The Stranglers need no introduction: bristling with punk attitude they sounded like no-one else but themselves, yet were swept up in the first wave of UK punk, spawning cult favourites Peaches, No More Heroes and Nuclear Device before scoring big chart hits with Golden Brown and Skin Deep.
Bass player and occasional lead vocalist for the band since their 1974 formation, JJ Burnel, was an intimidating figure in the ‘70s, all thousand-yard-stare and street fighter’s stance, but it is a jovial and chatty man who answers the phone on a chilly London morning, eager to laugh and gentle of tone.
With the tour coinciding with Warner Brothers re-releasing the first six Stranglers studio albums and their 1979 live album X-Cert, I start by enquiring how much involvement the band had curating the bonus tracks for the reissues.
“None whatsoever,” he chuckles archly, “it’s a unilateral, very cynical and commercially oriented decision – especially because we’re preparing a new album at the moment, which I think will release next year but, yeah, they do these things. It’s not a problem; I like to think of it as re-cycling.”
That’s record companies for you – but it certainly speaks for the enduring quality of the music, being re-released yet again some 40 years after debut album, Rattus Norvegicus, hit the shelves. Presumably younger fans are discovering the band all the time.
“It seems to be – the demographic has certainly changed,” Burnel confirms. “I mean there’s still the old boys and girls who’ve grown up with us, but there seems to be, in the last 15 years, a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings starting to get interested in the band. I suppose they can access old stuff through YouTube and stuff.
“And also I suspect all the misdemeanours that we got involved in earlier, are now seen as badges of honour! These days things are so… I’ve been told by youngsters, it’s a pretty sterile and fabricated music scene. They don’t see it as very cool… so they’re looking at older bands and seeing which ones,” he pauses to laugh, “…which ones have done the most harm to themselves.”
May it also be that whereas in the ‘60s or even ‘70s, the thought of loving your parents’ music was abhorrent, the last few generations have learnt that it’s in their record collections that the cool stuff lives?
Again the bassist laughs, “well there hasn’t been a seismic change in society as much as there had been. If you go back to 1977 and then you were listening to music 40 years prior to that – there hasn’t been a similar seismic change, probably because there hasn’t been a world war or something. So, music from 40 years ago, actually a lot of it doesn’t sound that dated.”
Forty years ago the band had graduated from a few years playing pubs and evolving their unique bass and keyboard-driven sound, to suddenly find themselves alongside Sex Pistols, the Damned and Stiff Little Fingers in the punk revolution. Were they comfortable for the association, despite not sounding like a ‘punk’ band?
“For a brief period,” Burnel says. “At first I thought the term was actually liberating, but then after a short period it became suffocating. Because, I don’t know who writes the rules, but suddenly, at one point we were playing in the same pubs as The Clash and The Pistols and all these bands, and then came a time when they said, ‘well you’ve gotta do this and you’ve gotta do that and you’ve gotta sound like this and you gotta sound like that’.
“So at first I thought it was a really broad church until a kind of a new orthodoxy established itself and said, ‘you can’t,’ you know? We were castigated for having a keyboard, for Christ’s sake! But who writes these rules?”
Burnel had read history at university, never believing he might be playing in a band for the next four decades and counting.
“No, because there was no manual,” he reminisces warmly. “We were entering uncharted territory, because bands – if you were lucky enough to get a gig, the next stage was being lucky enough to save up enough money for a demo, or even – Christ forbid – actually a proper record! So our ambitions didn’t go further than that, really. At that point no bands had been going for 40 years.
“If you were lucky you had two or three years, and if you were luckier still you had a bit of success, and that was it, you went back to your life! I thought I had loads of options,” he laughs again. “Teach history, or one of my ambitions was – and is – to teach karate and travel the world and be a masked hero – but it didn’t turn out like that.”
Not that being in a touring rock band is completely different…
“Well, yes, that is a way of looking at it, you’re right there,” he admits, laughing.
With his early career plans derailed by – shock, horror – musical success, and despite punk rapidly devolving to be more about fashion and imitation than art, The Stranglers managed to avoid doing the one thing that practically every band and artist inevitably does: sell out and become a cliché.
“I pass on that one,” he sighs when asked how they have stayed creatively relevant. “I don’t know, it’s just that you go with your instincts, so something tells you that it’s a cheap thing to do or it’s not the right thing to do and to be honest to yourself.”
Read any interview with Burnel and there’s a good chance he’ll talk about ‘commercial mistakes’ made by the band, but here we are, 40 years later, original records being reissued, tours selling out – maybe those mistakes weren’t so bad after all?
“You know, you’re right in retrospect,” he agrees. “But certainly we’ve done things commercially which the record company wouldn’t have been very happy about… but, you know, fuck ’em, that’s what I say.”
Burnel goes on to affirm that of those decisions that might be termed ‘commercial mistakes,’ he has no regrets.
“I think the one thing I – and I don’t regret it, I see it now as a smart thing – was the fact that all our peers toured the USA incessantly, because that was the dream. To be successful in The States meant you were successful everywhere in the world. We were starting to do well in The States, but they wanted us to stay there for about 12 months – and I couldn’t stand that.
“I wanted to go back to Europe and see my family and everything. I saw what happened to people who were there for 12 months… I mean, U2 were wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats. The Police never recovered.
