These days, it seems as though most of the self-proclaimed punk bands of the moment are a collective of humourless prigs, racked with guilt about their cis-gendered, white privileged, patriarchal toxic masculinity – less anarchy in the UK and more dogged acquiescence to the new establishment. There seems zero chance in any of these fretting, self-loathing acts ever pushing against the modern orthodoxies of acceptable behaviour and belief, and the possibility of a button-pushing, confrontational act like The Stranglers emerging now seems remote. If they did, their careers would be ended by record label and broadcaster boycotts in no time.
The Stranglers became successful in the punk explosion of 1976/77, though they were established on the pub rock scene before hand, and always seemed a degree removed from the punks – older, more seasoned as musicians and less part of what was becoming an establishment even then. They were never the darlings of the elitist and pompous music press, being seen as thuggish, sexist, racist and generally dubious. When bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel punched music journalist and self-styled punk historian Jon Savage – a man who’s taste in punk seemed to begin and end with the point where it was fashionable – their reputation, as far as rags like the NME, was set. Despite – or perhaps because of – this antipathy, the band built a huge following and had a string of hit singles that seemed related to, yet removed from, the punk sound. While many punk bands affected an edgy image, the Stranglers looked and sounded as though they might be genuinely dangerous.
In September 1978, the band promoted a festival in Battersea Park. Like many punk bands, they had found themselves up against the Greater London Council’s stated aim of banning punk from the capital. The band were specifically banned from playing in London, apparently due to singer Hugh Cornwall wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘FUCK’ at a gig in 1977. Somehow or other, though, they managed to organise this festival as a way of reaching an audience who might have been denied the chance to see them otherwise. The Stranglers, naturally, headlined, and support came in the unlikely form of Peter Gabriel, then still fresh from leaving Genesis, plus the Skids, Spizzoil and compere Johnny Rubbish. The gig ran from midday until 6pm, making it an ideal family day out.
When the band came to play their hit single (number 18 in the charts) Nice ‘n’ Sleazy, they were joined on stage by a collective of strippers. Connoisseurs might recognise some of the girls as the same performers who appeared in the legendary film The Great British Striptease, released on video under the spoiler-heavy title An Unbelievably Dirty Evening with Bernard Manning and 16 Young Strippers. As the band played the song, the strippers did their thing, removing most of their clothes and encouraging the band (and, by all accounts, drunken blokes in the crowd) to do likewise. A chap with a whip was also on hand to liven things up.
On the Stranglers website, Burnel explains the motivation behind the performance:
“We had been accused since the year before of being misogynists and male chauvinists. There were attempts by the press and the Pistols and Clash and all that lot to denigrate us. My girlfriend at the time, Tracey, shared a flat with Lynn in Acton and I stayed there a lot of the time. Lynn was a professional stripper and made her living stripping in pubs. Lynn had originally proposed that she could strip at our Brighton gig at the time we released Black and White. She knew us and she thought it was outrageous that we were being accused of sexism. When Battersea Park was suggested, she said that she could get some of her work colleagues to strip too. The girls were basically saying that we are empowered and we can do whatever we want with our bodies. We have power over men. It wasn’t The Stranglers exploiting them as it wasn’t our idea in the first place. Lynn volunteered to do it and, of course, we accepted!”
Of course, this was an open-air gig in a public park, with no age restrictions. The authorities were not amused, and the police arrived to arrest the strippers – though no one was actually charged with any offence in the end. The music press, of course, had a field day, both leering and condemning (photos of the strippers had, of course, to be published just to show how disgraceful it all was) and the story immediately – and enduringly – became one of the band exploiting the strippers. Perhaps their critics believed that the man with the whip had somehow corralled female audience members into getting on stage and then forced them to undress. The band used tracks from the show on their live album Live (X Cert) and made reference to the performance and the faux outrage on the cover, with a news headline reading “STRANGLERS IN NUDE WOMAN HORROR SHOCK”.
Watching the footage today, two things seem striking. The first is just how outrageous this still feels – the sheer audacity of the whole thing is remarkable. This, more than most punk rock misbehaviour, feels like genuine anarchy, guaranteed to upset both the stuffy establishment and the right-on music press. Secondly, it’s remarkable just how damn good the strippers are. There’s actual performance here, even though it is clearly unrehearsed and chaotic. These exotic dancers can actually dance, and are effortlessly sexy as they do so. The fact that they are clearly revelling in the sheer naughtiness of it all makes the whole thing seem more compelling. The loss of professional striptease to the sterile world of the pole dancer is something we should all regret.