Defying all labels and categories The Stranglers have for over 40 years resolutely maintained their own unique positon within the music world releasing 17 studio albums and 23 hit singles.
JJ Burnel talks about surviving and confounding the music industry, issues of identity, the nature of existence, martial arts, empire/imperialism, the potency of protest, the European ideal and crucially the reinvigoration of the band.
Last year you celebrated 40 years together, a period that has seen 3 incarnations, and several ups and downs. What’s your secret to staying alive and sane?
Maybe that’s part of it, renewal, regeneration, or reinvention. With success it’s too easy to get stale, success breeds its own problems, so when you are successful, sometimes there’s a temptation to recreate that, which has never been the case with us.
When we forced the record company to release Golden Brown, which they didn’t want to do, we invoked the clause, they brought it out, I think they thought it would get buried in the usual pre-Christmas tsunami which existed at the time. When it was a success they wanted us to reproduce it again which was kind of really dumb. So after resisting releasing it they wanted us to do another one, a copy, so we gave them a seven minute song in French (La Folie). So part of the reason why we’ve survived despite ups and downs we’ve had different inputs, so when Hugh left we were getting a bit stale, there was definitely a split in our general psychology, Hugh wanted success at any cost, I think there’s a price to pay by definition and it’s not always the healthiest thing. When he left it was a bit of a shot in the arm to have Paul Roberts. OK, it wasn’t our most successful period, but at least we trod water for a few years, but it allowed us a completely different persona and then when he went things seemed to shoot ahead when Baz joined the band and we became a four piece again. All these different periods have allowed us to write different stuff, it’s like a team, you change one person and things change.
Part of your appeal has been that you are anti-structural, you’ve always looked at things and whatever is the supposed order of the day, you’ve questioned it and done your own thing rather than toed the line.
Well, that’s important for any human being, you have to, as you get older or you evolve as a person or in our case as a musical unit, surely you should be questioning everything anyway, some things are acceptable and other things aren’t acceptable to you or to the collective group. And that’s fuel for writing, isn’t it, I think. I find that really stimulating, I’d hate to be in a situation where I was smug and cosy and accepting of whatever permanently. It’s not conducive, it’s not exciting for a start on an individual level and collectively it’s not creative.
Avoiding being stale, being staid and ossifying and churning out the same stuff (‘product’) because …
That’s the temptation, the dangerous seduction of success. When you have success you want to perpetuate it and that’s the danger, suddenly you’re in league with whatever’s given you that success and sometimes you’re in bed with not very pleasant bed-fellows. That’s what corrupts you, creatively and as a person. I think we’ve managed relatively to avoid that and in so doing we’ve managed to still keep fresh and we’re a bunch of old fucking bastards! There aren’t many bands who last 40 odd years.
When you think about a band like you and then you think about The Rolling Stones, who by the 80s were relics and despite the machinations of the reissue industry continue to be relics, stuck in a time-warp, whereas you’ve continually updated, progressed, changed, challenged, never stood still. Massive contrast between a band like the Stones and yourselves, they represent the ‘museumfication’ of music.
I think that’s true, some of the things that we’ve done have been pretty poor so it’s been up and down, which is a good thing, I don’t think you can stay on an ‘up’ trajectory indefinitely that surely is unhealthy too.
By choosing not to be aligned with certain political movements the music press deemed you as being against those movements. Do you ever rue the opinion the music media had and continue to have of you as misogynistic, sexist (playing live in Battersea Park in 1978 the band employed strippers to accompany Nice ‘n’ Sleazy invoking the wrath of many) and thuggish when in reality there has always been a sardonic and playful element to your work? Do you think your ‘aloofness’ and unwillingness to play the game rendered you an easy target?
Most people didn’t ‘get’ it. A lot of it … we’ve been hiding, we hid and we’re still hiding behind a form of provocation so you adopt a certain line and people fall for it. And they don’t see any humour, I think we’ve had tonnes of humour in this band and people just take it at the first degree, they take it literally and it’s really frustrating, they just fall for it, it’s like ‘let’s have a little trap for these people and see who falls for it’ and an awful lot of the time they have. We even get complaints, even now, about a song we’ve actually resurrected, from our second album ‘I feel like a wog’. You know, people complain about it, for fuck’s sake, you use this emotive language in order to do that and they fall straight into the trap *laughs*
In some ways it only strengthens how you came across to people who saw through the perception that was trying to be created, saw the intellectual side, reclaiming the word ‘wog’ at a time when it was a very incendiary word.
