INTERVIEW : March 2016 The Stranglers tour the iconic Black and White album : in depth chat with JJ Burnel

Stranglers_-_Black-White_album_coverThe Stranglers March Black and White tour tickets available from here

 

‘Even I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, ‘ smiles JJ Burnel ‘listening back to the record take me back to a very different headspace and I wonder who that person was.’

It’s a headspace and an album that continues to fascinate to this day. Whilst most punk bands were bogged down in an ever narrowing narrative and trapped within the confines of three chord rock n roll the Stranglers were on a serious and thrilling trip.

The decision to revisit the album on the upcoming March tour is a welcome one. A reminder of the Stranglers at their most powerful and darkest and an album that is oddly timely with rock music finally catching up with the band after decades.

It’s been argued before on this site that Black and White was the first post punk album and whilst this is the kind of statement that keeps people awake deep into the night arguing the pros and cons of wonderful releases from the time it’s one that holds water. On release the album sounded fantastically heavy and listenably weird in 2016 so much rock music, metal music, experimental music operates in this area. The record certainly broke boundaries on release with it’s thrusting of the bass guitar to the top of the mix creating a sound that was perhaps the single key constituent of post punk and part of a series of songs that didn’t play by the rules.

Whilst the white side still had verses and choruses albeit in a strange new shapes the black side was experimental – with jagged noisescapes and strange sonic textures that were still utterly compelling to the band’s newly won and young audience.

The decision to tour this album in March is a resounding reaffirment of the Stranglers as an experimental juggernaut. Usually these album revisits are lazy but this is a bold statement from the group and sees them pitching up in the biggest venues since their hit making heyday of the late seventies.

There can be few albums as stark, groundbreaking and musically thrilling as the Stranglers Black and White to hit the top of the charts but then, there are few bands like the Stranglers.

Currently at the biggest they have been since their hit record heyday of the late seventies the band are selling out huge venues this spring with a daring revisit of their most iconic and darkest album – 1978’s Black and White – playing for the first time in full. Arguably the first post punk album, Black and White saw a break away from the new punk orthodoxy of their contemporaries into a bleak and thrilling new world that rewrote the rules and was a precursor to groups such as Joy Division, whose bassist Peter Hook calls the band a key influence and acknowledges an album that predates Public Image and other champions of the new musical post punk era.

This was a record whose title reflected the polarisation of the media to the band but also much more in the late seventies culture. The UK of 1978 was black and white and the album, with its no compromise brilliance and stark and dangerous feel, mirrored the fractured society of the time and the band’s personal polarisation without cliche.

Musically and lyrically ground breaking this was a test for the legion of new fans who had turned the group into the top league of the new wave with a black belt album and arguably the Stranglers greatest moment when experimentalism, a reshaping of the possibilities of guitar, bass and drums combined with the band’s knack of writing glorious melody in even the starkest and darkest of terrains hit perfection and was still a hit record – landing in the charts at number 2.  There were also hit singles with the Egyptian reggae classic bassline driven Nice n Sleazy and the belligerent and beguiling cover of Bert Bacharach’s Walk On By which was voted number 3 in the BBC Music Top 50   greatest cover versions in 2014 and also voted number 6 in 6Music Top 40 greatest cover versions in 2007.

In late 1977 the Stranglers were in a strange place, uncomfortable bedfellows with punk they had a genuine malevolence and aggression tempered with a surreal worldview, a warped inteligence and a black sense of humour and a classic sense of melody that saw them as the big sellers of that iconic year. Being restless and awkward musically and intellectually they decided to rip up their own template and start again and in the process heralded post punk.

If their 1977 debut Rattus Norvegicus  had been their breakthrough – an album with a subterranean genius and reinvention of punk floyd psychedelia for the times and the quick follow up No More Heroes had been its fiery and deliberately provocative punk cousin then Black and White was the sound of a band stretching itself to the maximum.  This was physically embodied in the bassist’s now iconic look of all black cockroach  leather and expectant Doc Martens and the guitar player’s grubby green intellectual gone AWOL mac and a new music that broke the mould.

The preceding Five Minutes single in January 1978 was already a powerful warning – even the video oozed a perfect danger and attitude and had been the first hint of something darker and deadlier. An infernal and perfect wall of sound that gatecrashed the top ten, Five Minutes was a whole new sound and was the first hint of this redefining of the new Stranglers and music in general.

Retreating to Bearshanks Lodge in the Northants Countryside that winter they wrote an album that pushed musical boundaries and remains one of the most extreme, yet powerfully influential and damn listenable albums ever made. This is the album that bass guitar fiends slaver over with Burnel’s bass guitar cranked to the max with a growling tone so delicious that generations of bands has seeked its perfect tone. Cornwell’s guitar was at it’s most splintered, Jet Black’s drums at their most off kilter and Dave Greenfield’s keyboards were already expanding from the funeral bubbling and lysergic trips of the band’s initial releases.

Somehow the Stranglers had managed to turn this stark new post punk world into a sort of off kilter pop music. There were brilliantly gnarled pop songs on the album with the white side of the record seeing the neo pop of Sweden and Tank and the glorious twanging guitar, stormy ocean of the Victor Hugo referencing Toiler On The Sea sound like urgent symphonic 3D rock at its best. The black side was another affair with dank, dark, strange songs that reflected the tension and strangeness of the times from the stripped down tension of Threatened to the timeless reportage of Curfew to the dub Beefheart of the sinister In The Shadows to Burnel’s affirmation of his own personal warrior status in the Yukio Mishima referencing Death And Night and Blood to Enough Times’ nuclear apocalypse growling bass earthquake and bizarre timing brilliance.

