Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them
1In 1979, the Stranglers held a charity cricket match. Who turned up with a doctor’s note excusing him from playing?
CORRECT. The late Motörhead frontman.
“He had a verruca, or so he claimed! Funny. It was the Press versus the Stranglers with help from our musical contemporaries. It was an attempt to rehabilitate us with the media who hated us, but it made things even worse. Our drug dealer was our star player. He was a good bowler and had played semi-professionally.”
What are your favourite memories of Lemmy?
“I first bumped into him when I was sharing a flat in West Hampstead with Wilko Johnson in 1977. He woke me up at 4am. As I opened the door, a bleary-eyed Lemmy was there crunching his jaw and saying: ‘Look, man, is Wilko in?’. I said no, but he asked if he could come in and let himself out in a few hours. He needed somewhere to chill. Then I’d bump into him and he’d say: ‘You guys are always on Top of the Pops. You’re doing so well!’. I saw him only three weeks before he died [in 2015 from prostate cancer]. We went on before Motörhead at the Eden Project and he was awful. He was singing the wrong lyrics to different songs. He wasn’t well. He came up to me and said they should have opened for us. He was in a bad way by then.”
2Which frontman robbed your dressing room after you upset him because you wouldn’t wear a badge promoting his band?
“It could be Ian Dury? Oh! Bono?”
“We played Dublin and they were on first. I wasn’t in the dressing room when he took everything out of it. He expected us to wear U2 badges – as if I ever would! (Laughs)”
3What number did the Stranglers’ ‘The Gospel According to the Meninblack’ reach in the UK albums chart in 1981?
“Oof! I think it just made the Top 10. Nine?”
WRONG. But close! It peaked at Number 8.
“You should always underestimate your success around strangers! (Laughs) It was a critical flop and the oddest period in our lives. We purposefully decided to take heroin – which we never mainlined, just sniffed, fortunately for us – to see what would happen creatively. It was like a Jekyll and Hyde experiment. Couple that with an obsession with trying to explain religious phenomena, the Bible, mythologies, and we got heavily into Ufology. A catalogue of negative shit happened while recording it – Hugh [Cornwell, the band’s original singer] spent eight weeks in Pentonville Prison, we got busted in France and all spent a few weeks in prison there, and people were dying young who were close to us. It scared us and made us realise we were dabbling in forces that you can’t control and that were way over our heads.
“The heroin added to the paranoia. Jet [Black, drummer] and Dave [Greenfield, late keyboardist] were much more sensible than Hugh and me and quit, but we carried on for a while and it was quite pleasurable. But it’s like in The Lord of the Rings, where every time you put the ring on, it gives you an advantage but it also takes away a bit of your soul. Heroin is similar. You have this excess of physical energy, but it takes away your soul more and more until it kills you. Fortunately we had good support and got out of it.”
4What type of vehicle did late keyboardist Dave Greenfield once pin Sex Pistol John Lydon up against?
“Was it some band’s Ford Transit?”
WRONG. It was an ice-cream van. In 1976, the Stranglers got into a fight against Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Clash and their journalist friends.
“That’s right! It was outside Dingwalls. For the first three years, we travelled in an ice-cream van.”
Who were the best scrappers out of the Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Clash?
“None of them! They were all wimps! (Laughs) They had been our mates until then and then it was handbags at 10 paces and Paul [Simonon, Clash bassist] and myself nose-to-nose and no-one giving any ground, and then it petered out. It polarised opinion against us and became about everybody versus the Stranglers.”
“There were fights every night in those days. It was like Gunfighter Syndrome. People would come and test how tough you were and climb onstage to beat you up. We were one of the few bands playing regularly outside our comfort zones. In 1976, we played over 200 gigs whereas The Clash and the Pistols were only playing posh attic parties in London for the press, so we were on the frontline and they didn’t stand a chance against us in a fight (Laughs).”
5The Stranglers once performed a gig in Australia with what (bizarrely) gaffer-taped onstage?
“She’d turned up in our dressing room, drank all Jet’s vodka, and was trying to provoke us. At the time, the press were calling us sexists, misogynists and fascists so we’d have women demonstrating outside our gigs. So we thought it would be funny to tie her up and leave her onstage. (Laughs)”
She got off lighter the journalist you gaffer-taped to a girder on the Eiffel Tower…
“He was irritating us and would turn up everywhere – at our hotel, in the recording studio – bugging us for an interview, so we agreed to talk to him on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower – unbeknownst to him, carrying some gaffer-tape! (Laughs) Some Japanese tourists had to release him.”
Did any bands try playing any pranks on you?
“They wouldn’t have dared!”
6Which Britpop band allegedly ripped off the Stranglers’ 1977 song ‘No More Heroes’?
CORRECT. The band’s 1995 song ‘Waking Up’ borrowed heavily from you.
“I know that because we were going to sue them but then they gave us the royalties for that, so we didn’t have to go to court. It’s an OK song – quite a nice band.”
7Footballer Stuart Pearce appears in the recent the Stranglers’ ‘This Song’ video. Can you name any three teams he’s played for professionally?
“Yeah – Nottingham Forest, Man City and….England?”
