The interview: The Stranglers
As punk’s great survivors The Stranglers line up a North West return, MALCOLM WYATT talked to singer Baz Warne about his Family in Black
It’s not often a front-man is still regularly held up to scrutiny after 15 years with a band, but that’s how it goes with Baz Warne.
To put it mildly, The Stranglers’ founder member Hugh Cornwell was a hard act to follow, even though he left 25 years ago.
Hugh’s legacy was certainly a difficult one to live up to for replacement Paul Roberts, but he stuck around nearly 16 years – more or less the same period as Hugh.
And when Paul departed, the band had a ready-made successor in the ranks, Sunderland-born and bred Baz having replaced guitarist John Ellis six years earlier.
By next year, Baz should have eclipsed Hugh and Paul’s time with the band, yet he’s still asked by prying journalists like me what it’s like to be the new kid with his head on the block.
He had a colourful enough background with other bands, but this is The Stranglers after all. Does he still have to pinch himself this is all happening?
“Well yeah, but I have been with the band 15 years.”
True, but there must be times when you look around the stage and spot iconic bass player JJ Burnel, keyboard wiz Dave Greenfield and drumming legend Jet Black, wondering how this all came about.
“To be honest, I used to think like that, but probably just for the first three or four months. They made me feel welcome and a part of it right from the word go.
“As far as they’re concerned, this is The Stranglers, and this line-up’s now been on the go nine years and we’ve done more than we’ve ever done before.
“The last two albums were very well-received, JJ maintaining Giants is probably one of the best.”
I agree, having listened to Giants a fair bit on the build-up to last July’s Preston gig.
“Thank you very much. Was that for the 53 Degrees show? Was that a good one? I can’t really recall.”
It certainly was, and Baz was on fine form, as were all his band-mates. So when did the 50-year-old – who was just 10 when The Stranglers formed - become aware of the Men in Black?
“As a very early teenager up in Sunderland, one of the ways I got money to buy a good guitar was by delivering papers, and a guy on my route ordered Sounds.
“I think it was about 40p or something. I thought that was quite a lot, but then I started buying it and remember seeing The Stranglers on the cover.
“They looked different. And when I heard them…”
Either the line from the West Country breaks up there or Baz is genuinely lost for words, but I plough on and ask what era he’s talking about.
“That would have been 1976 or 1977, and once I’d heard them and caught them on Top of the Pops I put two and two together and realised it was that bunch of guys I’d seen on the front of Sounds.
“I just loved them, although I was always more of a guitar man, really. They were never really a guitar-heavy group, so it took a while to realise.
“They had a keyboard player, so I thought they were going to sound like Yes or Pink Floyd. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.
“So I’ve been aware of The Stranglers a very long time, then the band I was with in Sunderland, the Smalltown Heroes, supported them in 1995 and 1997.”
Had he already seen them live by then?
“I saw them in Sunderland in 1980 at the back end of The Raven tour. The place they played is a Tesco’s now.
“I only saw the Hugh line-up once, and was with all my mates from school, having drunk a bottle of cider before we’d gone along. I know I was there though!
“I also saw them at Gateshead (International Stadium) with Paul (Roberts), the very first gig or major tour they did with him in 1991.”
Do the founder members – JJ, Dave and Jet – tend to talk about those old times a lot when you’re on the road?
“Not very often, they don’t dwell on that. It’s 25 years ago after all. People often look back through rose-tinted spectacles, but they were exciting times and they were all so young.
“Somehow, by total happenstance, they managed to chance upon a sound that is totally and utterly unique and hasn’t been replicated before or since.
“They’ve never rested on their laurels though, and we always seek to move on.
“Every now and again someone will talk about Hugh, but because I’m on the inside and have been a very long time now, I’ve heard the bad stories and crap that went on.
“For what he achieved Hugh was unbelievable. He has such an instantly-recognisable, quintessentially English and timeless pop voice.
“I’ve studied guitar playing and although it makes me sound arrogant I think I’m a far better guitar player. But I can’t sing like him, and don’t think anybody could.”
Maybe the beauty of it is that you don’t try to – this isn’t a Karaoke Stranglers.
“I’m pleased you’ve said that, and I’ve said that when we’ve listened back to live recordings these last few weeks during rehearsals.
“Funnily enough though, we put a version of Down in the Sewer on and we all thought it was Hugh … but it was me!
“JJ said, ‘You remind me of him sometimes, with your voice’. But I can assure you it’s not a conscious effort, and there are only traces and little glimpses.
“Besides, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t live with myself. I’d just be a clone.”
Soon, you’ll have put in the same amount of service as both Hugh and Paul.
“Yes, coming up, having joined in April 2000. And there’s not one thing I’d change.”
Baz was speaking to me close to the band’s rehearsal rooms, ‘in the countryside, about 10 miles from Bath’, where they were also based when writing Giants.
It was their last weekend off before their March On tour, although Baz - his Makem tones as defined as ever - was already a fair distance from his Sunderland home.
“I flew down this time, but I’m pretty sure my car knows the way now. I’ve lived back in Sunderland seven or eight years now, after a few years away.
“The world’s a shrinking place, and you don’t need to be in the hub of it all anymore.
I prefer not to be. All it takes is a phone call and I can be wherever they want me to be a day later.”
