- 17 May 13
Controversial, irreverent, combative, they were the punk band you couldn’t ignore. As they approach their 40th anniversary, The Stranglers remain as vital as ever. Singer and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel talks exclusively to Hot Press about his difficult relationship with ex-frontman Hugh Cornwell, drummer Jet Black’s health woes and their place in British rock history...
It’s been a long, strange trip for The Stranglers. Part of the first wave of British punk, they wrote some of the era’s defining hits – still resonant songs such as ‘Golden Brown’, ‘No More Heroes’, ‘Peaches’ and ‘Always The Sun’.
But from the start there was controversy too. Initially, they seemed almost as interested in being confrontational as in making great music (one early review described them, more than half-admiringly, as ‘bad-mannered yobs’).
Even as their material became more sophisticated, they remained divisive. Despite touring with Patti Smith and The Ramones, the alternative establishment was suspicious of them. Older than most of the punk acts and more opinionated too, they were accused variously of racism and sexism.
No one was fully sure: were The Stranglers mocking prejudice and chauvinism or buying into it? Song titles such as ‘I Feel Like A Wog’ seemed to leave the matter hanging. In a confrontation that was in keeping with the times, in 1977, bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel punched British journalist Jon Savage during a promotional event.
“There were a lot of pillocks,” Savage would reminisce later. “I loathed The Jam with their stupid suits, and Sham 69’s skinheads, and The Stranglers. Jean-Jacques Burnel attacked me after I slated their second album.”
You listen back now to the muscular rock’n’roll of ‘No More Heroes’ and ‘Something Better Change’ and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that to slate No More Heroes was at least partially missing the point. What really set the band apart from many of the class of ‘76, however, was a willingness to change. By the early 80s, punk had burnt itself out. If audiences were moving on, so, too, were The Stranglers. In 1981, they released what would become their signature hit, the deceptively mellow ‘Golden Brown’. Set to a creepy bossanova beat, the song’s drug references were chillingly overt, although frontman Hugh Cornwell insisted the tune was more than a smack paean.
“It was about heroin and also about a girl,” he explained. “She was of Mediterranean origin and her skin was golden brown.”
Notwithstanding its contentious subject matter, ‘Golden Brown’ was a substantial smash and won the group a mainstream fanbase, a break-through they built on with the subsequent single ‘Strange Little Girl’ As the ‘80s came to an end, Cornwell left to pursue a solo career. He’d not been getting on with the rest of the group. In particular he felt his relationship with Burnel was beyond salvaging.
The remaining Stranglers enjoyed a surprise comeback hit in 2004 with the album Norfolk Coast and the single ‘Big Thing Coming’. There was a serious blow in 2007 as original drummer Jet Black – then in his late 60s – suffered ill-health. He remains a member of the group but his ability to tour and record is seriously diminished.
Last year they released their 17th album, Giants. With a striking cover shot of the four remaining members hanging from a gallows, the record was a return to the confrontational style and grittier sound of their ’70s incarnation. Reviewers praised its ‘odd and unique’ groove. Now approaching their fifth decade in music, Burnel sat down with Hot Press recently for an exclusive interview.
Next year will be the band’s 40th anniversary. Any plans to mark this milestone?
We’ve been discussing this. If the others are up for it, I’d like to try to play at least one piece from every single studio album.
In 1977 you famously said ‘Americans have smaller brains than us’. Many fans believe this was a major obstacle to breaking the States.
Fortunately only a few people got wound up by that statement. In fact we started playing what is termed “the sheds” several years later, in the mid ‘80s. We were playing to three or four thousand people a night in some places. We had a No.1 single in the college charts, which meant quite a lot in those days. The main problem, if you can call it that, was that we didn’t like being in the States for too long. And we didn’t like being away from home for extended periods. All the bands who did well in the States toured continuously and ended up wearing cowboy boots and stetsons, like The Clash and U2.
Hugh Cornwell has referred to The Stranglers now as a “tribute band”.
Hugh is a rather bitter person these days. His statement doesn’t hurt or annoy. It saddens me that someone I admired feels the need to say that. We are The Stranglers. We play Stranglers songs. Hugh plays Stranglers songs. Does that make him a karaoke singer?
You said recently that you wanted to do a project with Hugh.
It was just an attempt to build bridges.
Jet plays about a third of the set now. Is the current tour the end for the legend that is Jet Black?
We really don’t know. We’re just grateful Jet wants to be part of it still. Like Jet, we play it by ear.
Will we see another studio album or is 17 enough?
While we’re still playing live and are indeed still alive, I hope I have something more to say. At the moment I have over a hundred little vignettes I need to make sense of. Material can’t be made from thin air. Not if you want (a) to be as original as you can; (b) not to plagiarise yourself; (c) have something to say. All these things take time and there’s also a life to be lived outside the musical vacuum. We’ve always tried to better ourselves. I’m the first to admit we haven’t always succeeded.
You’re not exactly in the first flush of youth. Does touring get to be a drag?
Playing live is the biggest buzz. Especially now that I’m financially secure and don’t have to worry about making a living. It’s one of the things we do best.
The media used to love beating up on The Stranglers. Lately the tone of your press has become much more positive. Any idea why?
Those we pissed off in the past have either retired or are dead. The newer, younger writers and commentators only know the music and judge us on that – not on any prejudices that may have been media inspired. Any stories about misdeeds are seen as badges of honour rather than unforgivable sins.
How would you compare your relationship with current singer Baz to the pivotal early one with Hugh?
My relationship with Baz is, dare I say it, even closer than I had with Hugh. It’s helped enormously in the songwriting over the last three albums, which has marked a huge increase of interest in The Stranglers.
A lot of your early work was quite political – is the world a better place in 2013 than say the ’70s and ’80s?
I’m not sure that you’ve read or listened to the lyrics on the last few albums, but you might find that we’ve commented even more politically than before. However, it might be a bit more subtle than previously. By the way, the world is not a better place than in the ’70s!
Giants is out now on Coursegood/Universal records