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Jean-Jacques Burnel on Half a Century of the Stranglers: 'If You Were Lucky, You Had a Few Years in the Limelight and Then You Had to Grow Up and Get a Proper Job'

Ahead of the Stranglers' 50th anniversary tour, the legendary bassist reflects on a 'mentally challenging' back catalogue and the joy of sticking two fingers up to the detractors.

jean jacques burnel
Source: The Stranglers / Press
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The Stranglers were among the strangest of bands to emerge from the furnace of punk rock – and certainly the most interesting. Bursting onto the scene in 1977 with a series of blistering singles including “Grip,” “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes,” the four-piece, made up of singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell, drummer Jet Black, keyboardist Dave Greenfield and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, had already been a going concern for three years before breaking through, and quickly transcended punk’s self-imposed boundaries – alternating between perfectly-formed pop singles and experimental album tracks.

Throughout it all, two constants remained: the swirling, dramatically-complex keyboard arpeggios of Greenfield, and Burnel’s upfront bass – at once intensely melodic and uncompromisingly aggressive.

This unique blend of musicality and attitude underpinned continuing success through the 1980s with hits like “Strange Little Girl,” “Skin Deep,” and, most successfully, “Golden Brown,” which peaked at No. 2 in the U.K. charts in 1981. It also saw every one of the band’s first 10 albums chart in the Top 20, even as their punk contemporaries imploded or faded away.

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And then, in 1990, amid increasing tensions with Burnel, Cornwell abruptly quit the band, declaring them a spent force. Against the odds, the Stranglers continued, releasing another seven albums, before their eighteenth, Dark Matters, came out in 2021, with former Toy Dolls member Baz Warne on vocals. Defying all expectations, Dark Matters has since become the Stranglers’ most successful album since 1983’s Feline, peaking at No. 4 in the U.K. Albums chart.

Dark Matters was also the first album to be recorded without drummer Jet Black, who retired due to ill health in 2018, and the last to feature Greenfield, who died from Covid in 2020, aged 71. In December 2022, Black also passed away, aged 84.

And still, the Stranglers persist. As the band – now containing sole original member Burnel – prepare to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a tour culminating in a sold-out Albert Hall show on March 26, Q caught up with Burnel, now 71 but still a force to be reckoned with, to talk about a career he still seems half-surprised to have had.

jj burnel
Source: The Stranglers / PRESS

At 71, and after 50 years with the Stranglers, Jean-Jacques Burnel is still a force to be reckoned with.

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Hi Jean-Jacques. This 50th anniversary tour must feel like a big deal?

Yeah, it does. There aren't many bands that can make that claim – and we've never split up, it’s been 50 continuous years. We want to mark the occasion properly, and also do the gigs in a different way to what we normally do. We're dividing the show into two sets and the first set will be stuff that we possibly haven't ever played live. So that's a bit of a challenge to try and put yourself in the headspace that you were in back then: there’s a fair bit of “What the f**k were we on?” Some of the time signatures… It was obviously logical to us at the time, like, “Yeah Dave, no one does five-eight time, let's do that, great idea!” But now? It's been mentally challenging, let's say.

You couldn't have thought when you were a 21-year-old that you would ever be in the position where this band that you just got together with your mates would still be going 50 years later?

No, of course not. There wasn't any precedent at the time. When we started out, the Stones had only been going for 14 years. The career path was: if you can afford to get a demo done, great. If you can get a record company interested, even better. If you got to actually release a single, fantastic. Success? Well, you take it while you can, because it's not going to last long. If you were lucky, you had a few years in the limelight and that was it. And then you have to grow up and get a proper job.

Your first three albums [1977’s Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, and 1978’s Black and White] were all released within 13 months of each other. Was that a case of getting as much out there while you could?

Actually, a lot of it was because we it took us three years to get signed. So we were accumulating a lot of material, we were writing lots of stuff. I think the first two albums were even recorded in the same session. For Black and White, we'd had a busy year and then we had nothing to do for a few months, so we sat down and did that. But also already by then we wanted to try new stuff, move into a different mood.

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And when success came, it was during the first wave of punk and it seemed to be a case of “the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Stranglers and the Damned.” Was that something you embraced? Or did you think, hang on, we've been going a few years already, actually?

