ROCK / A tough act to follow: After 15 years, The Stranglers have a new line-up. Mark Wareham met the men who replaced Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell first left The Stranglers in 1980 when he visited Her Majesty for a few months in Pentonville. For a couple of nights at the Rainbow the band replaced him with some seven lead singers, including Toyah Wilcox, Ian Dury, Wilko Johnson, Billy Idol and Jake Burns. Ten years later, Cornwell left for good and the band settled on a mere two replacements, the lesser-known guitarist John Ellis (The Vibrators) and the completely unknown vocalist Paul Roberts (Big Wheel, as distinct from Jake Burns' Big Wheel).

Almost two years on, The Stranglers have released a new album, Stranglers in the Night (see review, p13), and are about to launch a full-scale tour. Historically, the omens are not good for The Stranglers Mk II. Precious few established bands have changed their front man and continued to meet with success, Genesis being perhaps the only exception (though if pushed you might include Marillion).

To add to the pressure on the new boys, The Stranglers had rocked along unchanged for a full 15 years while such punk contemporaries as The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash either died, burned out or got bored. Hugh Cornwell, Jean Jacques Burnel, Jet Black and Dave Greenfield formed one of the most settled line-ups in rock 'n' roll. According to the fanzine Strangled, 1992 is the band's '15th Anniversary World Convention Year' (making them sound more like a philatelist outfit than one of the originators of punk), though they've actually been around as the Guildford Stranglers since 1975 and celebrate their 18th birthday tomorrow.

The new singer, Paul Roberts, was 14 when The Stranglers formed and had yet to join his first band, MPSG. He started playing percussion but tired of air-drumming (they had no drum kit) so switched to vocals. Then, he remembers, 'I had contracts with small indie labels with strangely named bands - as one does - like Acute Dog, Who Shot Susan, and Deutschland Uber Alles, who were great. We lasted about a fortnight. A short-term project . . . ' Between bands, he blew up helium balloons for children and worked as a boat skivvy in Greece. There was a sniff of stardom with a group called The Word who were offered a deal by Rusty Egan but, naturally, they split up prior to signing.

Roberts claims to have followed The Stranglers since 1977, 'listening to them, putting my own stuff together and poisoning Hugh Cornwell's food'. Until two years ago, he was still beating the pub-and-club trail with Big Wheel. He dropped in with a demo tape to see a record manager who, it transpired, had moved. Instead, he found himself in the office of Colin Johnson, The Stranglers' manager, who told him that Hugh Cornwell had just quit. 'So I said 'I'll do it' and threw my own tape aside. I met J J (Jean Jacques Burnel) a couple of days later and they put me through a series of tests. 'Can you read?' was the first thing J J ever said to me, and I said, 'Yeah, sure'.' After a few days in the studio Roberts was offered the job, having undergone the usual initiation ceremonies, which weren't as humiliating as you might imagine - 'I quite enjoy shagging older men.'

The guitarist John Ellis, the other half of the new Hugh Cornwell, has been an unofficial Strangler since Day One. 'The first time I met them was '75 or '76 in a school hall in Tottenham where The Vibrators and The Stranglers played to a combined audience of two people and a dog. Ever since then I've floated in and out. When Hugh got banged up I did a couple of shows, and then I played on the last tour before he quit.' He has also played with Burnel's two sidekick projects, Purple Helmets and The Euroband.

Despite his connections, when Ellis first played as a full member on last year's club tour it felt more like a baptism of fire. 'It's the sheer panic you go through in deciding whether you're going to cut it or not. If it had gone badly, it could have got out of hand. Stranglers fans aren't known for being polite . . .'

You could say that. Early Stranglers' gigs were little short of pitched battles. Thugs would turn up, not to scrap with other punks, but to take on the band, who would respond by setting on the audience with fists and mike stands. Burnel estimates that 75 per cent of their gigs in 1976 ended in bloodshed. Not that the terror tactics were restricted to fans. The Stranglers always maintained a healthy loathing for the press. Interviewing them used to be more hazardous than watching them play. Legend has it they once tied a French reporter to the outside of a pylon on the first level of the Eiffel Tower, and then took pictures as he begged them not to let him die.

When the band tour nowadays, the only hangover from punk is the odd phlegm merchant.

Roberts: 'I spent three weeks being gobbed at last year.'

Ellis: 'Nah, that wasn't hardly bad at all.'

Roberts: 'It wasn't like getting flobbed on in the Seventies when it was hanging off your gear.'

Ellis: 'These days people gobbing at us run the risk of being sorted out by the band . . . It's no longer acceptable.'

Roberts: 'We did go and sort a guy out in Coventry last year . . . Luckily he was within reaching distance. The floor had to be mopped about four times. Y'know, it's not 1977, we don't do this any more.'

Gobbers apart, the new Stranglers are pleased enough with the fans' initial acceptance of the changes. Whatever the critical reaction from press and public, the band's core of die-hard followers are loyal enough to keep them on the road and into the 21st century (they're already close to selling out the London and Glasgow shows on the coming tour). They see no point in not carrying on. The Stranglers' second coming is an altogether scaled-down operation. They've formed their own label, Psycho Records, and are taking a hands-on approach. In the past, major record labels have not had the band's best interests at heart. Last year, arriving at an airport in Portugal, they were met by a reception party of men in suits from Epic who appeared unaware that the band had left their label some six months previously.

'At least this way,' says Ellis, 'if it screws up we've only got ourselves to blame.' Also, promises Roberts, there'll be no expensive videos. 'They don't make shit songs great . . . Basically, you can't polish a turd even if you spend a hundred grand filming it.'

The Stranglers tour Europe from 29 Sept

(Photograph omitted)

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