Record Mirror 2nd August 1980
Lasagne and Quips
DANGER lurks beneath the wall to wall shag pile of rock journalism. It -grows In silence, inordinately, in between every mouthful of free prawn vol-au-vents, In between every free album in between every free plane ride, in the unbearable heat of record company ,generosity.
It's called friendship.
Not the podgy kind plundered from the vaults of voracity - a ravenous desire to be liked by the right people - but a genuine, true blue nexus that grows stronger with each meeting.
Every rock writer has been guilty - if that's the right word - of cultivating such a relationship with particular artists. Immediately that happens the writer has compromised his position. Critical faculties are dulled as personality clashes with product presented. The pen is blunted. It maybe mighier than the sword but it's a veritable pin prick in the shadow of friendship.
No crime, merely a natural misdemeanor. You can't don a habit, shave half your barnet off and find some suitably bleak cell to write your reviews on illuminated manuscripts.
Like, hey, you gotta have suss, you gotta wash your hair in Supersoft and breeze with the sleaze and be seen.
Now, I could say I hate The Stranglers' guts, that their pose offends me. that I find it unbearable to be in their company but I adore their music. Then I would demonstrate my great ability of not allowing personal prejudices to interfere with my aural awareness.
On the other hand I could say I love The Stranglers to death, that I admire their intransigence, that I find their company both stimulating and rewarding but I think their music stinks. Again an admirable statement, professionally speaking.
Unfortunately neither would be correct - and I'm compromised. No, I don't hate them and their music. The opposite.
Pause for gasps all round from music journalists everywhere. Gasp, gasp, gasp, gulp, gasp.
How could you possibly like the pugnacious Burnel, the chair throwing Black, the infamously rude Cornwell, the tacit Greenfield? And all ex -cons too.
There is an inveterate fear within the media and the business of The Stranglers.
"People are frightened of all sorts of things - the dark, crossing the road, spiders." Jet Black, his customary drawl drill spiel slowly filling the room like an inflatable dinghy, sits on the edge of a Roman bed. Hugh Cornwell lounges on a pillow at the other end.
"Our black clothes are not meant to evoke fear. Have you ever been frightened by a priest walking down the street?" Says Hugh. No, but Joyce and Jung were - but that's another story.
The band have just finished their first show since the Nice incarceration. An untypical alfresco gig in a Roman park attended by 8000 lusty, slick spicks who didn't understand one word but loved them all the same.
Only the ignorant love The Stranglers. That's those who can't read English and those that can but who possess suss sieves and refuse to accept the hallowed printed word.
It's 3am. Dave Greenfield sits cross legged on the floor with his back against the bed. The Mephistophelean motor madmen of the Mediterranean are all asleep in the ancient city dreaming of hooters and scooters.
Next door Jean -Jacques Burnel sleeps. Earlier in the day the following 'interview', took place. He recumbent in his bedroom. Me, sitting on the edge of the bed. A tape machine whirring conspicuously preventing him from a pre -gig snooze which he so obviously wanted.
Why are The Stranglers always finding themselves in trouble?
"I don't think about it. Past caring why we go in nick all the time, why we have so much bother.
" Do you go looking for it as a lot of people assume?
"That's their problem." Laughs.
I can see this one's gonna be a good 'un. I’m only gonna keep you for half an hour. Er, aren't the band after the maximum amount of publicity.
"It really doesn't bother me if people think that or not." Pause.
So come on Jean, have you changed in any way over the last year, I haven't seen you for so long.
"No. I only see you when you want to get an interview done." Laughs.
"We've provided you with some good f- king gigs in the last few years."
True.. l hate The Stranglers really. I only made out I liked you so you'd take me to Japan, Iceland, France and now Italy. But em .. shit it's hard asking questions when I've asked so many in the past.
"So why are you bothering?" Laughs.
Look, what about this Record Mirror policy - of not mentioning your name. Has it annoyed you?
"Not at all. I thought about it when I realised they weren't printing my name or photograph. But I forgot about it pretty soon afterwards. It's very flattering to think that people can hold something against you for so long. I'm very flattered."
Recently the music press has avoided you
"Great. Maybe we're the plague. Maybe they're still scared of us. I really don't know and I really don't care to tell you the truth,' Laughs.
I bet you do really (In primary school tones).
"No, I don't."
I just don't believe that. You still must be concerned about ‘an image'.
"No, not at all. How can we be concerned about an image when everyone knows about us anyway?"
Do you think you're as popular as you were?
