In depth interview with JJ Burnel

A mass of black has descended on London. It’s like a really strange religious cult convening on some sort of masonic Victorian temple in Euston. From all over the world they come speaking of rats and sewers and arcane references that somehow combined together create one of the best ever UK bands who survive with a self imposed ghetto mentality.

The Stranglers convention is a two day affair built around one of the longest lasting British bands whose back catalogue is an exercise in diversity and imagination and who are working up a new album, their seventeenth- provisionally titled ‘Giants’ that hints at being one of their best yet.

The Stranglers arrived during punk and never had their place in that scene defined, they had the aggression, the originality and the short, sharp songs that defined the times. The history books may not tell you this but they were the second best selling punk/new wave band of the period and countless youths picked up a bass guitar because of them. I’ve lost track of the number of bands who are influenced by the possibilities of sound they created and their sheer originality, what is so often overlooked is on full display over a series of gigs they play over their convention weekend here in London.

Being the compere I get a stage side view and I take the chance to check out Jet Black, the band’s remarkable 73 year old drummer. It’s quite stunning to watch his touch as he plays the cymbals and hi hats with a jazz swing- delicate touches and flourishes display a sublety and intelligence so rare in rock n roll. In a band of forceful personalities it’s so easy to overlook Jet Black’s drums but on the home turf of a convention gig the audience know and spend two days chanting the indestructible drummer’s name, knowing that one of the greatest things about the band is their unlikely line up. A line up that still boasts a combination of distinctly very different personalities that created something quite special. Jet grew up in a time before rock n roll and has become very much part of it and his tough, relentless spirit embodies the band perfectly.

The Stranglers convention is built around the band’s third album ‘ Black and White’ which they play in it’s near entirety. ‘Black And White’ was the Stranglers third album in a year and a ground breaking release in early 1978. Already argued on this site is the fact that the album was the first post punk release, a real ground changer. It came out of punk and explored the new territory and was dark, stark, surreal and entering a new terrain with an intelligence and an aggression that retained a punk attack but dismantled the music and created something quite new.

It also had the best bass sound ever recorded but that’s another story.

The fact is Stranglers made this into pop music and the album was a big seller in 1978.

The band occasionally still play songs from the album in their set but this revisit of the album was the first time they had played some of the other songs for years or in some cases ever. What was most striking about the set was how little of the material had actually dated and the album’s stark vision of the future remains intact.

Playing through the songs in the original order they were on the album the band is in triumphant form. Intro song ‘Tank’ sounds as belligerent as it did all those years ago- a surly, aggressive ode to the military mentality. The song like crest of the album, at the time, was a new kind of psychedelia- that’s psychedelia as a music making pictures in your mind, not in the sense of flowers and love and peace, this was a totally different psychedelia, a lysergic take on the late seventies and ‘Tank’ epitomised this. It’s metallic grind musically describes modern armoury and it ends with an explosion, it’s this kind of imagination that was rife on the album which was split between a darker black side and a so called lighter white side that still had it’s own heavy moments on it, like the dank ‘Outside Tokyo’ which is a melancholic trip and warmly welcomed by the audience who are thrilling to hearing songs not played live for decades.

The set really kicks up a gear with ‘Rise Of The Robots’ which has never been played live before but is a killer version that sounds like a long lost hit single with those soaring harmonies on the chorus rising in perfect rushing unison. It’s moments like this that justify the decision to play the whole of the album and by the time they have dealt with ‘Sweden’ and ‘Toiler On The Sea’ there a euphoric feeling in the room. ‘Toiler’ is another example of Stranglers 3D songwriting- a salt stained ode that sounds like the crashing sea and was constructed by JJ Burnel over the Christmas of 1977.

The black side is played to perfection, it has that build that the original recorded versions had. The unexpected high point is their take on ‘In The Shadows’ which is better than the original and that’s a tough call when you are revisiting a classic album from years ago. ‘Death And Night And Blood’ drips with the evil that it did all those years ago and if the band don’t play ‘Enough Time’ because the timing of it was so weird on the original it still doesn’t dent this exploration of ‘Black And White’. The pairing on ‘Threatened’ and ‘Curfew’ are perfect examples of the sort of darkness the band were exploring way before, let’s say, Joy Division and two great examples of the band’s groundbreaking style at the time. They both sound powerfully aggressive tonight and are great versions of two landmark songs.

