JJ Burnel seen here second from the right

Jean-Jacques Burnel, bass guitarist with The Stranglers chats with Kevin Cooper about Hugh Cornwall, their bad boy image, Jet Black’s health, having U2’s album on his iPad and The Stranglers forthcoming March On Tour.

Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel is a Franco-English musician, producer and songwriter, best known as the bass guitarist with the British rock band The Stranglers, although he has sung lead vocals on about a third of their songs.

Whilst being with the band since its inception in 1974, he has also made two solo albums, Euroman Cometh in 1979, and Un Jour Parfait in 1988, as well as a collaborative album with fellow Stranglers member Dave Greenfield; Fire and Water (Ecoutez Vos Murs) in 1983. But it is with The Stranglers that he has had the most success. Scoring some twenty three UK top 40 singles and seventeen UK top 40 albums to date in a career spanning four decades, The Stranglers are one of the longest-surviving and most continuously successful bands to have originated in the UK punk scene of the mid to late 1970s.

Taking time out from his busy schedule to talk to Kevin Cooper, this is what he had to say.


Mr Burnel how are you today?

I’m very well Kevin, thank you for asking.

I have to say that you have made me feel very old this morning.

(Hysterical laughter) why?

I have been trying to work out when it was that I saw the Stranglers for the first time. I have a couple in mind, the first being at The Top Rank in Sheffield in the mid 70’s.

Fuck me that must have been with The Human League supporting us (laughter).

That’s right, Siouxsie and the Banshees were stuck in London and couldn’t make the gig so The Human League stepped in.

That’s right Kevin. That was a fantastic night.

And the second time which stands out is when you supported The Who at Wembley Stadium in 1979.

If my memory serves me correctly that was Nils Lofgren, AC/DC, The Stranglers and then The Who. What I remember is Nils Lofgren flying around the stage after jumping off a trampoline (laughter). So is that the last time that you saw The Stranglers Kevin?

No, I have seen you many times over the years and have been fortunate to see all three lead singers perform.

That’s good.

I was photographing you at Rock City on your Ruby Anniversary Tour last year and you gave me one of your infamous stares, so I quickly moved out of your way (laughter).

Well Kevin, what can I say, I’m sorry if I frightened you (laughter).

I remember an incident at The Assembly Rooms in Derby when a young man kept getting up onto the stage and insisting upon putting his arms around you, and generally pissing you off.

That didn’t really piss me off in those days, I used to think that is was good fun.

Well I clearly remember that you let him get away with it a couple of times but then on the third occasion the left boot swiftly came up and the gentleman in question flew off the stage and landed three rows from the front. I don’t think that he came round until after the gig had finished (laughter).

To be honest Kevin, I really don’t mind someone putting their arms round me sometimes (laughter) I actually applaud it if they can avoid the security. But I have to say that twice is starting to get a little irritating, but three times; what’s that American saying, three strikes and you’re out (hysterical laughter).

He was certainly out (laughter).

Well, what can I say (hysterical laughter).

Just going back to the Wembley Stadium gig, you played almost all of The Raven album. Did you not think that was a brave thing to do back in those days?

No Kevin not at all, we simply thought that it was the right thing to do. We had just released The Raven album and that was what we were really familiar with. We have been told many times that we have always made the wrong commercial choices, but from my point of view we are the last men standing. Ok, so we have committed commercial suicide many times, apparently, but in the long term they are badges of honour. Everyone is a prostitute (laughter). There is a lot of prostitution within the music business (laughter). I would like to claim the moral higher ground if that is at all possible, it’s probably not but (hysterical laughter) I think that if you stick to being honest then things will sort themselves out.

So how is life treating Jean-Jacques Burnel at this moment it time?

Life is treating me quite well at the moment. I’ve got my health, I don’t have a mortgage, and I have got my motorcycles.

You are currently busy preparing for The Stranglers ‘March On’ Tour this year. Do you still get a buzz out of touring?

Yes Kevin, that’s why we do it. We need to play; I need to play. In fact Baz (Warne) is turning up this afternoon and we are going to be working out a set list from a whole pool of songs that we can dip into and change on a daily basis if we want to during the tour. We are also going to start writing some new stuff. Baz will actually be in the air as we speak (laughter).

I think that over the years you must have played every venue in Nottingham?