This album captured the monochromatic claustrophobia and having to take sides of the late 70s UK perfectly. If punk had been the touch paper, this was the explosion – a perfect record for the moment that has never dated and is still used as a musical and aural template for any experimental band who is looking further than the usual parameters.

After Black and White there was post punk, Joy Division , Killing Joke, the Cure etc etc . They were all listening. In the eighties Big Black, Jesus And The Mary Chain and the heavier end of industrial music and beyond were listening in their own diverse ways, in the 21st century metal and indie bands are still listening. These groups sometimes took some of the component sounds of this album or were just enthralled by the album’s stunning sound and sense of possibilities.

Lapped up buy the fans the album broke the mould and created a whole new musical landscape and was the key release of that spring. The album launch, with the band running around in the wilderness of Iceland, was a perfect reflection of their wilful new world and the album’s sleeve art – a perfectly monochromatic snap caught the group at their most glowering and dangerous. The Stranglers, despite further great musical adventures, never looked and sounded so dangerous again and rock music has rarely sounded this urgent and perfect and the spring tour will be a celebration of the possibilities of rock music in the hands of virtuoso musicians who broke the rules.

JJ Burnel is getting ready to revisit his darkest album. It’s big trip. In the meantime he’s just back from touring with the Stranglers as special guests on the Simple Minds stadium tour.

JJ : Dublin was great. The whole tour has been great. I see you were just playing Dublin with the Membranes as special guests to Therapy. We saw the posters. I like Therapy. I’ve got a compilation of their stuff and they did a version of Nice n Sleazy which is good – it sounds better than ours. It’s quite heavy.

LTW : Er, that’s because I produced it. I’ll produce your next album if you want (laughs).

JJ : (laughs and then coughs) Excuse my cold. It’s Interesting. You resist a cold for 5 weeks – we did 9 shows in 10 days at one point and not even 20 year olds can do that these days but the problem is living off nervous energy. When it’s all over the body just packs up. It’s really fascinating the body knows it has a job to do and it has to deal with it. When it no longer has a job to do it goes all loopy.

The resistance is very low when it no longer has to work on adrenalin and it lets in every bug. Also flying  and having to inhale other people germs all the time doesn’t really help…

LTW : Why have you decided to play Black and White finally in full?

JJ : We decided that because we had no album to promote and because we love to play every March which has become a bit of a tradition with us and as much as we look forward to it there is also a growing number of people who see us and expect us to play. So with no album to release we decided to play Black and White. It was a bit of challenging playing it to be honest and inhabiting a headspace I’ve not inhabited for 37 years. Of course we did it for the convention a couple of years ago and we did rehearse it then but it requires more rehearsal to get it really right. And also to play the whole album as we didn’t play Enough Time at the convention. I’m not playing same way I used to play. I’m not in same place mentally that I used to be in and it’s a technical challenge as much to prevent alzheimer’s! it’s a bit of a mind fuck, so its something for us to get our teeth into to be honest.’

LTW : What is the difference in playing it now?

JJ: The way I would approach a passage of chords for instance is different now. The sequence of notes followed by the movement of chords. I play in a different way now for instance and trying to revise some of the Black and White stuff I was left thinking why would I put my finger there at the time! now I would move it this way so it’s just a technical exercise as much as a muscle memory exercise.

LTW : Do you see the album as a reflection of the personalities in the band at that time  and yourself as a wilfully different person?

JJ : (laughs) I suppose you could use cod psychology to explain it like that! lets face it, none of us – I hope – are the same as we were 37 years ago. That would be for the kind of people who never change in their lifetimes like Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher! The rest of us are a bit more organic than that and adopt and evolve over time.

LTW : Was it like an exercise in archaeology digging out old songs!

JJ : It is a bit, yeah, and also discovering some of the amazing stuff that we did back then. I’m amazing myself (laughs). I’m left thinking where the fuck was his head at, at the time you know!

LTW : Musically it’s a stunning album and ground breaking. I love the way everyone seemed to be playing lead at the same time.

JJ : We were competing with eachother. No one wanted the others to take precedence!

LTW : It works well though. All the parts fit.

JJ : It had to fit, otherwise it would have been a nonsense and not made any sense. As it is, it doesnt make too much sense! it’s just some sort of glorious moment in time which we were allowed to do what we wanted and we were allowed to discover and develop. Fuck knows if anyone would dare to release something like that nowadays.

LTW : Maybe in the underground with groups like Steve Albini’s great Shellac but certainly not as a pop record – an album that astonishingly got to number 2.

JJ : It got to number 2 which is amazing when you think about it. You listen back to the album now and think would that exist these days? Where the fuck would a record like that get released.

LTW : Was it a deliberate decision after the first 2 albums which were pooled from the same group of songs to sit down strip this all away and do something very different?

JJ : We didn’t plan it that way, John. We did wanna go a bit further technically and musically and so that was the intent and we were guilty on that count. We had moved on a hell of a lot in a short space in time because of what was happening to us and we wanted to make a point. Also the circumstances in what we did allowed us the freedom to explore because there was no one overseeing us and giving us ideas and suggestions. No-one was getting in the way when we wrote the album at Bear Shank Lodge in the middle of the Northamptonshire countryside near Oundle. The weather was bleak. I remember a picture of us playing chess in the snow outside and it captured the bleakness very well.