It still is. We played it last time about 6 or 7 years ago and I think it would be The Guardian probably, they feel more uncomfortable about this than they had 35 years before. It’s quite interesting that there are things which are incendiary or just provocative which winds people up, it betrays them, it’s more a reflection on the people who get shocked than us.
With that in mind, do you think your aloofness or unwillingness to play the game rendered you an easy target?
I don’t want to play any ‘game’, we’ll play our own game under our own rules, and so be it and if it offends people I might have a laugh or I might have to defend myself or explain myself, that’s par for the course. I really don’t want to suck up to anyone who I have no respect for.
Peaches foresaw the 90s lads’ mags’ fad. Discuss.
‘Peaches’ was our first or second single? It was incredible that a lot of ‘right on’ people actually decided that that was going to be the reason for banning our records in their shops, all the so-called ‘right-on’ righteous people, they were full of shit and it was the first time I’d ever encountered something which later became known as political correctness. I mean, they tried to neuter their own instincts, if you’re a red-blooded male, even if you’re not heterosexual or homosexual, you’re still going to lust after people, and look at them and no one had talked about it except maybe reggae people, it’s just kind of ridiculous.
Possibly because Peaches wasn’t coded, it was full-frontal, this is how it is, this is how human beings are, how human beings process attraction and sexual stimuli.
I’m amazed that no one had ever put it into words, and everyone was shocked about it.
Another example of how you as band by refusing to be co-opted by the media, they were gunning for you, any excuse that they could spin …
Great, I don’t mind them gunning for me because they’re only going to lose!
And they continue to.
… if they’re not dead!
You were recently on BBC Breakfast and it was yet another classic example of lazy labelling, the age-old ‘Are they punk or not punk?’ they were just mouth-pieces filling time …
It’s intellectually easy to not consider ‘grey’ areas, journalists especially a lot of the time prefer to have everything in a niche, the same as marketing and business people, they always need something in a niche so then they can sell it with that niche title. Something else which covers a bit more than that, it’s confusing for a lot of people. I’ve always found all these labels and tiles completely lazy.
It’s to commodify and package which is insulting to the ‘consumer’
The consumer’s getting insulted all … most of the time. I think with the Stranglers I’ve come to this view that the people who come to see us are all people who still appreciate us, we deserve those people, *laughs* you get the audience you deserve. Like countries get the governments they deserve, you know? And the regimes that they deserve ultimately. People might say ‘That’s cruel’, ultimately that’s what it’s down to.
History, whatever history is, would suggest that is completely the case?
Lyrically you’ve never been the credit I feel you deserve. For example, few bands could tackle such themes as Mayan culture, extra-terrestrial visitations, Norse mythology, heroin, the Spanish Civil War, Aboriginal rights and Nostradamus etc in such a cerebral and ethereal manner. A song like (1984’s Aural Sculpture LP) North Winds is like an intellectual (Billy Joel) We didn’t start the fire assessing historical world changing events (sort of a No More Heroes follow-up). Sadly the themes are still relevant (e.g. ‘kids whose bellies were all on fire’). If you were to update it, how would you approach the topics?
Don’t think it would change too much, the same topics are resurrected every few years, we’ve still got, well, were on the verge of World war III possibly at the moment, so, these are things that interest us as people, now, not everyone’s interested in what happens in the world, they prefer to look into their own belly-button that’s their privilege, it’s not my interest, I am very interested in what happens in the world, in geo-politics, we are as a band, it’s fuel for, it’s great stuff to write about, listen, we’re all deep-down we’re all the fucking cab driver aren’t we, we’ve all got an opinion haven’t we. Why can’t we express those opinions in the medium that we’ve chosen, in our case its music and I make no apologies for having covered all those subjects.
Again to cite North Winds your songs do look at the world, philosophise about the world in an attempt to understand and make sense of it.
Isn’t that we’re supposed to do, I suppose we make peoples’ feet tap and make them wanna have sex to music, which is fantastic, but, surely we live a world which is so awesome, so full of contradictions and so cruel, it needs to be talked about, that’s the whole point.