"Every band has fluctuations. We haven t had big hit singles but we still do well with albums. We don't get played on radio - mind you we never did get played on radio did we."
It seems like you're not really concerned with the singles market. You're just putting them out for the sake of it. Not really serious.
"Well what else do you do with singles but put them out? That's your opinion anyway. I certainly wouldn't release something if didn't take it seriously, being serious young men that we are. Or rather serious old men that we are."
Do you worry about gelling old?
"Getting old?" Pause.
"I worry about my faculties diminishing. I think everyone does. How would you like to be senile?”
I'm not talking about that old. Just a few years passing in this game. Reports In the paper say you're 38. Things like that.
"Yeah, that was a good one."
You look 38, that's why they said it.
"Well yeah. It's rock 'n' roll that does it. There's not much you can do about getting old is there?"
Getting back to my original question. Are you a different person than you were say a year ago?
"I'm a year older."
Come on, that's no answer.
"It is. It'll do for now. Look, The Stranglers' music has mellowed out and Tie Stranglers' have gone the opposite way”.
Opposite way of what?
"Mellow. What's the opposite way to mellow .. , ? Rougher, Yeah."
"I'm not really important." Laughs.
I feel as though I'm disturbing you. I tell you what, if there's anything to talk about alter the gig, er, you have a kip and if there is anything - I don't know what ...
"You've got nothing to talk to me about”.
And it is true. Imagine interviewing someone you've known for four years, someone you like, someone you enjoy talking to (when you get the chance to see them which ain't too often). Impossible.
And the lasagne was great.
Back in that bare, boiling bedroom I ask Hugh how he felt about his rapid rise to the position of prison veteran. What was it like when the door slammed behind you for a second time in a matter of months?
"I thought it was ironic. You appreciate everything that happens to you when you come out of nick simply because you were denied so much. I was just getting back into enjoying freedom and a really good work ethic when suddenly it all happens again.
"See, at first, when you're inside you have to adjust. It's hard but when you've got over that you're okay. But in that situation were you have to keep adjusting that lead to long term mental damage. I derived many benefits from that first spell inside. I got nothing out of it in Nice. “
People simply over -react to us because they expect us to continually do what we get charged with. We think we have a right to state our point of view and maybe to some people we overstep the mark. But either you’re free to say something or you're not."
Hugh raises his head from the pillow - "A of people gel to the point where they think 'Oh God, I know what I felt but it I stick my guns now something's really gonna happen'. The difference is, when we reach that point we still stick to ours. All those people end up compromising themselves just save the situation."
So will you keep your fingers off the trigger in future?
“No." maintains Jet. "The only thing that change now is we'll make sure we have a lawyer waiting for us in every city we visit from now on.”
But you have perpetrated some pretty nefarious deeds - dirty ones done dirt cheap in fact - in the past.
Intimidation, violence, kidnapping and then there are the really naughty things ...
“Who can honestly stand up and say that at one point in their life they haven't intimidated someone." says Hugh, his film star face blurred through the heat and cigarette smoke.
“Sure,” interrupts Jet, "we've got a reputation for violence and aggression. People are wary of us because of this nasty mage. But anybody who takes the trouble to get to know us will find out the truth for themselves.
"What is misunderstood is the fact that we do possess a sense of humour. For us there’s a lot of humour in the way we express an idea behind a song for example. But very few People see the humour - and unfortunately the wrong conclusions are drawn. But that's just an occupational hazard."
It couldn't be construed as humorous to beat a journalist up.
"By the same token it wasn't very humorous to have a journalist writing a pack of lies about us. We're only human beings y'know. If somebody writes a load of lies about us then, from time to time, we act like human beings. We get angry - and we've paid a heavy price for it.”
Apart from the semi abortive tour, the band were in Rome mixing their new album 'Menlnblack'. "One of Its themes," says Jet, Disney starlight piercing the window and mingling with the smoke in a midnight cocktail, "is the Men In Black, mysterious people connected with interstellar travel,
“There have been in the past well documented reports from UFO witnesses who, a while after filing a sighting, have been visited by strange men dressed in black who issue very strong warnings not to discuss what they've seen. Nobody knows it these Mibs are from outer space or the government.
"We've been planning this album for a long time. Look at the window on the cover of the Rattus album ..."
"The unknown," says Hugh, "is one of the fundamental points of interest of the band. We haven't revealed the Mib thing before simply because it wasn't the right time."
It may be the right time for a Mib,but It's a crucial time for a Strangler. Little airplay, singles that don't make the Top 20, a concerted antipathy within rock circles. No friends, no fun.
