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Strangled: the “Black And White” album

By Phil Knight.

Picture for a moment a world in which the most significant practitioners of every particular musical style were written out of the history of that movement. For example, imagine The Beatles being excluded from the story of the Sixties beat boom; or Charlie Parker being mysteriously passed over in retrospectives of bebop; or King Tubby being omitted from narratives on the evolution of dub reggae. Such acts of neglect might seem unthinkable, and yet there is one genre whose self-appointed custodians do ensure the marginalisation of its greatest exponents, and that genre is punk.

For The Stranglers were the greatest punk band, not just in terms of commercial success, but also artistically. Though their peers often affected to shun them, it is remarkable how the group’s bass-heavy sound and gnostic, alienated worldview percolated throughout the genre, until, a couple of years after the initial punk explosion, almost every other band had come to sound like them. The Stranglers were the eye of the hurricane, the black hole at the centre of the punk universe, a present absence without whom much of the history of punk seems inexplicable, yet is chronicled anyway.

So just why are The Stranglers marginalised in this way? The usual reasons given are the band’s predilection for violence and misogyny, their hostile attitude to writers and journalists, their age and prior existence to punk’s Year Zero, and their disinterest in attaining success in the USA. There is truth in all of these assertions, yet they only go so far. Go beyond the sexism’n’violence that marks out their early reputation and one finds that The Stranglers’ music explores a multitude of often bizarre and seemingly unrelated subjects, such as UFOs, Japanese ritual suicide, the Cold War, European integration, genetic engineering, religion, conspiracy theories, the Vikings, the automisation of production, and the prophecies of Nostradamus.

What immediately becomes clear is that The Stranglers are a very difficult band to write about because they are very difficult to understand. The following is an extract from my upcoming book Strangled, whose purpose is not to provide a comprehensive history of the group, nor to chronicle the evolution of every one of their songs, but to lay down a theoretical basis from which their work as a whole can be understood. Some of the subject matter and issues uncovered by this investigation may prove unpalatable to some readers, especially those of a rationalist bent and/or a high social status (the two are of course related), and this will give an early clue as to why so many of our cultural guardians would like to pretend that The Stranglers had never existed.

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The release of The Stranglers’ second long player, the combative “No More Heroes” in September 1977, marked a creative hiatus for the band, as the material that the group had accumulated over the embryonic stage of their career was now almost exhausted. For the first time, the group would have to generate a suite of new songs from scratch – to write to order – and the radical direction they were about to take was presaged by a song that emerged from the “Heroes” sessions. “In The Shadows” was released as the B-side of the eponymous “No More Heroes” single, over the protests of producer Martin Rushent, who deplored what he saw as its self-indulgence and lack of commercial appeal. However, with its sinister dub-spacey ambience, spidery guitar, wraith-like keyboards and ominous, trepidatious bass, it was a window into the future. Unheralded, its evocation of pervasive urban dread laid the template for post-punk.

The band were packed off to Bearshanks Lodge, a farm near Oundle in rural Northamptonshire, for two snowbound months during the winter of 1977-78 to write and rehearse new material. As well as the music for the group’s next album, a side effect of the band’s isolation was the revelation of Jet Black’s interest in UFOs, as he had brought along his subscription copies of Flying Saucer Review to while away any spare time. As Hugh Cornwell was to relate to Gary Kent:

We became aware of the fact that Jet was reading these UFO magazines, and he explained to me the whole idea about these UFOs, and I said to John and Dave: ‘You gotta listen to this, it’s amazing what Jet’s reading – it would make an amazing album.’ Everyone got into it, the idea of the Meninblack.

At the same time another, apparently simultaneous, notion was hatched in their minds:

We were very frustrated at being labeled by so many journalists and none of these labels we were very happy with. Out of that came the idea of not wearing any colours, so by wearing black, we wouldn’t be giving any indications by our clothes.

It is somewhat odd that the group thought that both these ideas, that of the alien Meninblack and that of themselves dressed as The Men In Black, were unrelated, and just happened to arrive concurrently, as they were clearly intimately linked. The extra-terrestrial Meninblack were in reality an externalised abstraction of the dangerous, liminal currents present within the ambiguous structure of the band itself, and the negative effects that The Stranglers believed the aliens had on their career were to a great extent representations of their own self-destructive tendencies. The Meninblack were a reflexive phenomenon, and the group’s failure to realise this meant that they had would have no control over them.

Notable also was that in identifying with the colour black, they had identified with the inferior element of the white/black status binary, a binary they explicitly acknowledged with the title of their third album, “Black And White,” which they recorded at TW Studios during February 1978, and released on March 12th. Expectations were so high that there were 134,000 advance orders for the record, though what the fans were about to receive was going to be a forbidding departure from the The Stranglers’ previous work.

