There have been times recently when it’s seemed as if the whole world of music had gone into slow motion – if not suspended animation. Shows and festivals cancelled en masse, albums and tours postponed and then postponed again… But the gestation of The Stranglers’ new album, Dark Matters, has made those timelines look like mere blips by comparison.
If we point out that opening track Water was written as a contemporary response to the 2011 Arab Spring (when anti-government protests and uprisings took place in much of the Arab world) that gives you an idea of when the songs began to take shape. Some other ideas have even earlier origins.
“We’ve got a hard and fast rule,” frontman Baz Warne says, “whereby nothing ever gets thrown away.”
Hence ideas that first emerged even before The Stranglers’ last studio album, 2012’s Giants, have slowly been firmed up into a spiky, eclectic set that shows how the grouchy rumble of the classic Stranglers sound has long-since diversified. Maybe that was inevitable, given that two cornerstones of that sound are now no longer in place.
The elder statesman of the group, drummer Jet Black took a dignified bow out of the band as an active member in 2015, and the declining health of the now 82-year-old prevents him from having an active working role in the band. He’s still part of the set-up “in a consultancy role”, to use Warne’s words, but his robust playing is absent from Dark Matters, the band’s eighteenth and latest studio album.
Thankfully, keyboard player Dave Greenfield did contribute, putting his distinctive sound on eight of the album’s 11 tracks. Then the band were dealt another, more heart-breaking blow when Greenfield passed away in April 2020, after he caught COVID-19 while in hospital with heart problems. With the band’s Final Full UK Tour already postponed due to the pandemic, the question inevitably arose: is this the end for The Stranglers?
When Classic Rock talks to bassist and founder member Jean-Jacques Burnel in southern France, where he now lives, he pauses for thought before addressing this understandably emotional subject.
“Well it was the same as when Hugh [Cornwell, guitarist/singer] left the band over thirty years ago,” says Burnel, his gentle Home Counties tones reflecting the fact that while he has French parentage he was born and bred in London and Surrey. “I thought: ‘Well, that’s it,’ you know? The others talked me into keeping it going. But then you can’t replace a guy like Dave.
"I mean, there are people who play just as well as Dave, because he’s got disciples. But my first thought was: ‘Well, okay, let’s finish what we started [the album] and that’s it, really.’
“But I spoke to various people, and we had all these shows on sale, and they were still selling. I’m thinking: ‘What the fuck? Don’t they know that Dave has gone?’ And they do know that Dave is gone. I said to our agent: ‘So what the fuck is this all about?’ He said: ‘I think they want to hear the music.’
“The Stranglers isn’t really about personalities any more, I don’t think. It’s just about a certain musical imprint that has been around for quite a while now.”
Nonetheless, there’s no doubt as to which Stranglers personality their recent single was about. And If You Should See Dave… is one of several songs on the new album to touch on issues of ageing, relationships and mortality. But, unsurprisingly, given the context, it’s the most moving.
It’s a faintly ghostly meditation, built around shards of sun-dappled surf guitar, chiming bells and Burnel’s whispering vocal, which admits the powerful feelings that so many of us experience when we lose someone close: ‘How does it feel to be left in mid-conversation, no less / And things that should have been said, now left as eternal regrets?’ And yet at the same time there are touches of affectionate humour there as he sings: ‘No one told him I was waiting with a glass at the bar… see you at the bar?’
Towards the end he then admits: ‘It would be nice to say hello, this is where your solo would go.’ Hence the “conscious decision” not to have keyboards on the track (which topped the iTunes download chart briefly in May).
The video for And If You Should See Dave… pays further visual tribute to the song’s subject: a girl, with a keyboard propped in the back seat of her car, roams around Los Angeles, crossing paths with such curiosities as a rat (norvegicus, we presume) crawling across the pavement, and signs referring to ‘The Men In Black’, passing venues such as the Whisky A Go Go and the Regent Theatre, where The Stranglers played several notable shows, the latter being the scene of their last US performance with Greenfield.
“I honestly think he would have loved the song,” Warne says of Greenfield. “Because he loved that West Coast American sound, which is kind of the vibe it has. His wife also loved it. When we saw the video it was lump-in-the-throat time.”
And so the surviving Stranglers consists of Burnel, the sole remaining founder member, and Warne, the guitarist who took over as vocalist in 2006 but who has been with the band since 2000, along with drummer Jim Macaulay, who co-wrote several songs on the new album.
Anyone concerned that Burnel’s days as a thrusting bass monster might also be numbered can at least be reassured by the fact that he’s a famously fit individual, who as well as being a keen motorbike fan teaches karate, and achieved his Seventh Dan in Japan six years ago.
“This vehicle I inhabit, it’s taken me round the block a few times,” he says. “So I have to keep it serviced much more often than it used to. And I mustn’t abuse it as much as I used to! But I’m pretty fit for a bloke my age, yeah. I can do fifty to seventy push-ups at one go, I’ll do a few hundred crunches on a daily basis. And I’ll try and lift my motorcycle up if it drops.”
