Interview: JJ Burnel (The Stranglers)
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Still going strong after a 40-year career The Stranglers’ bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, is one one of the most intriguing individuals in music history - funny, charismatic and with endless outrageous stories to tell. Formed in 1974 before the UK punk explosion the band, whilst lumped in with that scene, had a sound all of their own - psychedelic keyboards, growling vocals, pounding bass and jazz-like rhythms. They fit in with the energy of the time but never totally belonged. They racked up hit singles across decades and countries with the likes of ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Strange Little Girl’, ‘Always The Sun’ and ‘European Female’, and broke box-office records, including the most consecutive nights played at London’s Roundhouse, beating records set by the Rolling Stones and The Who. Their attitude to the music press is as legendary as the music itself; accused of being both sexist and racist by critics who didn’t see the irony and sarcasm in their lyrics, The Stranglers found themselves involved in numerous notorious spats, including punching the journalist Jon Savage at a public event, leaving another journalist strapped to a wheelchair in Reykjavik airport while his plane departed, and gaffer-taping a third writer to a girder on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower with his trousers round his ankles. With a bit of trepidation about meeting a musical hero The National Student sat down with Burnel to discuss he Stranglers’ upcoming tour, the friendships and fallouts of the past, Hugh Cornwell, the antics of Jet Black, being banged up in a French prison, and the potential new album We Are Cockroaches*... It’s getting close to the start of your Ruby Anniversary Tour now – you’ve played hundreds of gigs in the past 40 years, is touring different these days to how it was in the beginning? I can tell you how many actually, I think, it was just over 1,800 in 40 years! When it first started, the four of us were in an ice cream van converted to carry our gear. And then we were getting banned from places, then it started getting into the whole punk thing – that period polarised opinions somewhat – and then it was a punch-up a day by ’76. Then suddenly you have success, and then that changes; for a few years we were the objects of much polarisation again, really. People were either into The Stranglers or not, and that created situations – nights in police cells, prison, getting busted in hotels, all kinds of stuff happening and then it changed again! With continued success, people start paying you a bit of respect, but that’s not always the best thing because it can delude you; people start getting surrounded by sycophants,‘yes’ people and ‘money’ people, and that can be corrosive and corrupting. As an individual, to be impoverished and then suddenly to have lots of money, that can turn your head somewhat. But once you’ve got over that…touring now is relatively comfortable and we thoroughly enjoy it still, which is fortunately one of the constants for The Stranglers. No more ice cream vans then? Well, one each! I know this is a question a lot of fans will be eager to know the answer to, will Jet be playing at any of the dates of this tour? We’re going to find out this week. We want to mark the occasion, we’ve got seventeen albums and we’d like to try to play at least one track from each one, which means there’s some tracks we haven’t played for a bloody long time and so we’re having to re-learn them. Jet, at the moment, wants to be part of the tour; we’ve just got to establish how much he can do. You know, he’s 76, he’s a bit older than the rest of us, and he’s done it all. He’s been a very naughty boy in the past, and I think his naughtiness is catching up with him, all the rock and roll excesses! But he’s still totemic for us. We’re going to see, I mean last year he would come off stage after doing 20 or 25 minutes and be on oxygen. But he takes an interest in the guys who fill in for him and he sort of mentors these younger guys, it’s a very physical gig… You had a lot of support from the pub scene when you were first starting out and I’m sure there are loads of memories from particular places, but are there any fond memories of places on this tour of bigger venues? A lot of the venues we played in the past don’t exist anymore, like the Glasgow Apollo, which was the scariest and the most uplifting venue in the UK. When it was filled with 5,000 screaming Glaswegians, it was pretty awesome. The other venues, apart from the Hammersmith Apollo, I don’t think they existed earlier on. We always try to finish the tour in Manchester, because what a way to end a tour! It’s got one of the largest student populations in the UK, and it’s a dynamic city which is proud of itself. I wish I’d been a student in Manchester! We were banned from Hammersmith Apollo for quite a few years, so it feels like some kind of vindication that we’re allowed to play there again. Have you ever encountered any hecklers or people throwing abuse and/or heavy objects at you (false teeth don’t count)? I don’t know if you’re familiar with any of our album covers but, on the very first one, Rattus Norvegicus, if you look closely at my forehead, there’s a big sort of red, purple scar. That was some twat who threw a bottle at me which was virtually full, which cut my face. Unfortunately for him, I saw him do