Pat Gilbert meets up with the Stranglers' bassist, and uncovers the history of one of the rarest British singles of all time

Record Collector, November 1992

 

At this precise moment, Jean-Jacques Burnel, seasoned karate teacher, Euro-philosopher and infamous bass player with the Stranglers, is not a happy man. "Morons! You're all MORONS!" he bellows, leaping to his feet in irritation. The heinous crime committed by the 'morons' at the London rehearsal complex where I've arranged to meet the bassist concerns an ineffectual trickle of water coming from the ceiling. "Now really!" he continues, breaking into a disarming smile, "If you've got a leak, you should put a plant underneath it. Are people dumb or are people dumb?"

 

Over the Stranglers' illustrious 16-year old career, J.J. Burnel's colourful antics and taste for baiting journalists have earned him a reputation for being a bit 'difficult'. In one well-documented case, for instance, he and the lads tied up a hapless scribe and left him in the middle of a Spanish desert. In another, he hurled an inept German promoter through a plate-glass window, as punishment for failing to provide electricity at an outdoor festival. J.J. has also been known to dispatch antagonistic audience members with a few well-chosen karate blows, while at one particularly violent gig at Cleethorpes in 1977 he surpassed himself by challenging the whole audience to a punch-up!

However, Burnel's near-legendary penchant for aggro obscures a more refined side to his generally affable character. As a history graduate with a keen interest in philosophy and literature, he holds well-considered views on everything from politics to philosophy, with the result that his knowledge is sometimes intimidating. "Have you actually read any Stranglers lyrics?" he inquires with a wry smile towards the end of our meeting. "They contain an awful lot of weltanschauung." My sheepish admission that I wouldn't know a weltanschauung from my elbow earns me a short lecture on the theories of 'world-view' - just the thing to brighten up a rainy August afternoon!

With such a remarkable personality behind them, it's not surprising that Burnel's handful of solo releases are highly interesting affairs, and a must for many Stranglers completists. However, the chance of collecting the entire Burnel back catalogue is, to say the least, slim. Some of his releases have only been available in France, while his second solo single, "Girl From The Snow Country", is the most desirable new wave item bar the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" 45 on A&M. "Girl" was withdrawn on J.J.'s request soon after its release in 1980, and is currently worth a staggering 250. Over the years, Burnel has also been involved with many other musical projects, including work with Dave Greenfield, Belgium's Polyphonicsize and Stranglers spin-off the Purple Helmets: however, on the following pages we'll confine our discussion purely to his own material.

 

AFTER-HOURS

 

Burnel's solo career began in 1979, with the release of his "Euroman Cometh" LP. According to the bassist, the album was pieced together from 'after-hours" recordings made in London during the Stranglers' "Black And White" sessions. "I had nowhere to sleep at the time," he explains languidly. "I'd get stoned with my mates in the studio, then late at night, once they'd all gone, I'd be there with my sleeping bag and pillows - maybe I'd have a few girlfriends round - and start messing about with the drum machine." Before long, Burnel's moonlighting had accumulated enough material for an album, which United Artists duly agreed to issue. "I thought, 'This'll set the cat among the pigeons,'" he recalls, "because firstly, nobody expected me to be capable of anything and secondly, it was quite a departure from what I'd been doing before." Indeed, in marked contrast to the punchy, melodic songs on "Black And White", "Euroman Cometh" contained a collection of dark, atmospheric soundscapes, embroidered with Burnel's intense, monotone theorising about a united Europe - variously delivered in English, German and French.

Thirteen years later, J.J. still sees the project as a valid musical experiment: "It was one of the first electronic albums in this country," he explains. "I used rhythm boxes - this was before there were proper drum machines - which you couldn't programme. It was a choice of little presets, 'fast rhumba', 'fast salsa'. I'd just work around them. Then about two years later came the 'cold wave', with people doing the same sort of stuff." But besides the music, which ranged from the haunting, textured fumblings of "Euromess" to the frenetic backdrop to Burnel's version of the Beat Merchants' R&B classic, "Pretty Face", the LP's most remarkable feature was its preoccupation with the subject of Europe. As its title hinted, "Euroman Cometh" argued that England and its Continental neighbours had to become allies to ensure the survival of their respective cultures and economies. With admirable foresight, it also demanded the reunification of Germany! Burnel, whose mother is French, explains: "I believed - and I still do - that, although there may not be a United States of Europe, eventually there will be some sort of confederation with growing ties between each state. Anyone who doesn't think that must be living between the Zulu Wars or something."

