The best-known bassist in Britain squats on a table in a part-converted warehouse not a beet's throw from london bridge, unmistakably himself: the saggy black mohair jumper connected to his monkey boots by tight, raggedy black pants, his leather jacket shapeless on a nearby chairs, some giant cockroach-thing's freshly sloughed skin. A surprisingly quiet, reflective Jean-Jacques; in fact, the word that comes closest to fixing his initial mien is 'chastened'.
Which in a way he is. Our gathering's principal cause is, of course, Hugh Cornwell's recent imprisonment for two months at Her Majesty's Pentonville hostel after conviction on a menu of drugs charges.
"It's no fun when your best friend's taken away," says Burnel quietly. "I've got no-one to go out with," he adds, an aptly bitter grin creasing his face.
Other reasons to be cheerless: a week before, his treasured Triumph de Bonneville was knocked over and set on fire by a handful of parka-clad kids not yet in their teens. "I'm not even a greaser!" says Jean-Jacques with the kind of quiet, astonished outrage you'd expect.
Chastened more specifically in that he no longer sleeps with a different woman every night; is still, after all these years and record sales, a sentry with no box to call his own. "Believe it or not even that can get boring after a while," says the apparently reformed fastest cock in the land, although he does add a poetic "my home's in a woman's lap". No, The Stranglers are not on the verge of economic or any other kind of collapse suggested by newspaper quotes attributed to manager Ian Grant after Cornwell's sentence was passed.
"I don't know why he said that," Burnel reacts, adding a considered "I guess he was being emotive."
Cornwell's deletion from the field of action is a pain in the proverbial arse for all that. "We were going through the next album. We've already started recording it and the idea was to play mostly the new material for these concerts. Still, maybe he'll have a lot of new material," adds Jean-Jacques with quiet optimism.
He hasn't seen Cornwell since his imprisonment. "He's only allowed one visitor a week. In fact it's not one a week, it's two a fortnight."
Burnel remarks on the irony of Cornwell's being sent down on the same day as William Whitelaw announced that the government was going to pursue a policy of huge prison reform, "because there were too many people in prison!"
He was totally astonished that Hugh was actually imprisoned. "I suppose it fucks up going to a lot of countries to play after he gets out", he adds, thinking now in Strangler terms.
Originally things looked, yes, black. "We were going to cancel the gigs. But fortunately lots of people have offered to gig with us. So we can't play the new stuff, we can only play the easier of the numbers. Because a lot of numbers Hugh does weird timings on, which people don't really notice except when they try to play them."
Burnel fills a little crack in the dialogue by asking if his interrogator's listened to 'Euroman' recently. Will he be doing another solo LP?
"Not at the moment, there's nothing planned."
He's been wanting to move to France for some time, he says, and would have done an LP there, "totally in French, just for France. But it keeps getting delayed. There's a lot of things happening in France."
A healthier climate?
"Healthier? Well, there's a lot more fighting. I mean, not more physical fighting; rock'n'roll isn't as established and institutionalised as it is here. It's suddenly picked up. It's fresher than it is here."
It's a question of attitude, says Burnel. "Because apart from your typical French posers - of which I guess there's more than anywhere else - it's a provincial thing in France." In fact, the bassman's spent the last two or three months putting together a compilation album consisting of French musics recorded since 1977. He mentions an electronic outfit named C.O.M.A. as typifying what half the LP's like. "Then on the other side there's more conventional instruments, guitars and things."
The album's about to come out. "The sad thing is that UA are bringing it out because no French company had faith in their own groups," says Burnel.
Back to the present. Burnel's delighted that the list of people who'll be helping out includes Ian Dury.
"That's very good of him," says JJ. "Because the last time we met we had cross words, we were ready for fisticuffs and all that, so...more power to him."
Other names added to an already bulgy roster include the following: John Ellis, Steel Pulse, Skids' Richard Jobson, Robert Fripp, various Members, Toyah Wilcox, Hazel O'Connor, Kate Bush, and The Only Ones.
"They're all people we've met and who haven't been instantly repulsed," Jean-Jacques smirks knowingly, "and haven't been ashamed to be seen with us."
