Review Summary: Christmas ‘Best Of’ Compilation Special: If Will Smith’s smug face and an increasingly shrivelled looking TLJ wearing dark suits 'n' shades is the first thing brought to mind by the phrase ‘Men in Black’ then you need re-educating my dear
I was eleven years old when this best of compilation was released and at that time my family would spend a lot of weekends on the road visiting various far flung relatives; I have fond memories of sitting in the back of a Rover Sterling with my brother passing judgement on my parent’s music selections. There’s a real purity to your instincts and taste at that age, we had a simple system of yay or nay; we either liked something or we didn’t. Tom Petty ‘Full Moon Fever’? Loved it. The Christians? Feed ‘em to the lions. Robert Plant’s ‘Now and Zen’? Cool. Deacon Blue ‘When the World Knows Your Name’? F*ck no. However, despite all the competition one album absolutely dominated the playlist schedule, this double ‘Best Of’ compilation from the original Men in Black.
Pedigree and reputation count for very little when it comes to the mind of an eleven year old; I now understand that when it comes to vintage pop punk The Clash are widely considered to be the daddies of the genre but thanks to this formative exposure The Stranglers will always be the more important and influential band for me. Objectivity doesn’t come into it; the hooks sunk into my flesh long ago and remain there. Delving deeper into The Strangler’s discography has had its rewards and their first two albums in particular are reasonably consistent, but nothing else in their catalogue will ever flow ‘just so’ like this best of album.
‘Greatest Hits 1977-1990’ opens with arguably the band’s six most famous songs which isn’t a bad strategy for such a compilation; the snotty ‘Peaches’ is first out the traps and is as knowingly ridiculous as a saucy seaside postcard, I have no idea what I was mouthing to the nudge nudge wink wink line ‘is she trying to get out of that clitares?’ back in 1990 but all I know is the innuendo was lost on me at the time; ‘Something Better Change’ and ‘No More Heroes’ are tight hooky pop songs whose only real concession to being punk is in the snarling vocal delivery; ‘Walk on By’ is an unlikely winning cover of a standard that’s running time is dominated by a bizarre four and a half minute wandering organ and guitar wig out; while ‘Duchess’ and ‘Golden Brown’ sport unexpected none-more-English hokey medieval tones that prove conclusively that this band’s true calling was never pushing their dubious punk credentials but writing quirky, mildly subversive hits for the charts.
The remainder of the compilation goes even further into the realms of pure pop and this is where I might struggle to maintain any semblance of objectivity; the cheese factor is ramped up on the simplistic ditty ‘Strange Little Girl’ and only increases from thereon out. ‘European Female’ finds bass guitarist Jean-Jaques Burnel playing up to his French heritage providing breathy lead vocals to a musical backing that borders on Euro-pop parody while ‘Always the Sun’ lyrically plays out like little more than a series of everyman platitudes; in each case, against all the odds, the songs add up to much more than the sum of their parts though the listener’s enjoyment will depend on their personal tolerance threshold for such fluffy fare.
What elevates this compilation above others of the ilk, and also the multitude of other Stranglers ‘best ofs’, is that it zeroes in on one particular facet of the band to the extent that it almost creates an alternative identity for them; this collection successfully recasts The Stranglers as a nonstop hit machine who alternate between mildly punky anthems and adorably soppy novelty tracks. There is no room here for the band’s more antisocial and wilfully ugly material (which makes up a large chunk of their album cuts), that would merely dilute the intended effect, and as a result this remains the most coherent and consistently enjoyable release in their canon.