Interview: JJ Burnel, The Stranglers.
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Evening Post.)
A Stranglers greatest hits collection (Decades Apart) is about to come out – well, maybe not a greatest hits collection, but a retrospective collection. What’s the story?
It’s not entirely a greatest hits collection. We aborted one about eighteen months ago, called 4240. That was going to be all 42 of our Top 40 hits, but this one’s more… I mean, we didn’t have hits in the Nineties! So it’s going to cover all the periods.
The track listing suggests a good even spread, covering the entirety of your career.
Yeah, it’s a bit scary. I think the title stretches the credibility to a certain extent, because it’s talking about five decades: the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Noughties and the Teens. But there are two new tracks as well, so it does bring us right up to date.
One of the new tracks, Retro Rockets, is also your new single. What’s the message of the song?
It’s a protest song. It’s a song about all the banal music, fronted by pretty – or what people consider to be pretty – front people. It’s about the state of music now.
Do you think we’re in a particularly parlous state? We’ve always had vapid, pretty people singing pop music.
Of course, and all hail the power of pop music. I’ve not a problem with that. But it’s just the mediocrity of it now. They talk about nothing. It’s cheesy, it’s dominated, and maybe that’s why there’s a reaction. People are going to gigs more these days then almost ever before – apart from the old pub rock scene, when people were actually going to bars and seeing bands all the time. A lot of people, including ourselves, did our apprenticeship there.
It does feel like we are living in a golden age for live music.
And thank God for that! Also, I get the impression that a lot of people are quite cynical about what’s made accessible to them, whether on TV or radio, and there’s a kind of a backlash. So you have people who want to see something actually real and live.
Absolutely – it’s the one musical experience that you can’t obtain digitally. And it’s the last place you can hear analogue sound.
And they don’t want it lip-synched, either.
Some of them try.
In China, lip-synching is illegal. And funnily enough, two famous Chinese pop stars were [recently] arrested for lip-synching at a gig! (Laughs)
I didn’t know the Chinese were so rockist. OK, so you’re having a bit of a dig at the new breed, and there are lines in the song such as “Where’s the melody? Where’s the identity?” Are we not veering dangerously close to Grumpy Old Man territory here?
Absolutely! And? You say it as if there’s something wrong there!
It was a charge that was levelled at your generation of bands, when you first broke through in the Seventies.
Well, we were grumpy teenagers – so I think we’re being true to ourselves. No, listen: there is some kind of seriousness behind it. If you think that every single human being is unique, and that the output from all those human beings often is not unique, there seems to be some kind of disparity there. All our fingerprints are unique. Our voices are unique. So why is the creative output from those unique individuals not always as unique as it could be?
There’s a pressure to adopt the formula that’s currently selling at the time.
It’s almost the tail wagging the dog, isn’t it? “Oh, I want to be famous, what shall I do? I shall do this thing that’s happening now.”
I’m aware that there is a bit of a Facebook campaign to get Retro Rockets into the charts. I’m reliably informed that to crack the Top 40 in the current climate, you need about 7,800 sales. Do you think that’s doable?
I’ve no fucking idea! (Laughter) But it is doable, yes.
You do have a particularly strong relationship with your fans, as far as I can tell. There does seem to be an unusually strong sense of community there. They even arrange coach trips…
They do, yeah. They do it amongst themselves. Because of the longevity of it, I’ve seen people become couples through meeting at Stranglers concerts. I can only say this. In the past, we’ve been demonised, and we’ve found ourselves ghettoised – so we’ve developed a sort of siege mentality. I think a lot of people who liked our music and identified with us felt strongly too. So they developed that same “us and them” attitude. So every time we have a small victory, they feel part of it. It is some kind of symbiotic relationship. But without the fans, we’re nothing. We’ve grown up together, and there are new people coming all the time. There are loads of teenagers checking us out now.
I suppose you get Stranglers families turning up. Families in black…
Yeah, I suspect you do. But also I think you get the fans you deserve. I like to think we have pretty intelligent fans. They’re smart, and they’re also quite hedonistic people. (Laughs) And why not, you know? They’re alive. Our fans are alive. And kicking.
At your shows, I guess you must attract two different groups: the nostalgia brigade who want to hear the old hits, and the diehard fan community who want to hear the other stuff. Is there a kind of juggling act, and does it vary from tour to tour as to how you balance it?
It does, of course. But as you get older, and as you accumulate more material, there’s even more of that – because we don’t always want to play the old stuff. Some songs, you get sick and tired of playing them. You’re just going through the motions. So you stop. We stopped playing Peaches for twelve years, because we’d had enough. Then we resurrected it, because suddenly we enjoyed playing it again and seeing the reaction on people’s faces. But the dog must always wag the tail. There’s nothing worse than going through the motions. You might as well be a karaoke band, or a covers band. That’s no good.
Looking through your touring schedule, I see you’re playing Hammersmith Apollo for the first time since 1983, as there was a bit of an incident there last time. What happened?
