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The group's members came from some very different backgrounds: Cornwell had been a blues musician prior to forming the band, bassist Jean Jacques Burnel had been a classical guitarist who had performed with symphony orchestras, Jet Black was a former jazz drummer, and Dave Greenfield had played at military bases in Germany. One of their early touchstones was a considerable influence from pre-punk psychedelic rock bands, especially The Doors, and The Music Machine.
However, despite their association with punk rock, the Stranglers were generally not regarded as punks by their musical peers. They wrote a string of top ten hits, including "No More Heroes" and "Peaches", which placed the band at the forefront of the New Wave movement - a branch one step removed from the more confrontational punks - not to mention that The Stranglers' material was fiercely intellectual. The band has been quoted as saying that they did not consider themselves to be a "punk" band. It was their frequent run-ins with the law and their strong following amongst British street gangs like the Finchley Boys that gave them a menacing persona. A nationwide UK tour in May 1977 where they were supported by the four piece band London did nothing but strengthen their credibility and fanbase.
Their early albums are critically acclaimed. Although initially received with mixed reaction because of their supposedly sexist and racist innuendo, the Stranglers employed a sort of dog-humour in their lyrics that won over many music critics. Indeed, Dave Thompson wrote that "the Stranglers themselves reveled in an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern 'men's talk')." These early albums (Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes, Black and White) built a strong fan-following.
The picture cover of the March 1980 Bear Cage single - a double-A side with Shah Shah A Go GoThe Raven, their 1979 album, clearly illustrates the band's separation from 'traditional' punk and a transition towards a more melodic, less aggressive sound. The songs are multi-layered and musically complicated, and deal with such subjects as a Viking's lonely voyage, heroin addiction, genetic engineering, and more contemporary political events in Iran and Australia.
The following album, The Gospel According to The Meninblack, a concept album exploring religion and the supposed connection between religious phenomena and extra-terrestrial visitors, was widely considered an artistic and commercial failure in 1980.
The Stranglers recovered their commercial and critical status with La Folie (1981) (including the hit "Golden Brown") and "Strange Little Girl" (1982). La Folie was another concept album, this time exploring the subject of love. By 1990 The Stranglers had had more British chart hits (28) than any other artist never to reach the number one spot. "Golden Brown" demonstrated the extent to which the group had changed; it features a lilting harpsichord and organ riff throughout.
The keyboards were notable on "Skin Deep", the best-known song from their 1984 album Aural Sculpture.
Their 1986 album, Dreamtime, concerned itself with environmental issues, and contained the memorable "Always the Sun". Dreamtime was also the only Stranglers album to chart in the USA.
The group's failure to gain success in America is often attributed to the band's mischievous attitude during interviews coupled with protests held by feminist groups.
In August 1990, founding member Cornwell left the band to pursue a solo career. In his autobiography, Cornwell states that he felt the band was a spent force creatively, and cited various examples of his increasingly acrimonious relationship with his fellow band-members, particularly Burnel. The remaining members recruited two replacements, including John Ellis, who had opened for the band in the 1970s as a member of The Vibrators, and singer Paul Roberts.
Interest in The Stranglers resurfaced when, in 2001, singer Tori Amos covered their song "Strange Little Girl" and titled the album it was featured on Strange Little Girls. "Golden Brown" was also used in the hit film Snatch by film director Guy Ritchie and extensively in the Australian film He Died With A Felafel In His Hand. Their hit "No More Heroes" was covered by Violent Femmes and used for the film Mystery Men. "Peaches", finally, also appears prominently in another British movie, Sexy Beast by director Jonathan Glazer.
The Stranglers had a critical and popular renaissance in 2004 (together with their first top 40 hit for 14 years - "Big Thing Coming") with the acclaimed Norfolk Coast album and a subsequent sell-out tour. They are currently preparing a follow-up album for release in early 2006.
Celebrity Stranglers fans include the chef Keith Floyd, who used 'Peaches', 'Waltzinblack' and other tracks as title and background music for his TV cookery programmes.
A version of The Stranglers piece "Midnight Summer Dream" was also used in the BBC Micro computer game, Spellbinder.
As of May 2006 Paul Roberts has left the band. The lead vocals are currently being handled by the guitarist Baz Warne, and also Burnel, who has began to sing more of the songs live that he originally recorded the vocals to.