‘Everyone now plays it safe’: The Stranglers still on the edge 40 years on
PUBLISHED: 11:27 15 March 2018
Punk survivors The Stranglers have been on the road for more than four decades. As yet another UK tour brings them to Norwich, JJ Burnel talks about the band’s longevity, how Norfolk helped the band get their mojo back and the “sterile” music of 2018.
“None of the other punk bands liked us,” says the bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. “It’s funny hearing young bands mention us as an influence now, because back then no band would ever admit to liking us.”
The Stranglers — founded by bassist Burnel alongside Jet Black, Dave Greenfield and Hugh Cornwell, who left in 1990 — have been on the road for more than four decades.
They are the great punk survivors, though Burnel, who recently turned 66, is keen to point out they have always stood apart.
Originally the Guildford Stranglers, the band arrived in the boom of the burgeoning British pub-rock scene. By the time punk exploded in 1976, they were already well established with a loyal fan base.
While not fitting the punk template quite as neatly as the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash, there was enough snarling energy and power in their music for them to ride the wave while it lasted.
Burnel, who was born to French parents in Notting Hill, recalls a fateful incident in 1976 which he had a fight with Paul Simonon of The Clash. “It was more handbags and a bit of growling than anything,” he says, “but from then on, the lines were drawn.”
As punk subsided, however, The Stranglers endured. And have continued to do so, releasing 17 albums and touring ever since.Their latest UK jaunt brings them to the region this month, supported by 1990s Northern Irish trio Therapy?
They show little intention of slowing down, although drummer Jet has now officially retired at the grand age of 79. “He’s enjoying his twilight years,” Burnel says. “He’s alright, his body has given up and he’s on the last run home. There aren’t many 80-year-old drummers out there. He did everything he was supposed to do in rock n roll. We did call him The Hoover.”
The story of The Stranglers really is one of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll for the band. As well as fights with their punk peers, they incited a riot in Nice, took heroin for a year and even tied up journalists.
His favourite memory is in Athens in 1985 in front of a crowd of 40,000, while rioting fans fought with police outside to try to break into the Panathenaic Stadium. Depeche Mode were hiding under the stage while Boy George was being attacked by bottles, recalls a cackling Burnel.
Burnel admits there were times it did spin out of control, before quipping “But if you’ve got no experience of music, you’ve got no imagination.”
It all seems a long way away from the current music scene, where any minor argument on social media can become headline news.
“Everyone wants to be successful now, they play safe. There aren’t many innovators, people taking risks.” Burnel says. “They’re talking about careers now. When we started, you were lucky if you lasted two or three years.”
“Everything is more business-like and showbizzy,” he continues. And he reckons The Stranglers are attracting a new wave of youngsters because of the largely sterile nature of modern music. “We’ve been around for so long and I think there’s a bit of respect come our way recently.”
The sterile nature of the current music industry makes him even more determined to continue with The Stranglers, who are working on a follow-up to 2012’s Giants, an album that continued the band’s recent critical and commercial revival.
A turning point came in 2004 when Burnel isolated himself in the unlikely setting of the North Norfolk coast. He was living in Holme-next-the-Sea when it was thrown into the national limelight thanks to the discovery of the 4,000-year-old Seahenge. It inspired him to write an album that went on to become one of group’s biggest-selling records, spawning their first Top 40 hit for 14 years, Big Thing Coming.
For the first time in a long time, perhaps since original vocalist Hugh Cornwell’s departure in 1990, the press were interested and new fans were drawn to the band.
The renaissance continued with Suite XVI in 2006, and was capped by Giants, the band’s best and most acclaimed album since the mid-1980s.
“We made a great album with that one,” says Burnel. “But then I always think that. I’ve thought I’ve released masterpieces for years, but it’s not always seen like that by others. There was a synchronicity to Giants, I think. It’s just timing, and it’s like that with a lot of things. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just cyclical.”
The Definitive Tour which brings them to Norwich, Southend and Cambridge this month coincides with the re-release of their first seven albums (six studio and one live). It inevitably has given the band pause to reflect and face up to the fact they are now band of pensioners.
“We talk about one day The Stranglers will no longer be, and it would have been 40 years over of our lives - and that’s a weird concept but you have to be realistic,” says Burnel. “But unless I die in a motorcycle accident or someone in the band dies, we will carry on until we bore the pants off each other.”
A theory of his is that the band’s longevity is thanks to their rejection of America. Rather than donning “cowboy hats and boots”, as he puts it, they acted a little disinterested in the US.
“It’s a pact with the devil. You have success with America and then you’re set up for life or you don’t make the pact with America and you’re creative. And there’s not a single band in the firmament, I challenge you, as creative and eclectic as the Stranglers.”
They also split everything equally, Burnel says. Success and failure felt the same to all.
Success certainly seems the word for their recent renaissance.”There are fashions and trends and when that happened we were classed as the bad boys but we had the last laugh, and we’re still laughing,” adds Burnel, breaking into another cackle.
• The Stranglers play the UEA LCR, Norwich, on March 19, 7.30pm, £27.50, 01603 508050, ueaticketbookings.co.uk