And also about personal relationships and some people might identify with those opinions in personal relationships. I don’t think, we’ve got enough of an audience that shows some people are interested in the same subjects as us and we’ve hit a nerve with some but not other people who think its fucking boring or intellectual. We’ve tried to make the things that interest us interesting musically as well as lyrically.
Art should force you to question, to stimulate. And polarise?
It should definitely polarise, if its extreme enough and it should reflect the world you live in, it’s part of the world that you live in, sometimes it might sound dated, it was specifically of that time, that’s a good thing.
A social document?
You shouldn’t be afraid to do that, attempt that, and if you say ‘I’m just a humble musician I don’t know about things like that’, well, you’re a citizen with an opinion, you also have a vote if you’re interested in exercising it, whatever output, thought that you have, if you can put it into some medium that is of use to other people you might just touch a nerve occasionally.
We exist in such a politically febrile environment at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much if any space for protest in music.
On the contrary, that’s bullshit! There is but they don’t exercise their right because they want commercial success at all costs. Nowadays, there’s some really good musicians out there, most of them aren’t saying much, but, there’s still good, entertaining musicians. I think, it’s the commercial imperative that dominates everything, people want success, career minded, taught how to do their careers, seems to be a monopoly of schools now, the BRIT schools, and the number of successful people coming out of these institutions is incredible. They’re all good students, they’ve done their lessons well and they are reaping the benefits which is fine if that’s what they want.
Last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of talk (again) about privileged, the elite in the arts. The BRIT School, we live in a time where you can have the whole history of music downloaded onto your laptop and you can suddenly have this overview of a period of time. To me it’s cheating. People leaving these places, are told they prepared, but, it seems that they’ve skipped the actual ‘learning’?
Exactly, but they’re well-formed and well informed and they know how to pursue their careers, and now if they’re going to be caught doing something shocking isn’t it a coincidence there’s always a photographer to catch them? It’s all orchestrated. It lacks spontaneity and as a result it lacks danger.
I’ve noticed in the last few years a lot of younger people are coming to Stranglers’ gigs, I think that they are more cynical than us older ones because they are cynical about their own generation of artists and the people who they see on The Voice or The X Factor and so they’re going back to older or what they consider slightly to be more credible who fucked up and done this and that and done all the wrong things, a bit more real.
‘Freedom is insane‘ A song for these times?
It was an anti-Iraq war song, but, it became … we imposed this mantra, throughout the 19th century we imposed white colonial rule in Africa, and now the mantra is ‘democracy’ and really it just doesn’t mean … so the Americans especially want to impose democracy on the whole world and commercialism but they don’t take into consideration what we call ‘democracy’ we’ve come to a certain state of political sophistication which has taken 10,000 years to get to and an awful lot of shit in-between. And now we’ve achieved this thing and then they’ve, the majority of people are apathetic about it, about this power that they could potentially wield so you get turnouts under 50% of the population vote in the General Election, so we impose this mantra on countries which have not got a single iota of experience of this type of thing and then we say ‘Oh see they revert to tribalism’, of course they’re going to revert to tribalism because that’s all they know, they don’t know about discussion, they prefer, we’re imposing our world view on other countries, whether it’s Iraq, Syria, but, is the world a safer place now that we’ve tried imposing stuff… this all came from my thought as about he Iraq war at the time, we had the biggest political demonstration this country’s ever had, against it and it was completely ignored. In an ideal world we’d want ‘everyone’ to be like us wouldn’t we, but, no, it’s bullshit, it’s not happened overnight. When we imposed parliamentary rule on the African countries after they got independence, we imposed democracy and it revered to tribalism very quickly. Why? Because we’re imposing our world view and it’s wrong.
Our world view is still unproven itself?
Exactly. I find it really weird that we’re imposing OUR view on countries that have completely different traditions. OK, from our point of view it is pretty sick to see some woman being stoned to death for adultery, but it shouldn’t be our … we shouldn’t impose our view on it. It’s alien. Weird we have the arrogance to impose that on other countries.
The march changed nothing, doesn’t this make people (us) question the very system that’s being imposed here and abroad?
Exactly and that’s dangerous. You get apathetic or cynical about it, they’re not healthy traits in a democracy.
