Monday, March 12, 2012

The Stranglers / The Popes @ The Academy Birmingham, Saturday 10th March 2012

The Stranglers. True punk survivors. Other bands have split, reformed, done butter adverts and split up again...but The Stranglers have just kept plugging away, albeit with some pretty major line up changes along the way. Original vocalist Hugh Cornwall jumped ship 22 years ago, his replacement Paul Roberts left in 2006. Now a certain Mr Baz Warne shares lead vocals with Jean-Jacques Burnel, one of two band members still in the group from day one (to be fair keyboardist Dave Greenfield joined in ’75, so he’s practically an original member), the other being Jet, incredibly, 73 years young.

First up though, The Popes. Yep THE in Shane McGowen and The...although the lad himself has long since sloped off, pint (of gin) in hand no doubt. You can’t keep a good band down though and, despite losing their leader, the band’s now touring in support of their latest album, Outlaw Heaven (which still features Shane on some of the tracks). Like The Stranglers The Popes have had their line up changes over the years with 12 or so ex-members to date. Despite all this chopping and changing the current 6 piece seem as tight as a PVC thong on a sumo wrestler though (now that’s tight). Unsurprisingly there’s a bit of The Pogues and a touch of The Waterboys in the mix, with a spirited performance from lead singer Paul ‘Maddog’ McGuiness adding that essential punk edge. Tonight was a chance to play tracks from the current album and there’s plenty for fans of the two aforementioned bands to love about this stuff. In particular the singalong-a-protest song Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down (featuring a truly punk rock fiddle solo) and the album’s title track Outlaw Heaven hit the spot. It’s the kind of song that’s crying out to be screamed out at the top of your lungs with a pint of the black stuff in one hand and the hangover from hell lurking just around the corner. Ol’ Maddog introduced it by revealing that he’s spent some time in HMP Pentonville (for undisclosed crimes...I don’t reckon it was non-payment of a parking fine though) and I guess if you’re going to sing it you need to live it, right? Amen to that.

Time for The Stranglers. I’ve got history with this band. Sort of. One of the first records I ever bought was Golden Brown (£1.25 on 7inch vinyl...still got it too), granted it’s not indicative of most of their stuff but still, we go back a long way. With the room packed full of aging punks in black The Stranglers take to the stage to Waltzinblack (the music perhaps best known as Keith Floyd’s theme tune), receiving a pleasingly rousing reception and the first of many chants for the legendary Jet Black. Let’s face it, the guy is a legend. Born before World War Two broke out he was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2007 and yet here he is, pounding away on the drums for 90 minutes like a man, well, quarter his age. Having recently turned 60 Burnel’s wearing well too, retaining a steely glare that hints at the fact that he’s not be messed with. He’s actually a black belt 6th dan karate expert too...just a warning in case you fancy lobbing a pint at him as one misguided fool did in Liverpool recently.

The simple riffs and lyrics of Burning Up Time (from ‘77’s No More Heroes album) kick things off and several hundred middle aged blokes turn 17 again. Tonight’s more than just a history lesson though. There’s a new album out too, Giants and the set was sprinkled with a few newbies starting off with Lowlands. Musically it’s a return to their punk roots, with a hint of the Pistols Anarchy in there for good measure and it got a decent enough reception from the faithful. The big cheers were, unsurprisingly, reserved for the hits though and the original men in black were happy to oblige. Hanging Around, Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl, Peaches, No More Heroes, Duchess, Something Better can’t go far wrong with this stuff can you eh? Baz does a decent job of carrying Hugh’s tunes, what he lacks in that slightly detached and aloof delivery of Hugh’s he makes up for in a slight snarl (most noticeable on No More Heroes and Hanging Around). He did justice to the integral guitar solo on Golden Brown too, standing back when he’d finished playing and giving the audience a ‘not bad eh?’ kind of look. Speaking of virtuoso performances keyboardist Dave Greenfield was also on fine form this evening, doing his trademark ‘drinking a pint whilst playing fairly complex solos’ trick. Clever. In fact the more you listen to The Stranglers the more you realise how vital he is to their sound, not just on the obvious stuff like Golden Brown (a tune which owes its origins to him) but on pretty much all the big hits.

This being a punk gig the odd empty plastic pint glass sailed through the air from time to time but the most exciting thing to make it on the stage was a thong. A female sound engineer went to pick it up but decided against it, kicking it to the front of the stage for Baz to pick up later. Turns out it was unworn and still had its tag on. “It’s not been worn...we can’t make soup from that”. Hmmm...remind me never to go round his house for tea.

Of course this ain’t the same band that originally played these songs. It would be an impossibility to retain that sense of energy and excitement nearly 30 odd years on from their heyday and, from time to time, things perhaps became a little nice ‘n’ easy rather than nice ‘n’ sleazy but that’s a minor gripe. You only have to look out across the sea of bouncing balding heads to know that, for many, The Stranglers remain, as their new album suggests, Giants.

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