The ultimate Stranglers interview- JJ Burnel opens up
The Stranglers on tour in March 20111…Check the dates on their official website
The Stranglers and me go back a long way.
When we grew up punk hit us like an avalanche of ideas. Many of which we already felt. There was an aesthetic and an idea that matched the way we felt about the world and there was regular procession of bands.
And there was also the Stranglers.
In the middle of an outsider music scene they were the ultimate outsiders. Quirky, weird and thrillingly aggressive. I remember hearing their first single, Grip, and it’s b side London Lady and being captivated and then Rattus came out with that intriguingly off kilter album cover- the psycho with the make up staring at the camera, the weird dude with the moustache and then ten feet behind them the impassive face staring impassively at the camera. They looked, well, oily and heavy and had that genuine aura of danger and cool that other bands were working on and they had the music to match.
The Stranglers are an enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside, well a totally unique sound.
Emerging uninvited at the dawn of punk, their highly original bass driven, aggressive sound upset the new consensus and provided a template for a generation of musicians.
Overlooked by the media the band were one part pioneers and one part huge influence on bands. They copyrighted that gnarly bass with Beefheart guitar shrapnel that the Fall get so much credit for. They invented the lead bass that Peter Hook took to Joy Division, they were toying with the dark side before Goth and were post punk before anyone else worked out how to get there. They re-invented the role of the bass guitar in rock n rill, they had a genuine aggression that so much punk talked about but so few could deliver with any authority.
They were a genuine bunch of misfits not created by a manager and they wrote great songs, lots of them.
Releasing their first three albums in an eighteen month blitzkrieg they went from punk pioneers to inventing post punk- third album Black and White preceded Joy Division and it’s obtuse darkness and angular genius was about a year ahead of the game.
Somehow this has been edited out of the music narrative because the band didn’t play the media game but the truth is the truth and the Stranglers impact cannot be denied.
33 years later they are back out on the road and still deliver onstage.
”ËI’m moving in the Coleherne with the leather all around me, And the sweat is getting steamy but their eyes are on the ground’ spits Baz Warne singing Hugh Cornwell’s claustrophobic and quite brilliant lyrics to the 33 year old Strangler classic, ”ËHanging Around’.
The atmosphere is electric, the band are in their third encore and the place is going old school mental. The Stranglers are on stage, more than three decades in and a celebration of this band that is more of a strange cult than a mere group. A religion in black with a massed rank of dedicated followers.
I travel a lot and everywhere I go I get the Stranglers conversation.
That hushed intense talk of esoteric lyric matter, suicidal career decisions, karate chopping bass ruffs and awesome songs that for several years made the band the best selling band to come out of the punk scene in the UK.
Meeting the band’s iconic bass player JJ Burnel in West London in January I asked him about the band’s lyrical weirdness and fan fascination.
”ËThere’s lot’s of nooks and crannies in the output and our way of thinking and a lot of people subscribe to it. Sometimes it’s a bit too obtuse and they want to find out more. I’m not blinkered yet and I want to stay that way, stay interested and so does Jet, for as long as possible. You suck in lots of influences and you spit them back out again in a song. And maybe an awful lot of people who like Stranglers also subscribe to that way of thinking, not the given way of thinking and remain interested in things, Surely that’s a genuine reflection of what you are and our output is a reflection of who we are.”Ë
For me, like many a bit too smart, intense misfits The Stranglers have been an important part of our lives and their covert, strange, weird and wonderful world has become a fascinating enclave in rock music.
They were the nastiest, funniest, darkest, moodiest, weirdest, glowering bunch of outsider pop stars ever and easily the sleaziest, most dangerous, most off the wall band in the whole punk rock canyon. If you were taking magic mushrooms and getting off on punk rock and living in Blackpool like I was then, they were as near as damn perfect. Punk Floyd- The music was a brutal slab of angry, snarling punk rock psychedelia served up as three minute slices of pure pop magic- every song constructed from great riffs with unexpected melodic flourishes and an intro and outro that was another great riff. Most bands manage one good riff in a song if they are lucky! the Stranglers outros had riffs in them that most bands would kill for!
Their bad attitude and dark charisma was a neat extra.
They talked and sang about aliens, karate, motorbikes, Yukio Mishima, Leon Trotsky, heroine, Nostradamus, rats, ravens and alienation.
This was no average band.
History has remembered The Clash and pushed the rest of the punk bands away; retro features now re-write the history of the punk era around the Westway wonders. But as much as anyone who grew up with punk loves The Clash, it’s a crime to see The Stranglers pushed aside. Their influence has been enormous and overlooked. They have to be re-evaluated like Lemmy and Wilko have been in recent years.
Maybe The Stranglers didn’t help themselves. They always antagonised the press and flew in the face of the curse of fashion. Their utter originality and influence has been largely ignored by the media but acknowledged by a rabidly loyal fanbase and a generation of musicians who were in thrall to this creative unit who had wilfully defied fashion to carve out their own distinctive niche with a moody, belligerent bass and keyboard driven pop that was a great mixture of melodic, snarling rock n roll and sometime beautifully baroque.