It was actually quite a seamless transition because a lot of those bands were coming to see us anyway, so we were quite familiar with their faces. And then we were chosen to be support for Patti Smith’s first ever visit [to the U.K.] and then the same with the Ramones. I think a few of those other bands’ noses were put a bit out of joint because they thought they were contenders for those slots.

Was there a tension between you and those other punk bands?

There wasn't at first, but it grew. And then there was a sort of a little incident between me and Paul [Simonon] from the Clash that became public – mostly because there were an awful lot of journalists who saw it.

A little incident? [The fight began after a gig in Camden and escalated into a full-on ruckus involving both bands, as well as the Sex Pistols.]

[Laughs] It was after we'd come offstage with the Ramones at Dingwalls. There was a little punch-up, handbags at five paces… and that polarized opinion. After that it was the Stranglers on one side and the Clash and the Pistols on the other. But then, you know, I always thought that the Sex Pistols were more like the Monkees than anything else.

The Monkees were pretty ace, to be fair. Someone once told me: never trust anyone who doesn't like the Monkees.

Oh god yeah, don’t get me wrong, “I'm a Believer” is f***ing great. It’s written by Neil Diamond! And I get that completely. My mum used to say: “never trust anyone who doesn't drink, and never trust a vegetarian. Hitler was a vegetarian.” What more proof do you need?

the stranglers
Source: Capital Pictures / MEGA

The Stranglers have outlasted every one of their punk contemporaries.

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So can we talk about “Golden Brown”? I guess that was the single that really broke you out of the whole punk thing. Obviously it's become part of the mainstream now… but it's still a very weird song. Even apart from the fact it’s about heroin, it’s got this incredibly odd time signature – neither of which things exactly suit daytime radio. How do you feel about it? Presumably it’s the one you have to play at every gig. Is it a kind of millstone or is it something you're still proud of?

I'm massively proud of it! The whole thing about that song is it really represented us sticking our fingers up to our detractors. I mean, we had to insist on it being released. We'd been taken over by EMI and they thought we were awful – and they hated “Golden Brown”, they said: this song, you can't dance to it, you're finished.

So they released it just before Christmas and in those days December was just a f***ing tsunami of Christmas songs. And they thought, it's weak, it's gonna die, it's gonna drown in the tsunami of Christmas s**t… but it didn’t. It developed legs of its own, it became a worldwide hit. So in a sense it became a real threat to the powers that be.

I'm very proud that it made people reconsider the band. A lot of people hated us because we weren't the Sex Pistols or the Clash or the Damned, and they thought we were parvenus and had jumped on a bandwagon. So it was a real significant thing, and I’m so grateful we had that moment.

I’ve always thought “Golden Brown” really summed up the Stranglers’ attitude and bravery of not wanting to sit still musically. It would have been easy to keep doing “No More Heroes” but throughout your whole career, you've kept pushing new boundaries and developing musically.

Well, thank you. I mean, that's what I'd like people to think. Maybe it's just that we came from four different musical backgrounds originally, so we all had different influences. When you start out, your musical influences are more obvious and if you're allowed to survive and develop, you get more confidence, so you explore a bit.

And also those years coincided with a lot of new technology. That time was the start of digital reverbs, synths, that sort of thing, and we were like kids in a candy store. “What can we do with all this stuff? How can we change, do the next bunch of records of songs differently to the ones we did previously?” So after No More Heroes and Rattus, Black and White was a huge musical change. And then [fifth album] The Gospel According to the Meninblack was a complete… well, actually it was a total f**kfest compared to them. And then La Folie followed, and that was again completely different.

And of course commercially that's not a smart thing to do. But for us, it was fantastic. Going off on all these tangents, experimenting, seeing what could happen with all these new toys.

Did you get some kickback from the fans for that?

Of course! The Gospel According to the Meninblack left people completely perplexed. I think if you're in sober mode it's a bit of a challenge, but if you are completely, how can I put this, isolated mentally, I think maybe you could appreciate the trip.

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And then in 1990, more change, when after 16 years, Hugh [Cornwell] quit the band. Did you consider finishing the Stranglers there and then, or were you always just going to carry on?

No, no, I thought, “Okay, that's it.” I didn't think we could replace Hugh, so that would be that. But Jet [Black] and Dave [Greenfield] insisted, because I'd started to write more of the stuff anyway and we had a bit of a body of work ready to record. So yes, it was a crisis but the others wanted to carry on, so we did.

