Dave Greenfield Was The Stranglers’ Secret Weapon

by Marshall Bowden

The Stranglers were never a punk band, at least not by any of the normal measurable standards applied in 1977, and Dave Greenfield was a huge part of the reason for that.

Keyboard players were few and far between in the first wave of UK punk, allowable in ska bands like the Specials but otherwise verboten. Even Siouxsie and the Banshees, the most Beatles-apologist-psychedelic-before-it-was-goth band to rise alongside The Sex Pistols and The Adverts, didn’t have a keyboard player.

The only keyboardist from the era in any way comparable to Greenfield was Steve Nieve, keyboard player for The Attractions. In America, the L.A. punk band X managed to record four albums with ex-Doors organist Ray Manzarek, who was also their producer–but Manzarek was never a member of the band, and when X played live it was guitar-bass-drums only. 

In his book The Words and Music of Elvis Costello, James Perone makes a direct comparison between Greenfield, Naive, and Manzarek:

“Costello’s melodic construction and the musical arrangement in the …song ‘Goon Squad,” resemble the contemporary work of The Stranglers. The minor-key tune in the piece is based primarily on brief motives, and Steve Naive’s electronic organ plays a prominent role in the instrumental accompaniment, much as Dave Greenfield’s organ playing did with The Stranglers. Nieve’s work on Armed Forces and Greenfield’s work on the Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes sounds as though it follows in a direct line from Ray Manzarek’s work with the Doors. “ (p.31)

The very first track on Rattus Norvegicus, “Sometimes” sounds like an outtake from Waiting for the Sun, at least until Hugh Cornwell’s brutish lyrics kick in, and even then we hear one of Greenfield’s trademarks, the arpeggiated outline of chord progressions. In a rare interview on the band’s official website, Greenfield insists that he was initially relatively unaware of Manzarek’s work (“The only tracks by the Doors I knew were ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘Riders on the Storm’) and was much more influenced by Jon Lord of Deep Purple and, of course, Rick Wakeman. 

And that was no way to get street creds in ’75 when Greenfield joined the fledgling group. No one knew what to make of these blokes, all clearly older than the fans or the other bands. Their lyrics, frequently penned by singer Hugh Cornwell, were dismissive of social niceties and often seen as downright sexist thanks to songs like “Peaches” and “Princess of the Streets.” 

But in the warlike world of mid-1970s British punk rock, the band’s sound and Greenfield’s keyboard setup reeked of the prog and art rock bands that punk was supposed to be replacing with a new sound and a new language. “I hated The Jam and The Stranglers: ghastly retro rubbish, old information,” said Jon Savage, publisher of punk zine London’s Outrage who became a writer for the major music mags. “The point about punk was that everything should be new.” The band wasn’t too impressed with Savage; bassist JJ Burnel beat him up one night after the writer gave No More Heroes a poor review in Sounds

“I tracked him down one night to the Red Cow,” JJ explained. “And I punched his lights out right there in front of Jake Riviera, Andrew Lauder – our A&R guy, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe – all these people saw what I did. So yeah, we made a lot of enemies, bless ‘em, and these people got in a lot of influential positions within the music industry and literature…”

The Stranglers began to form in 1974 before punk was a gleam in Malcolm McLaren’s eye. They were looking for a different sound and they found it. The fact that their fortunes mixed, briefly, with the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, and X-Ray Spex was somewhat coincidental. 

Before The Stranglers, Greenfield played in a band known as Rusty Butler, an outfit that definitely had prog leanings as you can hear on this clip. According to No Mercy, the group’s authorized biography, Dave left school and spent the year he turned 18 in Germany, playing a variety of club gigs and army bases. Not only was Germany an ideal market for musicians to gain a great deal of experience playing live, it was also home to many of the most innovative rock musicians on the planet, with groups like Can, Faust, and Tangerine Dream dramatically expanding ideas of what rock and pop music could sound like.

Neither The Stranglers nor Greenfield felt constrained to remain punk or to continue to put out records like the first two. By the third record, Black and White, Greenfield’s keyboards are the most distinctive feature of The Stranglers, and they remained so throughout the band’s career. The one-two punch of the band’s 1983 opus Aural Sculpture shows how Greenfield could play dirty rock organ one minute (“Ice Queen”) and ’80s new wave synth lines the next (“Skin Deep”). 

One of my personal favorite Dave Greenfield performances is “Waltzinblack” the solo instrumental that kicks off (The Gospel According To ) The Meninblack. It’s a carnival piece with a certain German flair; tosses in a bit of back parlor Goth for good measure, and ends up being reminiscent of one of the more tension-riddled pieces of music ever composed–the “Third Man Theme.” 

Another favorite, of course, is “Golden Brown,” a song that was based on Greenfield’s Adams Family-meets-Deep Purple harpsichord figure. The song grew out of Greenfield’s keyboard riff and became the band’s biggest hit and perhaps most defining song, even though they rejected it at first and did not think it merited release as a single.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of Dave Greenfield’s contribution to the came from original Stranglers vocalist Hugh Cornwall, who left the group in 1990. Cornwall posted the following Tweet on hearing of his band mate’s death: “He was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band. His musical skill and gentle nature gave an interesting twist to the band.”

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