Scoring a string of UK top ten hits, including "Golden Brown", "No More Heroes" and "Peaches", the Stranglers originally built a following as part of – but never quite fitted in with – the mid-'70s pub rock scene. Their aggressive, no-compromise attitude made them one of the instigators of the developing UK punk rock scene, but their idiosyncratic approach rarely followed any single musical genre with the group exploring a variety of musical styles including punk rock, gothic rock, and new wave through to the 'pop' of some of their '80s output.
With a sound that relied heavily on keyboards inspired by Ray Manzarek's style when the instrument was unfashionable, The Stranglers' early music was characterised by the growling vocals and sometimes misanthropic lyrics of Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell, but their output grew more refined and sophisticated, as critic Dave Thompson writes, "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.
Cornwell had been a blues musician prior to forming the band and had briefly been a bandmate of Richard Thompson, Burnel had been a classical guitarist who had performed with symphony orchestras, Jet Black was a former jazz drummer, and Dave Greenfield had played at military bases in Germany. Their early influences included pre-punk psychedelic rock bands, such as The Doors, and The Music Machine.
The Stranglers were, beginning in 1976, associated with punk rock, due in part to their opening for the first British tours of American punks The Ramones and Patti Smith. Despite their association with punk rock, the Stranglers were generally not regarded as punks by some elements of the musical press. However, Burnel was quoted saying, "I thought of myself as part of punk at the time because we were inhabiting the same flora and fauna ... I would like to think The Stranglers were more punk plus and then some."
On a nationwide UK tour in May 1977 they were supported by the four-piece band London.
During their 1978 appearance at the University of Surrey on the BBC TV programme Rock Goes To College, the group walked off stage because an agreement to make tickets available to non-university students had not been honoured. The band attracted criticism from feminists who protested against their music. At one protest, the band grabbed one of the feminist protesters, and proceeded to manhandle her until she managed to escape. Later the band stated that it was unfortunate she escaped because she was probably enjoying it.
Their early albums, Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White were initially received with mixed reaction because of their apparent sexist and racist innuendo. Dave Thompson wrote that "the Stranglers themselves revelled in an almost Monty Python-esque grasp of absurdity (and, in particular, the absurdities of modern 'men's talk'). These early albums went on to build a strong fan-following, but the group's confrontational attitude toward the press was increasingly problematic and triggered a severe backlash when Burnel, a martial arts enthusiast, punched music journalist Jon Savage during a promotional event.
Following the success of The Stranglers' previous four albums they were given complete freedom for their next, The Gospel According to The Meninblack, a concept album exploring religion and the supposed connection between religious phenomena and extraterrestrial visitors. It was preceded by a single "Who Wants the World", which didn't appear on the album, and only just made the top 40. The Gospel According to The Meninblack was very different from their earlier work and alienated many fans. It peaked on the UK albums chart at No.8, their lowest chart placing, and in 1981 was widely considered an artistic and commercial failure. The track "Two Sunspots" was actually recorded during the Black And White sessions in 1978, but was shelved until 1980 when it was rediscovered and placed on The Gospel According To The Meninblack. The "Meninblack" track from The Raven is the "Two Sunspots" soundtrack slowed down.
The Stranglers recovered their commercial and critical status, after a slow start, with La Folie (1981) which was another concept album, this time exploring the subject of love. At first La Folie charted lower than any other Stranglers studio album, and their first single "Let Me Introduce You to the Family" only charted at No.42. The Stranglers then released "Golden Brown", their biggest hit, charting at No.2 in the UK Singles Chart and also EMI's biggest selling single for years. Following on from this success La Folie then recharted at No.11 in the UK albums chart. "Tramp" was originally thought to be the ideal follow-up single to "Golden Brown"; however "La Folie" was chosen after Burnel convinced band mates of its potential. Sung in French, it received negligeable airplay and charted at No.47. Shortly afterwards the Stranglers left EMI. As part of their severance deal, The Stranglers were forced to release a greatest hits collection, The Collection 1977–1982. The tracklisting for The Collection 1977–1982 included the new single "Strange Little Girl", which had originally been recorded on a demo in '74 and rejected by EMI. It became a hit, charting at No.7 in July 1982.
1984 saw the release of Aural Sculpture which further established The Stranglers in Europe and broke the band in Australia. It included the UK No.15 hit "Skin Deep" (No.11 in Australia and Top 30 in the Netherlands). This was their first album to feature the inclusion of the three-piece horn-section which featured in all their albums and live performances until Hugh Cornwell's departure in 1990. Aural Sculpture performed poorly in the UK album charts, peaking at No.14 in November 1984.
Their 1986 album, Dreamtime, concerned itself with environmental issues, and contained "Always the Sun" (a No.15 hit in France, No.21 in Australia, No.30 in the UK, and No.35 in the Netherlands). Dreamtime was the only Stranglers album to chart in the U.S., but it continued the low UK album chart placements by only peaking at No.16 in November 1986.
The Stranglers' final album with Cornwell, 10, was released in 1990. This was recorded with the intention of building on their "cult" status in America. After the success of the cover of the The Kinks' "All Day And All Of The Night" (reaching No.7 in the UK Singles Chart), The Stranglers decided to release "96 Tears" as their first single from 10. It proved to be a hit, reaching No.17. Despite this success their follow-up single "Sweet Smell Of Success" only reached No.65. "Man of the Earth", which the band had high hopes for, was due to be the third single from the album, however Epic Records decided against it when The Stranglers failed to get a tour in America. Since 10 was recorded with the intention of breaking America, this was a major blow, and Cornwell with a deteriorating relationship with Burnel, finally decided to leave.
By 1990, the Stranglers had had 32 UK chart entries but just failed to reach the No.1 spot, "Golden Brown" being the closest at No.2.
The Stranglers started a critical and popular renaissance in 2004 with the acclaimed Norfolk Coast album and a subsequent sell-out tour, together with their first top 40 hit for 14 years, "Big Thing Coming". In May 2006, Roberts left the band, and The Stranglers were now back to a four-piece line-up: Burnel, Black, Greenfield and Warne, with the lead vocals shared between guitarist Warne, and Burnel.
Suite XVI, the follow-up album to Norfolk Coast, was released in September 2006 (the title is a pun on "Sweet 16" and also a reference to the fact that it is the band's sixteenth studio album) and continued the bands resurgence. Although generally a return to the band's heavier punk roots, the album contained a typically (for the Stranglers) idiosyncratic mixture of musical styles from Punk and New Wave through to light-hearted Country. On 4 November 2007, the band played a sell-out gig at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London, marking the 30th Anniversary of their headline run at the same venue in 1977. The set list was the same as the 1977 concert with the addition of a couple of recent songs. The event is recorded on the DVD Rattus At The Roadhouse.
Throughout the summer of 2008, the Stranglers have been playing numerous festivals around Europe and are planning a tour of the UK, Ireland and Dubai later in the year. During some of these recent gigs, Jet Black, who has been suffering from a chest infection, has been replaced on drums.
In the late 1980s, the Stranglers regularly featured a 3-piece brass section in their live line-up.