Oh, the guys in the monkey suits… um… (Long pause)
Why am I looking at this? I’m looking at a magazine called Attitude. It’s got Gareth Thomas on the front. (Pause – sound of pages being turned) Why is that in front of me here?
I wouldn’t have thought The Stranglers would be part of Attitude magazine’s remit.
I’ve never heard of it.
It’s a gay magazine.
It’s got a lot of… I can see that. Oh! Hmm. Anyway! Where were we?
I was plugging you for details on the 1983 Hammersmith Apollo incident.
Yeah, sorry! I got taken aback! The guys in the monkey suits were being a bit macho and turning their backs on us, and we’d had enough of that. The old-school bouncers weren’t very smart; they were just local thugs. So we had a set-to with them, during the first of our two nights there. As I recall, they had to draw the curtains. The audience were on one side, and we were on the stage with the management and a few heavy bouncers, and saying: listen, this is not the way we want to continue our concert, you’re being rude and aggressive to our fans, blah blah blah. So we carried on the show without the bouncers. Inevitably there were a few seats damaged. The next day, the management unilaterally cancelled the concert. And we weren’t booked again.
I guess people will have calmed down a bit since those days. But you were tagged at the time as having a sort of – how can I put it? – troublesome reputation. There were run-ins with journalists, and stuff like that. Was the reputation deserved?
No, not really. I think our reputation came before us, and some people reacted to that. So to be honest, we gave as good as we got. But if people were civil and nice to us, we were civil and nice back. We were quite defensive at one point, because we were selling more records than anyone, and we were getting slagged off by people saying we weren’t toeing the party line. We didn’t fit the punk orthodoxy and we had done it outside of the box, so the daggers were out for us. A lot of the so-called punk aristocracy were in cahoots with their media friends, and we didn’t have any media friends. And there was the fact that we had a keyboard player and we were – God forbid – using synthesisers, which was considered a new heresy.
Too many notes, you see.
Too many notes – and we were striving to play well, and to do arrangements, and we weren’t trying to be as loutish as possible. And we weren’t hiding our past. I didn’t hide the fact that I was educated, like some people. (Laughs)
There were quite a lot of ex-public school punks, as I remember.
There were. There were so many phoneys. Even someone as illustrious and as lovely as Joe Strummer slummed it a bit. He was an ex-public school boy whose Dad was a diplomat, and he was giving himself an accent. Shane MacGowan went to Westminster, for Christ’s sake. So they all hid that, and we said: no, we just want to improve our musicianship. We’re educated; we can talk about stuff, and not just slogans that have been fed to us.
People thought there was some kind of dichotomy between [what they saw as] pseudo-intellectualism, and being physical. Or violent, in my case. In some parts of the British media, you’re either intellectual or a thug. You can’t be physical and also strive for some kind of intellectual goal.
So we didn’t fit into any of those things, and we were still selling more than the others, and the accusation was: ah, they’ve sold out. Well, yeah – we were selling out everywhere we went! That upset a lot of people, so we started taking our revenge on journalists; those who we [had in our] black book. Le droit de réponse, you know?
Another charge has recently been laid at you. Apparently, you were directly responsible for turning a young Simon Cowell away from rock music. His girlfriend took him to a Stranglers gig, and he found the whole thing very distressing. Is that a heavy cross to bear?
It’s such a heavy cross to bear, but I shall bear it with equanimity. (Laughs) I think he’s got his facts slightly wrong, though. He was accusing me of spitting at his girlfriend, but I never, ever spat at anyone. I found that pretty cheap.
Initially, we had one song (School Mam) on our second album, No More Heroes – slightly based on the truth, actually – that was based on a schoolmistress who masturbates herself to death. In the process of this song, the singer – it was Hugh (Cornwell) at the time – would simulate masturbation on his neck, until he ejaculated by spitting.
Oh, so the spitting was artistically justified?
Completely! When we did that for the first time in 1976, at a club called Dingwalls, they had fifty-odd letters of complaint. So we were never booked there again. And that’s where we think that started. But I think at one point, the audience were spitting because they had read in the News of the World that that’s what you were supposed to do. So he’s probably got his facts wrong. But I don’t mind taking the blame.
Jet Black (drummer) is getting on a bit now (he turns 72 in August), so might this be your last big tour?
I hope not; I don’t see any reason. It might be the last one with Jet, but we’ve been saying that for years. I mean, he’s not with us all the time. We (recently) played in Greece, and that was without Jet. He wouldn’t have been able to take it. They smoke more than any other country in the world, I think. It’s incredible. It’s funny how quickly it looks shocking to us, in the space of two years since the smoking ban.
A lot of the shows that we’ve been doing for the last three or four years, we’ve done without Jet. But then he comes back and plays. He’s had some health problems. He was on life support only eighteen months ago. So any time he plays with us, it’s great. And when he doesn’t, his little Dauphin (Ian Barnard), who’s been with us for eight years, replaces him. But we’re definitely assuming that Jet’s playing with us on this tour.