An interview with various members of The Stranglers. This appeared in the eighth issue Of Q magazine, May 1987.
Oafish, sour and cantankerous are words that observers have applied to The Stranglers at assorted moments in the band’s 13 year career. Surly, moronic, obstreperous and ugly are a few more. One could also mention brutish and unpleasant. One could in fact carry on in this way for a very long time.
But when you get around to meeting these scowling desperadoes in person, the picture begins to disintegrate. They have been feared, loathed, reviled, ignored and ridiculed in roughly equal measure. Have they, perhaps, been misunderstood? Are they, in fact, regular guys, honest artisans, simple musicians seeking only to entertain?
Probably not. But the second view is almost certainly nearer the truth. Your typical modern Strangler is a card-carrying Reasonable Bloke. He will be civil. If it is raining, he will carry an umbrella. He will even share it with you. If his name is Jet Black, he will tell you that his greatest love is cookery. That he lives in Gloucestershire, and his neighbours are the Prince and Princess of Wales (“It’s had a miraculous effect on the house prices”). If he is Hugh Cornwell, he will be pleased to discuss opera, theatre and film with you. Of wrath and vengeance he shows no sign, Instead, he’ll sip mineral water.
What a bloody great let-down they've turned out to be.
If you want to examine the long and strange history of The Stranglers then their drummer, Jet Black, is your man. He’s kept scrapbooks of their career from day one: now, they run to five fat volumes, properly bound and neatly kept. He shows them to you with a quiet pride that’s really quite likeable – almost any other pop star would think it just too uncool.
But Jet Black is not the average pop star: success and Stranglerdom came to him late in life. (Today he gives his age as “about 46”, which is about the age many people put him at several years ago, but there you are.) He cuts a portly figure, his manner is matter-of-fact, not malevolent. In a sense, more hobbit than goblin.
The singer and guitarist, Hugh Cornwell is tall, looks healthy, dresses well. Recently he did a fashion spread for Cosmo Man – times have changed – but only as a favour for a friend. (“Besides, I never knock anything until I’ve tried it.”) In conversation he’s a little earnest, attentive. Both he and Black recall their lives as Stranglers with a patient detachment. The main thing is, they seem to be saying, they’ve stuck it out. They’ve outlasted their detractors. Now they are practically a venerable institution.
Does Hugh feel any sense of revenge? “There is satisfaction, but not revenge, oh God no. That’s a very negative thing. But the satisfaction that you’ve survived your critics is a very nice feeling.”
Cornwell came from an “aspiring middle class” home in Kentish Town, north London, the son of an East End draughtsman. At school in the ’60s he formed an R&B star with another future star, Richard Thompson: “Good fun. We were called Emil & The Detectives for about three weeks, but the name kept changing. We supported Helen Shapiro once, at Crouch End Town Hall.”
They split when Thompson left school, Cornwell staying on for A-levels. The early ’70s found him at Bristol University, with an Afro hairstyle, studying bio-chemistry and playing solo acoustic guitar at night to supplement his £400 a year grant. Eddie Cochran and Joni Mitchell were staples of his set. Was he a hippy?
“Not quite. I had my Afghan coat, which I’d been to Istanbul to buy. But I didn’t want to wear beads or a shoulder bag. I liked the decadent aspects of it, I went for those. But I couldn’t go for the flowery side.”
When he left he took a laboratory job in Sweden, and formed a group called Johnny Sox with a Swede and two American draft dodgers. They came to England, but fell apart when the US authorities called an amnesty. Cornwell found himself a new drummer, who’d replied to an advertisement. That drummer was Jet Black.
Black, at the time, was a middling successful businessman in Guildford, running his own ice cream and home-brewing operation. He’d played in groups as a teenager, and now, at the onset of middle age, was feeling an urge to get back into music. With Cornwell, he recruited a young hitch-hiker called Jean-Jacques Burnel, an ex-student with French parentage, whose only ambition in life was to go to Japan and learn karate. Instead, he was given a bass guitar. Dave Greenfield, a keyboard-playing veteran of the German club scene, completed the line-up, which duly christened itself The Guildford Stranglers.
