The Stranglers: Burning Up Time

"It was a tempestuous year,” Jet Black recalls of 1981. “There was a lot of turmoil. We’d been on the crest of a wave and then suddenly we were in all kinds of financial and contractual problems. It was terrible. But most bands go through similar things. We just seemed to hit every extreme at once. But, y’know, we recovered.”

Three decades ago The Stranglers had hit a wall. Their initial burst of punk-era success – the phase that gave the world Peaches, No More Heroes and Something Better Change – had become hamstrung by management changes, a difficult rapport with their label EMI, and the constant sniping of their peers and the music press. The media lapped up every utterance by middle-class hero Joe Strummer, but carped on about The Stranglers being a little older, baulked at their deliberately incendiary lyrics, and were apparently disgusted at the fact that they could play a bit.

The 80s hadn’t started as well as they might. After 1979’s The Raven, which yielded the hit Duchess and showed the band were keen to explore more complex territory than three-chord smash-and-grabs, things had gone quiet. If they weren’t to burn out and be just a faintly remembered Best Ever Punk Rock Hits footnote, they had to make some smart decisions. So here’s what they did: they took Class A drugs ‘as a mission’, released an unapologetic concept album about the connection between religious phenomena and UFOs, then followed it up with another one about love and cannibalism.

Somehow, in the midst of this, they retained full artistic freedom, and in The Gospel According To The Meninblack made what some have described as the first goth album, and others as the first techno album. Then, by writing a song in odd time signatures and loaded with covert references to heroin, they stumbled upon their biggest, most enduring hit: Golden Brown. They followed that up with a spoken-word piece in French, which was commercial suicide. Keen to leave EMI and accept a rival deal, they reclaimed the high-chart-position ground by revamping a years-old demo, Strange Little Girl, that the label had previously rejected but forgotten about.

“Troublesome times,” recalls drummer Black. “The record company were appalling, we’d been though a disastrous year, had all our equipment stolen, management bust-ups and all sorts of disasters. Then suddenly it all turned around again very quickly with Golden Brown. Things tend to do that in rock’n’roll – you’re up one minute, down the next. Did we take risks? Well, I mean, the whole thing’s a risk. You get no guarantees in this game.”

“But we’d been hugely successful until then,” adds bassist/vocalist Jean-Jacques Burnel. “We were pushing our boundaries a hell of a lot, experimenting in the music… and on ourselves.”

Burnel and Black, who with keyboard player Dave Greenfield enjoy international success with The Stranglers to this day, are interviewed while recording a new Stranglers album.

Cornwell, who left in 1990, meets me in London the day after returning from Chicago, where he has begun work on his new solo album, Totem & Taboo, with Steve Albini. All are engaging characters, not averse to frankness. For them, 1981 was nothing if not interesting.

“We all decided to take Class A for that year,” says Burnel, “to see what would come out of it. I think Dave and Jet quickly relinquished the mission, were released from it. But Hugh and I carried on. And then we recorded those albums. Was the work influenced by the drugs? Oh, completely. You indulge, and you get into this psychological frame of mind where everything is centred around that. Your world gets smaller and smaller. I hate to say this, but we became increasingly… negative. We were definitely on the dark side there. At the end of it – and it’s not an easy thing to stop once you’ve started – we’d come out with The Meninblack and La Folie albums.

“The first was an exploration of one of our pet obsessions at the time. Since we were a tight unit, the four of us, increasingly criticised, and fostering a siege mentality, we shared everything – books, girlfriends occasionally. We got into what people might today call UFOs. And religion. We were trying to explain cults and conspiracies in what I suppose were Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots Of The Gods terms. It still makes a bit of sense to me. It did well in the States and made the Top 10 in the UK, but everyone said: ‘Oh they’ve gone completely off their fucking heads.’ And they weren’t too far wrong!”

While Black calmly recalls it was “our view on world phenomena, the biblical, the occult, extraterrestrial, all that stuff – our artistic interpretation of the meaning of historical events”, he adds: “Yes, at the time you were considered a nut to be interested in all that. Of course, today the majority of people are into it. Look at films, sci-fi. Everybody’s riffed on the ‘men in black’ since. We were the first.”

Cornwell’s memory is that “Jet was the first to connect with that. He was getting these magazines through the post from these cults, about UFOs. A little hobby, I guess. Sitting at his house rehearsing, I picked up these magazines and said they’d make a great concept for an album. We were all dressed in black anyway, y’know? It wasn’t a case of winding people up. It appealed to us that nobody else was doing anything like this, and a concept means it’s fun and easy to link all the songs. The song Meninblack had appeared on The Raven as a calling card, like a trailer.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to take drugs and ‘be experimental’,” he reckons. “The drug habit had nothing to do with creativity. It was just we were really into taking drugs at the time. Maybe they removed certain constraints. But the impact of drugs on artistic endeavours gets mythologised, because it’s a good story.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and discussed what people might think,” Black muses. “We’re too self-centred for that. We just needed to make an album about these issues, and we got on with it.”