“The thing was, if you had success there that usually destroyed those bands. In 1977 I was in the office of our press agent and sitting beside me was a guy called Marc Bolan, who had been in a band called T-Rex, and he was speaking to me, telling me they had moved to Los Angeles for a few years and it had just destroyed him because they hadn’t been productive anymore and everybody told him he was god and everything. He’d come back to the UK a broken person. So I thought, ‘do you need that?’ All the bands that do successfully in The States suddenly they lost their creativity.
“Success is a double-edge sword. Because… it swallows you whole. I think in retrospect not doing that was a smart move, it’s given us longevity – it hasn’t given us huge success, it’s given us a good level of success that we can build up and we can still write stuff and still get on with each other. We played with The Police about seven or eight years ago when they reformed for their pension fund, and they weren’t talking to each other! I enjoy the company of my mates in this band. We spend a lot of time together, not only playing but socially. With success it becomes such a business and it’s destructive for the creative process, I believe.”
The Stranglers’ refusal to become cliché extends to not reuniting with singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwall, who left in 1990 in search of a glittering solo career that always seemed slightly out of his reach. The story goes that the band were offered a million pounds for a UK tour with him out front.
“Yeah, we were, a few years back,” Burnel confirms. “But what’s the point? It would be an anticlimax for everyone involved and it’s just not organic and it’s not natural and… it’s just money – that’s not the main thing. It would be the tail wagging the dog and not the dog wagging the tail.
“I’d find it really uncomfortable and unhealthy,” he adds. “That’s my way of looking at it.”
The other original member no longer touring with the band is drummer Jet Black, who has long been beset with health problems, and retired from the road in 2015.
“Ah yes, poor old Jet, yeah…,” Burnel sighs affectionately. “Ever since the beginning, Jett’s always had health issues. It just got worse – he was quite a few years older than the rest of us, and he was Mr Rock and Roll for a while, what can I say?
“Over the course of The Stranglers history we’ve had seven different drummers filling in for Jett when he’s been poorly. The last time he played for us was about five, six years ago. He had to be rushed off to hospital at soundcheck and it’s just… an accumulation of stuff. But he’s still there in the background giving his opinion, and he mentors Jim (Macauley), who’s drumming for us now.”
The Stranglers have 17 studio albums under their belt now, making writing a setlist which keeps everything fresh for band and fans alike no easy feat.
“That’s a tricky one,” admits Burnel. “We’ve got an embarrassment of material to choose from and I’m sure we never get it right – but get it sufficiently right that people come see us and leave with a smile on their face.
“Yeah it is an awkward one because also, there are times when you feel that you’re just going through the motions with a piece of music and that’s a time not to play it again for a while until you renew your kinship with that piece of music. Otherwise, who wants to see someone just going through the motions?
“People can sense it and see right through it. So there have been times when we haven’t played a piece like Golden Brown or Peaches for a few years, and then you re-discover it, you play it with renewed enthusiasm.”
Even though this tour is being cited as a ‘Classic Collection’ of fan favourites, Burnel insists they prefer to rehearse extra songs so they can change the setlist around night to night.
“Playing the same songs in the same order for a whole tour? Yeah, I don’t think I could do that. You just become a fucking cabaret band or something – it’s just, what’s the point?”
When not on stage with his beloved bass guitar, Burnel is a 7th Dan Shidokan Karate master – one of the highest rated exponents of the martial art in the world. Given the many stories of violence on and off their stages and his reputation for volatility in the early punk days, I wonder what came first – the violence or the discipline?
“Physically attacked on stage? Yeah, quite a few times…” he confirms, before chuckling again, “I gotta be quite careful here… I was quite a violent teenager.
“Growing up in the UK at that time as UK born, but with French parents, was slightly awkward. Do you know that song by Johnny Cash – A Boy Named Sue? Well that applied to me a bit, because my mother called me Jean-Jacques, and in London, in those days it wasn’t as cosmopolitan as it is now. Let’s put it this way, being called a wog or a frog by the Brits became sort of a red rag to a bull to me, so I quickly learned that you had to stand up for yourself.
“Yes, I was quite used to a lot of punch-ups, and – fortunately – at my school once, I had to fight a bloke two years older with boxing gloves, in front of the whole school, because something happened in the playground. I just chased him all around the gym and after that my life was much simpler and less fraught, and so I thought, ‘this works!’ – this is what the Brits understand! So it’s a brutal lesson of life but it’s served me well.
“Later through training – and it’s not just karate, but any training in anything, you develop your senses. They are keenly honed, so you’re aware of things – you’re aware when there’s an atmosphere or when something’s gonna kick off. You can sense things and you can sense anger or stress in people, so that’s probably the best advantage – it gives you a bit of a warning so,” he laughs self-deprecatingly, “it means that you don’t need to hide behind hard stares! You can be sensitive to people – I think that’s the important thing there.”
Ah, the hard stare: practically a Jean-Jacques Burnel copyright in those days of chip-on-shoulder punk vitriol.
“Well yeah,” he says bluntly now, “it was my only form of defence at one point.”
The Stranglers perform at the Astor Theatre on Monday, February 12. Full details at http://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=STRANGLE17&v=AST