There has never been a band quite like The Stranglers.
Denied credit by the media and rock snobs they relished in their outsider status and quirky line up of a black belt karate kicking bass god, a 40 year old ex ice cream selling drummer and a moustache bearing psychedelic warlord keyboard player working with the suitably eccentric, laconic, lanky Cornwell- whose rich vocals are still one of the best signature voices in British rock n roll and were, with the Sex Pistols, the most commercially viable of all the initial punk new wave bands.
Burnel was the closest the band had to a punk rock figure but on his own terms.
How was punk for you JJ?
”ËWe had a good time of course. I’m a completely different person now to what I was then but I had a great time. I exploited my situation to the maximum. It was would be pretty sad if I was trying to be the same geezer. If anything you acquire knowledge and learn to disseminate it. You learn what to like and what to not like and how to react and not react in certain situations. You learn to negotiate with people differently, you get smarter and hopefully develop a sensibility and develop certain responsibilities towards other human beings.’
The punk era Burnel was a dangerous figure. The stories are of endless of punch ups and ”Ëincidents’. His band were a key part of the fabric of the period.
In the late seventies they soundtracked the times better than everyone else. I loved the Clash and the Pistols like anyone else did at the time but the Stranglers’ bass driven punk Floyd weirdness, aggression and sheer melodic nous hit a raw nerve like no other band.
Their inventiveness, originality and their surly attitude was perfect for my chemically stained punk upbringing. That the way the band were obviously not fashionable and existed with their own set of rules was perfect as well. The way that you could get into arguments with punk purist snobs just by owning their records made them even better!
The Stranglers were ahead of everybody musically. Their whole composite sound was perfect- four lead instruments with Jet Black’s neo jazz pounding drums, Hugh Cornwell’s idiosyncratic guitar work that hinted at Beefheart before switching to scratching, scraping Telecaster scouring and Dave Greenfield’s amazing bubbling keyboards that were such a signature sound. Meanwhile JJ Burnel invented that bass sound- dredging the bass up to lead instrument with tough sounding, gnarled bass epics that a generation learned to play bass from. You can hear echoes of his bass sound in any band that cranks the bass up.
No-one has ever got the bass as good as the sixth dan four string master- not even Steve Albini’s Shellac. And Burnel’s hunched on stage shapes with the bass- where he becomes one with the instrument- has been copped by so many other musicians- step up Peter Hook (a Stranglers acolyte incidentally).
JJ Burnel the best bass player ever?
”ËWell I’m one of them! Flea is great, I heard through a few people that he rated me. They must have listened to Black And White- Americans are very knowledgeable about music.
I also rate John Entwistle and Jack Bruce- I thought he was pretty good. I like the bass player from Muse as well, he’s ambitious, Muse are interesting, their last album sounds so much like- seriously good.’
“I don’t know if he’s brilliant but he’s good and seems like good bloke, he took his pose off Simonon.’
The Stranglers released a series of massive hit singles and tough sounding, leering albums in the late seventies that were stuffed full of songs that could also have been singles. Their melodic suss has been unrecognised by many- taking the likes of Pete Waterman to call them the most melodic British band apart from the Beatles!
Their image was bizarro- grumpy old men who could stand their ground, they were charismatic, deadly and took everybody on and won.
And they looked cool- dressed in black, like rock n roll ninja assassins come to cause trouble in the prissy corridors of pop.
They made the angriest punk albums with their debut, ”ËRattus Norvegicus’, detailing the sewer life of their underground, steaming London of the late seventies and its follow up, ”ËNo More Heroes’, perfectly capturing the juvenile outrage of punk. In 1978 they swerved into a sort of avante garde and invented post punk a full year before Joy Division on their stark and bass heavy ”ËBlack and White’ (which features the best bass sound ever!). They then came on all weird-punk-prog-pop with ”ËThe Raven’ before going really bizarre on their aliens come to earth epic, Meninblack.
It was the two punk era albums, Rattus and No More Heroes that set the band up.
”ËHeroes and Rattus were recorded at almost the same time. There was a definite weeding process going on.’
Heroes was more upbeat and shinier and Rattus was darker and more melancholic?
”ËI don’t know if that was intentional. I never thought about that. No More Heroes was not written till that summer. I got that riff that summer, and Something Better Change as well, both songs were reactions to punk in the summer of ’77.’
For Burnel life has been built around his passions.
”ËMotorcycling, martial arts, karate and the Stranglers are what my life is about. I call it my 5 passions – The 5 Ms which I developed as a teenager – motorcycling, martial arts, music, marijuana, and masturbation. (chuckles)’
JJ Burnel is in full flow. The charismatic bass player who reinvented the instrument in the punk era and is still touring with the band for another series of sell out shows round the world is still a dangerous individual. Only these days he’s letting his mind be the weapon and not his fists.
The Stranglers were a bunch of charismatic, toxic, amorphous individuals and totally unique. No other band comes close to this eccentric outfit whose brilliant records are just part of a story that involves karate, violence, riots, lots of drugs, prison, arcane philosophy, bizarre lyrics, sex and a f@@@ing great soundtrack for anyone who was broad minded enough not to believe everything that they read.
