‘We were called heretics and ostracised’: the Stranglers on fights, drugs and finally growing up | The Stranglers

As Jean-Jacques Burnel drily admits, the Stranglers had “a bad reputation for quite a while”. During the punk years, their many outrages ranged from being escorted out of Sweden by police with machine-guns (twice) to gaffer-taping a music journalist to the Eiffel Tower, 400ft up, upside down, without his trousers. However, the singer and bass player says the biggest outcry actually came when they got themselves a keyboard player.

“It was seen as sacrilege,” he laughs, recalling this supposed affront to the ramshackle garage punk ethos. “And worse than that – he had a synthesiser. We were called heretics and ostracised. Nobody wanted anything to to do with us. But look what happened a couple of years later: synth pop!”

By then, Dave Greenfield’s glorious baroque playing was all over the charts. Before his death from Covid in May last year, the keyboard wizard had spent 45 years in the Stranglers, appearing on 23 top 40 singles and 17 top 40 albums as they established themselves as one of Britain’s most enduring bands. Next month, some of his final recordings will appear on the band’s 18th album, Dark Matters, which Burnel calls “our first genuinely grownup album”. The album contains untypical, beautifully raw ruminations on depression, ageing and mortality. Most of it was put together after Greenfield’s death, a process that singer-guitarist Baz Warne, a genial and open Wearsider, found cathartic. “We opened up a huge well of emotion,” says the 57-year-old.

As the band’s original singer Hugh Cornwell tweeted last year, the keyboard player made “the difference between the Stranglers and every other punk band”. Fans grew to adore Greenfield’s rakish blend of eccentricity and proficiency that meant he could reel off a sublime solo with one hand while sipping Cognac with the other. “We always knew Dave was special, but we didn’t realise how special,” smiles Burnel, a karate-toned 69, over Zoom from their West Country studio. “They’ve got a name for it now. Very high-functioning autistic.”

Cognac-sipping solos … Dave Greenfield. Photograph: Ian Dickson/REX/Shutterstock

This condition – undiagnosed for years and never made public – left Greenfield endearingly awkward in social situations. Warne remembers an incident where the keyboard player had worn a flying jacket to a wedding, leading a tipsy guest to joke: “Where’s ya fuckin’ Spitfire?” Warne says: “Dave went, ‘I don’t have a Spitfire and I’ve never been in one, but I do have a friend who has one and we could go up in it if you like.’ And then he went into a classic detailed answer that went on for ages and left the whole bar incredulous. Bless him, he had no idea what they were laughing at.”

Burnel remembers Greenfield as a gentle soul who was rarely involved in their punk-era ruckuses, when being ostracised left them with “a siege mentality”. He goes on: “It was the Stranglers against everyone else, but the only time I saw Dave violent – well, almost violent – was when he had [Sex Pistols frontman] John Lydon up against a Transit outside the club Dingwalls, when we faced off against members of the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols. But even then, he just sort of held him.”

Meanwhile, Greenfield’s condition gave him a highly idiosyncratic approach to making music. “He couldn’t improvise,” says Burnel, “and if we wanted any last-minute changes to the setlist, he’d just freak out.” However, Greenfield’s devotion to creativity was such that he thought nothing of taking three days to learn the electronic pattern on the song Genetix, note by note. “He ‘programmed’ himself,” smiles Burnel. “People thought it was a sequencer. It was a human being.”

The Stranglers’ notorious capers have often overshadowed what an adventurous and inventive band they were. Jazz singer George Melly, who sang on their track Old Codger, called them “punk’s dada surrealists”. Greenfield was playing a vocoder as early as 1978, while other experiments ranged from looping bass drums to slowing rhythms down to half speed. After Burnel and Cornwell made the unusual “creative decision” to take heroin for a year, the band’s increasing musical strangeness culminated in The Gospel According to the Meninblack, a semi-electronic concept album about alien visitations.

