Happy birthday to the much under-rated bassist J.J. Burnel of The Stranglers. Burnel is 70 today…but you might not want to point that out to the now white-haired karate enthusiast who’s posting a pretty strong case to be considered the last man standing from Britain’s original punk heyday.
Other punk acts have racked up more critical acclaim than “The Men In Black” but few have sold as many records (to date, they’ve notched 11 top 20 albums and 22 top 40 singles in their homeland, spanning a range of genres from the snarling “Something Better Change” to the sillky-smooth “European Female” ) and none have outlived Burnel’s band. Along with guitarist Hugh Cornwell and keyboardist Dave Greenfield, J.J. started The Stranglers (with drummer Jet Black, the owner of a bar they played at in the earliest days, added in soon) way back in 1974 and they’re still going to this day, although only Burnel now remains after Greenfield’s death from Covid two years back. Burnel’s inventive and thundering basslines have always been distinctive (check out their early hit “Peaches” for example) and set the band apart from most of their contemporaries; since Cornwell’s departure in 1990 J.J.’ also become the “face” of the group and frequent lead vocalist.
Burnel was born in London and studied history at university there, but his parents were from France (hence the name Jean-Jacques) so he’s proficient in French and one of his two solo albums was in that language, as was the languid Stranglers single “La Folie” that he penned. Burnel was influenced by John Entwistle (“’My Generation’ – that bassline! I thought that was bloody cool!” he recalls) and Jack Bruce of Cream as a young bassist. In turn, his style and sound – in part created by rips in the cones of his Marshall speakers that creates a bit of distortion- have influenced a number of post-punk acts and artists like Peter Hook of New Order. While he’s not had the accolades of Entwistle, or the more widely-known Sting or Paul McCartney, his talent is undeniable and Music Radar said he can “only be rivalled by The Jam’s Bruce Foxton as the new wave bass hero.” Burnel notes “we’re starting to get (credit) when we’re in the autumn of our careers.” He calls the band a “bunch of old farts” who are “not selling anything, just a good time I hope.” Fans obviously agree. Their 2014 Giants tour was the most successful of any British tour that year and their most recent album, last fall’s Dark Matters entered the UK charts in the top 10.
Burnel had the reputation of being a rather hot-headed, mean character when he was young but now comes across as rather easy-going and humorous. Which is a good thing, because you can also refer to him as “Kyoshi”- an honorary term for advanced Black Belt students of karate. He’s the head of Shidokan UK and considered one of Europe’s top practicioners of the discipline, but of late has resided in the south of France, keeping himself busy enjoying local wine and taking his dog for walks in the hills. The Stranglers are once again on tour in Britain this winter, with Burnel scheduled to celebrate his 70th with fans in Bristol tonight.