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Paul Roberts Leaves The Stranglers (Finally!)

26 June 2006

This month, PAUL ROBERTS left THE STRANGLERS, after being the group’s singer for the past 16 years, to focus on his own band SOULSEC.

Guitarist BAZ WARNE has assumed lead singing duties and bassist J.J. BURNEL is contributing vocals on a third of the band’s songs, much like he did when HUGH CORNWELL was lead singer and guitarist.

In replacing Cornwell—who also was the group’s leads singer for 16 years—Roberts had enormous shoes to fill. By most accounts Roberts’ feet were too small. Only on 2004’s driving Norfolk Coast did he finally deliver a credible performance.

And in comparing the legacies of Cornwell and Roberts, it’s instructive to look at this month’s release of The Very Best of The Stranglers, which collects the band’s biggest hits from 1977 to 2004. Of the 21 songs, 20 were recorded with Cornwell.

As for why Roberts left, The Stranglers announced through their official web site that the split was “very amicable.” Roberts said much the same there.

However, Burnel told The Burning Up Times web site:

Paul had other things in the way of commitment, like Soulsec, and his SANTANA tribute band. He was obviously frustrated within The Stranglers, and now he can pursue his ambitions. Also, none of his songs were accepted for the new album… I mean, we all put our songs in the melting pot, we always have done, to work on them, but it wasn’t happening with his. There was a lack of commitment.

(Yes, you read right, a Santana cover band…)

My admittedly speculative take on the situation is that the success of Norfolk Coast may ironically have hastened Roberts’ departure. With a record widely considered to be a winner (#40 in Jack’s Top 40 list in issue 55 of the BT), the band’s confidence must have risen. After being in the wilderness for pretty much all of the Nineties, The Stranglers finally rediscovered critical and commercial acclaim and seemed hungry for more. My guess is that Warne was the main reason for this newfound success since Norfolk Coast was his first Stranglers record. Roberts, in contrast, already sang on four lesser albums.

It appears that after Norfolk Coast –- easily Roberts’ best vocal performance—he gained sufficient confidence to seriously consider going solo. This could explain Roberts’ “lack of commitment” to the Stranglers as described by Burnel.

Whereas the Stranglers may have tolerated less than total devotion during the 1990s, Norfolk Coast and Warne’s creative spark may have rejuvenated the group, prompting it to tighten quality control. Roberts said on his web site that he would “give fans the facts as he sees them concerning his departure” in a book he plans to write.

The group is scheduled to release Suite XVI, its 16th studio album, in late September on EMI. With Norfolk Coast putting the Stranglers back in the spotlight, the stakes are even higher for this release as fans and critics alike will be watching closely. Fortunately, the record sounds like it could be a gem based on Burnel’s description of it (scroll down to “The Next Album”).

My pleasure in seeing this British institution sans Roberts comes from the perspective of a long-time fan who always rooted for the group. Unlike certain Cornwell fans that stopped following the group after he left, I didn’t; I bought every release and caught them whenever they came to the U.S., which became an increasingly rare occurence.

I bear no ill will toward Roberts as an individual. In fact, I met him in Paris in 2004 along with the rest of the band and they were extremely friendly and gracious. But if being nice was reason enough to be the lead singer of the Stranglers… well, you see my point. Roberts simply was the wrong man for the job.

My biggest problem with Roberts is that while he technically is a good singer, his deep voice has a way of getting in the way of the music. Instead of complementing a song, it often exudes a self important “look at me” quality that is cloying, distracting, and perhaps born of insecurity.

Roberts’ camp stage presence can be irritating too. He is prone to jumping about shirtless, swinging the mic and snapping his fingers while sharply turning his head left, then right, then left in the most unnatural manner possible, trying it seems to assume an IGGY POP persona. But he isn’t Iggy. In my eyes, Roberts tries hard to be something he isn’t. But what is he? It’s hard to say. Admittedly, it has to be difficult to replace a legend like Cornwell, but I don’t think that Roberts quite found himself as a singer until Norfolk Coast.

That said, Roberts must be given credit for one crucial fact. Had he not joined the band we might not be where we are today. In Burnel’s own words as recently told to the Burning Up Times web site: “…had it not been for Paul, I doubt if we would have continued when Hugh left.”

But now that the band has regained its footing and Roberts is confident about his solo career, a split seems like the best scenario for all parties involved.

Is Warne the right replacement? Based on what I have heard, his voice sounds up to the task. He also is an excellent guitarist and understands that presence has to do not with over-the-top stage antics but rather with intangibles. I hope for and predict a major revival for the group this year based on their new line up, the upcoming release of Suite XVI, and a heavy slate of upcoming gigs. May the Stranglers again fly straight with perfection!