Rock City is a bit scuzzy but it has a great vibe (laughter) and playing The Royal Concert Hall was great.

I remember seeing you play at The Capital FM Arena, as it is called now.

That’s right, we were supporting UB40 on that tour.

I have to ask, how’s Jet (Black) these days, how’s his health?

Jets not well at all. He hasn’t been right for donkeys years now. What can I say Kevin, he is still alive and he still has an opinion on stuff (laughter). Last year he faded after the first concert and he was on oxygen, but it’s an ongoing problem with Jet and it has been since the very early days. We almost got lynched back in 1978 in Montréal because he refused to come back out for the encore (laughter). He needed oxygen back then and it hasn’t improved over the years as he has got older and don’t forget, he has been Mr Rock and Roll after all. There is a price to pay I think at some point.

Is there any chance that he will play at some point on the forthcoming tour?

Yes Kevin, he wants to play a couple of songs so we will rehearse and see how he does. After three or four minutes behind a drum kit playing our music, he is wiped out and needs oxygen though. Don’t forget that Jet has got everything conceivably wrong with him, but he still has that presence about him. He mentors Jim (MacAulay), who has been drumming with us for a few years now (laughter).

It’s good that he is still connected with the band and also that he still has an input.

Fucking hell is he still connected (laughter) and he’s got an opinion about everything. Jet wants to protect the legacy of The Stranglers. So yes, he has an opinion and he wants to play so we will try him out. It’s hard for Jet as he has heart problems, lung problems, diabetes, he’s carrying far too much weight, you name it and Jets got it (laughter).

Were you excited at how well last year’s Ruby Anniversary Tour was received?

Well it was a sell-out everywhere in Europe Kevin, so to see a bunch of old bastards attracting a very young audience in some places was very exciting for us. We also played the V-Festivals and T In The Park, together with a massive festival over in Ireland. We also managed to sell-out two shows over in Chicago in four minutes so something must be going right (laughter).

And what’s happening on the recording front, are you putting a new album together?

Well the truth is that we are trying to. I’ve got around one hundred and thirty ideas, and they are just ideas, and I’ve got loads of lines or lyrics and stuff. Baz has also got loads of stuff and at some point, possibly tonight or tomorrow, we will sit together and sift through them. Most of it will probably go by the wayside. At some point you start having to make sense of your ideas; “what was I thinking of then” (laughter) or “what the fuck was I on when I wrote that” (hysterical laughter) and things like that. It’s a filtering system and at some point you start trying to develop them, make them intelligent or melodic, or whatever. That’s quite fun actually, going through that process as well.

Because that is what music should be about, it should be about fun.

Yes, what else is it, I know that it is illegal in some countries where they have drawn a black veil over it. But yes Kevin, music should be intelligent, it should be fun, sexy, thought provoking, foot-tapping, all of those things and if you could put them all in at once, what a song you would have.

My bugbear is that you should actually have to pay for your music and not download it for free.

Well, yes. The problem is that technology has made it not 100% guaranteed. I think that is an interesting polemic to be discussed, as the business model has changed within the music industry. But to be honest Kevin, the music industry has bought a lot of these problems upon themselves when they were starting to be taken over by accountants, who can only think of things in short terms. They stopped investing in people’s careers and if they didn’t recoup their investment within six to twelve months, then those people were just dropped. They didn’t invest in careers; they didn’t see technology coming through, and all kinds of mistakes were made. Whereas, there were guys who started record companies because they loved music, and actually invested quite heavily in them.

On the other side of the coin, people are going to live music more although I do accept what you are saying Kevin and more and more people are downloading music. What I can say though is that The Stranglers are selling more records and funnily enough we are selling more vinyl; that’s increased. But also yes, there are definitely huge amounts of downloads going down and even more illegal downloads which people are not paying for.

Somebody did tell me that for every single legal download there are at least ten illegal downloads which is totally crippling the music industry.

Yes Kevin, that’s the figure that I have heard as well. But there is nothing that you can do about it so you just grin and bear it. I have had a similar sort of problem in the past where I have spent a year on music, spent a fortune recording it, released it and is has bombed (hysterical laughter). Well it’s almost the same thing (laughter).

The Stranglers have been recording and performing since 1974. Could you ever have imagined that you would still be performing and more to the point, still be as relevant today?

