[30 May 2005]
Vintage footage of Britain’s original punk bands in action is a difficult and wonderful thing to find. Don Letts documented much of the scene in his Punk Rock Movie, but its poor distribution, not to mention the quality of his eight-millimeter footage, leaves something to be desired. And, of course, many videos from the period focus on the Sex Pistols and the Clash but hardly give more than a passing nod to any of the other bands who played key roles in the movement. And love them or hate them, the Stranglers were one of those defining bands.
Formed in 1974 in Chiddingfold, England, the Stranglers (arguably) predated and outlived the punk movement. Original members Jean-Jacques Burnel (bass, vocals), Dave Greenfield (keyboards), and Jet Black (drums) soldiered on even after the departure of guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell in the early ‘90s. Like few other punk bands (Siouxsie and the Banshees being a notable exception), the Stranglers stayed alive by expanding on their early sound, and even managed a U.S. hit in 1988 with their far-from-punk cover of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”. Having pop hits was hardly the only threat to their punk pedigree: Like the much maligned Vibrators, the Stranglers have often been accused of jumping on the punk bandwagon for commercial reasons. As evidence, journalists frequently pointed to their age, their use of keyboards, and (biggest sin of all) the long hair sported by Greenfield and Black. What made them stand out the most from the rest of the class of ‘77, however, was their image as chauvinist pigs, well earned in songs like “London Lady”, “Bring on the Nubiles”, and “Peaches”. Still, the Stranglers had a strong following among punks, and their dark, loud, aggressive music fit well with the other bands of the day, even if Greenfield sounded a bit too much like Ray Manzarek at times.
That’s why the band’s new DVD, documenting a 1978 live performance in San Francisco, should be of interest to most fans of British punk. Other than a video collection released in 2003, this seems to be the only DVD widely available in the U.S. that shows the early Stranglers in action. It was shot by Joe Rees, founder of Target Video, who realized the potential of video early on and seemingly went to countless shows and filmed just about every cool band of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. For evidence, just watch the Target Video trailer that comes as a bonus on this disc and you’ll find footage of everyone from Flipper to Tuxedomoon. In fact, the trailer might be a better viewing experience than the main program.
Comprising songs from the Stranglers’ 1977 debut and sophomore albums, Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, Live 1978 clocks in at around 30 minutes. Although there are seven songs on the track list, in reality there are just six: the closer is just the audio of debut single “Get a Grip” played over the credits. As you might expect for something shot in 1978, the video and audio aren’t very good quality, a fact that the 5.1 surround mix can’t remedy. You’ll need to turn your speakers up loud, and even then you probably won’t like what you hear. The Stranglers seem to be in fairly poor form at this show, although one can’t hear enough details in the mix to be sure. Hugh Cornwell’s microphone is out for a large portion of “Bring on the Nubiles”, and once it is fixed, the vocals remain indecipherable. Greenfield plays a horrible, rambling keyboard solo on “Dagenham Dave”. When the band isn’t playing, it’s insulting the audience. At the first sign of applause, someone (and honestly, the video is so poor it’s hard to tell who) shouts, “Shut up. We don’t need it!” Then he bitches about local radio station KSAN. As if the shambolic sound and the showers of insults aren’t bad enough, Rees has added a few dated video effects to “Dead Ringer”. Oddly, the crowd seems to be pogoing happily, so maybe something was lost in the translation to video, but it’s hard to tell.
There must be some better vintage live footage of the Stranglers out there somewhere. A couple of tracks recorded at the Hope & Anchor in 1977 appeared on a Warner Bros. punk compilation (simply titled Punk) in 1992, and they show the band in a fine form that would be appreciated by any punk fan. Live 1978, on the other hand, is for hardcore Stranglers fans only.