Nic HowdenThe Stranglers are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a 22-date British tour, followed by a similarly venturesome trek across Europe, then back home for the festival season.

The 30-song set that makes up the UK leg tellingly takes in elements from each of the band’s 17 studio albums, that’s 1977 debut, Rattus Norvegicus, through to 2012’s retour de force, Giants. It means a fleeting focus on 1990s songs, written/recorded in the post-Hugh Cornwell fallow, but in an otherwise towering two-hour set, that’s easy an easy pill to swallow.

There are two drum kits on stage at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, one for Jim MacAulay, the youthful apprentice, and the other for founder member Jet Black. Now 75 and not in the best of health, Black gallantly takes up his sticks for a run of three songs mid-set, to fittingly rapturous response, and returns for a storming two drummer take on 1978’s Tank to round the evening off.

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Louie Nicastro
Picture by Phil Spalding

“All respect to the bloke. He wants to do it, especially this landmark tour, but it’s hard work for him,” Louie Nicastro, the band’s sound engineer/production manager, tells me before soundcheck at the O2 Academy Oxford, a week after the Apollo date. Black’s contribution has been cut since the tour started in late February, he’s had to miss some shows altogether, but he’s the backbone of the band nevertheless and, bassist/fellow founder Jean-Jacques Burnel has said, when Jet Black can play no further part, backstage if not behind the kit, the band stops.

English Towns

Originally pencilled in for a couple of nights at the Roundhouse, where The Stranglers have a considerable history, the London-leg ended up at the Apollo largely as a result of the Camden Town venue’s mad March diary. The Hammersmith stage was a perfect fit for the occasion though.

Painstakingly restored to its Art Deco glory by Foster Wilson architects, at the behest of joint owners AEG-Live and German ticket specialist Eventim, the Apollo is about as far from the austere Hammersmith Odeon, inadvertently trashed by Stranglers fans in the early 1980s, as it is possible to get.

Ushered on, as ever, by their instrumental, Waltzinblack, Burnel takes the mic for a storming London Lady. He goes on to sing almost half the set, in fabulous voice, while guitarist Baz Warne covers Cornwell’s tracks, and his own, with typical aplomb. Steered by Nicastro, the L-Acoustics dV’DOSC line array, sourced from Stage Audio Services, accentuates The Stranglers’ strengths, from Burnel’s bullish, signature basslines, to MacAulay/Black’s beats, to Dave Greenfield’s keyboard runs to Warne’s big Telecaster riffs.

“The Apollo is a really good sounding room,” Nicastro, who also produced the last two Stranglers albums, says. “You get some spaces, big or small, that just sound shit, but that one responds really well.

“You can’t hear everything all of the time in a live situation, and you can’t always make fantastic hi-fi mixes, but the little keyboard riffs need to poke out there, for instance and I know the band, and the songs, so well now. It’s never going to sound exactly like the record, you don’t want it to, but all the aspects, all the ingredients of that cake have to be there and the ear needs to latch on to those little bits.

“Baz and JJ are now on in-ears too,” Nicastro explains. “So JJ’s big set of amps don’t need to be loud anymore, because it’s pumped into his ears, and Baz’s guitar doesn’t need to be bollockingly loud for the same reason. That allows the whole stage level to drop, which means I can get more clarity out front.”

Screentime

Stranglers Nic HowdenThe lighting at the Apollo is straightforward, accentuating the players and working around four 6mm pitch XL Video LED screens hanging on the wall behind the stage. They are dressed/framed, in a classic portrait style, by prop hire specialist Claire Jayne & Associates.

“We can’t use smoke, or haze, because of Jet’s health, so the band decided to do something with screens and Bristol lighting designer/video editor, James Reed, who worked with The Stranglers for years, years ago, was brought in to come up with content,” Nicastro tells EIN. “We had VersaTubes last year, which you can do some great stuff with, but you can’t show proper content. That was a half-way point and the band decided, along with James, let’s up the ante and have screens that can take high res images this time. So that’s where the budget went. You’ve got to stop somewhere. We’re not Coldplay, who probably have a £1m budget just for their tour lights, so we’re focusing on the screens as being the show.”

Reed, who had the idea for the LEDs, and the frames, met with the band to discuss the songs’ origins and meanings to develop his ideas. The results range from shots of fans to film of the strippers who famously accompanied The Stranglers for Nice ‘N’ Sleazy in Battersea Park 1978. Perhaps the most prescient set of images accompanies Never To Look Back, a stand-out song from the otherwise lacklustre 10 LP, Cornwell’s last with the band.

Stranglers Pic 1 Nic HowdenTweaked to start with Burnel’s bass, black and white shots of the original Stranglers fill the screen, ‘More Sophisticated Punks’ newspaper cuttings tell us. From there, it’s a potted history, peppered with headlines. ‘Cornwell Quits The Stranglers’ and ‘Where Are Hugh Baby?’ as the comparatively fallow five-piece followed in the 1990s. Another cheer goes up when Baz Warne’s image claims its own space, ‘Gig Dispels The Doubts’, and The Stranglers IV is reborn.

‘It’s not that easy,
Never to look back,
The years distort the lies,
We take for fact’.

By Nic Howden

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