Taking a flat above Jet Black’s off-licence and ice cream works for a base, the group spent 1974 and ’75 trundling around (sometimes in an ice cream van) to badly-paid gigs, often at working men’s clubs. Yet Black was encouraged enough to sell up his business and go full-time. “Everybody told me I was completely mad. You’re selling everything you’ve worked all these years for, to go into a pop group? Frankly, all my friends laughed at me. The prospects were abysmal, I knew that. But there was just some compulsion to do it.”
For a time they were financed by the proceeds of Black’s sale, and rented a house in the Surrey countryside. But these were not easy years: “Everywhere we went people hated us. They used to throw things at us. Often the manager would come up and say, play something they know or get out.”
The Stranglers’ breakthrough came when they were signed by a management team, Albion, who also had a stake in the all-important London gig circuit. Albion booked the band in everywhere, And in late ’76, swept up accidentally by the punk rock tidal wave, The Stranglers joined the United Artists label. What did UA see in them?
Jet Black: “Had it not been for the punk thing I don’t think they would have seen anything in us. But so much publicity was going to The Sex Pistols and the other bands that we were noticed. We never considered ourselves a punk band, we sort of fitted in because our name was right for that sort of thing. But we had good songs. They wanted a punk band, and they thought we were one.
“In fact The Sex Pistols used to come and watch us before they were a band, all those bands did. So if there was any copying done it was them copying us.
“But we thought, this is handy, being pulled and labelled punks. Fine. It was okay with us because it was giving us publicity that we badly needed. But it had its negative element as well, because as a result of all the hysteria we were getting banned all over the place, which had quite serious financial drawbacks. We still suffer slightly from it today, certain places won’t have us because they’re frightened there might be a riot.
“There was an element that would come along to gigs for trouble, just like the football thing today. And because the press were saying we were doing these terrible things, all these nutters would come along to our gigs. We thought we took a responsible attitude, because if there was any trouble we’d jump off stage and sort it out ourselves. We weren’t trying to thrive on the violence, but we got misrepresented by the press.”
Hugh Cornwell: “You’re guilty by association after a while, it just follows you around, like the gunslinger will always be challenged when he walks into a bar. It got to the point where we’d go on Top Of The Pops, do our bit, and a fight would break out in the bar two hours after we’d left – and the papers would say, Stranglers Involved In Another Fight, and we hadn’t even been in the building. It just shows there is such a lack of collective responsibility among hacks, that they can blatantly put two and two together and get 21. Quite incredible.”
In 1977 they secured a booking at the Rainbow Theatre in London, supporting the Climax Blues Band. Cornwell opted that night for a T-shirt bearing the Ford logo, only altered so as to read “fuck”. The gig was attended by several offcials of the Greater London Council (Tory in those days, much attached to law, order and decency). Jet Black picks up the tale:-
“When we came on stage the GLC officials were at the back of the venue, with binoculars, if you please. They saw this T-shirt and, while we were playing, sent our manager up. He crawled on all fours across the back of the stage to tell us, take the T-shirt off they’re gonna close the show down. So in the end Hugh took it off and, and put it on back to front. We steam into the next number – and then he turned around! And they pulled the switch on us!
“There was uproar in the crowd. But we knew it would be great publicity for us. And it was.”
Also in ’77, a short tour of Scandinavia led to a run-in with Sweden’s “raggare”, a cult of neanderthal youths who were often compared to Hell’s Angel’s, although they tended to favour 1950s American cars, draped with Confederate flags. Their was a simple, home-spun creed, consisting of little except strong drink, racial bigotry and sporadic eruptions of mindless violence. Nobody liked them much. And they took a notion they hated The Stranglers.
Before a concert, large numbers of raggare broke into the hall and trashed the band’s equipment. According to Black: “They came along to smash everything up because they didn’t like punk music, if you don’t mind.” He says that armed police stood by and watched, afraid to intervene. (JJ Burnel has given more vivid accounts, including claims that he and the band attacked the gang’s cars with Molotov cocktails, but Black cannot recall any direct confrontations.)
