Most people consider the Stranglers and the Ramones part and parcel of the punk/ new wave ranks, but their respective roles within those ranks are unique. Both bands had established distinctive musical styles and strong group identities before the movement became a big deal in 1977. The Ramones would provide crucial inspiration to almost every band that dared to call itself punk. The Stranglers provided a model for those who found the energy exciting but the structures limiting.
Both bands tended to draw their influences from classic rock and pop sources rather than passing fashions. Accordingly, their albums turned out to be highly iconoclastic, though subsequently influential affairs. Their latest are no exceptions.
The Stranglers began its career sounding like a hysterical, heavy-metal update of the Doors. Lead singer Hugh Cornwell penned straightforwardly sexual lyrics with violent undertones, and delivered them in a deep, growling voice. Keyboards, ably handled by Dave Greenfield, dominated the mix in a manner more than a little indebted to Ray Manzarek.
The current incarnation of the Stranglers (the group appears at Ritchie Coliseum on March 30) is a subtler, more diversified outfit. "Feline" (Epic BFE 38542) has touches of jazz, disco and Latin music, but mostly invokes the sound of surreal '60s pop, what the British press likes to call "psychedelia."
"Golden Brown," a sizable success in Great Britain last year, comes straight from Donovan's post-folk hits book, complete with spooky, spicy harpsichord vamp, syncopated rhythms and breathy vocals. "It's a Small World" and "Let's Tango in Paris" are the most successful pastiches of early Pink Floyd any band has ever pulled off with straight faces. It's an unpredictable, esoteric mixture, but it works.
The Ramones' current release, "Subterranean Jungle" (Sire 23800-1), is by far the group's most powerful of this decade, comparing favorably with past coups like "Rocket to Russia" and the Ramones' milestone debut album. The group is finishing a two-night stand at the Wax Museum tonight.
"Little Bit of Soul," the old Music Machine chestnut, opens the record with a blistering, boisterous statement of intent. It unashamedly declares the Ramones' personal stylistic debts to the "British Invasion" pop of the '60s while admitting commercial aspirations on the level of '80s success stories like Joan Jett or the Go Go's. The playing is tight, the production clean and crisp, yet somehow it still conveys that high, wild edge the Ramones defined as the epitome of punk style nearly a decade ago.
Dee Dee Ramone's "Somebody Like Me" is a classic rocker, a knees-up, head-banging delight. Joey's "My-My Kind of Girl" is the prettiest ballad the Ramones have cut since "Babysitter." Their current producers, bubble-gum legends Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin (close associates of Kenny Laguna, Joan Jett's svengali), have coaxed out the Ramones' best songwriting in years, and had the good sense to let it speak for itself in classic, Ramonomaniacal style.
On paper it's merely a question of volume, feedback and harmonic distortion and a rudimentary tune or two. It's a format that's moronically simple, yet, in its way, utterly perfect. In times past it has set a thousand cheap guitars thrashing and millions of feet leaping and twirling. "Subterranean Jungle" will do that and more.
California's Angry Samoans (who'll be playing at the 9:30 club next Thursday) are one of those combos that sprang up in the Ramones' aftermath. They sometimes include a punishing rendition of "Commando" in their shows as a tribute. "Back From Samoa" (Bad Trip BT 501) is full of gross, adolescent humor and noisy cliche'd music that's been slyly, strategically manipulated by ex-rock journalists Gregg Turner and "Metal" Mike Saunders to add up to something quite tasteful and original.
Irony is the key, laid on with a trowel, but with the pinpoint accuracy you'd expect from a neurosurgeon. The Samoans' lyrics ask punks, liberals, women and gay men trick questions designed to smash down any pretense of bogus cool. They don't make things easy with their blunt, studiedly crude manner of inquiry, or their music--stylized, stiletto-sharp punk-apocalypso. "Back From Samoa" is not for the smug or weak of spirit. Cowabunga!