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.
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.
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?
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.
This is an extract from Uncommon London, a new title in the excellent Uncommon Guide Books series, which will be published in June 2015.
Camden: Last Survivor of a Dead Epoch — Tariq Goddard
I wanted to be a writer at a time when my peer group wanted to rock. Even those who did not wish to be on the cover of the NME wanted to look like whoever was, and would show up in Camden with vague expectations of necking the same swill as Liam or Noel, their numbers increasing as the unlikelihood of it grew; the Gallagher brothers having long gone up to Primrose Hill to quaff the more salubrious stuff.
For those who remained faithful to the dream that was Camden, there was always the early nineties zeitgeist to look back on. A time when grebos, junk shop clothes horses, Adidas cretins and shoegazers colonised The Good Mixer and other ‘drinkers’ pubs, and where elderly Irish bookies sat next to gauche young show-offs out to make the era and boozer their own.
In these days before the great gentrification of London and unaffordable house prices, when the city’s declining population was only just being reversed, it was still possible to take the entertainment industry by surprise. Camden, beyond the market, was not lying in wait for its Dick Whittingtons in the form of walking tours and organic coffee: it had to be taken as it was; a working class area that a pub-based music scene had emerged from, largely by default (and through proximity to the Polytechnic of North London in Kentish Town). For those who disliked their music in poorly ventilated back rooms with carpeted walls there was always this plus; their world was theirs and no one else’s, relying on word of mouth and supported in public only by the then vibrant weekly music press. This ensured relative exclusivity and some halo of cool to an otherwise cut-price and basic state of affairs.
You were either one of the initiated or not, and as most people even in Camden didn’t care one way or other, the initiates had a free hand. With it they were able to pursue a programme of (modest) musical experimentation and to remain one step ahead of the commodification that would eventually kill their way of life.
So those who were about to rock had their Camden and I had mine. Mine ran parallel to theirs and undoubtedly lacked glamour, populated largely by a community that harked back to earlier, less fashionable times, their bands Madness, The Pogues, or whatever happened to be on the radio at the time. Leisure was dominated by doner kebabs and Sky Sports at the Mornington Arms; a pub that even in those days of cultural revisionism could serve no trendy purpose, my Camden overlapping, topographically and psychically with ‘the buzz’, but otherwise indistinguishable from countless less happening areas. If I, in my misbegotten superiority, saw the area as a crossroads in North London, I knew others considered it their first interview with stardom. My affectations were no less severe than theirs, merely tempered by an attachment to the one device that could guarantee my self-respect: the novel that would wash away the sins of being indistinguishable from any other arrogant young poseur.
It was not an era I remember in good weather and rarely in daylight, there were more disappointments than definitive musical experiences (though Pulp in ‘94 and Black Grape in ‘95 at the Town and Country, comparatively late in the day, came close), and where even the smallest band laboured under the hope that they could offer more than they had. Violence too seemed more prevalent then than now, a raw unpredictability hovering over any large gathering of people that appeared to disappear from rock gigs as the nineties wore on and life statements increasingly became fashion ones.
Once it had become the Carnaby Street of the nineties, Camden’s aesthetic, never very visionary, grew ever more self conscious and dated. Like the contrivance that was Britpop, which helped internationalize its notoriety, the area’s contemporary relevance was based on a handful of essential misconceptions. The hippest indie club of the day, Smashing, wasn’t local but run out of a basement on Regent Street, while the cutting edge developments in dance that were occurring in the south and to the east were even further away from the queue’s outside The Underworld and The Palace. Even at its fashionable peak, Camden felt perilously close to the end of something, the end of somewhere.