“A few years later we heard they now like The Stranglers because they don’t think we’re punks.”
For a time, in Britain, The Stranglers were indeed “adopted” by our own Hell’s Angels, who would appear at the gigs with some regularity. “In the end we got so fed up with them, we told them to bugger off. And they did.”
More constant in the band’s affections during those early years was a hard-core following known as the Finchley Boys: “In their spare time they may have got up to some questionable activities, but they weren’t particularly violent or troublemakers. Not in a concert situation, anyway.”
The most famous Strangler fan of all was Dagenham Dave – an intense, lonely character, says Jet. He was a former shop steward, with a hunger for knowledge; he teamed up with the band one night after taking on the Finchley Boys single-handed. “After that he turned up everywhere. But something was wrong. He did everything to excess. He got very drunk one night and jumped off Tower Bridge.” (His body was found in the mud weeks later.) “And we wrote a song about him.”
Other songs, like No More Heroes and Something Better Change (both of them Top 10 hits), placed the band in division one of the UK new wave upsurge, as did their debut LP Rattus Norvegicus. The music’s hallmark was a taut, belligerent urgency; the lyrics were often considered offensive by those of a feminist disposition. Burnel’s bass style was distinctively savage, sounding more like a bodily function than a musical instrument. Even more unusual for the period were Greenfield’s neo-psychedelic organ patterns (Doors comparisons became commonplace), which embroidered the band’s basic coarseness to a point considered quite sophisticated.
The Stranglers were popular, but not fashionable. Punk’s inner circle of bands and commentators distrusted these outsiders: too old, not political, took the wrong drugs, opportunist bandwagon jumpers, probably undercover hippies. And decent opinion, as embodied by Fleet Street, took every opportunity to be disgusted by them.
The Stranglers, according to Black, “have always been alert to using and exploiting a situation.” But he insists they never had a conscious policy of courting notoriety – it just sort of happened to them.
“We’ve done a few stunts over the years, tongue-in-cheek. But it was always taken in the wrong light: schoolboy pranks, taken as very heavy strong-arm stuff. We were in Paris doing an interview with this arse-hole French reporter, a real pain in the arse. So we took him up the Eiffel Tower, gaffer-taped him to the Tower and left him there! It was taken as a death threat almost, but we just thought it was hugely funny. Didn’t do the bloke any harm.
“We abandoned a girl in the desert once, another reporter who’d been writing lies about us, so we left her in a desert in Portugal. But she survived…
More ructions ensued in 1978, when they played an open air concert in Battersea – accompanied by strippers. Well?
“Hugely funny, again. It was a risqué thing to do at that time. We knew this gig was going to be heavily policed, because of our reputation. We’d been banned from playing in London by the GLC and when we finally got this gig we thought, well, let’s make it a show to remember. So we got on all these girls, stripping. (Several, in fact, were Jean-Jacques Burnel’s flatmates.)
“And the funny thing was, you could see all the police going to the front, so they could get a good view. Then their chief says, right, arrest ’em. So when we came off, the police pounced on these girls for indecent exposure. But then they found that before they could prosecute them, or the promoter Harvey Goldsmith, they’d have to prosecute the GLC for allowing it to happen! So it was all dropped. Hugely funny. Authorities have this way of over-reacting to everything.”
Weren’t the strippers also a wind-up, aimed at those who accused The Stranglers of being sexist? (The concept of sexism was swiftly gaining prominence at the time.)
“We used strippers on a number of occasions, as a wind-up, and also as a cheap gimmick, if you like. But we thought it was artistically valid: we had song titles like Nice’n’Sleazy, so we had a nice and sleazy girl come on. The audiences loved it. So if that was sexism, yes, we’re sexists. Depends on what you consider sexist.”
And Hugh Cornwell, is he embarrassed to remember the things they did?
“Well, in the same way that one is embarrassed by things that happened in school. It was a school for scandal.”
But the strippers, specifically?
