Jean-Jacques Burnel on why the Stranglers are playing at the BBC Proms

"Isn’t it ironic that the iconic BBC, which people call the Establishment, can be more adventurous than any other broadcaster? They take risks and that’s pretty cool"

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Jean-Jacques Burnel on why the Stranglers are playing at the BBC Proms
Written By
Andrew Duncan

He’s been jailed for three weeks in Nice for affray, spent a year experimenting with Class A drugs, delighted in bashing audiences with his Fender Precision bass guitar (“If gigs didn’t end in a riot, or we weren’t booed off stage, it wasn’t good”), punched an English journalist and debagged a disrespectful French one before gaffer taping him to the Eiffel Tower (“I only took him up to the first floor, though,” he explains later, as if in mitigation), so I’m a little wary of meeting Jean-Jacques Burnel, co-founder of punk group the Stranglers, though our encounter is less surprising than his upcoming performance with the band beneath the bust of Sir Henry Wood at the Proms, the first “alternative” group to appear there since Soft Machine in 1970.

“JJ” cancels a first meeting near his holiday home in Montauroux, south of France (he has another house in Chiswick, west London) because he doesn’t want to risk riding his Triumph motorbike in a predicted storm. Next day, a smiling, polite, grey-haired man drives up in a Volvo with a copy of the Telegraph on the front seat. Heavens, JJ’s become a monarchist. In the 1980s he wrote Garden of Eden, about the Queen and her “useless children”.

“Now,” he says, “I argue the case for constitutional monarchy, which I never thought I’d do. Take the p***s out of me as much as you like,” he adds, laughing. “It’s no longer the Stranglers against the world. It’s the Stranglers with a few friends.”

Time (he’s 61) is the great mellower, and the Stranglers have morphed from being disreputable, aggressive and uncompromising, through a variety of musical styles, to become – almost – pop classics in the 39 years since they formed in 1974, as the Guildford Stranglers. He knows he’s lucky to be alive. “I’ve seen quite a few fall by the wayside and die... At uni [Bradford] I discovered karate and when I indulged in heroin and cocaine I reached rock bottom – everyone does. Fortunately I went back to karate and decided to clean up. I’m a six dan in Shidokan – the highest ranked in the UK – and I teach it. So I have a responsibility. Also when you have kids [a son of 25 and daughter of 22 by his ex-wife], it changes your life.

“I’m flattered, but not really surprised we’re at the Proms [with the London Sinfonietta] because we’re the last man standing from our generation. Isn’t it ironic, though, that the iconic BBC, which people call the Establishment, can be more adventurous than any other broadcaster? They take risks and that’s pretty cool. Some people say they’re dumbing down by inviting us, but I hate all this PC b******s and being afraid to cause controversy.

“When we started, I thought we’d last a few years, although we were so skint I took it day by day. I lived off tomatoes, walking seven miles to get them from a farm outside Guildford. Mind you, a girl lived nearby. A lot of blokes were envious because I had a different one every night. As Lenin said [actually, Karl Marx], ‘From each according to his needs, to each according to his ability’. I had the need and ability. But most people loathed us, so we developed a ghetto mentality... Our motto was ‘truth through provocation’.

“At first punk was liberating, but when we tried to experiment and not play up to its Stalinist fundamentalism – you weren’t allowed to use synthesizers – I found it suffocating. We thrived on being disliked, but you can’t make a profession out of rebellion. You need something to kick against.” The band was accused of being sexist and racist. “I wrote I Feel Like a Wog which was meant to be ironic not racist.” Peaches is about men ogling bikini-clad girls; Golden Brown, their most successful single, released in 1982, is melodic and repetitive about heroin, a girl, or what? “I won’t tell anyone. I don’t need to.”

No More Heroes has lyrics naming Trotsky, Shakespeare and Sancho Panza. Intellectual? “Some might say ‘pretentious,’ but am I meant to be a thicko, or monosyllabic like a footballer, just because I beat people up? I’m from a generation which thinks musicians have an influence on the zeitgeist.” 

JJ was born in Notting Hill, London, to French parents, who later moved to Godalming in Surrey, where he trained as a classical guitarist. “I’m good enough to con people with my repertoire, but any real classical guitarist would see right through me.”

Nevertheless, the Stranglers were one of the few punk bands who could play. They had 24 top 40 singles, 17 top 40 albums, sold about 40 million records, “more than the Clash or the Sex Pistols, which is respectable for an edgy band. It’s less than U2, but they’re boring and smug. The Rolling Stones were fantastic for their first ten years, but haven’t done much since... They’ve made a lot of money because people still go to see them – so who’s to blame? I’m trying to be sentient and valid, not living in the past. Bands are so sterile now because there’s too much of a commercial imperative. Artists shouldn’t play safe.”

But reading the Telegraph every day? “I started when they had the b******s to expose MPs expenses. That hit a chord because they disrupted their own natural electorate. I’m not anti-Establishment per se. That’s a cliché. I’m anti a few things, like trying to impose democracy on the rest of the world. It’s not always about sex or taking drugs in hotel rooms. We’ve been written off a few times, but talent will out. I have a thick skin.” He pauses, and adds smiling, “And now my girlfriend has saved me from being an old roué, which would not have been a pretty sight.” Back to the Volvo and safety.

BBC Proms is on Radio 3 and 6 Music tonight at 10:15pm

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