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Tightening their stranglehold
7:00am Saturday 9th March 2013 in Music
As one of music's longest-running acts, The Stranglers are feeling rejuvenated as they embark on a month-long tour of the UK following the success of last year's landmark album Giants. Andy Welch reports By Andy Welch After forming in London in the mid-Seventies, The Stranglers came of age in the burgeoning British pub-rock scene.
By the time punk exploded in 1976, the band - Hugh Cornwell, Jet Black, Dave Greenfield and JJ Burnel - had played in virtually every influential venue in the capital, winning fans and honing their performing skills.
While not fitting the punk template quite as neatly as the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash, there was enough snarling energy and power in their music for them to ride the wave while it lasted.
"None of the other punk bands liked us," says the bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, looking back. "It's funny hearing young bands mention us as an influence now, because back then no band would ever admit to liking us."
He recalls a fateful incident in 1976 which he had a fight with Paul Simonon of The Clash, with Simonon's bandmates, plus Sex Pistols, The Ramones and members of the music press on one side, and The Stranglers and their friends on the other.
"It was more handbags and a bit of growling than anything," he says, "but from then on, the lines were drawn."
As punk subsided, however, The Stranglers endured. And have continued to do so, releasing 17 albums and touring ever since.
"We've been around for so long and I think there's a bit of respect come our way recently," says Burnel, 61, born to French parents in Notting Hill, London.
"We've always conducted ourselves in a certain way. We haven't released endless Best Of compilations and box sets, and so on. There's always been new music and we've always tried new things, never imitating ourselves, so that's afforded us a bit more respect. We've ploughed our own furrow, whether people like us or not."
A turning point came around 10 years ago when Burnel isolated himself to write Norfolk Coast. For the first time in a long time, perhaps since original vocalist Hugh Cornwell's departure in 1990, the press were interested and new fans were drawn to the band.
The renaissance continued with Suite XVI in 2006, and in 2012 was capped by Giants, the band's best and most acclaimed album since the mid-Eighties.
"We made a great album with that one," says Burnel. "But then I always think that. I've thought I've released masterpieces for years, but it's not always seen like that by others. There was a synchronicity to Giants, I think. It's just timing, and it's like that with a lot of things. There's no rhyme or reason, it's just cyclical.
"Saying that, you don't expect your best reviews on your 17th album. People tend to assume you're tired creatively, and have nothing left to offer. It was the opposite for us, and we had offers coming in from all over."
"We played in about 25 countries in 2012, ending in Australia and New Zealand. We played in Turkey and Estonia for the first time, and in Germany: we played at Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg, where the Nazi rallies used to be. It was a very eerie experience. There are these giant monolithic constructions around the venue, and you can see darkened silhouettes of eagles embedded in the stone. Quite odd."
While music has been Burnel's career, his oldest love is karate. He began studying the Japanese martial art 43 years ago and now, as a 6th Dan black belt, is an instructor at various dojos around the south of England.
"It's got nothing in common with being in a band," he says, "which is probably why I think karate is so great. It's a complete break, and it stops me becoming totally decrepit. I suppose it's given me a certain attitude that's quite helpful. I'm certainly calmer than I used to be."
He doesn't expect the band to call it a day for some time yet, saying they'll carry on like "old jazzers, until we drop", although drummer Jet Black, 13 years his senior, is finding it harder and harder to keep up with the demands of being on the road.
"Jet's been rehearsing with us, so hopefully he'll be at every show," says Burnel. "There are physical constraints, but he lived the rock'n'roll excess more than most, without doing anything to compensate for it since. He was called The Hoover at one point, so we'll say no more. This is certainly no farewell tour, anyway."
There won't be a new album next year; Burnel says he'd rather wait until there is a demand for one, and doesn't want to rush anything.
"Performing is the greatest thing about being in a band, but it's complemented by the time when we're not performing, when I can collect my thoughts and make sense of the world I live in. I imagine anyone doing anything creative would like to do that.
"For now we're just thinking about the tour. We've got 40 songs rehearsed so we can mix things up for ourselves and the fans, and we're raring to go. I can't wait."
Extra time - The Stranglers :: The Stranglers are JJ Burnel, Dave Greenfield, Jet Black and Baz Warne, who joined in 2000.
:: They were initially called The Guildford Stranglers, although none of the band were from the Surrey town.
:: Original singer Hugh Cornwell left in 1990, believing the band had reached the end of their creative life.
:: The Stranglers' biggest hit singles include Peaches, No More Heroes and Golden Brown, which reached No 2 in the UK in 1981.
:: Burnel has recorded a number of solo albums, the last of which was a soundtrack to an anime version of The Count Of Monte Cristo in 2005.