True-Life Rock Tales

The Stranglers Come Stateside

Issue 128

I met them as they came off the plane at JFK in New York. About three weeks after the Stranglers’ UK 1981 tour ended (see my article in Issue 111) the American tour was scheduled to begin. The Stranglers are one of the more successful British punk rock/new wave bands of the era and had success with singles like “Something Better Change,” “No More Heroes,” “Always the Sun” and others.)

We all taxied into town and I checked them into Manhattan’s Abbey Victoria Hotel at 51st Street and Seventh Avenue. The next day they started rehearsals at SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals, the number-one spot for equipment rentals and a facility with well-equipped rehearsal rooms. SIR was all the way on the West Side of Manhattan, in a tremendous prewar industrial manufacturing building that in the days of old had railroad access. You can still see the tracks. They occupied three or four floors, which was a lot of space. There were more than a few rehearsal rooms of varying sizes, and a couple of showcase rooms where a band could play to guests like the group’s record company or booking agency.

I was familiar with SIR and had used it for other groups at various times. I once was invited to see Steely Dan’s last rehearsal before they began their tour. It was in the early 2000s, some time after their long hiatus, and the band did their set with no breaks, just like in concert. Those showcase rooms were a great place to simulate a concert. In some cases, (not that often) the rooms could also be used as audition spaces. SIR had really worked out the acoustics and besides, you would never know who you would bump into there. Many artists did pre-tour rehearsals at SIR.

In the Stranglers’ case it was not so much for rehearsing their material but to test the keyboards and amplifiers. This is a smart way for British bands to tour the States because for one, there is a different electrical current here (120 volts, 60 Hz) than in Europe (220 – 240V, 50 or 60 Hz). Bringing your own amps and keys could be problematic, even with the use of voltage-conversion transformers, causing buzzes and pops – or worse.

Also, there is the consideration of theft – the Stranglers had their equipment stolen during their previous American tour in 1980. Every band that uses a box truck has their equipment robbed at some time or another, and rental equipment is easily replaced. The Stranglers came into the country with just guitars and drums. The band and crew had to test and get used to the equipment they’d be playing for the US tour, and the best way to do that was by trying it out. They spent a few days familiarizing themselves with the new equipment.

First gig was a three-day affair at the Lexington Arts Center, a ballroom in a building located at 150 East 85th Street on the corner of Lexington Avenue. When it was used for concerts it was called Privates. The opening act was the Bee Girls, and the Stranglers went on at 12:30 in the morning. A very New York scene.

On Monday we drove to Allentown, Pennsylvania in two rental cars for a show at Nico’s. It was a small club with a capacity of 300, no booze or food, just beer. The boys were not thrilled about this date. It was obvious that we were not in New York anymore. This was an uneventful and forgettable night.

Next day we had to drive east to Providence, Rhode Island. On the way I stopped in Jersey City at Hertz to swap out one of our rental cars. We had been saddled with a year-old rental with 23,000 miles on it. For rental cars this was already an old heap; thusly, I did a vehicle exchange. The club in Providence was the Center Stage, and it was a proper rock club with a capacity of 800, much more in line with the band’s stature.

Wednesday, we had a short drive to Boston to play The Channel, which was an iconic rock venue then known as Boston’s largest dance and concert club. A who’s who of bands played there in its heyday. It was located right on the Fort Point Channel in a notoriously famous area that was just a couple of hundred yards from where the Boston Tea Party happened. The Fort Point Channel had a colorful history of skullduggery. The show was a good one, totally rocking, and when the last song was finished, we went through the backstage area to our dressing room. Escorting us from the rear was a club security guard who was a really big man. When we got into our dressing room Jet Black, the Stranglers’ drummer, slammed the door closed and I guess the security guard thought the door was purposely slammed in his face.

Next thing we know, he starts to kick the door in. We’re all looking at each other and on the second kick he splinters the door, sending wood flying every which way. He yells at us, “who the hell do you think you are?” and takes a step into the dressing room. WTF, we are thinking, and at that moment a couple of other security guards show up and grab him. They are all his friends, but they know that what he’s doing is not cool, so they calm him down and take him away. The club’s manager rushes in and profusely apologizes, and he quickly has his crew put up a big piece of plywood as a makeshift dressing room door. The evening’s drama (and our contribution to the area’s colorful history) was over.

