Monsters, Tricksters, Stranglers: an extract from Phil Knight’s Strangled

Extract from Phil Knight’s brilliant new book, Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers, out now, investigating “the greatest punk band”, their overlooked mysticism, and their erasure from punk’s history. – TS

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Picture for a moment a world in which the most significant practitioners of every particular musical style were written out of the history of that movement. For example, imagine The Beatles being excluded from the story of the Sixties beat boom; or Charlie Parker being mysteriously passed over in retrospectives of bebop; or King Tubby being omitted from narratives on the evolution of dub reggae. Such acts of neglect might seem unthinkable, and yet there is one genre whose self-appointed custodians do ensure the marginalisation of its greatest exponents, and that genre is punk.

For The Stranglers were the greatest punk band, not just in terms of commercial success, but also artistically. Though their peers often affected to shun them, it is remarkable how the group’s bass-heavy sound and gnostic, alienated worldview percolated throughout the genre, until, a couple of years after the initial punk explosion, almost every other band had come to sound like them. The Stranglers were the eye of the hurricane, the black hole at the centre of the punk universe, a present absence without whom much of the history of punk seems inexplicable, yet is chronicled anyway.

So just why are The Stranglers marginalised in this way? The usual reasons given are the band’s predilection for violence and misogyny, their hostile attitude to writers and journalists, their age and prior existence to punk’s Year Zero, and their disinterest in attaining success in the USA. There is truth in all of these assertions, yet they only go so far. Go beyond the sexism’n’violence that marks out their early reputation and one finds that The Stranglers’ music explores a multitude of often bizarre and seemingly unrelated subjects, such as UFOs, Japanese ritual suicide, the Cold War, European integration, genetic engineering, religion, conspiracy theories, the Vikings, the automisation of production, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. 
What immediately becomes clear is that The Stranglers are a very difficult band to write about because they are very difficult to understand.

Some of the subject matter and issues uncovered by this investigation may prove unpalatable to some readers, especially those of a rationalist bent and/or a high social status (the two are of course related), and this will give an early clue as to why so many of our cultural guardians would like to pretend that The Stranglers had never existed.

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On June 2 1973, the crypto-zoologist Frederick “Ted” Holiday partook in a strange ritual on the waters of Loch Ness. Holiday had long been interested in the folklore surrounding the monster that was alleged to reside in the depths of the Loch, and which had been increasingly sighted by both locals and tourists in the recent decades. His initial theory was that this “monster”, far from being the reptilian creature of popular imagination, was an overgrown form of tullimonstrum gregarium, a species of prehis- toric slug, but he had, during the late 1960s, become increasingly perplexed by the animal’s apparent camera-shyness.

As outlined in books such as The Dragon And The Disc, he slowly became convinced that the Loch Ness Monster, along with other denizens of what he called “the phantom menagerie” such as the Yeti, the mystery big cats of the English home counties, and extra-terrestrials, were not real creatures, but what he “thoughtforms” – manifestations of the human collective unconscious that have a tendency to form when certain highly charged locations are visited by particularly sensitive individuals. Holiday, who claimed to have seen the monster on several occasions, regarded these manifestations as being irretrievably evil, the product of the more grotesque aspect of whatever unknown power organises the universe.

Holiday enlisted a Presbyterian priest by the name of Donald Omand to accompany him out onto the water to exorcise the loch. Although the exorcism passed off without apparent incident, within a few days Holiday and his accomplices were to encounter a bewildering array of bizarre phenomena, including mysterious flashing lights and sudden tornados that would shake the walls of their homes before abating in seconds. Holiday himself would come across one of the notorious “men in black” while attempting to investigate an alleged UFO landing site nearby. It was to be a fateful meeting – he would suffer a heart attack at exactly the same spot a year later.

Holiday was to die of a second heart attack in 1979, still firmly convinced that he had been the victim of the malign synchronicity of what he had termed, in his last book, The Goblin Universe. But what was the true nature of this strange, paranormal power that he thought he had identified? And who were going to be its next victims?

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The events surrounding the recording of The Stranglers’ fifth album, the conceptual The Gospel According To The Men In Black form one of the most extraordinary sagas in the history of popular music, and yet it is one that is little-known and rarely examined. It is a story that involves paradox, paranoia and the paranormal, and how these combined to derail the career of a band who, at the time, were considered to have the potential to be the most successful of their era. It is also a story of addiction, imprisonment, chronic misfortune, bizarre coincidences, and death. In order to gain some semblance of understanding of what happened, we will need to travel along some of the most neglected byways of Western thought and meet the most grotesque character in global folklore – The Trickster. Our primary guide will be the American author and parapsychologist George Hansen, who has done much to highlight how this unsavoury character, long thought to have disappeared as a primitive superstition, still operates in the margins of modern consciousness.

The Trickster archetype, whose very milieu is the marginal, the liminal, the disordered and the taboo, reveals much about the nature of The Stranglers, and particularly their singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell. Unlike peers such as Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, John Lydon and Elvis Costello, Cornwell is something of a neglected figure nowadays, rarely spoken of in the same hagiographic terms. This is strange, as The Stranglers’ frontman was once considered one of the most dangerous individuals in popular culture, being the only notable member of the punk scene that the British authorities considered worthy of imprisoning.

A similar taboo seems to surround The Stranglers themselves, who have been assiduously written out of the history of the punk and new wave movements. Thick historical volumes of the era barely reference them, except in the most curtly dismissive way. In 2013, a four-hour BBC television documentary on British punk didn’t even once mention them by name. This extreme marginalisation is usually explained “rationally” by the band’s misogyny, violence, and tendency to make influential enemies, but, in an exhausted contemporary culture that compulsively seeks to reassess and rehabilitate even the most derided music of the past, it seems reasonable to suspect something deeper amiss.

Indeed, there is something unclean about The Stranglers. Even now, to think about them conjures a certain ominous dread. Whereas the Sex Pistols and The Clash can be assimilated into healthy retrospectives of British pop, in which punk represents a mere burst of cultural vibrancy, there is something about The Stranglers that leaves the guardians of British popular culture feeling queasy. This pervasive aura of dread offers a clue both as to why they are so difficult to assimilate into accepted cultural narratives, and why they themselves became lured by the destructive chimera of the UFO phenomenon.

Strangled is out now. Phil Knight’s excellent blog is here.