”ËRecently someone I knew from twenty years ago died. On the day of the funeral I was meant to be rehearsing with the Stranglers and I was confused. Should I go to the funeral or shouldn’t I? I hadn’t been in touch for 20 years with the person and I had to think what’s got priority, the Stranglers or the funeral?
So I decided to rehearse.
On their last album, ”ËSuite 16′, the Stranglers band and particularly Jean Jacques Burnel. Nearly 40 years in, the band is as misunderstood, provocative, awkward, belligerently difficult and yet brilliantly original as ever.
No one ever seems to know what to do with the Stranglers. They were the outsiders of the outsider generation- the real, raw deal in the partly manufactured punk scene. They had the aggression and imagination with their tripped out, Beefheart influenced, twisted songs that were also brilliant pop epics and tough bass driven vignettes to the chaos of the late seventies.
They were intellectuals who played dumb when it suited them, tough guy punks with a 40-year-old drummer who were the biggest selling band of the punk generation.
The detractors claim that the Stranglers were bandwagoneers unlike the Clash who had also had their own pre punk history, it’s a mistruth that need to be addressed. JJ nods.
‘ 36 years on and we still feel inspired. I need to play. I need to express myself. It’s very basic. It’s probably the challenge to me to try and prove the Stranglers are the greatest band this country has ever produced and people will only realise this when I’m dead.’
The Stranglers have never got the full respect they deserve. Locked out of the punk inner circle and never press darlings the band have influenced countless musicians and are still loved by a fervent, black clad, fan base who treat the band like some sort of amorphous religion. It’s a respect that goes two ways.
”ËNot so much emotional but you have a duty to care. People pay good money to see you and you don’t want to f@@@ them up. When we started, for two years we didn’t have any fans, so when they turned up we nurtured them. The first bloke that walked down the stairs at the Hope and Anchor we gave him a beer and played our set to him . If you have success suddenly from nowhere maybe you haven’t had that apprenticeship, to know what it means, to know what it’s like to have no audience. If you haven’t had it hard you take it for granted. It must be demoralising having ten people instead of 500 at your gigs and you appreciate it that these people actually come to see you- it’s a bond.”Ë
It’s also a bond that has also never been with the press. It’s a process the band started themselves with their aggression towards the media and their falling out with the punk in crowd at the ‘Dingwalls incident’ in 1976. An incident where Burnel single-handedly took and the Clash and the Pistols on in a punch up that typified his combative stance at the time- a stance backed up by his own black belt karate hands. The 1976 punch up at Dingwalls which saw the Stranglers, or more specifically Burnel, take on the Pistols and the Clash in a street brawl (although the normally placid Dave Greenfield held Johnny Rotten by his throat up to the side of Jet Black’s ice cream van which was the band’s mode of transport to gigs).
Following that the Stranglers were excised from the punk story- a process that continues in the media to this day. It was the great schism and a Stalinist revision that hurts.
”ËWe were as punk as the Clash. They were just wussies and still are (laughs) and we are not.
Them and the Pistols were like the Monkees. They were put together by their managers and controlled by their managers and we were quite definitely not. Joe Strummer was always lovely and sweet to me. Steve and Paul from the Pistols were great, also and you might disagree the Pistols and the Clash were no better than Take That (laughs). They were fabricated music, they were exciting of course, there is no question of that but the Stranglers were organic. I mean you would not fabricate a bloke who was 15 years older than the rest of the band, Dave is well, Dave, and Hugh, you can’t invent someone like that and also a frog immigrant with a chip on his shoulder- who is a psychopath, educated and plays classical music- you don’t fabricate bands like that. You just can’t.’
The band had no traditional frontman.
”ËThere were two front people- Hugh and I had a bit of ascendancy because we sang most of the songs.’
Was there a sense of how weird you were as a band.
”ËNo not atall but now when I look back on it I do realize. When I see how homogenised bands are and fabricated with a certain image in mind with no rough edges and everything fits, everything makes sense then I realize but no matter how different we were we were a band.’
You looked like a band.
”ËWe were. There will never be another band like the Stranglers, We were not fabricated”Â¦’
The misfit band arrived at the dawn of punk and quickly built up a rabid fanbase. They also quickly fell out with the punk in crowd after that Dingwalls stand off when Burnel thought that Paul Simonon had spat at him. The two iconic bass players hadn’t spoken to eachother since that fateful night but a few months ago there was meeting.
”ËI bumped into him a few months ago and we shook hands after thirty years. I was with my first born on back of my bike. At the traffic lights I stopped and looked over just by Baker St and there was a nice triumph Bonneville next to me and a bloke with open face helmet. I had full-face helmet so he couldn’t see me. At the next lights I thought I know who f@@@ that is and lift up my visor and said, ”Ëare you Paul?’ and he said, ”Ëyeah’ and he said ”Ënice bike’ and I said ”Ëpleased to see you riding with a Triumph’ and we chatted about motorbikes.’