That christmas 1977 in the middle of the writing sessions the others had homes to go to – Hugh had his mum and dad in north London,  Jet had an apartment in Croydon and Dave was already married back then and he had a place to go to. I had nowhere to go to so I stayed at Bear Shank Lodge during the Christmas break. I think I might have gone for a few days down in France to see my parents but I was there in the rehearsal studio much longer than anyone else. I remember coming up with Toiler On The Sea and  because I didn’t have a drum machine at the time to play along with I got Dennis from the Finchley boys to crack along on the drums  whilst I worked out the parts. Hugh came back from a disastrous Christmas holiday in Morocco with his Japanese girlfriend at the time and had the lyrics and added to the the riff and the musicality of it and the song came together…

LTW : Were the songs a series of happy accidents with no preconceived idea of the eventual sound?

JJ :  Not really but it just sort of happened. It was a natural condition of the time. We called it Black and White because opinion was polarised about the Stranglers and we felt hard done by. Everyone was wearing fancy Sex clothes, Seditionaries clothes and everyone was talking about them and the other lot and they were on the front covers all the time and we never got that and that got up my nose, you know. We were outselling both those other bands so we developed a chip on our shoulders and the result was a ghetto mentality. It was you are either for of us or against us by then. It was black and white. When you are young the world is black and white. It’s difficult to be subtle when you are younger and we certainly took that idea to extremes.

LTW : The album is more complex than that though. Musically and even subject wise it’s not just black and white! There are subtleties on there, weird timings, it’s not verse/chorus. It’s thought out and dare I say, an intellectual music.

JJ : It was a cerebral music but it keeps your toes tapping…

LTW : I like the idea of weird timings and a crowd of 16 year olds pogoing to it- you took the audience on a weird trip

JJ : Yeah! But I don’t think we weren’t trying to be condescending by carrying people with us. There’s some people in the UK who have got this attitude that is slightly different to the continental attitude that you can’t be a savage and intellectual (laughs). They don’t have the concept of the noble savage. The feeling is that if he’s a savage he’s got to live the lifestyle and be monosyllabic and they can’t accommodate it when he tries to think and be intellectual. They are suspicious of the intellectual aren’t they in rock roll? so we must consign them to art music.

LTW : It’s interesting how the Stranglers straddled both though – it’s an art rock record and populist in its weird way..

JJ : I don’t know if its populist. It just turned out that way with all the best intentions sometimes you, as a musician work 6 months on one idea and it takes 30 seconds to be dismissed. That’s part of the situation of being a musician. Other times like when I wrote Waltzinblack in about 2 minutes and I didn’t think any more about it after I got Dave to play all the parts on it and still, to this day, it’s being played on adverts and TV and stuff. It’s the same with Peaches. That took 2 minutes to write and it’s been played for ever. There are things that I don’t give too much consideration to like a fart! you fart it out and you don’t think about it – however some farts linger (laughs)  that’s some fart man! and with music there are things you really apply yourself to and frustratingly no-one else sees it or gets it.

LTW : Black and White is an amazing record, arguably the first post punk record as it takes punk in a completely different direction. Other people argue that bands like PiL or Magazine were the first post punk records but you never get a mention by the media interms of post punk and I’m intrigued why it never gets recognised.

JJ : It’s taken time for us to get recognised. One by one they are dying! all the detractors and the propagandists are falling by the wayside.
My ambition is to outlive them all so I can have the last word and get reassessed! that’s part of the motivation and why we are still going…

LTW : And this tour is part of that maybe? The biggest tour and the biggest venues since 1980. In Manchester you are back in the 3400 capacity Apollo again after 34 years!

JJ : One of the last times I did the Apollo was on was on the Euroman tour when I had 200 people onstage with me – great fun.

LTW : The whole crowd then…

JJ : Basically, yes! (laughs)

LTW : Euroman is interesting as, in some ways, it’s a companion piece go Black and White – being written and recorded at roughly the same time

JJ : Again it was because I was sort of homeless. It was because we had moved out of Wilko’s flat – I think Lemmy took it over. I had a brief flat in Chiswick and then the landlady asked me to leave because she found me with 2 young and very pretty punk girls in my bed. The landlady didn’t like that so I had nowhere to sleep so at the end of the recording sessions of the album in TW studios I just stayed on and I used the time up recording and writing. There were these primitive drum machines and you press record and I had the drum machine programmed up and it was vey simple bossa nova beat or waltz time, so I was playing about with that.

LTW : The first track you recorded for Euroman was Crabs and it went from there. It’s an interesting album. Another ground breaking record but even you seem to push it aside and see it as a quick experiment.

JJ : It was an experiment and a way of passing the time of night. It was as also bit of a manifesto. I was a big fan of the concept of a united Europe but eventually that’s taken a turn for the worse. I still think it’s one of the great ideas of our times but I am wary of the bureaucracy and the bad elements of it but as a pure concept it’s a great concept and still is apart from the little England Tories and UKIPs who want to move out of it. The concept of the people of Europe living together and working alongside each other and not seeing each other as natural enemies is still a great concept you know.

LTW : Is this sense of the Euroman because you were a person of  French descent living in England?

JJ : (laughs) Yes! that’s got a lot to do with that lot to do with it. I always had identity issues. That’s always been an issue with me.

LTW : Being the outsider?

JJ : Yeah and it’s actually served me well.  It’s been a motor to lots of things I’ve done. I discovered an awful lot by not being part of any pack for very long. My identity is partly shaped by that I grew up in London with a name like Jean Jacques in the post war era and I’m a Norman and there were not many immigrants around when I was a kid. I was certainly not too identifiable by colour and I didn’t stand out in that way but in different ways. You will always be discovered if you have any slight difference whether it’s your parents being different it will be found out and used against you a lot of the time. Nowadays it will hopefully be embraced.

