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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.

I think there are punk elements of course, but we’ve been really lucky not to have to follow up one commercial success with something similar and we’ve allowed ourselves to explore lots of different ways of making music, so that’s been amazing and now we’ve got quite an eclectic discography. 

Was there a reason that you decided not to stick to a particular niche, or was it more of an organic thing?

Yeah, I think it was organic. We were interested in all kinds of stuff, and sometimes we would hear something and try to emulate it, and we just couldn’t emulate it; it came out as our version, as us, as our interpretation of something, which is probably much better than copying something. I think our audience has grown up with us and developed that broad-mindedness as well. You get the audience you deserve, and they’re pretty open. 

What do you think it is that’s made The Stranglers last so long, where other bands of the era have all but died out?

I think one of the fundamental building blocks of The Stranglers has been the elimination of that most corruptive of influences: the inequality of attention and the inequality of money. Even if I’ve written everything, or Hugh in the early days, we shared everything equally among the members of the band. As soon as Dave or Jet put their mark on the piece of music, it becomes part of them as well rather than all the royalties coming to me, which I’ve seen with lots of bands.

I’ve seen bands that start out as equals, as mates, and then one of them gets all the kudos, the royalties, the attention, and the dynamic changes. And, in the end, you’ve got one guy who’s got all the money and the power and the others are just his ex-mates becoming session men, becoming bitter. 

I’ve seen it with bands as famous as The Police – they can’t stand to be in the same room as each other. The last time they got together on stage, it was so obvious. I mean, it topped up their pension funds, but they were travelling separately, they couldn’t stand each other because Sting had made all the money. The others were getting a good whack but not as much as him. You know, you start out with one set of principles and then it gets distorted, and we eliminated that from day one. I’ve seen so many people get really bitter about it, and it’s an ugly thing to see. 

With us, we share in our success or share in our failure, so that’s one big element, and because we’ve managed to keep getting on really well with each other over all this time. Also, the fact that we’ve managed not to get stuck in a creative rut; it’s great fun exploring different things, not having to necessarily fulfil commercial imperatives. 

Are there any bands you remember seeing while you were doing pub gigs that really stood out to you?

Yeah. I remember, when we were starting out, Hugh and I went to see Dr Feelgood, and my jaw dropped! I just thought, “How exciting!” It suddenly reminded us how exciting rock n roll could be. I’d forgotten because everyone had disappeared up their own arses for a few years, so that was exciting.

And I got the chance to live with Wilko Johnson, we were flatmates in 1977. You got people like Lemmy [Motörhead] turning up late at night bleeding out of his box, or The Clash and The Sex Pistols turning up, paying homage to Wilko, and then me storming out. 

What was the general atmosphere of the pub circuit? Was it all pretty friendly, or where there any rivalries or hostilities (as people might expect with an angry punk scene)?

I think there were always rivalries between bands, but there was also some complicity. We came in at the very end of the pub rock thing and it was getting quite exploitative; if you were lucky, you got £25 for an hour and a half or two hours of playing.

But it was great schooling, because you learnt how to front a band. When the pub rock thing disappeared, then this huge circuit had disappeared, which prevented people from paying their dues or learning their craft in front of an audience that was either baying for their blood or just indifferent. To make yourselves listened to and appreciated above the sound of pints and everything was quite a skill in itself. 

What are your thoughts on the current music scene? It’s pretty different from how it was 40 years ago.

It is, yeah. I mean there are some great bands coming through. Unfortunately, sometimes I’m suspicious of people’s motives for doing music, but there are some great young people coming through. 

Are there any particular young bands or artists that you’re a fan of?

Yeah there are a few, there’s one band in London called Delta which I really like, but there’s loads. Too many to name, and also I don’t have much of a memory... 

So, are you an X Factor fan?

No, I don’t like these programmes! There’s some very talented people coming through, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to develop a proper career. 

It’s pretty much glorified karaoke, I guess.

Yeah, and there’s these people sitting in judgement who, I don’t know…it’s completely changed. I don’t like it, it’s not organic, it’s fucking making people jump through hoops like monkeys. It’s not the best way, I don’t think, and I’m very cynical about it. 

I think a lot of young people are too and it’s another reason why I think, in the last ten years, we’ve started to get teenagers and people in their twenties coming to see us. I think it was a reaction to the X Factor or whatever; they were getting quite cynical about their contemporaries and their peers.

So they were looking back to older bands who maybe had a bit more credibility and weren’t seeking the commercial kudos, and realising that all the shit things that we got involved in were actually badges of honour. We didn’t play it safe, necessarily, and I think a lot of young people now see these programmes as sterile. I’ve seen it, in our audiences, which is encouraging. Some people will be spoon-fed whatever they see on TV and Radio 1, and others will seek something else. 

What made you decide to use instruments like the keyboard, when it was pretty unfashionable at the time?