Maybe you can be punk elite club now!
”ËNo. I don’t want to be in that. Dingwalls f@@@ed it, it polarized opinion- it was the night after we were the British band that got to play with the Ramones and that kicked it all off with the press on the side of the Clash and the Pistols and that did it for us.’
The Stranglers were cast as the punk rock outsiders whilst being loved on the street and it’s only in the last few years that there has been a noticeable thaw in relations with the band appearing at Glastonbury and their last two albums getting great reviews.
At 58, Burnel has mellowed out but still retains the deadly aura of a six dan black belt. Affable, polite and highly intelligent, he is great company for an afternoon but there is still that hint of danger about him.
What’s going on with the band?
‘There are three things. We are preparing a new album that will come out in 2012. We’re preparing a set for the spring tour with songs that we have never played before and we are preparing an acoustic set because we will be doing acoustic shows in Belgium and Holland this year. I love to do the acoustic shows. We do them in small theatres and it gives a great feel to proceedings, far more intimate.’
Burnel was a classically trained guitar player before picking up the bass in the Stranglers, it was this background that gave the band’s songs those wonderful, dexterous, signature bass runs that became the band’s signature.
The March tour will see new songs from the band as they prepare their seventeenth album. It will be interesting to see where the band goes. Their first six albums are perfect classics, each one completely different from the one before but full of highly original distinctive music.
Their later period of the original line up, whilst still capable of great moments, was about diminishing returns and when guitarist and vocalist Hugh Cornwell left in 1990 there was another handful of albums that never thrilled as much as their initial output.
But with new guitarist Baz Warne joining nearly ten years ago they fiercely returned to form with the Norfolk Coast album- with the title track being acknowledged as one of the classic songs of their canyon, follow up Suite 16 continued the good work.
The next album could go anywhere.
”ËThere is nothing really formulated yet. We have a lot of bits and pieces. I have about 10 pieces and Baz has a few. I have not one written on the bass yet but I will have a session writing stuff on the bass. The bass drives a lot of the Stranglers songs, I get melodies on the bass, it’s one of the keys to the sound. John Entwistle’s bass didn’t drive the band in the Who but he was a f@@@king great bass player.
I have written this ten minute epic, it’s got lots of bits and pieces and I’ve been adding more bits and pieces to it all the time, I need to take a rain check on it.’
JJ pauses, adding.
”ËOne song has developed into a tango- a metallic tango, not heavy metal though, the Stranglers are not heavy metal even if they tried! We have some different angles on stuff, even if it’s just a love song really..’
Burnel says ”Ëlove song’ in a different kind of way than a normal musician would. This is a band that once did an album of love songs called La Folie that were about cannibalism, nuns who wanted to f@@k as well as tramps and death.
”ËWell the tango is meant to be sexy , the dance to the Argentinean tango is sexy as f@@@.’
The interview with JJ was over shadowed by the death the day before of the genius Captain Beefheart who was a key influence on the band.
‘Beefheart was hugely influential on the Stranglers and no one has ever realised that. One of our earlier songs, Peasant In The Big Shitty, is in 9/4 time. The Down In The Sewer riff is from Beefheart and loads of other stuff-= like on In The Shadows’ where we both tried to emulate Beefheart’s Howling Wolf voice. You can tell Hugh’s voice more than mine because mine is out of its register!’
Burnel was a classically trained guitar player who ended up in a band by mistake. Saving up to go to Japan to became a black belt in karate he was working as a van driver. One day gave a lift to a hairy youth standing at the roadside near Guildford.
‘My father forced me to be a musician and to play the guitar. A musician is one thing- everyone can be a musician if they play an instrument but to be in a band is different. It was a complete accident, I stopped to give a hitchhiker a lift. I wanted to go to Japan and get a black belt and got side tracked and delayed by a few years. I gave a lift to the hitchhiker and he was in a band called Wonderlust which was Hugh and Jet’s band at the time. Hugh had just come over from Sweden with the band. I dropped the hitch hiker off and must have been introduced to the rest of the band because about three weeks later Hugh came knocking at my bedsit door looking very down, the band had f@@@ed off and gone back to Sweden leaving him living at Jets and with no band.’
The lanky and eccentric Hugh Cornwell, looking like a psychotic geography on acid and the big and burly off license owning, ice cream van driving Jet Black must made an unlikely looking duo!
”ËWell it looked even more unlikely when I joined!
I had a shaved head in those days. No-one else did unless they were a skinhead, squadie or a police man and people thought I must be a cop because of the Doc Martens I wore- because no on else really wore them then. I had my karate crop- everyone else had very long hair in 1974. unless you were the Mahavishnu, Jon McLaughlin, who I rated immensely at the time incidentally. He played with Miles Davies who we were really into as well. He had a track John McLaughlin on Bitches Brew were we nicked the riff from for one of our own songs, (Burnel sings and its Bring On The Nubiles and laughs). We took it to a different place which is the beauty of music.’
The Stranglers were certainly stretching the creative influences a lot further than the Stooges/Dolls/Bowie template of their contemporaries.
