The Stranglers / Wilko Johnson – Nottingham Rock City, Wednesday March 9.
Their styles might be very different, but their sounds are equally distinctive. And last night at Rock City, we were afforded the privilege of witnessing two of this country’s finest bass players – Norman Watt-Roy and JJ Burnel – billed side by side.
An increasingly Dickensian-looking Norman, his features contorted with concentration and delight, played alongside Wilko Johnson, his former cohort in Ian Dury’s Blockheads. Wilko first made his name as part of Dr Feelgood, the band whose malevolent energy helped pave the way for the punk revolution. Although Wilko cuts a somewhat more benign figure these days, his legendary thousand-yard stare and his choppy duck-walk survive intact. And although the two old friends barely looked at each other on stage, their instinctive rapport shone through, over the course of thirty-five splendid minutes of supercharged rhythm and blues.
If much of the first wave of UK punk was underpinned by a certain strain of moral righteousness, then The Stranglers were always a band who kicked against the rules. As if to remind us of the controversy which always seemed to surround them, they opened their set with the 1977 album track I Feel Like A Wog: a bitter blast against racial prejudice, whose deployment of a term of abuse that fell from common usage thirty years ago still has the power to shock.
However, there’s a fine line between the iconoclastic and the puerile, and by reviving the almost equally ancient Two Sunspots – a silly ode to a prominent part of the female anatomy – the band teetered on the brink of crossing that line. The track’s jaunty bounce sat strangely in the middle of a rather subdued section of the set, which felt geared more towards the diehard fans down the front than the less expert folk at the back.
Then again, The Stranglers have never been about cosy nostalgia. Still very much a creative unit, they gave an airing to some unreleased new material – including the wistful Freedom Is Insane, in which JJ assumed the character of a disillusioned soldier, longing to escape to a desert island.
As for the classics – of which there were plenty – Nice ‘N’ Sleazy showcased JJ’s playing at its inventive best, his bass acting as the track’s lead instrument. Always The Sun drew the loudest vocals from the crowd, and No More Heroes raised the noisiest cheers – not least for Dave Greenfield’s one-handed keyboard solo, performed as he coolly downed most of his remaining glass of beer.
Special mention should also be made of the impromptu duet between JJ and guitarist/vocalist Baz Warne, hamming their way through Marlene Dietrich’s Falling In Love Again as the roadies fixed a piece of beer-soaked kit. “You’re still a c—” said Baz, pointing at the beer-chucker, “but you’re a nice c—”. Perhaps the “men in black” are mellowing after all.