'Golden Brown' by The Stranglers: The making of the strange punk waltz

6 September 2021, 10:14

The Stranglers - 'Golden Brown'
The Stranglers - 'Golden Brown'. Picture: The Stranglers

By Mayer Nissim

The Stranglers were known for their obscene lyrics and status as punk outcasts, but their best-known hit was a real sideways turn.

'Golden Brown' wasn't a standard Stranglers song but it ended up giving them their biggest ever hit.

But do you know what decidedly non-punk time signature it's in. Or if it's really about heroin?

Here's everything you need to know about 'Golden Brown'.

Who wrote 'Golden Brown'?

'Golden Brown' is officially credited to all four members of the classic lineup of The Stranglers (so that's singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell, bassist/singer Jean-Jacques Burnel, keyboard player Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black).

Apparently though, Burnel isn't even playing on it. "John isn't even on the recording," Hugh Cornwell claims in his 2001 book The Stranglers: Song by Song. "Dave played the root notes on his keyboard... John couldn't get his head around it, so he left us to work on it."

More specifically, the music was mainly written by Greenfield, and those controversial lyrics were from frontman Cornwell.

"The best ideas come pretty quickly," Greenfield told The Guardian shortly before his death.

"With 'Golden Brown', for example, I was working on a song called 'Second Coming' with Jet but came up with something that didn’t fit, but that unused part eventually became 'Golden Brown'.

Hugh Cornwell was listening to Greenfield playing that keyboard/harpsichord riff. "I picked up a pen and started writing lyrics as he played," he said. "I wrote the lyrics in ten golden brown."

Burnel later claimed the music was actually a snippet from a much larger prog suite that Greenfield and Black had written while he and Cornwell were down the pub.

When was 'Golden Brown' released?

The Stranglers formed in 1974 and settled on their classic lineup the following year when Dave Greenfield replaced Hans Wärmling.

They were essentially a pub rock band, albeit a technically superior one. But when punk rock came along they rode that bandwagon for all it was worth, racking up hits with songs like 'No More Heroes', 'Grip', 'Nice 'n' Sleazy' and 'Peaches'.

"We could do this with our eyes closed and make another 20 albums just like that, but that's gonna be boring, so let's try to expand the universe," Cornwell told Dutch TV show Top 2000 a gogo about their mindset a few years back.

As punk faded did just that with 1981's The Gospel According to the Meninblack, but the quirky concept album was a commercial flop, which meant they really needed a hit, and fast.

They got just that when they released 'Golden Brown' on January 11, 1982. It was the second single from their sixth studio album La folie, which had been released a couple of months earlier on November 9, 1981.

Is 'Golden Brown' really about heroin?

There are plenty of rock 'n' roll songs that everyone thinks are about drugs, but their authors are adamant that actually, no they're not.

The Beatles' 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is the most famous example. It's not about LSD, but actually about a drawing by John's three-year-old son Julian.

'Puff the Magic Dragon' by Peter, Paul and Mary is another – it's about the loss of childhood innocence, not smoking weed. And 'Mirror in the Bathroom' by The Beat isn't about cocaine but is actually just about... a mirror in a bathroom.

'Golden Brown' though is actually about drugs. Hugh Cornwell has on more than one occasion confirmed that. "'Golden Brown' works on two levels. It's about heroin and also about a girl," he said.

"It's very nice to hear this song about heroin on the most popular show on radio – family entertainment," smirked Hugh. "In a way, it was more punk than anything we'd done".

What's that time signature in 'Golden Brown' all about?

Most rock and roll is in solid, steady, obvious 4/4 timing. 'Golden Brown' most definitely isn't, though there's some debate about what time signature it's actually in.

Musicologists say that riff is in 13/8 time, effectively switching from 3/4 to 4/4 for every fourth bar. Depending on who you talk to, the rest of the song is in 3/4 or 12/8, with that 13/8 weaving in and out.

So it's not a classic waltz (which would be in 3/4), which is probably why newsreader Bill Turnbull struggled so much on his attempt to waltz to it on Strictly.

How did 'Golden Brown' do in the charts?

Cornwell is adamant that the song would have got to number one if "big mouth Burnel" hadn't told the press that the song was about heroin, with it being removed from radio playlists. "I would have waited till it got to #1 and then said it," Cornwell claimed.

He's admitted that he was "very annoyed" the song was kept off the top, first by Tight Fit's 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' and then The Jam's admittedly excellent 'A Town Called Malice'.

Cornwell still moans that The Jam were able to combine the studio 7" and a live 12" which helped give them the chart edge.

Who has covered 'Golden Brown'?

'Golden Brown' has attracted a few cover versions, though not as many as you might think and not from the usual rock 'n' roll suspects (probably because of that tricksy time signature).

British hip-hoppers Kaleef took their version (really a new song with major sample of the original) to number 22 in the charts in 1996. Just one year later, soul singer Omar took his version top 40.

The Wurzels and Alexander Armstrong have both had a go, if you want something a little different.

As recently as 2020, sax player Laurence Mason did his own take in the classic Dave Brubeck 'Take Five' style.

And while it's not strictly a cover, Oasis pinched the riff for the Noel-sung Don't Believe The Truth album track 'Part of the Queue'.

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