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The Stranglers' Jean-Jacques Burnel talks ahead of Birmingham show - interview

Birmingham | Entertainment | Published:

The idea that anyone would still be listening after 43 years didn't enter The Stranglers' thinking when they surfed the waves of punk back in the 70s.

In truth, Jean-Jacques Burnel wasn't thinking past the end of the night. His idea of the future was getting back to the tour van without having a punch-up.

And yet The Stranglers are one of the most successful and enduring of bands from the era that gave us The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and Buzzcocks.

After enjoying 23 UK Top 40 hit singles and 17 UK Top 40 albums, shows around the world in recent years have proved more popular than ever.

Rather than seeing their popularity decline, they've seen it increase. Rather than see their audience diminish, they've seen it grow. Rather than witness their set list move in ever-decreasing circles, they've been writing new material that's established itself as a favourite among fans.

"It's funny the way these things pan out," says JJ. "We didn't imagine we'd still be here."

The Stranglers are back on the road in March for a month-long tour that celebrates their four decades in music. The Classic Collection will run the gamut from their prolific and successful '77-'79 epoch, when Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes, Black and White and The Raven all achieved gold or platinum placings and Top 5 status through to 2012's critically-acclaimed Giants.

Not that it'll be a nostalgia show. The band remain of-the-minute – it's just they also happen to have an enviably good back catalogue.

"We've released 17 albums, so we won't just restrict ourselves to the older stuff. I would hate for The Stranglers to go through the motions, that wouldn't be us. We rehearse a lot of material every night and the setlist hardly ever stays the same. The only time we'll play the same set two nights running is if we've done a blistering show and we want to recapture the vibe the following night."

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The band works so well because its members get on so well. "I love playing with these guys and I think I can speak for them too. That's one of the reasons why we're still together. You know, Baz Warne has now been in the band longer than Hugh (Cornwell) ever was.

"I've seen bands play just for the money, even though they can't stand the sight of each other, but that's not us.

"A few years ago, I saw The Police and they were on at Hyde Park just after us. The tension was palpable. They couldn't stand each other."

When The Stranglers hit the road, they're looking to have a good time. They want the audience to be involved. They crave that instant feedback. They are looking to please – themselves, then the crowd.

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"It's what all musicians want to do. Suddenly something gels and there's no better feeling. Recording and writing I love too, of course, and we're starting the process of recording another set of songs.

"You really need time to sit back and consider what's going through your mind when you put an album together. I've got 150 ideas and I really need time to myself to sift through those. If I'm lucky I might have five-to-six songs that I think are good enough."

The band have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance during the past 10 to 12 years and are in demand around the world. During the past 12 months, they've circled the globe twice.

"It's great. It's great for a bunch of old fats like us. The people who come out are all ages, it's not just people from our generation. I can look you or anyone in the eye and say we're still an edgy, contemporary band."

And yet when they started, the idea of keeping things going for so many years didn't enter their minds. They wanted to shake-up the establishment, kick out the old farts and smash things up.

"When we started in the 70s there weren't bands that were 40 years old. Even The Stones, who we were slagging off, were only 15 years old. We thought they were ancient. So now we've entered unchartered territory really."

And what would The Stranglers of 1976 think if they met The Stranglers of 2017? JJ laughs. "They'd look for a punch up if they saw us now." The band's cultural significance should not be understated. They were among half a dozen or so British groups who changed the landscape for ever. "Punk was so important for us and a whole generation of people.

"Sometimes we'd do two gigs in one day. I remember Joe Strummer and Chrissie Hynde hitching a lift with us after we'd done The National Rooms in London in our ice cream van because we all had to get to The Speakeasy where we had a gig at midnight. We had an hour to get across London so that we could plug in and play. Looking back, it was amazing. It went from being every night a punch-up and trying to get people to listen to us to people paying money to come and see us."

And their wilderness years, after falling out with EMI, served only to give them more drive. The hard times increased their appetite; they craved success all the more.

"If you don't have those hard periods you can't appreciate the success. People don't realise how hard it is. We got turned down by 24 record companies when we started out. But fortunately, we were a real band, a tight band, and we were living together in a squat, so we helped each other and sustained each other.

Over the years, there's been a series of remarkable moments.

"One was when we were dumped with EMI. They said: 'you know what, punk's over, new wave's over and you're over'. And then we recorded Golden Brown and proved them all wrong. They hated it, they didn't want to release it. But we insisted, even though they'd written us off. And suddenly they realised we had a hint of talent, after all."

By Andy Richardson

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