The Raven in retrospect

Exactly 35 years ago today, the band unleashed their fourth studio album The Raven a full sixteen months after the release of Black and White. Whilst it was an unprecedented gap in recording after the quickfire trio of studio releases Rattus, Heroes & B&W in just over a year, the band hadn’t been inactive. The release of a live album Live (X Certs) in February 1979 served to mark as a symbolic end to the punk period enabling the band to move on to pastures new and more experimental. Both JJ and Hugh had also worked on solo albums during this period, allowing them to explore musical directions outside The Stranglers’ framework.

The subject matter for the album’s lyrical content drew on their experiences in the preceding months. Following Black and White’s release, the band had travelled extensively to the different corners of the globe which had broadened their worldview. At the start of ’79, the band visited the uncharted territories of Japan and the Antipodes and it appeared that the rest of the world had started to take notice of them. JJ recalled: ‘We didn’t know what to expect but we found all kinds of different receptions in different countries and it fuelled our song writing. We had a great experience in Australia, getting attacked, being boycotted, punch ups, fantastic. It was the first, and only, time I ended up with seven women in my bedroom. Hugh was sick at the time! The whole thing was a great experience for a young guy. It was perfect for me, it was what I thought The Stranglers should be about!’

Inspired by their travels, ideas for lyrics came from visits to Los Angeles, Queensland and Nippon as well as subjects in the news like the Ayatollah and those closer to home like genetics, posh birds and heroin. JJ elaborates where inspiration came from: ‘From travelling and reading books, we were voracious readers. Because we only had each other at the time, if one of us had a book he’d pass it around the rest of the band. We were travelling together and be talking about our interests. Jet would be talking about his obsessions with UFOs and religion. Hugh would be reading about the conspiracy to get the whole of the West drugged up by the Iranians, who were going through a revolution at the time’.

He continued: ‘We were travelling around, getting arrested in Australia, suddenly everything was happening. We were absorbing all this experience and emotion so we were writing about it. We hadn’t travelled so far out of the UK and Europe before and it was worth writing about. There were a lot of political things happening and it was fuel for our song writing. We were experiencing so much, the world was our oyster so we were writing about it…  There’s a bit of a return to Eugenics actually now that the human genome has been mapped out. Iran’s still in the news… There’s lots of subjects on The Raven which are still valid now…’

The most experimental track The Meninblack was a portent of the next year and a half of the band’s career, where their fortunes took a turn for the worse, its lyrics detailing the UFO related visitations by mysterious black clad figures that Jet had become so heavily interested in.

However, it was the symbolism of one track in particular that related directly to their exploration of the world like a Viking raiding party centuries before. Reporting back on the state of the world to those back at home, the link was made to Norse mythology and Odin’s black feathered friends who ventured far and wide, returning to advise their master. The name of the track, which was also chosen as the album’s title, was The Raven, which summed up the band’s position of world reporters perfectly.

Onstage-Raven era

Tracks had been worked on from early that year and some had seen live airings in front of Japanese and Aussie audiences. The band also decamped to Italy to seek inspiration during a break in the Umbrian countryside, as JJ recalls: ‘We went there for a week because my girlfriend’s dad, Tom, tour managed us and he knew this elderly widow in Perugia with a big house and he invited us down. Dave and I drove down in Dave’s Jaguar. Hugh and Jet flew down and we picked them up at Florence airport. Tom was already there. I think we wrote Baroque Bordello there, that’s all we did in the five or six days we were there. On the way back, Dave and I dropped Hugh & Jet off at the airport. Hugh was carrying his guitar case and the customs guys asked Hugh what was in it and, jokingly, he said ‘A machine gun’! They said ‘OK, please fill out this form then’!!! That was it, now you’d get arrested!’

With live commitments out of the way for a while, the band looked to start recording. A change in established studio personnel came when Martin Rushent had declared that he didn’t like the musical direction the band were taking when he heard a demo of The Meninblack. Martin had been behind the controls as producer for the band’s first three albums so, when he informed the band that he didn’t want to work on The Raven studio sessions, it came as a shock especially so close to the booked studio time. The band decided to continue with recording regardless with Martin’s engineer Alan Winstanley behind the desk co-producing with them.

It was a bit of a gamble following the success of the trio of Rushent produced albums but it allowed them to move away from their established sound. Most obvious was a neutering of his trademark growling bass as JJ remembers: ‘It was a conscious decision because everyone was talking about my bass sound and I didn’t want it to detract from the band. I didn’t want to upset Hugh, I wanted to be a team player and I didn’t want to stand out. Everyone was talking about me and he wasn’t happy about it. Also, we’d changed our producer. Martin seemed to favour my sound and thought that it was something extraordinary and different’.

He continued: ‘Hugh wasn’t very happy about things like that. He was never happy about me being different from the rest of the band and I didn’t want to be different. He certainly objected to the original artwork for No More Heroes with me on the tomb. It completely freaked him out and pissed him off, not surprisingly because we were a band and not just one person. I can understand that. It also affected his fuckability and we were very competitive. The fact that I was fucking loads more girls than him probably pissed him off, I’d say!’

The band had also sought a change of recording location, having outgrown the confined basement of TW Studios where they created their first three albums with Rushent. For the first time, they chose to record abroad, selecting the EMI owned Pathe-Marconi studios in Paris to be the venue for the Raven sessions. As JJ recalls, the decision to go to Paris wasn’t primarily for artistic reasons, more financial: ‘We started recording abroad for tax reasons. Initially, we didn’t think of recording abroad but, when Thatcher came in, the tax regime was such was that we were getting taxed at 93% of what we earned. From going from earning nothing, to earning something, then finding that the something was not much. There were ways around it. You move abroad, which a lot of people did but we didn’t want to do that. If you recorded abroad, you weren’t taxed as much, so we opted for that’.

