Song of the Week 61: Golden Brown – The Stranglers

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Yesterday we lost another musician to that Great Gig in the Sky, the keyboard, singer and singer-songwriter for The Stranglers, David Paul Greenfield (29 March 1949 – 3 May 2020). I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute David and write about a song I’ve always loved, Golden Brown, which came from his original inspiration. Here he is as a young man.

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From their debut album, Rattus Norvegicus, in 1977, his style was compared to another late, and wonderful keyboardist featured in Song of the Week 44: Ray Manzarek. The bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel made the same comparison, but claimed Greenfield hadn’t even heard of The Doors. Manzarek and Greenfield were noted for the rapid arpeggios they played and both lit up their respective bands, marking them out as something different from other bands of their time.

For the music tech nerds out there (bear with me everyone else), the equipment Greenfield used included a Hohner Cembalet (model N), a Hammond L-100 electric organ, a Minimoog synthesizer, an Oberheim FVS-4 polyphonic synthesizer, and a Korg VC-10 vocoder accompanying his own vocal parts, and later still an Oberheim OB-Xa polyphonic synthesizer. 🤓

It was his a piece of music written by Greenfield during the recording of The Meninblack album (and discarded by the band) that Hugh Cornwell adapted to make their signature tune, Golden Brown. As well as being their biggest hit, the song won an Ivor Novello award. The single was featured on the album La folie (French for “madness”) produced by Tony Visconti, who was under direction to produce each song as if it were a single.

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Golden Brown was the second single released from the album, in December 1981 in the US, and January 1982 in the UK. It reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart, kept off the top spot by the double A sided single A Town Called Malice/ Precious by The Jam.

The then pretty conservative BBC Radio 2 decided to feature the song as their single of the week, surprisingly, considering the band were almost as notorious as the Sex Pistols only a few years before.

The band claimed the lyric was equivalent to an aural Rorschach Inkblot Test, in that any given listener only hears what they want to hear. However allegations that the song alluded to heroin were later admitted to by Cornwell, who said of the song:

“Golden Brown’ works on two levels. It’s about heroin and also about a girl.” Essentially the lyrics describe how “both provided me with pleasurable times.”

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On a side-note, the drug Heroin has inspired plenty of other classics down the years: from The Velvet Underground (Heroin) to later solo Lou Reed (Perfect Day); from Neil Young (Needle and the Damage Done) to James Taylor (Fire and Rain); from Iggy Pop (Lust for Life) to Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (Chinese Rocks); from Pink Floyd (Comfortably Numb) to Spacemen 3 (the entire album Perfect Prescription); from The La’s (There She Goes) to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Under the Bridge); from Warren Zevon to Elliot Smith (Needle in the Hay); from Ministry (Just One Fix) to Nine Inch Nails (Hurt).

Indeed, in addition to the pleasure Cornwell mentioned, it’s inspired a world of hurt. 

The rhythm is unusual. Try dancing to it if you’re in any doubt. BBC’s Bill Turnbull did just that in 2005’s Strictly Come Dancing, attempting to waltz to it, which by his own admission was a “disaster”. No surprise as Greenfield claimed it was impossible to dance to. The song has a 6/8 feel, but it doesn’t stick to it. The keyboard and harpsichord interplay in 3/4, but every fourth bar in the instrumental sections is in 4/4. That makes 13 beats per bar in the instrumental breaks.

The key is pitched between E minor and E flat minor, probably because the had to tune the rest of the instruments to the harpsichord. The instrumental introduction in a flat B minor is unusual. It sounds almost Baroque. The music was mostly written by keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black, with lyrics by singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell.

Lindsey Clennell directed the video, with members of the band depicted as explorers in various Arabian and non Arabian-Muslim worlds. Images of The Pyramids are interspersed with  stock footage of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara, the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, and Great Sphinx, Feluccas sailing, Bedouins riding and camel racing in the United Arab Emirates. The band performances were filmed in Leighton House Music in Holland Park, London, which also featured in the video for Spandau Ballet’s Gold.

Greenfield regularly contributed backing vocals to the band’s songs, and he himself sang lead on “Dead Ringer” and “Peasant in the Big Shitty” from the album No More Heroes, “Do you wanna?” from Black and White, “Genetix” on The Raven, and “Four Horsemen” on The Gospel According to the Meninblack as detailed in Cornwell’s The Stranglers: Song by Song. 

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Along with fellow Strangler JJ Burnel, Greenfield released a joint album in 1983 called Fire and Water (Ecoutez vos murs) which scored the film of the same French title.

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Here’s the song and video. Enjoy. Rest in peace David Paul Greenfield. One of a kind. Thank you for your service to the Keyboard Arts.

Lyrics: 
Golden brown, texture like sun
Lays me down, with my might she runs
Throughout the night
No need to fight
Never a frown with golden brown
Every time just like the last
On her ship tied to the mast
To distant lands
Takes both my hands
Never a frown with golden brown
Golden brown, finer temptress
Through the ages she’s heading west
From far away
Stays for a day
Never a frown with golden brown

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