Tim Hughes talks to notorious Stranglers bassist JJ Burnel, and finds him delightful

This was not supposed to happen. I was supposed to be talking to Jean-Jacques Burnel, strapping bass player with The Stranglers, and a man with one of the most fearsome reputations in rock. But when I try to call him at his hideaway near the Cote D’Azur, all I get is a very gruff Frenchman.

“Allo,” he barks on the end of the phone. “Que puis-je faire pour vous?”

“Err… bonjour,” I reply sheepishly. “J’aimerais parler à Monsieur Burnel s’il vous plait...”

“Oui, cést moi!” comes the deadpan reply, followed by a lavishly-accented question, way beyond my schoolboy French.

JJ is having a laugh. And it’s at my expense. I shouldn’t be surprised. Out of all rock’s tough guys, few come as hard as JJ Burnel.

The black belt karate master, born in London’s Notting Hill to French parents, is not widely known for his mild manner. This is a man who pushed former bandmate Hugh Cornwell through a wall just because he annoyed him. He helped get the band jailed in France for allegedly inciting a riot, and was arrested in Australia for swearing on the country’s most popular evening TV programme.

Then there was the time the band had to be escorted out of Sweden under armed guard at 2am after a run-in with some local Teddy boys who had beaten up their road crew and kept them hostage in an underground dressing room. They only escaped by making Molotov cocktails and blowing up their cars.

More than anyone, though, it is journalists who have come unstuck at his hands.

He famously kidnapped one unfortunate writer who had displeased him, bundling him into the boot of his car. He beat up punk reviewer Jon Savage for giving one of their songs a mildly critical review, while another hapless reporter was gaffer-taped to a girder at the top of the Eiffel Tower — without his trousers.

Understandably I was weary. What I didn’t expect, was a conversation in French. So what was he doing on the other side of the Chan- nel? “Talking to you,” he teases, before extolling the virtues of his Gallic Pied-à-terre — within reach of the Med. “I’m only here for a change of scene,” he says, though admits it’s a fleeting visit. He was playing in England the day before, and is set to embark on the yearly Stranglers UK tour, which returns to Oxford on Monday.

“I like Oxford,” he says warmly, confounding his surly image. “Playing there is an annual tradition and we love it. We’ll be staying in a hotel, which will be overrated and overpriced, but we sometimes hang around, have a day off, walk around town and have a drink.”

He goes on: “I saw my first Inspector Morse two weeks ago, and it looked lovely.”

The tour follows last year’s landmark Ruby Anniversary Tour and the release of accompanying celebratory box set album Giants & Gems. And, with 40 years beneath their studded belts, they are as popular as ever. It’s not bad for a band whose senior member, drummer Jet Black, is 76.

“Forty years ago I couldn’t have imagined that, after all this time, I’d still be a rock & roll musician, seeing the world,” he says. “We were in uncertain territory. I thought we might bring out a record, get laid a few times, do it for a couple of years, then get a proper life. I’d never heard of a rock band lasting that long.”

Despite emerging from the white heat of punk, The Stranglers were never really a punk band, instead drawing on pop, prog and even jazz to come up with their distinctive sound, with its rich melodies, eloquent lyrics and soaring keyboard runs.

That ear for a tune has given JJ, Jet Black, keys man Dave Greenfield, former lead singer Cornwell, and replacement frontman Baz Warne, 18 top 40 albums and 24 top 40 singles, including such favourites as Peaches, No More Heroes, 5 Minutes, Duchess, Something Better Change, Always The Sun, Golden Brown and Strange Little Girl. They were even invited to play with the London Sinfonietta at the 2013 Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

So how did they manage to gain such respectability? The answer comes loud, profane and unprintable, but the upshot is, JJ isn’t quite sure.

“It’s the luck of the draw,” he says. “And we’ve had more luck than we deserve. We wrote a few good tunes and that held us in good stead. We also love to play. When we don’t it’s time for us to stop.”

The Oxford Times:
Hard men: From left, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne and JJ Burnel 

The Oxford show has particular poignancy for the band. It was at the O2 Academy, three years ago, that Jet was rushed to the John Radcliffe Hospital after suffering a severe chest infection. Drum technician Ian Barnard was drafted in on sticks.

“It was Oxford’s fault!” says JJ. “Bless him, he’s still a member of the band, and has his axe to grind, but he takes each day as it comes. His health is not great at the best of times.

“He has played the drums for 40 years and he did everything; he was called the Hoover!”

He admits the nickname had nothing to do with the drummer’s domestic skills. “I’ll leave it to your imagination,” he adds. “But we’ll probably finish when he gives up.”

JJ is being charming. Could it be that this bear of a bassist has mellowed? “I’m fundamentally the same person,” he answers.

“We were forged in a period before X Factor and were not afraid to look after ourselves. I once had a punch-up every night. We had to learn how to front ourselves and to play what we wanted to play come hell and flying bottles. We’ve done all the wrong things commercially, have reacted to situations spontaneously, been arrested, locked up, escorted out of countries at machine gun-point, and faced demonstrations by placard-weilding extremists.

“We give as good as we get, but it seems to have been the right thing to do. Anyway, that was then. A lot of our critics and detractors are either dead or retired and we are the last ones standing. And most young commentators think we are quite cool.”

JJ tells me what he has planned for the day, all of which seems very relaxing. So does he see himself settling in France? “I feel more comfortable in London,” he says. “The only French connection I have was that I was once married to a French girl — which I wouldn’t advise anyone to do. Though no one listens to my advice.”

The Stranglers
O2 Academy Oxford
Monday
Tickets: £23 ticketweb.co.uk