The Stranglers in Guildford - punk rock and ice cream
One of the most successful bands to have emerged from the UK punk scene, The Stranglers started out on their career in leafy Surrey. Thirty-five years after the release of their classic album No More Heroes, Steve Gibbs takes us back to their unlikely beginnings in Guildford – where, among other things, they were banned from playing at the Civic, incurred the wrath of the local council and earned a living in the early days by selling ice cream…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2012
Words: Steve Gibbs
The band that became an outsider in an outsiders’ culture, and whose members remain punk’s mysterious and misunderstood men in black, has grown over 35 years into one of Surrey’s most prized musical possessions.
Six top ten albums and seven top ten singles, including classics such as Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl and Peaches, have been the headlines of an unorthodox career that has had an impact far beyond mere commercial success, yet perhaps should never have happened at all.
Initially identified by the rather chilling epithet The Guildford Stranglers (named after the hometown they would grow to hate), their deliberately provocative persona and musical innovation created a legend that was, in fact, built largely on ice cream.
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“It was a wholly unusual rock ‘n’ roll beginning,” muses drummer Jet Black, the man almost entirely responsible for raising a bunch of itinerant and listless musicians from across Europe with the tough love of a proud father. “Not least because most of it was accidental.”
Their journey certainly began in unlikely surroundings – in the off-licence and ice cream business run from his home at 61 Woodbridge Road, where they all lived together, before later moving to Chiddingfold. “They were very young and their main preoccupation in life was having fun,” says Black, 74, who now lives in Wiltshire. “That caused a lot of conflict, because work was getting in the way of pleasure for some people.” Early days in Guildford A former semi-professional jazz drummer, Black’s life had fallen into something of a rut, despite his successful business with the off-licence, named Jackpot, and the ice cream wholesalers. His response to the stasis of impending middle age was to buy a drum kit from Andertons, then located on Haydon Place, and form a band with younger kindred spirits.
However, whilst Black’s vision was one of focused professionalism, his new band mates offered raw talent but also a lust for the good things in life, which didn’t exactly sit easily with their mentor.
“They had some musical ability but my outlook was entirely different,” he says of biochemistry graduate Hugh Cornwell, Godalming resident and former Royal Grammar School pupil Jean-Jacques Burnel and the host of colourful minor characters who answered Black’s advert seeking musicians, including ‘The Swede’ Hans Warmling, and a saxophonist known only as Igor Saxophonich, who lasted two days before being kicked out. “One can look back on that now with some amusement, but at the time it was pretty frustrating.”
Devoting as much of their time as possible to songwriting and rehearsals, in his shop basement, Jet even sent Cornwell and JJ out in his fleet of vans to earn their keep. “As things went on, it seemed to be more important to get some sort of money coming in, and to get people into some sort of work ethic.” But were these archetypal rock ‘n’ roll figures good ice cream salesmen? “Not particularly! They had talents but not in that direction.”
Debut at The Star Officially registering their business name as ‘The Guildford Stranglers’ on September 11, 1974, they played their first gig, as so many have in the intervening years, at The Star on Quarry Street.
“Many pubs were still doing a lot of business based on musical entertainment, and in those days we’d do anything to be able to play,” he explains of their early gigs, which even included a short-lived lunchtime residency at The Royal Hotel in Stoughton. “Rehearsing is never quite the same as playing in front of an audience, so we were very keen to do any kind of gig. A lot of them we did as amateurs and didn’t get paid at all.
“Audiences really hated us for a good three years, and there were frequently confrontations because the pub owners would say, ‘play something they know or get out’, and we just carried on regardless.”
Happy that this burgeoning line-up, by now featuring keyboardist Dave Greenfield, had enough potential to satiate his “burning desire to create a band”, Jet sold his businesses and moved the Stranglers ‘family’ to a cottage at Lilian Place in Chiddingfold in 1975. The welcome they received could perhaps be best described as mixed.
“The next door neighbour didn’t like us at all and he organised a village meeting to try to get us evicted,” says Black. “It even went to the stage of the local council sending investigators up and down the street to listen if we were making the noise that he alleged!”
Attempting to fight fire with fire one morning, the neighbour stood outside the house banging a pair of dustbin lids together, to replicate what he saw as their own hideous racket. The band also incurred the wrath of a local retired Major, whose young daughter had attracted the collective testosterone-fuelled attentions of the band, but Black still asserts: “We had a lot of support in the village, which is why his quest failed. A lot of the people said it was rather nice to have artists living there.”
Despite Jet’s continued funding, times were hard. “For a long time, it looked like it was going nowhere – and everybody I knew told me as such,” he says. “It was hugely risky. It could have folded at any point, so everything was done on the cheap.”
