Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 July 2018

The Stranglers stay in the game

With the release of The Stranglers’ 17th album, Giants, James McNair talks to the band members about ageing and doing what you love.
Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bassist for The Stranglers, performing at the Hammersmith Apollo in March, 2010, in London. Marc Broussely / Redferns
Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bassist for The Stranglers, performing at the Hammersmith Apollo in March, 2010, in London. Marc Broussely / Redferns

"Am I still doing karate?" says The Stranglers bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. "Not competitively, no, but I got my black belt sixth dan in Japan four years ago and I still teach. My last competitive fight was broadcast on Eurosport, so I was later able to watch myself being knocked-out, which was quite sobering. I was 45 at the time and the other guy was 25. He got me with two knees to the head."

Burnel will be 60 in February, but looks more like 48. Ageing is a topic he tackles on Time Was Once on My Side, a gung-ho garage-punk nugget from The Stranglers' forthcoming 17th album, Giants.

Together with keyboardist Dave Greenfield, 62, and "new boy" guitarist/singer Baz Warne, 47, Burnel is but a sapling when compared to The Stranglers' venerable, bearlike drummer, Jet Black. "Charlie Watts?" says Black, 73, when I mention The Rolling Stones' 70-year-old timekeeper. "He's just a kid, isn't he?"

I met Burnel and Black at Charlton Farm, near Bath, Somerset, England. There are horses out back, but the 200-acre property owned by The Stranglers' manager Sil Willcox also houses the group's recording studio.

All four Stranglers are around, but Warne seems mindful of the fact that most journalists only want to chat with the band's original members, while Greenfield - a medieval battle re-enactment fan and sometime rat-breeder whose choice of pet sparked the title of the band's 1977 debut Rattus Norvegicus - is a man of few, mostly cryptic words.

Burnel and I move to the group's rehearsal room and perch on stools beside his amplifier set-up. Together with Greenfield's Baroque-punk keyboard arpeggios, Burnel's fabulously meaty bass-lines have long defined The Stranglers' utterly unique sound.

"I think you can hear that we're getting judgemental," he says of the new album his band is currently finishing. "The title track goes, 'Once there were giants walking among us / now I have to deal with little men with little hearts'. Everything has got so petty and twee, hasn't it?

"I went on a motorcycle trip to Flanders last year," Burnel adds. "Fifty thousand young Frenchmen killed in one day at the Battle of the Somme. Could we do that again? Would we have the resolve?"

Lamenting a dearth of male role models is, of course, nothing new for The Stranglers. Their 1978 smash No More Heroes - like Peaches and the sublime, harpsichord-led waltz Golden Brown, it was one of a string of UK top-10 singles for the band between 1977-1982 - found the group's original singer Hugh Cornwell asking: "Whatever happened to all the heroes? / all the Shakespearos?"

Still, if The Stranglers led from the front, they did so in a way that created almost as many foes as fans. Their early to mid-period gigs were lightning rods for brawls that sometimes led to members of the band spending a night in prison, while their morally ambivalent lyrics brought charges of misogyny and thuggish machismo.

Though undeniably punk in energy and attitude, The Stranglers were also shunned by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten's band drawing a line between punk's DIY ethic, and The Stranglers' seasoned musicianship. The irony, though, was that Jet Black - even then already 40-something - had taught the Pistols' Paul Cook how to drum.

Age has blunted the notoriety of these self-styled "men in black", but a jocular hint of the old menace remains. Interviewing The Stranglers, you never quite forget that they once gaffa-taped a dissenting French scribe to the outside of the Eiffel Tower some 300-feet up.

When I chat with Black in the converted hayloft that now serves as The Stranglers' business hub, he reminds me that everything I've previously written on the band, "favourable or otherwise", is contained in one of the nine 3ft x 2ft press files he has meticulously kept on The Stranglers since selling his flotilla of ice-cream vans and returning to the music biz in the early 1970s.

"We were very provocative in the early days," concedes the voluminous drummer when I ask if the band's nefarious reputation is justified. "There was all sorts of muck and vitriol written about us in the tabloids. Some of it true and some of it wasn't, but we never bothered to set the record straight. Why would we? We were selling millions of records.

"They called us the most hated band in rock and we were bottled on stage more than once. I think we just didn't fit in and we were probably very arrogant, but we always made good music and stayed true to ourselves."

The Stranglers' new album, Giants, is due in the spring. Plans are afoot to play their first-ever shows in South America, and a gruelling 41-date UK and European tour is scheduled for March and April.

The band shows no signs of slowing down, then, but Black is a 73-year-old diabetic playing the most physical of acoustic instruments. Surely, his retirement can't be too far away?

"Well, you say that, but you develop techniques for coping," he says. "As a young drummer you tend to do a lot of this [flails arms around wildly], but these days I play more from the wrists. The day I give up will be when I've got weeks to live, I should think. I don't have much motivation for any other kind of exercise, but drumming I still love."

"Jet is a force of nature," offers Brunel. "He can't hit the drums as hard as he used to, but his timing is still spot on and nobody plays brushes as well as he does. We were joking about his age a couple of weeks ago, and he said: 'Look, my body's packing up. It's getting tired and you lot are just going to have to deal with it!' I think Jet wants to carry on until he dies on stage. He's quite resigned to it."