by Jon Gunter
Each week, we take a retrospective look on albums which we think are either criminally underrated or woefully overrated, and why they actually rock/suck.
When The Stranglers released their magnificent fourth album The Raven in 1979, they were praised for writing songs about more esoteric matters. Two of these matters were religion and extraterrestrial life, as well as the introduction of the mysterious governmental (or possibly alien) men in black. The band’s obsessive follow-up in 1981, The Gospel According to the Meninblack, was a concept album based entirely on these matters but unfortunately alienated (no pun intended) many fans and critics for its unusual theme and experimental nature, leading to it being widely regarded as a dud album. Fortunately, the beauty of hindsight means we can identify how wrong these fans and critics were.
To start with, the darker songs are offset by an element of fun that was rarely displayed on The Raven, from the wonderfully weird extraterrestrial waltz of opener ‘Waltzinblack’ to the first single ‘Just Like Nothing On Earth’, with Hugh Cornwell rapping stream-of-consciousness lyrics in its verses. Dave Greenfield’s use of futuristic synths rather than psychedelic keyboards also enabled the band to create progressive and darkly hypnotic pieces like ‘Turn the Centuries Turn’ and ‘Hallow To Our Men’ just as easily as the poppy and upbeat new-wavers like ‘Two Sunspots’ and ‘Thrown Away’.
The batty and light-hearted lyrics of ‘Just Like Nothing On Earth’ are also a common theme (especially considering that many of the darker pieces are instrumentals). For example, how many bands could write a song about aliens like ‘Waiting for the Meninblack’ and include a line like “I’m clutching my teddy-bear, if I don’t I might die of fright”? And how many of those could address the second coming of Jesus Christ (‘Second Coming’) by hypothesising that “he may be ugly and have problem hair, even speak funny and make all the people stare”? Such joyful blasphemy could only come from punk’s great provocateurs.
Perhaps the serious but acclaimed subject matter of The Raven is why fans and critics disliked Meninblack, but in doing so they failed to spot a clever trick employed by The Stranglers. By making a concept album as knowingly silly and pretentious as this one, it comes full circle and turns into possibly the wittiest and most fun album they’d made to date, as well as being right up there among the best. Just make sure you put on your tinfoil hat before you play it – the Meninblack might also be listening…
If you want to believe in how underrated this album is, click to hear The Gospel According to the Meninblack.