Vale Dave Greenfield: Style and substance of The Stranglers

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(Image via Flickr)

Legendary keyboardist, vocalist and songwriter Dave Greenfield – best known for his role with the English rock band The Stranglers – has died from complications arising from COVID-19.

He was 71.

He was born David Paul Greenfield on 29 March 1949 in the British seaside resort town of Brighton.

After a short stint with a forgettable progressive rock band called Rusty Butler, Greenfield joined forces with lead vocalist and songwriter Hugh Cornwell, French bass player and songwriter Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel and drummer Brian Duffy (better known by his stage name Jet Black). Their subsequent band, formed in 1975, was called The Stranglers.

Over four decades, The Stranglers produced 23 UK Top 40 singles and 17 UK Top 40 albums. Many charted extremely well in other countries — particularly Australia, where The Stranglers have a very strong and loyal fan base.

Although The Stranglers were lumped in with other bands that made up the burgeoning punk rock movement in the UK in the mid-to-late '70s, Greenfield always considered The Stranglers to be ‘new wave rather than punk’. And he had a point.

Greenfield’s keyboard work on the Hammond organ and harpsichord added both style and substance to the growling, muscular and often misanthropic lyrics of Cornwell and Burnel. Even testosterone-driven songs like ‘Peaches’, which featured on The Stranglers’ 1977 debut album Rattus Norvegicus, had a rich texture and sophistication that went well beyond the typical “three-chord guitar with basic bassline and loud drums” punk song.

Greenfield’s work was often compared to that of Ray Manzerek, legendary keyboard player from The Doors. However, Greenfield said Manzerek was not a major influence because he only knew two Doors songs.

Greenfield said:

‘Before I joined [The Stranglers], my main influences were probably Jon Lord (Deep Purple) and Rick Wakeman (Yes).’

The complex keyboard work in many Stranglers tracks had a mystical quality that could perhaps be attributed to Greenfield’s passionate interest in the occult.

Greenfield wore a pentagram pendant in many early band photos and said:

‘The pentagram represents the microcosm (as opposed to the macrocosm). The relation between the self and the universe. I studied (not practiced) the occult quite intensively in those days.’

An early Stranglers song where Greenfield dominated was ‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’, also from the Rattus Norvegicus album.

Another crowd favourite was ‘Duchess’ from the 1979 album The Raven.

The Greenfield-penned ‘Strange Little Girl’, originally written in 1974 but not officially released until 1982, is also a worthy track that demonstrates Greenfield’s talents to their best advantage.

However, Greenfield’s finest track was arguably ‘Golden Brown’, a haunting, baroque number about heroin that was included on the brilliant 1981 album La Folie.

‘Golden Brown’ was based on an original melody that Greenfield penned and bandmates reportedly didn’t like at first. It was written for the harpsichord and had an unusual 6/8 waltz feel that Burnel said was impossible to dance to. However, bandmates eventually accepted the song for its obvious merits and it went on to become their biggest seller. Stranglers drummer Jet Black, now 81, was forced to curtail his live appearances as age and ill health got the better of him but, while he still had the capacity, he would come on stage to perform ‘Golden Brown’.

The Stranglers continued to tour and record well into the 2000s, largely on the nostalgia circuit. One of their later songs that is worthy of mention was ‘Always the Sun’ (released in 1986), which did particularly well in Australia and charted better here than it did in the Stranglers’ native England.

Not long before The Stranglers were due to perform a summer tour in the UK, which had been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greenfield was hospitalised with heart trouble and later tested positive to the virus. He died not long afterwards.

Burnel called his bandmate of 45 years a “music genius” and a “dear friend”:

“Dave was a complete natural in music. Together, we toured the globe endlessly and it was clear that he was adored by millions. A huge talent, a great loss, he is dearly missed.”

Former Stranglers lead singer Hugh Cornwell wrote:

‘He was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band. His musical skill and gentle nature gave an interesting twist to the band.’

Current Stranglers lead singer Baz Warne described Greenfield as a “true innovator” and a “musical legend”.

Warne said:

“The word genius is bandied around far too much in this day and age, but Dave Greenfield certainly was one.”

In analysing the influence of Greenfield and The Stranglers, music critic Dave Thompson wrote:

‘From bad-mannered yobs to purveyors of supreme pop delicacies, the group was responsible for music that may have been ugly and might have been crude — but it was never, ever boring.’

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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