The sight of Chalk Farm Road overflowing with ageing punks and sharp-eyed touts was a tribute to The Stranglers‘ enduringly loyal following. But could these veteran New Wavers, who started out in the mid-’70s, still hack it on stage? The answer proved to be yes, but only up to a point: their performance was full of energy without being particularly creative, more perspiration than inspiration.
The return of The Stranglers (albeit without former frontman Hugh Cornwell) to the Roundhouse marked the 30th anniversary to the day of the band’s gig at this venue – and no doubt many in the audience were there then too. The Ramones, who the Stranglers supported here in a seminal gig in punk history the year before, may almost all be dead now, but the Men in Black showed that they are very much alive and kicking.
The support act, punk/performance poet John Cooper Clarke, is also probably lucky still to be around after his extended heroin addiction in the past, but he too was on his mettle. In the late ’70s/early ’80s, ‘the bard of Salford’ toured with the likes of The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Fall, warming up the audience with his edgily funny poems and quickfire banter.
Though almost sixty now, Clarke looks pretty much the same, with spiky black hair, dark glasses and drainpipe suit. In a disappointingly short set he sharply delivered a number of ‘quickies’ as well as immaculately performing some longer poems. These included his hymn to urban dystopia Evidently Chickentown (with its 81 mentions of ‘fucking’), recently featured in Control and also the final episode of The Sopranos, no less. Clarke may now be more of a mellow stand-up comedian than a ranting anti-establishment poet but he remains good value.
Having come on to a heroes’ welcome, The Stranglers ironically opened with their classic No More Heroes. The whole set (apart from encores) was a replay of their 1977 show, made up of songs from their first two albums. While Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes undoubtedly contain their best material trying to re-create the past seems a bit of a retrograde step – it would have been nice to hear some of the later songs too, if only for the sake of variety.
Anyway, it was great to hear songs like Peaches, Something Better Change, Grip and 5 Minutes again, but after a while the lead vocals of guitarist Baz Warne (who took over from singer Paul Roberts last year) became monotonous. He sings with plenty of passion but has a limited range. After the initial excitement, the middle-aged macho posturing on stage seemed faintly ludicrous while the unvaried sound was in danger of developing into a relentless slog.
Things weren’t helped by the fact that Greenfield’s Hammond packed up halfway through eighth song Hanging Around, which required a ten-minute momentum-destroying technical break. Then, unbelievably, the band re-started right from the beginning of the set! Full marks for trying to make amends but re-playing seven songs in exactly the same way turned the evening into Groundhog Day.
Anyway, the hardcore fans seemed to be delighted. The pogoing in the highly physical mosh pit continued unabated, with several over-enthusiastic athletes carted off by the stewards, proving that the Stranglers can still keep the testosterone pumping all night long. Two encores from their 2006 album Suite XVI – Spectre and Relentless – were followed by a final number, the crowd-pleaser Duchess, bringing the night to a more melodic close. It’s just a shame that there hadn’t been more diverse flavours to accompany the admittedly good-quality red meat earlier in the show.