Well no, but that wasn’t the model. If we had the chance to release a single then that was enough. Then things evolved obviously, but bands didn’t last for forty years, they weren’t meant too. We just thought that it was a disposable thing which we would have a couple of years of fun with, hopefully, but we were definitely entering uncharted territory. So the simple answer Kevin is no (laughter). Also peoples appetites changed, so audiences moved on. But as far as The Stranglers are concerned, people have grown up with us; a lot of people have grown up with us, and also because we have been around for so long, people have recently discovered us and they have discovered our back-catalogue and because they now have the technology to do so, they can go back and see how we were in our prime if they want to (laughter). So there is now much more of a connection with the past than there ever was. Some of our old stuff hasn’t dated much; some has whilst some hasn’t.

A lot of teenagers and twenty something’s have got into The Stranglers either through their parents or just because they are reacting against The X Factor generation and Pop Idol stuff. They see all of the commercial mistakes that we have made as badges of honour.

Was the ‘bad boy’ image something which you consciously decided to cultivate?

No not at all Kevin, we just wanted to make records. We were getting attacked both physically and also in the press; we were reviled all over the place, so we were just defending ourselves. We were simply reacting to our circumstances. When you have got people who are trying to beat you up, on stage in front of an audience, what are you going to do, run away? That was never The Stranglers way, we simply stood our ground. When journalists were taking sides, as they invariably did in the early days, because it was us against The Sex Pistols or The Clash, we might have been selling out more gigs than them, selling more records than them, but we weren’t getting on the front cover of Melody Making or the New Musical Express.

Because of all of this, we soon developed a ghetto mentality. At one point it was us against the rest of the world which is not too unhealthy a point of view.

Dare I mention Mr Cornwall and a Stranglers reunion, is there any chance of it ever happening?

What would be the point Kevin? We were offered over a million pounds to get back together and do a series of concerts and we just thought why, what is the point. It just wouldn’t be the same, it would simply be a commercial decision. I mean if there was any residual friendship, which there isn’t, then that might have been possible, but there isn’t.

Having seen Mr Cornwall a few times now I was going to say that he needs the help and publicity.

Well he does, he is a very bitter bloke. He has to play five days per week every day of the year, in order to maintain a certain lifestyle and its killing his creativity. Well you have seen him Kevin and no doubt you could count the audience on two hands.

And he is part of the problem that we have spoken about as he gave his album away free on YouTube.

Hey, listen, so did U2. Do you know how difficult it is to get fucking U2 off my iPad Kevin, Jesus Christ? I think that Apple thought, what a great idea, we will force everyone to have U2’s album on their stuff whether they like it or not. But it’s bitten them on the bottom. I have had to get some serious technicians to get it off my fucking iPad (hysterical laughter). So listen, if you can’t get arrested to promote your album, then you give it away, right (laughter).

Well you do know the difference between God and Bono don’t you?

No Kevin, tell me.

God doesn’t walk around all day thinking he’s Bono.

(Hysterical laughter) that’s a great one (laughter).

What makes me smile is when people ask me if I am going to see The Stranglers with that ‘new lead singer’. Hugh was with you for sixteen years and Baz has now been with you for fifteen years.

I have to tell you Kevin that two years ago The Stranglers had their most successful year ever. More than when we were charting every week. That was our most successful year ever. Since the release of the Norfolk Coast album back in 2014, things have got better and better which has been down to a combination of things I think and that’s a good place to find yourself in after forty years in the band.

Over the years I have watched Baz grow into the role and I feel that he has now made it his own.

Interestingly enough a lot of people who have followed The Stranglers on and off for many years, think that Baz is a real Strangler. That’s what they say to him ‘you are a real Strangler’ (laughter) although I personally don’t know what that means. No, Baz is great and we both feed off each other. For me, it is reminiscent of the relationship which I had with Hugh in the very early days. We were inseparable and we were always bouncing ideas off each other. We were always having a laugh, writing about the world, interpreting the world in our way which stopped with our increasing success and Hugh just wanting to be Sting (laughter). At that point he was trying to separate himself from the rest of us and possibly listening to those sirens who were telling him that he was The Stranglers, that he didn’t need the rest of us and that he was an actor. That was just what the world needed, another singer who thought that he was an actor (laughter). Fortunately, for the last fifteen years with Baz, things have just been getting better and better.