Yet despite the watershed the band are at the apex of their musical ability. The Rainbow concert on their return from the continent was a provocative display of indifference to their current situation. They played better than I have ever seen before, their innate talent for concise but complex construction being fully displayed especially on the new songs from 'Meninblack’ .
"Of course my writing has matured," says Hugh, his head heavier on the pillow. "It's dependent on the cells that become the thoughts that write down the words and those cells have matured. Logical connections. In the same way our playing has matured. The hands that play the instruments are older."
Jet begs for an audience. The bed vibrates.
"In our conceit we consider ourselves lo be artists and when we do something we do it for a reason that we understand. That really is all we want to do - explore our art form as we see it and it's great going round putting ideas in front of people and watching them get off on it.
"On the way we get the hazard of people either not understanding or misinterpreting what we are doing and we make no excuses for that.
"I hope we're not an average band, if we are then we're not artists. We are probably the most different band there is. Most groups are of a similar age group, are brought up together and have the same musical and lyrical ideas.
"We're just so different it's ridiculous - Hugh and Jean are academics, Dave is a statistical whizzkid, I'm just thick, no, I think I'm great. It simply shouldn't work, but luckily we happen to be four people who understand each other."
"We came," says Hugh, "from four different directions but we ended up in the same state of mind."
Jet continues - "At the beginning it was very confusing for us. We didn't understand each other's personality. But gradually we've grown up together and got into what we were all actually into in the first place but which was difficult to express so that the others understood it. Now we all express ideas in confidence. I think the only common denominator about The Stranglers is we were all brought up in England."
Do you expect to find yourselves in trouble again?
“We've been in so much trouble in the past I guess the odds are stacked against us. It's Iike with Hugh. If you look at the record books you have to draw the conclusion that they were trying to make an example of him when he was sent down on the drugs charge because he was a Strangler. Much worse things have been done and lighter sentences given. It's character assassination."
Dave responds - "You're charged, you're a Strangler, you're guilty - automatically."
"And," says Hugh, "It made it all the more despicable, in their eyes, the fact that I was intelligent. But if I'd have been one of the Kings Singers it wouldn't have happened:" Jet makes a large sweep with one arm then crosses his arms. "Your average Mr Bloggs never does anything more serious than getting a bit drunk, parking in the wrong place and occasionally try and rip something off. But they get away with it. A lot of people inside have done exactly the same things - but they got caught. Of course there are the obvious exceptions…”
Hugh - "But even the murderers are only the murderers that got caught."
Jet - "Most people don't experience prison - so whenever the subject of capital punishment comes up they say 'Yeah, hang the bastards' without any consideration. Always there's the assumption that somebody who is charged with murder is guilty.
"A brief glance at the legal history in Britain alone shows that hasn't always been the case, despite the fact that the truth only came to light years after execution. I would argue that it's better a number of guilty people get off than one innocent person get executed.
"And it's like that in prison. Everyone should be treated as human beings inside because one or two of them may be innocent. The fact that those innocent are confined should be sufficient.
"It would be great If everyone could experience prison for a week. When people like us come out and talk about it, it gets written in the papers but people still don't really understand it. How strange it is to be put in a room and the door locked behind you. It's a real worthwhile experience.
"I felt comparatively easy there. It's funny, you expect to find all these tearaways and you discover they are just like eveybody else. I was in a cell with two blokes, one had been in a year.”
It seems The Stranglers too are guilty until proved innocent in the eyes of many. But they don't really give a damn about other people's opinions, a fact that should make them all the more attractive.
Jet again - "All the 'punk' bands have now been exposed for not being into what they said they were into. In our case we never said we were into anything. We have nothing to answer to. "We’ve seen very little in the press that's accurate - but they are simply in the business of selling papers. We play music, we're not in -the business of putting newspapers out of business. If they want to behave Iike a load of assholes let them get on with it."
It's not only newspapers . . . "Only one of our songs has ever been playlisted on Radio One. Everybody liked 'Who Wants The World' on the playlist panel apart from one or two who refused to play it because I think, Jean - Jacques supposedly kicked down a door at the Top Of The Pops studio a few years back.
“Our career is following similar lines to Elton John's. He never got airplay either, until he made it big in the States. Maybe somebody didn't like his glasses or gold lame piano.
"In fact, we know quite a few singles which have sold less than ours during the course of a week but still reached the top five while ours only scraped into the Top 30. There's something very strange gang on.
"There's definitely something very strange going an ..."
And that from a man in black. It must be very odd indeed.
Excuse me while I go sharpen my pen ...