Behold Aural Sculpture!

Following their Epic debut Feline, the band started work on tracks for the follow up album early in 1984. An initial batch of demos was presented to Epic by the band and, disappointed with what they heard, the record company suggested drafting in producer Laurie Latham to help develop the tracks. We have enlisted Dave & JJ’s help with recalling that period thirty years ago…

Laurie was in great demand as a producer at that time. Although he had started as a studio engineer in the seventies, working with the likes of Ian Dury, he had recently made his name as a producer having just produced the number 1 selling album ‘No Parlez’ for Paul Young which had enjoyed huge worldwide acclaim. JJ elaborates: ‘Muff Winwood (of CBS) suggested that we bring him in as we needed more of a producer other than just ourselves. He knew Laurie from his success with Paul Young on the same label so he brought him in’.

The band and Laurie decamped to ICP Studios in Brussels, where they had previously recorded Feline, and set to work honing the existing songs and writing new material for possible inclusion on the album. Laurie’s broad musical ideas allowed the band to expand their horizons and he suggested that certain tracks could be further enhanced by the addition of a brass section and backing singers. JJ: ‘Laurie took control really and he singlehandedly changed everything because he suggested that we bring in a brass section and backing vocalists too. Hugh was much more into the idea of brass than I was. I thought that it was quite a novel thing to do and I could see the R’n’B aspect to it, which I didn’t object to at all. It was quite a big departure for us’.

For Dave, the introduction of the brass altered his input into the recording process, especially with limitations to the keyboard sounds available at that time: ‘It made my life easier.  The keyboard brass sounds in those days were nowhere near as good as they are now.  A brass player will always have a better feel for the part and also write better parts for their instruments, rather than a keyboard player writing for a brass person’.

Under the producer’s influence, the addition of extra musicians altered the feel of the songs and gave the album a generally more soulful sound as JJ remembers: ‘That was Laurie, it turned out that way because of the instrumentation. If you took that away, some of the songs would still be R’n’Bish, tracks like Uptown. Overall the sound of the album was softened up for American radio which was the brief given to Laurie by Muff but we resisted the efforts to turn us into Paul Young!’

One thing that had an affect on the warmth of the soulful sound was Jet’s use of programmed drums rather than a live drum kit in the studio, JJ: ‘It always will do, full stop. As far as I’m concerned, it will always sound better. Laurie liked syncopating keyboard sounds with drums parts, but the programmed drums were too square and totally unsyncopated so the sound ended up too cluttered’.

Laurie also made suggestions to the band about their contributions, for example, that Dave should dust off his Hammond for certain songs. Dave recalls: ‘I don’t remember it being his suggestion but I’ve always enjoyed playing the Hammond!  It is one of my favourite keyboards’. JJ’s bass was dropped down in the mix, assuming a more conventional position in the sound which the bassist agreed to: ‘I was quite happy to do that at the time, although I later started to realise that actually my bass was an integral part of the Stranglers’ sound and without it we were less distinctive’.

With the album completed, and given the title Aural Sculpture, after their tongue-in-cheek manifesto given away with Feline, a release date of November was set. Out of the eleven songs selected, JJ’s lyrical contribution was a solitary track North Winds, although he had provided lots of the riffs and melodies on the album. JJ: ‘I don’t think that there was any conscious attempt to exclude my songs, it’s just how it happened at the time. That’s the strength of The Stranglers is that there was more than one songwriter, there were two main songwriters. Aural Sculpture was dominated by Hugh to be honest. I always got brow beaten or outvoted, Jet was more supportive of Hugh over me. Everyone seemed to think that I was the pretty boy and Hugh was the talent then. They didn’t realise the contribution I made and maybe that was my fault as I let Hugh be the spokesman all that time’.