LTW : It’s very different now of course…

JJ : To a certain extant but not yet

LTW : The outsider band is a powerful metaphor for the Stranglers.

JJ : I didn’t look for it. It’s just how its been. I would rather not have been an outsider but you accept your situation. You build defences around yourself to protect yourself once you have been ostracised or not accepted or brought down. You either break or you build a defensive wall around yourself. You develop a system of apartheid.

LTW : Does this explain your karate?

JJ : Yes. But also creatively as well, and it has served us well.

LTW : A misfit band with misfit fans as well!

JJ : There is a communality in there somewhere

LTW : Was Black and White the ultimate statement of this outsider feel with the themes of polarisation and the powerful and testing music  ?

JJ : It was at the time when it came out. Then, I think a year or so later people would kind of be catching up and ploughing the same field. It’s taken a fuck of a long time for people to come out the woodwork and be honest about this album and what it meant to them. Peter Hook has been one of the bravest and stuck his neck out about the band. An awful lot of people have been influenced by the Stranglers or have been helped along by us but they have never acknowledged it. It seemed that it was too dangerous to have any association with us! Or a career suicide to be associated with us for some reason. People didn’t mention the unmentionable but I think now we are in a different period and people have started to admit to the Stranglers.

LTW : People forget the argument!

JJ : I think that, sort of, all the other stuff dominated and overtook the music. People would say what a bunch of horrible, nazi, homosexual thugs we were…. I’m not a thug (laughs)

LTW : This danger made the band more appealing to the faithful though. Here was a genuinely malevolent and dangerous band who could back it up with great music.

JJ : The thing is, the word is genuine. Most other people were pretending and posing around – whether in front of the barricades in Belfast or whatever. It was all phoney. All posed.

LTW : Great showbiz though.

JJ : With the Stranglers the word showbiz had no meaning.

LTW : With the album is has been said that the white side was more Hugh and the black side more JJ…

JJ : We never saw it like that John, I will have to reassess that myself now. I dunno. I don’t think Hugh is that white (laughs)

LTW : The first 3 songs on the black side are mainly your creations?

JJ : I have not had chance to sit down and analyse that. I will start the process of listening to the album this week. This is the first week that I will do my homework on it. I got my bass downstairs and I’m going to have to listen to the parts. With the recording techniques of the time it can make it difficult to hear the parts and we have had to separate them using modern technology to separate the different parts – the bass and guitar or whatever. We all do what we do individually to work out the old parts and when we get together we will hit the ground running.

LTW : With Dave do you just switch him on and he starts playing?

JJ : Yes, there is a button round the back!

LTW : Is Jet Black going to be doing any of this tour

JJ : He can’t. We tried that last year and I don’t want him to become a freak show either. The most important thing for me is his health. If he can live a bit longer then that’s a great thing. Physically he is in not a good place at all. We are visiting him this week to discuss what’s what for the future.

LTW : Discuss his role on the tour?

JJ : If at all.

LTW : Has it got to the line where he is still a member but he doesn’t tour?

JJ : I think so. We were close to that already last year. He started off the tour with 4 songs and then by the third night he was on the oxygen.

LTW : How do you broach this with Jet? It can’t be that easy.

JJ : I think he’s a realistic bloke and not delusional. When we were rehearsing a few months ago he could only keep up for half an hour and then he had to take a break. He said that ‘after seventy years everything is packing up’ (does gruff Jet impression) and that’s fair enough…

LTW : What would his role be now?

JJ : I don’t know. The thing is he could mentor Jim. Also he’s always got an opinion about songs. Sometimes his opinion is so wrong that I go in the opposite direction but occasionally he hits on a goldmine of ideas. You just have to filter these things and take his opinions for what they are and sometimes they are really valid.

LTW : Has anyone ever got to this position in a band before with a member so old that they can’t do anything but are still a key member?

JJ  : (laughs) I like to think that we do a lot of firsts in the Stranglers…

LTW : This situation is very Stranglers!

JJ : Yes it is kinda Stranglerish…

LTW : When you work on the next record will you take songs to Jet even if he is not playing on them?

JJ : Yes. It’s how it’s going to be whilst he is still alive. I highly regard his opinion and input and that’s how it’s going to be.

LTW : So you will go to his house and play him demos of songs?

JJ : Yes. Of course.

LTW : And he can still think of drum parts that should be used?

JJ : Yes. Of course.

LTW : Will he go to rehearsals?

JJ : It’s getting increasingly difficult for him to get to rehearsals. It’s what it is…

LTW : This is quite touching in its loyalty. Most bands would retire an older member.

JJ : We cant do that! Until he wants to be out of the loop and he wants to be in the loop until he shifts off this mortal coil that’s how it’s going to be.

LTW : How are the fans going to be with this situation?

JJ : They love Jim. Jim has brought quite a lot to the live set up to be honest. We can play some of the songs the sped they should be played than the speed they were for a few years. Everyone is using programmed drums these days which is bullshit. A lot of bands hardly play a note. It’s all programmed. That means that every night with a real drummer we are playing differently. We never play the same way every night. If its all programmed up it’s the same tempo. We prefer to be organic and also adopt to the situation and you can’t for programme that,

LTW : Would it be fair to say that Black and White was quite a proggy record? With hints of French seventies prog heroes Magma on there?

