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On This Day In Music… May 3, 2020: Dave Greenfield, Innovative Keyboardist for The Stranglers, Dies

Greenfield's musical sophistication and swirling, dramatic arpeggios set The Stranglers apart from their contemporaries.

the stranglers
Source: mega

Greenfield's unique musicality was integral to the Stranglers' sound

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On May 3, 2020, the world lost one of its most distinctive musical voices. Dave Greenfield, keyboardist for the Stranglers for 45 years and the man most responsible for creating their distinctive sound, passed away in hospital from complications arising from coronavirus, aged 71.

If the Stranglers were punk’s misfits, then Greenfield stood out especially. With his longer hair, moustache, and classical and prog-influenced playing style – often involving complicated time signatures and rapid arpeggios on instruments as distinctly un-punky as the harpsichord and Hammond organ – he did not fit the accepted mold of the time. But the music he made nevertheless elevated the Stranglers to become one of the most successful, and certainly the most enduring, of all their contemporaries.

Writing the day after his death, former Stranglers’ singer Hugh Cornwell said: “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. He should be remembered as the man who gave the world the music of ‘Golden Brown’.”

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dave greenfield
Source: MAR/Capital Pictures / MEGA

Greenfield performing with the Stranglers in 2019, just one year before his death.

“Golden Brown”, released just after Christmas 1981 would become the Stranglers’ most successful song, reaching No. 2 in February 1982. Written by Greenfield on the harpsichord in 3/4 waltz time (but with an extra bar in 4/4 time thrown in every now and then), it was not only the most unusual song to be released by an ostensibly “punk” band, but quite possibly also the only song about heroin ever to win an Ivor Novello award.

Hugh Cornwell later said that he believed the only reason the song never made it to No. 1 in the charts was because bassist Jean Jacques Burnel had told the press that it was about the drug, at which point many radio stations removed it from their playlists. “I would have waited till it got to Number 1 and then said it,” he commented.

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Speaking to Q in January 2024, Burnel himself said: “The whole thing about that song is it really represented us sticking our fingers up to our detractors. I mean, we had to insist on it being released. We'd been taken over by EMI and they thought we were awful – and they hated ‘Golden Brown’, they said: this song, you can't dance to it, you're finished… and it developed legs of its own, it became a worldwide hit. So in a sense it became a real threat to the powers that be.

“I'm very proud that it made people reconsider the band. A lot of people hated us because we weren't the Sex Pistols or the Clash or the Damned, and they thought we were parvenus and had jumped on a bandwagon. So it was a real significant thing, and I’m so grateful we had that moment.”

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Source: mega

The Stranglers stood out from their punk contemporaries.

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Dave Greenfield was born on March 29, 1949, in Brighton, and after learning the guitar and keyboard, began his music career playing in a band at American bases in Germany in the late 60s.

After returning to England he worked for his father’s printing business, supplementing his income as a freelance piano tuner, and playing in a series of short-lived prog-rock groups. Finally, in August 1975, he spotted an advert in the Melody Maker for an outfit called The Guildford Stranglers, who were looking for a keyboardist.

The Guildford Stranglers had been formed in 1974 by 36-year-old drummer (and former ice cream van mogul) Jet Black, and Greenfield completed the line-up which included Cornwell on guitar and vocals and the volatile, karate-obsessed Burnel on bass. The band (now called The Stranglers) played their first gig as a foursome just weeks later, and Greenfield would remain in the Stranglers until his death.

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Despite being older and more musically-minded than their punk contemporaries, the Stranglers quickly built up a devoted following, with a sound driven by Burnel’s distorted, aggressive bass and Greenfield’s swirling, dramatically-complex keyboard arpeggios – so much so that despite their obvious eccentricities, they were asked to open for The Ramones and Patti Smith on their first British tours.

If the Stranglers’ image was at odds with the accepted mood of the time, then so was their music. Cornwell’s growled vocals and Burnel’s snarling bass may have screamed “punk”, but Jet Black’s jazz-infused drumming and, most crucially, the sophistication of Greenfield’s keyboard compositions, gave them a melodic refinement that swung easily between perfectly-formed pop singles and wildly experimental albums. And of them all, it was “Golden Brown”, Greenfield’s peculiar harpsichord waltz, that became the Stranglers’ signature tune.

dave greenfield
Source: MAR/Capital Pictures / MEGA

Greenfield would remain in the Stranglers for 45 years.

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“Golden Brown” might have been their biggest hit, but it was not their only one. Between 1977 and 1990 the band notched up 21 Top 40 singles, as well as 10 Top 20 LPs, before Cornwell dramatically quit in August of that year, declaring the Stranglers a spent force.

Cornwell was wrong. Greenfield, Burnel and Jet Black continued, releasing another seven albums through the 90s and 2000s, with their eighteenth studio release, Dark Matters, peaking at No. 4 in September 2021.

Dark Matters was also the last album to feature Greenfield. After entering hospital for treatment for a long-standing heart condition, he was diagnosed with Covid on April 26, 2020; one week later the virus claimed his life.


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