The Stranglers “Rattus Norvegicus”

Rattus Norvegicus

Rattus Norvegicus doesn’t have a huge audience in America. It’s a record passed over by a lot of rock aficionados, and swarms of gob spitting punk purists haven’t heard a note of its snarl. How did this happen? It’s got all the right ingredients – songs of alienation, angst, attitude and anarchy archetypes. Hell, it’s even oozing with pre-punk psychedelic rock influences like The Doors, with a Manzarek like organ carrying its melodies along in a drunken stupor. The problem may be that (despite its influences) the album, like The Stranglers themselves, was a little too British. It’s an ethnocentric disease that’s paralyzed American music lovers from the ears down for decades. Groups like The Kinks, The Jam and The Stranglers never amassed the amount of attention from U.S. audiences that they rightfully deserved. Shame. They were talented, hungry and damn fine rock stars.

The record (which is named after the scientific labeling of a type of Norway rodent) is hard to pin down. It has the edge of an expletive laden punk EP and the long sweeping takes of your standard prog-rock concept album. The opening lyrics on their debut track “Sometimes” cuts in on the heavy organ crutch and grinding Peter Gunn style bass with a lip curled, “Someday I’m gonna smack your face. Somebody’s gonna call your bluff. Somebody’s gonna treat you rough.” The beauty of Rattus Norvegicus can be found here, with its ability to simultaneously affront and appease. The band’s sweet and sour take on the burgeoning punk movement would become a calling card for subsequent albums and would set them apart from the cookie-cutter one act groups forming at the time.

The star of the show is easily “Peaches”, a song that drips attitude with a schoolboy’s playful demeanor. The track may have confused some audiences into thinking that, lyrically speaking, The Stranglers were a sexist group of misanthropes who were quick to criticize any and every race, creed and belief structure. In actuality Hugh Cromwell, Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and crew were amateur satirists commenting on society at a confusing time in England’s history. Had it not been for the run ins with the law and being acquaintances of the notorious Finchley Boys street gang, people might have seen the lyrics for a song like “Ugly” as observant or hilarious.

But when you hear the lyrics “I guess I shouldn’t have strangled her to death, but I had to go to work and she laced my coffee with acid” out of context, you can’t be blamed for your assumptions.

Rattus Norvegicus doesn’t follow a straight and uncompromising journey into the abyss, a point of view that most punks initially adopted at that time. Instead the record is a cornucopia of surprising solos and swells of melody. “Princess of the Streets” seems completely disjointed from entries like “Goodbye Toulouse”, a song that hints at the future sound of the band and a lot of the brilliance they already had as songwriters. Punk was something that can be nailed to a particular style, a particular time and a certain type of attitude. Well in The Stranglers’ defense, Cromwell has been cited as saying that they never considered themselves punks. Their later albums delving into more pop friendly waters (as well as the production of a few concept albums) should come as no surprise then. Why should they be nailed to the punk rock cross when they never considered themselves its apostles to begin with?

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  • Susie

    Perfect synopsis of the album AND the band…Such a pity they’ve not been able to convince the American audience…Oh well, they’re loss!

    Great that you’ve mentioned this album, as it’s a ‘must have’ for any music collector, as well as a tease to have a listen to any one of their other 15 studio albums!

    Thanks for that! Spread the word!

  • For a time there, in the sweaty clubs and music halls of England, these Guildford boys may have been the best rock show on the planet.

  • jimjam

    great write up and i agree with everything you’ve said.

    One thing though… it’s Hugh Cornwell not Cromwell!

    I think The Stranglers were best summed up at this time when someone (can’t remember who!) named them ‘Punk Floyd’… describes them to a tee

  • levi

    as an american that has loved stranglers since ’80, I still find it odd that most americans don’t know and love them. fucking weird. well, I guess the states are freaking huge and had tons of other music going on… but still…

  • chris in black

    This album changed my life. Brilliant musicians with attitude. It may be 30+ years old but it still rocks.

  • Len Liechti

    This was and still is a great debut album. The Strangs were a long way from being archetypal snotty-nosed teenagers with a snotty attitude; they were quite a bit older, and all were hardened rock musicians who could play. British punk almost universally made a virtue out of NOT being able to play, unlike the less nihilistic US punks who combined the attitude with the chops. The Strangs chose to adopt the snotty attitude but kept the chops. The “Punk Floyd”? I dunno about that, but early comparisons were certainly drawn with the Doors, and keyboardist Dave Greenfield’s style is certainly comparable with Ray Manzarek’s. The next two albums mined the same vein, but IMHO with less satisfactory results as the songwriting was not as hungry and immediate. After that it was a journey toward AOR and “Golden Brown”. Rattus Norvegicus is often slated for its sexist and mysogynist lyrics, but again IMHO this was all done tongue in cheek. These guys were too intelligent to really believe all that stuff. Certainly, they didn’t quibble about substituting “bikini” for “clitoris” in order to get a radio-acceptable version of “Peaches” on to the airwaves.

  • johno

    Good synopsis there, my friend. I got a barage of dissent when I posted on youtube that these uncatagorisable wayfarers through rock were one of the progenitors of goth music. In fact I think the term solely suits the Stranglers and not the image conscious try too hards. Listen to Death and night and blood, Hanging around, toiler.., the raven, Waltziznblack, Four Horsemen ( now doesn’t that sound like Satan himself mocking humanity!)These guys didn’t have to travel to that dark place to find inspiration, they were residents!It’s criminal that they weren’t appreciated on a larger scale. Never mind. It’s our esoteric secret, eh people? The rest have been knealing to wrong gods!

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