The Band Who Helped Define Punk and Refused to Live Within Its Confines: 40 Years of the Stranglers

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While punk rock veterans and astute audiophiles are no strangers to the Stanglers’ punk pedigree, the band feels as though they’ve never received their due respect in America—to the point they even started ignoring us.

Their new record, “Giants”, was released in the US this May, but has already been out in Europe for a year. And their North American tour, which starts next week, will be their first in 17 years.

If the Sex Pistols gave a snarling face and attitude to the genre while the Clash and Ramones would go on to define its boundaries of sound, the Stranglers’ legacy lies in their longevity and diversity. They preceded the previously mentioned bands, and their music never stopped— it only progressed.

With a career spanning 17 records and closing in on 40 years, perhaps the term “punk” is just too simplistic and vague to describe the band’s vast catalogue. Their sound has always been far more complex and diverse than the three-chord, two-minute anthems of their contemporaries. With classics as disparate as the bass-heavy rumble and crass spoken-word, “Peaches”, to their sinister harpsichord waltz, “Golden Brown”, the Stranglers’ never subscribed to a specific attitude or formulaic sound.

I was lucky enough to catch up with founder/songwriter/bassist JJ Burnel over the phone to preview his recent North American tour. Cynical and smart, his attitude provided the perfect and appropriate repartee for a seminal punk pioneer still hacking away at socio-political boundaries. For the privvy, the punks and the poseurs alike, I give you JJ Burnel.

So the new record comes out next week in America. Is it already out in Europe?

Yes, it’s been out in Europe for a year.

Wow! Why was there a delay for it getting to America?

We didn’t consider releasing it in the States until people asked us if they could release it in the States and North America. We’ve accepted and we’ve accepted to come and play in North America as well. I’m not sure which came first. And for once we’ve accepted.

Why is America still the last frontier for you guys? Why has America been off the grid?

Well we’ve just been doing other things you know. It’s been quite a few years since we’ve toured the States and we’ve been offered a few tours, but we didn’t feel ready for it or didn’t feel like it. And now we do. The band is very strong at the moment and we’ve been breaking records all over the UK and we’ve just been asked to do the BBC London Proms, which I don’t know if you know about…

I was just reading about that actually.

Yes, it’s quite a big deal over here actually. We feel in a good way and accepted to come over to America. It’s not the be-all end-all, you know. Also we’ve never really busted our balls in America. It’s wonderful and we’re very excited to come over to the other side of the pond. 

Do you remember the last time you played America?

I think it was 17 years ago.

Wow, do you remember any specific times from Boston or New York?

No, I remember I have played in America since then. I played with my friend Pat DiNizio, a member of the Smithereens, an American band. And he invited me to do a tour with him. It was a good education for me and I must say I learned a lot from that bloke, but no its exciting and so long ago, it’s almost like I’m a virgin.

[UNINTENTIONAL] Is it harder? Is it a bigger commitment to go on tour you’re your drummer being over 70 and your ages?

Well, you are being very diplomatic, the drummer Jet doesn’t travel with us any more. He plays with us occasionally, when his health can stand up to it. But for instance these past two UK tours, which were quite extensive, he was only able to come in for a few songs. The fans and the band are very happy to see him but he’s not really part of the touring party. To be diplomatic as well, he… well… he lived the rock n roll lifestyle a bit too much. The rest of us, we’re fine.

Did the Stanglers ever officially break up or was there just a periodic break?

We have NEVER ever split up. We have continuously been busy, but we have had 6-12 months sabbatical because we had other things to do. There is life outside of the Stranglers fortunately, and that’s what gives us our freshness and zest to continue. You don’t live in a musical vacuum. I think you’d have nothing to say. Plus, we been learning and absorbing different influences past and present along the way. I’d hate to think we were on an assembly line, you know?

Right. You guys are continually grouped into the category of punk. Where do you think you fit into the punk rock lexicon, and is that too simple of a word to describe the band?

Well, the term is interesting because it has meant more for us over the years. The first time it was used it was a bit of a broad church, I think the first time I heard it used was 1975-76. I’m not sure if that was the reason we were the first band asked to play with Patti Smith in Europe or the first band ever to the play with the Ramones in Europe, but the term quickly got ambushed by fundamentalism, and it started to describe a much narrower field than I was able to accept. Joe Strummer of the Clash used to come see us regularly when he was in a rhythm and blues band and certainly the Pistols were coming to see us before they started their bands. I’m not sure if we really subscribed to their philosophies, but certainly we were slightly ahead of the game, and of that whole generation of bands we were definitely the first. I hate to interject, but we’ve actually outsold the Pistols in the 70’s. But we didn’t do the big American thing. We didn’t want to do 9 months in America. That wasn’t our agenda.

What does “Freedom is Insane” [the title of a track on your new record] mean to you?

“Freedom is Insane” is… have you heard it?

I have, yes.

