The Stranglers and the States

In a week’s time, the band make a welcome return to North America to play a total of nine dates in the US and Canada and for the release of Giants. We caught up with JJ prior to rehearsals for the tour for a brief interview to find out about the band’s experiences across the Atlantic over the years and his thoughts on their imminent return… 

In the late 70s, you made some inflammatory comments towards Americans in general and the band were quite antagonistic towards the natives during your first visits to the USA. Why was this?

We were antagonistic towards all our audiences at the time, I don’t think the Americans were treated differently. In fact, one of our early tours was referred to as the ‘Truth Through Provocation’ tour. We were provocative everywhere we went, we thought that it would bring out the best and worst in people. Those that desired to be offended were shocked. Others viewed in the slightly humourous and tongue-in-cheek way it was meant to be. It was more of a game than anything…   

JJ, USA April '78

On a visit in 1978 to East Lansing, you experienced the wrath of the local womens’ movement first hand when they picketed your gig because of your alledged misogynistic stance. What exactly happened?

For some reason, everywhere we went, people get offended by our lyrics in songs like Sometimes or Peaches. For example, the lyrics to Sometimes were about a specific incident of a man hitting a woman and were not, for one moment, advocating violence towards all women. It was just a truthful journalistic song. 

It doesn’t take much for some people to be shocked. The sisterhood were demonstrating outside the gig in East Lansing and we got attacked. Hugh and I tried bundling one of the girls onto our bus but we got seriously battered over the heads with their placards. It was quite funny! 

(NB To ‘calm’ the situation, the band issued as statement saying ‘We love women’s movements, especially when they’re underneath us’!)

You initially signed to A&M in the US who released your first three albums Stateside. The relationship wasn’t rosy and you eventually changed record companies. Bearing in mind how important A&M were, did this move hinder your success in America?

We mixed Black and White in New York and A&M were trying to interfere with the mixes and also the order of the tracks on the album.  Up until then, we’d never had any artistic interference from the record company. We thought it was strange as we didn’t like people that we didn’t really know,  telling us what to do with our material. We sent A&M a telex stating ‘Get fucked, Love The Stranglers’ (which was later hung up poster size on a wall of their offices). They sent a reply ‘Enjoy the holiday season’ and dropped us! 

Examples of A&M promo material

I’m sure it did hinder our progress in the States. Black and White was starting to do very well over there, selling over 100,000 in a short period, and we were starting to get more and more interest. They had actually been a very good record company, supporting us but it just got out of hand.  We were playing our usual game but they took it at face value. I’ve got no complaints about A&M, they did a really good job.

During your 1980 US tour, your equipment was famously stolen after a gig in New York but you completed the rest of the tour using hired gear. That must’ve been quite a blow? 

We lost all our early equipment, about £40,000 worth! They took my first black Fender Precision and Dave’s split Hammond. I distinctly remember when Andy Dunkley (who was tour managing on that tour) called us into his hotel room and said ‘All the gear’s been nicked, what do you want to do?’ I replied ‘Well, they say this is the land of free enterprise!’ 

Just been told about their equipment? USA 1980

Despite this huge setback, you completed the rest of the tour using hired gear rather than cancelling. After your other issues earlier that year, that showed true determination. Were you tempted to pull the tour?

That was the spirit of the band, just how we were, not to be defeated. We did it with hired gear everywhere and we pulled it off and completed the tour. It didn’t freak us out too much as The Stranglers don’t give up that easily. What did shock us was when we got home and found out that it wasn’t insured… 

At what stage did you feel that the band were coming close to cracking America?

In the early Eighties, we were starting to do 2-3 nights in Toronto, the same in New York, the same in LA. Some places started to really go well for us. Somewhere, I think the New York Times, described The Meninblack album as a work of genius. When we bought out Aural Sculpture, we had a number one on the US college chart and started to play the ‘sheds’ (larger venues). But I didn’t want to spend nine months over there, like The Clash, and end up wearing cowboy boots and hats. That was not my thing!    

Unlike some of your contemporaries, like U2 or The Clash, you never seemed prepared to work the US circuit enough to break America. Why did you choose to overlook the mighty dollar?

That’s entirely our fault but it was also my desire really. We could have cracked America if we’d spent more time there. Touring there was a novelty and I enjoyed it for what it was but I didn’t want to live over there. I was quite happy living in Europe. 

The thing is, if you succeed in America, the rest of the world takes you more seriously. I wasn’t desperate to make my fortune. Hugh and I used to disagree about this. Money’s great and I enjoy it, like anyone else, but it wasn’t my number one motivator.

If a European band succeeded in America, there was then pressure for them to reapeat that success and use the same musical formula. We never had that pressure which then allowed us to be creative and explore different musical avenues.  I don’t think, if we’d have made it in the States, that we’d have been around for this long or had such an eclectic and varied discography.  

In the States, college radio is a far better barometer of what’s happening with music than the Billboard charts. Why do you think that is?

No idea really. I suppose it’s because college radio’s audience is made up of younger people who are not set in their ways yet and they’ll pick on anything new.

JJ & Keith, USA 1993 (pic John Buchanan)

Your last major US tour was back in 1993 with Paul and John (and Keith from ARB on drums). Although you have returned to both the US and Canada since then, they have been low key visits consisting of a handful of dates only. Why has it been so long since you crossed the Atlantic?

We’ve been offered about five US tours in recent years but the money wasn’t good enough to justify it. That only reflects our profile in the States. If you don’t woo it, you don’t get the hand of your betrothed.  It’s an unsymbiotic relationship in our case. We don’t want to play a toilet tour in America, that’s the bottom line. As the years went by, I thought we’d been completely forgotten about but these dates were doing in May-June seem to prove otherwise. 

4 gigs in LA 1980

Are there any particular places that you enjoy playing in North America?

Over our various visits, there have been loads. New York is always great, San Francisco, Los Angeles. There have been quite a few places that we’ve really enjoyed for different reasons.

Or any places you prefer to avoid?

We’ve never had a very happy time in Texas. One of our crew, Alan McStravitch, was hospitalised there as he got coshed really badly. Another time we played support to fifteen strippers in a pool hall with about 500 tables. It wasn’t my favourite state at the time but I’m quite prepared to change my mind…

The forthcoming tour coincides with the long awaited North American release of Giants. Does it feel strange to be promoting the album again a year after its UK release?

I think it’s great. It gives Giants a bit more of a life and we’ll see what happens. There are a few thousand people who’ve bought tickets to see us at a these shows. Those people have stayed loyal and they deserve it, we owe it to them. We’re dipping our toes back into the North American water…

The Ink and Iron festival focuses on tattooing and custom cars & motorcycles. Are you tempted to get tattooed while you’re there?

I’ve been tempted to get a tattoo on many occasions in my life and each time I’ve pulled back from it. Years ago, I got rid of my earring for two reasons. Firstly, I’d read something that a Buddhist had written that anything we add to our bodies, like jewellery or tattoos, is psychological paraphernalia. That’s why I never wear jewellery. The other reason was the first time I saw Duran Duran on TV, they were wearing earrings so I pulled mine out! 

I resisted the temptation to get tattooed when I was in a bike gang, I resisted many times when I was in The Stranglers and since Baz, who is a big tattoo fan, joined, I’ve still resisted. Many of my Karate club have tattoos of symbols but I’ve resisted. For all anyone knows, I may be a spy and don’t want any distinguishing marks!!!

Thanks to JJ for his time in the run up to the tour. Good luck in the Colonies…

JJ & Hugh, Agora Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio 3rd April 1978