Protest has been commandeered, recuperated, the system’s swallowed it up, you can do it in this street at this time, but, you’ve got to fill in all these forms for Health and Safety etc.
It’s not quite like that in France!
Album cover of ‘10’. Please elaborate. Has a resonance
All the world leaders? Don’t think people got it at the time, funnily enough, I don’t know why … I thought it was pretty blatant and obvious if you knew what was going on in the world, half of those people are dead aren’t they, Benazir Bhutto, Gadaffi, Arafat, that Pope at the time. I think I do a very good Margaret Thatcher!
Will we ever see Yellowcake UF6 live?
Not sure if we have the technology yet.
How sick is Baz of the ‘new boy’ tag? (Baz Warne joined as guitarist/co-writer in 2000 and following singer Paul Roberts’ departure in 2006 stepped up provide an even greater input)
One more year equals Hugh’s tenure. (Baz was/is) A great shot in the arm for The Stranglers. Fitted in perfectly, couldn’t have chosen … like God smiling on the band, we just bounce song ideas off each other all the time, it’s like the early days of Hugh, some of his songs are fantastic and his guitar playing is second to none. I’m very happy with the relationship.
Some fans still harp on about the Cornwell Stranglers.
Only a few people, I think it’s pretty obvious in the last few years, Hugh or Paul or John, we’re pulling more crowds now than we’ve ever done, so something’s right, and something feels right, it feels right for me and obviously for a lot of the paying public, people pay to come and see us, we have some, I don’t know what you’d call it, a form of communion with our audience and it’s increasing at the moment so and it’s not just old people who have grown up with us, a lot of people did give up on The Stranglers for years and they’re coming back. Something’s happening right. That can only be a good thing.
How has practicing Shido -Kan influenced your philosophy/outlook after years of Kyokushinkai Karate?
They are both related: Shin Kae means ‘the way of the ultimate truth’ and that was put to the test by the founder Massa Yama who tested himself against everyone, boxers, wrestlers, karate masters in Japan and came out on top most of the time, although he did get beaten up by a boxer in Mexico. He travelled round the world and tested his karate. It was the time for him to do so, just after the war Japanese people were kind of looked at in a funny war, *laughs* by the rest of the world and his number one student is my Master. He took up the reins from Massa Yama, he’s 70 now and I’ve never seen him so fit.
Shido Kan means ‘the way of the Samurai’ the association of the samurai way. He’s kept up the intensity of the training, it’s full contact when we fight, not much protection, there aren’t many rules, the fewer rules the more real you can get.
Allowing more room for free expression?
Exactly. It’s helped me no end, helped me physically, keeps m y body degenerating s it’s dying to do, it also gives me a kind of balance. In the music business you don’t always know who’s your friend, you meet a lot of smart people, a lot of takers who vampire, there’s that sort of vampirism, who suck the energy out of you. It gives me a balance, it develops my senses, I still haven’t got any cynicism or very little and I should be much more cynical than I am. It cleans my soul, I don’t have too many negative thoughts, it refreshes me in a way nothing else can do. What I put into it is what I get out, which is not the case with other things in life. It keeps me physically and mentally quite alert.
It also helps with resilience. When you get down time and nothing works for you, it gives you a positive attitude. I never give up, the Japanese won’t allow you to give up, it’s really bad form to just give up on things, it gives me that extra edge, in a band with all the commercial pressures and stuff around you happens. I think it’s given the band a bit of strength.
Was ‘Eastern Front’ (LP rumoured to follow Black and White) purely a press invention?
Yes, due to silence on our part, they did a little press number.
Does Dave still hold a pilot’s licence?
No, he let it run out. Just as well for the whole of humanity
What’s Baz’s favourite Telecaster?
An old one, tried to get him an English one to replace the piece of wood he uses. Until he finds one that has the exact balance and sound, he will stick with that.
Not really up on football. The thing about football for me, it can be a fantastic game, but, it’s all run by hired guns now, no loyalty to the club or the town. The poor people who invest emotionally so much into this thing are very tribal, but, they supporting people who don’t care a fuck.
Are you still covertly investigating Men in Black/ufology reports?