Generally speaking it’s about the West and how it supposes its vision called democracy, and it imposes it on the whole world, when it actually isn’t appropriate. We’ve taken 2000 years to get to something we call “approaching democracy” and however, people in other countries have no concept of it and it breeds a kind of mischief that we are sort of inheriting now. I mean attacking in Iraq and Afghanistan, did it really make the world a safer place? I don’t think so. We impose this Western vision on the world by force of arms and we harvest the results. I don’t think it’s well thought out. So, freedom is insane. I’ve put myself in the position of an Iraqi veteran who is on a desert island and who does not want to be liberated. We thought they were going in as liberators and they were thought of as conquerors or invaders. There are heavy losses of life as well. I think the invasion of Iraq was more revenge of the Twin Towers more than anything, and of course American public opinion was in favor of it and the Allies were in favor of it, but they didn’t really think it through. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that is how it is. It’s like Robinson Crusoe, but the opposite—he doesn’t want to be liberated.

Would you say this is one of your more political albums?

No, it might be for you, but no. I’m not trying to ram it down people’s throats. The Stranglers have always written about the world that we live in. I think that it’s our right and prerogative. If the world was just a bedroom where I was fucking, or a blingy thingy, it would be appropriate that way. But we have a “world view” like anyone. Even a cab driver has a “world view”, and no one’s “world view” is less valuable than the next man’s. Maybe some are less informed, but we try to stay informed and have an opinion. We try to approach it in terms that people will listen to it. I wouldn’t say we are more political than usual on this one though.

Is it strange being defined by charts and singles? Has it changed in Europe like it’s changed in America– for the worst?

In the past it was, but now the charts mean ‘fuck all’ right now. I don’t know who they serve and they have less value than ever right now. We managed to sell out more than anyone else in the UK last year and this year without getting really any huge chart action or even being played a lot. Maybe there’s some sort of resurgence in underground, or maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that people can find out and access music in different ways now. They’re not spoonfed anymore. So if we don’t get much radio play and people still know about us, it must reflect something else. Also, people don’t necessarily want to be spoonfed. Some people do, but more inquiring minds want to find out from themselves.

How did the US release come to be? Is this a different record label?

I believe it is. And yes, I believe they did. This last album for some strange reason had the best reviews ever in the history of the Stranglers from Day 1. So, I think a few people must have sat up and taken notes outside of the places it was released. We had a very successful European tour and also doing 15 different countries, so someone may have noticed.

What do you feel about the rebirth or re-education of a song based on movies like Snatch? I know much of my generation found out about you through “Golden Brown” when it played such a key part in a movie role. What do you think about the cultural impact of something like that on your past career?

I think in a roundabout way you’ve sort of answered your own question. Don’t you think?

Yeah, but is it something that you’ve noticed too?

Yeah, I mean it’s great from my point of view, but a song, which has been hugely successful all over the world, gets recycled. I mean lots of songs get recycled. If you have a song that’s obscure, it has less of a shelf life. But if a record that’s slightly successful or highly successful then it gets played. I mean the dictatorship of the airwaves and the commercial imperative kind of obscures the fact that there’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t get played. There are a lot of artists out there struggling to make a living and maybe even to be heard. And it’s not even a reflection on the quality of their output, it’s on the powers that be that dictate what gets played and what gets get exposed. Of course I’m pleased that a song like “Golden Brown” got played in a movie like Snatch. I wasn’t even aware that the movie had been released in America… it’s great.

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What does the cover of the new “Giants” record signify to you?

Well, you have seen the artwork?! Well if I tell you I will have to kill you [laughs]. Is that an option? You don’t really want me to spoonfeed you anything? You wanted a shortcut.

What do you think the Stranglers legacy is and will be?

Well that’s what the French call nominalism…”bellybuttonism”. It’s something that I really don’t spend any time thinking about. But it is perhaps something that journalists and commentators will mire over if we’re lucky and talk about. But we’re still alive and kicking, so the legacy can wait a bit longer.

What do you do when you’re not focused on music and the Stranglers?

I teach in London. I am the chief instructor in the UK of Shotokan Karate. I also love to ride my motorcycle around the UK and Europe, because I can. But the Stranglers are quite busy. Last year we played God knows how many countries– maybe 20 countries. The fact that it’s taken all this time for the US to seduce us back is more a reflection on you guys than with us to be honest.

Did you headline the last time you were in the US?

Yeah, we headlined, but I think it’s a bit pretentious for some of the small places we played. Some are a bit bigger than others, but it’s such a vast country, the U S of A—some places you are virtually unknown and some places you are hailed as a star. Especially when you haven’t really worked it so much, every state is almost like a different country isn’t it.

Thanks I look forward to the show. Thanks for taking the time.

Oh thank you very much. Hey, do you know where we’re playing in Boston? What’s the venue like in Boston? Do you know remember or heard of the Rat? Or is it still going? Because that is very first place we ever played the first time we played America. Look it’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

Well I look forward to seeing you.

Well we’ll be there. So if you’re not there I reckon you’ll be somewhere else.

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