Thursday 22 March 2018

'We were classed as the bad boys but we had the last laugh'

Jean-Jacques Burnel and The Stranglers
Jean-Jacques Burnel and The Stranglers

Summer 1985 and The Stranglers are performing to a crowd of around 40,000 in Athens. Outside, a police car is ablaze as rioting fans try to break into the Panathenaic Stadium. Depeche Mode were hiding under the stage while Boy George was being attacked by bottles, recalls a cackling Jean-Jacques Burnel.

It's 44 years since JJ founded The Stranglers (originally the Guildford Stranglers) alongside Jet Black, Dave Greenfield and Hugh Cornwell, who left in 1990.

They arrived in the boom of the British pub rock scene, jostling, snarling and at times exchanging punches with their more media-friendly punk peers, Sex Pistols and The Clash.

As the genre's bubble subsided and those bands around them split, The Stranglers stayed firm.

JJ, who turned 66 last week, cites the Athens performance as his favourite memory in the band's four decade history, but concedes there are so many it changes every day.

It's all a lot calmer now, of course.


"We don't get arrested every night and I'm not getting laid," says Burnel down the phone.

He's just off the plane from France, where he resides, but had only been home for three days following the band's Australia and New Zealand tour.

They head off around the UK this month and show little intention of slowing down - although drummer Jet has now officially retired at the grand age of 79.

"He's enjoying his twilight years," Burnel says. "He's alright, his body has given up and he's on the last run home.

The Stranglers in action at the Electric Picnic in 2014
The Stranglers in action at the Electric Picnic in 2014

"There aren't many 80-year-old drummers out there, he did everything he was supposed to do in rock and roll. We did call him The Hoover."

It really was sex, drugs and rock'n'roll for the band. As well as fights with their punk peers, they incited a riot in Nice, took heroin for a year and even tied up journalists - although that's not the reason for this particular interview being conducted by phone.

It all seems a long way from the current music scene, where an argument on social media can become headline news.

"Everyone wants to be successful now, they play safe, there aren't many innovators, people taking risks," Burnel says. "They're talking about careers now. When we started, you were lucky if you lasted two or three years.

"Everything is more business-like and showbizzy," he continues - and he reckons The Stranglers are attracting a new wave of youngsters because of the largely sterile nature of modern music.

"People see us actually playing and with the f***-ups that can occur. I think all the things that were frowned upon which we did in the past now seem as badges of honour."

Burnel admits there were times it did spin out of control, before quipping "if you've got no experience of music, you've got no imagination".

The sterile nature of the current music industry makes him even more determined to continue with The Stranglers, who are working on a follow-up to 2012's Giants, the band's best and most acclaimed album since the mid-Eighties.

But, being a band of pensioners, he admits they often discuss mortality.

"We talk about one day The Stranglers will no longer be, and it would have been 40 years over of our lives - and that's a weird concept but you have to be realistic," he says.

Burnel hesitates, then adds, "But unless I die in a motorcycle accident or someone in the band dies, we will carry on until we bore the pants off each other."

A theory of his is that the band's longevity is thanks to their rejection of America.

Rather than donning "cowboy hats and boots", as he puts it, they acted a little disinterested in the US.

"It's a pact with the devil. You have success with America and then you're set up for life or you don't make the pact with America and you're creative.

"There's not a single band in the firmament, I challenge you, as creative and eclectic as the Stranglers."


They also split everything equally, Burnel says. Success and failure felt the same to all.

Success certainly seems the word for their recent renaissance. Their annual UK tour, which this year includes stops in Liverpool, Southend and Cambridge, continues to attract new faces.

In 2010, a huge crowd were drawn to The Other Stage at Glastonbury to see their debut appearance at the festival, although there is no expectation they will be invited back.

"We were banned from Glastonbury for many years so that was a bit of progress. I'd love to go back. It's the biggest and the best. I don't think they'll invite us - they just don't like us, full stop."

It's hard to simply accept Burnel's 'everyone's out to get us' mindset. But he's adamant it existed.

"We just p***ed off so many people, having punch-ups with people, irritating the f*** out of journalists. At one point, we polarised opinion so much that the press were supporting The Clash and The Sex Pistols. They did have nicer clothes than we did but that's about all," he says.

"There are fashions and trends and when that happened we were classed as the bad boys but we had the last laugh, and we're still laughing," adds Burnel, as he breaks into another cackle.

The Stranglers gig at the Olympia Theatre has been rescheduled and will now take place on April 7

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