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.
Bassist 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 three 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 down [is that] 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, 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 yourselves and then you think about The Rolling Stones (who by the 1980s were relics and despite the machinations of the reissue industry remain so, stuck in a time-warp) you’ve continually updated, progressed, changed, challenged, never stood still. There is a 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 six or seven 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, 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 given 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, we’re 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 fue, it’s great stuff to write about. Listen, 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 it’s music and I make no apologies for having covered all those subjects.
Again, to cite ‘North Winds’, your songs do look at the world and 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 in 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. 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 it’s 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, [it] 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.
In the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of talk (again) about the 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’re 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 [that], 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 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. 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 thoughts about the 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 reverted 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 & Safety.
It’s not quite like that in France!
To be continued…
The Stranglers are currently touring the globe. Tickets and dates available here. Gigslutz will be reviewing the Manchester date next week.