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24 September 2014
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Where Are They now?
Jean Jacques Burnel
JJ Burnel tells the story of the longest surviving act from the late 70s new wave explosion...

With over 25 years in the music industry, The Stranglers have continued their battle cry where other bands declared their musical amnesty years ago. Hugh Cornwell, Jet Black and Jean Jacques Burnel had been rehearsing since as early as 1974, but the full line-up didn't really emerge until late 1975. By then Dave Greenfield had joined, and with his Manzarek-style keyboard playing, he added the missing voice to the developing Stranglers sound.

Courting controversy and press attention right from the outset, the band's formative years sat well in an era from which the first stirrings of punk were burgeoning. Having built quite a name for themselves on the pub rock scene, The Stranglers went on to produce a hit single every year between 1977-1982. In 1990, however, Hugh Cornwell walked out of the band to pursue solo projects and in walked Paul Roberts. Thirteen years on, this reincarnation of The Stranglers has seen four further albums and a continued legendary following of fans.

TOTP2 tracked down The Stranglers' songwriter, bassist and vocalist, Jean Jacques Burnel to find out his take on the band's history which spans over more than 1/4 of a century...

Let's go right back to the beginning of The Stranglers and your career. Tell us how you met and joined the band.
Jean Jacques Burnell: Well, I was coming back from karate, which has been and remains my life-long passion. I was in my van driving along the old A3 in Kingston and I stopped to give this long-haired, American guy a lift to Guildford. He happened to be the lead singer of a band, who'd come over from Sweden with a few other American guys. They were living above this off licence, owned by Jet Black. Jet had then become their drummer and had moved everyone into his off licence. That's how I met Hugh and Jet. Hugh turned up at my bedsit a couple of weeks later, looking really down, and he said that the rest of his band had gone back to Sweden. It just so happened that I was playing my classical guitar at the time. So he invited me to join. I didn't have any musical ambitions, I just enjoyed playing.

Did they have a tough time trying to persuade you then?
JJ: No, not really! I was in a dead end job and was saving money, very slowly, to go to Japan and continue my karate studies. So Hugh convinced me pretty easily. He invited me along to their next practise and I turned up from a karate lesson with my arm in a sling! That was May 30th, 1974. So at that time there was just the three of us, guitar, bass and drums.

When did you first realise that The Guildford Stranglers, as you were then called, had the makings of a really good band?
JJ: Well, not for quite a while, because the very few places we could get booked into usually asked us never to return again, or they'd pull the plugs on us! We tried a variety of different musicians, but nothing really clicked. Then we advertised for a keyboard player. We thought that was the extra voice that we needed. Hugh and I had been writing all the songs and they were starting to take shape, but it wasn't until Dave joined us a year later in 1975 that things really clicked. He sounded great and really reminded us of Ray Manzarek from The Doors. But Dave had never heard about them then. It was all down to synchronicity really. From then on, we started writing a lot more.

As your following grew though, so did the band's notoriety didn't it?
JJ: Well, it kinda started with the notoriety actually. I remember one of the first gigs it all kicked-off at. We'd been booked to do a young conservative gig and we were really skint. We were living in a squat by then and our stage clothes were the clothes we got up in, you know Dr.Martens, drain-pipe jeans and tatty leather jackets. We also had short hair, which was relatively unusual for that period. So we took the gig, but everyone was in bow-ties and penguins suits. Some guy clammered on to the stage and said, 'Stop that racket'. So we just said, 'F*** off!' Slowly during the hour-long set, an audience of 350 people dwindled down to 12 people. Of those, five of them were friends, but the others were absolutely gob-smacked. They then started to follow us around the pubs and clubs of London. It all started from there. We knew we were doing something right, because we were pissing off so many people in those days.

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