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The Stranglers: Many Happy Returns To 'Rattus Norvegicus'

Monday, 24 April 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Great songwriting partnerships are scattered throughout the history of music in the UK. Most famously, of course, you have John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, whose compositions took on lives of their own beyond the confines of releases by the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Then you have Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, two pillars of the heavy rock era whose work was eventually to butt heads with the punk explosion. With that, of course, came some big players in Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash.

Then you have the Stranglers. Despite credits being shared across the band on their own landmark debut, ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, they were propelled by the contributions of Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell, who shared vocals and played bass and guitar respectively.

Neither came from backgrounds you would expect of a pioneering  – although loosely termed in their case – punk band. At the time of their formation Cornwell had recently returned from Sweden, where he had been working in a laboratory at Lund University near Malmö. Burnel, meanwhile, had studied history at Bradford University.

Upon his arrival in the UK, Cornwell was joined in his band Johnny Sox by the older, wiser drummer Jet Black, who then took on band-assembling duties, with Burnel joining soon after as they changed their name to the Stranglers. Initially, the fourth member was Hans Wärmling, but in 1975 he was replaced by keyboard player Dave Greenfield.

Support slots for Patti Smith and the Ramones eventually followed and the band quickly found that their notoriety grew to cult proportions. The Ramones had followed up a stint at the Roundhouse – on their first trip to the UK – with an infamous gig at another Camden venue, Dingwalls. Both the Clash and the Sex Pistols had turned up to see the American punks and everyone who was anyone in the soon-to-be new wave scene was also there.

Before the night had ended, Burnel and the Clash’s Paul Simonon were rucking outside, with Greenfield also allegedly pinning the Pistols’ John Lydon up against Jet Black’s ice-cream van (which the band used for equipment ferrying). The incident would alienate the Stranglers from the punk ‘in-crowd’, with Black admitting to the Guardian in 2014: “It polarised opinion against us, but we’ve always been at our best with our backs against the wall."

The snarling vitriol spewed by the Clash and the sneering rebelliousness of the Sex Pistols seemed like child’s play in comparison to the anger within Burnel, though. “I once had a punch-up every night,” he told the Oxford Times in 2015. “We had to learn how to front ourselves and to play what we wanted to play come hell and flying bottles. We’ve done all the wrong things commercially, have reacted to situations spontaneously, been arrested, locked up, escorted out of countries at machine gun-point and faced demonstrations by placard wielding extremists. We give as good as we get.”

Speaking to the Independent in 2010, he explained that his tough exterior was forged in part by growing up in London as the son of French parents. “I just wanted to be English,” he said. “I’m a British citizen and I sound native but technically I’m French. Growing up as the kid of French people in those days was tough. There weren’t so many immigrants then and I was born in Notting Hill where they all used to come in initially. Being a Frog was not a great option at the time. It got me beaten up on more than one occasion.”

Burnel’s anger was paramount and his booming, vital basslines pounded with menace and intensity unlike much of what came before. With Cornwell’s oft-overlooked guitar prowess, Greenfield’s psychedelically-charged Ray Manzarek-inspired keys and Black’s solid stick-wielding, the band had far greater musical talent than most bands tagged, rightly or wrongly, with the punk label.

Their early years as a recording band were prolific. Between the spring of 1977 and the autumn of 1979 the Stranglers put out four records, with their debut arriving under the name ‘Stranglers IV – Rattus Norvegicus’ after a last-minute change of heart. ‘Dead on Arrival’, its proposed title, was shelved. ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ is the taxonomic name for the common brown rat and the cornered, sewer rat-like persona of the band fitted the title perfectly.

‘Rattus Norvegicus’ was, despite derision in some quarters and allegations of lyrical sexism, a huge chart success and reached number four in the UK. At its heart were joint compositions from Burnel and Cornwell. Sometimes opened the album, based on Burnel’s bass riff and Cornwell’s lyrics about relationship troubles, while Goodbye Toulouse – a cut about a Nostradamus prediction – married Burnel’s lyrics with Cornwell’s chords. And so it continued. They also had producer Martin Rushent on board, who would go on to produce several classic albums by the Stranglers, Buzzcocks and the Human League.

The lyrics were controversial and often courted trouble intentionally. “We wanted to be lyrically outrageous,” Black explained to the Strangled fanzine. Subject matter included violence (“Someday I’m going to smack your face”), sexism (“All this skirt lapping up the sun”) and personal abuse (“Making love to the Mersey tunnel”), and this approach struck a chord with teenage men in particular. An outlet for their own personal frustrations had appeared, it seemed.

Only two singles were released from the album - firstly Cornwell’s (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) and later Peaches - but its roll call was far greater than that. The number of tracks recorded during the short time it took to complete ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ exceeded what was required, and so a follow-up, ‘No More Heroes’, was swift, appearing just five months later. “When we were done, we had so much left for the second album, we thought, gosh – finishing this is gonna be a piece of piss,” Black explained to Strangled. “So we went straight back in and carried on and finished it. It was all done incredibly fast.”

Many fans believe the sophomore album to be superior, but ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ is where the band’s legacy began and without it, a pivotal piece would be missing from the UK rock history jigsaw. It would lead to more controversial output, more fights and the use of heroin as an artistic pursuit, but this initial overstepping of the line made it all possible. Many happy returns.

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