Despite its mixed critical reception, "Euroman Cometh" reached No. 40 in the charts. As a taster for the album, United Artists released a single, "Freddie Laker (Concorde & Eurobus)", but unfortunately it sank without trace. In retrospect this is strange, as the A-side, which concerned the antics of the famous airline entrepreneur, was the most Strangler-esque track on the album. (The flipside, "Ozymandias", was a poem by Shelley from 1817 put to music.) Collectors should note that the 45 was also issued in France, Australia and Spain, with the last of these coming in a slightly different picture cover. In April 1979, Burnel assembled a band - comprising himself, Peter Howells, Penny Tobin and John Ellis )ex-Vibrator and present-day Strangler) - and set out on an extensive UK tour to promote the LP. Unfortunately, the series of dates was a flop, largely because the band's 45-minute set contained little to please the many die-hard Stranglers fans who turned up at the shows. However, punters were given some light relief each night when J.J. brought on his beloved Triumph motorbike to provide the 'revving up' intro to "Triumph (Of The Good City)", though the machine had to be replaced halfway through the tour when its engine played up! The band's performance at Hemel Hempstead was taped for posterity, and recently turned up on EMI's reissue of the "Euroman" LP.

 

DEMO VERSIONS

 

Although "Euroman Cometh" failed to set the music world alight, its sold well enough to encourage Burnel to record more solo material. He booked some studio time at Eden in Chiswick and Spaceward in Cambridge, and with engineers Aldo Bocca and Steve Churchyard at the controls, taped demo versions of three new songs, "Waiting For Trees To Grow", "Goebbels, Mosley, God and Ingrams" and "Girl From The Snow Country". However, J.J. was whisked away to tour and record with the Stranglers, and the tracks were never completed.

With the tapes virtually forgotten, the bassist was understandably angered when, in May 1980, advertisements for the Stranglers' new 45, "Who Wants The World?", carried the amusing legend "Coming soon: J.J. Burnel's new single, 'Woman From The Snowlands'". He explains: "Some bright spark at EMI got hold of the tapes and turned it into vinyl. It was a breakdown of communication somewhere along the line. It was just a rough mix - it wasn't theirs to release. In the end, I nicked all the copies from EMI."

Luckily for J.J., who threatened the label with legal action over the affair, none of the 45s reached the shops in this country, and the 20 or so copies that are in circulation were probably given away to friends at the time. However, this wistful single - whose flipside featured two live tracks, "Ode To Joy", and "Do The European", both recorded at Hemel Hempstead during the "Euroman" tour - did reach the racks in Holland. The Dutch copies, housed in a blue tinted picture sleeve (as opposed to the brown colour of the UK cover), were on sale for one day, and between 50 and 70 of them are thought to have got out. These are now worth around £150, compared to the £250 price tag on their UK counterparts.

I can't help from inquiring whether J.J. has one or two copies he can spare me. "I've got loads at home!" he laughs. "Well, maybe 12 or 15. I'll wait till the price goes up to £500, and then sell 'em!" Incidentally, a one-sided test pressing of the single also exists, and is currently in the possession of a Stranglers fan who bought it for £100 over ten years ago. Today, it's worth around £500.

Burnel's next solo release was the "Goebbels, Mosley, God And Ingrams" flexi, given away in 1988 with issue 27 of "Strangled", the Stranglers Information Service's excellent magazine. The recording was another experimental affair, and dated from the same demo sessions as "Girl From The Snow Country". Around 100 double-sided white vinyl test-pressings of the track were made, which now change hands for around £10.

 

STUNNING

 

A year later, J.J.'s second solo album, "Un Jour Parfait", was issued by Epic. A French-only release, the LP boasted a stunning collection of melodic pop songs (sung mostly in French), including a number of Latin-tinged tracks which faintly echoed the light, whimsical strains of the Stranglers' "Feline" album. "It's a shame no-one really heard it over here", muses Burnel. "I did everything on it, apart from some of the drums. People think French music is kind of funny, especially in rock terms, and the French themselves seem to have a lot of hang-ups about doing rock in their own language. But I reckon you can do rock music in any language, and with this I wanted to do something with French sounds and sensibilities."

With measured, upbeat numbers like "Tristeville Ce Soir" and "Week-end" among its many highlights, the album - which featured fellow-Strangler Dave Greenfield as a guest musician - sold healthily both in France and on import through the Stranglers Information Service. Two singles, "Le Whiskey" and "Rêves", were lifted from the LP, with the first of these also gaining a Spanish release, this time with the B-side of the French issue, "El Whiskey", forming the A-side. Collectors should look out for three interesting promos relating to this batch of releases: a 12" version of "Le Whiskey", featuring a unique remix of the track; a one-sided 7" of the Spanish "El Whiskey", and a very rare 3" CD (SAMPCD 1273), which couples the album's title track with otherwise unavailable "Elle Assure", and currently sells for around £75.

Since the release of "Un Jour Parfait", things have been quiet on the J.J. solo front, with the bassist concentrating his efforts on the new-look Stranglers, who issued an album of fresh material, titled "Stranglers In The Night", last month. At 39, Jean-Jacques Burnel still looks as good as he always did, but how long, I ask him, can he carry on in the rock 'n' roll game?

"It doesn't matter what age you are," he retorts, sizing me up for a possible karate chop. "it's all to do with your sensibility. If you feel genuinely about your material, and that material is well constructed you're OK. If there's a lot of bullshit and bollocks in it, you're finished. You can't fool people forever, you can't rely on image and hype. And it's down to how well you play to people, too - there's no age limit on that. After all, when you're dead and buried, all that's left of you is your records."

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