“Ah, no, I’m very proud of that. A stroke of genius, it was great. That’s on our video collection and people get a lot of fun out of watching it. They don’t think, oh no, this is another misogynist statement. Someone last night was saying to me, that summer of ’77 was so great, and it was encapsulated by that song Peaches, the good times we had. You never hear about that when the hacks are saying ‘This is sexist’. They’ve forgotten all the fun that people had, with no idea of deep philosophical trials and tribulations.
“I’m not ashamed of anything that’s happened to me. It’s my history. But it is history…”
History took its toll, though. By 1979, Cornwell recalls, “we felt completely exhausted, creatively and in every way. We needed a break.” He enjoyed a short romance with Hazel O’Connor (they’d become acquainted at a party, after she’d been thrown into a pool by Steve Strange and Billy Idol, and Hugh took her home to dry off). He made a somewhat forbidding LP (Nosferatu) with ex-Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams, The Stranglers assembled a scrappy live album, while JJ Burnel attempted a solo project called Euroman Cometh, which duly wenteth, all without conspicuous success. The Stranglers had entered their wilderness years.
“A lean time in every respect,” remembers Jet. “Problems with our management, our record company, agents, venues, record sales. Anything you can think of went wrong. On top of that our crew boss had a heart attack. Another time we were just about to go to America and our crew walked out, they just couldn’t take it. We got to America with a new crew and all our equipment was stolen in New York – a colossal financial setback – our soon-to-depart manager hadn’t insured it.
“We had our backs to the wall, facing bankruptcy. The whole business had written us off: that’s the end of that lot. Everything was an uphill struggle.
It got worse. Hugh Cornwell, former laboratory assistant, had never quite lost his interest in chemical experimentation. The result: a routine police search found him in possession of cocaine, heroin and cannabis, and in March 1980 he began a two-month sentence in Pentonville Prison.
Black: “For Hugh it was a tremendous psychological blow, he wasn’t prepared for this at all. We all felt it was a great injustice because what he’d been accused of was trifling compared to other people’s crimes, for which they’d just been fined.”
Of The Stranglers drug habits, he says, “We had our little phase, when it seemed to be experimentally interesting. But we soon matured and thought it was a waste of bloody money.” Of Hugh’s imprisonment, he concedes, “Well, it didn’t go un-noticed, shall we say.”
What about Cornwell himself? Was he a heavy user, back then?
“Rather than heavy, I was irresponsible. I’d walk around with a drugstore in my bag, without ever thinking there was any comeback on this, any risk. I wasn’t that large a user at the time. After the incarceration, I took more care, but became a heavier user.
“The heroin that I got busted for, I hadn’t even tried. Someone had given it to me at a gig in Dublin, and I said, Oh great, thanks, and put it in my bag. At the time I thought it was impolite to say no to presents! I didn’t even know what it was. Then, when I saw what it was I thought, Oh, can’t throw it away – waste, y’know? But I hadn’t tried it, or if I had, I didn’t think much of it. The amount of heroin was tiny. I remember my defence lawyer saying you could put it under a fingernail.
“The consequence of my imprisonment was that I became more careful. I didn’t learn. It didn’t stop me taking drugs.
“But thankfully, three of four years ago now, I had an emotional crisis with a relationship, and I had to stop everything. The girl said, if you don’t stop taking drugs, that’s it. And I was lucky, because it meant I had a choice to make, it was either her or drugs. The difficulty for many people with drug problems is that there is no alternative, there’s no carrot. If they could be given something better to look forward to they might find it easier to stop.
“But in prison I did realise I had to be more responsible. No one could work for two months, not just the group but all the people who work for us. Suddenly their jobs were jeopardised… Then, a few weeks later, I was inside again, in Nice!”
Ah yes, June 1980, the last great Stranglers scandal: that was the occasion when the group were jailed in southern France, found guilty of “inciting a riot” at a gig in Nice University.
