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Sewer Rat Symphony
on 8 April 2006
"Rattus Norvegicus" was released in April 1977, a time when punk rock was sweeping away the irrelevant, tired music of groups rehashing the 1960s and Bill Grundy was four months into rueing the day he met The Sex Pistols on live evening television. Yet The Stranglers were misfits, hated by purist punks, and with their glaring debt to The Doors - not even The Jam's self-conscious echoing of The Who was as obvious - they were the most atavistic group lumped under the "punk" umbrella. Riding the new wave, The Stranglers were not clearly part of it.
"Rattus Norvegicus" comprises the strongest songs from the live set that they had hauled around the pub scene since 1974. The production, as one would expect of the time, is spare and the tracks are simply arranged, making the most of the element of brute power The Stranglers had at their command. Yet many are organised in a curiously old-fashioned manner with call-and-response between Dave Greenfield's keyboards and Hugh Cornwell's guitar and passages that are straight out of Manzarek's and Krieger's book. Perhaps the most punk feature is the quick, muscular bass playing of Jean-Jacques Burnel, whilst Jet Black's drumming is efficiently rhythmic and understated throughout, in the manner of Ringo Starr.
There are some powerful tracks here, the best of which, with its swirling keyboards, cheese-grater guitar and pumping bassline, is the (nice 'n') sleazy "Hangin' Around", a story of walking streets filled with prostitutes and other figures of the demi-monde. Here, and on tracks like "Down In The Sewer", "Goodbye Toulouse", "(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)", The Stranglers manage to evoke darkness, dissipation, love lost and the boredom of late 1970s Britain. The crudely lascivious single "Peaches" complements these well. However, this LP comes with a warning; several tracks exhibit vicious misogyny. "Princess Of The Streets", "London Lady" and maybe "Ugly" are merely unpleasant, but "Sometimes", which expresses the wish to beat up some unfortunate woman, is both immature drivel and unacceptably violent.
The Stranglers released one more album that could be termed "punk", September 1977's inferior "No More Heroes", then began shifting towards a more pop-orientated vein the highpoint of which was probably 1982's number two success "Golden Brown".
As for this album, musically it's worth four stars. However, given its misogyny, I won't give it more than three. Buy it as a document of British punk rock in 1977, remembering that The Stranglers illustrated that it was a differentiated phenomenon and therefore sat uneasily alongside their contempories.