JJ : Magma! funny you should say that antoine de caunes came to the studio when we were recording The Raven and Meninblack and gave me a couple of copies of Magma albums. He said ‘you guys remind me of Magma’ I had never heard of them before. It was kind of weird shit. Their singer invented his own language. Amazing.

 

LTW : Parts of them remind me of Meninblack album…

JJ : An advocate of Magma is Steve Davies. He promoted a gig for them.

LTW : If not Magma on Black and White it certainly has a prog element to it.

JJ : Yes of course there is a huge prog element to the Stranglers. I have a list here of songs that could be prog – Down In The Sewer, Toiler On The Sea, Hallow To Our Man, The Raven, The Man They loved To Hate, Time To Die, Norfolk Coast, Freedom Is Insane, Relentless, Walk On By, Northwinds, Hanging Around, Genetix, Midnight Summer Dream. I reckon they are pretty proggy those tracks.

LTW :With Black and White were you listening to anything outside your own world?

JJ : We were completely in our own bubble.

LTW : Would you say that Black and White is the purest distillation of the Stranglers?

JJ : I’d say so because the other albums were much more calculated in a sense. We didn’t know where we were going with Black and White. With The Raven and Meninblack certainly we did.

LTW : Was The Raven a reaction to Black and White overstepping the mark!

JJ : We didn’t think that at all we just wanted to go somewhere different again.

LTW : Were the initial session for The Raven a different direction or was there an overlap?

JJ : I mean the only communality is that we were getting more into synthesisers at the time and evolving with polyphonic keyboards. They made nice noises to play about with and experiment with.

LTW : Some of the Raven songs start with a sound and turn into songs?

JJ : Yes. Like The Raven itself.

LTW : I thought that started off with the almost Neu style krautrock classic bass line.

JJ : We were listening to a lot of krautrock at the time. Don’t forget that Andrew Lauder who had signed us had also previously signed Can – I met Holger Czukay in the office at Andrew Lauder’s place once.

LTW : Krautrock is now fashionable but less so at the time.

JJ : I was a huge fan of Krautrock – Can, Kraftwerk and also stuff like Captain Beefheart who was also signed by Andrew Lauder to the UK. At the time we were listening to Beefheart and Krautrock and frankly making a synthesis of it for ourselves.

LTW : I can hear Neu on The Raven track.

JJ : La Dusseldorf as well. I remember one of the reviews at the time saying it’s got lots of synthy noises on it like it was a bad thing.

LTW : Keyboards were not allowed in punk!

JJ : I know! Who made up that rule? When I first heard of punk in 1976 I found it quite liberating . I thought it meant you could do what you wanted to do but very quickly it got sort of kidnapped by people who redefined what it meant and a new kind of fundamentalism came in  with ‘you can’t do that…’ It’s like who the fuck is creating these rules you know…

LTW : The only person not like that was John Peel.

JJ : He played us.

LTW : Famously he played the whole of Black and White.

JJ : Did he? I didn’t know that. Good on him.

LTW : Lyrically Black and White is a dark album.

JJ : Yes we had a few pet obsessions at the time. If you listen to the lyrics on Curfew they are so prescient. You look at them now and they are about immigration, Russian aggression and everything really. They are particularly prescient about Scotland, England, Russia, Germany and frontiers and borders…

LTW : Borders in Europe or other personal borders?

JJ : It’s about the cold war which was hotting up (laughs) at the time just before the invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians which was their kind of Vietnam if you want. There was a lot happening and we were aware of it and incorporating it into our music and why not?

LTW : I really like the shrapnel lyrics – the broken ideas on Threatened – the idea of being threatened by buildings and even ideas.

JJ : I got to the core of those lyrics one night in a car full of people who worked for Rough Trade and everyone was wrecked and they were opining. One bloke said I hate that architecture, those facades and I was thinking they are there, so what? so what’s the problem? It was small talk. I don’t like small talk and having an opinion for the sake of it. It’s a waste of energy and I got uptight about it and wrote the lyrics.

LTW : But you are opinionated about everything!

JJ : (laughs) Opinionated about opinions…!

LTW : Is this part of the dichotomy of Black and White?

JJ : The dichotomy of the Stranglers in general I would say.

LTW : When you look back do you think ‘what the fuck was I going on about!

JJ : I hope I would have answers…

LTW : Death and Night and Blood is lyrically very dense and a strange and fascinating song musically and lyrically. The title is from Mishima’s 1956 breakthrough novel Confessions of a Mask, a semi-autobiographical account of a young homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. Is the song coded, in depth or a series of sketches?

JJ : The songs are sketches sometimes and only I know exactly the meaning. I don’t think any of them are words for the sake of them. Sometimes the meaning might be completely obscured …

LTW : I thought the warrior thing, the book itself and the ritual suicide was something you at the time being in a strange place were identifying with and you liked that absolutism of Mishima?

JJ : Yes, very much so. Unfortunately it didn’t comply with a majority of thinking in the UK at the time so people thought it was fascistic. They didn’t get where we were coming from. We were posing  different ways of looking at stuff.

LTW : I remember reading interviews at the time in Record Mirror of all places and I thought it was a strange place to talk about heavy and fascinating stuff like this.

JJ : Yes! Record Mirror of all places (laughs)

LTW : There are also references to Sparta which makes it sound partly like a warrior song?

JJ : It is a warrior song. If you know a bit about Mishima you would know that he did admire Spartan history. I mean it’s a bit of a cliche but how fantastic where the Spartans – 5000 of them and 34 000 slaves (laughs)

LTW : The biggest con trick in Europe at the time!

JJ : They had no problems with disability – they just left you out on a rock!