One of the JJ penned demos that didn’t make the final cut was The Beast, a quirky and catchy tune, which was held back to reappear five years later as the title track of his solo album Un Jour Parfait, albeit in a changed form. JJ: ‘The Stranglers didn’t really know what to do with The Beast so I took it back and used it. I think Un Jour Parfait is a far better track. It could have been a classic Stranglers’ track with the instrumentation and the classical theme on it’.

To underline the aural focus of the album, sculptor (& Hugh’s relative) John King was commissioned to construct a huge ear sculpture to help promote the release. Despite being made of fibreglass, the ear appeared to have been chiselled from a massive block of solid stone. A photosession was arranged for the album cover featuring the band, dressed in both their own clothes as well as various costumes, gathered around the ear in London’s Trafalgar Square. This clearly required the delivery of the sculpture to the very heart of London and, unsurprisingly for The Stranglers, devious plans were afoot to attract extra publicity to the event. The seemingly monumental ear was transported on an unnecessarily large low loader truck around central London in an attempt to cause traffic chaos and, therefore, maximum publicity for the album’s release. There was even the suggestion that the lorry should suffer a ‘breakdown’ at a busy road junction which would bring the centre of the capital to a grinding halt…

A launch party for the album took place at the Belfry club in London where various band related VIPs, artists and the music press gathered to listen to the album and view an exhibition of artwork inspired by the album’s content and its aural fixation. There was even a art-show style catalogue of the pieces on display. Oddly, very few people at the time seemed to realise that the whole thing was a huge calculated wind up…

In an era where ownership of personal computers was blossoming, keen gamer Dave also suggested that the cassette of the album could include a Stranglers related computer game as an extra ‘track’. The idea behind Aural Quest was born. Designed for the ZX Spectrum, the game’s coding could be downloaded onto computer to allow the user to access an adventure game searching for parts of the ear in various band related locations. Dave: ‘The programing of Aural Quest was left to our friend, Tops.  It was done on an adventure writing program on the Spectrum.  However, Pam & I designed the strategy and scenario of the game’.

To pre-empt Sculpture‘s arrival, Skin Deep was chosen as the lead single and it was released in early October securing a top 20 chart position and a return to the BBC’s iconic Top Of The Pops’ studio for the band. An accompanying video was also filmed with the band playing in front of the ear sculpture and tearing latex ‘skin’ from their faces.

Despite its November release date, the band chose to tour in the spring of 1985 so the public’s first real live exposure to tracks from the album came when the band were invited to appear on the Channel 4 music show The Tube in early December. Performing in front of the ear sculpture, and with the brass section augmenting the sound, the band played a trio of tracks from the album Let Me Down Easy, No Mercy and Uptown (watch it here). In addition, the band also made an appearance on local TV in the North East the previous night on a charity show playing Let Me Down Easy. The second single from the album No Mercy was released at this time with a promo video that was filmed in a disused hospital and featuring the world’s biggest cotton bud!

Whilst snow still covered the ground, the 20 date UK tour kicked off early in February culminating in a five night run at London’s Dominion Theatre in the heart of the city. Fans who attended the Dominion shows were greeted by the sight of the ear sculpture on top of the venue’s front canopy. The tour stage set, including the keyboards, amps and risers, was completely covered in white sheets and both Hugh & JJ also used radio mikes for the first, and only, time. Also, in another first, the band were joined throughout the tour by a three piece brass section Hilary Kops, Martin Veysey and Alex Gifford (shown left-who became a permanent fixture in the band for the next six years). On stage in London, the band’s ranks were further expanded by the harmonies of the trio of backing singers who had worked on the album.

JJ recalls the change that the brass brought to gigs: ‘Obviously it did, but it also shut the door on a few things that we were about. It changed the dynamic of the live set because we suddenly had seven of us onstage, which I think was daft. We wanted to replicate the brass tracks from Sculpture and we thought that we should have them doing backing on other tracks too’.

In addition to the Sculpture tracks that featured brass, they also contributed to some of the band’s back catalogue during the set. JJ explained the reasoning behind this: ‘Because they were there and we thought we might as well use them to add brass to some of the older tracks. I think it worked on a few tracks and was a bit redundant on others. It certainly rekindled some of the older tracks that were getting a bit tired by then’.

