One of music’s longest-running bands, The Stranglers, kick off a month-long tour of the UK in Edinburgh tonight. Andy Welch finds them rejuvenated after the success of their acclaimed album, Giants, last year
In an era where the phenomenon of the tribute band shows no signs of abating, it is refreshing to know that the genuine article can still be found. Gaze into the shop windows of those very few traditional record shops which continue to put concert tickets on display, and count the number of imitation acts on offer. At times, they seem to make up almost half of the gigs that are coming to town.
Even those bands who do survive often bear little relation to their original line-ups. Not so The Stranglers, however, who open their latest UK tour in Edinburgh tonight, the first of four Scottish dates, 39 years after the band was formed in Guildford, Surrey. They have been described as the longest-surviving and most “continuously successful” band to have emerged from the UK punk movement of the mid-1970s, and three of the four members who shot to prominence with classic tracks such as Peaches, Something Better Change and No More Heroes are still in the band – Jean-Jacques Burnel, Jet Black and Dave Greenfield. Frontman Hugh Cornwell left the band in 1990, so lead vocals are now shared between Burnel and Baz Warne, who joined in 2000.
The band’s longevity in more or less its original condition, four decades later, is remarkable. But just how much longer it can remain intact is a matter of concern for diehard fans. Time is starting to catch up on its members, and a generation who considered JJ Burnel to be “the young one” might be slightly surprised, if not alarmed, to learn that the bass guitarist is now 61. There’s worse to come. Remember the mysterious drummer with the mischievous look in his eye? That’s right, Jet Black. While we might be old enough to accept that his real name is plain old Brian Duffy, it comes as a shock to learn that he’s 74. Clearly, punk’s not dead. Just creaking a bit.
Burnel doesn’t expect the band to call it a day for some time yet, saying they’ll carry on like “old jazzers, until we drop”, although he admits that Jet is finding it harder and harder to keep up with the demands of being on the road. “Jet’s been rehearsing with us, so hopefully he’ll be at every show,” says Burnel. “There are physical constraints, but he lived the rock’n’roll excess more than most, without doing anything to compensate for it since. He was called The Hoover at one point, so we’ll say no more. This is certainly no farewell tour, anyway.”
By the time punk exploded in 1976, the band had played in virtually every influential venue in the capital, winning fans and honing their performing skills. While not fitting the punk template quite as neatly as the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, there was enough snarling energy and power in their music for them to ride the wave while it lasted.
“None of the other punk bands liked us,” says Burnel, looking back. “It’s funny hearing young bands mention us as an influence now, because back then no band would ever admit to liking us.”
He recalls an incident in 1976 when he had a fight with Paul Simonon of The Clash, with Simonon’s bandmates, the Sex Pistols, The Ramones and members of the music press on one side, and The Stranglers and their friends on the other. “It was more handbags and a bit of growling than anything,” he says, “but from then on, the lines were drawn.”
As punk subsided, however, The Stranglers endured. And they have continued to do so, releasing 17 albums and touring ever since. “We’ve been around for so long and I think there’s a bit of respect come our way recently,” says Burnel, born to French parents in Notting Hill.
“We’ve always conducted ourselves in a certain way. We haven’t released endless Best Of compilations and box sets, and so on. There’s always been new music and we’ve always tried new things, never imitating ourselves, so that’s afforded us a bit more respect. We’ve ploughed our own furrow, whether people like us or not.”
A turning point came around ten years ago when Burnel isolated himself to write Norfolk Coast. For the first time in a long time, perhaps since Cornwell’s departure in 1990, the press were interested and new fans were drawn to the band.
The renaissance continued with Suite XVI in 2006, and in 2012 was capped by Giants, the band’s best and most-acclaimed album since the mid-Eighties. “We made a great album with that one,” says Burnel.
“But then I always think that. I’ve thought I’ve released masterpieces for years, but it’s not always seen like that by others. There was a synchronicity to Giants, I think. It’s just timing, and it’s like that with a lot of things. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just cyclical.
“Saying that, you don’t expect your best reviews on your 17th album. People tend to assume you’re tired creatively, and have nothing left to offer. It was the opposite for us, and we had offers coming in from all over.”
“We played in about 25 countries in 2012, ending in Australia and New Zealand. We played in Turkey and Estonia for the first time, and in Germany: we played at Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg, where the Nazi rallies used to be. It was a very eerie experience. There are these giant monolithic constructions around the venue, and you can see darkened silhouettes of eagles embedded in the stone. Quite odd.”
While music has been Burnel’s career, his oldest passion is karate. He began studying the Japanese martial art 43 years ago and now, as a 6th Dan black belt, is an instructor at various dojos around the south of England.
“It’s got nothing in common with being in a band,” he says, “which is probably why I think karate is so great. It’s a complete break, and it stops me becoming totally decrepit. I suppose it’s given me a certain attitude that’s quite helpful. I’m certainly calmer than I used to be.”
There won’t be a new album next year; Burnel says he’d rather wait until there is a demand for one, and doesn’t want to rush anything.
“Performing is the greatest thing about being in a band, but it’s complemented by the time when we’re not performing, when I can collect my thoughts and make sense of the world I live in. I imagine anyone doing anything creative would like to do that.
“For now we’re just thinking about the tour. We’ve got 40 songs rehearsed so we can mix things up for ourselves and the fans, and we’re raring to go. I can’t wait.”
• The Stranglers begin their UK tour today at Edinburgh Picture House. Their other Scottish dates are Glasgow Academy (tomorrow), Aberdeen Garage (4 March) and Dundee Fat Sams (5 March)