The sleeve picture, taken by Ruan O’Lochlainn at Bearshanks, depicted the group set against a stark white background, which signified the snowbound conditions in which the music was written. It also signified the blinding flash of a nuclear explosion, and a new drug that had been added to the group’s narcotic inventory: cocaine, which now supplemented their staple diet of hashish and LSD. Conceptually, the record was divided between a White side and a Black side, and sonically, the record was unprecedented. Gone was the warm, sleazy throb of the first two LPs, and in its place was a kind of glacial muscularity. The band had taken two of their key influences, the spaciousness of dub reggae and the arhythmic terseness of Captain Beefheart, and fused them together in a disturbing new compound. Certainly, a similar kind of dread-invoking space had been anticipated by avant-gardists such as Cabaret Voltaire and Pere Ubu, but The Stranglers were unique in giving this sound a real sense of oppressive mass.

With “Black And White” The Stranglers had successfully abstracted their sound. Dave Greenfield’s Hammond keyboards, increasingly fed through the Mini Moog, had lost much of their melodicism, and become spectral and ambient. Cornwell’s guitar started to meander into a cat’s cradle of sound. Jet Black’s drumming became less linear and more structural, opening up the spaces for the other instruments to drift through. The one instrument whose presence didn’t attenuate was Burnel’s bass, which became even more brutally dominant, its tone channeling deeper into the listener’s marrow. This awesome, hideous sound, whose nadir has never really been equalled, largely manufactured itself, as Cornwell was to explain to Jim Drury:

The reason it occurred in the first place was because John had a speaker cabinet that was about the size of a door with 16 or so ten-inch speakers, which are a bit small to be taking bass. They all blew one after the other, so he ended up with a huge bass cabinet with blown speakers, but the sound got dirtier and dirtier, and became a feature of the band.

This corrupted, subterranean tumult arouses deep disquiet in the listener, and as such evokes a feeling that the German religious scholar Rudolf Otto identified as Holy Dread. Otto believed that religious feeling, a sense of what he called “the numinous,” evolved from primeval man’s experience of the “uncanny,” that borderline area that abuts the supernatural, and which evolves in mature religious form into the irrational co-existence of God’s goodness and God’s wrath. Both Sigmund Freud and Emile Durkheim also recognised this duality; that the taboos that surrounded the divine reached out in two directions – the sacred and the profane – and that each had a contagious quality that could pollute the other, inevitably summoning the irrational, destructive forces of the supernatural. When rock music is at its most anti-structural, it also tends to evoke this ambiguous feeling of wonder-dread, and indeed that is a large part of the music’s appeal – it reacquaints us with that magical sense of the power of the numinous that the disenchantment of the world has attempted to eliminate. However, the danger to the musicians themselves, devoid of the ritual precautions undertaken by those who professionally interact with the supernatural, is considerable. The sound that The Stranglers were evolving was a manifestation of their ever-deeper immersion into the numinous.

Lyrically too, the group had widened their horizons, their concerns on the album focusing on the related issues of the ever-increasing encroachment of technology into daily life, and the terrifying implications of technology that underlay the Cold War. Like the sacred, technology also simultaneously reaches out in two directions; in the bureaucratising inclination to proscribe and limit human spontaneity, and in the granting to mankind of superhuman powers of extension and destruction. And both of these, following Ellul, are aspects of the city’s tendencies towards slavery and warfare.

The scorching opening track on the LP, “Tank,” sardonically exults in the Promethean powers granted by modern weaponry:

Can you see the bullet’s high velocity

It can blow a man’s arm off at the count of three

If I get my hands on one of those I’m something to watch out for

The song highlights the strange paradox of the individual in the Army: being granted the godlike ability to apportion life or death, while at the same time being mercilessly restricted by regimentation. Hence the strange aura of irrationality that always appends itself to the military, and that found its ultimate expression in the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, a kind of stand-off between exterminating angels. Cornwell detected an unusual affinity between the military and the music industry, as he explained in “Song By Song”:

We’d done a lot of touring and I saw a similarity between being on the road and belonging to a military organisation. The last verse is very much about being on tour.  I always used to send cards home to my parents, telling them where I was.

The next song, “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy,” the only single to be taken from the album, was something of a throwback to the innuendo-laden fare of the first two LPs, and was another allusion to the band’s experiences with the Amsterdam chapter of the Hell’s Angels. The title, being a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” briefly attracted the attention of the American crooner’s lawyers. Malcolm McLaren recognised a good idea when he heard it, and had Sid Vicious releasing his version of “My Way” a couple of months later. In the September of 1978, “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy” would earn supreme notoriety when the band performed it alongside a troupe of strippers at their headline concert in Battersea Park, an event that confirmed the band’s utter incorrigibility in the minds of the music press, who pruriently splashed as many photos of the disgraceful event as they could over their news pages. The NME in particular would subject their male adolescent readership to an unending cavalcade of pictures of the cavorting young ladies, no doubt leaving them suitably educated and chastened.

