As legendary punk band The Stranglers prepare to hit the road to present their “Definitive” collection in the form of The Definitive Tour, it was with excitement and trepidation that I got the opportunity to chat to a guy with the reputation of being one of the toughest guys in music business, JJ Burnel, bass guitarist of one of the UK’s most influential British groups.
PS: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and I’d like to say what a great fan of the Stranglers I am. I think one of the first albums I bought, was Rattus, and remember seeing you in 78 at Tiffany’s in Great Yarmouth.
JJ: (Laughs) Right, Yes….I think I had a punch-up with someone, if I remember. Someone causing a bit of trouble I had to sort out. I think I even chased him across the car park (laughs).
PS: (Laughs) I remember that actually, certainly an exciting night and scene for me growing up. 78 and 79 was when i saw you – What was it like being in a band at that particular time, with punk kicking off ? How did it feel being in the Stranglers then?
JJ: Yeah,well by then all the people that we thought were our friends had deserted us. There was a lot of bands we considered to be our mates, because there was a very small circle of places we could play in London, and thereabouts. And there were people like Joe Strummer who was in a RnB band called the 101‘ers and he had supposedly said he wanted to be in a proper band like ours, quote, they all kind of shunned us, we were doing better than anyone, but weren’t on the front covers of any magazines, like the Pistols and the Clash and others, who were presumably more photogenic (laughs)
PS: I think you were probably a threat I would imagine.
JJ: We certainly were a threat, because if you crossed our path, you’ll get a kicking !! (laughs)
But also, actually, we were outselling all those bands put together.But that’s not what the musical press was emphasising. So by 78 we were kind of all alone and we were fighting our own corner.
So unfortunately for us, wherever we went abroad, and we were the first band to become international of that group of bands to physically play outside, even though all those bands obviously like the sex pistols were getting well-known. And we were actually playing these places, but being attacked and criticised representing some kind of movement that we were kind of being included out for, So we were getting all the kind of punch-ups and riots and police and beatings in a kind of surrogate way (laughs).We were disappointed, but battle hardened by the time 78 came.
PS: I felt that in the mid-late 70s, New wave and punk and say the 74 / 75 pub scene,…
JJ: If we were lucky to be allowed into a pub…!
PS: …yes, again, it was that big change, but it was noticeable that they were very guitar and drums orientated , and yet you were more of bass and keyboards up front in the music…?
JJ: Well, we got criticised for that, I remember some of the reviews for Rattus and also our contemporaries or our peer group if you want, criticising us for using synthesisers, God forbid..! we were very proud of using a Moog on that LP, and it was helpful in our first single Grip, and of course we got completely demolished for using that, and having keyboards… and then about three years later everyone was using the synthesiser…
PS: Yeah, well that’s often the way, I remember Bowie being criticised for Low and Heroes in 77 and yet go on to prove everyone wrong.
JJ: Yeah, it’s all bullshit, people decided right we’re gonna have these new rules, and of course at first i thought Punk was meant to have no rules and it freed us up, and yet within 18 months or two years it became suffocating, you can’t do this , can’t do that, don’t do that…bollocks, we just went off on our own way.
PS: I think you stayed, musically consistent all the way through The Stranglers career, there’s always been quality to it , always strong melody , bass or keyboards and a great sound that I think is the secret to your longevity and surpassed other bands that were on a bit of a wing and a prayer, there was a quality to what you produced all the time…
JJ: You ought to listen to the next one then…!! (laughs) It’s going to be the most eccentric Stranglers album ever I think !
PS: I love Giants the last LP, there’s some really great songs on there, all the way through, all the albums, one or two might have not been to everyone’s taste, In the Shadows or…
JJ: Or me neither..!! (laughs)
PS: (Laughs) I was then going to ask you, what happened to the Barracuda bass..?
JJ: Aaah, well the Barracuda bass might be making a revival actually…!
PS : Aaah… I couldn’t quite work out what was going on there..! (laughs) but it was always good music and great songs that underlined all of it, and is the reason your still there, still doing it and why everybody is still in love with what you do.
JJ : I think….I don’t listen to old Stranglers songs too much, certainly not in front of anyone else anyway…! (laughs) I listen to stuff or hear it on radio and it doesn’t sound dated and that’s actually quite pleasing…
PS: Yeah, as I said .. a good song is a good song and always will be, productions might come and go …
JJ: Yes, i think productions can define and age stuff actually.
PS: Well, with Rattus taking off, second album? Was there a kind of pressure on to have the same success ? Which of course you did..
