Nice 'n' sleazy Stranglers do it every time at the Northcote Theatre

In May 2020, after 46 years on the road and with the world finally at their feet, fate dealt The Stranglers the cruelest blow yet and that very same world was turned upside down and kicked mercilessly to the curb.

Their keyboard maestro, Dave Greenfield, responsible for arguably the most crucial aspect of the Stranglers’ signature sound, tragically succumbed to COVID-19 during an extended hospital stay where he was being treated for heart-related problems.

Fans of the band are quick to attest that no-one else played keyboards quite like Dave Greenfield… and everyone, including last remaining original member, Jean-Jacques Burnel, sensed this could indeed mean curtains for the band. Dark matters indeed.

What to do?

In late 2020, a young keyboard player called Toby Hounsham, who was at that stage working with Mungo Jerry in the UK took a phone call from sound designer and producer Louie Nicastro (often referred to by the band as the fifth Strangler, such is the weight of his contributions to their later work).

Turns out Toby was no stranger to Louie. He had previous form having worked with JJ on early demos for The Stranglers ‘Norfolk Coast’ album. At that time JJ was looking for a new keyboard player for some of his solo work but felt Toby’s playing sounded too much like Dave. They’d even joked at the time that if Dave ever got sick or injured, Hounsham would be the guy that got the call up.

During Toby’s first audition with Baz Warne (gtr) and Jim Macaulay (dr), Warne had to stop them halfway through ‘Hanging Around’, so moved was he with Toby’s playing. "It was as if Dave was still in the room".   

As the guys rehearsed with him more and began to get to know Toby a little better, they discovered more incredible, almost 'fated' connections. Toby was a long time Stranglers fan, had formed his own Stranglers covers band and had actively studied Dave Greenfield’s keyboard work for over 35 years! It seemed a match made in heaven.

Fast forward to April 2023 and the big day has finally arrived. Melbourne gets to hear the new lineup… and a few eager fans arrive early in the afternoon and congregate at the side entrance – hoping to say a quick hello to JJ and the band before soundcheck.

When the band eventually arrive and alight from the minibus, they happily take a few minutes to inspect tattoos, sign autographs and pose for some quick selfies. For the young lady sporting a mohawk who has travelled alone on the bus from Wodonga, hoping she might just meet her hero, it’s very much ‘achievement unlocked’!

The Stranglers enjoy a loyal following and true to form, many fans have travelled from the UK and have tickets for every date on this tour. They’re all part of the unofficial ‘familyinblack’ and have decamped to the pub across the road until doors at 7.30pm. Despite already seeing so many shows, from the chatter there’s a definite level of excitement and expectation tonight. From all reports the band are on fire and the lead-up shows in New Zealand with Jon Toogood (Shihad) in support have been ripper.

Tonight it’s another sellout crowd and the theatre seems at full capacity with little or no room to move upstairs. By comparison, downstairs is very chill and people are content to stand with plenty of room around them. The Northcote Theatre offers great sight-lines to the stage and tonight’s support, three piece Heavy Amber play to a luke-warm but patient crowd. The band’s slow extended psychedelic jams do seem a somewhat incongruous choice for a Stranglers warm up support slot, but by the time they finish their set, the crowd have relaxed into it and give them appreciative applause.

A few minutes frantic setup by the Stranglers roadies where levels are tested by ever-present Louie who’s on sound tonight and the lights fade to the tell-tale intro of the ‘The Gospel According To The Meninblack’ which elicits hearty and expectant cheers from the floor.

They open with ‘Toiler On The Sea’ off the classic ‘Black & White’ – always a great indicator whether the band are firing on all cylinders. Baz is straight into the choppy guitar intro, spitting out the words with venom, Jim’s pounding away on the skins like a man possessed and JJ is head down in full concentration mode. The bass hangs off his hips limply as his fingers fly up and down the fretboard eliciting the runs we’ve all come to adore. His concentration momentarily broken as he recognises the mohawked girl from earlier in the day. She beams back over the front barrier.

But all ears are on the keyboards. How will the band cope in Dave’s absence? We needn’t have feared. Hounsham’s right in the pocket tonight, nailing Greenfield’s trademark arpeggios and distorted washes. His renditions are note perfect – a respectful and fitting homage to Dave. Those with intimate insider knowledge of The Stranglers report that no-one rehearses as hard as they do. They take their jobs very seriously and tonight’s living testimony – it shows in spades. JJ and Baz intuitively fire off each other like brothers. The two of them are loose and relaxed from the get-go. Both creep to the front of the stage in unison during ‘Nice 'n' Sleazy’, from where they playfully sniff the audience, taking in deep whiffs, all the while scanning the crowd for familiar faces, which they recognise and interact with – mouthing silent conversations in-between sung vocals.

For Baz, who has now clocked up an incredible 26 years in The Stranglers as lead guitarist and vocalist (Hugh Cornwell only managed 16 before he’d had enough) it’s testimony to the man’s integrity that he can effortlessly muster up that level of energy and effervescence every night without fail. The man is a living powerhouse and JJ is the first to admit he’s blessed to have such a brilliant wingman. Whatever Baz’s having, I’ll order the same!

Towards the end of the night JJ and Baz convene for a few quiet reflective minutes on a couple of bar stools before the final encore. Playing two acoustic songs… a rare and sincere moment, and for many there, unequivocally the sweet spot of the night. JJ pays tender homage to his old mate Dave Greenfield, jokingly referring to him as ‘a friend, flatmate and occasional irritant’. He introduces his tender ballad ‘If You Should See Dave’ by saying that Toby Hounsham agreeing to join the band has effectively thrown the Stranglers a lifeline. The song was poignantly performed with a single spotlight above Dave’s empty keyboards.

During what has been a hellbent 1hr and 46mins, the band deliver a killer setlist: 5 off ‘Rattus Norvegicus’, 4 off ‘Black & White’, 3 off ‘The Raven’ and the superb new album ‘Dark Matters’ and then 2 off ‘No More Heroes’. Such is the richness of the back catalogue that they have room for just one track off four of their other incredible albums; ‘Aural Sculpture’, ‘Dreamtime’, ‘La Folie’ and ‘Suite XVI’ to fill the remaining gaps plus the perennial evergreen… a searing cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Walk On By’.

All the punters who wisely left any historical preconceptions at home about ‘only one original member remaining’' – and came along to enjoy ‘The Stranglers’ on the merits of the band they are today – went home richly rewarded for their open-mindedness.

Implausible as it may seem, the latest lineup of The Stranglers is arguably the best. They are unequivocally more energetic, invested and appreciative of the blessings bestowed upon them by their engaged, adoring fanbase. They also work doubly hard to ensure that every night they do the legacy and the memories of Dave, Jet and Hugh proud.

The Stranglers are survivors in the truest sense of the word – weathering multiple line-up changes, label frustrations and setbacks that would’ve silenced the strongest of their contemporaries. Never resting on their laurels, or pandering to an audience, their dogged determination has seen them overcome everything the universe could throw at them and more.

It seems the world is beginning to respect ‘the men they loved to hate’!

Apparently if you stick at something long enough, you’ll eventually earn the respect of even your harshest critics.

What do they say again?

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast!

***** out of *****

Words by Harry Williams
Photography by CarbieWarbie \U0001f413