The Shaboo Inn in Willimantic, Connecticut was a relatively short drive east, maybe 100 miles from Boston. It was another rock club, with a funky smell of stale beer and sawdust on the floor. The stage was small, low and close to the ground.

J.J. Burnel, the bass player, was upset about the date. The club was grungy,   but more importantly, the stage was too low, which made for easy audience access. Sometimes unruly audience members would jump on stage. In fact, before going on Jet and J.J. had discussed if they should cancel the gig for safety reasons (their own). As it turned out, it was a good night and a good audience, nice people.

 

However, this third car that I had rented from Hertz was also crap. I called Hertz and told them I wanted to switch it out on Saturday, when we would be back in the New York City area. This tour was going to be all driving – no tour buses or planes. I needed a good car. As nicely as I could, I told the people at Hertz if they couldn’t get me a decent car I would go to Avis. I was a particularly good customer from all my years on the road and literally hundreds of Hertz rentals. They assured me they would find a car that would make me happy.

It is Friday and we are playing the Left Bank in Mount Vernon, New York. It was one of the area’s more well-known rock clubs with a lot of history and a good reputation. At the time they were booking a lot of New Wave and punk acts. They really had their act together, even providing some humpers to help with the load in and the load out. In other clubs a band’s road crew was pretty much on their own with unpacking, set up and load in. There was usually a stage manager around to answer questions and point things out involving the lights, electricity and such, but for the most part our crew did the humping.

The opening act is Single Bullet Theory and the Stranglers are due on stage at 1:30 am. This is normal for East Coast clubs, because they wanted the patrons to stay late and make as much money from the bar as possible.

The Stranglers' backstage passes.

Ed Kleinman, the Stranglers’ manager, was coming up from the city with a bunch of guests, so this was going to be an important show. The band delivered, like they usually did. The Stranglers never had an off night, but there were times when the energy was really focused and the show had a special feeling. Afterwards we all drove back to the city because the next night we had a gig at Irving Plaza. I stayed at home that night because I lived two blocks from Irving Plaza. The band and crew stayed at the Abbey Victoria again.

Saturday night in New York City. This is going to be fun. The Irving Plaza show is an important one because a lot of press people are going to be attending. The guest list was big, including my wife and three of our friends.

The Stranglers did not disappoint. Irving Plaza was more like the venues they played in the UK and they were in a good mood and ready. They absolutely, totally kicked butt and did a longer set than usual that ended way after 2:00 am. Afterwards about 20 of us went to an after-hours club to party. The next day the band had the day off but I had to go back to Hertz on West 56th Street to swap out the rental car.

When I got there that afternoon, they were ready for me with a brown 1981 Oldsmobile Delta 88, brand new, with a scant 66 miles on the odometer. “Well, alrighty!” I said and there were smiles all around. In fact, in all my years as a road manager this was one of the nicest cars I ever rented.

Unlike the previous UK tour where my passengers were Jet Black and keyboard player Dave Greenfield, on the American tour I was driving guitarist/vocalist Hugh Cornwell and bassist/vocalist J.J. In hindsight this was my mistake. Jet and Dave were always a few minutes ahead of us and that meant that Jet would get to the gig or the hotel a few minutes before me and had to wait for me to fix any problems or issues. Not an ideal situation. We didn’t drive in a caravan; we just left roughly around the same time. We always had two rental cars on every tour, with J.J. and Hugh in one and Jet and Dave in the other.

Dave Greenfield and Ken Sander.

Dave Greenfield and Ken Sander.

When I picked Hugh and J.J. up at the hotel Monday morning they were really pleased with the new Delta 88.

On this tour we spent every night in motels like Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns, decent enough, three stars. The only exception was after the gig we did in New Orleans when we left right after the show for Houston. If we got hungry while driving, we stopped on the road to eat. Sometimes were would eat at the gig but it was pretty much a decision made in the moment.

