When punk rock hit the mainstream of the U.K. In the second half of the 70s, it turned every juvenile delinquent and wayward youth into public enemy number one. It also saw a flurry of bands spike not just their hair, but their popularity in the wake of the Sex Pistols scoring a number-one single.
True to the cause, the majority of these bands burnt out in glorious fashion and faded quicker than their torn-knee jeans. There was one pick of the litter, however, that survived it and lived to tell the tale – and countless more after that.
Across 17 albums, countless tours and an evolution through punk, new wave and every musical trend and phase under the sun, The Stranglers are still standing. Founding members Jean-Jaques Burnel, aka JJ, on the bass and Dave Greenfield on keys have seen the band through every iteration. They have been joined on guitar and vocals by Baz Warne since 2000, and touring drummer Jim MacAuley has seen them through their last three years following the semi-retirement of founding drummer Jet Black.
The band has never split up, never cashed in on a reunion tour and never waddled through nostalgia – their most recent album, Giants, was released in 2012 and an eighteenth LP is projected for release in the second half of the year.
Speaking to Music Feeds from his house in France, JJ shared tales from across The Stranglers’ prolific and illustrious career – getting out of punk, getting old and gunslingers at their gigs.
Music Feeds: Although this is your first Australian tour in a few years, many Australian fans got to see you recently in a documentary called Stranded, which was shown on the ABC here. It’s a doco ostensibly about The Saints, but it’s also about the wider-spread impact of the 70s punk movement in Brisbane. You are brought up as one of the victims, as your sold-out Brisbane show at the time was swarmed by police. Were Stranglers shows really as wild as Stranded makes them out to be?
Jean-Jaques Burnel: A lot of the time, yeah. We were definitely the kind of band that had trouble following us around! [laughs] In Queensland, there was this guy called Joe Bjelke-Petersen, who was a politician. He stitched up the whole electoral system to his advantage. He made it illegal for there to be gatherings of four or more people. He sold indigenous land for uranium mining. There was all kinds of stuff happening.
I’m not sure if it was a result of publicity beforehand, but there was antagonism from all sides as far as we were concerned. We had a bad rep in the media, and there were people who came to our shows purely just to start something. There were, of course, people that absolutely loved us. It was quite a polarising time. There was a lot happening.
All the different styles of music were addressing the social and political issues that were facing them in their part of the world. It all kind of came to an intersection, as far as the punk banner was concerned. The idea of putting forward the issues of the time in your music almost became mainstream, in a lot of ways.
MF: Although The Stranglers ultimately outlived The Saints, their career trajectory is one with which you are quite closely aligned in a lot of ways. You are both bands that, while intrinsically linked to the punk scene in your initial releases, grew tired of the limitations that style of music placed on you. The hits that The Stranglers had in the 80s – “Golden Brown,” “Strange Little Girl,” “Skin Deep” etc. – are all fairly far removed from the sound of your early records. Was it simply a matter of not wanting to end up pigeon-holed or categorised?
JB: It became quite restrictive. Others started defining what it was and what it wasn’t – it was almost like a form of Stalinism. It was suffocating to us. Fortunately, for us, we were kind of ostracised by a lot of our peer group that had formerly been our friends. We just weren’t going to shape up as a punk band up against The Clash and the Sex Pistols. Getting out of punk gave us a freedom to explore other avenues. We weren’t straitjacketed, unlike all the other bands.
They all felt like they were obligated to stay locked into the specific sound, the specific style, otherwise they’d get completely isolated and moved away. We were always the kind of band that was more inclined to experiment. We still are, in a lot of ways. When you love music, you don’t just love one narrow lane of stuff. You love everything.
MF: Of course, if you say that as a punk band then you’re immediately going to get accused of “selling out”…
JB: [laughs] Can I tell you something? We were accused of selling out when we put out our first album!
MF: You’re kidding.
JB: No, no, no, we really were! God knows we had a synthesizer on the bloody thing, on our first single (“Grip”). Our peers were aghast, I tell you. We thought it was so silly.
MF: It’s been about four years since the last Stranglers record, Giants, came out. Have you been accumulating new material in that time, or is the current tour focused primarily on the band’s past?
JB: We’re pretty au fait with all the songs we’re playing on this tour. We just did a European tour, and we might switch in and out a few songs for the Australia and New Zealand shows, but it’s fairly solid at the moment. That said, we’re always collecting bits and pieces, little ideas that might end up as new songs. We always do that. You just never know. There’s always something to write about – it’s just about mixing and matching with the right set of ideas.
We’re in a good spot where there is no commercial pressure on us these days. We don’t have to just put out an album for the sake of putting out an album. We just like spending time together, cutting the breeze and speaking our minds about anything we feel like. That might turn into creating a new melody or creating a riff. It might not. We don’t force anything these days.