“For some reason, we couldn’t do any right,” Burnel laughs. “If we had hit singles, we’d sold out; but if we pushed ourselves musically it was sacrilege and heresy. We offended the new orthodoxy, the new Stalinism. Who fucking created those rules? It was the complete antithesis of what I thought of as the freedom that had come with this period.”

The Stranglers broke further rules in the studio – recording the drums on little condenser mics of cassette recorders, four or five of them hanging from the ceiling, to get a metallic or sibilant sound, making real drums sound like drum machines. They’d book studios in different countries as they toured. “In Paris,” Cornwell recalls, “there were three studios in the building and we had them all, popping between different tracks. It was a little factory, working around the clock.” Burnel sighs: “Funnily enough, we thought we could afford it. But we were skint at the time.” They made loops by standing in strategic positions around the studio with pencils which the tape ran around. “We were probing what we could and couldn’t do,” Burnel says. “It starts with the sound of four spacecraft landing – that represents the four of us. Then at the end, where The Lord’s Prayer gets reinterpreted, you hear us taking off.” They co-produced themselves. Martin Rushent had walked out during the previous album, saying, according to Cornwall: “I can’t do this. You guys are getting too weird now.”

The macabre The Gospel According To The Meninblack sold 50,000 copies (decent now, but bad for them at the time), spawned nothing remotely like a hit, and has been called everything from “twisted” to “relevant and damning”. Cornwell has been quoted as saying it’s his favourite Stranglers album. Today he says: “Probably. Because I like the underdog. It underachieved. And I love the spaceships landing.” Burnel says: “Sonically, you listen to it now, it’s quite modern.” Timeless enough for Waltzinblack to be used today in the new Carphone Warehouse advert. “It’s just… out there. The best thing is to be semi-comatose when hearing it, so you can’t run away.”

Bold and uncompromising as it was, the album hadn’t exactly set The Stranglers back on a solid footing. “The record company were going: ‘Oh God, the bills are mounting!’” laughs Cornwell. “And we were going: ‘Don’t worry, the next one’s going to be great!’” So the band dived straight back into the studio, and into the strange recesses of their psyche, to make La Folie. “Essentially,” says Black, “an alternative view of the concept of love. The oft talked-about love is between men and women, but there are millions of kinds: love of money, of Christ…”

“An examination of love in all its guises,” Burnel concurs. “And possibly a cynical one. The jury’s still out. At the time, Jet made a statement that possibly Mother Theresa’s kindness was motivated by selfishness. Of course, that rattled a few cages. It was an album about various obsessions. The ultimate being that of Issei Sagawa.” Sagawa was a Japanese diplomat’s son who, in June ’81, aged 32, while living in Paris, murdered and then cannibalised a Dutch woman. He shot her in the neck with a rifle, then tried to “absorb her energy” by eating her body. With indecent haste (thanks to his influential father) he was released as unfit for trial and extradited to Japan, where, after a short time of confinement in a mental hospital, he checked himself out and has walked free ever since. He became a celebrity, living off his tale and even writing restaurant reviews.

“The newspaper reports emerged that the guy had been arrested that summer, as we were in the studio,” Burnel recounts. “Shocking. Sick. Think of the totality of what he did. As the full story came out – and through a friend I saw confiscated photos of the police reconstruction, of the girl, the victim who he ate – I wrote it all down, in not too obvious terms, in French. If you translate it the story becomes clear. To the English it was just meaningless Froggy terms. As a single, La Folie bombed, of course.”

It wasn’t perhaps the wisest choice of follow-up to a huge pop hit. “Hugh and the label thought it was madness and wanted Tramp released,” Burnel admits, “but I always thought it was healthy to do whatever was least obvious.”

“I couldn’t believe Jean swayed everybody to agree,” Cornwell sighs. “A silly, vain choice. It’s in French, for fuck’s sake, y’know?”

To shoot the video for La Folie, Burnel and Cornwell “went to Paris for the night and took lots of heroin. We never fixed, always sniffed. We walked around by the Seine for 12 hours, stopping in bars, completely zombified. They just filmed us talking about whatever it is you discuss when you’re in that state.”

Yet Cornwell reserves his real wrath for the discussion of Golden Brown. The album La Folie had provided The Stranglers with an unlikely career-saver. The cavalry came charging in to the sounds of a waltz in 34 time (with an odd bar of 44), that is, says Black, “probably unique in pop music”.