When Hugh left, was there ever a point when you thought that was the end of The Stranglers?

Oh Yes Kevin, absolutely, I thought that was it. I never thought that we would be able to improve on what we had, and I had given up the ghost. It was Jet (Black) and Dave (Greenfield) who said that as I had already written most of the next album, that we had to rehearse it and find somebody else to fill the big shoes. So we found two people to fill Hugh’s shoes, but it didn’t quite work out that way and suddenly Norfolk Coast stopped the rot and then when we became a four-piece and everything clicked. Not only did it click for us, more importantly it clicked for the audience. People were suddenly saying that everything felt right and that the interpretation of the old songs felt right. The most important thing was that they found it credible.

Ultimately that is what it is down to Kevin isn’t it, whether something is credible or not. If it feels right, then people will instinctively vote with their feet.

Who has been your biggest inspiration musically?

Musically, I think that it has been in recent years Jet, Dave and Baz. They have inspired me and don’t simply accept anything that I say should go; it is a heathy forum. It allows me a lot of freedom and they pull me back when I am completely wrong. So I suppose that they are my biggest influences. Outside of that, it is off the wall stuff like Chopin or Debussy. But the biggest influence I think, if I can take the liberty of speaking for the rest of the band, is the world we live in. It is just inspirational all of the time, not always positively.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

(Laughter) well there have been a few Kevin. One of the main ones which suddenly became a mental mantra if you like, was when everyone had written us off when we released Golden Brown. The record company thought that it would die a death, and did everything to kill it off. Firstly, they had refused to release it, and we had to enforce the release with lawyers because we believed in it, when no one else did. So being able to put two fingers up to the record company was brilliant and after that it just carried on. We received an Ivor Novello award for Golden Brown the following year. The record company had released the single at Christmas expecting it to disappear in the tsunami that was Christmas in those days. So it’s the best satisfaction isn’t it Kevin, to be able to prove the record company wrong.

We just stuck to something when everyone thought that we were mad, they said that you couldn’t dance to it; it didn’t sound like The Stranglers, it wasn’t punk enough, and then it just had a life of its own worldwide actually. Suddenly, the record company were taking an interest in The Stranglers and asked us for another song, so we stuck our fingers up again and sent them a seven minute song in French (laughter).

Do you have any ambitions left to achieve musically?

Yes, I want to record the perfect album. I haven’t done that yet.

But does the perfect album exist?

(Hysterical laughter) well, that’s why it will probably be finished tomorrow (laughter).

I can’t let you go without asking you how the karate is going. Is everything going well?

Yes at the moment, I got my 7th Dan in Japan last October. I wasn’t expecting it and I don’t think that I really deserved it, but the Japanese put me through my paces and now I am one of only five in the world in Shidokan Karate. I came back with a couple of bones broken in my foot, which I only noticed last week wasn’t hurting anymore. Whenever I can, I try to help out at my clubs, and I occasionally go to other countries to teach and give seminars. So it is a good counter-balance to the music business to be honest, it keeps me relatively grounded and it is quite real.

It means that I don’t have to rely too much on bouncers to sort out the rubbish and I can just sort things out for myself. It also means that I can be honest. The more that you are confident, then the more you can just be yourself. You don’t have to hide behind a tough image or a soft image or whatever, you can just be yourself. Surely that is what we really want to be. I don’t have to go round with a shaved head, tattoos and a fucking attack dog on the end of my arm because I am scared. Usually those people are very scared people.

On that note I will thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

It’s been a pleasure Kevin. Thank you for a stimulating conversation.

I will see you at Rock City on the 24th March.

Ok I look forward to it and I will try very hard this time not to frighten you (hysterical laughter). Bye Kevin.

Interviewer’s note:

It was with some trepidation that I had agreed to interview JJ today after the horrific events which had unfolded in Paris the day before. It was clear that those events had affected JJ, as we spoke privately about the world-wide problem of terrorism and the wasted loss of lives in a battle where there can only be losers. Despite the unfolding drama JJ remained polite, calm and totally focused upon the matter in hand; The Stranglers forthcoming ‘March On’ Tour. Therefore it is with the greatest of respect that I say for JJ, the people of France and the families of those who have lost their lives; “Je suis Charlie”.