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Best Stranglers Songs: 10 Classics From Punk’s Masterful Meninblack
List & Guides

Best Stranglers Songs: 10 Classics From Punk’s Masterful Meninblack

Unlike many punk tunes, the best Stranglers songs got a grip on the charts, earning them an enormous fanbase which remains loyal to this day.

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Scientists have suggested that the rat is the one species capable of surviving nuclear Armageddon, so it’s fitting that the seemingly indestructible UK punks The Stranglers should choose the same creature for their emblem. After all, while the band came to prominence during the punk era, they were largely shunned by their contemporaries and they’ve needed nerve, guile and resilience – as well as a truckload of fantastic music – to survive ever since. They rarely get the kudos reserved for the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash, but The Stranglers sold more records and received more gold discs than either, and they retain one of rock’s fiercest fan bases. The self-styled “Meninblack” have now been going for half a century, amassing a formidable catalogue from which we pick the best Stranglers songs.

Listen to the best of The Stranglers here, and check out the best Strangler songs, below.

10: Thrown Away (from ‘The Gospel According To The Meninblack’, 1981)

Even by their hair-raising standards, 1980 really was an annus horribilis for The Stranglers. Following an arrest on drug-possession charges, frontman Hugh Cornwell spent much of the spring in London’s Pentonville Prison, before the entire group briefly ended up behind bars for allegedly inciting a riot at a chaotic gig at Nice University during their subsequent European tour.

Despite the turmoil, the band stuck together and responded with their fifth album, The Gospel According To The Meninblack: a brave and still-futuristic-sounding album informed by psychedelia and German experimental music. Released early in 1981, the record’s main themes (UFOs and conspiracy theories) raised some eyebrows, yet it still peaked at No.8 in the UK and contains several of the best Stranglers songs – not least the gloriously world-weary Thrown Away.

9: Don’t Bring Harry (from ‘The Raven’, 1979)

Built upon Dave Greenfield’s courtly piano fills and boasting a neo-Gothic atmosphere, Don’t Bring Harry was a significant departure from the in-your-face aggression that had previously typified The Stranglers’ sound. However, the mellow, dreamlike music and JJ Burnel’s velvety croon masked a far starker message. For a time, both Burnel and Cornwell fell into using heroin, and while the titular “Harry” was a subtle reference to drug use, the song’s cautionary lyrics (“He just wants my body and soul/Leaves the bones behind”) was as chilling as they come. Though a mini-masterpiece on its own terms, Don’t Bring Harry stalled just outside the UK Top 40, but, as we’ll see with a later entry on this list of the best Stranglers songs, the group would return to the subject, creating a second deceptively pretty paean to heroin that took them (nearly) all the way to the top.

8: Nice’n’Sleazy (from ‘Black And White’, 1978)

With their first two albums, Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, The Stranglers proved they could do mean and menacing better than most of their punk-era contemporaries, but they took an altogether darker and more dystopian tack on their brilliant third album, Black And White. A highly original hybrid of stark post-punk and offbeat reggae driven by a monster Burnel bassline, Nice’n’Sleazy was a bold choice of lead single (biographer David Buckley suggests Greenfield’s bizarre synth solo “out-Eno’d Roxy Music-era Brian Eno”), but it made the UK Top 20 and it remains one of the best Stranglers songs to this day.

7: Down In The Sewer (from ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, 1977)

Though their aggressive image initially did them no harm, it’s worth remembering that The Stranglers never actually aligned themselves with punk. They were all seasoned players with a much wider pool of influences, so while their debut album, Rattus Norvegicus, certainly had an edge, it was stuffed with melodic songs performed with proficiency and verve, and it often strayed way beyond the confines of punk. Indeed, The Stranglers’ inherent virtuosity is all too apparent on Rattus Norvegicus’ grandstanding closing track, Down In The Sewer. Effectively Hugh Cornwell’s treatise on his capital city (the “sewer” representing London itself), the song builds into an eight-minute prog-punk epic in four thrilling sections, during which time the tension never lets up.

6: Duchess (from ‘The Raven’, 1979)

The Stranglers’ fourth album, The Raven, broadly veered into more left-field territories, yet the group chose to unveil it with Duchess: a 24-carat pop classic which remains one of the most durable songs in their canon. Reputedly influenced by Cornwell’s former girlfriend, a descendant of King Henry VIII (“Duch of the terrace knows all her heritage/Says she’s Henry’s kid”), the song took a swipe at all the would-be suitors vying for the lady’s attention (“the Rodneys are queuing up”) and the upper classes in general without ever resorting to bitterness. With further assistance from a brilliant promo video – wherein the “Meninblack” appeared as choristers sporting mirror shades and five o’clock shadows – Duchess went Top 20 in the UK, cementing its place among the best Stranglers songs.