LTW : Although they did have sort of equal right for women.

JJ : Spartan woman were fierce and very athletic.

LTW : Is there a fascination with this bizarre society?

JJ : It is fascinating and also there is nothing remaining of their legacy. No artefacts. No documents – only these 2 massive battles which saved us from becoming all becoming arabs or Persians, so their history still resonates.

LTW : Did you see yourself as some kind of punk rock Spartan warrior!

JJ : Absolutely. Absolutely I was ready to die for the cause!

LTW : In a way that song is maybe less about Yukio and maybe about you?

JJ : I don’t know about that o want admit to that completely

LTW : It remains the most fascinating song on the record lyrically and  musically. There’s something haunting and dark about it.

JJ : I don’t find the metaphor uncomfortable for me. Other people found that uncomfortable that song. People outside the band  found it uncomfortable because it didn’t resonate with them. It made them fearful but for other people it resonated with them and they liked the song. Time will tell. We are going for the long haul with the Stranglers.

LTW : Musically the song is great as well – the music matches the atmosphere of the lyrics was it a co-write?

JJ : They are all co-written. The lyrics for that song were mine but I think the music wa a collaboration.

LTW : Toiler was from your bass. Were other songs from jams or from Jet playing a weird drum rhythm?

JJ : Sometimes, for instance, on Peasant In The Big Shitty I got Jet to do a  9/4 thing after one night when I was sitting beside him in the ice cream van and I could hear the engine doing a  rhythm and I didn’t know it was a 9/4 and I said to him what is this and he said (gruff voice) ‘it’s a 9/4’ and I thought great lets write some lyrics around this.

LTW : Peasant was one of the first signs that the Stranglers were on a different trip than everyone else with its weird timing and lysergic, claustrophobic psychedelic atmosphere around it.

JJ : I really love to play it. The 9/4 just throws you. It’s a challenge to the drummer to keep it  up.

LTW : In terms of the darker and heavier sound the 5 minutes single was the first sign of the new sound of Black and White.

JJ : Yes

LTW : It was heavier and a big jump in the dark density of the sound. Once it came out did it give you a confidence to push the sound further.

JJ : No that’s a direction that we were heading in at the time anyway. 5 minutes was when the label put pressure on us to bring out a single and we didn’t want to put singles on the album. The single promoted an album in those days and it was a bit of a cheat to put a single on the album we wanted value for money and if you wanted the single and not have it on the album.

LTW : I wasn’t thinking in terms of a stepping stone. 5 Minutes is a great record. A step up in density from the first two albums and paved the way for Black and White being heavier but by then having more space in the sound.

JJ : There is a lot of space in Black and White.

LTW : I remember reading once that Rise of The Robots was a knock off song chucked on the album at the end but it’s a great song.

JJ : I can’t remember. I think that’s a Hugh song I think. I can’t even remember if I wrote the bass line of Robots. I draw a complete blank there.

LTW : Were the tracks on the black side and the white side worked out one night or was there a definite vision to put the dark tracks on the black side?

JJ : Yes, that was planned.

LTW : Somehow Tokyo got on the white side…

JJ : It is yes (laughs). Maybe there was not enough room on the vinyl – the black side is full up!

LTW : Every track on the album is dark. The whole album is black!  Maybe the album should be called black and slightly less black!

JJ : (laughs) Damn. We missed a trick there.

LTW : As it is the album title is the perfect name and the artwork matches it perfectly.

JJ : It was everything. I think the sleeve without the writing on it, our attitude at the time, everything was polarised and that was the idea behind the album. It was not so much that the music was conveniently half it was happy and white and funny and the other side was dark. It was not quite like that. It was quite an arbitrary thing that followed on from the whole idea of polarisation.

LTW : Everyone taking sides

JJ : With us ,yes

LTW : Who came up with concept with the album cover? Was it you or the late Ruan O’Lochlainn who took the photo and also ran Bearshank Lodge?

JJ : He was the guy who owned Bearshank lodge. He was a friend of Dai  Davies – our manager at the time and  he was a photographer  and interestingly enough that summer he was involved with a local band called Riff Raff who a young Billy Bragg was in. I remember meeting them at the farm went I went up there the first time that summer of 1977 on my motorcycle.

LTW: Didn’t Billy make tea for you during the sessions?

JJ : Apparently yeah, he did try to ingratiate himself. He had been in the army hadn’t he>

LTW : He was finding his way in life.

JJ : Yes. Like we all do.

LTW : Who had the concept for the album cover?

JJ : It was more from Ruan.

LTW : It’s perhaps the most iconic Stranglers album cover and  a perfect enscapulation of the record.

JJ : It’s a lot of people’s favourite Stranglers shot.

LTW : Did Ruan arrange the band in the position or did it naturally fall into that shape?

JJ : I’m sure there was a lot of direction behind it.

LTW: It perfectly captures the band’s personalities – Hugh weirding out, Jet looking gruff and  you look like you are a coiled spring ready to get up and hit someone – there is a glowering menace there

JJ : And Dave is wearing my leather biker jacket!

LTW : Is that because he has a terrible shirt on?

JJ : Yes! he just doesn’t know about clothes at all

LTW : I thought that green boiler suit he used to wear looked quite cool.

JJ : It was not a boiler suit. It was a tank uniform – what you wore in a tank – the green the zip up. Basically people said you wear this and he would have said ‘oh alright’ Dave was not arsed at all.

LTW : The cover shot is so iconic and perfectly captures the moment that it seems hard to believe there are any outtakes from the session.