“He’s a mate who claims he’s been to over 300 Stranglers shows and I’ve seen him at a lot of them! For a short period, we started our own label called Psycho Records, partly dedicated to his nom de guerre Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce.
He must be excited about your new album, ‘Dark Matters’, which you’ve described as the Stranglers’ “first genuinely grown-up album”…
“He is. I think it could be among the top albums we’ve ever done. I got a backhanded compliment from a French journalist who asked: ‘How come an old band like you sounds so fresh?’ (Laughs) Unlike other art forms, people assume bands don’t get better with age. A lot of older bands go through the motions, but you can never accuse us of that.”
Was it emotional making it in that Dave Greenfield passed away from COVID-19 last year before it was completed, and appears on eight of the 11 tracks?
“Yes, of course. I knew him for 45 years. I didn’t only know him; I worked with him and he lived with me for nine months at one point when he was homeless. We only had five rows in 45 years – each of which lasted less than 24 hours. It’s a huge empty space in my life. It’s a while now since he passed, but sometimes it still triggers you. I thought I’d mastered those feelings, but the loss doesn’t quite go away.”
Do you end up thinking “What would he make of this?” and having imaginary conversations in your head with him while making the album?
“(Laughs) Well, Dave was special. He was autistic but knew how to handle himself socially. The only problem was, if you asked him something, he’d give you a full response and wouldn’t notice that your eyes were glazed over an hour later. In the studio, you wouldn’t say: ‘Dave, what do you think of this?’. He’d just smile and give you the thumbs-up or not. The only time when I do remember asking him what he thought, he responded: ‘Dunno, what do you think?’ (Laughs)”
8What pseudonym did The Stranglers adopt for 1977’s new wave ‘Mony Mony’ single?
“We’ve been under different names several times when we were banned from places. We used The Shakespearoes a lot and Oil and the Slicks. In the early days, we didn’t have a manager and there were few places to play, and something would happen and the landlord would either pull the plug or call the police on us. We’d phone up the same pub a month later under a different guise, and the landlord would say ‘Haven’t I seen you before?’. We’d say no, but then he’d notice the ice-cream van and tell us to fuck off! (Laughs)”.
WRONG. You called yourself The Mutations – to back Celia on a few singles.
“Oh yeah! Celia & The Mutations!”
9In 1980, you were jailed in Nice for inciting a riot during a concert. How much damage did lawyers claim had been done to Nice University?
“Was it £60,000 or £70,000?”
WRONG. Apparently it was £10,000.
“I’ve been under the delusion that we did much more damage! (Laughs) Hugh had just come out of Pentonville Prison so the last thing he wanted was to go back to jail a few months later, which is what happened. We were first booked to play Cannes, but they wouldn’t let us in when they realised it was The Stranglers. An offer came through to play Nice University, but unbeknownst to us, there was a clash between the students and authorities, so they wouldn’t allow us to use the university’s electricity. We set up our own generators, but they kept blowing and we had to give up. I explained in French what was going on, and it just kicked off. It all happened in an all-glass amphitheatre (Laughs), so you can imagine.”
“One by one, we were arrested as we got back to our hotel and put in jail. By the time we were released from prison a few weeks later, everybody in France had heard of us. Thank you very much! (Laughs)”
Do you have a favourite place you were banned from?
“We were banned from London for a year or so and escorted out of Sweden twice – once with police machine guns held on us. It was more the way we reacted to things – and our reputation putting hurdles in our way – rather than anything we did.”
10Who headlined Glastonbury when the Stranglers performed there in 2010?
CORRECT-ISH. HALF A POINT. U2 were the original headliners but were replaced at the eleventh-hour by Gorillaz – although The Edge did join the cartoon band for a song.
“Mr. [Michael] Eavis [Glastonbury co-creator] hates the Stranglers and didn’t want to book us for years. It started years ago when Glastonbury was associated with the CND – Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – which I was suspicious of. Not of its intent, but I thought they, and the majority of the peace movements in the UK, were financed by Moscow to disrupt things like how now they have huge factories of hackers spreading disinformation. When we mentioned that, it upset him. But when we finally played Glastonbury, we were told we attracted a bigger crowd than the headliners of our day.”
Would you like to see a Stranglers’ biopic?
“I would. We filmed a documentary by David Boni a few years ago, but there’s a legal battle with Hugh [Cornwell] over it at the moment who’s objecting to its release. The funny thing is, the only person who gets slagged off in the film is me so I don’t know what his problem is.
What’s the relationship between you and Hugh like now?
“I did offer the hand of friendship a while back, but he said it’s best if we didn’t, so the relationship is non-existent. He’s become a bitter old bloke. When we left the Stranglers [in 1990], he wanted a solo career and had thespian pretensions, but the Stranglers have moved on and are on a creative streak, and I suspect that must make him bitter because he’s not. He’s playing small pubs. He’s quite creative, but it’s not going as well for him. But that’s his problem – not mine.”
The verdict: 5.5/10
“That’s bollocks! (Laughs) I feel – what’s the English word? – fucking gutted, mate”
– The Stranglers’ new album, ‘Dark Matters’, is released 10 September. The band tour the UK from 25 January 2022