The encores contain more high points with a tight rush through ‘Mean To Me’ and a great version of the never before played ‘Shut Up’ which is one minute of neo- hardcore, fast, snarling aggression. The swirling brilliance of ‘Walk On By’ closes the set with the meandering brilliance of it’s middle section as mesmerising as ever. It’s at that point, when all the instruments lock in together with their own individual runs, that the Stranglers really display their musical prowess and relative newcomer Baz Warne really shines underlining his guitar skill and his complementing skill of matching the original.

Warne has been a game changer for the band. When he joined they suddenly seemed to wake up again. Growing up in the same generation as the band’s fan base he understood what made the band special to their followers and the two albums he has been heavily involved in, ‘Norfolk Coast’ and ‘Suite 16’ were marked returns to form for the band. The second Stranglers set played on the Sunday underlines this. A mixture of tracks from these two albums including the perfect slice of Stranglers rushing melancholia of ‘Relentless’ a song that stands up to any of their older classics and sounds the best I’ve heard it tonight with the bass cranked up. There is also a tough and splintered version of the punchy and off the wall ‘Unbroken’ mixed in with sprightly takes on old classics like ‘Goodbye Toulouse’ and one of the great Stranglers songs, ‘Sometimes’ that is as snarlingly effervescent as it ever was.

The real treat, though, is the four new songs that point to the upcoming Spring album, ‘Giant’, being a potential triumph for the band. The Stranglers occupy a curious position in the scheme of things- they were always great pop song writers but also capable of twisting their music into all sorts of shapes and sizes. Even now they feel they have a chance of mixing it with the pop puppets in the charts, when, perhaps, their strongest card would be to go heavy and strange but cram that into their innate knack for pop perfection. The last two albums understood this and the new one, on the evidence of the songs played tonight, sounds like quintessential classic Stranglers from ‘Freedom Is Insane’ with it’s bubbly keyboard and it’s driving neo Raven bass line, the song is already a classic. ‘Lowlands’ sounds even better, it has some genuinely off kilter weird drumming from Jet and some heavy bass work from JJ but also a catchy chorus. ‘Giant’, the album’s title track, is slower and more moody and built around a sliding guitar and a really good vocal from JJ.

They end the night with a version of ‘Genetix’ where we stand aghast at the bass work, it really is something else and great to hear the dracula on acid vocal from Dave Greenfield again. They exit to a chugging take on ‘Raven’ and the rolling blasts of ‘No More Heroes’ before the band literally leave the building.

The convention was a marked success. Along with the two sets from the band proving that they are in rude health there was also JJ Burnel giving the fans an onstage cookery lesson, an auction, band interviews and a stunningly difficult band quiz amongst the support slots from the likes of Wilko Johnson and Mike Peters from the Alarm as well as two different acoustic sets from the Stranglers themselves where they dusted down ‘Tits’ and ‘Old Codger’ from the ‘Black And White’ sessions and played another new song called ‘You’re A Swine’ that uses food as it’s central motif and will not be on the new album but to these ears, with it’s waltz feel and darkly humorous lyrics sounds lime a potential Stranglers classic and should be on the album with added Beatles style ‘Piggies’ harpsichord from Dave and some off kilter drums from Jet to create a potential off the wall hit for the band…

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. Well Mr Robb, much impressed by your weekend performance & let’s also comment about that spectaculat performance for Goldblade – think younger outfits would struggle with some of that energy.

    You would describe me as one of the cheaters from the saturday night soiree. You are one hard nosed ref :-)

    Your words are true & accurate – no bigging up or exaggeration. That’s how it was.

    It tells me that now is the time that a few wrongs are corrected & the airbrushed past is restored showing the band in their full glory