JJ : I’m sure there were loads of shots taken but I’m not the person to ask about that. I’m sure we tried to do it as quickly as possible. We hated having photos taken of  us. Ten minutes was all you got. Great if  you got your shot and tough if you didn’t.

LTW : Jet looks really moody!

JJ : Well he is a moody cunt!

LTW : The launch for the album in Iceland was perfect as well. The stark countryside provided  a perfect backdrop to the music.

JJ : It was

LTW : It looked like a black and white monochromatic country.

JJ : That was quite a story in itself.

LTW : Will you be playing any new songs on this tour?

JJ : Not sure about that. The set is the subject of much deliberation by the members of the band.

LTW : There will be curveball unexpected tracks though?

JJ : It’s a Stranglers gig  so that’s inevitable. We have not had much time to complete any new songs to be honest.

LTW : It will be interesting as this potential next release could be  the first one without Jet playing and would make this  the first release with jim on board.

JJ : Jim plays with us full time now. He’s our drummer at the moment.

LTW: Could he walk in with a song for the band?

JJ : Anyone involved with us, I would hope they would have ideas. We could easily accept them if it adds something to the band. I will take ideas from anyone.If Jim has got an idea in the studio then why not? If doing it enhances the Stranglers then it’s a plus. I don’t have a closed mind about things like that. It’s cooperative. It has to be because it’s a band.

LTW: Do you have the final word as you’re perceived on the outside as the captain of the ship?

JJ : I don’t know if  it works like that. It’s always in a natural way. It just works out with us. We all pull in the same direction. If we don’t we ask questions and something might come out of that.

LTW : Is that why over years some people are not Stranglers any more?

JJ : If you can’t live with it any more then yes. It’s the natural process you know.

LTW : Does the bottom line go back to you?

JJ : I suppose it does to a fair extent but it’s not really like that. I’m pretty flexible. If there’s a good idea then we use it. It’s always about what’s better for the Stranglers and never what’s better for me or Dave and that’s the bottom lone.

LTW: So the mythical Stranglers is the boss!

JJ : The higher being of the Stranglers. Yes.  (laughs)

LTW : Do you like the collaboration of being in the band?

JJ : I like being alone to work out initial ideas and then once I’m there is some shape to them I like other people to contribute.

LTW : Do you find it hard to work solo? Like with Euroman Cometh?

JJ : For me it was a way of passing time and also developing an idea. If I wanted to expand I would work with other people.  With that album I leaned a lot from it with production and studio techniques and that was useful. I always thought solo efforts should not be to release yourself from the grasp of the Stranglers but to bring back  ideas to the Stranglers. I  think Hugh solo things were an attempt to forge his own identity outside the band but for me my solo thing was to bring suff back to Stranglers.

LTW : Nosrafatu was a good though.

JJ : It was fantastic. Really good.

LTW : Your solo album was quite different. A groundbreaking record in some ways.

JJ : It turned out that way and was different in retrospect. I didn’t realise it was ahead of its time at the time. It all came naturally to me.

LTW: Were any of those solo tracks considered for Black and White? there were musical crossovers like In the Shadows could have fitted on Euroman and Freddie laker onto Black and White.

JJ : I think not. What happened was that with Euroman I was playing around with a drum machine and riffing along to the different rhythms and most of the songs developed at from there so they were quite different in feel. In The Shadows was a Stranglers jam where we were trying to do a dub version of Captain Beefheart.

LTW : Has going back to Black and White affected the way you create any potential new ideas? Is it a different discipline?

JJ : I hope not. I would hate to be drawn into the black hole of Black and White again but you never know it might be like when you get into the character in a movie or something and you start biting people’s heads off. I  don’t know when and how it comes out the other end. Absolutely. Absolutely I was ready to die for the cause!

LTW : In a way that song is maybe less about Yukio and maybe about you?

JJ : I don’t know about that o want admit to that completely

LTW : It remains the most fascinating song on the record lyrically and  musically. There’s something haunting and dark about it.

JJ : I don’t find the metaphor uncomfortable for me. Other people found that uncomfortable that song. People outside the band  found it uncomfortable because it didn’t resonate with them. It made them fearful but for other people it resonated with them and they liked the song. Time will tell. We are going for the long haul with the Stranglers.

LTW : Musically the song is great as well – the music matches the atmosphere of the lyrics was it a co-write?

JJ : They are all co-written. The lyrics for that song were mine but I think the music wa a collaboration.

LTW : Toiler was from your bass. Were other songs from jams or from Jet playing a weird drum rhythm?

JJ : Sometimes, for instance, on Peasant In The Big Shitty I got Jet to do a  9/4 thing after one night when I was sitting beside him in the ice cream van and I could hear the engine doing a  rhythm and I didn’t know it was a 9/4 and I said to him what is this and he said (gruff voice) ‘it’s a 9/4’ and I thought great lets write some lyrics around this.

LTW : Peasant was one of the first signs that the Stranglers were on a different trip than everyone else with its weird timing and lysergic, claustrophobic psychedelic atmosphere around it.

JJ : I really love to play it. The 9/4 just throws you. It’s a challenge to the drummer to keep it  up.

LTW : In terms of the darker and heavier sound the 5 minutes single was the first sign of the new sound of Black and White.

JJ : Yes

LTW : It was heavier and a big jump in the dark density of the sound. Once it came out did it give you a confidence to push the sound further.

JJ : No that’s a direction that we were heading in at the time anyway. 5 minutes was when the label put pressure on us to bring out a single and we didn’t want to put singles on the album. The single promoted an album in those days and it was a bit of a cheat to put a single on the album we wanted value for money and if you wanted the single and not have it on the album.