Yet on its day it was beautiful. Taking a break from Homage to a Firing Squad, written in a formerly liveable house off Parkway, allowed me to use my ‘friends of London Zoo’ pass to wander amongst the animals for free. The elephants were my favourite (one was to trample his keeper to death causing them all to be moved a decade later, their mischief was still restricted to pinching buns when I knew them), and I would observe their habits every lunchtime. These intelligent animals were never scared of establishing eye contact and I shared an empathy with them that I could never find in the music of The Telescopes, Midway Still, Echobelly or Menswear. Watching the grey giants slowly masticate and scatter straw helped inspire a novel set in 1930s Spain, or at least clear the mental space that allowed me to finish it. In truth I was already revisiting my childhood, having gone to the zoo to celebrate every birthday until I was eight. I was also planning my future. As the body count built up in my novel, I imagined my ashes being scattered in the modernist bird aviary, a great and revered writer being laid to rest in the place he loved, the wind blowing my remains down the Union Dock Canal, some finding their way home to Paddington via little Venice, others dispersed into the Thames and from there the oceans of the world. The sky was easier to see in the Zoo, giving me a better sense of Camden as part of the city, and the city as part of an impending but as yet unconquered world. Looking up, I could imagine gazing down and watching the Electric Ballroom, Holloway Road and the Lock vanish, much as a departing soul or a pair of Chagallian lovers might, my life and those of my contemporaries congealing over the chimneys, spires and satellite dishes, trying, however differently, to deserve our lives and to feel our age, still ours, though not, we knew, for very much longer, the city far below us. Then gone for good.
This is an edited extract from the forthcoming F.M.R.L: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains + Leftovers of Writing Sound, by Daniela Cascella (author of the blog/book En Abime) –
“Ephemeral. F.M.R.L. (frenzy-madness-reverie-love), a fame really, ever merrily, Effie marry Lee: there are words that are mirrors, optical lakes toward which hands stretch out in vain. Prophetic syllables.” – Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (1926)
Dark, the Dim Hear
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 13 February 2014
Magic and trial by ordeal. A hand. Cast brass amulet, against the evil eye. From Naples.
The dim here always struck me. It’s dark, the dim hear as I tentatively tune in voices and whispers from the past. The dim light in the museum, the amulets against the evil eye, the empty drawers under the glass cabinets prompt me to linger in the voids and in the gaps, to imagine and recollect gestures and rituals around them: they set up a scenario and make me step into a past, in the Seventies in Southern Italy, when in dimness of memory I hear, out of the hazy layers of my recollections I hear a grainy persistent breath, a fatigued whistlebreath emitted not as a sign of life, but as the last aural sign of a life about to expire, it is my great-grandmother in her bed, not because she is ill but because she is very old, slow, at the border of life yet clings to life, poisonous and persistent like ivy my grandmother would say, lying, breathing in a dark grey room at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, when dusk comes in, in my recollections I hear the dim, recall a persistent broken sigh in the shape of a breath and then a stop, a convulsive breath and a stop, as if a rusty hook had caught that breath to prevent it from expiring, and she lies in a tall bed, maybe tall because I was little, although I later learned that beds at the time were in fact taller, I hear that convulsive breath as coming from an underworld of hidden whispering galleries, it is my great-grandmother’s but to my hearing it sounds as if it is the whole room breathing, and I’m left there, I can barely see her but I hear my larvae-great-grandmother disappear into her broken sigh, sighing herself into the room.
Other voices are plotting next door. For some days I have been weighed down with a persistent headache and sickness. They bring her a small bowl full of water and a bottle of olive oil. She pours some drops of olive oil in the water and begins to hum, hums, a circling incantatory spell begins to coil around my hearing, then out of the bundle of bed sheets a tiny hand appears, withered and wiry, shadowed by wrinkles and by time, as she repeats small circular motions on my forehead with the tip of her thumb mumbles mumbles, I’m unsure if she really means anything or if she is just repeating a gesture passed on to her, soiled and half-broken, across who knows how many genera- tions, I’m unsure whether to laugh at all this or be very serious and solemn, I am here little I listen but I don’t know what’s going on and maybe I’m not supposed to. Why is everyone suddenly so serious and solemn. Many years later I learned, in a car at night, speeding past the streetlamps at the edges of town where rubbish heaps, half-built tower blocks, concrete walls taken over by ivy and nettle bushes hide another past and another layer underground, past one of the few surviving mythraeums that nobody ever stops to visit, the light and speed and summer air taking my breath and absorbing me in that uneven mix of ritual and disillusion, of life expiring and ritual dying, of spells persisting yet changing, it all came back to me in a flash, ferocious like the heads of pigs hanging in the windows of a butcher shop to point at its deathly sales, a glimpse of something recalled in a splinter of a moment in transit, ferocious because it was her last spell before her death, later I learned I’d been subjected to a spell against the evil eye.
F.M.R.L is published by Zer0 in April 2015