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Punk rock revival from The Stranglers

PUBLISHED: 09:29 14 July 2009 | UPDATED: 12:10 29 October 2010

The Stranglers are playing at Blickling Hall on Friday.

The Stranglers are playing at Blickling Hall on Friday.

Rob Garratt

More than three decades into their career The Stranglers are the longest-surviving punk band to have come out of the 70s, shifting more than 30 million records along the way – one of which was inspired by Norfolk. Returning to the county on Friday. Rob Garratt talked to founding member JJ Burnel.

Norfolk must be a very dear place to The Stranglers. After shifting millions of records throughout the 70s and 80s, the iconic rockers were all but forgotten and left for dead by the turn of millennium.

Just over a decade ago bassist and driving force Jean-Jacques Burnel was living in the secluded Norfolk village of Holme-next-the-Sea when the tiny parish was thrown into the national limelight.

The discovery of the 4,000-year-old Seahenge - a mystical bronze-era monument made up of 55 oak trunks circling a larger, upturned oak - inspired the rocker to write a whole album of new tunes. 2004's Norfolk Coast went on to become one of group's best acclaimed and biggest-selling records, reasserting their place on the contemporary music scene. Its cover featured the band posing on Hunstanton beach.

They repaid the favour by headlining the county's largest free festival that year, Kings Lynn's Festival Too - the only free gig on their summer tour - and were back in the county a year later filming a movie inspired by the album.

Today Burnel talks of the record with the glazed inflexions of someone going over the band's surprise resuscitation for the umpteenth time.

“I was there when they found Seahenge,” he retraces. “I was living about 400 yards from it - it was quite an inspiration.

“I just wrote a body of work which we used on the Norfolk Coast album and appeared in movies and stuff.

“I had an amazing time there and consequently the album that came out was really well received worldwide.

“It was inspired by the beauty of that coastline, and the seclusion, and what was going on in my head at that time.”

Since Norfolk Coast the band's fortunes have continued to improve, with its 2006 follow-up Suite XVI keeping up the critical and commercial momentum.

Last year the punk veterans were enlisted for a string of high-profile festivals including T in the Park, V Festival, Isle of Wight, Hyde Park and Oxygen - on top of a 25-date sell-out tour.

“Everybody wanted to book The Stranglers last year,” reasons Burnel stoically. “It's just how things work.

“We were up for it - some years you're really not up for it and just want to stay home in the studio.”

Talking to me from his home by the river in Chiswick, the 57-year-old had the nonchalant air you would expect from someone integral to so many hit records; equal parts glazed arrogance and forced antipathy.

The reason for our chat was The Stranglers appearance at Blickling Hall, near Aylsham, on Friday.

Despite his few months in the county, he admits it will be his first visit to the 17th century stately home.

On a tour that also sees the stars playing major festivals in France, Sweden, Holland, Greece and Portugal, why then are they coming back to Norfolk?

“Well it was offered to us,” he said. “We get offered a lot of shows and weigh up if the money's right and if we can do it.”

One can only assume the money at Blicking Hall was “right” for a band who have knocked up more than 40 chart hits over four different decades, a fact JJ is keen to remind me of.

But he sees nothing puzzling about the band's pairing with safe rockers Simple Minds, who notched up multi-platinum sales in the mid-80s with hits such as Don't You (Forget About Me).

“Last year we played with Amy Winehouse, and lots of other acts, such a variety,” says Burnel, a karate pro and motorbike enthusiast.

“Music fans are being more open-minded now. Just look at what happened in Glastonbury this year.”

Typically a health-check of the modern music scene, this year's festival line-up included legendary headliners Neil Young (63), Bruce Springsteen (59), and Sir Tom Jones (69).

Are The Stranglers noticing a newfound appreciation for more established artists?

“We're getting a lot of young people coming to our shows now,” says Burnel, who will be celebrating his 58th birthday early next year

“A lot of younger people are a bit cynical of bands their own age. It's because we've lasted the test of time, there's a certain credibility to what we're doing.

“We've probably had more hits than most people, and somewhere some of those songs must have stuck.”

But he refused to offer any hint about what hits, hidden gems, or new material their Blickling set might offer.

“It's a surprise,” he told me dryly. “We've had 42 Top 40s, I don't known how many Top 10 albums, we've sold 30 million records - so we've got quite a lot of material to choose from.”

In 40 years the band had some killer hits and inevitably some misses and outright flops.

“I'd like to think that every album has been commercially and critically acclaimed,” defends Burnel. “Maybe some of them just hit. Maybe they were better than the others. Maybe they hit a nerve.”

This summer's tour also sees them return to their roots at Guildfest, back in the Surrey town where in 1974 they gathered in an off-licence to christen themselves the Guildford Stranglers.

Soon after they ditched lingering post-60s psychedelic tendencies to become a lynchpin of the burgeoning punk scene, their edgy sound credited with inspiring other larger bands around them.

“Joe Strummer from The Clash, Chrissie Hynde [lead singer of The Pretenders], they were all checking us out before they came up with their sound,” remembers Burnel.

They scored their first hits in 1977 with Something Better Change, No More Heroes, and the ecstatic strut of Peaches - a rampant, chauvinistic celebration of observing semi-naked women.

But the bad-mannered yobs not only survived but outlived the limited shackles of punk, going on to make the political heavy The Raven at the turn of the decade, a record that dealt with themes from genetic engineering to the state of Iran.

Its follow-up The Gospel According to The Meninblack was a concept album exploring the connection between religious phenomena and extraterrestrial visitors. It was their next album though, 1981's La Folie, that contained their biggest hit to date - Golden Brown, a delicate harpsichord-led ode to heroin.

The band's success continued throughout the 80s until lead singer Hugh Cornell flew the nest, notoriously calling the band a spent force.

“We've been written off so many times,” spits Burnel. “Now we're still here when many bands aren't.

“I don't know what contributed to that. It's fighting, and believing that everything isn't created for commercial reasons.

“Commercial success is a by-product of what you do and what you love.”

But like every aging rock band, The Stranglers are inevitably facing up to a very finite shelf-life, with drummer Jet Black now in his 70th year.

“Normally you would think there was a shelf life,” he admits. “But with our music and our writing there doesn't seem to be.”

The Stranglers are supporting Simple Minds at Blickling Hall, Blickling, on Friday July 17. For tickets, priced at £37.50, call 0871 424 4444 or visit www.edp24.co.uk/shop

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