DANIEL HERBORN discovers that The Stranglers still have it and punk legends Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.
You know you’ve got some pulling power when your support band has 23 Top 40 singles. That’s the UK track record of The Stranglers, who rose to fame (or more accurately, infamy) during the punk explosion. Influenced by that movement’s energy and spite without ever neatly fitting into it, The Stranglers were initially dismissed as bandwagon jumpers and misogynist yobs, yet their music has proven strangely enduring and its sense of strangeness remains undimmed.
Featuring a 74-year-old drummer and a ring-in lead singer, The Stranglers circa 2012 may be rubbish on paper, but they are dynamite in reality. Dressed all in black, like a uniform, they are a purposeful unit and Baz Warne makes a menacing, more than capable replacement for the original but long-departed frontman Hugh Cornwell.
The greatest hits set takes in the surging nostalgia of 1986 hit ‘Always The Sun’, a paranoid, clattering version of the controversial ‘Peaches’ and a funeral-march paced, pitch black cover of ‘Walk On By’.
A rare detour into new material comes in the form of ‘Mercury Rising’ which is a strong addition to their canon, featuring an almost spoken-word rave from Warne and some howling guitar work. They’re soon back to the classics though with ‘Golden Brown’, its instantly memorable harpsichord hook and haunting, lysergic rhythm making for a hypnotising highlight. Most bands never write a song this good.
In a tight, filler-free set their cover of The Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’ stands tall, before the title track of their best album ‘No More Heroes’ brings their set to a triumphant finish.
Recently Blondie’s Clem Burke told FL that “we were almost the perfect band”, a statement that at once seems outlandish, melancholy and difficult to refute. That sense of past perfection hangs over tonight’s set, in which the towering pop highlights and ongoing star power of Debbie Harry are the dominant themes.
Dressed in three-quarter length red pants, with a gold jacket, glitter-skull belt buckle and red-tinted ponytail, Debbie Harry looks equal parts glamorous and ridiculous, still every bit a rock star. For the first few songs, which include a raucously received ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, the delirium is such that it’s almost irrelevant what they sound like, the experience of being at a Blondie show being more important to a mainly middle-aged, often drunk audience hungry for nostalgia and familiarity.
“At one point Harry whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. ”
Harry’s voice is still as refreshing and clear as cool water and she remains a charismatic figure. When a friend asks me a few songs in about Burke’s drum shield, I realise that I haven’t actually looked at the drummer, or any of the other members of the band at all, such is the dominance of Harry. At one point she whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. Later, she hides at the back of the stage, apparently to let the others have a much-deserved share of the spotlight.
When the initial excitement wears off, new songs like ‘D-Day’ and ‘Wipe Off My Sweat’ prove to be perfectly serviceable pieces of dance pop, but fail to elicit much of a response. ‘What I Heard’- another track from last year’s largely ignored Panic of Girls – has a cruisy disco feel. It’s fine, but again finds the band at odds with its audience.
‘The Tide Is High’ fares better, a kind of easy listening reggae torch tune- virtually unknown in the pop world until Blondie covered it – it’s a shining example of a band making a song their own. ‘Atomic’, meanwhile, is huge and ‘Call Me’, featuring some choice keytar action, pulses with energy.
The strange pop of ‘Mother’ segues into an unlikely, but winning version of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn’, before the encore begins with a solid (if inessential) cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. The endpoint and pinnacle is of course, ‘Heart of Glass’. A completely perfect slice of pop and a sunny, detached ode to romantic indifference (how many other pop songs have ever shrugged off infatuation as “a pain in the ass”?) Bringing a close to this uneven but enjoyable show, it’s a reminder that Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.
Originally appeared in: FasterLouder