”ËWe nicked from all over the place but when it goes through your hands it comes out a different colour.’
For a couple of years the band toured around anywhere that would have them. Adding Dave Greenfield on keyboards they started to hone down that classic sound whilst being roundly ignored at the best and treated with hostility on a regular basis as they played the pre punk pub circuit. It was an hostility that Burnel, with his psychotic temperament and his karate training, was more than happy to sort out.
”ËThere was blood every night for a period of eighteen months. If there was no blood it was not a proper gig which was a weird mindset for a period. If something happened I refused to let it go. When we played bigger gigs when we made it I refused to allow bouncers to get involved. We sorted it out for ourselves. The violence turned a lot of people off- I don’t want to go to a gig where it kicks off!
If you instigate you got to control it. What I found really shitty was some bands try to act tough and instigate physical confrontation and as soon as it kicks off they hide behind bouncers and walk offstage.’
It was only when punk started to accelerate in 1976 that the Stranglers found, if not a very willing punk hierarchy and attendant press, but an audience of similar outsiders who instantly recognized their zero bullshit quotient, great tunes and dark charisma.
”ËIf the Woodstock generation and west cost music was primarily American then punk was primarily British and we were very much part of that. The other bands came to see us. We were part of a long tradition of bands, though, that were a bit arty and a bit aggressive. Punk had limitations- four piece bands- punk was defined quite a lot by instrumentation and for some reason it was considered quite uncool to have a keyboard.’
Punk made a big noise about having no rules but was riven with the damn things and the Stranglers quickly found themselves on the outside of the ‘movement’. But their eccentric creativity saw them as the biggest commercial success of the first wave of punk regularly hitting the top ten whilst the Clash struggled to get into the top 40. The Stranglers may have been brilliantly bizarre misfits but they had a dark charisma, smoldering anger and a knack for writing great songs that captured the real spirit of the times. The fact that no-one knew what they were was all the better.
‘The Stranglers were a prog. band, a rockabilly band, a punk band, a west coast band, a psychedelic band, an arty band or we were just the Stranglers. In the long term it’s been a good thing that no-one could box us in. Most people are into music in not a tribal way, unless they got into music with a certain fashion. Surely you take elements from everywhere you come from unless you came in from the moment which we never did really.’
Burnel knows what he wants.
”ËI don’t want acceptance I want respect. Musical and artistic respect. Respect it something that you want from your peer group journalists or punters or bands. I want people to respect the Stranglers and not deride them like in the past. If you say the Stranglers fans treat the band like a religion well I treat the band like a religion as well.’
The band were massive in 1977. Their debut album Rattus Norvegicus was in the top ten for six months, the follow up albums were huge and loads of hit singles.
”ËAt one point we were the biggest selling band in the UK, bigger than the Clash and the Pistols. Those bands did the smart thing- like the Police and a few other bands like Flock Of Seagulls, all these bands decided to go round America until you break it. The Clash started wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, but we could never sound American. We had American influences, I mean one big influence was the Doors of course- a blues band with an edge but we were very much a British band and America didn’t suit us. I’d love to ask Ray Manzarek what he thought of Dave Greenfield. For me Dave is a much better keyboard player (laughs), no! Ray is a great player, he would play the bass keyboard lines at the same time.”Ë
The Stranglers had a great sound. Working with producer Martin Rushent who was also one of the key punk producers, from the Stranglers he went on to work with Generation X and Buzzcocks before moving on to Human League, the engineer was Alan Winstanley who is still one of the key sound sculptors in the UK.
”ËWe instructed Martin to Alan, we did our first demos with Alan so when we wanted to do our album in same place as the demos in Fulham.’
The band’s first demos were actually at Foel studios in Llanfair Caerneinion near Welshpool in north Wales in 1975.
”ËI remember we want there. I remember Ian Gomm owned the studio. He was in Brinsley Shwarz. We recorded Down In The Sewer, Go Buddy Go, Bitching I think. We hadn’t added the ending to Sewer. It hadn’t been written at that time- we kept sticking little bits on the songs.’
The demos paved the way for the band. They were startlingly original and the band progressed quickly. It was a progression that went unnoticed in the press.
How come the Stranglers were so underrated?
”ËI think probably politically we f@@@ed it up. We made so many enemies we screwed up a lot of people.’
They missed your sense of humour.
”ËI thought it was funny! Maybe people didn’t have the same sense of humour!’
And there was the sexist tag the band got stuck with.
”ËI never got the sexist thing nor did any of our girlfriends. People had a strange lack of a sense of humour. The first time I encountered political correctness was when Peaches had been banned by the right on Rough Trade shop because they thought it was disgusting. All these wankers take things literally. They didn’t know we were smarter than any of them and not one dimensional. We hit a few nerves. We covered so many points. It reflects more on the people who were offended by the Stranglers.’
Some people like to be offended.
”ËIt was easy then and we played up to it. The fuss was pretty pathetic and eventually pretty detrimental to the band’s career.’
What do you think look back?