This exuberance is quickly diffused by perhaps the most sober and profound song on the album, “Outside Tokyo,” a waltz-time piece that laments the invention of clock time. In doing so it is the first explicit expression of Cornwell’s underlying animus towards the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation, because as Lewis Mumford was to point out in “Technics and Civilisation,” “the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” In the opening verse Cornwell identified the link between mechanical time and industrialism:

Somewhere outside Tokyo invented time

Someone in a factory invented time

Mumford believed that the mechanical clock was the key device behind the disenchantment of the world. It was the paradigmatic machine that enabled the invention of all the others, marking “a perfection toward which other machines aspire,” and placing an abstract grid over biological time, in turn forcing humans to adopt strange, unnatural patterns of behaviour. It compelled man to wake earlier and sleep later, synchronised his actions with those of others in the division of labour, and, through what Ellul called its “knife-edge divisions,” allowed his movements and motions to be analysed and manipulated in terms of their productive efficiency, a process that saw its ultimate expression in Taylorism. As Mumford was to explain:

The clock… is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration… in terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar, but by the events that occupy it.

The tyrannical regime of the clock is modern man’s greatest oppressor, and yet has come to be assumed as so normal that its pernicious influence largely goes unnoticed. Yet such a bizarrely compulsive time-sensibility was unprecedented in human history. Oswald Spengler compared the Western conception of time with that of the Classical Greek, noting:

Till the epoch of Pericles, the time of day was estimated merely by the length of shadow… prior to that there was no exact subdivision of the day… it is a bizarre, but nevertheless psychologically exact, fact that the Hellenic physics… neither knew the use nor felt the absence of the time-element, whereas we on the other hand work in thousands of a second.

Lewis Mumford observed that, up to the 13th Century, the pressure for the development of the mechanical clock, which would become the midwife for the rationalising science that would one day side-line God, came from the Benedictine monasteries, who needed a means to mark the Canonical Hours that had been decreed by Pope Sabanianus. The strange paradox of mechanical time was that it evolved from a religious impulse to posit a mechanical universe in which God was an external director, and the Church his only interpolator, so as to counter the animist idea of Him being immanent in nature and accessible to heretics. But the mechanical science that the Catholic Church instigated would eventually attempt to remove God, and the supernatural in general, from the universe as an unnecessary hypothesis. The unnoticed danger, as we have seen, is that the supernatural does not go away.

And so the forlorn Hugh Cornwell recognises that, due to the new industrial powerhouse of Japan with its “50 million watches with a strap to sell,” the reign of rationalism can only become more despotic still. All he can do is console himself with a lullaby:

If they should ever sell out

That would be the end of

Be the end of

Be the end of time

Following this, “Sweden (All Quiet On The Eastern Front)” was a mordant appraisal of the land that had nurtured Cornwell’s antinomianism – he had lived and studied in Sweden early in his musical career. The Apollonian sense of neatness and order that pervaded Sweden seems to have disturbed the singer profoundly. As he was to tell Jim Drury:

The Swedish authorities had amazing powers and it was quite remarkable the way the population obeyed them… There was this state control going on all the time and I found that a bit disquieting.

It was the apparently benign nature of that Scandinavian nation’s orderliness that Cornwell found most perturbing; the authorities made helpful suggestions that were designed to promote well-being, such as turning on vehicle fog-lights when visibility was reduced, and the population passively obeyed. Alcohol was also restricted for the benefit of social order:

It was quite remarkable, having to show your identity card to purchase alcohol. There was also a restriction on how much alcohol you could buy every month.

Cornwell’s aversion to Sweden recalls the work of the German esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and his idea that there were two mutually opposing poles of evil, which he called “Ahriman” and “Lucifer.” Ahriman is the concept of evil that we are most familiar with; that of the coarse, compulsive need for material wealth and sensual experience, regardless of the consequences for self or others. Lucifer, on the other hand, is the vice of spiritual pride and the sense of superiority that results from self-denial and altruism; the belief that being able to rise above the corruption of the world makes one too good for it.