Then off we went to Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT (yet another famous East Coast club and still open today, though temporarily closed for the pandemic). It was a Monday show and we went on stage at 11 pm, an early night for us.

Now we are really starting to log some miles as we go to Orange, New Jersey, Virginia Beach, Washington DC and Cherry Hill, N.J. Sunday we had a day off and we all decided to drive back up to NYC. Monday morning we leave for Cincinnati and that night on the way there I get pulled over for speeding. The Ohio state trooper asks me to come and sit in his cruiser, leaving Hugh and J.J. back in the car. He writes me a speeding ticket. Then he asks if I have an American Express card, to which I answer yes. He says, “well, you can pay the ticket now with your Amex card.” Really? I give him the card and he swipes it. “OK,” he says, “we’re good; you can go.” I asked, “what if I didn’t have an Amex card?” He answered, “then I would have to take you downtown to the station.” Really? Yup.

After playing Bogart’s in Cincinnati (temporarily closed but still there today) we drive to Athens, Georgia to play Tyrone’s, with an on-stage time of 10:00 pm, a respectable hour for rock and roll. Next day we had a short drive to Atlanta for Friday and Saturday night we’re playing at the 688 Club. Sunday is a travel day, and we drive 500 miles straight through to New Orleans. Monday after the gig we drive all night, 365 miles, to Houston, Texas to play the Agora Ballroom with a 10:30 pm onstage time. The on stage start times have been getting earlier since we left the Northeast.

We catch up on sleep by negotiating a later check-out time with the hotel and leaving later the next day for Austin, Texas, 162 miles away. We are playing Club Foot and it is a lively scene. Austin is a way cool city with a cosmopolitan vibe. They knew who the Stranglers were and showed their appreciation. After the show we were taken out and the night life was really happening.

Next morning we continue to Dallas (the Club Bijou) and the next day we drive to Lawrence, Kansas, (the Opry House), before heading 585 miles west to Boulder, Colorado for two nights at the Blue Note. We were told that the Blue Note was owned by Genya Ravan of horn-driven rock band Ten Wheel Drive.  She was not there those nights, so this was unconfirmed. (Do any readers have any information about this?)

Getting up early Thursday morning to get a start on the next lap, we have till Friday to get to Los Angeles, 1,180 miles. We drive all day into the night. I tell the guys that it would be cool to stop over and stay in Babylon, er, Las Vegas, and they agree. It is close to midnight and we are still about an hour out when we first see the lights of Vegas. It is an amazing sight, even considering this was back in 1981. Today Las Vegas is easily 10 times bigger. The closer we get the bigger the lights are. We check into the Stardust and they put us in the back in motel-style outdoor rooms.

The bellhop assures us: anything we want, legal or not, just ask him and we will have it in under an hour. This was still the anything-goes wild days of Las Vegas; unlike today where it is more corporate.

Memorabilia from Las Vegas during The Stranglers tour.

Friday, we play Pasadena’s Perkins Palace. Saturday it’s the Reseda Country Club on Sunday we hit the Bacchanal in San Diego before driving back to Los Angeles.

On Monday when I go to the car, I have an unpleasant surprise. The front passenger side door is bashed in and will not open. I have to exchange the car with Hertz. But we got 6,000 miles out of this one, not bad for 10 days driving.

The tour went on to play many of the same dates as Split Enz had done when I was their road manager (see Issue 124 and Issue 125), except the Enz flew. The Stranglers headed north to Vancouver, then south to Duluth and back east and up again to Canada.

I think it is safe to say the Stranglers were not thrilled with the tour.

It was hard work and they had to play some crummy venues. They are a bigger act in the rest of the world, so this tour with its smaller venues was somewhat of a comedown for them. But give ’em credit – there was no whining from them in their untiring efforts to conquer the American frontier.

The band in 1981:

Jet Black, drummer and founder – retired
Hugh Cornwell, lead vocals and guitar – left the Stranglers in 1990 for a solo career
Dave Greenfield, keyboards – died in 2020 of COVID-19
J..J. Burnel, vocals and bass – the only original member still in the band. He currently lives in France.

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