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Long-term fan Denzil Watson pays tribute to Stranglers’ keyboard player Dave Greenfield, who died on the 3rd May.
It is still hard to believe as I pen this that it is just shy of three weeks since Dave Greenfield left us. It feels like lifetime already. A lot of Stranglers albums have been played in the intervening period. When you first hear about the death of one of your musical heroes, you can always remember exactly where you were. When I heard about the untimely passing of the Stranglers’ keyboard wizard, it was the afternoon of Monday 4th May 2020, while sat at my PC. The initial reaction was one of total disbelief, followed by frenzied checking of the internet before the reality started to hit home. Not only was COVID-19 shaping every aspect of my life, it had now robbed us of one of the greatest keyboard players of all time. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried, so much has this band meant to me since I first heard them live in concert on the John Peel show, back in December 1977.
Dave Paul Greenfield was born in Brighton in March 1949. His father, a talented pianist, was a printer, and, although they did not push him, Dave started to become interested in music at the age of thirteen. While at school a friend taught him guitar, before he then moved on to learn the piano. He left school at seventeen rejecting A Levels to instead join a band called The Initials who played covers at US military bases in Germany. Spending the next five or so years touring Germany with the band, he periodically returned to the UK between tours, tuning pianos and working at his dad’s printing business to make ends meet. When The Initials finished, he then went on to play in a number of other bands, initially with the Beach Boys-influenced The Maxi Blue, who released a cover of Jerry Keller’s 1958 ‘Here Comes Summer’ in 1970. He then moved on to ‘brass-rock’ band Freeway in 1972 and the year after on to prog-rock band Rusty Butler. Listening back to old studio recordings of Rusty Butler, even then Dave’s unmistakable keyboard style that would become his trademark are at the fore.
Everything was set to change for this journeyman musician in 1975, at an audition for a band called The Stranglers. After a tip-off from his aunt while he was holidaying in Germany, Dave answered the advert placed in ‘Melody Maker’ and was invited along to a house in Chiddingfold, Surrey. He was the band’s third audition as the trio of Jet Black (drums), Jean-Jacques Burnel (bass) and Hugh Cornwell (guitar/vocals) looked to replace their recently quit guitarist/keyboard player, Hans Wärmling. Jet Black recalls Dave “arrived looking like a hippie with long hair and high boots.”. But the audition went well, and Dave was hired in a sliding doors moment for both parties that would shape both of their careers for the next forty-five years. The addition of Greenfield’s musicianship to the existing trio was the final part of the jigsaw. Within a week he had played his first gig with his new bandmates at Watchfield Free Festival on Sunday 24th August. And the rest, as they say, is just history.
After struggling to get gigs and secure that elusive record deal, suddenly everything started to take off for the band and The Stranglers’ rise to fame and notoriety is well documented. Signing to United Artists in 1977, their debut album ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ turned heads due to its overwhelming musicality, placing it a million miles away from the back-to-basics DIY ethos of punk. This led to them being disregarded by many punks (and to some extent by the media too) as they were older and could actually play their instruments. Despite this, the band achieved commercial success and built up a huge cult following. Within an astonishing thirteen-month period following the release of their debut album, they released ‘No More Heroes’ that very same year and 1978’s landmark ‘Black and White’ album. The success was in no little part down to Greenfield and his distinctive Hammond-organ playing. Frequently drawing comparisons with The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, Greenfield later stated that the LA band were not an influence on him and that he had only ever heard a couple of their songs. Instead he described how he was influenced by Rick Wakeman and early Yes and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.
The band soon built up a reputation with the press for being intimidating and confrontational. Greenfield, however. was the quieter of the four and, although he left the press duties to Burnel and Cornwell, he was always considered to be the most approachable and friendly member of the band. Besides playing keyboards, Greenfield’s backing vocals were key to the melody lines in many of the band’s songs as well as featuring on lead vocals on a handful of tracks, the two most notable being ‘Peasant in the Big Shitty’ on ‘No More Heroes’ and ‘Genetix’ from the band’s 1979 album, ‘The Raven’. The line-up remained unchanged for fifteen years until Cornwell’s departure in 1990. By then the band had released ten studio albums, six of the seven first reaching the Top 10, making them one of the most commercially successful bands of the time. Arguably their most famous moment arrived courtesy of the genius of Greenfield. The unique ‘Golden Brown’ with its unusual waltz-time signature and set to Greenfield’s harpsichord sold over half-a-million copies and was only kept off the top spot by The Jam, in February 1982. Greenfield and Jean-Jacques Burnel also found time to release an album together in 1983 entitled ‘Fire & Water’.
After Cornwell’s departure the band made the, to many, surprise decision to continue, promoting ex-Vibrators’ guitarist John Ellis from touring member to permanent status and recruiting a relatively unknown vocalist, Paul Roberts, to front the new-look Stranglers. The line-up produced four studio albums which, largely, split opinion between the fans. Regardless of which camp you were in, a major element of the band’s original sound remained due to Greenfield’s distinctive keyboard playing. After a decade stint with the band Ellis left and was replaced by ex-Toy Dolls’ guitarist Baz Warne. This heralded an upturn in the band’s fortunes and a return to form with the release of ‘Norfolk Coast’ in 2004 and the album saw Greenfield's swirling keyboards and rapid arpeggios back at the forefront of the band’s sound.
With Roberts’ departure in 2006, Baz took over as lead vocalist and the band now back to a four-piece recaptured the live feel of their early years. Summer festival appearances and extensive UK tours, usually in the Spring, saw the demand to see the band live soar as they began to sell out bigger and bigger venues up and down the UK. Their last studio album ‘Giants’ was released in 2012, to largely favourable reviews, while the themed tours continued to be popular, including The Ruby Tour (2014), Black and White (2015) and Back on the Tracks (2019). With Jet Black’s retirement in March 2015, the band were down to two original members: Burnel and Greenfield. With a number of new songs appearing in the set during their 2019 UK tour, talk of an eighteenth studio album intensified. The band announced their final full UK tour in January this year, while stating they would not be calling it a day completely and that it was just the last chance to see them playing together in a comprehensive full-production touring format. With the twenty three date UK Autumn 2020 tour under threat due to the impact of COVID-19, it was announced on Monday 4th May that Greenfield had passed away the previous day before, having contracted coronavirus while being treated in hospital for heart problems. He is survived by his wife, Pam.
Soon after the announcement of his passing, the tributes from band members, current and ex, fellow musicians and fans started to flood in, in tribute to this talented, gentle and beautifully eccentric man. Here is a selection:
Jet Black: “We have just lost a dear friend and music genius, and so has the whole world.”
Jean-Jacques Burnel: “All of us in the worldwide Stranglers’ family grieve and send our sincerest condolences to Pam.”
Baz Warne: “Our thoughts and hearts are with Pam, and to the millions of fans who worshipped at his altar. He’ll never be equalled.”
Hugh Cornwell: “He was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band. His musical skill and gentle nature gave an interesting twist to the band.”
Sil Willcox: “Dave was a kind, generous soul who had time for anyone and everyone and it has been my privilege to have known him as both a close friend, his tech and manager for over forty years.”
Rick Wakeman: “A talented and lovely guy. This news saddens me so much.”
John Robb: “The greatest keyboard player in the history of rock music from the greatest band ever has died.”
Dave Greenfield (1949-2020) RIP. Fly straight…
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