Ruby Quartet: From the left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne, JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)
Warning: this interview includes JJ Burnel’s own brand of industrial language in places, possibly explaining the derivation of the phrase, ‘excuse my French’.
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, 40 years ago, and are still going strong, even if original front-man Hugh Cornwell moved on in 1990.
However, mellowed is not a term I’d use talking about the band all these years on.
As JJ – one of the greatest bass players in this blogger’s mind, and certain one of the most distinctive – put it when we caught up on the phone: “Well, 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 we’re actually doing the best business that 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, we’re 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 fuck!
“I don’t know why, but probably it’s because 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, including fucking off the BBC for years with Rock Goes to College. That was at Guildford of course …”
Bass Legend: JJ Burnel (Photo: The Stranglers)
I should point out at this stage that we’d started off talking about my Surrey hometown, one with huge significance for JJ.
You probably already knew his band were previously known as The Guildford Stranglers, and while born in Notting Hill in 1952, JJ’s formative years were spent in Godalming, barely three miles from my own manor.
His parents ran a French restaurant there, and we both went to school in Guildford, albeit 15 years apart and with him at the Royal Grammar School while I was at Guildford County School.
In fact, I had to explain it was actually a mixed school by that stage – Jean-Jacques having got to know a few pupils in its ‘all-girls’ day, not least one pupil who became the subject of early track Choosey Susie, I believe.
Anyway, I mentioned my link to the area, and childhood in Shalford, where The Stranglers practised in the village scout hut at the bottom of my road.
“I know Shalford!”
Remember those Scout Hut days?
“Absolutely, they should be putting a blue plaque on there. Well … how nice to speak to you!
Scouting Talent: The legendary hut that played host to The Stranglers (Photo copyright: writewyattuk)
“I went to the RGS when it was still a direct grant grammar school. It had pretensions of being posh but wasn’t an expensive school as it is now.
“I have been invited back. Quite ironically, because I was kicked out after one year in the Sixth Form, so had to take my A-levels at Guildford Tech.
“Years later I was invited back to an old boys’ evening, because they wanted some money off me – to contribute to bursaries.
“I didn’t have a problem with that, but did think it cheeky that the old head who threw me out in the first place was still there, soliciting me for contributions.”
The RGS has quite a glittering list of alumni, and diverse too – from JJ to Monty Python’s Terry Jones, football commentator Martin Tyler, England cricketer Bob Willis …
“I remember Bob. He was better at football than cricket at the time – playing football with a tennis ball in the playground.”
Ah yes. Bob Willis was perhaps my favourite cricketer – not just because of his Guildford link and skill with the ball, but because he made for a fine – if not gangly – tail-ender, in my memory helping out England a few times when we were staring defeat down the barrel.
“He was great. I always looked up to him. He was a couple of years older, and in the same year as one of the blokes who bullied me so badly.”
I can feel an anecdote coming, and JJ duly obliges.
“One day this guy, why I was queuing up with the rest of my year, just laid into me. I lost it completely, and the teacher in charge, the rugby teacher, said ‘Right, you two – in the school gym, four o’clock.’
“We were given boxing gloves … and I beat the crap out of him. After that, my school days were in clover really.”
Did your love of martial arts come along later?
“Oh yes, but by then I already had a taste for violence. Only to save my arse, though! It was a bit of trend then, with the Bruce Lee films and that.
“When I went up to university, I got involved with martial arts. And I’ve never really given up really.”
Centre Stage: The band in live action (Photo: The Stranglers)
And this coming from someone who also flirted with a spell in a local Hell’s Angels chapter, I believe. Does he ever hold reunions with some of those fellas?
“No, I keep well out of that! I still ride motorcycles every day though.”
Anyway, back to the interview, with JJ mentioning Rock Goes to College – the band’s infamous televised University of Surrey appearance in October 1978.
The gig was aborted when The Stranglers walked off just five songs in, refusing to play to elitist audiences, after a dispute over an agreement to make tickets available outside of the college was not honoured.
There is internet footage out there of opening song Ugly, with JJ at the forefront, but no one has yet unearthed the rest.
