texture like sun, setting: on the passing of The Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield

Ray

Early May brought the sombre news of the death of Dave Greenfield, keyboardist with The Stranglers, from Covid19.  

Greenfield was a master of his art; indeed, I don’t think it’s stretching definitions to consider that he was exercising some genius.  Year on year, disc after disc, he made everything he played fit perfectly, in terms of melody, texture and tone, with the surrounding sounds and spaces; I can’t think of anything I’ve heard by the band on which I can imagine that his contribution should, or could, have been different.  

A look back over The Stranglers’ earlier canon – the ten LPs up to the departure of original guitarist/co-vocalist Hugh Cornwell in 1990, with which I am most familiar – confirms the rich variety and remarkable versatility of Greenfield’s playing.  He balanced this expansive range with a meticulous economy; whilst evidently flush with sonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas which flowed well beyond the strictures of the generic, Greenfield never unduly flooded anything – what he added never amounted to too much, nor too little.

I’ve been taking another listen.  Greenfield’s deft energy abounds in the dizzying arpeggiated swirls which significantly characterise the band’s earliest discs of leering, veering punk, classics that still shine and stomp like well-kept boots.  However, his scope is conspicuous here, too: consider, for instance, 1978’s Peasant In The Big Shitty, founded on a slanted, nasty-bastard synth riff over which Greenfield himself sings with an exaggerated ghoulishness hovering uneasily between cartoon and menace, the scene further illustrated by keyboard splashes seemingly depicting the piss-puddles of the gutter.

As The Stranglers’ sound expanded thereon through their darker, deeper, fascinating and sometimes forbidding late 70s/early 80s albums, Greenfield’s reach became yet more apparent.  It was during this period that the original incarnation of the band was arguably at its most inventive; indeed, Greenfield’s development surely must have spurred by being amongst bandmates who were also curious, intellectually and existentially as well as musically.  His contributions on 1978’s Black And White include, notably, the libidinal pinball of Nice ‘n’ Sleazy, and the violent dose of electric shock treatment he administers to Enough Time; then there’s the spread-winged soaring, diving and thermal-riding of his playing on the title track of the following The Raven, which also features the sublime Baroque Bordello, on which Greenfield’s classical stylings effectively conjure the sweet unease of yearning Amongst the myriad soundscapes he creates on The Gospel According To The Meninblack are the comedy swampery and single-finger tech-pop gesticulation of Just Like Nothing On Earth, and the subterranean bubbling of the loopy Manna Machine. 

There are some stellar examples of his craft on 1981’s La Folie, not least Golden Brown; throughout, he’s beautifully in tune with the story of the song.  Consider, for example, the cheeky nudge ‘n’ wink of his bip-bippery on Pin Up; and the evocative characterisation of shallow conventional serenity in the melody, perfectly offset against Cornwell’s laconic vocal, with which he adorns Non Stop.  The band’s later releases feature further examples of his finery: the Aural Sculpture LP arguably finds him on particularly colourful form.  

One can, of course, find one’s own favourites.  But what I have found worth exploring of late, just as much as Greenfield’s musical legacy, is how I found myself feeling about his passing: it has saddened me to an extent that has left me surprised.  I never knew, nor even met, him, yet I register his loss at a level which goes beyond my appreciation of his work.  Why should this be?

I can see several reasons.  Some, of course, will pertain to my own experiences of loss – perhaps particularly, to a sense of possibilities which I associate with my youth beginning to recede.  However, I think the well of sadness is more broadly sourced.

Firstly, there’s also something that has to do with the passing of someone who worked in harmony with machines to distinctive effect, who used the technology to write his humanity large as a painter would their palette – a rich, gloopy blob here, a lean brushstroke there, pointillism, washes – in times when we’re told that ‘progress’ is represented by machines taking control, doing more and more for us; to us.

Further, now that we are in a time wherein much political and cultural discourse seems governed by spectacle and presentation, I think it matters to me that Greenfield made great work without dependence upon hype or affectation; the sense of loss is made stronger by our having lost a man, rather than the heavy dose of artifice and emptiness that tends to constitute ‘personality’ (a phenomenon of which we must surely weary if we are to save ourselves as a species).  There is no cult, false God, or thin myth being stoked or invoked as Dave plays: as I listen, I rather imagine someone in the flow of work loved for its own sake – figuring out how to get that sound, getting to know every nook and cranny of his instruments, tending the keys and switches; going home to take care of the everyday, letting the work speak for itself.  

Also resonant in my reaction to Greenfield’s demise is my regard for his apparent willingness always to let the fruits of his creativity rest in their appropriate place within the collective effort, so as to create room for, and shine light upon, others’ contributions.  If you’ve ever been involved in any kind of shared enterprise, you may well have learned that ideas and talents are not always co-operatively offered; however, you might also have been lucky enough to experience the irreplaceable joy of those times wherein the whole magically becomes greater than the sum of everyone’s individual offerings …  One never knows when those moments are coming and, having experienced them, we never know when – or whether – they are coming again.

It is true, too, that The Stranglers have long been a ‘family’ band, very forthcoming in communication with their fanbase through regular publications, conventions, and correspondence.  I interviewed bassist and co-vocalist JJ Burnel as a callow youth many years ago, and he personified a genuine readiness to engage on a level; despite my arriving flustered and sweating almost an hour late, he put me at my ease, and was plentifully generous with his time and resources – and all for a whippersnapper interviewer from a home-printed fanzine with a humble circulation.  The music industry is notorious for having more than its fair share of self-aggrandising shysters: it is thus to be appreciated when a band makes themselves so open to being connected with – and consequently, when one of their number passes, the sense of loss seems heavier.

Indeed, the passing of a Stranglers founder member might be symbolic for me of a current cultural quelling of a certain attitude. Whether one likes them or not, it is hard to deny that The Stranglers are a band who have stayed true to who they have been at any time; they have always refused to do the done thing, run with the herd, parrot the word or keep people sweet.  They’ve been willing to see another view, and to change: this must be one of the most human things we can do, and seems increasingly valuable.

Bravo, Dave.  Thanks for all the great sounds …  with my mind they run.