Forty years after their formation, punk survivors The Stranglers visit Preston this weekend, as their ‘ruby anniversary’ tour continues apace. MALCOLM WYATT tackled bass guitar legend Jean-Jacques Burnel on the band’s past, present and future...
Talk about growing older disgracefully.
A note on The Stranglers’ website from Jean-Jacques Burnel reads: “On this, the occasion of our ruby anniversary, I would like to take this opportunity to stick my fingers up to everyone who wrote us off, who dismissed us, who slagged us off or who just didn’t like us. I would also like to thank those who saw beyond the mealy-mouthed words of the critics, who drew their own conclusions and cast aside the prejudices of others. He who laughs last laughs longest AND loudest. Next year we will make a lot of noise with our friends.”
Ruby anniversary? Yes, The Stranglers formed in 1974, and are still going strong, even if original front-man Hugh Cornwell moved on in 1990.
Mellowed is not a term we tend to use when talking about this band, as proved by JJ’s statement and our subsequent phone call.
“When we started out, we certainly didn’t think we’d last 40 years, and what with all the ups and downs we’ve been involved with …
“But we’re still doing it, and actually doing the best business we’ve ever done. We’re not churning out top-10 hits, but that doesn’t really mean anything these days.
“We’re still going strong, still writing about the world, and it obviously resonates with some people, worldwide.
“I’m sure we’re way past our sell-by date, but people have grown older with us and now there’s a whole new generation of kids who think we’re as cool as …”
I’ll stop that quote there, but JJ’s still going.
“These days everyone’s a bit squeaky clean and sterile. It’s the X-Factor generation and everyone seems to want to be able to do well by their career.
“We’ve done everything the wrong way. But that’s seen by the youngsters of today as a badge of honour.”
JJ’s upset more than his fair share of peers, media types and musicians over the years, amassing many great tales.
Along the way, he also got a taste for karate, and is now a sixth dan and respected instructor. JJ also loves his motorbikes, and rides classic Triumphs.
But for all his side-projects, The Stranglers remain the love of his life.
And despite his gruff battle cry, I put it to this influential bassist that his band are all pussycats these days, at least comparatively.
“I suppose we sort of are. There are different ways of doing things, and I have responsibilities these days. I can’t go around doing what I used to.
“I’m in charge of a karate school, and I’ve changed as a person. Look at me sideways, and I’ll smile.
“If you did that a few years ago I’d be asking ‘who are you looking at, John? Who are you screwing?’”
The Stranglers’ anniversary celebrations have seen the band doing the rounds in mainland Europe of late.
And judging by the reaction, it’s fair to say Britain, Europe and the rest of the world still feels the love.
“No one’s as loud, no one’s as drunk, and no one dances with as much abandon as a British audience. But the Europeans are waking up to it.
“We did really well out there, and are going back soon. We were in Holland in front of 15,000 people at the weekend, and are set to play with Blondie at a festival.”
On the subject of Blondie, fellow survivors from that golden era, JJ’s off again, recounting a shared Australian tour last year.
“Clem (Burke) always tried to avoid me. He knew what I thought of him. Debbie (Harry) said to Baz (Warne, The Stranglers vocalist) in the bar at our hotel, “I think JJ’s having a go at my drummer!”
How did he get in with Debbie?
“Ah, she’s just cool and sassy. When we come on stage, we always play a trick on people, and came on in drag in Brisbane in the middle of one of their songs.
“Clem was okay about it, I think, but (Chris) Stein just gave looks that would kill, and Debbie forgot her lines. She said, ‘I love those guys!’”
JJ also spoke of how seeing Dr Feelgood live for the first time proved such a big influence.
“We just couldn’t believe it. Our jaws dropped! It was such a return to basics. Everyone was disappearing up their own backsides then. This was in your face!
“It had attitude, it had credibility. It was great, and as tight as hell. I remembered what rock’n’roll should be about.”
Now we have the next generation of r’n’b bands, like Irish teenagers The Strypes.
“Yes, it’s nothing new, but it is to a lot of people. It’s like every generation thinks it’s invented sex. But it’s great that someone takes on the flame.”
This part of the tour includes 53 Degrees this Sunday, July 5. So what can we expect?