JJ: There was a bit of commercial pressure to release a second album, i mean it was relatively easy as most of it was already recorded with the first one. No More Heroes and Rattus , No More Heroes material was actually recorded in the same session as Rattus, like any other young band, when you haven’t been signed, your accumulating material and songs and suddenly the kind of , the dam bursts and suddenly your allowed to record all this stuff that’s been hanging around for a while.
PS: Was studio hours precious at the time, to get as much done while you could?
JJ: It’s never been confirmed, but I think management and the record company thought that it wouldn’t last very long, so try to squeeze as much out as possible while it was still happening. And I know for a fact that our management in 78 said look, we should, the band should split…and we looked at each other and thought what the fuck! And we should reform two years later and make lots of money, it was never our way of thinking and we thought that’s the end of our relationship with this management company then..!
PS: Historically, thats happened with many bands. They realise the way they’re being managed, the way the industry works, thats the big difference, some people need the management because there might not be so much substance there, but with the artist they will always survive, develop and progress
JJ: I think and hope so. Otherwise its the tail wagging the dog..!! You know.
PS: Absolutely. Has the process changed of songwriting and the musical approach, obviously with Baz coming in ?
JJ: Well no, In fact Baz and I work like Hugh and I used to in the early days, you know, we have ideas we throw them at each other, we spend a lot of time with each other, we love fiddling about and playing with new ideas and recording them, which is something I lost with Hugh in the mid eighties really, but with Baz we seem to bounce off each other quite well. A different way to Hugh , but it’s the same process. I just need someone to bounce off and I found that.
PS: It still sounds great, I love Boom Boom, Time was once on my side in particular…
JJ: Oh yeah, great.
PS: It’s still got, and I think that in particular with Dave’s keyboards, with the Doors thing, its still got a kind of a sixties Garage element in there.
JJ: I wouldn’t want to deny that either, because I think it’s part of my DNA, or our DNA. Why deny your past and what’s part of you?
PS: Yeah, it brings it to a modern form, it gets it to new audiences, and then it continues to evolve and changes, which is fantastic.
How do you think you’ve evolved, personally?
JJ: As a person? Like, well we all, despite appearances, we all try to survive as well as we can, we lose people on the way, morally and physically, we have ups and downs, and surely that should reflect our opinions in what’s going on in the world, if your at all interested, which we are. So that the world that we live in should reflect surely, well in our case, what are musical output should be. I mean, you can’t pretend that the world is a lovely place and sweet all the time, and you can’t pretend to talk about just your emotions all the time because they’re wrapped up with your opinions about the world as well, i think to be honest, if you’re an honest artist you should reflect the world that you’re living in, i think that’s a given. So nothing has really changed, I haven’t become more cynical, I was before, we’re all a bit cynical, I don’t think i’ve lost my sense of humour, although sometimes it was misinterpreted by those people that couldn’t quite get the Stranglers black humour, but that was the trouble.
PS: I think that they probably wanted to see you in a different way, that’s the difference, people like pigeonholing people , it makes them feel more secure possibly.
JJ: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, I think when people do that, it’s more of a reflection on them, rather than the person they’re trying to criticise,
PS: Yeah, definitely. Finchley Boys, what’s the story behind the Finchley Boys?
JJ: They’re just a bunch of kids from an estate in North London and they were the right age to be influenced by what was happening in the media, so they tested out all these bands to see what they were made of, and a few bands got completely scared off by them, and they were just young guys at the time, and they decided that the band they were going to follow was the Stranglers for some reason we clicked , and they liked the music and they thought our irreverence was great and we stood up to them ,
They invaded our stage one time and we weren’t going to have it and by then we were already battle hardened anyway and we weren’t gonna take any shit and we weren’t going to be intimidated by anyone, no matter how scary they looked and actually they were lovely.
There was a lot of them and they became the terrors of London and the Clash and the Sex Pistols fans were hiding when they saw the Finchley Boys and it basically made London our own for a while. And of course over the years I’ve attended a few funerals of Finchley Boys but we still meet up every now and again the ones who are still alive and we have those memories.
PS: Did any of them come to Australia recently when you played there?
JJ: No, but we’re going to Australia next week actually, in ten days time. But they have turned up in the most improbable places, and I didn’t want to know why they were there, but they have been involved in naughty things all over the world.
PS: You might have been they’re good excuse to go and have fun I imagine…
JJ: I don’t know. I don’t think I could publicise some of the things we got involved in (laughs)… although, I don’t know if you remember the Steven Waldorf scandal ? The guy was shot by the police at a set of traffic lights, that was all to do with the Finchley Boys, I remember seeing three of the Finchley Boys on a photo on the front cover of the Daily Mirror around about that time spreadeagled on the road, the photograph was taken from five floors up … they’ve been involved in a few things in their time.