it, so I consigned him to hospital! In the past we've had abuse, but very rarely nowadays as people know what they’re coming to see. In the old days, people came to be shocked or to pour abuse on us because we represented something which was scary for them. I think most people know what to expect now, well I hope so, or we’ve been doing the past 40 years for nothing! What’s the craziest thing you guys have ever done on tour? Well, nothing fit for a family audience! Some of the craziest things have been when, for instance, we got escorted out of Sweden at machine-gun point by the police after, well, another problem to do with Jet actually! Years ago Jet would suddenly change personality, just instantly. Now he’s been diagnosed as diabetic but I think, in days past, if his sugar level dropped below a certain level he just went ballistic. So, this time in Sweden, we were all sat around a table at a restaurant and he came down a bit later and demanded attention from the waiters, who weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention, so he just started destroying the whole bar and the restaurant. We were on the first floor, and people deserted the restaurant, families rushing away, and he just put stuff through plate glass windows. We weren’t going to get served after that. So we resigned ourselves, said goodnight to each other, went to our respective rooms, and about five minutes later the doors were opened by the manager and machine-gun wielding cops! We were escorted to Stockholm Airport and put on the first flight out of the country the next morning. Was that not slightly terrifying?! Yeah pretty scary, but I’ve seen scarier than that! Loads of things; another time, 25 police in Australia invaded our hotel room and we had to run away across the border into another state, that was fun! Being in the middle of a riot in France and ending up in prison for three or four weeks. That was slightly fun, when you look back on it. What was that like, to be in prison in France? Well, it was alright, if prison can ever be alright! I was with two murderers who I shared a cell with, one of them was a Corsican guy and he had killed a member of his family and just dumped the body in the town, he showed me all his press cutting. But he actually saved my arse, literally. He was head of that wing, and some big, bald-headed Algerian guy took a fancy to me; fortunately, he sort of sorted that out. And the other guy in that cell, he was a sad little bloke, he never spoke, just looked out through the bars all day long. He burnt his whole family alive. Wow, so some interesting characters… Yeah, bit scary. But yeah, loads of things. Being attacked by placard-wielding feminists in Australia and America, all good fun! You opened for the first British tours of The Ramones and Patti Smith, how did you get on with those guys? Well we didn’t really hang out with them. When we played with The Ramones the people who hung out with The Ramones were The Sex Pistols and The Clash, we didn’t get a look in! Did you hang out with The Sex Pistols and that lot? Yeah, they used to come round to my flat. We used to be on nodding terms with them, and The Clash as well. Joe Strummer was an old mate; he was in a blues band before starting up The Clash. I remember him crying on our shoulders, when we were supporting Patti Smith, and saying, “I wish I had a band like you!” We were all sort of matey with each other until Summer ’76 when we supported The Ramones and I had a punch-up; Paul [Simonon, The Clash] and I had a big punch-up and that polarised opinion – us versus The Clash, The Sex Pistols, all their friends and the press, so for a few years we found ourselves friendless. But still selling more records than all the others put together, so… Was there a particular defining moment when you first thought, ‘being in a band, that’s what I want to do’? When we first started out we didn’t have any great ambitions, it was just to play together, have a laugh and, with a bit of chance, attracting a girl or something – getting laid with a bit of luck! But no, we didn’t really see things much further than that and, you know, your ambitions are very small; to get a bit of equipment, have enough money to buy an amp or guitar, and then maybe once you’ve got that then to get a gig or two in the local pubs or the local university. Then, with a bit of luck and if you’ve got enough money, have a demo and be able to punt it around. So we did all those things, in that order, only to be rejected by like 25 record companies. I’ll bet they’re kicking themselves now! Well it’s like that guy who turned down The Beatles and said ‘guitar bands are over’, ha! The Stranglers emerged during the punk era, but I suppose your music is not strictly ‘punk’, more a kind of patchwork of lots of influences over time? Well yeah, I don’t really know what punk music means anymore. It was a broad church and then got a bit narrowed down and people started to make rules about it, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that, that’s not punk, this is punk”. I mean, who makes the bloody rules? Are you comfortable with being generally categorised as a ‘punk band’? Sometimes, yeah. I still find it a bit restrictive; it’s never been very helpful for us to be described as that because I think people have an image of how the music should be. Then, when they hear our stuff they say, well, it doesn’t adhere to my idea of what punk music sounds like.
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