From "Sounds" February 2nd 1991

 

Can Get By Without Hugh

JJ Keeps Paul's mouth shut with the promise of a good felch later

Back from the brink of extinction! The Stranglers have survived the loss of singer Hugh Cornwell and are set to return with a brand new line-up. Andy Peart risks a beating to find out why the new boy's being told to keep his mouth shut. Martyn Strickland enjoys the silence.

"Right, we'll get the interview over with, then we'll beat you up and steal all of your clothes. Usual sort of thing."

Relishing the fear that The Stranglers reputation still manages to invoke, Jean Jacques Burnel toys with journalists like a cat plays with a ball of string.

But despite his mischievous, threatening grin, Burnel is no longer the self- confessed hooligan of old.

Numerous years of toiling in The Stranglers and developing his love of the martial arts have defused that wanton aggression - although there remains an aura of impish menace which screams, Tread carefullyl Or else.

What Jean Jacques and the rest of The Stranglers have lost though, is a singer.

The unthinkable happened late last year when Hugh Cornwell announced he was

leaving to pursue a solo career. After much deliberation, the band finally announced a replacement last week.

His name is Paul Roberts, he comes from West London and that's about all Burnel is willing to give away - even refusing to let him do any interviews.

"He's only got one thing to do at the moment " says JJ by way of an explanation, "and that's to sing, and I don't think he should be bothered by the idiocies of the media yet."

In the weeks leading up to the strangely mute Roberts' appointment, there was much speculation as to who would fill the rather large shoes of Cornwall. A few old punk names inevitably cropped up-including that of Joe Strummer.

"He's a nice bloke but he wouldn't have fitted into The Stranglers at all," reckons Burnel. "I used to know him when he was in the 101 ers - we filled in for them one night and Joe was like the squire making sure we were treated alright."

Burnel stresses that the band didn't want to recruit a 'name' singer, and also points out that Roberts isn't the only newcomer. Guitarist John Ellis is now a full-time member (having helped out on the last tour), leaving Roberts to concentrate solely on singing. But the post-Hugh Stranglers will still take some getting used to.

"Hugh phoned me the day after we played at Alexandra Palace to say he was leaving. He said he thought the last album and the Ally Pally gig were the best we'd ever done and we couldn't better them," Burnel says, with a a look of disbelief.

At first I thought it was the end, but we had a band meeting and decided to give it a go on our own until Christmas. By then we had nearly two albums' worth of material so we thought we'd better get a singer.

"It's widely believed that Hugh was the leader of The Stranglers, but if you hear his solo stuff you might give some credit to the rest of the chaps in this band. When you've been married for 16 years maybe a little infidelity won't do any harm and might actually invigorate the relationship."

There'll be no brass section when the new line-up tour and, surprisingly, Burnel doesn't intend to sing any of the songs he wrote. At present the band are rehearsing old numbers to find out which ones work with Roberts singing, and which ones don't. "Hanging Around" and "Down In The Sewer" look set to stay, but "Golden Brown" is definitely a non-starter.

Taking into account the peculiarities of The Stranglers, it must have been difficult choosing someone who'd slot in both vocally and personally.

"Yeah" confirms Burnel. "First of all I tried psyching Paul out and discovered he had a bit of front. We tested him intellectually to see if he could think and obviously checked out his voice. In the end I liked the ideas he came up with for songs, and then one day we all gave him a good kicking-which was the initiation ceremony. After that he had to felch me, which is licking my bottom after I've had a curry."

Must have wanted to join The Stranglers quite badly then?

"Well, it's like when you want to be taught by a master. You wait outside the temple all day and let him beat you."

If anything Bumel is looking forward to a challenge again. The Stranglers had become an institution, but now they're going to have to fight to hold on to their audience.

"The last album with Hugh sounded great until it was mixed and produced," maintains Burnel. "That won't happen again. We're going to do a short tour of small clubs at the end of February and take it from there. No one owes The Stranglers a living and if it's time to finish then fair enough. Unfortunately for all those people who hate us, I've got a gut feeling it won't be the end and we're going to do even better in the future."

Burnel's enthusiasm for the new material is so great that he whisks me off to the rehearsal room to hear a tape. There's three songs `Heaven Or Hell' (slow and mellow and a possible single), 'Wet Afternoon' (with some classic Greenfield keyboard runs and, ahem a bass solo) and 'Brainbox' (a faster number driven by JJ's assertive bass).

Robert's vocals have a deep strong edge to them- "A little like Iggy," Burnel remarks and, although it's strange to hear a voice which isn't Hugh's, they seem to have picked a winner.

Back in the bar, Burnel is so pleased with my reaction to the new stuff that he offers me a lift part of the way home.

"Er.. I say, contemplating that mischievous smile the chat we had about the martial arts and the thought of walking through West London without any clothes on. "No it's OK, I'll get the tube."

Jean Jacques Burnel laughs to himself. The Stranglers - how could we ever live without them?

Inflammable Material for all your Punk and Ska CDs

 

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