PS: Colourful characters, shall we say!
Livewise , how important is live to you? Do you prefer live performance or studio work, a mixture of the two?
JJ: Live is the blood that runs through our veins, I mean we have to play live otherwise we would just dry up like an old prune. Live is good because a) if your a musician you just wanna play, b) it’s a form of communion. Now, at this stage in my life, at this stage of the Stranglers career, it’s a form of communion. We don’t have to, in the old days we were fighting for our lives literally sometimes, and fighting to get an audience. Now people come to see us because they know the Stranglers , they might not know the Stranglers as well as others, but we’ve got enough history, if you want, that people have got a rough idea of what to expect, its a form of communion, before it was a battleground.
PS: I think that’s a great way to describe it, they know the hymns, they know why they’re coming , it’s almost like like minded people, I always felt that when we were going, the sense of camaraderie, you’d see the same people at gigs…
JJ: It still is… you know, some of us have lost our hair, some have got white hair and there’s a whole new generation of people coming along as well. I wondered why the audience is getting younger up the front, it’s because, I’ve been told, all the shit that we got involved with in the past, all the bad stuff, the arrests, the punch ups, bad press etc.is now seen as a badge of honour , they’re telling me bands nowadays , although some of them are really interesting, good bands, but everything is planned, and sterile, and they play safe, commercially anyway.
PS: Yeah, for me there’s no realism, what people want and what you get live is a real connection, there’s a definite link to people, and particularly with emotions and music and it seems to work best in that environment…
JJ: Well you can’t separate emotions from music can you..? Otherwise it’s just showbiz and pointless..
PS: Yeah, I think people pick up on that, when somebody plays, how you behave, when you perform and you mean it, that comes across ..
JJ: I don’t think you can fool an audience, I think if you did the same thing every night, people could see through, and know that your just going through the motions. And that’s not why people come to see the Stranglers.
PS: Definitely. Who would you collaborate with if you could, either a producer, artist or band? Is there anyone you’d still like to work with?
JJ: Err… No, they’re all dead..! (laughs)
PS: (Laughs) That’s true.
JJ: I’d have liked to have worked with Mark E. Smith actually (laughs)
PS: (Laughs) Really..? Topical.
JJ: No, there aren’t that many, and to be honest I have collaborated with quite a few people in my time but, at the moment I’m 100% on the Stranglers. We’re preparing new material, we’re touring and then we’re going to tour much less this year because I want to complete this record , it’s been five or six years since Giants and we’re all chomping at the bit so basically its..
PS Your focused on that…
JJ: Its 100%. Yeah.
PS: How are the next few months looking, wondering if after the tour you were going to play a few festivals in the summer?
JJ: We’ll do a few because , to keep our hand in just playing wise, and try out new songs or new material before we record it, but basically the main thrust for the rest of the year is a new Stranglers I think.
PS: And obviously with the 44th year, isn’t it..?!
JJ: (Laughs) Stop it…is it?
PS: Aah, but, it’s just a number as they say.. With the definitive collection coming out, reissuing the first seven albums…
JJ: Yeah, yeah, but it’s nothing to do with us though actually that apart from in name.
PS: Is that the record company then?
PS: So what can we expect set wise on the tour, have you kept it a good selection of tracks?
JJ: Yeah, we have been working on a set, I think it’s going to be a bit more obscure than usual
JJ: But thats all to be revealed..(laughs)
PS: Well, I’m coming along in Norwich at the UEA, and if it’s ok I’ll pop in and say hi …
JJ: Yeah, and arrange it with the powers that be, by all means…absolutely.
PS: It’ll be nice to come and see you and talk properly. Many many thanks again JJ. Good luck with the start of the tour and I’ll catch you soon in Norwich.
JJ: I’ll be able to put a face to the voice.
You can catch the Stranglers on tour:
03 BELFAST Ulster Hall
06 LIVERPOOL O2 Academy
08 GLASGOW O2 Academy
09 INVERNESS Ironworks
10 KILMARNOCK Grand Hall
12 NOTTINGHAM Rock City
13 PORTSMOUTH Guildhall
15 BRISTOL O2 Academy
16 CARDIFF Tramshed
17 BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy
19 NORWICH The Nick Rayns LCR
20 SOUTHEND Cliffs Pavilion
22 LEEDS O2 Academy
23 LINCOLN Engine Shed
24 LONDON O2 Brixton Academy
26 GUILDFORD G Live
27 READING Hexagon
29 NEWCASTLE O2 Academy
30 CAMBRIDGE Corn Exchange
31 MANCHESTER O2 Apollo