Saturday, 16 November 2013

Strangled up in blue

Saturday, 16th September 1978, and the Stranglers are playing in Battersea Park today. What fun.

I interviewed bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel three days ago and it appears in today’s Evening News so I thought I’d toddle off to watch the boys in blue watching the boys in black, while clutching my feature, tightly…

You could be forgiven in assuming The Stranglers are essentially nocturnal creatures.

That their eyes squint in strong daylight, that they go about their work under cover of darkness, that they pursue their prey along the corridors of the night. Such is their expertise.

Their music instils in the mind twisted visions of decay and depravity, all acted out in a scenario of everlasting night. Edgar Alien Poe reads like Enid Blyton by com-parison.

All the more surprising then that they should decide to play at Battersea Park this afternoon, home of stray dogs, defunct funfairs and a Pink Floyd album-cover power plant. To top it all, they’re making a grand entrance on a tank (apparently they intended to fly in by way of rocket packs strapped to their backs, only to discover at the last minute that such a stunt required a two-year training course).

They maintain the GLC has made life difficult for them and prevented the band from playing more suitable venues.

‘They hate our guts,’ says bassist Jean, 25.

‘This is simply a PR exercise on their part. They never exactly ban you, just quietly nobble you.’

Maybe the council is simply bored with washing down paint-splattered walls all over London that boldly proclaim, ‘The Stranglers Must Play’, or sick of being inundated with petitions from irate fans.

For the Stranglers can rightly claim to be the first dinosaurs of punk. They are the only band to have emerged from the grand old days of new wave with a cast-iron reputation of almost Zeppelinesque proportions. Three gold albums, a succession of memorable hits and -- bang! Superstar status. They’re assured of a tax-haven future. But all is not well. Indeed, the band is in danger of forgoing the lot for a little bit of peace and quiet.

‘There are many people out to destroy us and it’s getting us down,’ says Jean. ‘Sure, it’s nothing new, we’ve always been the band everyone loves to hate because our clothes aren’t cool and we’re all over twenty. But it’s getting out of hand. What with bans − though none of them will admit it − by the BBC, radio stations, journalists, it’s all beginning to look a little hopeless.

‘Even America is turning its back on us. I’ve received three death threats this week from the States over comments the band made about the smallness of American brains compared to English ones.’

Quelle surprise!

So Jean has decided to lie low after today’s show . . . in Japan.

‘I’m going to live there for three months to continue my karate studies,' he says. 'I’m already a brown belt, but I want to attain black-belt status and return to teach the art. Karate has taught me self-control. I guess I was a little headstrong as a kid, maybe because I was French and living in London. I had to fight a great deal to prove myself.’ His battleground has now switched from the street to the concert hall. At a recent gig, he jumped off stage into the audience and got into a fight.

‘This guy kept spitting in my face. It’s no fun trying to play with spittle dripping down over your guitar. The rest of the band came to my assistance.’

Was he hurt?

‘We never get hurt. The Stranglers always win their battles.’

Such flagrant displays of nihilism have earned the band a dubious reputation and a money-spinning fascination.

‘We seem to attract intellectual psychopaths at our gigs. Sentient beings who like to exercise a little muscle. We don’t encourage them. It’s not such a good idea to have a uniformed group in attendance at concerts.’

But they do have the Finchley Boys, a gang of fanatical fans with good intentions. ‘We’ve learned a lot from them, and they from us. See, we’re one of the most intelligent bands around. That, and a determination not to take anything from anybody, is the real reason for our longevity.

'There’s a biochemist, an economist/historian, an international gourmet and a cosmic cowboy in this band − a winning combination if ever there was one.’

Jean, the economist/historian, has achieved a certain individual notoriety. Although reports are often grossly exaggerated, he did punch a journalist who vilified one of their albums, he was once a Hells Angel and he does have love affairs with motorbikes and an endless stream of women.

‘I hit the writer because he attacked me personally and that is totally uncalled for. But, contrary to opinion, I’m not a stud. I just have a habit of sending myself up occasionally. The only guy I would honestly call a stud was George Simenon, the creator of Maigret. He’s supposed to have slept with around fifteen thousand women in his life − give or take a thousand. In comparison, I’m just a good, clean, wholesome chap.’

Although Jean has made a great deal of money, he still hasn’t found a regular place to stay. ‘The last time I lived in a flat permanently I kept getting raided by thieves who would smash everything up. That’s how I came to write "Five Minutes". What do you do with money? Lose it, I guess. Some of it appears to be vanishing mysteriously recently . . .’

Few can deny that the quality of Stranglers’ music is extremely high. But many question the ideals they reflect in their lyrics − in particular, a so-called preoccupation with misogyny.

‘It’s amazing how many people actually believe what they read in the papers,’ says Jean. ‘Some women are actually afraid of seeing us play in case we beat them up. Even representatives from our record company refuse to come along and see us. It’s just an excuse. We’re back to the same old problem − people hate us and that’s that. But I must admit, recently the band is getting pretty depressed about the whole situation.’

Jean, what do you think you would’ve been if you hadn’t joined a band?

‘A yob.’

The show? It was nice. And sleazy.

Next: Poly Styrene

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013



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