Even as they rode the wave of punk to the upper reaches of the charts, there were always undeniable psychedelic and prog influences to The Stranglers that no amount of year-zero history rewriting could disguise. One of them had a beard and was pushing 40, for Wakeman’s sake.
But the critical rod that was used to beat the Guildford four-piece – they had previous in other outfits (frontman Hugh Cornwell fleetingly playing in a band with Richard Thompson and keyboardist Dave Greenfield in prog band Rusty Butler), and they wrote unapologetically complex, keyboard-driven songs – was also what enabled them to transcend the genre.
Though quintessentially punk rock records, The Stranglers’ first two albums featured tricky time signatures, a four-part musical suite, and songs that clocked in at more than seven minutes long. So by the release of third album Black And White, a loosely conceptual record split between a black side and a white one, they were ready to push their proclivity for challenging punk preconceptions even further.
Though it pulses with punk energy, Toiler On The Sea is a string-laden, sea-faring epic with spacey-sounding squelches, JJ Burnel’s familiar juddering bass and Manzarek-styled keyboard wig-outs. The intro alone is two minutes in length. It’s The Doors and the prog-leaning arrangements of Television who they most recall throughout, yet The Stranglers were also known to write songs that featured polyphony – independent melodic lines played together – a compositional skill used by Bach as well as prog artists Gentle Giant, Kansas, Camel and Marillion.
Possibly deemed a bit too far out, yet nevertheless included on a bonus EP and now something of an album cornerstone, a cover of Bacharach & David’s Walk On By pushes all the prog levers up to the maximum. It’s a brilliantly deranged version dominated so totally by Dave Greenfield’s tripped-out keyboard solo and Cornwell’s wild soloing that the vocals are almost incidental.
They backed this up with their 1979 album The Raven, an even more progressively experimental album complete with 3D cover art. But it was Black And White that paved the way.
Then, in spring 1980, The Stranglers played two shows at the Rainbow in London without Cornwell, who was in Pentonville Prison for drug possession. Among the guests over the two nights were Robert Fripp, Peter Hammill, Steve Hillage and Nik Turner from Hawkwind (and performances from the shows were released in 1995 as a live album, The Stranglers And Friends). The Men In Black were well and truly out of the prog closet.