LTW : I wasn’t thinking in terms of a stepping stone. 5 Minutes is a great single. A step up in density from the first two albums and paved the way for Black and White being heavier but by then you were also, conversely, having more space in the sound.

JJ : There is a lot of space in Black and White.

LTW : I remember reading once that Rise of The Robots was a knock off song chucked on the album at the end but it’s a great song.

JJ : I can’t remember. I think that’s a Hugh song I think. I can’t even remember if I wrote the bass line of Robots. I draw a complete blank there.

LTW : Were the tracks on the black side and the white side worked out one night or was there a definite vision to put the dark tracks on the black side?

JJ : Yes, that was planned.

LTW : Somehow the Heidegger referencing Outside Tokyo got on the white side…

JJ : It is yes (laughs). Maybe there was not enough room on the vinyl – the black side is full up!

LTW : Every track on the album is dark. The whole album is black!  Maybe the album should be called black and slightly less black!

JJ : (laughs) Damn. We missed a trick there.

LTW : The launch for the album in Iceland was perfect as well. The stark countryside provided  a perfect backdrop to the music.

JJ : It was

LTW : It looked like a black and white monochromatic country.

JJ : That was quite a story in itself.

LTW : Will you be playing any new songs on this tour?

JJ : Not sure about that. The set is the subject of much deliberation by the members of the band.

LTW : There will be curveball unexpected tracks though?

JJ : It’s a Stranglers gig  so that’s inevitable. We have not had much time to complete any new songs to be honest.

LTW : It will be interesting as this potential next release could be  the first one without Jet playing and would make this  the first release with jim on board.

JJ : Jim plays with us full time now. He’s our drummer at the moment.

LTW: Could he walk in with a song for the band?

JJ : Anyone involved with us, I would hope they would have ideas. We could easily accept them if it adds something to the band. I will take ideas from anyone.If Jim has got an idea in the studio then why not? If doing it enhances the Stranglers then it’s a plus. I don’t have a closed mind about things like that. It’s cooperative. It has to be because it’s a band.

LTW: Do you have the final word as you’re perceived on the outside as the captain of the ship?

JJ : I don’t know if  it works like that. It’s always in a natural way. It just works out with us. We all pull in the same direction. If we don’t we ask questions and something might come out of that.

LTW : Is that why over years some people are not Stranglers any more?

JJ : If you can’t live with it any more then yes. It’s the natural process you know.

LTW : Does the bottom line go back to you?

JJ : I suppose it does to a fair extent but it’s not really like that. I’m pretty flexible. If there’s a good idea then we use it. It’s always about what’s better for the Stranglers and never what’s better for me or Dave and that’s the bottom lone.

LTW: So the mythical Stranglers is the boss!

JJ : The higher being of the Stranglers. Yes.  (laughs)

LTW : Do you like the collaboration of being in the band?

JJ : I like being alone to work out initial ideas and then once I’m there is some shape to them I like other people to contribute.

LTW : Do you find it hard to work solo? Like with Euroman Cometh?

JJ : For me it was a way of passing time and also developing an idea. If I wanted to expand I would work with other people.  With that album I leaned a lot from it with production and studio techniques and that was useful. I always thought solo efforts should not be to release yourself from the grasp of the Stranglers but to bring back  ideas to the Stranglers. I  think Hugh solo things were an attempt to forge his own identity outside the band but for me my solo thing was to bring suff back to Stranglers.

LTW : Nosrafatu was good though.

JJ : It was fantastic. Really good.

LTW : Your solo album was quite different. A groundbreaking record in some ways.

JJ : It turned out that way and was different in retrospect. I didn’t realise it was ahead of its time at the time. It all came naturally to me.

LTW: Were any of those solo tracks considered for Black and White? there were musical crossovers like In the Shadows could have fitted on Euroman and Freddie laker onto Black and White

JJ : I think not. What happened was that with Euroman I was playing around with a drum machine and riffing along to the different rhythms and most of the songs developed at from there so they were quite different in feel. In The Shadows was a Stranglers jam where we were trying to do a dub version of Captain Beefheart.

LTW : Has going back to Black and White affected the way you create any potential new ideas? Is it a different discipline?

JJ : I hope not. I would hate to be drawn into the black hole of Black and White again but you never know it might be like when you get into the character in a movie or something and you start biting people’s heads off. I  don’t know when and how it comes out the other end.

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7 comments on “INTERVIEW : March 2016 The Stranglers tour the iconic Black and White album : in depth chat with JJ Burnel”

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  1. Groundbreaking? Oh yeah. In perspective of a 13 year old kid from former Yugoslavia.. With a record available in your local market store, along with Magazine’s Real Life? Shivers? Well yeah, after all this years. Greetings from Croatia.

  2. Good extensive interview…glad to see that Monsieur Burnel acknowledges the importance of the March tour to the Stranglers fan…..fucked up at the end though….wee bit of repetition there…someone needs to brush up on their editing skills :D

  3. seems I have a lot to catch up on I’m still reliving the old days stuck in a time warp you might say! I will have a read and listen to the new stuff and get back too you still a fan just been left behind I think! Nice reading and listening to your stuff I will be back

  4. Good luck on the tour!

  5. Great interview Rob. Black and White in it’s entirety will be a treat. Can’t wait for the Bristol gig.

  6. Much as I love B&W “Pink Flag” by WIRE is the first post-punk album. They ditched most of their shit punk songs like “Bitch” and “Mary is a Dyke” before they recorded it.

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