“That’s right. I heard it said we’d committed commercial suicide again. But I think we pissed off so many journalist of our generation that now it’s seen by the youngsters of today as a badge of honour.”
Despite his gruff battle cry on that website 40th anniversary announcement, I put it to JJ that the band are all pussycats these days. A dangerous thing to say to this martial arts expert and supposed firebrand, maybe, but the tongue was firmly in the cheek.
“I suppose we sort of are. There are different ways of doing things these days, and also I have responsibilities now. I can’t go around doing what I used to do.
“I’m in charge of a karate school, having got my sixth Dan in Japan five or six years back. 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?’”
Lining Up: Baz, Jet, JJ and Dave ask you outside, 2014 style (Photo: The Stranglers)
The Stranglers’ ruby celebrations have continued in earnest this year, with the band doing the rounds in mainland Europe.
Judging by the reaction they’ve had on this elongated tour, it’s fair to say Britain, Europe and the rest of the world is still feeling the love for The Stranglers.
So what’s the general reaction been like across Europe and in your earlier UK shows?
“We’ll, no one’s as loud as the British audience, no one’s as pissed as a British audience, and no one dances with as much abandon as a British audience.
“But the Europeans are waking up to it, and we did really well out there, and are going back again soon.
“We were in Holland in front of 15,000 people at the weekend, and we’re about to play with Blondie at a festival, having done a tour with them last year in Australia.”
Ah, Blondie, fresh from Glastonbury 2014, and fellow survivors from that golden era. Remind me, do you go way back?
“Well, we never knew them that well, but bumped into each other now and again. Clem (Burke, Blondie’s drummer) was always trying to avoid me as he knew I was going to ‘bitch-slap’ him. He knew what I thought of him.
“In fact, Debbie actually said to Baz (Warne, The Stranglers vocalist) in the bar at our hotel, “I think JJ’s having a go at my drummer!”
How does Debbie come over these days?
“Ah, she’s as cool as fuck. She’s just cool and sassy.”
JJ did offer further insight as to what he thought of Clem and guitarist Chris Stein, but I’ll leave that out.
“When we come on stage, we always play a trick on people, and we came on in drag in Brisbane in the middle of one of their songs.
“Actually, Clem was ok about it, I think, but Stein just gave looks that would kill, and Debbie just forgot her lines. She said, ‘I love those guys!’”
Going back to those early days, Dr Feelgood were a huge influence on you, and you got to know Wilko Johnson well over the years. It’s good to see him defying his illness and out on the road again, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it’s fantastic to see. I have such wonderful memories of him, and we lived together in 1977, until this rotten thing happened, when three of us were sharing a flat and the girl in the flat with us got raped while Wilko and I were away.
“Then we left the flat. It was tainted. As it was, Lemmy and Motorhead took it over.”
It’s a sad story, and pretty well known. It’s also the subject of The Stranglers’ Five Minutes, written by JJ about those West Hampstead days.
Incidentally, there’s a cracking interview of JJ and Wilko on the Stranglers’ official site, with a little insight of other characters on the scene at the time, not least Billy Idol, with a link here.
Of course, good r’n’b has never gone away, and continues to inspire. Just ask Irish teenagers The Strypes.
“Yes, and that’s great. It’s nothing new, but it’s new to a lot of people. It’s like every generation thinks it’s invented sex. Hang on though, that’s funny … how come we’re here then? But I think it’s great that someone takes on the flame.”
Was the first time you saw the Feelgoods in Guildford?
“It was. Hugh and I went to see them at the new Gin Mill Club, which started originally in Godalming. ‘Hairy’ Pete Newberry, the guy responsible for it, moved it to an ex-cinema, and that’s where we saw them.”
Actually, the story of the Gin Mill Club is told here, but let’s get back to Dr Feelgood’s appearance there.
“We just couldn’t believe it. Our jaws dropped! It was such a return to basics. Everyone was disappearing up their own arses around then. But this was in your face!
“It had attitude, it had credibility. I didn’t know people took speed, but I thought ‘Wilko’s definitely on something!’ It was great, and as tight as hell.