It just clicked. There were three of us, Hugh, Jet and myself, and we tried various combinations of other instruments that just didn’t work. Then Dave came along and just blew our minds. Also, I was a huge fan of The Doors, and they had a keyboard so, for me, it clicked. He just brought something completely different to the party so it was instant love. And he’s still there! Mad as fuck, he’s so out there, but he’s lovely. Nobody can play like Dave. In the early days we were criticised even by our peer group – with the first album, we had a synthesiser on it, God it was sacrilege! 

There was some controversy around the irony in songs such as ‘Peaches’ and ‘I Feel Like A Wog’; I guess it would be pretty easy to bow to pressure and dilute your lyrics, but you guys didn’t do that. Were you at all worried about whether that kind of thing would affect your success?

Well, no. Who would dilute their ideas just to suit someone else? Well, maybe people do that now, but we certainly wouldn’t. It’s stifling, it’s a form of censorship – there’s no room for that in the creative process, surely? We were never too bothered but, towards the end of when Hugh was with the band, he started to worry about things like that and little alarm bells went off in my head.

He wanted to do things that were safer and more appropriate just to please people, which I didn’t appreciate at all. There was a lyric I remember distinctly, I wrote ‘Jesus Christ was not a Christian, he was a good old Jewish boy’, which is true! But Hugh was saying, “Oh you can’t do that, that’ll offend all the bosses at the record companies”, and I just thought “What the fuck? What’s happened to this boy?” 

With ‘Feel Like A Wog’, people misinterpreted it completely; it was about feeling alienated, being made to feel exactly like that. Words like that are very emotive and a lot of people got uptight about it. 

One of the bigger controversies with the band and for the fans in some way was the departure of Hugh Cornwell. You guys are obviously fine now, but what was that like at the time?

It was terrible. It was a wrench, because I didn’t see it coming. I looked up to Hugh; he was a bit older than me, bit more savvy than me, he introduced me to all kinds of things, and suddenly he just sort of turned his back on me and the others.

I took it personally but, it was the best thing that could have happened, because I think we would have become stale and we were drifting apart as people. At the time it did my head in, I lost all faith in my songwriting and my singing. I stopped writing so much, I stopped singing for 16 years, but the others wanted to carry on, so I kind of drifted along with their thinking. I wasn’t so confident for a while, but then eventually I realised that it meant much more to me than letting it go. 

Do you hear much from Hugh these days?  

No. I know he’s struggling. He has to play an awful lot of small venues and I think he has to ask people to contribute to recording an album and stuff. I’d love to, but he did put the phone down on me the last time I tried. He said “I think we should leave things as they are” and slammed the phone down on me. You can’t really demean yourself too many times in front of someone before you get the message. 

What do you think it is that has kept the rest of the band together after all this time, when others have departed?

I think we had a sort of missionary zeal to prove our detractors wrong; anyone who criticised us or slagged us off.  Then things changed because, if you survive long enough, people reassess you. And of course the detractors and critics who hated us for whatever reason, most of them are dead now!

The new, young critics listen to the music, and they think that all the misdemeanours are actually a cool thing, a badge of honour, because people don’t do that so much now. I think a lot of it is that it binds you together in a kind of siege mentality when everyone is having a go at you. It either breaks you or makes you stronger, as they say. 

What do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t in The Stranglers?

I’d probably be lounging in the south of France, with my girlfriend putting oil on my shoulders and giving me a blowjob, ha! No, well when I gave a fateful hitch ride to someone, I was planning to go to Japan to be a karate teacher. Now I’m a karate teacher anyway! I didn’t really have any other ambitions. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to take up the job that I grew up in with my parents; my father was a French chef and mum was front of house, so they were in restaurants all the time and it wasn’t very social. 

40 years is a long time, and there have been a few instances of speculation from fans over the past few years that ‘this album might be their last’ or ‘this tour might be the last’. Do you think there will be a ‘last’? Or are The Stranglers indestructible, like cockroaches?

Ha, ‘The Stranglers – like cockroaches!’ [That’s an album title for you there!] Yeah, We Are Cockroaches! Well, I think we’re getting near the end here, just because I can see the state that Jet is in. Without Jet, without him at all, it would be a stretch of the imagination to picture us as The Stranglers. I’m not sure, I’m hell and hearty but the others might not be. I’ve pondered it of course because, as we get closer to the finishing line, there are physical things that get in the way. I suspect we might have one more album in us, but I would want it to be great. The last three have been a huge improvement curve. 

So, fingers crossed, we’ll hear We Are Cockroaches out in a few years then?

Ha, okay! 

*Clearly, that’s not really happening. Or is it? 

 

The Ruby Anniversary Tour of the UK runs for 28 dates from 27th February 2014, including London’s Hammersmith Apollo, which the band first played in 1976.

A comprehensive series of anniversary reissues, rarities and collectors’ items are also soon to be revealed, essential for fans old and new. For more information visit www.thestranglers.net




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