  2. Let me start by saying i think John Robb did a great job as the compere – The Stranglers crowd and in particular a Stranglers Convention crowd are generally a surly if friendly enough bunch – I wasn’t surprised it was 97.4% Middle aged guys like myself who had forked out the quite large amount of money to attend.The band have often been probably too aggressive,misogynist and can i say muso to have a broad long-lasting female appeal, tho’ of course there were a few crackers sprinkled around.
    I’d rather be honest than not be, i am a life long fan so i have earned i believe a right to have an opinion.
    It was a well organised convention tho’ i’m sure the ageing crowd would have appreciated a lot more seats, standing around for 8 hours a day … hmm.
    Was there really no draught lager with 800 men in the room ? … Hilarious.
    The Black and White run through was a real treat and a highlight for me. I wasn’t overly impressed by the rather slow-paced choices of songs for the unplugged set – Cruel Garden and Don’t Bring Harry etc for me anyway – i always flick the Cd or needle onto the next track.
    I thought Goldblade did a good job of livening proceedings up and Wilko and Co were in fabulous form, quite possible one of the best sounds for his band i’ve heard too – glad he’s back with a Tele. I enjoyed The Polyphonic lot and enjoyed seeing JJ perform ‘Do the European’ which i seen him play during his 1979 Euroman Tour, ok he missed his cue a few times – ah well so what i say – good to hear it anyway ..
    The Auction of memorabilia, instruments and tickets was quite astounding in the prices fetched, was it £950 for flights,concert tickets and a meet and greet with the band in Paris? Well over £3000 for a JJ bass worth under £600 if it hadn’t been owned by the great man himself etc. Yes the word fanatics spring to mind. But hey it’s their money …
    The last Electric set was very good, even tho’ a few wobbles occurred, sometimes JJ seemed to be in another world staring at the back of the venue, Baz – (once again both delights and annoys me sometimes), can i 1st state that apart from Hugh i can’t think of anyone more suited for the job, he just has a manner and style that is one of somehow making pretty easy guitar licks look difficult to play, i mean his opening his mouth and making it look hard in a kind of aren’t i good manner – something JJ doesn’t feel the need to do, Baz’s Vocal delivery (Sorry Baz) whenever he deviates from the original delivery of the song is for me usually in the wrong direction feel-wise – To elucidate – say for example a ending to a line is menacing – he’ll shout it in a fake punky way that loses the dark power of the lyric – maybe it’s just me. A perfect example was Old Codger – when his delivery had none of the perfect timing and spirit that Mr.Melly brought to it. The lyrics summed up George perfectly and you really did believe he would sneak up on you with his big chuckie – Baz couldn’t even bring himself to sing that bit … ha ha. C’Mon Baz – concentrate on being more evil/nasty/sarcastic. :)
    Dave was as usual fabulous, but having heard him many times playing his massive swelling organ back in the day the digital synths/keys he plays nowadays just don’t cut it sound-wise tho’ i totally understand how difficult it would be to haul around the huge 70’s era Moogs/Hammonds etc. I do love Dave tho’ seems to be unchanged. A lovely fella.
    Jet Black is a legend – still got it tho’ clearly seemed to be not entirely enjoying the heat and lights and who can blame him at his regal age.
    JJ – well he was excellent as ever, not smiling as much as he usually does during the gigs i’ve seen him play more recently. He’s still one of the best if not thee best bass players around – even with the imperious Norman Watt Roy in the building.
    So all in all i really enjoyed it, was a delight hearing some old tracks rarely played and the newer stuff sounds good too – looking forward to checking them out more in depth real soon.
    Long live The Stranglers!

  3. Massive thanks to John Robb for compering the event and an even bigger thanks to those who organised the event. Why do we need draught lager when we have Butts Brewery – Golden Brown and Jet Black Porter on tap (Ok forgetting the fact that they ran out!!).

    Fantastic weekend. Great sets from the band and great support as well.

    Can’t wait for the new album some of the tracks sound like classics already. Still think JJ should put the acoustic track from the Japanese soundtrack onto record/cd/digital – beautiful lyrics cant remember the name.

    Thanks for asking my question about the influences, I knew Jet and Dave wouldn’t have an opinion on that one!!! Muse from Baz and Chillis from JJ yep agree with those but there are lots more, i hear stuff in the Kaiser Chiefs, Kasbians use of keyboards for example. I relistened to Meninblack , La Folie and Feline start to finish Sunday morning (having already reconsumed B&W several times the previous week) and i just can’t think of another band who have produced a body of work with such quirky , inventive melodies, off the wall rhythms (Thanks Jet as an amateur drummer i found them damn difficult to play!). Yep of course I’m biased ever since as a 13 year old I was introduced to the stranglers by some older scouts who in the best JJ/Finchley boy style threatened me into becoming a fan!! I saved up my dinner money for 2 weeks to buy the Raven and was hooked!!! Going off topic now.

    Great weekend look forward to the next one in 10 years time when Jet will be 83!! or may be I will have eventually mastered the rhythms and can stand in (that was a joke!).

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