Review: The Stranglers, Portsmouth Guildhall

Review: The Stranglers, Portsmouth Guildhall

By Nick Mabey. Main image: Hiroki_Nishioka.

A packed Portsmouth Guildhall hosted the latest leg of The Stranglers year-long 50th anniversary tour on Saturday (24th March 2024).  Two sets, separated unusually by a thirty-minute interval, were packed with songs from the length of their remarkable career.  Classic album tracks from the early years were interspersed with their most successful singles and a selection of newer material.

I should probably own up to a very selective experience of the men in black. As a regular gig-loving youngster, The Stranglers were my favourite live band and I saw them perform eleven times between 1980 and 1986.  Perhaps more than any other cultural influence, Stranglers concerts left their mark on me.  Stripped-back stage shows, sardonic, sinister band members spewing complex, angry, inert anthems to sweaty testosterone-filled youngsters, all dressed in no-frills black.  It was a visceral experience borne out of the first five albums, which ended abruptly when I grew up and the band turned soft (or at least that’s my narrative). Hugh Cornwell left and although I knew the band were still going, somehow the next thirty-five years passed me by.

Fast forward to 2024 and the band still have something to say.  Jean-Jacques Burnel, the only remaining original member, dedicated their third song of the night, The Raven, to Jet Black and Dave Greenfield, who stayed with the band until ill-health and death forced them out.  The Raven, a masterpiece in my book, represents perfectly that transition point between the punk and the post-punk music of the band, while also demonstrating the complexity and technical prowess of their work.  Taken from the eponymous 1979 album, the song incorporates pounding metronomic base, sweeping, piercing keyboards and scratchy, angry guitar while exploring the isolation of Viking warriors.

Photo: Nick Mabey.

The crowd were lapping it all up.  The first set culminated in two classics from Rattus Norvegicus, their debut album.  The dark, brooding track, Hanging Around, was followed by the eight-minute, near-instrumental, classic anthem, Down in the Sewer, which left the audience primed and ready for act two. 

But an interval – really?  Perhaps a reminder that we are all getting on a bit and in need of a rest between the rage and pounding.  As I surveyed the balding heads of my fellow ex-punks, who made up most of the crowd, I realised that time waits for no one.  Except perhaps for Jean-Jacques Burnel.  The coolest of all the punk performers of my youth, the now seventy-two year-old Burnel still exuded swagger and menace as he prowled the stage with his bass slung low, performing the occasional slow-motion kung fu kick, which was his signature back in the day.  Only nowadays the grimace was replaced with a smile, and the growl with warm, melodic words. Despite this Burnel has not lost his cool, he’s a mesmerising presence on stage. 

The rest of the band have the difficult job of filling fans’ idealised memories of their predecessors.  Lead guitarist and singer, Baz Warne reminded us he is a relative newbie with only twenty-five years in the band.  Warne had the biggest shoes to fill it in my eyes in replacing Hugh Cornwell’s ultra-cynical, sneering presence and he managed it well, he’s obviously made the job his own.  Newer members Jim Macaualy (drums since 2018) and Toby Hounsham (keyboards since 2021), brought the same quality and presence I remember from Black and Greenfield respectively.

Photo: Nick Mabey.

The second act included most of the singles, included Duchess, Peaches, Skin Deep and, of course Golden Brown. Golden Brown was beautifully rendered and left me with bittersweet feelings.  It’s the song most well-known by the general music public and yet for me it was the beginning of the end of my love-affair with the band – punk bands don’t play harpsichords! Nevertheless, Golden Brown was warmly received by the crowd, particularly the female, younger sections, who I hadn’t really noticed before.

My personal highlights of the second set included Tank (which sometimes opened shows back in the day), Dagenham Dave and then the snarling, apocalyptic 5 Minutes. The encore was aimed squarely at the old saddos like me who hadn’t moved on from the early years.  Burnel talked warmly about his friend Bob – whose wife was in the audience – who was the inspiration for their first ever song, Go Buddy Go, which they then duly thrashed out.  The evening ended wonderfully, and perhaps a little ironically, with No more Heroes and the crowd were left baying for more.


* The tour continues for most of 2024, mostly in the UK but also beyond.  You can find dates and venues here:

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