Here was an easy prey. The yobbo bassist with aging rock sculptors, The Stranglers, swanning around in the south of France, acting like the world owed him a living. No problem, I thought. A motorbike freak and karate expert, still dropping his trousers and sticking his finger up people's noses at the age of 34.
What can you do with a brat like that? Easy. Just ask a few simple, casual questions. How are the motorbikes? How was Poland? Nice round here, isn't it? And he'll strangle himself with his own complacency.
So, the next Stranglers' album "Dreamtime" has its moments. Further jazzy touches, a shimmering beauty of a song, "Always The Sun", and the punchy single "Nice In Nice" So the last one, "Aural Sculpture", had some precious tunes. It also had some of the most pretentious sleeve notes ever. "We are witnessing the demise of music. . . The world must prepare itself to herald the advent of Aural Sculpture. . . oh the bliss, oh the pleasure." Do me a favour.
And if you're going to go round playing at Meninblack, saviours of music, at their time in life, then you shouldn't really be seen bobbing about the Bay Of Nice, in a bath tub, dressed up as a Viking. Toiler on the sea, indeed. There couldn't be any excuses. . or could there?
"You've written it already, haven't you?" RM
Photographer Joe Shutter and I are bouncing along in the back of Jean Jacques' Suzuki jeep, on the way to do the interview in a Nice restaurant. M Burnel seems to think that he's not going to get a fair hearing. One hand on the wheel, he twists round and grins at us. "Let's see if you're still in the back when we get to the restaurant." And he's weaving and speeding through the holiday traffic.
On the whole, J J doesn't approve of journalists. He wants to ruffle our 'hairstyles'. The Stranglers, you see, have been 'mistreated'. He would like to state his case.
But first there's the matter of this ludicrous bath tub race. With his demurely attractive French girlfriend by his side, Jean Jacques leans across his pizza, and shouts above the babble of Nice nightlife and jolly accordion music, which fills the square around the restaurant.
JJ: "I was in Nice for a bit last year, trying to convince my girlfriend to come and live with me, and I just saw the bath tub race by accident. I thought it'd be a good crack to take part."
Through an advert in the Stranglers' own 'Strangled' magazine, JJ recruited a coachload of 42 fans to travel down and provide the mad-dog British challenge in the annual Cagnes Sur Mer World Championship Bath Tub race. Jean Jacques entry owes its name to the Stranglers' "The Raven" album. Aptly enough, it was christened The Ravenlunatic.
JJ: "For quite a few people, it's the first time they've been out of Britain, and we got good prices. I thought it a good team thing, a healthy, silly thing to do. The Stranglers contribution to Band Aid!"
Ah yes. The Stranglers haven't exactly been prominent in the recent move towards social conscience pop. : "We weren't asked. Simple as that. I don't think we were considered important enough. What can I say? Let them starve?"
Fair enough. Let's not get too serious too soon. This is the sunshine'n'yachts French Riviera, after all. Nice round here, isn't it?
JJ: "Yeah. My mother lives near here, and I've come quite a few times over the years, and now I've met a girl I want to share some time with. It's a good place to aim for on the bike." JJ pauses, and eyes me suspiciously. "This is all very civil."
What were you expecting?
JJ:"Well, you know. . . straight in for a knockout."
You seem very defensive.
JJ:"After getting your nose rubbed in it for years, you get that way. I don't expect wonderful things, but the way my colleagues and I have been portrayed over the years, is not exactly the way we've seen ourselves."
You've asked for a lot of it. All that macho mooning and acting up.
"Well that's if you believe what you read in the press"
And who would believe what they read in the press? Who'd believe that on the following day, that nasty Jean Jacques would be parading about the harbour in full Viking gear, hair sprayed red, false beard in place, organising his hoard of Stranglers' fans with all the loving care of a kindly scout leader.