No, we purposely turned our back on it. Although I have a residual interest in it, I still say the jury’s completely out, they won’t find the missing link because I don’t think it’s on this planet. It’s a healthy scepticism, I’m not going to say one or the other, but, I just believe it’s a mathematical impossibility that we are the only forms of intelligent life in the universe let alone in our own image. I find it extraordinary that human beings can render themselves so stupid and blinkered as to literally interpret what’s been handed down to them for their own good from whether it’s the prophets or whatever you want to call it.
I don’t think we’re the only ones.
The minute we’re born we’re led to believe it’s black or white, there’s this story or we came from this massive collision that kick-started it all. Got to be more than that?
We’re starting to get a bit more of a handle on how old the cosmos is. In mathematics if you’ve got one planet like Earth and you’ve got millions and millions of galaxies surely mathematically the sample has already changed, you’ve got a sample of one. It just doesn’t stand up to reason.
How much will Jet feature on new recordings?
Been rehearsing with us, but, he’s knackered after 4 or 5 songs, wants to come to most of the shows on the tour and we’ll accommodate him as much as we can. Some stages can’t take 2 drum kits, but, most days we’ll have two drum kits on, and if he can be part of it for even 10 minutes we’ll be happy. We have to play ach day as it comes with Jet. In the studio it’s different, the luxury of time, you can be precise. His input is still quite considerable, intellectually. Physically, quite different, but, there are ways round that.
Drawbacks of aging …
Yes, aging in a not brilliant way, he has kind of abused himself a bit and not balanced it out the other way. Physically he’s not always there, but, mentally he’s still a very important member of the band.
Does Dave still participate in mock heritage battles?
No, he stopped about 7/8 years ago. His health isn’t brilliant either so I don’t know if he can go round attacking Anglo-Saxon maidens as much as he could and raping, ravaging and pillaging as much he could.
In 1979 JJ released The Euroman Cometh, an album comprised mainly on the role of Europe. He presciently noted how regions such as Scotland would seek extraction from the binding strictures of centralised control (i.e. Westminster). Considering the outcome of that last year what are your thoughts on it now?
I think it’s an inexorable move and it will just carry on happening, especially since everything, even other parts of the UK are fed up with Westminster-centric politics, the traditional parties, they’re on the turn, I really do think, they don’t have any God-given right to have a monopoly on British politics indefinitely do they. Before the Conservatives there were the Whigs and other parties, ok, they try to be broad-churches so they accommodate most opinions of a certain leaning.
In the wake of the accelerating Orwellian dystopia do you still believe in a European single state 36 years after Euroman Cometh? Fascist superstate or utopian dream?
The present model is not one I subscribe to and it does need reforming, it also needs to decelerate from, I don’t know why they wanted to rush so many things when there is not one homogenous Europe yet, so, they’ve created impositions that have put people off and it’s really not. Lot more division when they should have done the opposite. The European idea is a great idea, I think a United States of Europe would be a good thing if all the states were allowed to retain their local particulars and identities, it’s vitally important to people. I think it’s been rushed and its created a whole hierarchy of technocrats and bureaucrats which are not responsible to anyone, which I don’t think is good. It’s not a democracy and it’s not transparent, at least if we could see exactly what was being done it would be something, it’s not serving the European ideal, the way it’s going at the moment.
I am still a believer in the ‘European’ ideal however I’m not a supporter of the powers that be of Brussels.
None of the parties at the moment don’t seem to be for anything, they seem to be waiting for others to cock-up so they can go ‘Aaaah!’ we’re not going to do that.
That’s exactly right, I think there’s no big ideas, there aren’t huge ideological ideas being fought out in politics or in the streets, it’s all little details, ‘Yeah, I’ll tweak … we’ll spend a little bit more money on the NHs than you lot’ but it’s basically, there’s no big idea. It’s not like in the 30s, you had fascism and Communism fighting in the streets and that polarised opinion throughout the world and we don’t have that. The only big ideas we have now are Islamic extremism and so-called democracy.
On the album you also wrote of a ‘Europe riddled with American values is a diseased sycophantic whore …
Nothing has changed has it! In fact that is probably more relevant than it has been for the last 30 years. Never mind the quality feel the width!
Freddie Laker’s modern day equivalent? Stelios, O’Leary?
Not quite. Stelios initially would have been, it was quite radical what he was doing and forced everyone else’s hand.
You’ve previously said about Freddie Laker that the American’s fucked him and it up.
