Gig review by Zyllah Moranne-Brown with photography by Ken Harrison

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My calendar was set for this 12 months ago even before the dates were announced. Like clockwork this is a annual night out that’s almost set in stone. And this time it’s a tad special. With a glint of ruby, this band are celebrating 40 years in the business. There can be few as resilient and as enduring, with a back catalogue to die for, than what these icons of the alternative possess. With a true stubbornness to call it quits, we’re here to see one of the UK’s most enduring bands – The Stranglers.

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The fans tonight are keen and up for a party, quite rightly, as we wait for the support to come on. Nine Below Zero are an English blues band formed in ‘77. Dennis Greaves, Brendan O’Neil, Mark Feltham (also a member of Rory Gallagher’s band) and Brian Bethel (part of the Blow Monkeys) were a popular alternative to the mainstream in the early 80s. And since they’ve achieved cult like status across Europe since. “Oy stop your nagging will ya!” as they go into a rimp-romping blues riff by the same name. With cover a cover from the legend that is Wilko Johnson, NBZ give us total rhythm and blues with harmonica in tow. ‘Three times is enough’ takes us back to ska / early Madness – NBZ are great fun and hugely slick. “We’ve only been in the business 35 years! Mark’s mom asked him if we were on the tour with the Strangles! If they’re the Strangles, we’re Nine Below Under…” A cover of Canned Heat’s ‘On the Road Again’ get’s us boogying, before “Let’s have a go at one we did as kids…” as they go into ’11 + 11.’ They tell us they’ll be back in Brum later in the year – check them out – they’re well worth a punt as they finish their set with a harmonica-blues, hornpipe-like, rip-roaring edition of ‘Riding on the N+L.’

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Academy is packed tonight; the lads still pull in a large crowd and we’re here to party. While we wait in good spirits, the partisan Brum crowd sing along to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’…

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Formed in ’74 by founding members Jean Jaques (J.J.) Burnel, Jet Black and Hugh Cornwell, Dave Greenfield joined them within a year. A series of successful punk hits, then embracing a more commercial yet unique sound during the eighties, The Stranglers became a regular not only in the charts, but on the touring scene. Cornwell left in ‘90, they uncompromisingly replaced him with Paul Roberts. Then 14 years ago, Roberts left and still not in a mind for calling it a day, The Stranglers duly replaced him with vocalist and guitarist Baz Warne who fits in so well, that you’d think he’d been here for the full forty years. The incredible Jet Black, is still here, still drumming away at 75, but now sharing the role with touring drummer and ‘youngster’ Jim Macauly. On stage there be two drum kits, side by side.

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The lights go down and we get THE classic Stranglers intro ‘Waltzinblack’ which morphs into chains clunking and doors slamming shut. To a huge cheer from the crowd, the original Men in Black set off as they mean to go on with ‘London Lady’; J.J. taking vocal duties, before THAT bass riff and we’re into ‘No More Heroes.’ Already we’re all singing our hearts out; song completes to a huge cheer. As the reddened set fades to blue it’s ‘Coup de Grace…’ which fades into the in your face ‘Was It You?’ – J.J. back on vocals.

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Warne: “Good evening Birmingham how the f*** are you? Thank you for coming to our fortieth – we’ll just keep on going shall we?” Yet another big cheer – a hallmark of the evening. ‘Threatened’ is just part of a set that covers every genre they’ve ever dabbled in – from the sublime to in your face punk – as J.J. gives it his all on ‘Somat Outanowt.’ I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, J.J. is one of the best bass players you’ll ever see – the rhythm section of the band in such synch, it seems effortless. ‘Still Life’ maybe the more beautiful side, before another another classic J.J.bass riff and they’re walking on the beaches, looking at the ‘Peaches’ to yet another huge cheer.

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Warne has acoustic guitar now as they deliver ‘Midnight Summer Dream’. The crowd chant in unison “Jet Black, Jet Black, Jet Black….” and he is indeed here to take his place, before they deliver The Stranglers at their most beautiful ‘Golden Brown.’ We love it – cheers for Warne as he takes to the front on the stage and we sing. We cheer. Again. Pure class.

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The broad grins from the band tell you exactly why, after 40 years, they’re still doing this. It may be a bitterly cold near spring night outside but in here it’s ‘Always the Sun’ and we sing the chorus loudly. The chanting goes up again…. “Jet Black, Jet Black, Jet Black….” as the band roll into ‘Genetix.’ Warne introduces Black as he takes his leave  and Brum boy and touring drummer Macauly takes his place. Warne: “And for people of a certain age – that be all us really – it’s physical time…” And as the beat goes on Warne and J.J. stomp across the stage, linking arms to pirouette before they’re into ‘Thrown Away.’ The band are so tight, Warne so fully synched into the band live that you would never think they’d been others in his place.