“Yeah, Nice, that was the big one, Black ponders, grimly. The drummer has given a full account of the affair in a booklet he wrote afterwards, Much Ado About Nothing. Against a background of student unrest, the group arrived to play, found the event to be badly organised and the college authorities downright hostile. A power failure (entirely avoidable, he maintains) curtailed the show, a capacity crowd turned its anger on the campus buildings, damaging a number of windows. The group were held responsible (though they deny making any inflammatory speeches), arrested and charged.
“It was all quite ridiculous. We’d gone there to entertain them, and because of their own stupidity they had this riot, and blamed us for it… It was all so political: there was no way they could allow the university authorities to be seen as in the wrong and four foreign punks called The Stranglers as in the right.”
While the French legal system stirred, slowly, into action, the musicians were held for several days in foul confinement. Black describes his own time spent in a filthy cell with an Algerian inmate for company. They shared an open toilet, and would puff Gauloises madly, just to mask the stench.
The court eventually gave The Stranglers suspended sentences, and ordered them to share repair costs with the university – a verdict which the group take as amounting to a virtual acquittal. And. As the pragmatic Black adds: “We were ultimately very grateful, because the resulting coverage of that has sold a lot of records in France.”
But Hugh Cornwell, fresh out of Pentonville, reacted less philosophically to the experience:-
“I was in tears. I was, emotionally, completely destroyed. Because I thought, I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve completely changed my behaviour, and I’m still back in nick. Now I can look back and laugh, but at the time it was devastating. It took me a long time to get over Nice, longer than Pentonville, because Nice was like being kicked when you’re already down on the ground.”
The traumas of the period, as he now agrees, fuelled a sense of manic paranoia that’s detectable on the group’s 1980 album The Meninblack: the casual stroppiness of yore gave way to pessimistic brooding and dark speculations concerning cosmic conspiracies and malign extra-terrestrials. Critics of the band were heard to venture that funny farm reservations might be in order.
Remarkably, however, The Stranglers pulled through. The very next year an airy and graceful single, Golden Brown, became the biggest hit of their career and restored their shattered fortunes. Further 45s like Strange Little Girl and albums such as La Folie confirmed their potential as a band for the ’80s, albeit a mellower model than before, more melodic and lyrically less abrasive.. Meanwhile a retrospective Greatest Hits set (The Collection 1977-82) seemed to confer the prestige of history that passing time has denied to some of their punk rivals – its contents (Duchess, for instance, and Hanging Around) were found to have worn rather well.
Jet Black: “Things turned overnight. All of a sudden everyone wanted The Stranglers. There was a sudden resurgence of interest. And we played that for all we could get, because we had to. We were broke. Basically since then we’ve gone from strength to strength, establishing some kind of respect that had never existed, being treated as a musical joke.”
The present decade has been good to the group. The fifth and latest volume of Jet’s scrapbooks contains nothing except interviews and music reviews – which, while not universally favourable, make a welcome change from Stranglers In Bloodbath page two news stories. (“They learned, in the end, that we’re actually human beings.”) Nowadays signed to the CBS Epic label, the quartet’s recent LPs Aural Sculpture and Dreamtime have spawned some quality singles (Skin Deep, Nice In Nice, Always The Sun) that suggest a depth of compositional talent and a breadth of musical ideas.
“I’ve enjoyed the ’80s,” says Cornwell. “And they’re getting better and better. But a lot of that’s to do with my diet – my lack of drugs. I do think they stifle creativity. They fog up your mind.” He will soon be releasing his first solo LP.
Always dogged by business disputes, the group are now self-managed, with Jet Black keeping an experienced eye on their financial affairs. JJ Burnel is still engrossed in karate and physical fitness – but, says Hugh, I think the biggest change in any of us was in Jean, because he was a very volatile personality. That change has been a very steadying factor.” Dave Greenfield apparently flies aeroplanes and likes messing with computers.
Jet: “The maturity that comes with 13 years in this business must have some sort of subduing effect. We were more energetic and aggressive in our early days because we had to be, to survive. Today it’s much easier for us, and I think that’s probably reflected in our music.”
Read my 2008 interview with Hugh Cornwell here.