Live review: The Stranglers @ O2 Academy

By David Flanigan (@DavFlan)

In an interview with The Nottingham Post a fortnight prior to the commencement of their 2017 UK tour, The Stranglers’ frontman Baz Warne was asked how a band now well over 40 years into their career continue to sell tours out. “I would say it’s probably ‘cos we’re really fucking good,” was his wisecracked response, half-joke though it was, it is the sort of pleasantry that is a far cry from the band’s well documented less-than-cordial history with all corners of the British press.

Self-imposed exiles of the 1970s punk rock scene, The Stranglers have rode years of genre-surfing and something of a PR apocalypse to enjoy a mid-Noughties renaissance, becoming an annual sold-out fixture in the British springtime concert listings in the process. An O2 Academy packed to the rafters for an evening with fifty-somethings in well-worn rat-and-raven-emblazoned shirts in early March is now as much a fixture in the Glasgow calendar as July Saturdays of orange-clad flutists inflicting their bile on the city populace.

Delirium greets keyboardist Dave Greenfield’s opening synth tones of Rattus Norvegicus classics Hanging Around and (Get A) Grip (On Yourself), but The Stranglers do not trade exclusively in classics. Few bands possess the conviction to make such sweeping changes to their touring set year-on-year. To drop a track as iconic as the haunting harpsichord waltz that is Golden Brown for their 2016 Black and White tour would be an unthinkable move for a band in The Stranglers’ elder statesmen position, especially ones that typically would trade in personal setlist assembly for nostalgia-baiting. Plenty hits are rotated out or remain on hiatus: Tank, Duchess and Nice in Nice but those choice few that survive the cull: No More Heroes, Peaches and their stellar cover of Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By, are greeted rapturously.

Though The Stranglers became notorious for their acerbic nature and lyrics bleeding with misanthropy – wearing the hatred and negative press they so consistently accrued as a badge of honour, misdirected as a lot of the former was, in hindsight – they are oddly at their most captivating live when performing some of their quieter pieces. Like a subtle European breeze through the evening’s swelter, a mid-set run of Always the Sun, Strange Little Girl and Golden Brown steadies the crowd to an enraptured sway; the most-former is one of the band’s true live gems, and its call and response chorus is utterly stirring.

With original lead vocalist Hugh Cornwell now the best part of three decades departed, and cult hero/drummer Jet Black retiring from playing live due to ill health, the current Stranglers line-up is not the one that emblazoned a generation ago’s walls in their teenage years. Yet, Warne is a wild-eyed, snarling Geordie jackal of a frontman- devilishly grinning ear-to-ear at all times, with bassist and sole remaining founding member JJ Burnel his skulking po-faced wingman, their gait is professional, but loose – a confidence-rich stage presence honed from years of touring.

Though there remains a school of thought that The Stranglers ended after Cornwell’s acrimonious exit, plenty more recent material receives an airing – Freedom Is Insane and Time Was Once on My Side from 2012’s Giants, with the wholly underrated Relentless of 2006’s Suite XVI opening the encore.

Without Cornwell and Black it may never feel like their heyday once more, but the crowds that continue to flock to The Stranglers are not paying solely to re-live the heyday. Warne was indeed only half-joking – 43 years in, The Stranglers are still really fucking good.