“The record company had written us off,” says Burnel. “We invoked a clause in our contract to force them to release Golden Brown. They said: ‘It doesn’t sound like The Stranglers and you can’t dance to it.’ They didn’t want to promote it, so tried to drown it in the Christmas avalanche. But it grew its own legs. It just kept going up.”

“It crossed all barriers, all ages. Everybody loved it. They couldn’t keep up with demand,” beams Cornwell. He then scorns the others’ story that Dave and Jet wrote it, with Cornwell adding lyrics (“what an absolute load of rubbish!”), stating that it stemmed from a piece Dave kept playing which he then helped to massage into a song structure. “Jet was not in the room. Jean was still asleep. Jet heard it from the kitchen and said, to his credit: ‘That’s a fucking smash.’ But Jean didn’t play on the record. Did he tell you that? He said it wasn’t his kind of thing.”

Disharmony breaks out again when Cornwell, his sciatica playing up, discusses his lyrics. I had already asked the others: What’s it’s about – heroin, or what? Jean-Jacques had laughed: “Well, you can put two and two together.” Jet’s reply was: “Heroin? Yeah. Imperialism? The revolution in Iran? Yeah. Toast? Yeah. All those things. Even paint. Anything that’s golden brown, that’s what it’s about.”

Cornwell, as writer, probably knows best. “Jean really disappointed me with that,” he says, “because they were my lyrics. It was about two things: about a girl I was having a scene with, who had this lovely, tanned, golden-brown skin, and about smoking heroin, which I used to do. It was working on two levels. Everyone in the band knew this, but we didn’t let on to anybody in the pop media. I said, ‘We’ve got to wait with this. Let it go the whole way. Then if it gets to number one, then we say it’s about heroin.’ That would be a fantastic coup. But Jean couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I was furious. Because then the radio stopped playing it and that’s why it peaked at number two.

“So once again we were in a catch-up situation, trying to save our arses. A deal with CBS was on the table, but we had to do a compilation and find a hit for EMI for them to let us walk. So we gave Tony Visconti the original demo of Strange Little Girl, which they’d rejected as a demo six or seven years earlier, and he did a beautiful job on it and that gave us the hit.”

And on The Stranglers went, to CBS and the Feline album – the sublime single The European Female being an indication of how their sound and attitudes continued to evolve.

The strange thing is, the four were getting on very well throughout this period; a team, bonded against the bile of outsiders. They remained together until 1990, when Cornwell left. “He began to see things a different way from us, and decided he didn’t want to be a Strangler any more,” says Black. “Totally his choice, and off he went. Every week in those days somebody would say: ‘Well, that’s the last you’ll see of them.’ Those people aren’t in business anymore. We are.”

“We always got on,” asserts Burnel. “Hugh and I never rowed until the mid-to-late 80s. I can recall maybe two arguments up until then. In the 36 to 37 years now since we started, I’ve had, I think, three rows with Jet.”

“As the years went by,” says Cornwell, “we were buoyant again, but everyone was drifting apart. It wasn’t a gang anymore. We’d had audiences throwing coins at our heads like missiles, people screaming: ‘You are evil!’ And so you close ranks against adversity. Now we weren’t living in each other’s pockets. People got families, kids. So I’d had enough. I was bored. I made a leap for freedom. I’d rather be in charge of my destiny than have other people make decisions on my behalf.”

Hugh Cornwell is now an established solo artist. His touring trio often includes Blondie drummer Clem Burke. The Stranglers – now Jean-Jacques, Jet, Dave Greenfield and Baz Warne – undertook a major UK and European tour in spring 2012. “Oh yeah,” says Jet, “we’re doing okay.”

Asked how high these two albums stand in The Stranglers’ canon, Hugh sticks by The Gospel, but says: “La Folie, not really. You might be surprised I say that, because of Golden Brown. But as an album it’s too… piecemeal.”

Jet says: “That’s for our critics to say. We just make ’em.”

“I’m very fond of The Meninblack,” says Jean-Jacques, “because it’s so completely off-the-wall. Obviously it suffers from the fact that it was done by The Stranglers, and so got viewed negatively. It was never regarded as an art album, because people just didn’t see us in that light, apart from Billboard’s reviewer who said it was a work of genius. If you’re going out having punch-ups, being physical savages, you’re not allowed to have intellectual pretensions. But we had a foot in both camps, really. Maybe it needs to be rehabilitated, yeah. If people can survive listening to the whole of it, it might be reconsidered. It certainly came from another place. Fuck knows where that place is.”

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.