"I don't know what the judge wanted," says JJ. "I guess he wanted to make an example of Hugh... So we could either have cancelled the gigs, or else do them anyway..." This 'anyway' means that choice of material is necessarily restricted to 'easier' and more familiar items.
"We'll be doing mainly the singles and things like that, stuff we'll be doing for the first time in two years."
The judge presumably realised that he was affecting more than his 'victim' when he sent Cornwell to jail? "Oh, yes, it was all explained to him. He farted in court and woke up just to say 'Appeal dismissed'!"
"Have you ever been in jail? Jet and I have both spent nights in jail. It's a real pig. I mean, a night is bad enough, so fuck knows what it's like to spend months in an institution."
Burnel mentions another couple of people close to him who've recently been jailed, each for several years.
"So maybe they deserve a pay rise. Are they affected by The Budget, these guys in prison?
"I'm sure it's no fun inside, especially if you're someone like Hugh. I mean, these guys get real fucked, and badly done over as well. If you're pretty you get fucked, and if you stand up for yourself against the established hierarchy you get done over." Cornwell's presumed reasonable well-being whilst behind bars is due to help from something called PROP, a prisoner's right organisation for which The Stranglers did a benefit and helped get some publicity for a few years back.
"They brought out a book called 'Who Guards The Guards' by a bloke called Brian Stretton, and no-one would publish it because it was real meaty stuff," Burnel explains. "And a few bands did benefits for that, which enabled the book to be brought out on its own. And a few months ago, when the guys from Prop - Ron Wilson, in fact, who now manages The Inmates; when he first heard that Hugh got done he phoned up and said he'd sort things out if he went inside."
Some few words on other matters, by way of a breather. Burnel's interest in the martial arts continue, despite interruptions aplenty from his band commitments.
"I don't want that to suffer while there's still a lot of people around who want to know what we're up to," he says, making priorities obvious. He now holds a black belt but didn't, he admits, possibly with some small chagrin, get it when he lived briefly in Japan. "I got some broken ribs there though," he adds, the result of an encounter with one of his teachers.
"I've been producing a bit. I did an album with a Japanese band called Lizard and I've been doing a few other things, electronic things. European groups - no-one English. Or British," he corrects.
"What else do bands do? I've been writing music, recording...I went to a party last year," he chuckles. "No. I think I went to two parties last year. Nothing really exciting. Did a lot of gigs abroad. Rode my motorbike...promoting Triumphs all over the world." He may, he says, be doing a TV film in Japan, "riding my Triumph Bonneville around Japan...taking coals to Newcastle!"
"But it'd be a good opportunity to ride around a lot. And on a British machine - which is as good as anything." He sees no discrepancy then, between promoting one aspect of this country's output (his bike) whilst being an accidental victim of its, in this case, unpleasantly vindictive legal system?
"But they're not a workers' co-operative, are they? Burnel snorts.
And the latest Stranglers' recordings, what be them like? Any new directions, outside instruments and so on?
"We've got the best keyboards player in the world," says Jean-Jacques, with the same pride he takes in being a Triumph rider. "And that gives us unlimited possibilities. But the main difference now is that Dave's playing and Jet's drumming just keeps on getting ridiculous, just faster and faster and more and more complicated sometimes. Dave's even used his organ recently (Really? - Ed).(very Finbar Saunders Ed! - GS)(
Burnel recalls a less than flattering description of The Stranglers' new single in Sounds and asks someone in the neighbouring office who's responsible.
"Pete Silverton did the singles, I think."
"How tall's he?"
"About six-foot five."
"I'll sort him out myself then," says Burnel.
In fact, it turns out our features editor's innocent: the offending item is actually an unsigned picture caption in Jaws. People are still scared of The Stranglers' wrath. Jean-Jacques didn't mean any physical harm anyway: he doesn't hit people these days, he admits.
"You don't have to; just the possibility that it might happen is enough. You see the fear in their eyes. I think I've seen it in your eyes once or twice," he adds.
What's frightening is he probably means it when he says he enjoys making other people flinch. Ah, growing up...
I repeat: I like The Stranglers because they're funny. Where did she put my brown trousers?
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