Pop: Whatever happened to / All of The Stranglers? (Just ask the sheep...)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
They certainly aren't spring chickens (not that they were in 1976 when they exploded on to the music scene). But, as James McNair discovers, it hasn't stopped the revamped Stranglers flying to the Falklands to play to 35 - yes, 35 - of the most fanatical fans south of Ascension Island.

Twenty-three years into their illustrious - nefarious? - career, The Stranglers have found a new challenge. They are about to play a gig in the Falklands.

As we board the Chinook helicopter that will fly our party to Mount Alice in the south-west corner of West Falkland the sense of occasion is tangible.

The godfathers of punk are to play a concert for 35 servicemen and women who have seen nothing but sheep, cara caras (a bird of prey), and each other for months.

The sight of the 59-year-old drummer Jet Black strapping himself in alongside jugglers Johnny Slap, comedian Kevin McCarthy, and "erotic dance outfit" Face Value needs some explaining.

Earlier this year, The Stranglers played a series of concerts for British Forces stationed in Bosnia. Such was the obvious boost to morale that they were invited to play a similar series of gigs in The Falklands. They jumped at the chance.

You could argue that at this stage in their career, the band simply can't afford to be choosy, but that would be unkind. In June, they played a sold-out gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Furthermore, The Stranglers Greatest Hits 1977-1990 is still one of Epic Records biggest sellers, and for the three remaining original members at least (Jet, JJ, and the keyboard player, Dave Greenfield), the royalties continue to generate a fair bit of moolah. Things are less financially secure for guitarist John Ellis and singer Paul Roberts, both of whom joined when original frontman Hugh Cornwell left the band in 1990.

"Sometimes it does feel as though the others are a bit less hungry for success than Paul and I," says Ellis. "I really admire Jet, though, because he's still a great drummer, and at his age a lot of blokes just wouldn't be prepared to do this."

Our experiences on the Falklands are rich. Once in the islands after a 17-hour flight, we stop at the circular cemetery in San Carlos, the only place on the islands where British soldiers lost in the conflict are buried. It's a serene and surprisingly picturesque spot, just a few hundred yards from a white sand beach and framed by the brightest yellow gorse bushes we have ever seen. Standing by Lieutenant Colonel "H" Jones's grave is particularly poignant. The previous afternoon, we had re-traced his steps on a battlefield tour conducted by Captains Tim Mundell and Julian Vitoria. JJ's questions were particularly pertinent, and Mundell, obviously struck by his interest and knowledge of the conflict, tried to answer his questions honestly. Dave Greenfield - a loveable eccentric with a penchant for Dark Ages battle re-enactment and rat breeding as well as music - was equally gripped.

After the battlefield tour, we were silent for a while, each of us trying to digest what had been a profoundly moving experience.

Things quickly lightened up. Flight Lieutenant Dave Pollock explained that fresh fruit and vegetables were both scarce and expensive on the islands. "There was this dancer eating a banana suggestively at one of the shows," he said. "Someone shouted: `It's not you we're looking at love, it's the banana - we haven't seen one for eight weeks!' I think she was a bit deflated."

Pollock asked JJ if The Strangler's had mellowed over the years. "Well, we're not spring chickens any more, so we don't go around trying to cause mayhem all the time, which maybe at one point we did," he answered. "Twenty years ago though, I would happily have posed for a picture with one of those sheep. I'd even have got it's back legs inside my wellies."

It is claimed that David Buckley's forthcoming Stranglers biography No Mercy is one of the most potentially libellous rock profiles ever. Alongside tales of the Sex Pistols' drummer, Paul Cook, taking tips from Jet Black, a more testosterone-charged JJ beating-up journalists who gave the band anything less than rave reviews, and various allegations of misogyny, nazism, and gross misconduct, much is made of Jet's father-figure role within the band. Jet was playing drums when Elvis came on the scene. Jet was already 40 when the Stranglers' 1976 debut album Rattus Norvegicus charted at number 4 despite an almost unanimous media embargo. According to Buckley, up until this point, it was Black who would put food on the table for the others and make sure that the bills were paid. He's still an imposing character. Does he feel like a father figure, even now, I asked him? "No, but I feel like giving the rest of them a good kicking at times," he deadpanned.

Despite the hard man image it is Jet who walks back to the cemetery at San Carlos, as we leave, to close the gate which the others have accidentally left open. Old habits die hard.

As the Chinook hovers low, then settles on top of Mount Alice, all 35 servicemen and women stationed in the container accommodation there come outside to greet us. There's an immediate sense of utter otherness. It's a bit like visiting the scientific research centre in John Carpenter's The Thing.

The afternoon turns to evening and the mists close in around us.

The Stranglers are sound-checking in a building which normally functions as a garage for belted vaagons; little tank-like vehicles that can handle the toughest terrain and the steepest gradients. The soldiers have been preparing for this for weeks. They've built a stage and a back-drop, and they've insulated the garage with a kind of metallic material which makes it seem as though we're inside a giant microwave. As the huge fridge is stocked with beers, nobody is left in any doubt that we are about to party like it's 1999. Given that we're at the end of the world with The Stranglers and our nearest neighbours are well out of earshot, it would be churlish not to.

In 20 years of gig-going, I have never witnessed a concert quite like the one that took place that evening. Whatever one thinks of new members John Ellis and Paul Roberts, they have brought an energy to the band that Hugh Cornwell simply didn't have. There were no bouncers, the bar didn't close, and when the Stranglers encored with "No More Heroes" they triggered a king of hyper-catharsis amongst the squaddies which remained gloriously unchecked.

"I went to see The Stranglers play in Port Rush in Northern Ireland when I was 13 years old," Flight Lieutenant Gareth Scott told me afterwards. "I can't believe that they came all the way up here to play to 35 people. It was absolutely fantastic."

When we leave the next morning, there's another poignant moment when the residents at Mount Alice come outside to wave us off. Brave faces are their speciality, of course, but one senses that The Stranglers (and indeed Face Value's) departure will create a social vacuum. Not to mention a noise vacuum.

The live album, `Friday the 13th', is out now on Eagle Records. The Stranglers tour Britain from 11 to 26 November

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