They did. They did it with Concorde and now they doing it with chocolate as we speak. Hershey’s has asked the Americans to limit chocolate imports to the States, so there’s a bill going on, now the Brits are stashing Cadburys, there’s a black market. The Americans are doing it again! They talk about ‘free’ markets and then as soon as they can’t compete with something they put up these protectionist walls.
The Pompidou Centre (on the cover of Euroman Cometh) brutalist futurism now passe. How do you perceive the notion of as future now? Battersea now resembles a dystopia. How do you see it?
They’re building the wrong things aren’t they? They’re not building homes they’re building office blocks and malls. They’re not building things to help communities. It’s the new Babylon.
Why do you only use British products?
They are British but European, whether we like it or not we are European, we’re an island off the coast of Europe, millions of Brits who flourish and live round Europe, we all enjoy parts of Europe occasionally, even if it’s just for a week in the sun, or a weekend here and there, we seem to think the Americans are more our ‘friends’ than the Europeans, it’s completely wrong, it’s an illusion and it’s a one-way traffic illusion.
I’m trying to encourage artisans I know or local people. I happen to think Triumph motorcycles are fantastic and I love them, I’ve tried others and I’m quite happy being a loyal customer to Triumph, I’m very happy to find, Lucio can make me something I can enjoy playing and which I don’t have to rely on some people in America, I’m very happy that I’ve stuck with a little Kent manufacturer. Originally I didn’t get them because they were British, got them because I like the product then as a result of them being British I’m quite pleased with that and try to help them along in my modest capacity.
Goebbels, Mosley, God and Ingrams (Free single with Official Fan Club magazine “Strangled” (issue 27, March 1988) What had Richard Ingrams done to warrant such company?
I can’t answer that, I can’t remember why I included Richard Ingrams in that diatribe. For the life of me I cannot remember why. An obscure little thing (it) wasn’t a completed song, but, a demo for another Euroman 2. He’s his own bloke and I don’t know why he deserved to be in such illustrious company!
Ever considered another solo album using the ‘Norman English’ pseudonym?
I often think about it, the last few years my whole energy has been concentrated on The Stranglers, obviously The Stranglers weren’t in great fettle for a while and they have revived incredibly well and are back to being quite a creative unit so I haven’t had really much time to be distracted from the mission.
Would you use ‘Norman English’ as an alter-ego?
Look for many years … I’m quite open about it now, but for many years I was quite embarrassed or ashamed of coming from French parents and I sorted all that problem out, but, for a long time I was fighting, I was having punch-ups all the time and I went to a really good English school in the days where you got a grant, and it had pretensions and it was, I kind of actually enjoyed my schooling, but, one thing I was reminded of time and time again was that I was a wog, I was from French parents. It took me years to resolve that.
That sense of being an outsider has infiltrated your work?
It probably has, but, I wanted to be accepted for many years, then I thought ‘Fuck it’ I am what I am. It actually brings up another interesting subject in more general terms that if you look at the present generation/second generation immigrants, they’re not a lucky as me, because we integrated, there’s not much difference between a Norman/French or being English/Scottish, not much difference culturally, but, I will say I don’t stand out, I don’t have a different colour skin, it’s relatively easy for me not to stand out once I was an adult, nevertheless some of the treatment I got stayed in my mind so I can’t imagine what a second-generation immigrant into the UK who doesn’t have cultural similarities or who has different coloured skin, I can’t quite understand how they would feel now.
I can understand partly why they are seeking an identity whether it’s IS, or extreme forms of another religion, I think they’re seeking an identity, they haven’t been assimilated. Also I have experienced, I had to go to Brussels to give a karate seminar and I went there and I think I’d say 95% of students were second generation Moroccans; they weren’t accepted by their communities in Belgium as being Brussels people, they weren’t accepted went they went to visit family in Morocco as fully Moroccan, they’d been tainted, so they were seeking an identity, even then this is going back 18 years now. I had a couple of guys who were giving me the evil eye and proffering copies of the Koran to me, I suddenly realised these people were seeking an identity, they’re not being accepted by the Belgian people, they’re not entirely accepted as Moroccan people, they’re in limbo.
Dislocated, struggling to get a grasp, leaves you more vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation?
Who would you most like to karate chop?
*pauses* Vladimir Putin.