“Suddenly, I remembered what rock’n’roll should be about.”
My excuse for speaking to JJ was a show at 53 Degrees in Preston on Sunday, July 6, part of a continuation of the original Ruby tour (ticket details here).
“We’re doing festivals either side of the Preston show – at Whitehaven then T in the Park, the big Scottish one.
“We had some offers earlier this year and thought, ‘why don’t we just play some clubs in between?’
So what can we expect from The Stranglers – 2014 style, at least on this part of the tour?
“We discussed it 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 set we’ve ever played. Also, we had a production with it, with big screens and stuff.
“We can’t bring that to 96 Degrees, but it’ll be a lot of the stuff we did earlier this year.”
I like that – the bassist from the band that once covered 96 Tears clearly plans to turn up the heat at 53 Degrees. Actually, perhaps it’s an idea for a re-brand that could see the Fylde Road venue survive its supposed December 31 closure.
“Oh dear. Freudian slip there.”
Note that I haven’t really bothered to go into the full story of the band here. Besides, there’s plenty of that on my previous appreciation – while interviewing Hugh Cornwell last year.
But, 23 UK top 40 singles and 17 UK top 40 albums tells its own story, and there’s lots to be proud of there for JJ and fellow surviving members Dave Greenfield and Jet Black.
Does that still make you sit up and wonder at times? And is it a wonder you’ve made it this far, what with all the years of partying, excess, and so on?
“Of course. 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 from it.
“It was never a career path. That wasn’t written on the tin. It didn’t say bands could last that long.”
By May, the band had already clocked up nearly 40 gigs this year. Does it get any easier after all these years? It must get monotonous, all that travel between gigs, setting up, and so on.
“I hate the travelling, and I hate flying now. It’s not glamorous anymore. You have to take your belt off, your DMs off, and all sorts. That aspect’s not so much fun.
“But if we haven’t played for a couple of months, we get stir crazy. We just enjoy each other’s company, and we get on 98 per cent of the time.”
You pre-empted my next question there. Is it easier to get on with each other than it was way back? Are you all easier to get on with?
Other Worldly: Dave Greenfield in action (Photo: BBC)
“Well, I am! I don’t think Dave is. He’s just this weird, strange person who beams down and is not of this world!
“He’s other worldly, but that’s him, and he’s part of the package. And we get on famously.”
How easy is it to agree on a set-list these days? Is the band like a committee, or is it a case of ‘he who shouts loudest’?
“Well, if you put ‘Stranglers Ruby Tour part two’ into YouTube, you’ll know how easy it is. ‘I do the fucking set-lists!’”
Yes. I didn’t know this when I asked that question, but someone has created a wonderful parody of JJ choosing the band’s set-list.
If anyone’s familiar with the previous parodies of the film Downfall, they’ll guess how it works. And JJ appears to appreciate it, despite it not painting him in the best possible light.
Are there any of the old hits you just can’t bear to play?
“Yeah. We stopped playing Peaches for about 12 years. I just couldn’t stand it. We left out Something Better Change for about 10 years, and Golden Brown for a couple of years.
“There’s no point a band like The Stranglers becoming a cabaret band and just going through the motions. People will sense it, and we will look bored shitless.
“You’ve got to maintain some level of enthusiasm. And well, we’ve got enough material to do that.”
This took me on to the same anecdote I put to Hugh Cornwell last year, about my first-ever Stranglers gig in early 1982 – at Guildford Civic Hall on the La Folie tour, with Golden Brown riding high in the charts.
I recall Hugh asking ‘Anyone here who came and saw us at The Star?’ and around 1,000 fans cheered and shouted ‘yes!’.
And yet a band I once managed played this relatively-small local in the late ‘80s to a 100 sell-out. I put this to JJ.
“I think we had about 20 people … and they were all friends. Similarly, I always think it’s funny that all of a sudden French people say ‘Yeah, I was in the Resistance.”
How’s Jet doing at the moment? He’s missed a few dates so far on this tour (and is pictured on the latest group pic wearing a rather alarming oxygen mask).