”ËObviously I was at an age with lot of issues and the success helped get those issues out in the open. Sometimes that is good and that’s why we still talking here after thirty odd years. I still think that the Stranglers are a viable band.’
The Stranglers had this dangerous image.
”ËBut we were adorable but don’t push us. We couldn’t be dictated to unlike the Clash and the Pistols- the boy bands of their times- the fabricated bands.’
The band also made intense weird music that matched this dangerous image. Their 1978 hit single, Five Minutes, could be arguably the most mentally powerful hit of all time.
”ËWhat’s mental about about that!’ wonders an offended JJ, adding, ”ËI see it as a pop single.’
No-one ever had hits that sounded like that, even the Stranglers don’t sound like that any more.
”ËWell I hope not. You can’t stay in the same place. You have to move on. Especially if you are successful then you have to move on. There is so much to write about. If you have an opinion you express it the best way possible and through songs. Loads of different things to write about still- like on the new songs- there are references to Sharon on life support, stuff about Alexander the Great and poor old Socrates drinking all the Hemlock because he was perverting young men but he wasn’t really- he was just shagging them! I think before we wrote these songs we just re-read our charter which states that it is our duty is to inform the British public of these things or is that the BBC’s job!
I’ve written lot of lyrics we haven’t made final selection yet. Even if we play a few new songs on tour they might not get on to the album which will be good for bootleggers and these days if you play a gig at 10 it’s online at 2 in the morning!’
The band’s early days were dominated by extremes. Extremes in ideas and attitude and in drugs, after the initial acid phase they switched to heroin.
When Hugh and you got to heroin in 1978/79 did it change you as people.
”ËThat’s what we did it for. The whole band was meant to take heroin for whole year and see what we would produce at then end of it. Jet and Dave were smart and they got off after a couple of weeks whilst Hugh and I got into it for whole year and it wasn’t that easy giving up but we did eventually. Heroin anaesthetizes you. It desensitizes you so you become less considerate towards other people and a lot more introverted because the only thing that is important is more heroin. Your world becomes smaller and smaller instead of bigger and broader. Once you give up heroin and you are out of that world you become bigger again. On it and all you care about is you and your own selfish little needs and you start losing the ability to love and feel for other people. Raven and Meninblack were the heroin albums.’
Before heroin, acid had been the key drug in their canyon.
”ËIn the early years, when we had a day or evening off we took acid recreationally. I remember one Bonfire Night with indoor fireworks and I was taking acid- eventually I hid in a telephone kiosk and these kids were trying to get in with their mother and that became the inspiration for the song ‘Peasant in the Big Shitty’. I was stuck in this old red telephone box and this kid and mother were waiting impatiently and I just there tripping and looking at this kid pushing at the glass and the lyrics tell the story ”Ëevery digit at my face, whose the man with the smile mom, do you like it like that, the cows go moo, is everything alright’ because when you hear these sounds on acid they stretch out. You hear weird sounds and people’s faces look weird. There were a few other Stranglers psychedelic songs that were written on acid at the time as well.’
Do you do drugs now?
”ËI don’t smoke any more, or very rarely because it doesn’t really work anymore. I have very fond memories of getting very stoned. I’ve done it, I’ve been there. Acid? I don’t think tripping all your life would be that positive! I stopped a long time ago. I can’t remember the last time I tripped. It was about thirty years ago and I used to ride my motorcycle tripping which is pretty weird. Mind you in Surrey when I was growing up we would not think twice about driving around a pub crawl really drunk. It’s amazing- would anyone consider dong that now? I still feel invincible and I would take a trip and ride my motorcycle in that early Stranglers period.’
The Stranglers were no holds barred and there are lots of stories about their adventures. There were no boundaries. In the punk period JJ explored everything including his sexuality. A few years ago Steve Strange claimed to have a fling with JJ. Any truth in that story?
”ËI shagged the arse of him literally and it was great from what I remember. I didn’t make a habit of it. But it was there so I took it. He told me he was from Wales so I thought that’s fine and I put my wellies on and away you go.
Well you know, at the time, and I speak for myself, if it had a pulse I shagged it, it’s as simple as that and I’m definitely sure he had a pulse and was offering so I took advantage of it. I can’t remember much about it. I thought it was pleasant at the time. Don’t knock it till you have tried it is what I have always said!’
Were the rest of the band exploring or heterosexual?
”ËI can’t speak for them rest of the band. I think if the fans of the Stranglers find it a problem then they are not listening to the right band. I think most people are pretty cool about all that stuff. Tough shit if not. You have got to be true to yourself- that’s the bottom line.’
Even though he is one of the few rock stars who is genuinely hard and back it up with his black belt and oozes a casual machismo there is also a graceful femininity about JJ when he prowls the stage.
”ËAbsolutely. I’m in touch with my feminine side, (laughs) I don’t have problem with it.’
Any regrets from the more fist friendly days?
”ËPeople say you should never regret anything but there was one kid whose lights I punched out during the No More Heroes tour. At that time we refused to sign autographs and one kid insisted over and over backstage. We would always let people backstage and hang out and he kept on insisting on an autograph and I went boff and punched him and I felt that was maybe was a bit unnecessary. At that time I was on a short fuse and drugs- maybe speeding.