The band’s modest rehearsal facilities – at Bramley Village Hall and Shalford Scout Hut – became even more necessary when they were thrown out of the cottage for rent arrears. However, having dumped their belongings onto the front lawn, landlord Mr Ruben forgot to change the locks and the band simply moved themselves back in.
Resolutely failing to fit in, they emerged somewhere between the end of glam-rock and the first nascent thrashings of punk, and to a large degree identified with neither. The Stranglers “were hugely misunderstood – and still are,” protests Black. “What we were doing was hugely unfashionable. We preceded that whole punk thing by a good three years. I would maintain there was nothing punky about us, but as much as people liked us because they thought we were punks, there were lots of venues that banned us because they thought we were punks.”
Despite appreciating the benefits of courting controversy (“we very quickly learned that there was cheap publicity to be had”), it was only once The Stranglers graduated to gigs in London that they found a natural home. Wrath of the council “Everywhere else was a disaster,” says Black. “Especially Guildford. Guildford was a millstone around our necks. The local council hated us and literally banned us from playing at the Civic Hall, even when there was a huge demand for us after we had a No.1 album.”
Then, when the band finally returned to the city in 1978 as part of the BBC’s Rock Goes To College series of university concerts, they infamously stormed off stage in protest at what they saw as the “elitist” distribution of tickets that excluded local fans.
By then, though, The Stranglers had outgrown their humble roots whether they liked it or not. Signing to United Artists for �40,000 in December 1976, it was a relationship that immediately paid huge dividends, in the guise of debut album Rattus Norvegicus and, on September 23, 1977, the classic No More Heroes.
The preceding “three years of turmoil” had created a formidable repertoire of twisted, sleazy and invigorating rock ‘n’ roll that made the band both cult anti-heroes and genuine pop stars.
“It felt like forever,” says Black of their 36-month trudge to the top. “The year before we signed, we did about 350 gigs, and that was not only a whirlwind, we were pretty knackered by the end of it.”
As Britain remembers its summer of punk, the band who didn’t want to be part of it simply continue to plough their own idiosyncratic furrow. For that refusal to conform, as much as their musical legacy and longevity, The Guildford Stranglers deserve their place in the city’s rich history.
From green and leafy Surrey to Golden Brown...
Here, we speak to three Surrey residents who have their own special memories of The Stranglers’ earliest performances around the county
Interviews by Debbie Ward
Andy Rudman, who works at video conferencing company Netdoo at Surrey Research Park in Guildford, says he’s followed the band for many years – and even used to do covers of Stranglers’ songs... “I saw The Stranglers two or three times at the Guildford Civic Hall. It was absolutely fabulous. For my whole group of friends, they were a bit of a cult band and we all followed them. We had our own band as well and used to do covers of The Stranglers’ songs. We were somewhat in awe of them really. They had great music, they were challenging and, as they were a bit older than their contemporary bands, they had more to say. They seemed intelligent. I’m really quite proud of them coming from Guildford and that we gave rise to them.”
Guildford resident Martin Holmes has long been a fan of The Stranglers – and now his son has inherited his passion for the band “I’ve probably seen them 40 times; mostly in Surrey though I’ve travelled around too. There’s a group of us who liked The Stanglers at Bishop Reindorp school and still see them now. It’s just something we go back to at parties etc; it’s been a constant theme for us. Now I take my son Toby, who’s 13 and plays the bass guitar, and he’s probably a bigger fan than me. In the early days, they sounded like a bunch of thugs but their lyrics were quite clever. There was a depth. At the old Guildford Civic Hall, they let us in to hear the soundcheck once. I’ve met them a few times since. When I went to see them in France, they were on the same easyJet flight back and we sat and chatted with them about how we first followed them.”
Blogger Gashead, aka Alistair Burns, remembers meeting The Stranglers when they played at the University of Surrey in 1978. In fact, he swapped a Russian language textbook for a ticket... “On the day of the gig, I was up in my room playing my pink vinyl import 7” EP of Hanging Around when I looked out my bedroom window facing the concert venue and saw the band having a drink and a fag. I quickly grabbed two picture sleeve singles, breathed deeply, then walked down to where they were, trying to look cool and punkish but in reality heart pounding. I went up to Hugh Cornwell and Jean-Jacques Burnel and asked very nicely if they would sign my singles. In an only slightly silly higher-than-normal voice, I told them the story about the book and I got ‘I slept on Guildford campus – Hugh Strangler and Jean-Jacques Burnel…’ duly signed. It was a fantastic evening, the best 15 minutes of live music ever!”- To read Alistair’s blog, visit www.gashead.wordpress.com.
GET IN TOUCH: Did you see The Stranglers play in Guildford? Perhaps you knew them in their early days? Write to us at the usual address, e-mail email@example.com