The French police couldn't quite believe it. They stared anxiously at the crazy Anglais, and his black clad troupe. Was this the same man they once locked away for inciting a riot at a Nice Stranglers gig? The night before, I tried to find out.
What's happened to change you in recent years?
JJ: "Well that's personal, isn't it. It's none of your business! But my personal life's been up and down, like anyone."
OK then. Not just you, but the whole band, are seen as having 'mellowed out'.
JJ: "Well we're older, aren't we? Mellowed from what?"
Just become less aggressive.
JJ: "Yeah, I hope so. I mean, could you live with someone who is aggressive all the time? If I was aggressive to my girlfriend, she'd beat the shit out of me, so what's the point? And when you teach karate, you can't be a yob. You just can't. I've got responsibilities to the people I teach. So I don't look for fights any more. I used to look for fights a lot.
"I probably had a problem, you know, l must have had a few problems. And that's the way I used to deal with them, but I don't now. After a good work out I feel fulfilled. Karate's a total system, and if you do it day in, day out, it's bound to do something to you. And if that means mellow, that means mellow I suppose."
So have people got it all wrong about the Stranglers' then?
JJ: "Pretty much, yes. A couple of people got it right, but they were sacked. So now, people come at us with these preconceptions of what the Stranglers' are about, and that's why we end up being defensive.
"I think it's a bit unfair, because I'm not a moron, and I don't think my mates are either, although a lot of people seem to think we are. I don't even bother to read it now, because I got so pissed off with reading that I was a moron. inhuman. . . an animal."
Now this was proving to be awkward. After all, notorious old punks have a responsibility to behave notoriously. Only that week Jean Jacques had been in all the gossip columns for his part in winding up a Polish Stranglers' audience (largely a press invention, according to JJ). And now he's siting here, talking sensitively, asking to be taken seriously. Time to come clean.
I'm disappointed in you.
JJ: "I like to disappoint."
I was hoping you'd be louder, and more flashy.,More of a playboy lifestyle.
JJ: "Naa. Even if I had a playboy lifestyle, I don't think it's the kind of thing I'd want to ram down people's throats - knowing how Britain is.
"We're in the South of France now, and just the term conjures up ideas, but I wouldn't make a big deal about it, and want it to be in the gossip columns. because I know people in England who can't afford to be here. As much as I'd like a piece of the action, I wouldn't let people know about it. . . I'd just do it."
A discreet playboy, then.
JJ: "Ha ha. More than discreet. No, it's just not me. It doesn't bother me. Some people see a big car, and they say "Bastard, how can I make him lose that big car?". Other people say "Look at that big car, how do I get one?."
And what do you say?
JJ: "I hate f***in' big cars! Ha ha ha. But I'd say. if the bloke wants to drive around in a big car, let him." Jean Jacques is pleased with himself. He leans forward, and attempts to stick a finger up my nose, in celebration of his slippery philosophising. Over 10 years in the business, and he's not going to be stitched up that easily.
Ten years in the business, and he knows there's more to life than this. He knows that the aloof Stranglers, the surly Stranglers, the "we've never been in fashion, we're non-fashion" Stranglers, don't have to play any media games.
That's why, on a windswept Sunday afternoon, he's quite happy to be seen clowning around in a triple bath tub Viking longship, throwing eggs and fruit at the French team, like a jolly 'It's A Knockout' competitor. That's why he can sit there on a rock for the photo session, pulling idiot poses, and thumbing his nose at everyone. Game for a laugh, or what?
JJ: "The Stranglers tell jokes now. Do you know the one about Gorbachev and Reagan?" He contorts his face into an outrageous monkey-faced pout. "Designer clothes, and silly haircuts. That's what people want nowadays, isn't it?"
Jean Jacques' haircut hasn't changed in the whole of his pop life.
JJ: "When you go through all that shit of getting a Black Belt in karate, which really hurts, it minimalises the need to lie to yourself. So you don't have to be a poser. You don't have to pretend. That's good, because there's a lot of bullshit in the music business, and I'm not saying that I'm without bullshit, but it allows me to ride it. You know, I'm not bothered about losing it tomorrow.