I also regret hurting my girlfriend at the time, Tracy. The song, The Man They Loved To Hate is about her. We all regret being cunts to people in the cold light of day. Otherwise commercial or artistic regrets? No, none atall. I’m blowing my own trumpet now but what other band has got such a discography as the Stranglers with its range. From Rattus to La Folie to Raven to Meninblack those first six albums’
Those initial six albums (and JJ’s brilliant solo debut album, ”ËEuroman’ which, again was ahead of its time) really stand the test of time. There is a wealth of brilliant ideas in there for young bands to discover. Tight, economical, imaginative playing, Songs that have intros and intros that are good enough to make into tunes of their own, great choruses and really exciting tough playing.
After that the band was not pulling in the same direction.
”ËHugh wanted success in America at all costs and we did have some big success later on. Always The Sun is one of the most commercial songs we ever had. It was a massive hit. It was as big as Golden Brown worldwide- Skin Deep was our biggest song in America. In the later period of the band, though, there was more tension. We were moving apart. I had song with that line ”ËJesus Christ was a Jewish Boy’ and Hugh said you can’t sing that and I said why not”Â and he said the American record company is run by Jewish people and I said it’s not offensive and we argued about Constantine declaring Rome Christian in 323 .’
No normal band. It’s hard to imagine Oasis having that debate!
”ËThe demos for Ten are much better than the album, most of it was done at my house and then we went to a fancy studio with a big producer- which was done for America and we didn’t need to. It could have been done at in my house and sounded better.’
What caused the tension with Hugh?
”ËI don’t know. He felt artistically that we could not go any further and he had a few chances to do something else and he saw his chances. He did some good acting and he thought that was the way forward for him. When he left the rest of us though it was a complete and utter betrayal, especially when we found out the other stuff- the songs he was writing with other people. By then he had his own lawyer and his own manager, his own stylist.’
Do you miss him atall?
”ËI missed him a lot for a long time but that’s gone now. He was older than me so I looked up to him. He did teach me quite a few things but he started resenting the fact that I was pulling my own weight and writing contentious songs and also my solo album did so much better than his- I’m not sure if it was better than his but it sold tons more than ‘Nosferatu”
If Hugh rang up would you take the call?
”ËYeah, of course, unlike like what he did to me when he slammed the phone down when I rang him a few years ago. I don’t think it’s the best way though, at least you know where you stand. We know Hugh can’t believe how successful we are without him. It must hurt every day to be reminded of that. He gets really defensive about it and says he is really pleased the Stranglers are still going which means more royalties for him. Which is bit of a giveaway to me.’
When Hugh Cornwell left the band in 1990 it looked like the end of the band. Afterall the power of the Stranglers was the way these disparate individuals had merged and Hugh Cornwell was a supremely talented, one off individual. But the rest of the band, probably driven on by the forceful Jet Black and relentless as ever, continued. It’s safe to say that relations between the two camps are not that close, JJ is not that impressed with Hugh’s recent, pretty good, Hooverdam album.
”ËI heard the album and I think he’s lacking me. He’s missing my quirky ideas for melodies. He was quirky with me and can be still a bit quirky but he doesn’t go off at tangents.’
Despite the harsh words from JJ you can still sense the respect and even a degree of warmth beneath the surface for his former colleague. The pair of them worked together for 17 years and were melded by being on the outside.
Nowadays you can sense the disappointment of the loss of a good friend that still stings mixed with an anger that a tightly bonded unit like this feels when someone leaves.
Initially the Hugh-less Stranglers couldn’t quite hit the peaks of their early incarnation, still brilliant live the band, now fronted by vocalist Paul Roberts, were looking for the knock out punch in the following albums. Initial Hugh replacement guitarist and ex Vibrator Jon Ellis eventually left the band a few years later and Baz Warne joined. The band released Norfolk Coast in 2004 and were back on track. They had rediscovered their dark and menacing mojo and on the title track had a song the equal of their early classics.
One album later Paul Roberts was out and Baz was taking over the vocals and suddenly it all made sense again. Baz Warne had the surly appeal required by the Stranglers and is a great guitar player. His addition to the band changed everything. Again breaking the rules the Stranglers are getting better as they get older.
”ËYeah Baz joining the band and going back as a four piece has made everything work again. When Baz joined when we were five it made an instant difference. Before that I nearly left the band. Jon (Ellis) almost killed my enthusiasm for the band completely. For a lot of reasons he became bitter. He wanted to take control of the band because no one else was. Everyone was losing interest. Different people were on different wave lengths- you are in a band, you know what it’s like. Sometimes you get into conflict. I was on a different wavelength to Jon and Paul and you have to change it and carry on. Someone has to go and it has to be them and not me.’
Just before Paul Roberts left the first album with Baz, the aforementioned Norfolk Coast saw the band back at their best with brooding, stormy songs and the return of the bass to the front of the sound and tight, tough economical songs with punchy choruses.