Even people in peak condition aren’t immune to the coronavirus, though. Back in May, when trying to meet up with his bandmates for the first time in 16 months, while en route to Calais Burnel was told that his PCR covid test had come back positive. He had to return home. Given that Burnel is 69, well inside the generations that are more at risk from the virus, he was perhaps fortunate not to suffer any symptoms, and talks of the episode with a faint air of puzzlement.
“I had no symptoms, but then you think, shit, maybe I’ve still been spreading it about. But then everyone I had been in contact with in the week before, they all had to test and they were all negative. So maybe mine was a false positive?”
He finally made it across the Channel to the UK in June, and plans to be involved in promotional activities for the album here, as well as touring with the band from January.
These days, of course, The Stranglers have reached a stage of their career where they don’t need to prove a great deal, but there’s a broad range of songs on Dark Matters that manage to retain trademark elements of their sound, not least Greenfield’s keyboard runs on songs such as Water, with its pounding tribute to the Arab Spring protesters, and Payday, which echoes the band’s 1977 hit No More Heroes in its gutsy combination of Burnel’s inimitable bass churn, freewheeling organ and Warne’s malevolent vocal attack.
Elsewhere, the beautifully poignant Lines has just an acoustic guitar accompanying Burnel tracing his own ageing process as he whispers: ‘There’s triumph and disgrace in the lines on my face’, while the piano lament Down is laced by Warne’s Spanish guitar. While there are mellow moments on the record, though, they’re offset by its fair share of gnarly rage.
The staccato jerkpunk of No-Man’s Land, for example, takes dead-eyed aim at a selfie-obsessed culture, sneering: ‘Stop thinking of yourselves for a minute,’ (in a lyric written by drummer Macaulay), and Payday accuses society of becoming ‘bisted and Twitter’.
Burnel endorses these sentiments. “It’s slightly pointed towards people who seem to want to believe any conspiracy theory going,” he says. “And a lot of that is spread by social media. Such as refusing to be vaccinated because you believe the government is trying to plant a chip in you or something. It’s quite a selfish thing. We’ve become so self-important that we have to share the minutiae of our lives with the fucking world.
"Why? I’m not on any of these [social media channels]. I’ve had too many years of being criticised, and it’s just toxic. And I think we’ve collectively created a monster. I don’t see too many positives in it. You can call me an old c**t to my face, and I really don’t care, but I find it’s a distraction from real life.”
These sorts of lyrics reflect a band who, while having voiced some pretty boorish sentiments, have always been unafraid to experiment and to make social comment.
“I think the British press, especially music press, always really wanted the rockers to be either rock'n'roll animals, or arty and intelligent,” says Burnel. “But you can never combine the two. But I always thought we did.”
Although Jet Black is still an honorary band member, Macaulay has been drumming with the band for nine years, while Baz Warne has been a Strangler for 21, first as guitarist, now as singer – a considerably longer tenure than original Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. But that doesn’t stop some people from considering that anything but the classic line-up is an inferior facsimile. Including Cornwell, who in 2018 said that since he left the band in 1990 their songs “have been sequestered by a bogus version of the group with only two original members”.
Burnel laughs when he is reminded of this. “We’re more successful than ever now, and he isn’t, so I think it’s a bit of sour grapes on his part. I mean, after all, it’s a bit hypocritical for a bloke who, if he does two sets, will play one set of Stranglers stuff.
“I think he’s quite bitter,” Burnel continues. “We did this movie, for instance, a few years ago, and he won’t give permission for it to be released. That’s a shame, because the only person slagged off in it is me – by Hugh!”
The current Stranglers line-up has sounded pretty formidable in recent years, and Baz Warne for one, insists that this is now a band “champing at the bit” to get back out and play, and he hints strongly that The Final Full Tour won’t mean the end of The Stranglers as a live act.
“We didn’t want to do another twenty-, thirty-date tour of the UK,” says Burnel. “We’ve done it almost every year for so long, and although it’s enjoyable it really does tire you out.”
“It was all publicised and all arranged before Dave passed away,” says Warne. “And once the dust settled and we were even able to speak about it – because we didn’t want to talk about it for months, you know – we decided, well, we should honour the dates. And once we announced we would do that, the response, the love and respect we received, was quite overwhelming. I do recall sitting with moist eyes, reading some of the things people had said: ‘You’ve got to do it.’ ‘You must do it.’”
As for what comes next, Burnel isn’t looking too far ahead. “I’ve always said we think of every album as if it’s our last,” he says. “So you invest yourselves entirely in it. If we started thinking about the next thing, we wouldn’t give ourselves a hundred per cent to this. But I’m writing. I don’t have creative diarrhoea, but I do write regularly.”
One thing in no doubt, though, is that The Stranglers’ next live show is going to be an emotional occasion.
“When these shows do happen, they’re going to be highly charged,” Warne says. “I can’t even begin to tell you how it’ll feel. And then after that, who knows?”