"Anyway, outside the Stranglers, I do quite a lot of production for Belgian, French, and Norwegian groups. There's the karate, and the motorbikes. I have a pretty boring life really. Ha ha ha. Oh yeah, and bath tub races. Eat your heart out Simon Le Bon!"
You might say that these days JJ has his feet firmly on the ground. And if those feet are more likely to be found in Hi-Tech trainers than Doctor Martins' then that's because his karate is about as important as his music
These days, when the customs officers search him for drugs, as they always do, he says "Leave it out, I'm a karate teacher. Do you think I'd touch the stuff?".
JJ: "I wish I could teach karate for a living. That's what my ambition was before I met Hugh, but you can't make a living at it. Meeting Hugh changed my life, because 10 years on, I'm here. And my mum still wants me to get a proper job. I mean, there's no job security, is there!"
Except to say that Jet Black is a very private person, who eats people like me for breakfast, JJ refuses to talk about the other Stranglers. The two things that he keeps coming back to, about the band, are that they don't fit in with anyone, and they don't rely on anyone. You ask him about Sigue Sigue Sputnik, or BAD and other modern types, and he says "I can honestly say that I don't know too much about those bands. I don't like slagging anyone, I think it's small for me. We've always been out on a bit of a musical limb. . . er, the odd quartet."
Aural sculptors in the coal cellar of pop, in fact. Lone fighters against the 'prostitution of sound that is proliferating around us', or that's what the sleevenotes to `Aural Sculpture' would have us believe. Wasn't all that a bit pretentious, JJ? Wasn't it a bit silly?
JJ: "It was as serious as you want to take it, really. I mean there was a time when you had nothing but wimp rockers, with designer hairstyles who were totally unexciting, and if they call themselves musicians, then I'd rather not be associated with them. But it was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek."
It may not have been entirely serious, but the sculptural idea is quite fitting, really. Over the years, they've twisted their songs into all manner of shapes, but it's always been the same raw materials, the grumbling bass, the Greenfield keyboards, the sly melodies, making their unyielding, forbidding, self-contained blocks of music.
After scrapping two months' worth of unsatisfactory recording, the next album 'Dreamtime' is finally ready. It doesn't really break any new ground, but as JJ says, Stranglers' songs are weatherproofed, to stand outside the instant amusement arcade of pop.
JJ: "That's what I'd like the most, that our records will have value for longer than just a chart period. Only time will tell."
And in the meantime, the Stranglers roll on. Weatherbeaten and wiser they might be, but all washed up, they ain't.
JJ: "I think the band would come to an end, firstly if we hated each other, secondly if we thought we were repeating ourselves, and thirdly if we had a total fiasco, then we wouldn't be able to pay for the next record anyway.
"I mean, we go through a major record company, we pay for everything ourselves. We don't need a helping hand from anybody, because then they start calling the tune, telling you how to do things, how to look.
"And seriously, the Stranglers are not a pretty band and we're not even a very young band. If we could be young and ugly like the Pogues, it would be great. But we're not even that. So basically, we don't have much going for us! Huh huh huh. Apart from a few things. I think that's a pretty fair assessment."
That Sunday afternoon, a bedraggled Jean Jacques is standing on the beach, in front of the splintered wreckage of The Ravenlunatic. The colourful bath competitors had paddled out of the harbour, before a crowd of thousands, only to be dashed to pieces by a freak storm. The Nordic gods had taken their revenge.
From beneath the waves, a sodden crew member rises, holding aloft The Ravenlunatic's union jack pennant. Rule Britannia, indeed, Jean Jacques smiles to himself.
How do you feel Captain Burnel?
JJ: "All washed up"
But like the Stranglers, they'll keep on coming back.
JJ as a Cover Star.
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