It was their best selling album for years and a return to what fans perceive as the classic Stranglers sound.
”ËWe have quite a few different things, it’s a broad canvas. I don’t want to do an album of one-dimensional songs. We are not a one-dimensional band. On that album there was a Django Rheinhart style song, Santfa Kuss. I like listening to that sort of stuff so why can’t I write something similar and be inspired by different things? The Stranglers is what it is- we are not only about Death and Night and Blood and wearing black. I think the Stranglers is a marketing mans nightmare!’
And yet people still try and get the original line up to reform, to go backwards when the band tries to move forwards.
”ËPeople are always trying to get the old line up of the Stranglers back together again. I hate it when people do that and try to get Hugh back, the Stranglers are fine as they are.’
The March tour with its promise of new songs and some surprise old songs is eagerly awaited. The band can still deliver live. This time they are going to have to be on their toes. Support comes from an old comrade in arms and someone who has finally been receiving the recognition he deserves, Wilko Johnson.
”ËYessir! I gave him an award at the Mojo awards last year. It was lovely to seem him again after all this time. ”ËOil City Confidential’ is a great documentary. He’s fantastic in that. It’s a great movie. It was so lovely to meet up with him. I’d not seen him for ten years. He plays on Euroman on Pretty Face. He was big fan of Mick Green from the Pirates that was his inspiration. I saw the Pirates when they reformed at the Nashville during the punk era. Great band. Wilko was another mentor to me at the time, like Hugh was- they were a bit more experienced, a bit older. Wilko is very bright. He was a poet- he did a degree in English. Lovely and so natural and I’m so pleased he’s doing the tour. I feel I’m paying him back for something. It’s the biggest tour he’s done for a while. We discovered him when Hugh and I saw Dr. Feelgood in Guildford before they made it and it reminded us what rock n roll was about- not many pedals and a rawness and attitude. Baz tells me an amazing story of when he saw Wilko playing with the Solid Senders. Wilko breaks an E string during a song and whilst he’s still playing he took out a string from his back pocket like Puccini, and pulls the string out of the bag and then strings up and tunes up- ding- ding- ding and still playing carries on with the song.’
You shared a flat with him as well.
”ËThere were three rooms in the flat Wilko, me and Sue who worked for Pistols lived there and because I was occasionally busy or away- Steve Strange and Billy Idol shared a very single bed there a lot of the time. I still knew Steve from the night of passion with him bit it wasn’t my scene. He was there hanging out with with Billy a lot of the time. Billy had his band going. And then Sue got raped and it was just five minutes from the richest street in London and that was what I wrote Five Minutes about.’
Dealing with your anger?
”ËYeah, and after the rape we decided to move that September. The flat was tainted and we all went our separate ways and Lemmy from Motorhead took over the flat. He’s a lovely bloke.’
The 2011 JJ Burnel is far removed from the wildman of the punk era but there is still that hint of danger about him.
”ËI can still turn. I’m very laid back these days and I can take a lot more but there is still something there and after that it’s their problem.
But I hope not. I’m meant to be in control. I worked hard to get sixth dan. I got that in Japan. And I am getting older. I don’t know which one has the bearing on the other. The rough edges are smoothed out as you get older you get much greater tolerance.’
And the band? How long can it continue?
”ËI’m bothered about quality control. It’s important for me and I always think that at some point it will all end. I’m always thinking the next album could be the last one. I always feel it could end.’
As he approaches 60 he has come to terms with himself and his age.
”ËWell of course, I’m 58 now, I keep saying I am 60 now! I don’t give a f@@@ about age- as long as I function properly and I can walk, kick arse and still get a hard on and enjoy my food and get enthusiastic about things. I would hate to descend into getting jaded and world weary. Before Baz joined we had lost direction and I had lost complete confidence in the band. There was a couple of elements not pulling in the same direction in the band and Dave nearly left the band as well.’
It’s got to be time for his Autobiography. Afterall Hugh wrote his.
”ËI read his in Japan last year, some Japanese fans leant it to me. I read in few hours and there was not much in it. It seemed dishonest and name dropping. There was nothing meaty in there. It was odd. He’s good with words and I was expecting more, there was no philosophy.’
Your turn then?
”ËI’m still on the first chapter. Song by Song was better than Hugh’s autobiography which was almost been like it had been censored and sterile.’
Censored and sterile were two things the Stranglers never were. This most curious of bands, who existed with no-ones permission, have become one of those great weirdly eccentric English institutions and remain fiercely popular. The tour will sell out and their convention in November will be as quirky and off the wall as the bands music. The celebration of black- as the hordes re-emerge for the band’s triumphant waltz in black round the UK will be another night of musical imagination and great tough pop songs.
The new album may emerge this year and Burnel will also concentrate on his 5 M’s- his karate is now almost at a peak- he is sixth Dan black belt at Shidokan and also sixth dan black belt as bass.
Flying straight with perfection the Stranglers seem to suit this ageing process and their relentless spirit is one in the eye for those who attempt to re-write our popular culture history.