Jet Black of The Stranglers almost died ahead of his last Oxford gig. But that won’t stop the great survivor’s return, he tells Tim Hughes

Jet Black is one of rock’s great survivors. For four decades The Stranglers drummer has hit it hard. And — despite a few scares — he is still here.

On Monday, the 76-year-old sticksman returns to Oxford’s O2 Academy for what has become his band’s annual visit. And his presence behind the drum kit is particular cause for celebration — for it was on that very stage, two years ago, we thought we had seen the last of poor Jet.

During a soundcheck, the septuagenarian fell ill with breathing difficulties and was taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital, where he spent the night. Drum technician Ian Barnard was drafted in to fill his venerable boots.

Jet’s absence from last year’s tour confirmed fans’ worst fears — that Jet had played his last set. But you can’t keep a good man down, and Jet is back on a tour to mark the band’s 40th anniversary. And, he insists, he is fighting fit.

“I’m holding up and holding it together,” he says dryly.

Jet, who was once nicknamed The Hoover, possibly because of his fondness for housework, is taking a rest before a show in Brighton. The gig comes in the midst of the band’s Ruby Anniversary world tour which sees them play 28 UK dates before heading to mainland Europe, North America and the Far East, culminating in a clutch of festival appearances. “It’s another hard day at the office,” he deadpans. “But it’s a lovely day.”

And he is looking forward to returning to Oxford — despite what happened here. “It was a very unpleasant experience,” he says. “I have a lung problem and was having chest infections for a long time.

“I was finding it hard to breathe and spent the night in hospital. You can’t imagine how boring that was! Missing the tour was a bummer too as you want to be doing what you do. But if you can’t, you can’t.”

Did band mates Dave Greenfield, JJ Burnel and Baz Warne come and visit him in the JR? “Nah, nothing as wet as that!” he says dismissively. Surely they look after each other though? “Not really,” he replies. “We just get on with things. We don’t socialise. It’s important to get some separation if you want the marriage to continue.”

The Oxford Times:

Over four decades they have had 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, Strange Little Girl and Skin Deep.

But for all their success as a studio band it is their often outrageous live shows which have cemented The Stranglers’ reputation as one of the all-time greatest rock acts.

Their shows have not been without incident, though. The whole band were jailed in France for allegedly inciting a riot; arrested in Australia for swearing on the county’s most popular evening TV programme; and 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.

Strapping bass player, and black belt sixth dan karate master, JJ has a particularly colourful past — once pushing original frontman Hugh Cornwell through a wall for annoying him; kidnapping a journalist who had also displeased him; and gaffer-taping a French writer to a girder at the top of the Eiffel Tower — without his trousers.

“We’ve always had to respond to circumstances,” says Jet. “We have had a lot of people who have believed what they’ve read about us in the tabloid press and come spoiling for a fight — and you’ve got to defend yourself.”

And, for all their antics, they are not content to trade in nostalgia. Despite the departure of frontman Cornwell, the band have thrived and prospered, first with replacement Paul Roberts, and latterly Sunderland punk-rocker Baz. Indeed, their latest, 17th, album, 2012’s Giants, was hailed as one of their best ever.

While it is 40 years since The Stranglers burst on to the nation’s consciousness, it was their snarling 1977 debut Rattus Norvegicus which grabbed listeners. The arrival coincided with the punk-rock explosion. But, while they have forever been linked with the punk scene, their musicality, ear for a great tune and Dave Greenfield’s trademark keyboard melodies always placed them above their nihilistic contemporaries. Coming from various blues, jazz and classical backgrounds, they were always better than the rest –— mixing spiky attitude with swaggering anthems with moments of quieter introspection. That’s probably what they have outlasted almost everyone else from the ’70s.

“We were never a punk band,” says Jet — who, before the band, was a businessman, owning a fleet of ice cream vans and an off-licence, which became the band’s base.

“What’s punk about Golden Brown, Strange Little Girl or No More Heroes? The key is, we can play our instruments,” he says. “We’ve done this long enough to know our stagecraft, that’s the difference. Punk was a flash in the pan; here today, gone tomorrow. We were the real thing.”

So, looking back on those 40 years, what has been the best moment? “It’s all been wonderful in different ways,” he says.

“In the early days we were more youthful and it was very exciting. Now we are good on a different level.

“In the beginning we were a fairly one-dimensional, high-energy band. We still play those high energy numbers but we have evolved. Our new stuff is more eclectic. Some people even say it is better.”

The Oxford Times:

And he is still enjoying playing live? “Gigs are fun; everything else is a pain in the ****. The hotels, airports, motorways, food, bags... but the gigs make it all worthwhile.”

Drumming with a band as punchy as The Stranglers would be hard work at any age, but 76? “It’s hard to keep up with some of the older stuff,” he admits. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. After 40 years, it’s like driving a car.

“I enjoy the fun without thinking about it. I can’t recall the last time it felt a chore.

“In the early days people hated us — but there was a certain excitement about that. We’ve always felt it’s cool to be different.”

And does he keep in touch with Cornwell (who has made no secret of his distaste for the band’s continuation)? “No, we don’t keep in touch,” he says bluntly.

“That’s not on purpose, though. I just don’t think about it too much. We have a brilliant frontman with Baz, and Hugh decided to do something different.”

“This is what we do for a living and it’s great to get out and do it ,” he adds.

“This is the best band in the world — and we’ll carry on ‘til we can’t any more. Though we are not thinking about that!”

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