Stranglers star plans France move
Punk legends celebrate 40 years and Samantha David chats to Anglo-French bass player and singer JJ Burnel
THE Stranglers’ Franco-British bass guitar player and singer Jean-Jacques ‘JJ’ Burnel is reputed to have changed the way the bass is played with his distinctive, melodic bass lines. He is also reputed to have a fearsome temper.
As one of the founder members of the infamous punk rock band, he was known for bashing audiences with his bass and is said to have once removed a disrespectful journalist’s trousers and taped him to the Eiffel Tower. He was once even jailed for three weeks in Nice for affray.
At our interview at a London restaurant, however, JJ proves very approachable, even if he’s clearly still indulging in the rock and roll lifestyle in other ways.
“Bit of a heavy one last night,” he admits, after taking off his leather jacket and tucking into half a dozen oysters.
The band is currently in-between gigs; it was 40 years in September since they first started out as the Guildford Stranglers - named after the Surrey town where they first formed - and they’ve been celebrating with their Ruby (40th anniversary) tour.
In those four decades they have had 23 UK top 40 singles including No More Heroes, Peaches and the hit Golden Brown, 17 UK top 40 albums and have sold more than 40 million records, making them one of the most successful and enduring punk bands.
"There’s more rosé,
and more space"
The Ruby tour included several dates in France, when they added the rarely-played French-language song La Folie to their set.
Although JJ was born in Notting Hill, London, his parents were from Caen in Normandy. The band has always had a strong connection with France, even though JJ currently spends most of his time in Chiswick, West London.
“I’ve always had French family, and spent lots of time there,” he says. “My parents were in Caen on D-Day and witnessed the whole thing. I’ve still got relations in Normandy and in Cannes, and a second home in Var (83) PACA.
“Now I’m planning to move there permanently,” he says. “Maybe install a studio there, so I can work. Of course, the tax situation isn’t so great, but I don’t care.”
He grins. “There’s more rosé, more sunshine, and more space because although it’s about twice the size of the UK, it has around the same population.
“Also, the French are less obsessed with owning property than the British, so prices are lower. You get more for your money when you buy a house in France. Who wouldn’t want to move to France?”
He’s also a fan of the French health system. “It’s the best in the world,” he says.
“A friend of mine was taken ill in France just a few weeks ago. We called the local GP and she had an appointment within an hour and only a few hours later we had all the results of a whole bunch of scans and blood tests.
"It turned out to be just a minor infection but it was scary and brilliant to know that if it had been something more serious, we’d have had immediate access to the best possible care. And it was all reimbursed too.”
JJ doesn’t just have a rose-tinted view of modern France, though. “It’s becoming a bit of a theme park, stuck in the past when it comes to employment. Look at all these strikes. That’s a bit like what was happening in the UK back in the 70s, with the miners’ strikes and all the rest.
"French labour law is a block to flexibility and mobility. The UK economy is growing faster as a result of not having jobs for life any more. It’s hard for the French to give up all their hard-won advantages, but I think they’ll have to change in the end because the current system is a disincentive to employing people.”
The French are great whingers, he observes. “They’re always moaning and groaning about something, but when it comes to it, they love France. They even take their holidays in France!
"But there’s a crisis of confidence. A real problem when it comes to looking at the future.They didn’t like Sarkozy, Hollande didn’t do any better, but if Le Pen ever got in, there would be a revolution.
"France isn’t really ever going to have a National Front government. But the other mainstream parties are already moving further to the right, to try and appeal to NF voters.”
All of this he says, springs from a disconnect between the political elite and the electorate.
"The French are more self-conscious
than the Brits, not as loud,
not as exuberant"
“What is needed is to break the monopoly of ENA [the prestigious and exclusive Ècole Nationale D’Administration] when it comes to politics because right now, whoever is in power, they are all professional politicians who’ve never worked in real jobs, they’re all énarques [graduates of ENA].
"They’re just totally divorced from real life and that’s a major problem.”
He loves playing gigs in France, even though he thinks a French audience is very different to a British crowd.
“They drink less, and they don’t let go in the same way. The French are more self-conscious than the Brits, not as loud, not as exuberant. They’re much more conformist.
"Look at them all holidaying together in August, during the same few weeks. It’s strange, their conformism, because the French aren’t team players. You know, the Brits prize eccentricity and but the French are a bit suspicious of it.”
He says none of The Stranglers ever thought they’d still be working together 40 years on, in fact JJ now also teaches karate. He is a 6th dan in Shidokan, and is one of the highest-graded practitioners in the UK.
“We started out just wanting to have our voices heard, register a protest against the plastic, over-produced music that was being played at that time.
“We just wanted to make our mark, and get laid! You play a few gigs, do a demo, cut a 45, sign a contract, release an album and suddenly it all goes ballistic.
“All that madness was such fun, and now making music is still fun. The travelling is shit though, and that’s because of these bloody terrorists. It’s all their fault. I wish we could just go 'beam me up Scotty' and arrive on stage.
"Playing live is still the biggest hit, the best thing you can do with your clothes on.”
Despite the recent tour, there’s no album on the horizon. “There’s no pressure on us any more. No creative or career or financial reasons to hurry up and produce something just for the sake of it. We’ve got time to do something, develop a project that really means something.
“But we’re travelling all the time, playing live all the time and notice that audiences are getting younger. I think we appeal because music is moving back to being plastic and over-produced again.
“It’s that X-Factor thing. Music isn’t as important as it used to be. It’s not edgy any more, not dangerous. And we were dangerous. People were afraid of us. I don’t think they are any more, you can see them all smiling and stuff. But we’re still not plastic!”
Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/Press Association Images