MF: The Stranglers have now been around for over 40 years…
JB: Yeah, don’t remind me! [laughs]
MF: It’s pertinent to the question, promise. When you’re a young musician starting out, you’re so full of ideas and energy and ambition. You know exactly what you want to get out of playing and touring, etc. How much do you feel motivation to perform changes in context for you and the band as you get older? As you just said, there’s no real pressure on the band like there might have been in the 70s and 80s…
JB: You keep your senses active and you stay open-minded. If you’re only reflecting on yourself and looking inward all the time, you end up writing about hotel rooms – and that’s of no fucking interest to anyone. [laughs] You look at the world and your personal experience within it, and you just have a need to write something. You have a need to play. It takes a bit of time, but it comes to you. The main problem that we face, honestly, is facing ourselves.
We don’t want to repeat something that we’ve already done in the past. What motivates us is creating something that will connect with other people. That’s always been what this band is about.
MF: Is your current touring set-up still comprised of Jim and Jet swapping in and out? That was the case for quite a few tours for awhile there.
JB: It’s primarily Jim. Mostly because Jet won’t travel outside of the UK. He’s not a well man – he hasn’t been for awhile now. His health isn’t improving as he gets older. In years past, he was diagnosed as diabetic. I have a suspicion that he’s been diabetic his entire life. It would explain the times when we’ve been on tour and suddenly, in a restaurant or something like that, he’d become violent. It would have something to do with his sugar levels dropping. I’ve spent more nights in jail cells due to Jet’s dining habits than my own misdemeanours.
Jet’s had heart problems, he’s had lung problems… he was even on life support for awhile, about three summers ago. He’s still involved with the band, and he’s included in our decision making regarding the band itself. When it comes to actually playing, though, it’s just not really possible. We tried it for a couple of shows in 2014.
The first show, he did five songs. The second show, he could only do two. We didn’t see him for a long time after that. He’s 77 years old. He was Mr. Rock & Roll for a long time, y’know. He abused his body a lot. He knows it’s in capable hands, though. He’s spent a lot of time with Jim. He’s served as a real mentor to him.
MF: There’s obviously a bit of an age gap between the current line-up of The Stranglers. Jim is in his 30s and Baz is in his 50s. You and Dave are in your 60s. How do you and Dave keep up with the demands of the touring regime when you’re at that age?
JB: [laughs] You make it sound as though we’re on our last legs!
MF: Not at all! Still, your experience with Jet would surely be a wake-up call if there ever was one.
JB: That’s very true, actually. I’m always concerned about Dave’s health. He’s like a sequencer on a good night – he’s such an efficient performer. I try and keep myself fairly fit. I guess we have to pace ourselves a little more than when we were first getting around, but y’know… you’ve only got one life. We’re lucky we’ve got to spend ours with this band.
MF: What constitutes a Stranglers setlist these days? It must be a difficult compromise between the songs that you want to play from the newer records and the songs that people will always yell out for.
JB: I think it’s good to have a lot of choice. We’re not one of those bands who only put out two albums 40 years ago, so that’s all we have to play. We have quite an extensive repertoire, which means we can change it every night.
We’re not going to play two completely different sets across two different nights, but we’re definitely not going to play the exact same set twice, either. We can change things around, we can swap songs out for others. It keeps things interesting for us. It keeps us on our toes.
MF: Are there any songs you’ve pulled out on recent tours that are a little more obscure? Maybe songs you haven’t played in awhile?
JB: That happens every now and then. We fall out of love with songs and don’t play them for a decade, but then someone will suggest it and we’ll be like “Oh, yeah! I forgot about that one!” We’ll play an old album track or something like that, and then think “Well, that wasn’t so bad, now, was it?” I mean, we’ve got 17 albums – things are bound to get lost and rediscovered all the time. The diversity and array of songs that we have is a luxury to have, I think.
MF: What about the audiences at Stranglers show these days? Being a band that’s been around as long as you have, it’s the kind of music that’s transcended generations. People that were coming to see you back in the 70s and 80s are still coming, and they’re also bringing along their kids as well a lot of the time…
JB: The demographic has been noticably different in the last 10 years. There’s the people that grew up with us – they moved away from us for awhile, for whatever reason, but they’ve come back in droves. We get a lot of hip, young teenagers, as well.
They have all the access to all the old stuff, as it’s all out online, and a lot of them discover us that way. It’s not just through their parents, although we definitely see that too. So, if you walk in, you’ll see us up on the stage, the fat bald ones up the back and the youngsters crowded around the front in the moshpit. [laughs]
MF: You famously once smashed your bass over someone’s head at a show in Australia – hopefully that won’t be repeated on this tour…
JB: [laughs] The gunslinger syndrome at our shows is long gone, thankfully! We don’t have people coming along just to test their mettle. They actually come to see us and to have a good time. We’re so looking forward to coming back.
The Stranglers Australian tour kicks off this week, grab dates and ticket links below.
Sunday 17th April SOLD OUT
The Metro, Sydney NSW
Tix: The Metro
Monday 18th April
The Tivoli, Brisbane QLD
Wednesday 20th April SOLD OUT
Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
Tix: Corner Hotel
Friday 22nd April
Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide SA
Saturday 23rd April
Metropolis, Fremantle WA