The touring party headed across Europe for a huge tour to support the album and the response was particularly encouraging in territories like France & Germany where they continued to build on the success of Feline. However, the signs of some tensions between Hugh and JJ started to show during the Euro gigs, JJ explains: ‘We were starting to get a bit confrontational with each other. We’d always been competitive which had been helpful to the band but, when things become antagonistic or confrontational, then something’s going to break at some point’.

As the European dates passed, the situation worsened and things came to a head in Rome. The two front men actually came to blows backstage over a seemingly insignificant event-Hugh’s mistimed jumping in the air during a song. JJ: ‘He couldn’t jump to save his life! I said the timing of his jump was wrong and he only got two inches off the ground. He didn’t like it and threw a glass of champagne at me. The backstage area had a thin paper wall and I put him through it, leaving a Hugh shaped silhouette like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. It was very funny although he didn’t think so…’

With the problems developing between JJ & Hugh on tour, the bassist gravitated towards the youthful exuberance of the brass section, and Alex in particular, to spend his off stage time with. JJ: ‘The brass section were all from Bath and we knew them. Alex was very talented, he was an incredible sax player, bass player and keyboard player. He went on to greater things with The Propellerheads and, of course, The Purple Helmets! Hugh and I weren’t getting on so well and Alex became my surrogate friend’.

Backstage-France 1985

The band also made a return to Australia that year, six years after their previous Raven era visit, to discover that the album was hugely popular and the run of dates was totally sold out. JJ recalls: ‘We were playing arenas, 5000-8000 people as all the records were doing well there. It was totally different to our previous visit with no arrests or anything, just fun, fun, fun!’

Sadly, things weren’t entirely rosy within the group and Hugh was starting to become detached from the others, seemingly directed by his stylist cum solo manager Jackie Castellano. For Hugh, he was being true to his real character and not putting up an act and to JJ, his friend was changing for the worse, guided by outside influences. JJ: ‘Hugh was playing about with American models and starting to move in different circles which affected his outlook. He wanted to start acting and we began to move apart. Success affects people differently, he wanted to move on and started to look down on fans’.

This drifting apart was also evident in the way that the pair wrote songs together, JJ explains: ‘Both he and I had developed home studios by then so demos were no longer being played to each other, working in tandem which had previously been our strength. We were doing things separately by then and, as you can tell, much less as a band. That went on until the end with us then’.

The release of Aural Sculpture was quite a shock to the system at the time, dividing opinions of both fans and critics. For many loyal, long term fans, their band had changed beyond recognition from the punk heyday of ’77. For many others, including legions of new converts across Europe, the album’s sound was a breath of fresh air, with soul tinged harmonies and a horn section expanding the band’s horizons. Outwardly, the signs were very promising for the band, especially with the favourable upturn in interest across Europe and the Antipodes.

Looking back at Sculpture three decades later, JJ has mixed emotions: ‘It hasn’t aged as well as some albums, it’s all really Eighties production. The songs got compromised by a company man who came in with a brief to follow. It’s no one’s fault, certainly not Laurie’s. The brass extended the width of what we’ve done as a band, another little cul de sac that we persisted with for five years. It adds to the rich tapestry of the Stranglers’ history, adding a bit more weight to the band’s CV. Some experiments work and others don’t. I think that it worked pretty well. Am I proud of that period? No particularly. It’s not our most glorious period, but it’s another dimension to the band if you look back at it’.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what happened to the huge ear, despite various potential buyers, it eventually came to rest unwanted in a car park near the SIS offices in Kingston-a site of pilgrimage for fans until it eventually disappeared. Sad considering that it should be on display in a museum now……

Thanks to Dave & JJ for their recollections and to Jacquie Maidman for the use of the Tube pass & her live photos

JJ, Aural Sculpture tour, Europe 1985