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The punky ‘Nuclear Device’ leads to another classic – ‘Skin Deep’ – which we bop along and sing along before the customary huge cheer. Birds squawk – we’re now in…. bang! to ‘Valley of the Birds.’  And from drums, to beat, guitar, then bass – giddy-up it’s ‘Nice n’ Sleazy.’

Warne: “Dya mind if we have a break – we’ve just done 10 songs without a break…” We know how you feel, we’re standing, dancing, some seated and we feel kinda guilty;  if the band can deliver like this after forty years we’re not going to complain about any aches and pains we may have. “… and we’re getting old! What’s that?” Warne asks a audience member – to a confused response “You’ve had one too many sandwiches my friend…”

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Then into ‘Walk On By’ the band jam away, effortlessly in perfect musical harmony, making it look so easy. On and on and on and on.… A moment to chill, as the waves wash over us and then crank up into ‘Freedom is Insane.’ Catch your breath, here we go for the crescendo; ‘Duchess’ which we complete with “God forbid!”, then ‘Five Minutes’ and the the main set completed with ‘Hanging Around.’

Wow. After a frenetic 1 hour 45 we all, let alone the band, finally get a break. The encore doesn’t let up the pace at all. Warne: “You lucky devils – you enjoying yourselves?” As we power into ‘Norfolk Coast’, followed by ‘Something Better Change’, we chant back, before a drum solo and J.J. shouts the line to bring it to a full stop. Final song gets us singing again- ‘All Day and All of the Night’. We’re loving it. As the band depart: but it’s not over, they’re not done yet. Quick break and it’s ‘Tank’ complete with a shirtless (and still very fit) J.J. plus a stage invader.

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Warne completes the night with a huge grin and “Thank you very much. Goodnight.”

Wow.Probably the best I’ve seen them and that’s saying something; The Stranglers are always standout. Over a two hour set – The Stranglers remain one hell of a class act, slick and professional yet still remain uncompromising, at times beautiful whilst at other moments in your face.  And they still clearly love what they do. After all these years. They played 31 songs and I can still count a long list of the tracks they didn’t play.  This is part of a 22 date UK tour – Bristol and Manchester are, quite rightly,  sold out. Then 15 dates in Europe and they’re back over the summer for festivals – including V in August. Go check them out – you won’t be disappointed. Their annual Birmingham date is in my diary already for next year for when the Men in Black return…

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Tonight, at times, my thoughts went to a friend; a long term Stranglers fan.  He was diagnosed with the big C and over the past few years, no matter how difficult, he’d made the annual trip to see them – and loved every single minute. He didn’t make this 40th gig – a life cut short way too early. I believe he was here in spirit, with a grin as broad as each band member as The Stranglers delivered their classics in all their glory tonight.

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And so to finish this review with words from J.J. Burnel himself:

“On this, the occasion of our Ruby Anniversary, I would like to take this opportunity to stick my fingers up to everyone who wrote us off and dismissed us. However I would like to thank those who saw beyond the words of the critics and drew their own conclusions. He who laughs last, laughs longest AND loudest. This year we will make a lot of noise with our friends…”

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Setlist:
Intro – Waltzinblack
London Lady
No More Heroes
Coup de Grace
Was It You?
Threatened
Somat Outanowt
Peasant in the Big Shitty
Still Life
Peaches
Midnight Summer Dream
Golden Brown
Always the Sun
Genetix
Thrown Away
Never Look Back
Nuclear Device
Skin Deep
Time to Die
Lowlands
Valley of the Birds
Nice n’ Sleazy
Walk On By
Freedom is Insane
Duchess
Five Minutes
Hanging Around

Encore I:
Norfolk Coast
Something Better Change
All Day and All of the Night

Encore II:
Tank

2 Responses to “The Stranglers + Nine Below Zero at the O2 Academy, Birmingham, UK – 22nd March 2014”

  1. Gordon Mackenzie Says:

    Great summary of the masyers at work. The main comments are common to all gigs but sound fresh. Ad libbing is constant. They guys look as if they are still enjoying themselves but Jet, surely, cannot go on for much longer. He is the origin and the sound of the Stranglers, the grand daddy. Jj is a suberb bassist, Dave G is underestimated and is suely one of the best keyboarders in thevworld. Baz has brought renewed energy, and mr Macauley ain’t too shabby either. Fantastic band.

  2. Moya Says:

    Always the sun made me cry my eyes out! Such a gig

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