyrics on the other – though it didn’t quite work out that way. The band even wanted Side A to be pressed in white vinyl. That would get the memorabilia group on Facebook salivating if that ever happened now!
As JJ said to The Burning Up Times: “Everything was getting polarised for us. Being cast aside by our own peer group…and a developing siege mentality. We said ‘Fuck ‘em. We don’t care – we’ll be all alone.’ All these so-called mates of ours, fuck ‘em – you’re either with us or against us. We didn’t fucking care – it was, even more, The Stranglers versus the rest of them. We were sufficiently strong enough to get away with it, so it was an expression of our times.
“We saw everything in black and white. Everything was polarised, we were polarised and we started to be aware we could be quite global physically and also intellectually questioning. So we thought one side could be melodic and the other side brutal, hard and soft – because The Stranglers always had a brutal side as well as a melodic side.”
“We said ‘Fuck ‘em. We don’t care – we’ll be all alone.’ All these so-called mates of ours, fuck ‘em – you’re either with us or against us. We didn’t fucking care. JJ BurnelTweet
And Hugh says: “John (JJ) came up with the idea of wearing all black clothes and my idea was to have the album called The Meninblack (during the Bearshanks sessions, Jet was reading the UFO magazine Flying Saucer Review and discovered an article on the previously pretty unknown phenomena of the men in black – aeons before Will Smith got hold of it!).
“The album was to have a black side and a white side as a cumulative thing. As the songs became finished it became clear that, well – that’s a black one, and that’s a white one.
“The beautiful idea of the black side and the white side didn’t actually work in the end so it was rather good that the limited edition (vinyl) was grey.”
Put the needle on the record and if you’re not sold after 30 seconds, then check out now!
Stranglers fans had been softened up for the forthcoming project with the b-side of top ten hit No More Heroes – in the Shadows made it on to the black side of the album, a very bleak, sinister, bass-driven dirge.
And before the album even came out, January 1978 was marked by the single 5 Minutes gracing the Top 20. A powerful rant about the rape of a woman Susie – who also used to work for the Pistols – at a flat-share where JJ lived with, among others, Wilko Johnson (they were away at the time). Consequently, they quit the flat, JJ wrote the lyrics which was delivered through forceful riffs and a stark studio-based video.
The b-side, Rok It To the Moon, featured Cornwell’s lyrical masterwork (‘I’ll see you up there if you get the inclination’), was quirky but also referenced cannibalism (a subject they’d revisit).
The single’s sleeve was black except for the song title in red dot matrix lettering. Plenty of black surrounded and continued to surround the band and, after the album, they adopted the ‘uniform’ of only wearing black to confuse and perplex those wanting to put them in a box and label them. (The irony, of course, is that they became labelled ‘the meninblack’ (among other things!).
And, finally, to the album! The power from 5 Minutes continued with the album opener Tank which blew the living room speakers. Then there was the infamous visit to Amsterdam, the Hell’s Angels and more wordplay on Peaches Mark II – the white reggae Nice ‘N’ Sleazy – the top 20 hit single. The customary waltz, Outside Tokyo, then Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front) based around Cornwell’s experiences at uni and the band’s run-in with Swedish ’50s influenced youth movement the Raggare. Rise of the Robots predicted we would soon be in thrall and ruled by robots – Amazon anyone?
The epic Toiler on the Sea closes the white side – originally dreamed up by the band as being the light side! And the song coincidentally gave a moniker to bizarre-coiffured ’80s electronic pop outfit A Flock Of Seagulls. Does the Stranglers’ influence never end?? Music by JJ, it talks about Cornwell’s 77/78 disastrous Christmas spent with a Japanese girlfriend. ‘I lost her in the fog…..’
“Black and White is the first post-punk album. It made the big jump from the punk era into the starker and darker world just beyond.” John RobbTweet
Darkness envelopes us with side two opener Curfew, referencing Germany’s love affair with the US; Threatened – just a repetitive power-drum beat throughout but so evocative; the aforementioned In The Shadows; then the band’s first on-record segue, Do You Wanna? and Death And Night And Blood (ritual suicide), and finally the closer Enough Time. The band had to rustle this one up quickly as the running time was only 37 minutes at the end of the sessions, which ends with a morse code message, static and the lyric slowing and slowing to an end.
As Robb says: “Black and White is the first post-punk album. It made the big jump from the punk era into the starker and darker world just beyond. This was the early eighties of nuclear bomb fear and apocalyptic commentary. It created a whole new sound that took the aggression of punk and pulled it inside out. The Stranglers took their whole sound and pulled it in every direction possible and created a whole new way to play music.”
And to think the Bee Gees kept it off the No1 spot in the UK!
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I’m Roger Kasper, 55. A punk since October 77 when the Stranglers rocked Top of the Pops with No More Heroes. Journalist since 1983 with stints on national newspapers and magazines and editor of local papers. I’m Gravesend born and dragged up I keep poultry, garden, run and generally make a nuisance of myself!