Twenty years of endless Strangling

Music/ men in black go grey
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AGE CREPT up on rock and roll stars, then on the hippies, and now it is finally catching up with punks.

Anniversary tours have long been popular with the faded heroes of the Sixties, but the latest band to go back on the road in celebration of 20 years together are The Stranglers - hard men of punk known for dressing entirely in black and liking a fight.

"I'm an ageing punk rocker.I'm not ashamed of it," says Jean-Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers' bassist. "We've been touring non-stop for all this time. We're well past our sell-by date."

But when punk erupted in 1976 its slogan was "No Future" and the movement's enemies were dinosaurs like Rod Stewart who had been around for years.Surely punks were not supposed to grow old? "Tough. They did," he says. "Anyone gonna contest that?" Since JJ - as he is known to fans - is a black belt and teacher of karate, arguing seems a bad idea.

Not even JJ could dispute that punk images are mainstream now. There have been exhibitions of punk fashion in museums and a punk season at the National Film Theatre. New bands such as Elastica and Oasis owe obvious debts to the energy and sound of a movement their members could only have been dimly aware of in their childhood. Elastica more than anyone, since their own song "Waking Up" was so much like The Stranglers' hit "No More Heroes" that they had to pay the band's music publishers 40 per cent of all royalties from it.

"When we're all dead, people will actually start saying nice things about The Stranglers," says Mr Burnel. "Maybe one day they'll think The Stranglers were a great British band rather than just survivors. The people who have got any courage to say that are the younger bands. Maybe they don't have that peer group pressure saying, `You can't like them, they're thugs'."

Thugs The Stranglers certain-ly were. According to legend they once tied up a female New Musical Express journalist and left her to sweat in the Portuguese sun after a bad review, and bound a French reporter to the Eiffel Tower. The entire band was arrested in Nice in 1980 and fined for inciting a riot after their concert had been cancelled.

"We took on a whole audience once," says Mr Burnel. "They were booing us, and there was no way we were going to bottle out and walk off. We challenged them and started fighting from the stage. In the end it was a stalemate. One of our road crew ended up with a broken leg."

Jean-Jacques is now 42, and the drummer Jet Black over 50, but old habits die hard: last year in Portugal they tackled two fans who had been heckling Paul Roberts, who replaced Hugh Cornwell as lead singer five years ago. "I felt this rush," says Mr Burnel. "I should be more controlled now, I've got a better threshold, but one of them pulled the lead out of my guitar. I put the guitar down and just took them out."

Punk was the last great musical movement, believes Mr Burnel, who says its iconoclastic attitude inspired many of those who are now involved in campaigning for political and environmental issues.

Others were less permanently inspired. "A lot of the punks of yesteryear are now prospective Tory MPs or bank managers," he says with disgust. "We have got an admiral on our list of fans," - no amount of probing can elicit a name - "a mountain climber called Ron Brown has named climbs after Stranglers songs and Nigel Kennedy plays on the new album."

Another famous fan of the band is Stuart Pearce, defender with Nottingham Forest and former captain of the England team. "We get letters from 15- year-olds who say: `I heard your records through my mum or dad's record collection.' It's fantastic to see them at the front at concerts. As you go further to the back of the venue the audiences get older, being cool."

Originally called The Guildford Stranglers, the band were turned down by 24 record companies before signing to United Artists. Their biggest punk-era hits were "No More Heroes" and "Peaches", but their best-selling single in Britain was the much softer waltz "Golden Brown", in 1982. Released against record company advice it got to number two in the singles charts, despite allegedly being about heroin. Hugh Cornwell had been imprisoned for three months in 1980 for possession of the drug.

Jean-Jacques Burnel was born to French parents but brought up in Notting Hill Gate, west London. He was a grammar school boy with a degree in history from Bradford University and a taste for socialising with Hell's Angels. In France he is seen as an intellectual and a regular contributor to television shows. Here, he is seen as a laddish biker.

"The British music press has a problem with thinkers and people of action. If you are a rock and roller you've got to be completely debauched. The loser is the hero. If you're a thug you can't think: if you're a thinker you've got to be precious and delicate. We're quite physical, so they don't know how to classify us. I love wearing my leathers. I've ridden motorcycles for ever - my dad bought me a leather when I was 13 - but I had an education, so where does that place me? People just don't understand that."

He lives in "a bit of a folly" with land attached in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. "You don't have country squires in the fens. If it was in the West I would be a gentleman farmer and a rock and roll person. I've got a good pub nearby, and the people are really good. It's L'Angleterre profonde, it's England, not something cosmopolitan. I've got an orchard. I make jams, I fiddle with my Harley-Davidson. Mark my territory. Plant trees."

Dave Greenfield, the band's original keyboard player, lives nearby. Jet Black is in Gloucestershire, where he designs and builds wooden furniture. Paul Roberts is a keen amateur footballer who used to sing Stranglers songs in the mirror when he was a boy and pogo-dance at the front of their gigs. John Ellis, the guitarist drafted in when Hugh Cornwell left, used to be press officer for the anti-M11 link road protesters. None of which sounds very punk.

"We've had a couple of punch-ups," says Burnel. "We've got nothing in common, really, apart from the band. We don't even like the same music."