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Interview: The Stranglers

PUBLISHED: 09:33 14 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 29 October 2010

Rob Garratt

More than three decades into their career The Stranglers are easily the longest-surviving punk band to have come out of the 1970s, shifting more than 30 million records along the way - one of which was inspired by Norfolk. ROB GARRATT speaks to founding member JJ Burnel.

Further listening: The Stranglers

More than three decades into their career The Stranglers are easily the longest-surviving punk band to have come out of the 1970s, shifting more than 30 million records along the way - one of which was inspired by Norfolk. ROB GARRATT talked to founding member JJ Burnel.

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Norfolk must be a very dear place to The Stranglers.

After shifting millions of records throughout the 70s and 80s, the iconic rockers were all but forgotten and left for dead by the turn of millennium.

Just over a decade ago bassist and driving force Jean-Jacques Burnel was living in the secluded Norfolk village of Holmes-next-the-Sea when the tiny parish was thrown into the national limelight.

The discovery of the 4000-year-old Seahenge - a mystical bronze-era monument made up of fifty-five oak trunks circling a larger, upturned oak - inspired the rocker to write a whole album of new tunes.

2004's Norfolk Coast went on to become one of group's best acclaimed and biggest selling records, reasserting their place on the contemporary music scene. Its cover featured the band posing on Hunstanton beach.

They repaid the favour by headlining the county's largest free festival that year, Kings Lynn's Festival Too - the only free gig on their summer tour - and were back in the county a year later filming a movie inspired by the album.

Today Burnel talks of the record with the glazed inflexions of someone going over the band's surprise resuscitation for the umpteenth time.

“I was there when they found Seahenge,” he retraces. “I was living about 400 yards from it - it was quite an inspiration.

“I just wrote a body of work which we used in the Norfolk Coast album and appeared in movies and stuff.

“I had an amazing time there and consequently the album that came out was really well received worldwide.

“It was inspired by the beauty of that coastline, and the seclusion, and what was going on in my head at that time.”

Since Norfolk Coast the band's fortunes have continued to grow, with its 2006 follow-up Suite XVI keeping up the critical and commercial momentum.

Last year the punk veterans were enlisted for a string of high-profile festivals including T in the Park, V Festival, Isle of Wight, Hyde Park and Oxygen - on top of a 25-date sell-out tour.

“Everybody wanted to book The Stranglers last year,” reasons Burnel stoically. “It's just how things work.

“We were up for it - some years you're really not up for it and just want to stay home in the studio.”

Talking to me from his home “by the river” in Chiswick, the 57-year-old had the nonchalant air you would expect from someone integral to so many hit records; equal parts glazed arrogance and forced antipathy.

The reason for our chat is The Stranglers appearance at Blickling Hall on July 17. Despite his few-month in the county, he admits it will be his first visit to the 17th century stately home.

On a tour that also sees the stars playing major festivals in France, Sweden, Holland, Greece and Portugal, why then are they coming back to Norfolk?

“Well it was offered to us,” he said. “We get offered quite a lot of shows and weigh up if the money's right and if we can do it.

“We had the weekend free so we thought why not.”

One can only assume the money at Blicking Hall was “right” for a band a have knocked up more than 40 chart hits over four different decades, a fact JJ is keen to remind me of.

But he sees nothing puzzling about the band's pairing with safe 80s rockers Simple Minds, whose commercial fair such as hits Don't You (Forget About Me) saw the band notch up multi-platinum record sales in the mid-80s.

“Last year we played with Amy Winehouse, and lots of other acts, such a variety,” says Burnel, a known Karate pro and motorbike enthusiast.

“Music fans are being more open-minded now - unless you have a punk festival or a Goth festival. Just look at what happened in Glastonbury this year.”

Typically a health-check of the modern music scene, this year's festival line-up included legendary headliners Neil Young (63), Bruce Springsteen (59), and Sir Tom Jones (69).

Are The Stranglers noticing a newfound appreciation for more established artists?

“We're getting a lot of young people coming to our shows as well as the older generation now,” says Burnel, who will be celebrating his 58th birthday early next year

“A lot of younger people are a bit cynical of bands their own age. It's because we've lasted the test of time, there's a certain credibility to what we're doing.

“We've probably had more hits than most people, and somewhere some of those songs must have stuck.”

But he refused to offer any hint about what hits, hidden gems, or new material their Blickling set might offer.

“It's a surprise,” he told me dryly. “We've had 42 Top 40s, I don't known how many Top 10 albums, we've sold 30 million records - so we've got quite a lot of material to choose from.”

In forty years the band had some killer hits - Golden Brown and Peaches among them - and inevitably some misses and outright flops.

“I'd like to think that every album has been commercially and critically acclaimed,” defends Burnel.

“Maybe some of them just hit. Maybe they were better than the others. Maybe they hit a nerve.

“Sometimes they just hit the zeitgeist, sometimes it's none of those.”

This summer's tour also sees them return to their roots at Guildfest, back in the Surrey town where in 1974 they gathered in an off licence to christen themselves the Guildford Stranglers.

Soon after they ditched lingering post-60s psychedelic tendencies to become a lynchpin of the burgeoning punk scene, their edgy sound credited with inspiring other larger bands around them.

“Joe Strummer from The Clash, Chrissie Hynde [lead singer of The Pretenders], they were all checking us out before they came up with their sound,” remembers Burnel.

They scored their first hits in 1977 with Something Better Change, No More Heroes, and the ecstatic strut of Peaches - a rampant, chauvinistic celebration of observing semi-naked women with the refrain “walking down the beaches looking at the peaches.”

But the bad-mannered yobs not only survived but outlived the limited shackles of punk, going on to make the political heavy The Raven at the turn of the decade, a record that dealt with themes from genetic engineering to the state of Iran.

It's follow up The Gospel According to The Meninblack was a concept album exploring the connection between religious phenomena and extraterrestrial visitors.

It was their next album though, 1981's La Folie, that contained their biggest hit to date - Golden Brown, a delicate harpsichord-lead ode to heroin.

The band's success continued throughout the 80s until lead singer Hugh Cornell flew the nest, notoriously calling the band a spent force.

“We've been written off so many times by record companies and critics alike,” spits Burnel. “Now we're still here when many bands aren't.

“I don't know what contributed to that. It's fighting, and believing that everything isn't created for commercial reasons.

“Commercial success is a by-product of what you do and what you love.”

But like every aging rock band, The Stranglers are inevitably facing up to a very finite shelf-like, with drummer Jet Black now in his 70th year.

“Normally you would think there was a shelf life,” he admits. “But with our music and our writing there doesn't seem to be.

“We'll go on until the inspiration disappears.”

“How long can I physically last? God knows.”

t The Stranglers will support Simple Minds at Blickling Hall on July 17, tickets £37.50, 0871 424 4444, www.ticketline.co.uk

Further listening: The Stranglers

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