However, it did provide both musical and other benefits as he explains: ‘In fact, recording abroad defined us for the next few years. We thought ‘this is great’. Not only do you get a chance visit a different place, with a different set of influences, senses and girls, it was fun. We got into it for a few years, until the tax regime changed again. It was quite useful too as the studios were a bit old fashioned with different technology.  The Rolling Stones were recording in the studio next to us specifically because it had a valved mixing desk and they knew exactly what they wanted…’

As with the Black and White sessions, the band used studio time to experiment with a segue of two tracks Shah Shah A Go Go and Ice, although they actually appeared separately on the album, but were aired live joined together. JJ: ‘At the time, we wanted to take people on a journey and we didn’t want everything to be serious. We started playing around with mixes fading into another track and sometimes we’d do it musically not just using technology. We’d arrange tracks to change musically so the arrangement would facilitate that like with Death and Night and Blood and Do You Wanna? At the time, we were going through all these segue things’.

With the album laid down on tape, Alan moved to Air Studios in London with a then unknown engineer Steve Churchyard who went on to work with the band on subsequent albums. A release date of 21st of September was confirmed for the album although the band had two major live commitments during the summer to play before then. First was a trip north of the border for the Loch Lomond festival in Scotland and then a support slot with The Who at the massive Wembley stadium in London. Audaciously, both gigs were used to heavily showcase brand new tracks from The Raven. Further details of these gigs can be found here.

After the award winning covers for their first three albums, there was pressure for the artwork for The Raven to be just as striking. The front cover was to display a full colour portrait of a raven’s head but, for a limited quantity, it was decided to use a 3D effect image of the bird. In reality, it was a logistical nightmare as producing the holographic image required a stuffed raven to be couriered to Japan which was the only place where the technology existed to take the 3D photo.

The Hugin longship-then 1979 and now 2014

The rear of the sleeve was adorned with a black and white image showing the band aboard a Viking longship which was located nowhere near Scandinavia but actually on the English coast at Pegwell Bay near Margate. This replica Viking ship had been sailed from Denmark to England in 1949 to mark the 1500th anniversary of the migration of Hengist & Horsa, future leaders of the Anglo-Saxons. On the beach that day, along with many other schoolchildren witnessing the landing, was a young Jet Black. Jet retold the story of that historic day in his ratter blog here.

The release of the album was preceded by a single Duchess which was released on the day of the Wembley gig, the 18th of August. It was coupled with b side Fools Rush Out, an ode to the band’s recent split with their Savage/Davies management team, and was promoted with a video filmed in a Hampstead church with the band in choirboy attire. Sadly, the video was rarely seen at the time as it incurred the wrath of the church and some of its celebrity allies. Heavy radio play of the band’s first single in a year, with its distinctly poppy tinge, led to a chart placing of 14 and an invite to perform on Top Of The Pops (video here). The band appeared on the show and mimed to the playback wearing black armbands, finishing the track with hands clasped together in mock prayer. Asked all these years later why they bore the armbands, JJ recalled: ‘I’m not sure but I think that it was because Johnny Pile, who’d been our tour manager for a brief period, had died. He was only about 24’.

The Raven hit the shelves on the 21st of September as the band took to the road on an extensive UK tour followed by a series of European dates. The release was advertised to the public by a huge range of promotional items, many of which are detailed in our memorabilia article here. Whilst on the UK tour, the second single from the album Nuclear Device was released, sadly fairing worse than its predecessor only hitting the mid 30s in the chart. The single was promoted by a jokey video filmed in the Portugese outback on a visit there late in September whilst the band played a gig at Cascais (following the riot there during the B&W European tour).

A third and final single from the album Don’t Bring Harry was released as an EP coupled with a live track and one track off both JJ & Hugh’s solo albums.  Despite its thinly disguised opiate subject matter, it faired well enough for the BBC to grant the band a return visit to Top Of The Pops (watch here). To close the year, the group returned to Japan for a second bite at the Nippon cherry although it proved to be the start of a horrendous year for the band following a financial mix up over tour royalties which cost the band dearly.

In hindsight, the album was a brave experiment to challenge the band’s established sound and place in the new wave movement. Peaking at number 4 in the album charts, it received glowing reviews from critics and fans alike and has become firmly placed in most fans’ favourite albums by the band. JJ sees the album as a triumph: ‘Really good. Is it the best? I’d put it in the top three. Every song is distinct. All the tracks stand out. The song writing is pretty good and it takes you on a journey. The Raven is a great track by itself. Genetix is great fun to play. Baroque Bordello is a masterpiece’.

In the subsequent years since the release of the album, Raven tracks have always featured in the band’s live set, becoming firm fan favourites from the pop of Duchess, the dual bass attack of Dead Loss Angeles, the majesty of Baroque Bordello, the anthemic title track or the musical meanderings of Genetix. Pushed as to whether the March On tour setlist would be Raven heavy to mark its anniversary, JJ kept cagey: ‘Live they’re all do-able too. Next year we’re going to do things that we haven’t done before from the album… Baz is talking about reviving Ice next year and, if Dave’s not too pissed then we should be able to play it!’

Whichever tracks from the album that make the March On set will be sure to be greeted like old friends at each gig as The Raven holds such a special place in the heart of the fans… Fly straight with perfection…

Thanks to JJ for his help with this piece and for his track by track ratter recollections of the album which can be found here.

Unreleased Hugin photosession shot