Such behaviour was too much for one producer, Martin Rushent, whose remit was to create hit singles, such as the thrilling No More Heroes. “He just said, ‘I can’t be doing with this’ and walked out,” says Burnel. “We just carried on. We were kids in a candy store. It was the start of digital technology and we had a keyboard player who could outplay anyone. Fantastic.”

Burnel at a Stranglers gig in Paris in 2019.
Burnel at a Stranglers gig in Paris in 2019. Photograph: David Wolff-Patrick/Getty Images

Greenfield came up with the music for their most famous song, 1982’s Golden Brown, a harpsichord piece in 6/8 waltz time, which lyricist Cornwell later said was about both heroin and a girl. When the record company rejected it, the band invoked a contractual clause to make them put it out. “They released it at Christmas, expecting it to be drowned in a tsunami of Christmas singles,” Burnel recalls with relish. “After it was a hit all over the world, they asked for ‘another Golden Brown’. So we gave them a seven-minute song in French.” This was La Folie, which made allusions to Japanese necrophiliac murderer and cannibal Issei Sagawa. It charted at No 47.

When Cornwell left in 1990 and everyone wrote them off, it was Greenfield, with founder drummer Jet Black, who persuaded Burnel to carry on. “I’d started writing more by then,” he says. “I’d always looked up to Hugh, because he was older and smarter than me. But all the voices telling him ‘You’re the star, you don’t need the band’ had pissed me off. We weren’t short of motivation.”

Warne watched all this from afar at home in Sunderland. He was a childhood fan who was “Bonnie Baz” in Wearside punks Toy Dolls before joining the Stranglers in 2000. It has not always been easy. “The week after joining, I was singing to troops in Kosovo, a war zone,” he says. “I had hair and a waistline before I joined the Stranglers.” Not that there haven’t been highs, such as “an unforgettable day at Glastonbury in 2010, when we played to 80,000 people – apparently more than U2.”

Burnel adds: “The funny thing is, Glastonbury never wanted to put us on. We weren’t exactly banned, but Michael Eavis doesn’t like us and refused to put us on for 30 years.” What changed? “Well, here in the West Country, the Stranglers play second fiddle to the real Gods, the Wurzels,” he says, referring to the jokey Somerset folkies who sing about cider and combine harvesters. “Eavis loves them and wanted to book them, but our manager manages them as well.” The two men laugh. “So I think we had some leverage.”

‘Bless him’ … Greenfield on right with the band in 1978.
‘Bless him’ … Greenfield on right with the band in 1978. Photograph: Sheila Rock/REX/Shutterstock

Today, Burnel is the only original Strangler remaining in the lineup. Drummer Black, 82, last played with them in 2015. He had a stroke last year but has become a “talisman”, urging: “Don’t stop! Don’t get sloppy!’” By 2019, Greenfield was becoming weaker. “We’d been doing 50 to 60 gigs a year, around the globe, and we didn’t want to kill him,” says Burnel. So they announced a “final full tour” for autumn 2020, postponed because of the pandemic.

“Dave was 70, so he was put in quarantine,” Warne recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t know how I’ll cope.’ I told him to chill out, but I was desperately worried. The band had been his life for 45 years. He’d always needed something to focus on, so I was worried what sitting at home would do to him.” In the event, Greenfield died during a long stay in hospital for heart surgery. “He was already very poorly,” Burnel sighs. “Covid was the last nail in his coffin.”

Much of Dark Matters was put together remotely. “Finding these fragments that Dave had left us felt exciting,” Warne explains. “We got permission from his widow, which was important, then we realised we needed to pour it out.”

The band will assess the future once they’ve been through the “emotional wringer” of the tour. But, for now, they want to honour the rearranged dates, with a Greenfield “disciple” playing his parts. The first single on the album is a sublime tribute called And If You Should See Dave. It was recorded without keyboards, but contains the poignant line: “This is where your solo should go.” The line has struck a chord with fans. “One guy’s getting it tattooed on his arm,” says Warne. “Dave left a lot of love.”