Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
It’s been a tumultuous time for The Stranglers, the legendary punks having brought out one of their best albums for years in the shape of ‘Dark Matters’ but having lost keysman Dave Greenfield during its recording.
With the retirement of drummer Jet Black, it was a case of last man standing as bass player JJ Burnel remains the only original member of their classic line-up left but, as they have proved, there’s still a lot more fire in their souls.
Opening the evening though was a smash and grab set by Ruts DC who, like the headliners, showed their class and songwriting skills are still razor sharp, managing to squeeze in an incredible twelve songs during their slot.
It was a testament to the band that the hall was already full when they kicked into ‘Something That I Said’, the song sounding as fresh as it did when the band released it, forty-three years ago.
The years fell away as their mix of punk and reggae caused a sea of dancing bodies, twitching in the heat and moving to the rhythm as every word was sung back to them.
A spiky ‘SUS’ and the fiery groove of ‘You’re Just A…’ kept the energy levels up, the bass and vocals of John ‘Seggs’ Jennings, David Ruffy’s drums and the guitar of Leigh Heggarty crackling with kinetic electricity.
‘It Was Cold’ revels in its killer punch and the climbing riff of ‘Born Innocent’ has the power to transport, the effect of the Dub a soothing balm of that and ‘Jah War’ showing just why they stood out from most of their contemporaries.
After a triumphant ‘Staring at the Rude Boys’ it was only a decidedly rumbunctious ‘Babylon’s Burning’ and blistering ‘Psychic Attack’ that could close the set, the high even greater. Rebel music for every generation, Ruts DC are just as relevant today as they always were, time not diminishing their passion.
Cambridge has always been a special place for The Stranglers, having recorded in the city and various members of the band previously lived in the area, so this was an emotional return to a city dear to them all. As such, the atmosphere was one of celebration but also tempered by the knowledge that this is part of the last full tour The Men In Black will be doing, the juxtaposing emotions a heady brew that gave the night special resonance.
Irrespective of all this, there’s never been a doubt that The Stranglers remain to be one of the cream of the crop that emerged from those heady days when punk erupted, their songwriting and drive setting them apart. The fact that they did have so much great material has never diminished, that unique, yet subtly changing sound that made them stand out from the crowd and so that continues.
It was impossible not to get goosebumps when the lights dimmed and ‘Waltzinblack’ heralded the arrival of the quartet onstage, ‘Toiler on the Sea’ being an almost indecent vigour as the adrenaline rushed. ‘Something Better Change’ was a headcharge, Burnel’s pumping bass and equally forceful vocals nitro-fueling the song.
Whilst JJ still exudes a menacing air of utter confidence and control, there’s undoubtedly a warmth and humour that is key to how the band continue to sell out venues, full of the devoted. Whilst The Stranglers have never wanted to conform, there’s a gang mentality here that reaches far out from the stage and touches everyone there, something bigger than the individuals and almost tribal.
Whilst the loss of Greenfield was without doubt devastating, the reception given to Toby Hounsham reflects both admiration for his skills on the keys and the depth of the appreciation of the work done by their fallen friend.
Also, in the same way that singer/guitarist Baz Warne slotted so well into the line-up some twenty-two years ago, drummer Jim Macaulay has made his mark on the band too since taking over live and latterly studio work from Jet Black in 2016.
This blend of the four talents brings a dynamic range to material new and old with ‘Water’ and ‘Skin Deep’ standing shoulder to shoulder and equally well received. As with ‘Dark Matters’, the evening overall has an air of vitality and tribute, the knowledge that the music that’s thrilled generations will do so for many more.
‘Nice and Sleazy’ saw Warne and Burnel crouched together at the front of the stage, the irresistible rhythms reaching out to the audience and ‘Don’t Bring Harry’ changes the mood with its Gothic Horror stroll before ‘Strange Little Girl’ proved as delightfully enchanting as ever.
Always the Sun’ prompted one of the biggest singalongs of the evening and a gloriously filthy sounding ‘Peaches’ followed by the lyrical and delightful waltz of ‘Golden Brown’ saw the audience transported to a near euphoric state.
Highlights came thick and fast, ‘The Last Men on the Moon’ grew from a darkness but lifted heavenwards as shafts of blue light scythed across the hall, the effect suitably otherworldly. ‘(Get a) Grip (On Yourself)’ bristled and ‘Walk On By’ showed that The Stranglers could take on Bacharach and David and win, making it their very own.
Another full-blooded run through of ‘Duchess’ and a literally show stopping ‘Hanging Around’ brought a close to the main set before Burnel and Warne returned to the stage alone, clutching guitars and sat on stools for a beautifully stripped down ‘The Lines’.
Whilst this was a delicate moment of hush after the fury, Burnel showing just what a fine, classically trained, acoustic guitarist he is, it was the emotionally shattering and ultimately celebratory ‘And If You Should See Dave…’ that was the pinnacle of the evening.
Perfect in pitch and pathos, the line ‘This is where your solo would go’ is heartbreaking and touching, the spotlight shifting to the keys at the rear of the stage where the late, great Mr Greenfield once stood.
Joined again by Housham and Macaulay, a swift blast of ‘Tank’ and Burnel ascended the steps up between the twin risers to play the frantic bass riff that led into ‘No More Heroes’, the gathered masses losing their minds and giving in to the primal force of the music one last time.
Timeless and unique classics played by a band whose presence and influence has always led the way, it was prove positive that The Stranglers are one of the bands that shaped and continue to light up the music world. Given the strength of the reception and outpouring of love, who knows what the future holds and, if this is the last big tour the band do, they’re going out on a high that befits their stature. Here, there be giants.
Photography by Stuart Isteed for MPM