“He’s missed loads of dates, and has done for the last 40 years really. His health has never been great. We’ve had seven, maybe eight drummers over the years. He plays when he can, but he’s 76 now.”
Yet the band clearly have good cover in the wings, particularly with Jim Macauley playing drums a lot recently – sometimes sharing duties with Jet during gigs.
From what I can suss, if Jet ever does bow out, that’ll mark the end of the band. Is that right?
“That’s how I feel about things. 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 without him, with his blessing.
“But 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.”
Your ‘new boy’, Baz Warne, has been with the band more than a decade now, quite something in itself really. He’s clearly been accepted by the fans too.
“It’s been 14 years now. And at the end of next year he’ll have been in the band the same amount of time as Hugh was.
Do you ever hear from the band’s current longest-serving vocalist, Paul Roberts?
“Well, he was 16 years as well. But he doesn’t want anything to do with us, so we have to respect his wishes.”
Premier Pedigree: Hugh Cornwell in live action
That surprised me. That question was just my subtle way of getting on to the big Cornwell question. So, any word from Hugh in recent times?
“No. Only … erm … no … erm, he’s not a happy bunny.”
I mentioned that I saw him playing live last year, and he put on a brilliant set – half solo material from the excellent Totem and Taboo, half Stranglers hits.
“Yeah. 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, and that must piss him off something rotten.”
Moving on, how important is it that you’re still writing songs, rather than just being some kind of Karaoke Stranglers?
“Well, our last album was our best received for some time. I’ve still got things to say. I’m not living in a bubble. I still have an opinion like anyone else.
“I still want to write music and play, and hopefully that resonates with other people. That’s what I do.”
Triumphant Ride: JJ Burnel rides out
I have a shed-load more questions, but know JJ’s pretty busy, so try and decide on which to end with.
“Actually, I’ve got to collect my motorcycle from its MOT.”
So while we touched briefly on the three Triumphs he rides these days, I didn’t get chance to ask what became of Jet Black’s former fleet of ice cream vans.
A shame really, because I have this notion that between gigs, Jet – probably from a hospital bed somewhere – still sends the rest of the band out selling 99s and Strawberry Mivvis to earn their keep between tours.
Giants is the band’s 17th studio album, and from the moment JJ’s bass comes in – then Dave G’s keyboards – we know it’s The Stranglers on fine form.
So, here’s the big question – will there be an 18th album, particularly after the positive response to Giants?
“Well, it took a few years to get that ready. There’s no rush. I think there will be though. Yeah.”
Are there any particular Stranglers tracks or albums you’re most proud of?
“There are a few that mean more to me than the others, including The Raven and The Meninblack, which I think was a masterpiece, but no one else did.
“Giants I think is really commendable too. Yes, there’s a few.”
You studied history up in West Yorkshire, didn’t you?
“Yeah, Bradford and Huddersfield.
What might have happened, do you think, if you’d ended up being a history lecturer. You would have had your feet up by now.
“I wouldn’t have minded that. But I’d have been shagging all the girls and been thrown out of the university.”
OK. We’d better draw the line at that.
“Yes, that’s another discussion, really. Actually, I had a great education, going from Guildford up to Yorkshire, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.
“And it put me on to a few things that maybe I wouldn’t have done otherwise – like the karate.”
Bass Instinct: JJ Burnel, way back then
So what’s the JJ Burnel recipe for relaxation from The Stranglers? Out on the motorbike? Practising karate?
“Yeah, all that … and cooking.”
Did you inherit your parents’ love of fine cuisine?
“Yes. Dad was a chef, and mum was front of house at La Chaumiere back in Godalming.”
I find it hard to believe Go Buddy Go is 50 years old, let alone that JJ’s 62 and The Stranglers have been with us four decades. The Beatles barely managed a decade.
When I was a newspaper reporter I’d interview golden wedding celebrants and ask them their secret of success. So what’s JJ’s secret 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.”
For the writewyattuk interview with Hugh Cornwell, published exactly one year before in early July, 2013, head here.
For all the latest from The Stranglers camp, including forthcoming live dates, head here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature published in the Lancashire Evening Post on July 3, 2014. For the original, head here.