5: Toiler On The Sea (from ‘Black And White’, 1978)

Loosely influenced by Victor Hugo’s shipwreck-related novel, Toilers Of The Sea, and more directly inspired by a disastrous, food-poisoning-stricken holiday Cornwell and his girlfriend endured in Morocco, Black And White’s centrepiece, Toiler On The Sea, was another intense, prog-punk epic in a similar vein to Rattus Norvegicus’ Down In The Sewer. Launched by the most malevolent bassline Burnel ever committed to tape, the song features dazzling interplay between the band members and plays out over six absorbing minutes before finally getting lost in the fog of Greenfield’s sci-fi synths. Breathtaking and then some.

4: 5 Minutes (standalone single, 1978)

5 Minutes is usually included as an extra track with reissues of No More Heroes, but it’s really the start of The Stranglers’ Black And White era, as it’s considerably heavier and more dystopian than anything preceding it. The song remains one of the Guildford quartet’s most intense workouts, but then it was entirely personal for JJ Burnel, who wrote it in response to a horrific physical attack on a girl who was then flat-sharing in London with him and the late Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson. Performed with barely contained fury and with vengeance in its heart (“I just wanna find those guys, that’s all!” is Burnel’s kiss-off line), 5 Minutes has long since muscled its way in among the best Stranglers songs, and it still takes no prisoners whatsoever.

3: Golden Brown (from ‘La Folie’, 1981)

Unlikely as it may seem, The Stranglers owed DJ David “Diddy” Hamilton a large one early in 1982. After all, he did bring the notorious punks to a whole new audience by dint of making La Folie’s second single, Golden Brown, his “Single Of The Week” on (the then highly conservative) BBC Radio 2 in January of that year. The song then raced up to No.2 in the UK charts, giving The Stranglers the biggest hit of their career and planting the “Meninblack” firmly back in the mainstream for the first time since Duchess went Top 20 in 1979.

Would Golden Brown have had the same commercial impact without Hamilton’s endorsement? Well, The Stranglers had recorded a song in waltz time on each of their albums since Black And White, but there was (and still is) something especially beguiling about the elusive Golden Brown, which was composed primarily by Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black, and given a deliberately ambiguous lyric by Hugh Cornwell. As with Don’t Bring Harry, the song was long rumoured to be about heroin, though Cornwell only definitively came clean in Jim Drury’s book The Stranglers: Song By Song (2001), when he said, “Golden Brown works on two levels. It’s about heroin and also about a girl… both provided me with pleasurable times.”

2: Peaches (from ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, 1977)

Even in a considerably less PC time, Peaches’ coarse sexual innuendoes and random swearing interludes (“Oh shit! There goes the charabanc”) were more than enough to fall foul of the BBC censors, forcing The Stranglers to mime to the song’s double A-side companion, Go Buddy Go, for their anarchic first Top Of The Pops appearance.

Despite this and the accusations of misogyny the band fended off for years, the tune that began life as a failed attempt to write a reggae song has become the gift that keeps on giving for The Stranglers. Now seemingly ubiquitous in popular culture, Peaches has turned up in everything from film soundtracks (Sexy Beast, Metroland) to Keith Floyd’s cookery shows and even an Adidas ad campaign in the Netherlands. Frankly, any self-respecting list of the best Stranglers songs is rendered invalid without it.

1: No More Heroes (from ‘No More Heroes’, 1977)

Mostly because of punk’s “Year Zero” philosophy, No More Heroes was often misconstrued as a reflection of the nihilism in the air in 1977. However, it’s more a commentary on the lack of people worth idolising, with Hugh Cornwell at least partially influenced by the then recent deaths of Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx, both of whom he admired.

Interestingly, most of the historical figures Cornwell namechecks in the song’s lyrics (not least assassinated Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce and Roman emperor Nero) were also divisive figures who could be construed as villains as easily as heroes. Nonetheless, many punks adopted this landmark song as their anthem of choice from the off, and while it’s arguably less omnipresent than either Peaches or Golden Brown in popular culture, No More Heroes still best epitomises the attitude and derring-do that always sets the best Stranglers songs apart from the pack.

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