Dave Greenfield: Keyboardist who defined the sound of The Stranglers

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Dave Greenfield, who has died aged 71 from complications involving Covid-19, was the keyboardist in British punk rock band The Stranglers. Greenfield’s distinctive, melodic keyboards helped the band achieve more than 30 UK top 50 singles and 17 top 40 albums while ensuring they sounded nothing like their contemporaries.

The Stranglers went through several line-up changes over their 46-year existence, with Greenfield remaining a mainstay: the band had organised a farewell tour this spring only for the pandemic’s onset to cause its postponement.

David Paul Greenfield was born in Brighton, where his father worked as a printer. A schoolfriend taught him how to play guitar and he then began studying piano. Having finished school he became a jobbing musician – one of his first experiences of the music business was playing guitar in a band that performed on US military bases in Germany.

Greenfield served his musical apprenticeship in such late-1960s bands as The Initials and The Blue Maxi before graduating to prog-rock bands Rusty Butler and Credo in the early 1970s. None of these bands experienced any success and when, in August 1975, he answered the advertisement for keyboardist needed for a Chiddingfold band called The Guildford Stranglers – a band formed in 1974 by 36-year-old drummer Jet Black who, having made money through a fleet of ice cream vans, decided to give music another go – Greenfield might have assumed that his day jobs (working in his father’s print workshop and as a piano tuner) would continue.

Yet The Stranglers – as they soon became known – had, in Hugh Cornwell and Jean-Jacques Burnel, a guitarist and bassist (both sang) who possessed considerable presence and songwriting skills. By late 1975 the band had developed a following on the pub rock circuit that encompassed Greater London and, when punk rock exploded in autumn 1976, The Stranglers were quick to capitalise on it and were signed to United Artists.

Already considerably older than their largely teenage contemporaries, The Stranglers stood out as punk misfits – Greenfield and Black both sported unfashionable facial hair (and keyboards were a no-no in a scene based around fast, three-chord guitar thrash) – but their energy, aggression and surly attitude fitted perfectly.

That they were capable musicians and a dynamic live band meant The Stranglers quickly came to command a large following, and their debut single “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” and album Rattus Norvegicus both won strong reviews and sales.

Greenfield’s keyboards not only gave the band its distinctive sound but added a strong melodic flavour, and this helped their records win radio play. The Stranglers’ May 1977 top 10 hit “Peaches” – where Cornwell leers at female sunbathers – emphasised the band’s nasty streak. This, alongside Cornwell and Burnel’s habit of physically attacking both music journalists and audience members, marked the band as punk rock cavemen. Hiring female strippers to perform on stage alongside the band at their 1978 concert in Battersea Park attracted plenty of outrage from the tabloids, music press and feminist organisations.

The Stranglers in 1985, clockwise from left: High Cornwell, Jean-Jacques Burnel, Dave Greenfield and Jet Black (Rex)
The Stranglers in 1985, clockwise from left: High Cornwell, Jean-Jacques Burnel, Dave Greenfield and Jet Black (Rex)

By their third album, Black and White (1978), they were confidently making rock music that occupied its own niche. Greenfield would sometimes sing certain songs on the early albums and wrote much of the music to Cornwell’s lyrics – most notably on “Golden Brown”, where he composed a waltz-time rhythm on a harpsichord for what would be The Stranglers’ biggest UK hit, reaching number two in February 1982.

The Stranglers had their final UK top 20 hit with “96 Tears” in 1990 and, later that year, Cornwell left the group and they were dropped by their record label.

Greenfield, Black and Burnel brought in a guitarist and a singer to replace Cornwell, signed to an independent record label and found their fans remained loyal. They released their final album Giants in 2012 but continued to tour, with Black retiring in 2015.

Offstage Greenfield was a friendly man who exuded none of the menace found in his band. He contracted coronavirus while being treated in hospital for heart problems and is survived by his wife, Pam.

Dave Greenfield, musician, born 29 March 1949, died 3 May 2020

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