Interview: The Stranglers
JENNA CORDEROY talks to JJ Burnel from the legendary punk band THE STRANGLERS, who have in their time managed to win an Ivor Novello award, piss off Michael Eavis and shove bananas up their arses. Rock and roll.
I found it very hard to conceal my excitement when I was asked to interview Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bass guitarist of The Stranglers. Formed in 1974, and best known for their hit ‘Golden Brown’, the band is one of Britain’s national treasures. So the last thing I wanted was for the interview to collapse into my childish fan-girl giggles.
“Golden Brown’ is the song that everyone associates with The Stranglers” said Jean-Jacques, or JJ for short. “It is different to a lot of other songs because it’s waltzy, with a harpsichord in it; and the subject matter is pretty well known. I think it sounds completely different to anything else.” In the UK, ‘Golden Brown’ won an Ivor Novello and it was the most played song of 1982. “But,” sighs JJ, “I think it’s been played to death”.
In 1977, The Strangler’s released No More Heroes, an album that encapsulated the sound of the punk movement at the time, with hits such as ‘Something Better Change’ and ‘No More Heroes’. Feeling that I needed to prove I had heard of more of their songs than ‘Golden Brown, I thought it would be clever to ask: “so JJ, do you think there are No More Heroes anymore?” (see what I did there?) “We certainly did when we wrote the song. I think there are a lot of heroes, usually the people you haven’t heard of. I mean a lot of words have been devalued over the times, and I think ‘hero’ is another one”.
I asked whether he has any guitar heroes, and surprisingly, it’s Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. “But funnily enough he said that, well, he’s been quoted in saying, that I’m ‘the best bass player in the world.’ He terrifies me”.
The infamous ‘Golden Brown’.
2010 saw the band finally play at Glastonbury, signalling the end of festival organiser Michael Eavis’s thirty-year grudge. “All those years ago, when we were all being the smart-arses”, explained JJ, “we were invited to play at Glastonbury and at the time it was sponsored by CND. When I was a student I had done a bit of economics and history and I was really quite suspicious of all the unilateral peace movements. During those days, most of the students didn’t question those movements, and I did…we said at the time we didn’t want to be associated with that. So Michael Eavis held that against us for all those years. We would have headlined”.
I told JJ (unable to contain my excitement) that I was at Glastonbury last year, and was absolutely gutted that I couldn’t see them play because I was ill. “Was it because of drinks? Drugs?” he questioned. “No, it was dehydration – too much sun”, I said pathetically, ashamed I couldn’t meet JJ’s rock n’ roll standards. “What was great was that there were all ages”. He reminisced. “And 85,000 people in front of us not moving, and there was sunshine, and they were singing our songs”.
As a celebrated punk musician, I wanted to know if JJ thought there were any contemporary bands that were worthy of being classed as punk. “No, I don’t. Well, there’s the punk attitude that’s been adopted by some young bands but the problem being is that commercial considerations dictate everything nowadays so no-one’s really willing to take the risk and fuck their careers up in doing so. The punk bands of the late 70’s were cutting edge and playing with fire…but I don’t really know if anyone’s doing that music now. We fucked up a few things for ourselves, and in the long-term it looks good on our CVs… but at the time it was like, ‘oh, we’ve committed commercial suicide again’. We did so many uncommercial things, but we felt like they were the right things to do at the time”. These ‘uncommercial things’ included the usual rock n’ roll troubles involving the police, but also “sticking up a banana up someone’s arse on stage meant that we were never going to be promoted in that country for two or three years after that”.
So, while The Stranglers are in town, I’d go along. You may get a glimpse of old-school punk perfection, untainted by 21st century mercantilism. Or you might get to see four middle-aged guys with bananas up their bottoms.
The Stranglers will be playing at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 17th March.