And how is your relationship with Hugh these days?

With Hugh? What relationship? I mean I've heard he says “why are they still going on?” We’re going on because we can.

What I think is even rarer than us still going on, is how can a band, a four-piece band, have only one original member left in it and be doing better business than we’ve ever done before? I mean, you tell me why? We could never sell out the Albert Hall in one day before. Suddenly we can. It's kind of weird. I don't quite understand why we've got such success at this stage. It can only be because we’re doing justice to the music.

I think for a few years we weren't inspired and I'd lost interest a bit, but then in 2000 Baz [Warne] joined the band. We became a four piece again and suddenly it picked up and I started getting my mojo back. So now I'm confident in my writing, confident in my playing and really confident about this lineup. So it’s a bit of a second coming, which is kind of rare in the music business.

stranglers jj and baz
Source: Hiroki Nishioka

Baz Warne joined the Stranglers in 2000 and has brought a new energy to the band.

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But I guess the joy of that has been tempered with a lot of sadness as well. As you said, you are the only original member left, after the deaths of Dave Greenfield and Jet Black. How do you cope with that on a personal level, even apart from the whole band thing?

Well, you can't separate the two after so long, you know? The funny thing is I was thinking about Jet, and the fact is, we never really had any rows. I think I can remember three rows with him, over, you know, nearly 50 years, and one of them was just about a snare drum.

But Jet always had poor health. We’d had eight drummers over the years because Jet had health problems since day one. During one American tour he got shingles so we had to get Captain Beefheart's drummer to play for us. Another time we ended up having a guy who it turned out was one of the two drummers of the Glitter Band.

The drums were great in the Glitter Band, to be fair, despite whatever else happened…

Absolutely they were. "Rock 'n' rooollll! Hey! Rock 'n' roll!"

stranglers
Source: The Stranglers / Press

The Stranglers' most recent album 'Dark Matters' is their most successful in 41 years.

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There's a very beautiful song on your most recent album Dark Matters, “And If You Should See Dave,” which is presumably about Dave Greenfield. Was that something that was very difficult to put in words?

Not at all – it was one of the easiest songs I ever had to write. After Dave's passing, it was so easy, it just came easy. I wish I hadn’t had to write it. Dave’s on a lot of that album, actually. We had recorded most of the album with him, and there were just three or four pieces which we were in the middle of developing when we were locked down.

And Dark Matters is your most successful album since Feline, 41 years ago. Does that feel strange?

Yeah it does – but even after all this time we're still not that savvy. I mean, why would we release Dark Matters the same week as albums by Ed Sheeran and Adele and Drake? We got to No. 4 and the album would have been No. 1 it wasn’t for those three. It would have been our first No. 1.

And who’s buying it, do you think? Is your audience old people who've been with you over those 50 years, or are you getting kids coming to shows as well, who might only know the more recent stuff?

The demographic is as wide as anything you can imagine. Sometimes, when you look on the CCTV before you go on stage, you just see a mass of bald heads and aging punks who don’t fit into their t-shirts anymore… but recently the demographic has included so many teenagers and twentysomethings. Some of them are obviously influenced by their mums and dads, but an awful lot of them, because they’ve got more access to old stuff, think that we're the real thing. Like, all the stuff we did that seemed detrimental to our careers years back are now seen as badges of honor, because everything's a bit sterile or over-managed now.

stranglers th tour
Source: The Stranglers / Press

The Stranglers' 50th anniversary tour culminates at the Royal Albert Hall on March 26.

So what's next? More albums? Still shooting for that first No. 1?

Well, sure more albums, if I come up with something which I think is reasonable enough to offer up for people to listen to. But the quality control has to be 100 percent. I don't want us to plagiarize or repeat ourselves, and also I'm not finding it any easier to write stuff. I have hundreds of ideas but I can't complete them.

I need a lengthy period of contemplation just to collect my thoughts and ideas. I mean, there's so much to write about, isn't there, in the world that we live in right now? I wish I could write more love songs, but I don't see that much love in the world at the moment.

Right now I'm just concentrating on playing live. Ultimately, that's probably the most enjoyable part of being in the Stranglers. Playing to audiences who finally appreciate what we're doing.

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