- by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1977-04-15 Label: A&M
The Stranglers’ debut was going to be called, Dead On Arrival. Yet, it was anything but. In terms of the Punk era, it was a best seller. Not that the band were really “Punk”. Sure, they were pissed off, but they owed far more to The Doors and Garage and Pub Rock than safety pins and spiky hair. While Dead On Arrival might have been a better album title, IV Rattus Norvegicus was closer to their spirit. Rather than self-righteous social anger, they were scrappy scavengers looking for their take of the pie. Frontman, Hugh Cornwell established himself as the Dark Lord of Punk while Jean Jacques Burnel has cut some of the greatest bass lines in Rock and Roll history (‘Peaches’ and ‘Nice-N-Sleazy’).
Formed in 1974, The Stranglers built up a cult following before Punk broke on the Pub Rock circuit. What set them apart was their aggressive, uncompromising stance. They were older than their Punk contemporaries, though really none the wiser. Another Punk no-no, they could actually play their instruments. With his pageboy hair-cut and suburban dad moustache, Dave Greenfield may have looked like your Algebra teacher, but he was a wizard on the keys. Speaking of wizards, Cornwell was briefly in a band with guitar wiz, Richard Thompson.
While the band blazed a restlessly experimental trail from Art Rock to Goth to New Wave Pop, I’ve always preferred their first three albums. Which are little more than nasty, feisty Rock & Roll. That’s not to say I don’t have a soft spot for ‘Golden Brown’ and Feline but albums like The Raven are maddening with their mix of experimental over-indulgence and killer singles. No More Heroes and Black and White are nearly flawless in my estimation but there’s nothing like their debut. While IV may be ill-tempered and downright ugly in its misogyny at times, its anything but dull. Where most Punk bands were ranting against society, the Stranglers focused on inner conflict. IV is a frustrated, angry tug of war of sex, conscience and low self-esteem. It’s downright perverse in its sarcasm and nihilism. In short, it's not a very pleasant place to be but like anything with a dark allure, you can’t resist going down that alley once it presents itself.
IV kicks off with a domestic disturbance. And by disturbance, I mean disturbing. ‘Sometimes’ is about a violent argument with Cornwell’s then-girlfriend. Despite the driving bass and peppy organ, when Cornwell growls, “Someday, I’m going to smack your face” it isn’t tongue in cheek. “I got morbid fascination, gonna beat you till you drop.” Yet, one is compelled to keep listening because the music is so mesmerizing. It's like being sucked into a bog. There is no escape and with each step, the deeper you go.
‘Goodbye Toulouse’ is one of my favorite Stranglers tunes, a cheerful little ditty about the destruction of that fair city as predicted by Nostradamus. However, there’s more of a Glam influence at play than Punk. ‘London Lady’ follows and is a nasty bit of derision aimed at a female rock journalist. “Making love to the Mercy Tunnel with a sausage”, a not so veiled reference to female masturbation. Lyrically, they weren’t doing anything for the #MeToo movement. Malicious and vengeful as it is, it’s all spat out with so much self-loathing, you’re inclined to think Cornwell may have richly deserved the slight that’s gotten under his skin. In other words, he makes no pretense of being any better than the bile he’s hurling.
‘Princess of the Streets’ brings love/hate relationships into play. “With words of fire she’ll make you small. With eyes that smile she’ll make you tall.” And yet, without such a willing participant none of this angst would be possible.
The catchy ‘Hanging Around’ takes its aim at Pub culture, with a sniper’s eye and a misanthrope’s tongue but without a doubt, the standout track on IV is, ‘Peaches’. Its snide, snarling Reggae beat prowling the beach will ill-intent. Lines like, “Is she trying to get out of that clitoris” are hardly the stuff of Top of the Pops and yet, this is the song that launched the Stranglers into the public eye. A song positively blistering with sexual frustration and male neurosis. For all the misogyny, Cornwell doesn’t ask you to sympathize so much as recoil in horror. There’s almost something positively cartoonish about this mocking portrait of the male libido. The other big hit was ‘Get A Grip’ with its bubbly keyboards and stabbing beats. Cornwell, jeering, “But the money’s no good”.
On the latter half of IV the band gets downright ambitious not only in displaying their instrumental chops but lyrically. ‘Ugly’ is an abstract dose of Psychedelia that quotes Shelley’s, Ozymandias. ‘Down the Sewer’ clocks in at the decidedly un-Punk seven-minute mark. Verging on concept album territory, it’s a post-apocalyptic tale of arriving at the big city via the sewers and finding life to be no better than that. A farm mouse sneaking into the big city only to become just another rattus norvegicus slinking around empty coke cans.
Some 41 years after is initial release IV still sounds fierce and decadent. Its mix of disgust and frustration cut with a life-affirming desire to rise above the corruption and decay it seemingly revels in. It's not pretty and it's not nice but you can’t say it isn’t honest.