The Stranglers on 40 years of fights, drugs, UFOs and ‘doing all the wrong things’

Legend has it the Stranglers started a fight with the Clash, took heroin for a year, exploited strippers on stage, and incited a riot in Nice. But the truth was often much worse

The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell playing in Battersea Park in London in 1978. Photograph: Gus Stewart/Redferns

A fight with punk royalty

Jean-Jacques Burnel (bass): In 1976, we played with the Ramones. In those days, [Clash bassist] Paul Simonon had a nervous tic: he used to spit on the ground. He did this just as we came off stage at Dingwalls in London, so I thumped him and it all kicked off. We were thrown out by the bouncers and it continued in the courtyard. On one side were the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and a load of their journalist friends. On the other side was us, a few of our fans and me, nose to nose with Paul. Dave [Greenfield, Stranglers keyboards] had John Lydon up against the ice-cream van.

Jet Black (drums): It polarised opinion against us, but we’ve always been at our best with our backs against the wall.

Burnel: Contrary to what has been written, Hugh [Cornwell, Stranglers singer] and I never had punch-ups. There was one incident in Rome where he tried jumping in the air during Hanging Around and managed to get two inches off the ground. I said something afterwards and he threw a glass against the wall. I pushed him and he just went straight through a paper-thin wall. It was like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with a silhouette in the wall in the shape of Hugh.

Touring in an ice-cream van

Black: I had an ice-cream business and decided to sell it to start a band, but I kept one of the vans. It was the perfect mode of transport for two years. We had a special way of arranging all the speakers and equipment so they’d all fit in.

Burnel (bass): Jet would drive and the rest of us would lie on top of the gear. After some gigs, we’d pile out and sleep in a field, surrounded by cows.

Black: In Bude, we once slept on a lawn by the sea. The next morning, we were woken by the sound of a lawnmower. We’d slept on a cricket pitch and they were cutting the wicket around us.

Burnel: There were some funny incidents in those early days. We were booked to play a Young Conservatives dance.

Black: At the start of the first song, there were 300 people in the hall. By the end, there were four left watching. But they started following us. It was a similar story all over the country

Gaffer-taping a journalist to the Eiffel Tower

Burnel: A guy called Philippe Manoeuvre – who’s now head of the biggest music magazine in France – was always bugging me. One day, he turned up at our hotel demanding an interview, so I agreed – if we could do it at the Eiffel Tower. We took his trousers off, gaffer-taped him to one of the girders and left him there to be photographed by Japanese tourists. It was only the first floor. Admittedly, that is 400ft off the ground.

Black: He wasn’t best pleased.

Deciding to take heroin for a year

Burnel: It was an artistic decision to see what would happen.

Black: It was crazy.

Burnel: Jet and Dave were sensible and quit after a day. Hugh and I didn’t. We headed into a surreal, dark, necromantic abyss.

Black: We were making an album called The Meninblack, which was based on this phenomenon back then known only to a small coterie of UFO obsessives – that people who saw UFOs were visited by strange people wearing black to shut them up. Anyway, as soon as we started making the album, studios blew up, tour buses broke down and gigs became riots. People working for us dropped dead. We were convinced something occult was going on.

Burnel: One night, I was so blissed out I thought it would be wonderful to die. I wrote a lovely suicide note, took loads of heroin and woke up three days later. The band hadn’t even noticed I hadn’t been in the studio.

Being escorted out of Sweden by armed police

Burnel: This happened twice. The first time, 200 members of this teddy boy gang who hated punk drove up in their big 1950s American cars, beat up our road crew and smashed our equipment. We were locked in our dressing room, but managed to escape by throwing a few Molotovs before the police arrived. The second time was your fault. You destroyed the hotel restaurant!

Black: That’s true. I kicked up a fracas because I couldn’t get served any food and the hotel threatened to call the police, who turned up with machine guns again to escort us on to the next plane. There’s been so many incidents in hotels. We once locked a hotelier in the broom cupboard, where he was found the following morning by the receptionist.

Burnel is dragged back on stage by Hells Angels during a 1977 concert in Bracknell. Photograph: Peter Still/Redferns

Performing with strippers in a park

Burnel: The Battersea Park incident was completely misinterpreted. I was living with my girlfriend, Tracy, who shared her flat with a stripper called Linda. When we became the focus of attention, right-on shops such as Rough Trade banned our records, saying they were sexist and misogynist. So Linda said: “Look, I’ve got some friends who’d love to strip for you – to show we’re in control of our bodies.” So these girls stripped off on stage at Battersea during Nice’n’Sleazy and, of course, everyone thought we were being exploitative.

Black: The police inspector wanted everybody arrested, but he couldn’t find his coppers. They were all in the front row watching the show.

Being jailed for “inciting a riot”

Burnel: We were booked to play Nice University but unknowingly walked into a war between the students and the authorities, who wouldn’t let us use any of the power points on campus. We ended up having to run elevated cables from generators outside the university, because the authorities wouldn’t let them touch the campus grounds. It was ludicrous. Every time we went on stage, the power failed. In the end, we gave up and told the crowd: “We’re really sorry. Just remember it’s not our fault.” All hell broke loose. A full-scale riot ended with us being put in prison, where I shared a cell with two murderers.

Black: We were facing 10 years. In the end, a large fine was split between us and the university, but we laughed all the way to the bank. Before that, we were unknown in France. From then on, we played to packed houses.

Burnel: You might well ask why we are still here. The latest tour is our biggest-selling ever. We’ve done all the wrong things – but they turned out to be right.

Source: by Dave Simpson