JJ Burnel of The Stranglers

by Greg Prato

Hard to believe, there was a time when punk rock was rejected by the mainstream. Nowadays, you hear it in television commercials and radio ads, for crying out loud. But there is a big difference in what the first wave of trailblazers stood for, and what the majority of the current crop of mainstream/do-anything-to-get-on-the-radio acts are all about. Thankfully, such vets as The Stranglers are still around to show the young punks a thing or two.

Responsible for such all-time classics as "Peaches," "No More Heroes," and "5 Minutes," The Stranglers refused to be pigeonholed, as they were one of the first punkers to include organ in their tunes and often let the bass lead the charge. They even offered up such pop gems as "Golden Brown."

Their 1977 debut album Rattus Norvegicus sold 200,000 copies in their native England, perplexing the music press who weren't sure what to make of songs about sewers set against Dave Greenfield's keyboard riffs. While they hit it big in the UK, here in the USA, the Stranglers unfortunately never received the same amount of acclaim as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols or The Clash. But as evidenced by their latest album, Giants (the band's seventeenth studio album overall), The Stranglers - JJ Burnel (bass and lead vocals), Greenfield (keyboards), Baz Warne (guitar and lead vocals), and Jet Black (drums) - are still writing vital music, even at this late stage of their career.

Recently, Burnel chatted about old-time pals, sound systems, and the disturbing-yet-thought-provoking meaning behind the aforementioned "5 Minutes."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new album, Giants.

JJ Burnel: Well, the album's just business as usual. It's just an accumulation of ideas, the problem always being how to formulate those ideas and make them into credible pieces of music, which hopefully someone else will listen to and be touched by. But the subject matter ranges anything from the Iraq War to nostalgia, sort of a bygone era which might never have existed, to a violent crime in London about freedoms and sayings about literally our imposition of our ideas on the rest of the world, which we seem to be very good at, and with awful results.

Songfacts: Why do you think it took so long between albums - was it because of touring or did it take a while to get the album just right?

JJ: I collect ideas all the time, but to actually make a song out of an idea is several steps beyond that. So I don't write in hotel rooms when I'm on tour. The success of the last two albums meant that we had an awful lot of offers on the table, to be honest. And we did tour quite a lot worldwide, so that took up an awful lot of time.

Songfacts: And what are some of your favorite songs off the album?

JJ: That's a cruel question. That's like saying to a parent, "Who's your favorite child?"

Songfacts: Right. I understand.

JJ: I think the more pertinent question would be for me to ask you what is your favorite song on the album.

Songfacts: Well, I definitely like the lead off single, "Mercury Rising." It stands up well against the early Stranglers classics. I like that organ is still being used prominently. I think that was a good choice for the first single. That's my favorite.

JJ: Okay. Cool.

Songfacts: And something else I've always wondered: to the best of your knowledge, were The Stranglers the first UK punk band to use organ and also use bass as a lead instrument? I'm thinking about the song "Peaches" and stuff like that.

JJ: I can't think of another band who did. A lot of the bass players from my generation say that I kind of took the bass into a lead instrument. But I still consider it a rhythmic instrument; I just syncopate it a bit more and use more melodic lines sometimes. There weren't too many bands with a keyboard player. XTC I think had the keyboard player at one point. But from our generation of bands, probably not. I think we bucked the trend at the time.

Songfacts: Yeah. I agree. Because the only other band then that I can think of is ? and the Mysterians, but that's from the '60s, they had that hit "96 Tears."

JJ: Well, I think The Doors were a band with the keyboards, as well, if I recall.

Songfacts: Yeah, they had a keyboard, but they didn't have a bass player for most of their albums.

JJ: That's true. That's when they used Elvis Presley's bass player, Jerry Scheff. That's right.

Songfacts: Exactly. When the Stranglers were coming up, what were some of the bands that you were friendly with?

JJ: Were friends with? We weren't friends with anyone! But we made friends with individuals, like Joe Strummer was a mate for a short while. And Dr. Feelgood, they were a band who very much were admired by The Stranglers. But we weren't befriended by many.

Songfacts: In looking back, how has the songwriting process changed for the band over the years, if you want to compare it to how The Stranglers write songs now compared to the '70s and '80s?

JJ: Well, they haven't really changed much. You have one or two individuals within the band who has an idea and it's always been me or Hugh, and now it's been me and Baz. I'd get rid of my ideas until I need someone to bounce off. When that happens, Baz and I get together, or Hugh and I before, and eventually try to make sense of it and make a song out of it.

Songfacts: I see.

JJ: And then when we've got enough, which is an identifiable skeleton with a bit of meat on it, that's when we present it to Jet and Dave, the keyboards and the drums, to add personality and a bit more substance to the piece. That's usually how it works. Sometimes I have the whole song there and that takes only a matter of moments. But other times they just linger and linger and stew in the back of my head until I have that "eureka" moment.

Songfacts: Who were some of your favorite songwriters of all time?

JJ: That's an awful long list, actually. Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Chopin wrote some great songs. More recently, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. More recently than that, The Doors, more recently than that, Pete Townshend. There's far too many to mention. Probably the same as lots of yours and maybe some more obscure ones.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few specific Stranglers songs. So if you want to start with the first single and video from the new album, "Mercury Rising."