“We’re doing festivals either side, at Whitehaven then Glasgow’s T in the Park. But we had some offers and thought, ‘why don’t we play some clubs too?’
“We discussed Preston the other day and the consensus is probably not to play as long a set as we did during the proper tour in the bigger halls.
“That was nearly two hours long and the longest we’ve ever played.”
The Stranglers’ track record is phenomenal, with 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums.
Does that still make JJ sit up and wonder, what with all the years of partying and excess?
“When we set out on this thing, we thought we’d have a bit of fun for a couple of years, yet 40 years later we’re still having fun.
“It was never a career. That wasn’t on the tin. It didn’t say bands could last that long.”
It must get monotonous, all that travel between gigs, and so on.
“I hate the travelling, and hate flying. It’s not glamorous anymore. You have to take your belt off, your DMs off, and all sorts.
“But if we haven’t played for a couple of months, we get stir crazy. We just enjoy each other’s company, and get on 98 per cent of the time.”
Are you all easier to get on with now?
“I am! I don’t think Dave (Greenfield, keyboards) is. He’s this weird, strange person who beams down and is not of this world.
“But that’s him, he’s part of the package, and we get on famously.”
How about 76-year-old drummer Jet Black, who missed a lot of dates due to ill health, and appears on the latest group pic wearing an oxygen mask.
“He’s missed loads, but has done these last 40 years really. His health’s never been great. We’ve had seven, maybe eight drummers. He plays when he can.”
In recent times, Jim Macauley has stepped in when required. If Jet ever bows out, will that mark the end of the band?
“That’s how I feel. Jet was very resolute earlier this year when he said ‘Jim has my full backing’ and that his dream would be for us to carry on, with his blessing.
“Listen, we’ll come to that. If there’s a point I have to make a decision, I will. But I really don’t know.”
How easy is it to agree on a set-list?
“Put ‘Stranglers Ruby Tour part two’ into YouTube, and you’ll see.”
Indeed. Someone has uploaded a parody of JJ choosing the songs, dubbed over the film Downfall. So are there any old hits you can’t bear to play?
“We stopped playing Peaches for about 12 years. I couldn’t stand it. We left out Something Better Change for about 10 years, and Golden Brown for a couple.
“There’s no point The Stranglers becoming a cabaret band, going through the motions. People will sense it. You’ve got to maintain some level of enthusiasm.”
The band’s ‘new boy’, Baz Warne, has been up front more than a decade now, not far off founder member Hugh Cornwell and replacement Paul Roberts.
“At the end of next year Baz’ll have been in the band the same amount of time as Hugh.”
Do you ever hear from Paul or Hugh?
“Paul doesn’t want anything to do with us, so we have to respect his wishes. Hugh? Only … erm … no … he’s not a happy bunny.”
I mentioned I saw him at 53 Degrees last year, with a cracking set, alternating between solo and Stranglers material.
“I respect him for his music, and just think he’s between a rock and a hard place.
“He didn’t want to be in The Stranglers anymore but has to play a lot of Stranglers material now. I think he’s seen the success we have compared to him.”
How important is it that you’re still writing songs?
“Giants was our best received album for some time. I’ve still got things to say. I’m not living in a bubble, still have an opinion like anyone else.
“I still want to write music and play, and hopefully that resonates with other people.”
Giants, the band’s 17th studio album, received positive reviews and showed The Stranglers on fine form. Will there be an 18th album?
“It took a few years to get that ready. There’s no rush. I think there will be though.”
Are there any particular Stranglers track or albums you’re most proud of?
“A few mean more to me than others, including The Raven and Meninblack, which I think was a masterpiece, but no one else did.
“Giants I think is really commendable too. There’s a few.”
I find it hard to believe JJ’s Go Buddy Go is 50 years old now, let alone that he’s 62 and The Stranglers have been with us four decades.
So what’s your special recipe for surviving a rocky 40-year marriage?
“The secret is to do everything that’s not expected of you. Do everything wrong. And also – never brush your teeth when you’re wearing black jeans.”
The Stranglers/The 45s, 53 Degrees, Sunday July 6: Tickets: £23, 14+. Doors: 7pm