U2 front man Bono, recalling the awe he felt when his fledgling band opened up for already established punk rock pioneers The Stranglers in 1976, told a reporter something like, “We were boys and they were real men up there on stage, big intimidating men.”
“Heh, I remember him saying something like that,” chortled Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, the 64-year-old co-founder, bassist and big intimidating man of The Stranglers during a recent phone call from his home in the south of France.
“I suppose you’d want to steer clear of us back then. We defended our corner because in the early days, we polarized opinion. It was like that scene in the Blues Brothers film where they’re playing in the country bar with chicken wire protecting the band. People would be throwing things at us or trying to shut off the electricity, so we learned to defend ourselves – we weren’t going to be shown the door. We developed techniques so we could sort of dominate the situation. It was a survival technique I suppose.”
It worked well, because The Stranglers emerged as one of the first and longest-lasting bands of the punk era, transitioning from bad-mannered, Doors-influenced menaces into well-oiled pros. Branching out beyond punk’s confines, the foursome of Burnel, guitarist Hugh Cornwell, keyboardist Dave Greenfield and drummer Jet Black (Brian Duffy) dabbled in pop and found themselves with huge international hits like “Always the Sun” and “Golden Brown.”
Burnel and Greenfield are still leading the band 39 years later, surviving Cornwell?s departure in 1990 and the health-enforced retirement of Black. Abetted by guitarist/ singer Baz Warne who joined the band in 2000, The Stranglers have enjoyed a midlife resurgence with new albums and worldwide tours.
Ahead of their upcoming show in Tel Aviv on November 17 at Mann Auditorium, Burnel discussed the early days of punk, his love of Israel and lack of patience with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists.The Stranglers had the reputation of being influential on the young punk bands that emerged in England – did you feel like pioneers, and did you feel confined by the punk label?
Well, we started out a little before most of the others, maybe by 12 or 18 months. The Clash didn’t exist yet, and Joe Strummer used to come see our shows. Same thing with Chrissy Hynde and The Sex Pistols, they all used to come and check us out.
There was a kind of cross-pollination at the time, since there were very few places that would have bands like ours. So back then, the term “punk” or “new wave” was very broad. Only later did the definition become more narrow.
If there hadn’t been punk, our unorthodox behavior might have been even more shocking to those around us. So it suited the zeitgeist.
Was there a concerted effort by you to break away from being known as an obnoxious punk band?
It was all just a matter of evolution. We felt that as punk went on, the definition became more narrow and turned into sort of a new orthodoxy. It became creatively suffocating, and I certainly didn’t want to have anything to do with something that would stifle any creative or artistic pretensions that I might have had.
We felt that, as a band, we just wanted to experiment, and we were lucky in as much that the times we were in permitted us to do that. We weren’t going to be slaves to success whereby you’re suddenly constrained by that success and the desire to repeat it. We felt that it wasn’t for us.When Hugh left the band in 1990, did you think that it might be the end of the road for The Stranglers?
From my point of view, I thought that was the end of the band. But over the preceding years, I had been writing and contributing more and more, and Dave and Jeff were firmly opposed to splitting up, so we just recruited new members and carried on.
To be honest, we had a few years that were down in the dumps. I wasn’t 100 percent confident of the lineup, because I didn’t have anyone to bounce off like I had been able to with Hugh. And then a few years later, we recruited Baz (in 2000) and that made a huge difference. He’s been in the band longer than Hugh was, and it’s helped me having a songwriting partner.
Everything clicked back into place and that stability has hugely helped our revival.[Drummer] Jet Black was considerably older than the rest of the members. Is he still involved with the group?
Jet hasn’t toured with us for a few years now. He’s had serious health issues and for a rock drummer approaching 78, it was time for him to stop. Over our four decades, we’ve had to use seven or eight drummers because of Jet’s health issues. Today, he couldn’t play for more than two or three minutes.
We still seek out his advice and guidance when we have decisions to make. He always had a bit more savvy than us and he was almost sensible back in the early days.
You first played in Israel in 2008 on a double bill with Blondie. What were your impressions then, and have you been pressured at all by any pro-Palestinian activists to reconsider coming?
First of all, we had a great time back then.
Tel Aviv is such a rocking city and the Israeli people are so open and fun to be with. I don’t think the outside world realizes how cool it really is there.
But as you know, people are generally ignorant of the situation in Israel and they just read the headlines. They don’t realize that Israel is a democracy in a sea of f***ed up countries. A true democracy with the Left and Right able to express themselves.
Obviously, there’s the big dispute about the territories and the Palestinians, but I know for myself that if someone was threatening to throw me back in the sea and that someone is my neighbors, then I would predispose myself in a certain way and safeguard myself.
There’s an awful lot of animosity toward Israel, but there’s also a lot of respect. So yeah, we’ve been criticized for coming to Israel, but f*** ’em.
My thinking is, if someone invited to perform professionally, I weigh the offer and decide to accept it or not. I accepted the offer to play in Israel. Full stop.