JJ: "Mercury Rising" is about antagonism towards someone. It was mainly written by Baz, who felt that there was a bit of antagonism towards him in the initial stages of when he joined the band. But that quickly disappeared. I think his contribution was respected. But there's always a conservative element in something that has been going for quite a while. People don't like change. But it's about that, generally.

Songfacts: And then the tune I mentioned earlier, "Peaches." What do you remember about that specific song?

JJ: Very much, I remember about that song. In the very early days, in order to earn a bit of money, we had a little PA, and one day we were signed to a black label called Safari, which was more or less a reggae label. We hadn't released anything. But the owner phoned us up one day and said, "Look, do you want a few pounds to augment your PA to a sound system?" Well, we didn't know what "sound system" was.

For more on toasting and the reggae influence on British music at this time, check out our interview with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat.
So we turned up in part of London and we were the only white guys there. We stuck our PA to their sound system, and there was an awful lot of grass going about. We were kind of excluded from the line of grass. And lo and behold, I discovered sound systems, which were I suppose an early form of rap. You'd have a toaster: a black guy talking sort of stream of consciousness over mainly a bass and drums backing rhythm. Reggae. It was all reggae. What you might know as "dub." So you have a delay on the snare or something, there'd be a lot of separation and mainly bass speakers throughout the total.

So we stayed there for the whole gig. And at the end of it, I was hooked on the idea that the bass should be the most dominant feature. So I went back to where we were living and that night, came up with the three notes which constitute "Peaches." And of course, I wanted to make a reggae song out of it. But we didn't quite get the snare in the right beat. But never mind. We Strangle-fied it. We interpreted a reggae theme in The Stranglers way, which became "Peaches."

Songfacts: What about the song "5 Minutes"?

JJ: Well, "5 Minutes," I was sharing a flat with a bloke called Wilko Johnson, who was a guitarist for the band Dr. Feelgood - a UK rhythm and blues band. They had really peaked, they had got to #1 the year before. I was sharing a flat with him and a girl who worked for the Sex Pistols. That flat was an amazing thing. It was 1977, so all kinds of people would walk through. Lemmy from Motörhead was a good friend of Wilko's and various people, members of the Clash and Sex Pistols.

And while I was away gigging one night, the girl, she got raped. Which more or less constituted the end of our stay there, because the apartment was tainted. But it was funny, because it was in a... well, it wasn't funny at all, it was in a relatively rough area, but it was five minutes from the richest street in the whole of the UK, Bishops Avenue, with gated houses and everything. I just thought that there was a juxtaposition there between the comfort of all these gated protected communities with cameras and electronic entrances and our situation on the fifth floor of an old apartment building, where people could just come in and rape someone.

Songfacts: I understand.

JJ: I think the lyrics kind of speak for themselves, actually, in that song.

Songfacts: What are the future plans for you and the Stranglers?

JJ: Well, you don't make huge plans when you reach our age. [Laughs]

Songfacts: The band has a US tour coming up, right?

JJ: We've been asked quite a few times to go to North America, and we've always got something else to do. But this time we couldn't think of something else to do, so we've accepted it. And also the fact that they want to release Giants is kind of a motivator for us to come and just do a few shows in America and show you how good we are.

April 29, 2013. The Stranglers' website is thestranglers.net.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 10

  • David Westhoff from Ohio UsaWhere I grew up, it was all guys, maybe 3-4 girls and most of us all played an instrument, mostly guitars, 2 drummers and 2 bass, I played bass at first... we got introduced to the Stranglers in the early 80's, I got to see them 2 times as they didn't come here too often in Ohio, I saw them at Bogarts in Cleveland in Cincinnati, then in Columbus at The Newport which used to be an Agora. They were supposed to come again but had to cancel. Got all their albums...we all used to hang at a local bar we even had the owner have have some Strangs albums so we could hear it there!
  • Alan Hawley.17 times I've seen 'em, Lincoln 18 sept'78 first time, the skids in support, very good, but the strang's blew everything into insignificance, the pleasure I had and still do have from them is immense, thanks
  • Ken from IndianapolisGreat interview JJ. Been a fan since the early days back in the UK. LIke to sse you guys come to Indy.
  • Paul B from AustraliaIt's the first time I've ever seen JJ mention his favourite songwriters so well done for asking an original question! Go and see them, you won't regret it, saw them recently in Melbourne (about the 20th time in my life, mainly UK gigs) and they were superb as ever. It's great to see they are finally being appreciated more widely.
  • Kevin Wallis from SwazilandBeen there since "Rattus", now son & grandson following on. Simply the best!!
    Great live!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jeff Osborn from Toronto, CanadaI've been a fan since Rattus as well. I've seen you guys 3 times, you always bring the house down. I'm also a bassist you were a huge influence, THANKS!
  • Dana from Loss AngelesInteresting interview JJ.....
  • David Biddles from Lincoln ,englandI brought rattus fantastic album followed the stranglers since great live band.
  • Mandy Carson from Cambridge, UkWICKED!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaWe know how good you are, JJ, there are many Stranglers fans out there and most of us have been since "Rattus".
see more comments

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