Baz recently underwent a second bout of knee surgery, two years after the first was operated on, but insisted he was ‘on the mend and won’t need crutches or a bloody stick anymore.’
So he won’t have to be wheeled on stage by anyone?
“I’m hopeful those days are way, way in front of me!”
Was that injury brought on from all the touring over the years?
“I honestly don’t know, but used to play a lot of football, and also have this bizarre stamping movement with my left foot, a bit like Joe Strummer, slamming it down.”
So it’s wear and tear, maybe?
“I think that’s exactly what it is. I’ve been doing that for 25 years.”
The tour started with dates in Brighton and hometown Guildford, with 17 more following over a wide area and dates at Liverpool’s 02 Academy as well as Glasgow and London quickly selling out.
They also play Manchester Academy on March 21, with support from post-punk Blackpool band The Membranes and Scottish art-punk legends The Rezillos.
Of the latter, Baz added: “I’ve never seen them live before, but was a fan as a kid, and Can’t Stand The Rezillos, the first album, is still an absolute classic.
“We don’t know them, but they’ve still got Fay and Eugene and to my delight Angel Patterson, the original drummer. I’m looking forward to meeting them. It’ll be fun.”
They were set to play Moscow this April too, but cancelled.
“They’ve made it very difficult for musicians, artists and entertainers in light of the political situation.
“But it’s not completely cancelled and the opportunity thrown away. As and when we can we’ll go. I’ve never been before, and the band has only been once, in the ‘90s.”
As well as his time with Smalltown Heroes and then Sun Devils, Baz was previously with cult punks The Toy Dolls, best remembered for one-off hit Nellie the Elephant.
“That’s a very long time ago! They were looking to expand to a four-piece with a guitar player. I auditioned, got the gig, then they decided they didn’t want to do that, so I was the bass player for two years.
“But that gave me the platform - it was when I first realised I could make a career out of all this.
“I toured the United States with them in the early ‘80s. You can imagine my mother and father thinking, ‘What’s he doing with this punk band? He must be mad!’
“But we played to up to 12,000 people. It was a real learning curve, tremendous fun, and we had youth and exuberance on our side.
“They’re still going to this day, and I still speak to (lead singer Michael) Algar every once in a while.”
Weren’t they a three-piece on Top of the Pops with Nellie the Elephant?
“I’m actually on the record, but left before it was released. At the time I was horribly put out and very envious, but now I look back and think, ‘Thank Christ!”
Last year saw The Stranglers’ 40th anniversary Ruby tour, a major celebration slightly tempered by health problems for drummer Jet Black.
Luckily, Jim Macaulay was on hand, although Jet joined for the odd cameo. Is that how it will be this time?
“In the last couple of years we’ve been bringing him on for a little session in the middle, and will do on this tour, when his health is up to the travelling and everything.
“But it’s going to be mostly Jim, and that kid inspires us all. He’s so powerful, such a good drummer and a very nice kid with lots of enthusiasm.
“The fans are very much starting to fall in love with him too, chanting his name at gigs as well as Jet’s. He’s thrilled at that.
“But Jet is very well, and I saw him yesterday for his weekly rehearsal and catch-up. He was in fine fettle and played very well.”
Baz and Jim, 30, certainly bring down the average age (Jet is 76, Dave is 65 and JJ is 63).
“Aye, we do – which is much needed! We’re only 80 between us, not far off Dave… of course, I’m only joking.”
An abiding memory of the 53 Degrees show was JJ prowling menacingly at the front and Dave’s ear-to-ear grinning between sips of his pint from his keyboard tower at the back – two punk legends, even with Jet missing.
“Yeah, and Iwe’re all happy to still be here. As Jet says, he wouldn’t have thought it would last for 40 minutes, never mind 40 years.”
How do they all get on behind the scenes? Baz’s bandmates can’t be the easiest bed-fellows.
“They’re not, and we have our moments, but you need a certain amount of friction to keep things fresh.
“To quote a really old cliché, it’s a family … and you never get on with your family all the time.”
Is work due to start on the follow-up to Giants soon?
“All I’ll say is that there are rumblings. We’ve been tossing some very sketchy sort of skeletons of ideas around.
“Things are starting to come up in rehearsals, always a good sign, moments when someone will play something and you say, ‘Play that again’.
“It’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility, but we’ve another solid, busy year of gigging ahead.
“JJ and I have lots of ideas, and we’re looking in Spring to go to his place in the South of France, spend time down there and write, as with Giants. So yeah, it’s all positive and upbeat.”
Finally, there’s a real love between The Stranglers and their audience. It’s a love crowd, as Otis Redding would say.
“It is. The fans have always been very much behind the band. The Family in Black, we call it. We see a lot of familiar faces and know a lot by name.
“They’ve always been loyal, but in the earlier days when there was still a lot of friction, tension and anger, some of the older fans said they would go along as much as anything to see if they’d start fighting each other!
“Now of course we’re more mellow, although there’s still the unexpected and we’re still unpredictable. I think people like that as well.”
The Stranglers play Manchester Academy on Saturday, March 21, with tickets £23 in advance via http://www.gigsandtours.com/event/the-stranglers/manchester-academy-manchester/815154 and more details at http://www.thestranglers.net/