The Men in Black

by Rich Moreland, April 2015

For once I’m reviewing a book that has nothing to do with adult film. Hoping for a little self-education, I picked up a fascinating look at Britain’s punk movement. I recommend it to anyone interested in a blend of rock history and social upheaval.

Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers by Phil Knight. Publisher: Zero Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing. 180 pages.

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indexAn iconic punk band and its extraterrestrial visitors know as “Meninblack” are the focal point of Phil Knight’s sharply written account of The Strangers, a British musical phenomenon. The author investigates the ticking mechanism that is The Stranglers, a compendium of politics, genetic engineering, Biblical implications, heroin addiction, and a morass of collective self-doubt that fuels inevitable confrontations with the music media.

Highlighting the band’s early albums, Knight deconstructs each cut with the acumen of a historian and sociologist. Insights into anti-structuralism and its play dates with the Trickster archetype define The Stranglers’ rocking and reeling through 1970s Europe. Woven into the narrative are theorists of every sort, Ernest Hartmann, Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, and Alfred Adler among them. Even Leon Trotsky, Lenny Bruce, and the ever modernized Nostradamus make the cut.

The expansive first chapter (there are only two in the book) centers on singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell and is limited to the band’s formative years. Drummer Jet Black and bassist JJ Burnel merge their self-images with Cornwell’s to create The Strangler archetype which, according to Knight, is a “paranoid worldview” centering on a “framework” of “conspiracy theory” and “creation myth” known as “The Men in Black.”

Their fifth album’s opening number, “Waltzinblack,” carries an ominous message. “Whatever the thing was directing them, it seemed to have the intention of preventing them from creating this very record.” Jail time, exploding studios, and stolen band instruments are just part of whatever Trickster curse hovered over the group. At every corner, The Stranglers have to “band” together to survive, creating their own cultish enclave in a tribalist, disconnected youth culture.

The identity crisis that infects the young and the newly emigrated into a Britain condemned as a “dying empire” forms the basis for the second half of the book. Recounting punk’s genesis at the height of the Cold War, Knight reveals that the university educated JJ Burnel set out to “forge an identity in which he could comfortably exist.” Self-described as a “frog immigrant with a chip on his shoulder,” the French-born bassist fashions a space in a musical group dismissed by the subculture of which it is a part. Within that framework, Brunel’s personal harpy is inferiority, “you don’t belong” because you are foreign. As he does throughout the book, Knight delves into theory, this time Alfred Adler’s inferiority/superiority complex, to explain JJ Burnel’s place in The Strangler mosaic.

The book’s less lengthy second chapter is political history interpreted within the blueprint of Burnel’s Stranglers’ persona. The era is the zenith of punk and violence with hooliganism (the Finchley boys and Hells Angels step up as Strangler supporters) its metaphoric album cover (or sleeve, as they say in Britain). Falling into modes of hostility and misogyny, The Stranglers reflect a 1970s Europe rife with anti-Americanism and a post World War II malaise haunted by the slipping away of world hegemony. Particularly interesting is the invective of racism that permeated UK. The author comments on Eric Clapton’s “I’m into racism . . .we are a white country,” and Rod Stewart’s “The immigrants should be sent home.” The rockers support the hard right’s signature politician Enoch Powell who falls in with Britain’s “neo-fascist National Front.”

Despite citing David Bowie’s admiration of fascist leadership (the singer describes Hitler as “one of the first rock stars”), Knight does give these musical icons a pass, however lame, on their politics. After all, the 1970s were the misery years of British angst.

The Stranglers is a brooding story about alienation and rigid class identity in an economically stressed Britain. With moments of darkness and revelation defining the band, author Phil Knight has turned out a gem that sparkles with solid history and marvelous storytelling.




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4 responses to “The Men in Black

  1. Linsey

    I’m definitely interested in all social issues, especially ones centered around race, class, and gender inequality. Thats why i’m majoring in sociology. Even though i’m more interested in US sociology, i can see how this book would interest a man who loves European history. Maybe i’m missing something because i don’t see the social issue in this book. Perhaps i’m too young, or maybe its because i’m not into rock music or the lifestyle that goes along with it. Maybe its because i’m not well versed in issues of 1970’s England. Even though you might not be too interested in American sociology, i’m recommending a book for you that you might pass on to the next person that would find it enlightening. Its call “The New Jim Crow” By: Michelle Alexander. And of course, thanks for your posts. I always look forward to them


    • Thanks Linsey. Actually, I didn’t know much about the punk music before I read Strangled. It’s not really an interest of min (isn’t that why we read books?). However, there is a carry over to the youth rebellions popular in the late 1960s in America to what t\The Strangers are all about. For example, check out the Rollling Stones 1969 concert at Altamont in California. It involved the Hells Angels also. Unfortunately, there was a death during the show.
      FYI. My interest in British history goes back to its earliest days in the 16c.
      Have you read “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” (forgot the author). I assigned it when I taught US History years ago. Will check out your recommendation.
      By the way, I would like to know what your response is to my book. It’s examines a sociological issue as well as a bit of history. 🙂


  2. Linsey

    Well, I just ordered your book along with your recommendation, “The strange career of Jim Crow.” The author is C. Vann Woodward. I’ve been meaning to buy your book for a while; I just didn’t get around to it until now. They both look like good reads and I’m happy to add them to my collection. I’ll be sure to.get back to you once I have read them. By the way, I know all about your interest in European history. I took your 101 class a couple of years ago. You’re a great teacher and story teller. I enjoyed the class a lot. Thanks and take care.


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