Ever since their formation in 1974, the band with the soubriquet The Meninblack have done it their own way, with a metaphorical two fingers to those who did not agree with their music, their views or just the way they looked.
Now, in 2014, The Stranglers – bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, drummer Jet Black, keyboardist Dave Greenfield and guitarist Baz Warne (who joined in 2000) – are celebrating their ruby anniversary with a special UK tour.
“We didn’t ever think we’d see the Eighties, let alone the 21st century,” laughs JJ.
“We didn’t have a game plan as such, unlike a lot of young bands nowadays who have got everything organised; they even know who’s going to produce their record.
“We took it a step at a time, first of all seeing if we could play music together – Jet, myself and Hugh (Cornwell) – and a year later Dave joined and it just seemed to click. And like any young band you don’t think big. It was ‘great we’ve got a band together, let’s try and get a pub gig or something’.
“Unfortunately, we were turned down by 24 record companies, but we were making headway because we knew we were polarising opinion – a lot of people would just boo us and throw bottles.
‘‘In a pub full of people trying to get us off stage, though, there would be two or three thinking ‘ooh there’s something in this.’”
The band gigged intensively and three years later the hard work paid off with debut album Rattus Norvegicus, followed only months later by a second, No More Heroes. Both made the top five.
Since then there’s been no stopping them – despite original frontman Cornwell dramatically leaving in 1990 and the band going through several line-up changes in the ensuing years.
Fifteen more studio albums have followed, while the band have notched up a string of hit singles including No More Heroes, Always The Sun, Peaches and, of course, Golden Brown.
JJ recalls how not everyone was pleased to see the band doing well, however.
“A few years later when we were successful, our peer group, who we thought were mates, turned on us because we were more successful and we had punch ups with them. So we developed a siege or ghetto mentality – ‘okay, it’s us against everyone else’, and it made us much more solid together.”
Cornwell quit after the release of their 10th studio album, 10. In his autobiography, the singer recounted how he felt the band was “a spent force” creatively, his relationships with the other members becoming increasingly acrimonious.
“Cracks began appearing in the late Eighties,” JJ recalls. “Our main singer, Hugh, started to want to do fashion shoots in Cosmopolitan or have his own stylist or lawyer and that’s not good.
‘‘He also started recording separately, so the split was inevitable.”
Recruiting singer Paul Roberts and guitarist John Ellis, the band became a five piece, but Burnel confesses it has only been since the band returned to being a foursome eight years ago (Ellis left in 2000 to be replaced by Warne, Roberts leaving in 2006) that he’s truly been able to enjoy the music once more.
“I think with Paul and John we were treading water for a while and I lost a lot of interest in the band and was semi-detached,” he says.
“When we reverted to a four piece, I think the term is ‘I got my Mojo back’.”
The new Ruby Anniversary Tour promises to be a real celebration, with the setlist featuring “one from every album and then some”.
“We’re never going to satisfy everyone on that score,” JJ admits. “It won’t be the right one (off each album) for some people, but f*** that, it’s always been like that with The Stranglers!”
The Birmingham date promises to be extra special for one member of The Stranglers’ touring party – Brummie drummer Jim MacAulay, who is set to share sticks duties with Jet Black, who has suffered with health problems for a number of years.
“We take Jet’s health on a day to day basis,” says JJ. “Jet is our totem – he’s not always playing with us because he can’t, but when he can, he does. It’s not a new story but it is getting worse and worse as he gets older – but he has been ‘Mr Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and there is a price to pay!”
From being arrested in Nice for allegedly inciting a riot to enraging women’s lib groups by featuring strippers on stage when they played Battersea Park in 1978, life’s never been dull over the 40 years of The Stranglers.
JJ’s favourite memory, however, centres around their most successful hit, Golden Brown, a number two in December 1981.
“There’s been many pivotal moments that stand out, one of them being when the record company had written us off after the album (The Gospel According To The) Meninblack,” says JJ.
“They thought we’d completely lost it – Hugh in prison (for drug possession), us in prison, riots, being escorted out of countries by machine gun wielding police, losing equipment. Then we recorded Golden Brown, and despite them not wanting to release it, we invoked a clause in our contract to make them.
“They released it in December, thinking ‘oh that will kill it – put it out before Christmas and it will drown in the tsunami of all the other releases’, but it developed legs and suddenly it was a worldwide hit, which was two fingers up at them.
“Then they came back with the immortal request – ‘ooh, can we have another one, another Golden Brown?’ So we gave them a seven minute single – in French (La Folie) – just to stick it up their arses!”