For Cornwell, Sweden was a kind of Luciferian hell, its progressive “Nordic model” of egalitarian social democracy a foretaste of the ultimate destiny of the rationalisation of the world, where the crooked timber of humanity is finally levelled straight. It was boringly perfect, drearily bereft of spontaneity and impropriety, with all vices permitted but carefully circumscribed and rationed. Big Brother may have said it was the place to go, but the oppression the Swedish Big Brother subjected its populace to was that of incontestable good manners and common sense. Indeed, pious, risk-averse Nordic Luciferism has since infected the rest of the Western world, much to the delight of its bourgeois liberals.

However, Sweden still had its dark, irrational side, and The Stranglers were to collide with a particularly virulent manifestation of this during their “No More Heroes” tour in September 1977. The Stockholm University riots of the 1950s may have given birth to the “rebels without a cause”, but that decade also gave birth to another American-influenced subculture at the other end of the social spectrum. The Raggare were rural working-class youths who were brought together by their enthusiasm for hot-rodding imported American cars, but they soon gave rise to a full-blown moral panic that only accelerated in the ensuing decades due to their aggressive stance towards other youth cults. Dismissive of hippies, they were openly violent towards Punks, and the Sex Pistols had been involved in a fracas with the Raggare during their tour of Sweden a couple of months earlier. When the unsuspecting Stranglers arrived for what they thought would be a particularly uneventful concert in a chalet on the outskirts of the small town of Klippan, they were unaware that this apparently anonymous town was a Raggare stronghold, and that the Raggare themselves viewed their presence as a deliberate provocation.

Just as the group were setting up their equipment, several hundred Raggare arrived in their convertibles, brandishing chainsaws and other weaponry, and proceeded to destroy the The Stranglers’ equipment and assault their road crew. Some of the group members, along with the remaining crew, responded by hurling improvised molotov cocktails at the Raggare’s cars, setting light to several of them. After the smoke had cleared, the police proceeded to escort the band out of Sweden for their own safety. Not for the last time, the group had unconsciously managed to find the precise boundary where order turns to disorder, where Apollo meets Dionysus.

If the song “Sweden” envisaged a rationalised, technologized future as being one of sterile tedium, then “Hey! (Rise Of The Robots)” did just the reverse. Inspired by Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” it evoked the sheer chaos of technology with its skittering rhythm and the delinquent saxophone of Laura Logic. In “The Technological Society,” Jacques Ellul had observed how both technology and the associated behaviours that it demanded of its users, which he classed together in the term “technique,” had what he called a “geometric” vector. By this he meant that all new technologies suggested unanticipated applications, which in turn prompted other, hitherto undreamt of new technologies. In this sense, the growth of technology and technique is uncontrolled – it spreads in unexpected directions, with no heed to the social or cultural consequences of its propagation. Ellul noted that unlike all previous human civilisations, which tended to proscribe technological innovations if their ruling minorities were unable to intuit the consequences of adopting them, Western civilisation is unique in its reluctance to make any kind of moral appraisal of technologies and their associated techniques. Whether technological progress puts thousands, even millions, of people out of work; whether it pollutes the atmosphere; whether it enables the nuclear destruction of entire cities; all this is immaterial when weighed against the faith that technological progress is ultimately benign. It is the naivety of this faith in such an amoral force that led Oswald Spengler to classify Western civilisation as “Faustian.”

As a phenomenon that is detached from human control, technology is also therefore fertile ground for paranoia. It is one of the “hidden” forces that shapes individual destinies, but is rarely recognised as such. Military and surveillance technologies; techniques for processing criminals and dissidents; sophisticated methods of advertising and propaganda; these are both products of, and further influences on, the wider network of technological innovation, and yet so insidious are they, and so greatly do they atomise the individual, that it is hard to believe that they are not the products of the most fiendishly intricate plans.

What “Hey! (Rise Of The Robots)” does recognise is that technologies developed by human minds, to facilitate human desires both conscious and unconscious, will ultimately replicate the flawed and contradictory nature of humanity. After a period as uncomplaining servants, Cornwell anticipates that the robots will resort to the familiar industrial strife that afflicted the Britain of the 1970s:

They’re gonna want a union soon

Oil break that’s dead on noon

Ultimately, robots will suffer the same fate as the men who built the Tower of Babel. Their speech will be confounded; they will leave off the building of their own city.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil Knight is a professional engineer who may well have built and installed the escalator you are standing on as you read this from your tablet. One day, while watching a batch of diesel engines travel along a production line, he had an epiphany regarding the sheer implausibility of Western civilisation, and undertook to use the methodical strategies of the engineer to disassemble the unacknowledged presumptions and conventions that underpin how our Faustian society is constructed. Though a disbeliever in contemporary notions of progress, he does concede that oven chips have improved immensely over the last 25 years or so.

Strangled will be published by Zero Books in Jan 2015. Read more about the book here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 21st, 2014.