It’s funny writing, but it’s also very incisive about the Stranglers: in real life, Greenfield was, by all accounts, the most accessible and charming member of the group, but otherwise Paphides did right away. The Stranglers repeatedly complained that they weren’t accepted by the punk cognoscenti, but what did they expect? They didn’t look like punks, especially Greenfield, who defiantly sported the least punk of facial accessories, a mustache. They were old, at least by the standards of the time, old enough to have the kind of musical past that it was wise to keep your mouth shut in the scorched earth environment created by the Sex Pistols: Hugh Cornwell had played bass in a band with Richard Thompson, later of Fairport Convention; Greenfield was part of a progressive rock band called Rusty Butler.
Worse yet, Greenfield refused to keep his mouth shut about his past, at least metaphorically. He played keyboards, sometimes several at the same time: nothing compared to the equipment banks behind which Rick Wakeman worked, but much more than most punk bands would tolerate. Sometimes his playing was reminiscent of the reedy organ sounds found on garage rock singles from the ’60s? and the Mysterians or the Standells, which was pretty much acceptable under the rules of punk. More often, he played exactly like someone who had been part of a progressive rock band, decorating songs with complex arpeggios, which was absolutely not the case. In addition, his playing was the signature sound of the Stranglers: with the greatest respect for the gruff voice of Hugh Cornwell, or the fluid bass of Jean-Jacques Burnel, when you think of the most famous songs of the Stranglers – of Peaches and No More Heroes at Waltzinblack and Golden Brown – you first think of Greenfield keyboards.
His contributions were the lonely aspect of Stranglers music that you could describe as beautiful. Everything else about them was as relentlessly, willfully mean as their song titles suggested: Ugly, Tits, Bring on the Nubiles, Nice N ‘Sleazy, Peasant in the Big Shitty, Down in the Sewer and – oh my god – I feel like a wog. If it made listening deeply uncomfortable now – “problematic” just beginning to cover the lyric content – their music had remarkable power, a feeling of incessant misanthropic hostility. But they looked less like a punk group than a pre-punk group, born from this strange liminal period just before 1976, when the gloom of the mid-1970s Great Britain had seeped into the fringes of rock – l the most difficult end of the rock pub, the thuggiest pieces of glam of the end of the period – but not yet codified into series of musical dictates. That’s exactly what they were: they were trained in 1974 as the Guildford Stranglers, Greenfield joining a year later.
This meant that the Stranglers were still viewed with suspicion by the music press – a fact little helped by the group’s propensity for violence – but it also meant that the Stranglers were not coerced by punk. As powerful as their debut album Rattus Norvegicus and its sequel No More Heroes, there is a compelling argument that the band really made its way on Black and White in 1978, when the keyboard game of Greenfield became more expansive. and experimental. It’s never really praised as such, but Black and White claims to be the first post-punk album: tense dance rhythms, jagged guitars and synth sounds from Enough Time and Threatened, the attempt to merge reggae dub with Captain Beefheart on In the Shadows, claustrophobic curfew racket and stabbing, angular, curiously homoerotic death and night and blood (Yukio) were all adventurous explorations beyond rock’n’roll bare.
On the best of their later singles, Greenfield seemed more and more integral: their extraordinary cover of Walk On By – on which the Stranglers somehow managed to transform the original exquisite of Dionne Warwick in just six minutes of brooding, hardly aggressive, contained – was dominated by his playing organ; his rolling piano supported Don’t Bring Harry, an authentically scary song about the heroine; on the fantastic duchess of 1979, her arpeggios are no longer a striking embellishment, but seem to have entirely consumed the sound of the group. And then there was Golden Brown, which seemed amazing at the time – a Stranglers single that was played on Radio 2! – and seems even more astonishing in retrospect: a song led by a harpsichord on heroin in 6/8 times which reached number 2 in the charts. The lyrics were frontman Hugh cornwellBut it was Greenwood’s show: he wrote the music with drummer Jet Black, his performance is the heart of the song.
They were adaptable enough to continue having hits long after most of their peers had split up or faded, but a certain feeling of diminishing returns finally settled in: by the 1990s, they seemed dangerously close to ‘being another rock group, not an accusation, even their noisiest detractors, could have pinned the authors of No More Heroes or the disturbed album The Gospel According to the Meninblack.
Still, the Stranglers have proven to be strangely unstoppable – neither the departure of Cornwell nor the retirement of Jet Black, 78, has really shaken their audience. This could have been the flip side of the Stranglers’ lack of critical acclaim or reassessment, and the kind of refusal to follow the rules of the day that Greenfield seemed to embody: never fashionable to begin with, they weren’t subject to fashion whims, instead, building a huge, devoted cult, born from the outside.